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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #1




Subterranean Online, Winter 2010


This site posts fiction and other stuff on a rather random schedule.


"Second Journey of the Magus" by Ian R. MacLeod


Balthasar the doubter, this time alone, repeats his journey to Jerusalem, more than thirty years after he brought a gift of myrrh to the god he had never expected to find. Now he discovers that the god Jesus has established his kingdom on Earth.
The first angel Balthasar witnessed was standing at a crossroads, and he took it at first to be tall golden statute until he realized that it wasn’t standing at all. The creature hovered two or three spans in the air above the fine-set paving on four conjoined wings flashing with many glittering eyes, and it had four faces pointing in each of the roadway’s four directions, which were the faces of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.
The conquering Christian armies are spreading across the world, and not even the might of Rome can stand against them.

While Balthasar feels unease at the sight of the heavenly Jerusalem, the reader is aware that Jesus, in this version of the tale, had accepted the invitation of the Tempter, had cast himself as if to certain death before the gathering crowds, only for the sky to rent from horizon to horizon as many varieties of angels flew down to bear him up. What concerns Balthasar is his own responsibility for what has come to pass. What had he wrought, so long ago, when he brought a gift of myrrh, the incense of death, to the newborn god?

With this powerfully disturbing tale of faith and doubt, MacLeod joins a notable list of authors who have reimagined the temptations of Christ. It is not really an alternate history; Jesus' choice has taken the story entirely out of history into eschatology. This vision of Jerusalem transformed by a Satanic Christ is strongly unsettling in its resemblance to the heavenly city of so many pious imaginations. But the conclusion may leave the reader puzzled as Balthasar finally makes his own choice, which the author leaves us to imagine.

RECOMMENDED

"The Bohemian Astrobleme" by Kage Baker


Continuing a series of historical SF adventures featuring the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, a mysterious group whose members are scientifically far in advance of their times. In this case, the time is 1845 and the Gentlemen are in Bohemia to track down the source of a rare meteoric gemstone that produces an electric charge in combination with acetic acid. The locals are not forthcoming with information, but prostitute-spy Lady Beatrice easily overcomes their reticence.

Baker's work tends to be connected, and this series represents an earlier stage in the development of the time-traveling Company featured in many of her novels. It also partakes of the currently-popular steampunk spirit, which adds an entertaining interest to the detective-thriller plot with such delightful anachronisms as the Ascending Room. But the key to the mystery is found through plain scientific reasoning, in a manner that suggests a premature Sherlock Holmes. A lot of fun, intelligently crafted.

As I write this, news comes that Kage Baker has left this life after a struggle against cancer. For readers who did not know her personally, perhaps the saddest fact of her death is that she will write no more of these stories. But a writer leaves a legacy to us all: her work, and hers has been a rich gift.

"At the Store" by Neal Barrett, Jr.


Billy and Bob have perfected a business plan suited for their world.
Isn’t a smell that can get away from Bob. Hog hearts dog parts lemon tarts and shit. Dust mites crotch bites parasites and pricks. Bob gets them all, drops ‘em in a sack, brings them back to me.
The smells undergo further refinement and processing until the final product is ready. Essentially, this is a complex, elaborate and improbable fart joke, as gross as one might expect. What the author neglects to mention is how the boys are paid for their efforts, and in what coin.

"Flu Season" by Barbara Roden


Caroline has taken a week off work and seems to have nothing to do but visit her dying mother in the hospital every evening. She spends the entire day ignoring the faint and ignorable signs that there may be something wrong.
She finished her coffee–which was now lukewarm–and contemplated going outside to pick up the newspapers; it appeared unlikely that anyone else would do it. There were few houses on her street, and no one seemed to be about; certainly she had heard no cars, and there was no sign of movement anywhere.

This one could be considered horror, except the horror comes so late in the story that it is anticlimactic and disappointing. The reader, having been frustrated by so much tedious mundanity as Caroline somnambulates obliviously through the day, has the right to expect something more original when the revelation finally comes.

Jim Baen's Universe, February 2010


As this ezine winds down to its penultimate issue, there is less original short fiction. The best stories this time reveal the downside of extremely extended life.


"Tiny Elephants" by Gregory Benford


A vignette in which Arctic surveyors come across a surviving herd of pygmy mammoths. It is unlikely that this revelation would have come as a surprise to any readers, even if the opening illustration did not clearly portray them.

"The Hunt" by Shauna Roberts


This is one of those generic fantasies that call themselves science fiction by virtue of switching caravanserais to spaceports, privileged nobles to privileged traders named "Domeni", wizards to "transmuters." The plot is a sufficiently complex knot to engage reader attention: Valuable jewels have been stolen from the Domeni ship Bold Falcon, then stolen again from the fence. Thadow the Transmuter has been assigned to retrieve them. In the meantime, spoiled Domeni teenagers are causing havoc in the market with their thefts in a scavenger hunt game. In the end, justice is done, but unevenly.

"Shuffle Up and Deal" by Denise McCune


Aliens have come to Earth and their leader wants to play in the World Series of Poker. Fred the alien proves to be very good at poker and ends up at the final table, facing the narrator.
People at the tables around Fred started singing the Imperial Death March when a new player and his chip stack got moved to Fred's table, because chances were good those chips would be in Fred's hands within the hour. It made us cranky. Very cranky.
But it seems that there are problems with the translation and the humans haven't correctly understood the stakes. Pretty standard punchline.

