SFFH Reviews and Articles in General Publications
Thursday 22 May 2003
Harper's June 2003
In undertaking this kind of grandeur [some writers] risk failing grandly, by writing books that are as ungainly and chaotic as the world they have taken as their subject. But Whittemore, with the precision of his prose and is command over the absurd, has left us with a series of novels as powerful and as subtle as they are enormous in scope. Strongbow's history was "unplanned and chaotic and concomitant with nothing"; Harun's birthmark "swirled intermittently...in a restless proclamation of stops and starts." What would otherwise be colorful but senseless digressions are deployed, ordered, and composed so that the nonsense is intelligible and the absence of meaning is meaningful. Using words that could just as well describe the Quartet, a character in Nile Shadows recognizes the "futile purpose" of life but also observes a "mysterious and merciless arrangement of logic."
I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ''L,'' and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility. Some will ask, of course, whether there still is such a thing as ''Literature with a capital 'L.' '' I proceed on the faith that there is. Are there exceptions to my categorical pronouncement? Probably, but I don't think enough of them to overturn it.
Birkerts goes on to explain why jazz isn't Music and Los Angeles is not a City--well, no; actually, he discusses Atwood's novel at length, and then returns to apply his opening thesis.
We can take in only so many confected scenarios of future life before we crave a complexity of character commensurate with the intelligence of the plot or the confident excellence of the writing.
Ms. Atwood's brave new world never feels remotely plausible: it is neither fully imagined as a place with its own intractable rules and realities, nor is it a convincing sendup of contemporary life. Instead the book feels laboriously manufactured: a lumbering mutant, part Michael Crichton novel (minus the suspense), part back-to-nature screed against a fake, plastic society in thrall to money and looks.
The novelist Margaret Atwood has wandered off from us before: once, in 1986, to the mid-twenty-first century, for a feminist dystopia, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” ...
But she understands -- later in the review, after mentioning Miller and Le Guin and Vonnegut -- why different kinds of fiction might work toward varying ends.
Seventeen years ago, Mary McCarthy, reviewing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” found it unconvincing as a jeremiad... She complained, too, about the weak characterizations, and suggested that the novel’s lack of a new language for its future, such as Orwell had created in “1984,” left its world less than fully imagined. But a dystopian novel is not intended as a literal forecast, or even necessarily as a logical extension of our current world. It is simply, and not so simply, a bad dream of our present time, an exquisitely designed horror show in which things are changed from what we do know to a dream version of what we don’t. Atwood does this well. To ask a novel to do more is to misunderstand its nature.
"Oryx and Crake" is good, solid, Swiftian science fiction from a writer who, when at the top of her game (as in "Cat's Eye," "The Handmaid's Tale," "Alias Grace" and "The Blind Assassin") is a literary artist par excellence.
Oryx And Crake is somewhere between a Neal Stephenson future-tech novel and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend: It focuses closely on the day-to-day trivia of life both in a decaying, overcrowded world and in a post-apocalyptic, near-empty one, and it's packed with fascinating ideas. ... Atwood's latest is her most accessible book in years, a gripping, unadorned story that abandons most of her usual opacity and teasing complexity.
New York Times May 18, 2003
In a book whose influences range from science fiction writers like H. G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut and even Tom Clancy to modern scientists, Rees throws every possible calamity into the pot -- some credible, some not. The point is not that any of these particular disasters will befall us, but that something might. And scientists, he suggests, have sometimes been more interested in public relations than in really leveling with the rest of us about the odds we face.
Overbye's is a more balanced reading than Ballard's (below).
Fortunately -- or unfortunately for his career as a polemicist -- Rees is too good a scientist to be content with telling only one side of the story. He insists on detailing objections to his own arguments. As a result, we don't always know where he finally comes down on some issues. For example, he begins a discussion of global population growth with the news that it will take the resources of three Earths to support the eight billion people who are expected to inhabit the planet by 2050. But then he reports that the population is expected to fall after that, so that a century from now Earth's population could be less than it is today. So is overpopulation a long-term problem or not? I don't know.
Almost every aspect of scientific activity today has its threatening potential. The devastating attack on the Twin Towers depended on reliable but comparatively primitive tools - religious fanaticism and an aviation technology developed in the 1960s. Sadly, far more advanced weapons are being created by scientists today, often unaware that their work may fall into the hands of future Pol Pots or Saddam Husseins.
