Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Review: The Powers That Be: A Superhero Collection


The Powers That Be: A Superhero Collection
The Powers That Be: A Superhero Collection by Will Swardstrom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



A very decent collection of indie superhero prose, well-written and, what's more, well-edited.

Some stories are about ordinary people who are kind of like superheroes, others about superheroes who face challenges of real life, and some lie somewhere between the two. In one story, I was a little disappointed by a late hint that the protagonist had some kind of unusual ability herself; it undercut the premise of "ordinary person at risk from superheroes" that had been running very successfully up until then (though it did explain her rashness). One or two of the stories had moments where what was going on could have been more clearly conveyed. But most of the stories had very satisfactory conclusions, good, strong characters, and vivid writing that didn't slow down the pace or distract from the story.

Recommended.



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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Review: Gears of Brass Anthology


Gears of Brass Anthology
Gears of Brass Anthology by Jordan Elizabeth

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



For me, choosing to pick up a steampunk anthology of authors I'm unfamiliar with is the triumph of hope over experience. Steampunk, all too often, consists of wonderful ideas poorly executed. In the first three stories of this book, though, I encountered OK ideas executed to a mediocre standard. That's as far as I got, because life is too short to read books I'm not particularly enjoying.

The first and third stories, by the editor, Jordan Elizabeth, were also darker than I prefer. They reveal a lack of facility with apostrophes, and language in general. As plots, they work well enough, though the second one has a soft ending, but in both cases there were nasty serial-killer characters without redeeming features. The second Jordan Elizabeth story (the third in the book) also has a professor who is absent-minded to the point of idiocy (she doesn't make any connection between the mechanical wolves her protege is making and the fact that everyone in the village has been killed by wolves), and I don't generally appreciate characters carrying the Idiot Ball.

One of the problems of steampunk is that the Victorianism and/or the Englishness usually isn't well conveyed. This is one of the two main problems of the second story in the collection, "Zeus's Fire" by Lorna MacDonald. There's no sense of it being set in England, to me, particularly since the dialog is pure modern American ("Are you okay?" "You suckers!" "Yeah, what she said!"). It was only when Southampton was mentioned near the end that I finally resolved the question of whether it was even supposed to be England.

The other main problem of that story is an odd one I've noticed in a few inexperienced writers: they use simple past ("Peter assured Edward that he made improvements") when past perfect is called for ("Peter assured Edward that he had made improvements"). This problem comes up repeatedly, and is distracting, because I had to stop and untangle when everything had happened.

The story also ends inconclusively, in a way that suggests it's the first episode in a much longer story.

I've read steampunk that is much worse than this, but, in the first three stories at least, it doesn't rise above mediocrity, and so I didn't read any further.

(No star rating because I didn't finish.)



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Review: All About Emily


All About Emily
All About Emily by Connie Willis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I've had this on my TBR list since 2011, and haven't got to it earlier in part because there was no ebook edition.

Finally picked it up from the library, and was a little disappointed, for a few reasons.

Firstly, a lot of the story is driven by references to musicals which I haven't seen. Now, since the narrator is an actress in musicals, it's perfectly natural that she thinks of everything that's happening in those terms, but it provided distance rather than identification for me, as someone who isn't familiar with the stories she constantly references. The references are explained, but even so.

Secondly, Connie Willis's big fault is that she can't hold back from infodumping the considerable research she does for her stories, even where it doesn't contribute anything. Here, she has a young musical geek who knows everything about every musical ever made and can't help spilling facts about them, so the infodumping is justified as characterisation, but it's still infodumping.

And thirdly, I felt that the story wasn't adequately filled out (it's very short), that the conflicts weren't sufficiently explored, and that the ending was too pat and too easy. Like a musical itself, maybe, with the Rockettes emerging onto the street for the closing number.

Also, stories about AI tend to make the AI too good too quickly, and this is the case here, too. I understand the story reasons for doing it, but AI is actually really hard, robotics are also really hard, and combining the two like this... is really, really hard, so I had trouble suspending my disbelief.



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Review: The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories


The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories
The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories by Tom Shippey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I read Tom Shippey's other excellent collection, [b:The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories|564206|The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories|Tom Shippey|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1175825836s/564206.jpg|2817981] some time ago, so it was only a matter of time before I sought out this one. (As an incidental note, I was embarrassed to discover, while reading a library copy which I'd specially requested from the stacks, that I own a copy myself. It's possible I have too many books.)