"The Thrill of the Hunt" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


A long time ago, there was war among Europe's magic-users, and the black wizard called The Great Wulf wiped out most of his enemies. Hilda is one of the few survivors, who has become an assassin to take revenge. She has finally tracked down Wulf.
She wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it for herself. She tracked him here, watched him enter that ruined building. He looked like so many German exiles in this part of Argentina, back bowed, too thin, defeated.
While Hilda lies in wait for her target to show himself, she spins out a [too] lengthy backstory of her life, contrasting with the vividly immediate description of the Argentinean setting.

The author has purposely linked this tale of revenge with the activities of the Nazi-hunters after WWII. This causes some initial confusion before the backstory kicks in. Wulf is clearly established as evil as any Nazi, but it seems odd and wrong that Hilda is more obsessed with her own personal losses than with the devastation of all Europe in successive wars. This does not make her a sympathetic character, but maybe that's just how it is for sortof-immortals.

"The Vessel Never Asks for More Wine" by Sandra M. Odell


One day, Eileen almost steps into the path of a bus, but a stranger pulls her back to the curb. She seeks out the man to thank him and finds him strange indeed, with the strange name of Borgio Yilmaz.
The only remarkable feature in an otherwise plain face were his eyes, almond shaped, the right slightly larger than the left, and the caramel gold that edged a desert dune at sunrise. Ashes and the shadows of memories lingered in the creases around those eyes, unexpected in a man his age.
Eileen soon comes to suspect he has been stalking her, but the reason is not what she supposed.

Here is a poignant tale about the tragedy of immortality, strongly colored by loss. The title is very appropriate.

RECOMMENDED

Clarkesworld #41, February 2010


If there are two authors that regular readers of ezines will encounter pretty constantly these days, they are likely to be Jay Lake and Lavie Tidhar. Here, we have both together in the same issue of this zine, which regularly offers superior fiction.


"Torquing Vacuum" by Jay Lake"


SF. Spanich is a drive technician, a working stiff on Estacada Orbital.
Spanich had been up three shifts straight working on a drive alignment issue aboard ICV Mare Ibrium {13 pairs}. She was a charter — a rare thing, in a starship, which signified pockets deeper than planetary budgets — and the passengers reportedly wanted to lift out, but her pilot wasn't lighting up without the alignment problem being solved.
Afterwards, he meets up with that new hot kid who's been hanging around the station. Too soon, he discovers that neither the kid nor the ship are what they seem, and he's in Big Trouble.

Nice story with some grit on its edges, carried effectively by Spanich, a character capable of realistically assessing himself and his chances of both luck and survival.

RECOMMENDED

"The Language of the Whirlwind" by Lavie Tidhar


Post-apocalypse. Tel Aviv, and presumably the rest of the world, has been destroyed in a storm of whirlwinds and suddenly-risen mountains where powerful entities now dwell. The few survivors cope however they can, raising rats for their meat and asking no question about their kosher status. But the man now known as the priest believes he has witnessed a divine visitation, that there must be some meaning in it all. He is founding his own religion.
The Holy Book currently filled half an A4 notepad that he had originally found in an abandoned stationary shop. His disciples were not many, but when they gathered, in the place that had once been a pharmacy and was now a slaughterhouse and a church, he read to them passages from the book, and they repeated the words, so they could spread them.

A story of the human impulse to create religions, to create meaning from the inaccessible and inexplicable. This is not a tale of hope; there may be powerful entities up on the mountain, but no Messiahs are going to arrive.

Abyss & Apex 33, First Quarter 2010


Despite the Abyss in this zine's title, the contents tends to be soft SF and fantasy, not horror.


"How We Fly" by Lisa A. Koosis


A love story. Jamie meets Jeannette in the Ward of Hopeless Cases, where they share the same disease, but Jeannette's case is more advanced. Together, they try a new visualization therapy, which works well for Jamie.
Sometimes the Phoenix particles are dragons, dark-scaled and fanged like the ones I paint, and my white blood cells are knights on tall steeds, lances at the ready. I come to look forward to each session, to the new techniques and imageries.

But Jeannette fails at the visualization; she is going to die. Jamie's love is so strong that he volunteers to be reinfected with the disease so he can visualize for her.

As a story of the extreme measures that people will take for love, this one is a strong example. As a case of medical ethics, it seems Highly Dubious. As a matter of prose, I wish that the author, having hit upon a felicitous simile in describing the skin of the dying as like vellum, had not been so pleased with the phrase that she kept repeating it throughout the text.

"The Tortuous Path" by Bud Sparhawk


Alessandro is an acolyte in a monastic order of eunuchs whose special mission is the distortion of space that allows interstellar travel. But the order no longer has a monopoly on this function, and the Brothers of the Order fear becoming obsolete. Alessandro, however, is fascinated.
A machine that could twist space meant that there would be no need for him to memorize vast tracts of the Epiphedra, no need to endure the raging headaches that came with twisting, and especially not have that damned Vulture dogging his every move or Caffarelli questioning his every thought.

All of which meant that a ship that could twist space was a marvelous idea.

The practice of gelding the acolytes is a twist on the classic fantasy trope of virgins possessing magical powers. Alessandro is an engaging character who faces a difficult decision.

"Deutoroi" by Samantha Henderson


Merea was born to be a Thessa, an essential part of the Hunt ritual that makes a king in Cambria. Only a Thessa can track the Deutoroi, the White Stag of the Narcos Wade, but the Hunt brings insanity, which Merea both fears and craves.
The horror of losing herself in the wind that lashed the tops of the trees, or giving in to the voice that called her from the west, from the Narcos Wade. The horror and delight of it.
She has hidden a long time –too long—from her destiny, but now a would-be king has tracked her down.