Travel into another dimension is a popular fantasy ploy, but rarely accomplished with such humor, terror and even logic as in this stand-alone by bestseller Williams
He weaves action, romance and science with a rousing plot reflecting the classic SF of Clarke and Herbert and the glossy cinematic influence of Lucas and Spielberg.
Publishers Weekly May 12, 2003
calls to mind his adult classic, No Blade of Grass (1956). Thanks to quiet British restraint, the glimpses of increasingly violent wrongness are more disturbing than entire planets being zapped in a routine space opera.
And Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men (HarperCollins) is starred among children's books.
Some of the characteristically punny humor may pass over the heads of younger readers, but plenty of other delights will keep them hooked.
Washington Post Sunday, May 18, 2003
Why then the disdain? Our modern world, though infinitely more complex than that of ancient Greece, is also far more superficial. Where the Greeks offered simple psychological training, we live in an age of style and spin in which perceptions of good and evil slither and shift with the political view of the moment. In such an era, the purity of fantasy, with its emphasis on morality, courage, redemption and sacrifice, is considered simplistic - even frivolous - by those who know how the real world works.
Tuesday 13 May 2003
Prophecy and prediction are not quite the same, and it would ill serve writer and reader alike to confuse them in Orwell's case. There is a game some critics like to play in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn't "get right". Looking around us at the present moment in the US, for example, we note the popularity of helicopters as a resource of "law enforcement," familiar to us from countless televised "crime dramas," themselves forms of social control - and for that matter at the ubiquity of television itself. The two-way telescreen bears a close enough resemblance to flat plasma screens linked to "interactive" cable systems, circa 2003. News is whatever the government says it is, surveillance of ordinary citizens has entered the mainstream of police activity, reasonable search and seizure is a joke. And so forth. "Wow, the government has turned into Big Brother, just like Orwell predicted! Something, huh?" "Orwellian, dude!"
Later passages discuss why Orwell's early "contempt for graphic scenes of violence in fiction" apparently changed, and give Pynchon's explanation for the "scholarly appendix" that concludes the book.
A novel in which a small number of warriors swoop in on rockets and blast every target to smithereens suddenly doesn't seem like fiction anymore. Indeed, Troopers is the only sci-fi novel that's on the reading list of all four service academies.
Reflecting on the nuances of of the novel that were lost in the movie version (and regretting the imminent sequel), he continues:
Happily, no matter how successful the films are, there's little danger that any of the fictional military triumphalism of Starship Troopers will ooze into non-fictional American life. Heinlein is powerful, but not that powerful. And in the here-and-now Terror War, as opposed to Heinlein's Bug War, the Bush administration has in fact been rather restrained in its military celebrations; as of this writing, there are no plans for a post-Iraq "victory parade." And while the notion of an ultra-elite, ultra-tech military gives rise to some uncomfortable dystopic visions of Sparta-fication in the minds of some - if 125 men can take down a country in Central Asia, what else can such a small force do? - there's no evidence of any cultish militaristic politics on the rise. If anything, the recent bureaucratic smack-down in the Army is a reminder that the civilians are completely in charge.
William Gibson's previous novels, such as Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, made their splash in the alternate universe of sci-fi, but flew below the radar of literary fiction. That may be about to change. Pattern Recognition is the first of his books to be set in the present rather than the future, and the first in which his characters are allowed to be fully human.
He likes the book quite a bit --
For those willing to adjust to Gibson's artificial landscape, there are big rewards. For one thing, he's a distinctive stylist, with a gift for memorable images. Cayce, suffering jet lag in "that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides", imagines her soul being "reeled in on some ghostly umbilical cord down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here". Elsewhere, a waitress disdains Cayce's attempt to speak French, "as though Cayce were a cat bringing up a particularly repellent hairball".
-- but is fixated on the idea that the book is good because Gibson has abandoned genre constraints; he concludes
Gibson, now 55, has developed a more humane vision for the lost and frightened new millennium.
William Gibson writes a techno-thriller set in London's advertising community! State it baldly, and it might seem too bathetic to be believable. The creator of the term "cyberspace" - whose books provided a social paradigm shift, with its own mythology - has so run out of juice that he has to find inspiration in the trend-monkeys of the capital's media classes. Has the heir to Arthur C Clarke lost his oracular nerve? Is he trying to lay the ground for a new career in corporate consultancy?
Kane thinks Gibson's subject is trivial in light of the true meaning of 9-11.