The heart of this tale is powerfully mythic, evoking familiar ancient images yet original enough not to seem derivative. The descriptions of the Hunt are thrilling, with the voices of the trees aiding in the chase, the confrontation with the stag, the shocking revelation of its true nature. I really wish a good copyeditor had worked on the text to eliminate a host of irritating small errors and infelicitous name choices, such as the Steward –- is he Korinth [a Greek city?] or Korish? The story starts out by dumping a confusing number of capitalized names on the reader, several of them ("Narcos" and "Hebrai") just as jarring. While I believe I have figured out that "Deutoroi" refers to the stag's dual nature, I'm not sure why it can't just be called a stag. These are minor, nit-picky annoyances, but it's frustrating to see such an otherwise strong story so marred.

"Night of the Manticore" by Tony Pi


Academic rivalry results in disaster. On the eve of the Great Exhibition of Lyonesse, Professors Voss and Mason dispute the nature of the extinct manticore. Mason plans to triumph over his longterm rival by reviving a mummified specimen.
Now that it had nearly returned to full life, I confirmed Mason's assessment of its sex: the distinctive dark ruff to its jawline might confuse a casual observer into thinking it was a male's mane, but in fact the creature was anatomically female. She began prowling around the isle, and whilst in motion her furred forepaws resembled the pincer-shaped pedipalps of a scorpion.
But Mason has miscalculated.

Pi starts this one out slowly, with faux-pedantic disputes that are, like genuine pedantic disputes, boring. Action picks up once we get the manticore rehydrated.

"The Wishing Stone" by Edward Greaves


Arrod is a master at cutting charms into gemstones, but he is plagued by powerful and discontented noble ladies demanding love charms. When a young woman comes for a charm to cure her brother she changes Arrod's life, bringing him new customers, commoners who are grateful that he can help them.

The details of gemstones gives this one some interest, but it is otherwise a fairly typical problem story with a heartwarming ending.

"Anything Chocolate" by Caryn Gussoff


The narrator's elderly father belongs to the last generation that will die, the generation before nanobots. The narrator copes as well as she can, loving her father with the knowledge of his eventual death always in her mind.

"When White Roses Freeze" by Amy Power Jansen


A dysfunctional family, the adjectives that describe their personalities, e.g. frigid, literalized.

Apex Magazine, February 2010


A small ezine with the motto: Where Science Fiction and Horror Collide. It prints two original short stories every month.



"p.a. chic" by Tobias Amadon Bengelsdorf


post. apocalypse. Possibly the last man still alive counts down his remaining pills every day as he tries to find the cool in it all, recording his most clever insights: Dystopia is best viewed from a distance.

The art of dying. Not as annoying as it appeared at first glance.

"The Lady or the Tiger" by J.M. McDermott


Simsa, as a boy of ten, has to make a hard choice after a crash on Io kills a woman he loves as a mother and his brother is injured. The choice is complicated by his knowledge of his brother's guilty secret. The story is complicated by a backstory about terrorists who turned into tigers and live on the backs of giant lizards. Simsa identifies his brother with the terrorist, but he seems to end up taking the terrorist's place on the lizard. I don't find this very clear. There seem to be two separate, potentially interesting, stories going on at the same time and I don't think they have knitted together very well.


In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. Her short fiction reviews ran at The Internet Review of Science Fiction from December 2005 through February 2010.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adrienne Martini reviews Connie Willis

When Blackout landed in my hands, I did, in fact, do a little dance of joy. The nearly six years between Connie Willis novels has been about five years too long. While I understand that her process takes time, I still craved a deliciously immersive Connie Willis book. To hell with the writer, I want her work now.

I know this is wrong. As many have reiterated online: the writer is not my bitch. Noted. I did my best to wait as patiently as a Willis-fan could.

Six years is a long time to build up expectations, however. I was ready to have my socks blown plum off by Blackout, which is why I was so let down by the first one-fifth of the book. Nearly nothing could have stood up to that level of anticipation.

Blackout opens like one of Willis's wonderful takes on the classic screwball comedy. Set in the same milieu as 1999's To Say Nothing of the Dog and 1993's Doomsday Book (my desert island title), Blackout starts with the same madcap energy. Three historians in 2060 are preparing to go back in time to do research on the "contemps," the folks who are actually living through that patch of time.

As seems usual, the time travel lab at Oxford, run still by Mr. Dunworthy, is one small breeze away from chaos. Historians keep having their assignments changed at the last minute, like Michael Davies, who prepared for Pearl Harbor but instead is sent to Dunkirk. The academic bureaucracy keeps historian Merope Ward, who is working in the countryside with kids evacuated from London during WWII, from learning how to drive, which is crucial to her completing her research. And Polly Churchill, who plans to work as a shopgirl during the Blitz, can't get the wardrobe department to give her a black skirt, without which she'll be unable to find employment.

Their issues – and all of the running about that they do to overcome these obstacles – is fun. Willis is a master at lighthearted dashing about, which she uses to poke gentle fun at academia and the people who work in its protected towers. Still, for such an anticipated book, I wanted more than a 1940s set Doomsday Book.

To cut to the chase, I got much more, despite my worries that I wouldn't.

Willis works in hints that all might not be well with the "net," the device that allows the historians to be sent back in time without altering the history that they're studying. Mr. Dunworthy, who remains offstage for all of Blackout, keeps turning up in third-party conversations and phone calls. The historians sense that he's concerned about something – so much so that he keeps re-arranging schedules and pestering the technicians – but we never get a clear picture of what's wrong. We're able to brush off his worries until unpredictable things (which I won't mention, natch) start to happen to Churchill, Ward, and Davies. And it's at that point when the light screwball ends.

In addition to her deft comedic touch, Willis is also a master at fully immersing the reader in her worlds without resorting to clunky informational dumps. Her 1940s Britain is richly textured, perhaps because she is so keen at focusing her attentions on her characters and how they respond to the time they are experiencing, rather than painting vast canvases for them to walk across. The difference is subtle, yes, but important.

What she's also able to do is to play her reader like a newly tuned piano. Scenes that could be milked for every last mawkish drop somehow get around your defenses and wring out your heart. Moments that you think you know how they'll feel because you've seen them played out so many times – like when a historian is caught outside during an air raid and shells are falling near her – don't feel routine here. Willis makes them immediate and new, so that you feel them even more keenly.

Which has always been a problem when it comes to time travel in Willis's world. The historians can always fall back on their status as mere visitors:

Not knowing. It was the one thing historians could never understand. They could observe the contemps, live with them, try to put themselves in their place, but they couldn't truly experience what they were experiencing. Because I know what's going to happen. I know Hitler didn't invade England, that he didn't use poison gas or destroy St. Paul's. Or London. Or the world. That he lost the war.

And still Willis writes passages that make you hold your breath until you learn that everyone emerges OK.

Which they don't always do – but part of the joy of this ride is the discovery of how it all falls apart.

What's missing, of course, is the part of the story where it all comes back together again. The second half of Blackout, All Clear, won't be published until July. All Clear is not a sequel; it's simply the second half of the story started in Blackout, which ends with all of the characters dangling over a figurative cliff, waiting to see what form of rescue will come, if it comes at all. It's a curious choice by Spectra to hack the book up. But it's a small inconvenience to endure in order to read this story. It's easier to wait six months than six years.




Read more! This is one of many reviews from the February issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.













Blackout

Connie Willis


(Spectra 055-3-803-190, $26.00, 512pp, hc) February 2010





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Monday, February 15, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review The Wolfman



Howard Waldrop: Poor Curt Siodmak (who made it to 102). To have your 1941 screenplay (which gave us most of the cinematic werewolf tropes we have) have every bit of the poetry and life sucked out of it by two screenwriters and a director. (Maybe they thought the soulfulness in Benicio del Toro's eyes would make up for it.)

Lawrence Person: The Wolfman is a gorgeously art-directed mediocrity, combining the look and pace of a lush costume drama with the clichés and gore of a modern horror film. It's professional enough to hold your attention while in the theater, but the plodding, by-the-numbers nature of the beast (the film itself, not its titular character) is enough to make you regret the time spent there.

HW: To the original setup (long-gone American-raised son — here, the second and younger one, an actor to boot — receives a letter from his brother's fiancée, to return to the ancestral pile — the brother's disappeared and things are afoot) they've added nothing, only mixed things around to no good purpose. In the approximate Claude Raines role is Anthony Hopkins. There's Art Malik as a wrinkled old Singh retainer (not in the original) who 40 years ago would have been played by Christopher Lee or Michael Ripper.

There's the fiancée (Emily Blunt) in the Evylyn Ankers role. It's not bad casting — it's just wrong — Maleva the gypsy is played by Geraldine Chaplin. (I have never missed Maria Ouspenskaya more, since she died after a fire in 1949, smoking a cigar in bed.) Her (Siodmak) folk-poetry piece "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night..." is used as prologue to the movie. It's the only minute of poetry here.

LP: Director Joe Johnston seems to have gone to the Zack Snyder School of Unsubtle Direction, with a graduate work in The Institute for Horror Move Clichés. Music cues herald every impending werewolf attack with all the subtlety of a Mexican soccer announcer. And something like 90% of those attacks have the exact same visual characteristics: character pauses for lingering shot, only to have werewolf leap onto them from outside the frame, carrying them (or at least significant body parts) off the other side of the frame. Even the boo-shock jump scares (including, yet again, the "character wakes up from the nightmare only to find he's still in it" cliché) are painfully predictable. Pick any random minute from the last thirty of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and you'll find more imaginative gore than is on display in this entire movie.

Even potentially interesting scenes, like Talbot's grim hydro- and electroshock treatment sessions in a Victorian insane asylum, are marred by thuddingly unsubtle direction. The assistant orderly is a grinning sadist (complete with evil giggle) while the Head Professor Doktor Shrink (Antony Sher) comes across like a caricature of Sigmund Freud as penned by Julius Streicher.

Del Toro (a very effective actor in the right role, as witnessed by Traffic or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) looks like Lawrence Talbot, but he wears the role like an uncomfortable and ill-fitting suit. He doesn't have the bearing and presence you would expect of a leading stage actor. Except for the transformation and asylum sequences, his acting runs the gamut from A to C, the change from his brooding anguish over his brother's death to his guilty anguish over his lycanthropic crimes having all the dramatic arc of a stubby pencil. Sometimes he comes alive; his anguish during the hydrotherapy scenes are entirely convincing. (Then again, plunge me into a tank of ice-cold water, and I guarantee you I wouldn't need my Drama degree to make my screams convincing.) If the script ever lets him crack a smile, I must have missed it.

It's amazing how little Anthony Hopkins elevates the material. He does fine, but as one of the best in the business, you expect him to give you more than the distant, icy superiority he offers up here. Contrast this with the splendid work he did in The Edge (another mediocre movie), where he not only acts Alec Baldwin under the table, but steals his wallet, car keys and shoes to boot.

Emily Blunt is fine in a criminally underwritten role. It's not that she completely lacks chemistry with Del Toro, but their characters are each so sunk in their respective miseries that what chemistry they do have is on the order of "Hey, once we're both less depressed, maybe we should consider going out for coffee."