Was the destruction of the World Trade Centre really "an experience outside culture", as Gibson puts it? Or was it the ultimate revenge act against the semiotic dominance of Western consumerism? ... In a novel which tiresomely vaunts its knowledge of signs, Gibson displays not the slightest inkling of the symbolic violence that the West's marketing-blitz wreaks on reticent cultures. As the hijackers note put it, "the time for play is over; the serious time is upon us."
And so on, concluding
Gibson's tinny designer prose is barely up to the fictional task of rendering this global crisis of meaning; he should stick with the mirror-shaded cyborgs. But whose prose will be?
Despite this rather strained inclusion, Pattern Recognition is essentially a thriller, not perhaps as far as it would like to think from such hi-tech, lo-heart productions as Michael Crichton's Disclosure. That's not to dismiss the skill with which Gibson generates tension without generic melodrama or bursts of violence. But the high quality of his writing still gives the impression of a show home, rather than inhabited premises. He deals more comfortably with 'affect', a technical-sounding word, filtered through therapy, than with actual emotion.
The novels and short stories that he published from the late 1960's through the early 90's have been enormously influential; their focus on character, their innovations of structure, language and theme, have helped raise the genre's literary standards without sacrificing its core ambition to become the imaginative interpreter of the age of science.
Also, Joe Haldeman's Guardian (Ace), a "quieter antiwar book" than some of his previous novels.
It is hard to imagine this eminently likable book changing anyone's mind about the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. But for those who instinctively recoil from the notion of making peace by killing people, it is nice to hear that someone or something out there concurs.
And Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire (Tor), "a literate space opera".
Westerfeld's speculations about the rise and fall of civilizations are appealingly quirky -- where would early agricultural empires have been without cats? -- and his action scenes have a breathless realism that does not gloss over the bloody nature of combat. Perhaps most important, his moral calculus never lapses into Q.E.D. ... ''The Risen Empire'' is the first of two volumes. I eagerly anticipate the sequel.
Big, Baggy Book. Or, if you like, her satisfying, long and complex, somewhat mystifyingly plotted, massively constructed epic fantasy with a cast of thousands, most of whom seem to be related to one another or divorced from each other. It offers murder, treachery, conspiracy, sorcery, battles, poison and magical spells. As well as computers, telephones, television and helicopters. And Little People, a Wild Hunt (of sorts), invisible floating people, giant personified cities (including London), King Arthur (for a page or two), a panther, a hunting cat, chickens, hundreds of salamanders, a remarkable goat, a fearsome dragon and a very charming talking elephant.
Despite its slapstick, wordplay and "Simpsons"-like comedy, The Wee Free Men teaches, slantwise like all good fiction, the importance of trust, kindness, determination and responsibility. And as in any good fantasy tale, the Story ends with nothing changed and everything changed.
An energetic and experienced writer, Stirling has long been a favorite of military sf fans. But with his latest novel, he shows that he is a first-rate entertainer.
Also, Brian Herbert's Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert (Tor), which fails to explain
how Frank Herbert, after a promising first novel, an unpublishable second novel and a few interesting short stories, could have produced a masterpiece [Dune].
And, Greg Bear's Darwin's Children (Del Rey) -- an "unsuccessful" middle-volume -- and John Varley's Red Thunder (Ace):
Varley's great strength is in his characterizations, but in Red Thunder he also shows a strong sense of place. He's clearly in love with Florida and the many quirky and eccentric people who live there. As a result, Red Thunder is a realistic -- and funny -- novel that happens to be set in the future. The novel is also in a sense an elegy: Sf readers have long hoped to travel in outer space, and Varley implies that this will be possible only if we discover something radically different from anything now known to physicists. But if you are willing to simply fantasize about fleeing your office cubicle and becoming a heroic space explorer, this novel will amiably fulfill your wishes.
VanderMeer, author of "City of Saints & Madmen," operates at the borders of science fiction and fantasy, mingling the effects of both genres to create something unsettlingly original. "Veniss Underground" is full of beautiful sentences, black humor and terrible wonders, an audacious riff on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Despite its brevity, it marks VanderMeer as a novelist to be reckoned with.
And Lucius Shepard's Louisiana Breakdown (Golden Gryphon).
The novel plays with the stereotypes of swamp gothic -- a luscious and lascivious heroine, an artistically inclined protagonist in over his head, and a Good Gray Man who stalks the bayou -- and gives them its own sly, accomplished spin.
And Robert Holdstock's Celtika (Tor).
A winner of the World Fantasy award, Holdstock masterfully conflates two great myths of two disparate cultures. The personalities of Jason and Medea are consistent with their legends, but their motivations are revealed with a sure, contemporary astuteness.
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