Surprisingly, the actor who far and away comes off best is Hugo Weaving, who can be very uneven (his one-note portrayal of Elrond was probably the weakest major character in The Lord of the Rings). But here his droll, intelligent Scotland Yard inspector steals the show, as well as breathing much-needed life into every one of his scenes.

HW: There are a tiny couple of redemptions (too late) here. Prosthetics have been berry, berry good to lycanthropy since An American Werewolf in London. They've only gotten better, and part of the audience (who'd evidently never seen this stuff before) gasped. And the idea of one werewolf, stalking another, with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with silver bullets, seems to be a first.

But the whole thing seems in the end unnecessary. It's not as big a waste of celluloid as the Nicolas Cage remake of Wicker Man was, but then nothing is, is it?

LP: If you have a hankering for a werewolf film, well, this is a werewolf film. And it has some gorgeous art direction (which was Joe Johnston's role in Hollywood before he took up directing). But there are a lot better werewolf films out there. Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers, a tale of British soldiers running into a pack of werewolves while on maneuvers in the Scottish highlands, probably had about 1/50th of the budget for this film and was at least ten times as good.

HW: There are so many ways to lose all the poetry in a classic screenplay that this one seems destined to be taught in Screenwriting 101 under the heading "Missing the Boat."



Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Slashdot.org, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.












Directed by Joe Johnston

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self (based on Curt Siodmak's original screenplay)

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Antony Sher

Official Website: The Wolfman Movie - Now Playing - Official Movie Site...


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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer on The Best of 2009

Books are, at their heart, labors of love — including those from commercial houses — and the past couple of years have reminded us of that fact, given the vagaries of the economy and the uncertainties about the future of the book industry. In that context, I can sincerely say that I think 2009 was a transitional year marked by highly individual, highly talented voices creating interesting and unique books, and that although not everything worked, writers were taking chances, and, despite uncertainties, largely feeling optimistic about the future of the written word. Independent presses also continued to thrive in this environment and helped immensely in reflecting the depth and diversity of genre fiction.

With the field now being so wide and deep, I have focused on a particular version of the best of 2009 that emphasizes adult novels, anthologies, nonfiction, and some short story collections. My reading tastes skew toward fantasy, but I did also read science fiction. Young adult and urban fantasy are beyond my purview, and I hope someone who read widely in those areas has the time to post their own year's best. (And, still, even with the narrowed focus it was impossible to read everything.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I had a fantasy novel published in 2009, Finch, which appeared on several year's best lists, co-edited two anthologies with my wife Ann (Best American Fantasy 2 and Last Drink Bird Head) and I also contributed to the following books mentioned below: the Vance tribute anthology, the Straub-edited tales of the fantastic, and the special issue of Conjunctions. Finally, major thanks to Ellen Datlow for providing a list of story collections from 2009 for cross-checking purposes.


Novels

My favorite genre novels of 2009 were Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree and Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest. Both, unfortunately, remain underrated and under-reviewed; both deserve your attention.

Kiernan has long been one of our best stylists at the short length, and I've enjoyed several of her novels. However, in The Red Tree she's created a fascinating multi-layered narrative that trumps her prior efforts in the long form. It partakes equally of traditional dark fantasy and horror while including innovation that echoes such seminal works as Danielewski's House of Leaves. The novel feels both intimately personal and large-scale. The characterization is merciless and real, inviting comparisons to some of the best portraits offered up by writers like Elizabeth Hand.

If Kiernan is one of our best from her generation, then Valente has clearly become one of the best writers of hers. In the past, I've sometimes found her brand of lyricism too relentlessly baroque at the longer lengths, but as she has created a substantial body of work with a swiftness remarkable for its accompanying overall quality of both writing and imagination, Valente has also begun to vary her effects. Palimpsest is a fearless deep dive into worlds of fantasy and of sex, with travelers into the unknown who can only get to an imaginary world through the most intimate acts and fetishes. It reads at times like Borges by way of Angela Carter. Valente manages to both embrace and reject the fantastical in this genre-defying novel. It's a novel that both confounds and rewards reader expectations through its use of traditional and avant garde fantasy elements.

Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia also struck me as an unqualified success, with its cheeky subtitle of "Konstantin Skvorecky's memoir of the alien invasion of 1986" and its wonderful ability to be utterly modern and yet remind one, at times, of such masterpieces of Russian satire as The Master and Margarita. As a student of Russian fiction, I found the book utterly enthralling in its tale of a science fiction writer tasked by Stalin with concocting an alien-invasion hoax and then told to forget the whole thing, on pain of death. I found myself chuckling throughout at particularly clever turns of phrase, sometimes laughing out loud, and yet Roberts' novel always seems firmly grounded in something real.

Another favorite, The Other City by Michal Ajvaz (from Dalkey Archive Press) repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues. As the jacket copy reads, the novel serves as a kind of "guidebook to this invisible 'other Prague,' overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads." A book, naturally, triggers the adventure embarked upon by our nameless narrator, a book that shows that "The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn't run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it." Strange scenes involving bizarre fish and other monstrosities evoke the great Czech filmmaker Svankmajer, with a hint of Dali in their nimbleness.

Marcel Theroux's Far North, meanwhile, has flaws — the plot devices at times struck me as coincidental and unnecessary — but there's undeniable power to this post-apocalyptic novel set in Siberia. Most of that power comes from the hard-won victories of Makepeace, Theroux's remarkable narrator. Far North 's enduring achievement is to feature a character that lives up to Makepeace's own claim that "a person is always better than a book." She is the single most compelling protagonist from any of the novels I'm recommending, among the best portraits I've ever read of a person coping with extreme situations.

Several other worthy novels suggest groupings. In the category of "Quirky and Eccentric" but not gonzo, Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Mark von Schlegell's Mercury Station, Brian Evenson's Last Days, and Sebastien Doubinsky's The Babylonian Trilogy take top honors. Bullington's first novel is a bloody, darkly humorous, take-no-prisoners Medieval romp about two unrepentant murderers. Schlegell's second novel also evokes Medieval times with its surprising tale of time travel and ancient space travel, while evoking the trippy qualities of books like The Troika and Moonshadow. Evenson's chilling noir of cults, chopped off limbs, and, ultimately, Grand Guignol, never blinks in its depiction of horrors of the mind and the body. Doubinsky's mosaic novel evokes a transformed city of Babylon through a series of fascinating vignettes.

In a category loosely called "This Isn't Your Grandmother's Heroic Fantasy," Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, David Anthony Durham's The Other Lands, and Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains all pushed boundaries in different ways. Abercrombie blended Machiavelli and Tarantino while reveling in the ruthlessness of his protagonist, the mercenary Monza Murcatto. Durham continued to bring a much-needed non-Anglo point of view to fantasy while constructing a complex, multi-layered world and populating it with interesting characters. Morgan, meanwhile, decided that not only was he going to create a realistic gay protagonist engaging in explicit sex for his noirish epic, but also gleefully subvert most of heroic fantasy's tropes in much the same way as Sherman "subverted" Atlanta during the American Civil War.

Among "Steampunk" titles, the most entertaining were Soulless by first-time novelist Gail Carriger and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Soulless is a great take on the novel of manners with vampires, werewolves, madcap adventure, and love combined to excellent effect; the sense of timing and the technical execution necessary to make this kind of book a success shouldn't be dismissed just because Soulless isn't a Big Concept Novel. Priest's Boneshaker, meanwhile, reimagines the history of Seattle (okay, destroys the city) and combines Steampunk with zombies. It's an energetic, chaotic, sometimes messy book, full of interesting ideas and characters.

"Little Books with Big Hearts" of particular interest included Peter M. Ball's Horn, Kage Baker's The Hotel Under the Sand, Laird Hunt's Ray of the Star, Gert Jonke's The System of Vienna, Elizabeth Bear's Bone and Jewel Creatures, and John Grant's The City in These Pages. Ball's novella-in-book-form from my new favorite indie press, Twelfth Planet, combines noir and faery in a hardboiled structure that plays knowingly with the tropes of both subgenres; he is without a doubt one of the best of the up-and-coming writers in the field. Baker's delightful children's tale about a mythical hotel invites comparison to such authors as Tove Jansson, while Hunt's compressed gem of magic realism tells of a visit to an imaginary city where visitors can walk with the dead. Jonke's Calvino-esque series of adventures includes such marvelous characters as a paranoid fish seller who believes he controls Austrian politics from his stall. Bear brings painstaking jeweler's precision to her tale of strange creations and enchanters. Grant, an often underrated writer, combines elements of the police procedural with SF and fantasy to interesting effect.

In the admittedly catch-all category of "Three Books That Could Not Be More Different," Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots, James Braziel's Snakeskin Road, and Steven Barnes' Shadow Valley all provided provocative and evocative reading experiences. Evaristo effectively reimagines the history of the slave trade, reversing it so Africans have enslaved Europeans. Braziel postulates a convincingly grim future of human trafficking following a climate change disaster. Barnes' lyrical take on writing about prehistoric people contains genuinely moving situations and fascinating characters.

Other novels that I found interesting included Jay Lake's Madness of Flowers, Jeremy C. Shipp's Cursed, Jo Graham's Hand of Isis, Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villajamur, Kage Baker's The Empress of Mars, Marie Brennan's In Ashes Lie, and Lane Robins' Kings and Assassins. Of these, I'd like to single out the Robins, because it seemed to get no attention anywhere. In the novel, Robins makes the gutsy decision to use Janus, one of the ostensible villains of her prior novel, Maledicte, as the viewpoint character. The result? Often brutal political drama in a fantasy setting. Robins clearly doesn't believe in escapism, and the novel is better for it. Readers who initially may bridle at the choice of Janus will quickly be won over.

Finally, two Big Concept Novels fell just short of being successful for me, despite trying for much more than some of the books listed above. They are definitely worth your attention, and both of them appear on other people's year's best lists.

China Mieville's The City & The City contains a perfect evocation of an imaginary Eastern European city. Culturally and texturally, Mieville's novel worked well for me, and the writing is to die for. However, as the book progresses the unwieldiness of the central conceit — overlapping cities — and the idea of "unseeing" works less and less well. Mieville's ever more laborious efforts to explain things slow the book down, especially toward the middle, and underscore the somewhat thin characterization. (For an interesting reading experience, pair Mieville's novel with the excellent Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and Mieville and the recent issue of the scholarly journal Extrapolations devoted to exploring Mieville's fiction.)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi also features some stunning writing — as in his short stories, he has a knack for full-on description that reads like a tactile, sensual report from the future. This is also a relevant novel in the sense that it seems to move fully beyond the idea of cyberpunk or the New Wave in its approach to science fiction. The concepts of calorie companies, bioengineered plagues, and a vision that extends beyond our oil-based economies — these are all amazing ideas, fleshed out in fascinating ways. However, the characters seem overwhelmed by the setting and the plot never really came together for me. That Bacigalupi will write a great novel, given his skills, seems almost certain, but this is not that novel.


Short Story Collections

I thought it was a frustrating year in terms of short story collections. Many of them were good, but few were in any sense of the word daring — and this despite many writers having taken chances in the short form in magazines and anthologies. Perhaps next year. (The best collection of any kind was J.G. Ballard's The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard, but its North American publication in 2009 had been preceded by publication in the British Commonwealth in a prior year.)

In that context, my favorite short story collections of the year were, in no particular order, Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Fugue State by Brian Evenson, The Word Book by Mieko Kanai, and Rachel Pollack's The Tarot of Perfection.

Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore (from the truly amazing Aqueduct Press) has a kinetic energy and hard-to-define originality that held me captivated from first word to last. Profane — scandalous? — the book wraps stories around stories, combines the surreal with the mundane and every-day. A story like "Acid and Stoned Reindeer" that I thought was either genius or chaos when published by Clarkesworld works much better in the context of the other stories. I'm not really sure how to describe a book that includes lines like "We'd run out of mammoths. The ponies looked nervous.", but I tend to come down on the side of finding it fascinating, although I know many readers will find this collection difficult.

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler (from another excellent publisher, Featherproof) is composed of a series of stunningly surreal stories, many of them seeming to chronicle a strange post-apocalyptic world. Sections include "In the Year of Cyst and Tumor" and "In the Year of Worm & Wilting." The writing is sharp, alien, and utterly captivating. There's a definite sense of a deconstructed J.G. Ballard in the many scenes of flooding and other devastation.

Fugue State by Brian Evenson is the first collection by this American original since the stunning The Wavering Knife. Combining the best traits of writers who trend toward the grotesque, Evenson writes like a modern-day Kafka. Each story, from "Mudder Tongue" to "The Adjudicator" pulls the reader into Evenson's view of the world, to the extent that even stories in which nothing fantastical happens feel strange and surreal.

The Word Book by Mieko Kanai quivers on the edge of fantasy and reality, allowing readers to enter a world of mysterious encounters and silences and sudden corpses. A child running errands for his mother discovers he's suddenly an adult and his mother is dead. Kanai's prose is as precise and matter-of-fact as her subject matter is surreal and shifting.

The Tarot of Perfection by Rachel Pollack from Prague's Magic Realist Press was a fun, well-written collection of stories presented in a beautifully designed format; the best tales, like the title story, are truly classic. A couple of more contemporary stories suffer by comparison, but I still found the collection more cohesive and interesting than many others.

Among collections by relatively new writers, I found Deborah Biancotti's A Book of Endings, Eugie Foster's Returning My Sister's Face, and Cat Rambo's Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight the most compelling. None of these collections were perfect, but each was lively and willing to take chances.

Juggernauts and behemoths also released extremely worthy collections in 2009 that cannot be overlooked — including Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, Gwyneth Jones, Joe R. Lansdale, Peter S. Beagle, and Lewis Shiner. The Best of Gene Wolfe seems somehow not as revelatory given the existence of several prior collections, and because Wolfe's later short fiction sits uneasily with the earlier material; his strengths in the latter part of his career manifest best at novel length. Ramsey Campbell's best-of from PS Publishing, Just Behind You is first-rate, but also at times repetitive in mood and subject matter. Lewis Shiner's Collected Stories includes many excellent stories, but is perhaps too complete. Beagle's We Never Talk About My Brother contained some very good stories, but despite the excellence of his writing I feel, with all due respect, that he's begun to coast through familiar territory for awhile now. Faring better, perhaps because they're leaner, The Best of Joe R. Lansdale serves up a potent sampling of the author's Southern-tinged dual gonzo and horror impulses while Grazing the Long Acre nicely showcases Gwyneth Jones' diverse strengths, which range from outright science fiction to genre-defying character explorations. (My wife Ann and I helped edit a collection by another behemoth, The Best of Michael Moorcock, which I also believe deserves your consideration.)


Anthologies

Several original anthologies from 2009 contained good to excellent stories, although nothing seemed truly groundbreaking or innovative. (I am largely leaving out reprint anthologies because of space considerations, but would note that John Joseph Adams edited a couple of excellent ones this past year.)

Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan had an absolutely stellar lineup that included Karen Joy Fowler, Molly Gloss, Jeffrey Ford, Ellen Kushner, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Nicola Griffith, Daniel Abraham, and Nnedi Okorafor. The content was wide-ranging and ran the gamut from relatively traditional fantasy to out-and-out science fiction. Although the anthology has won an Aurealis Award, it has received very little review attention in the United States. It's also a shame that those who criticized Strahan for gender imbalances in the second volume have largely ignored this third volume.

Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman & Christopher Barzak was a significant step up in quality from the first volume. Contributors included Lavie Tidhar, Brian Francis Slattery, Peter M. Ball, Alan DeNiro, M. Rickert, and Theodora Goss. Intended to showcase interstitial fiction, this volume also featured some of the most experimental and formally daring genre fiction of the year. In this respect, Interfictions 2 not only did a fine job of presenting interesting stories, it filled the gap left by the erratic publishing schedule of the Polyphony anthology series, while also seeming more focused and accessible. In a generally conservative publishing environment, the Interfictions series now serves as an important bastion for new writers, both as an anthology with an open reading period and for its encouragement, like such online venues as Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld, of risk-taking. Such safe harbors are essential.

In first Poe and then Lovecraft Unbound, editor Ellen Datlow proved that two tradition-encrusted icons of genre fiction could be the catalyst for interesting new interpretations by modern writers. The Poe anthology contained fine work by, among others, Delia Sherman, Kaaron Warren, and Lucius Shepard. The Lovecraft anthology featured great fiction by Dale Bailey & Nathan Ballingrud, Michael Cisco, Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Bear, and many others.

Four other original anthologies provided an entertaining read. Songs of the Dying Earth edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois collected twenty-two stories in honor of Jack Vance's iconic series. The overall quality of the writing is strong despite a surprising clunker from Neil Gaiman, with contributors ranging from Martin himself to Kage Baker and Dan Simmons, but the stories tend to blur together in one's memory. Phantom, edited by Paul Tremblay & Sean Wallace was a short, sharp, intelligent collection of fourteen "literary horror" stories from the likes of Michael Cisco, F. Brett Cox, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Karen Hueler. Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann is a doorstopper of an anthology containing thirty-five new stories by Australian writers. It's a consistently energetic if sometimes uneven book with work by, among others, Garth Nix, Angela Slatter, Kim Wilkins, Peter M, Ball, and Terry Dowling. New Ceres Nights, another Australian creation, edited by Alisa Krasnostein & Tehani Wessly, comes to readers from the excellent Twelfth Planet Press, and might be the sleeper anthology of the year. It's consistently lively and interesting in developing its shared setting. Contributors include Stephen Dedman, Kaaron Warren, Aliette de Bodard, Angela Slatter, and Dirk Flinthart.

Basically an anthology in magazine form, Conjunctions 52: Betwixt the Between (Impossible Realism) may not have been as flashy as a prior special issue, The New Wave Fabulists, but it adhered to its theme more rigorously and with fewer rationalizations. Uncharacteristically weak contributions from writers like Elizabeth Hand were offset by interesting fantasy experiments by Stephen Wright, Ben Marcus, Julia Elliott, Jedediah Berry, Karen Russell, Shelley Jackson, and rising star Micaela Morrissette. Conjunctions 52 might not appeal to all genre readers, but like Interfictions 2 it helped to push the boundaries of what was possible in non-realist fiction. (Conjunctions 53: Not Even Past; Hybrid Histories also contained many thought-provoking stories recognizable to readers as fantasy.)

Another type of diversity came in the form of The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. Primarily composed of reprints, Tidhar's anthology featured the work of S.P. Somtow, Zoran Zivkovic, Jamil Nasir, Dean Francis Alfar, Han Song, Anil Menon, and Melanie Fazi. It's an excellent first step in creating an annual showcase for world speculative fiction, with stories of consistently good quality. However, The Apex Book of World SF also proves — just like the James and Kathy Morrow European showcase anthology from 2008 — that publishing writers from a variety of countries doesn't imply or guarantee originality of story. Many of the plots and situations readers will encounter are not markedly different from those in magazines or anthologies that primarily feature writers from the United Kingdom or the United States; indeed, several of these stories were first published in Anglo markets. That said, Apex deserves extraordinary credit for publishing an anthology with few marketable names therein, and the series appears to be set to only become stronger and more diverse with each installment. I highly recommend you purchase a copy to reward this initiative.

The Black Mirror & Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany & Austria, edited by Franz Rottensteiner, provides a fascinating overview of German speculative fiction from the 1870s to the present-day. It's at times of purely historical interest, but many stories stand on their own merits. The "Short History of Science Fiction in German" is excellent, and the differences between East German and West German writers instructional. (In terms of European SF, also consider picking up the sampler Crossing the Boundaries: French Fantasy from Bragelonne, a solid volume published in 2009.)

Finally, Peter Straub's Library of America two-volume American Fantastic Tales (Poe to the Pulps and 1940s to Now) deserves a mention as a potentially landmark anthology. Even with a few omissions — Jeffrey Ford, Nalo Hopkinson, and Lucius Shepard come to mind — and a somewhat safe approach to other selections, this two-volume set provides a vital bridge between genre and mainstream. It also features some amazing stories.


Nonfiction

My two favorite nonfiction books were Starting Point: 1979-1996 by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms by Helen Merrick. In both cases, the authors manage to convey complex ideas in clear, effective prose.

Starting Point is nothing less than a peek at the inspirations of perhaps our most important fantasists, a man whose movies — from Nausicaa to Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro to Princess Mononoke — are among the classics. Sections titled "Creating Animation," "Planning Notes," and "On the Periphery of the Work not only illuminate Miyazaki's process but contain general insights of interest to anyone who loves fantasy.

The Secret Feminist Cabal provides a context for many of the recent online discussions about gender and the politics of gender. The book is brilliant in how it fills in a potentially lost history of the genre, detailing the involvement of female fans in the genre community from the early days, the birth of feminist SF and criticism, and also the many arguments back and forth between male and female writers in the 1970s and 1980s. I may be unaware of similar books on this subject, but for me it was fascinating to read Merrick's documentation of discussions between writers like Joanna Russ and Michael G. Coney. Better yet, Merrick's excellent prose makes The Secret Feminist Cabal a compulsive reading experience. (For an even more complete reading experience, read the Merrick in conjunction with another excellent nonfiction book from 2009, the Farah Mendelsohn-edited On Joanna Russ; it contains a variety of perspectives on Russ and her work from, among others, Gary K. Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, Graham Sleight, and Merrick herself.)

Other nonfiction I particularly enjoyed included Conversations with Samuel R. Delany, edited by Carl Freedman, Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, The WisCon Chronicles: Vol. 3, Carnival of Feminist SF edited by Liz Henry, Paul T. Riddell's Greasing the Pan, a series of provocative (sometimes profane) essays on science fiction and the genre community, Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville, and the third of a lovely series by John Grant, Bogus Science (or, Some People Really Believe These Things).




Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have recently appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Miami Herald, and more. Forthcoming books include the story collection The Third Bear, The Steampunk Bible, the web comic "The Situation" (with Eric Orchard), and a hundred-year overview of short weird fiction co-edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (written with Ann).






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