Like its stablemate, it consists of a chronological collection of stories from a variety of authors, with an introduction by the editor. I was struck by the idea of "fabril" literature, which is discussed in the introduction: a form of literature in which the "smith" is central. Certainly, a great deal of early science fiction in particular involves a clever engineer solving some sort of problem, and I'm sure many careers in engineering and the sciences have been launched in this way. I'd say that there is some tendency, though, as the genre matures, for technology to become the problem and human factors the solution, rather than vice versa. It's not strongly marked in this collection, but the theme is there to see if you know to look for it. Also, technology tends to recede into the background sometimes, and the problems can become simply social ones, as in Gene Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back" (1970). (The editor does note that any single account of what SF is doing is going to be inadequate and have its counter-examples, even within this collection.)

Still, there's an assumption throughout science fiction that people are clever at making things, and this will change how they live, and this is worth telling stories about; and these stories convey that sense well.

There are a few notable names missing from the table of contents. The editor mentions Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon and Murray Leinster in the introduction, for example; all four men wrote short fiction, and could worthily have been included, but presumably space was limited. Most of the stories selected are at the shorter end of the short-fiction spectrum (at a rough estimate, between 2000 and 5000 words), even though this limits how much the ideas, characters and settings can be developed, and I assume that this was in order to include more examples.

There are two and a half women among the 30 authors ("Lewis Padgett" being one of the collective pseudonyms of C.L. Moore and her husband Henry Kuttner), which is, unfortunately, representative of the field in general, particularly in its earlier years. (The other two apart from Moore - Ursula Le Guin and "Raccoona Sheldon", a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon AKA James Tiptree, Jr. - are from the 1960s and 1970s.) To the best of my knowledge, all of the authors are white, and most are American. In other words, the collection doesn't set out to be inclusive of diverse voices, but of widely recognised ones.

To the individual stories now.

H.G. Wells, "The Land Ironclads" (1903): Wells predicts tank warfare, and is widely ignored, certainly by the military establishment. However, this story is primarily about the clash between the human values of bravery, toughness and physical fitness and the developing technological civilisation, in which clerks with machines could beat brave, tough, fit men every time. It's (as so often with Wells) a depressing reflection.

Frank L. Pollack, "Finis" (1906): using some highly dubious astronomy, Pollack postulates a huge sun around which everything, including the galaxies, is rotating, and shows us the end of the world as its light and heat finally reach Earth. There's not a great deal more to it than an extended "rocks fall, everybody dies", though it does show the human reactions as well as the crashes and explosions.

Rudyard Kipling, "As Easy as ABC" (1912): Look here, clearly democracy, in which stupid people get a voice, is inferior to autocratic rule by jolly good chaps with superior technology, don't you know? That's basically the point of this story in the world of the author's [b:With The Night Mail: A Story Of 2000 Ad|723209|With The Night Mail A Story Of 2000 Ad|Rudyard Kipling|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1177639936s/723209.jpg|709442]. To rub it in more thoroughly, it's set in the USA.

Jack Williamson, "The Metal Man" (1928): This is as much in the Weird Tales mould as it is SF, with a manuscript account (a staple of the Weird Tale) of the transformation of a man into metal by a mysterious radioactive gas.

Stanley G. Weinbaum, "A Martian Odyssey" (1934): A succession of wonders on a Mars with many strange races, some of them intelligent, some friendly, others not. An explorer's ship crashes; he apparently has no radio, and must walk back to his base, encountering adventure along the way. As the collection's introduction points out, the cancer cure in the story has extra resonance because the author was himself dying of cancer when he wrote it.

John W. Campbell Jr., "Night" (1935): An "end of time" story. An engineer testing an antigravity device is projected through time to a period when the earth has died, humanity is extinct, and only machines remain, underlining the futility of all human endeavour.

Clifford D. Simak, "Desertion" (1944): This could be regarded as a very, very early story of posthumanism, and a predecessor of the film Avatar. An administrator on Jupiter has seen three men be transformed (by handwavium) into a form of life suited for Jupiter's conditions, disappear into the storms and not return. Deciding that he can't, in good conscience, send anyone else, he goes himself, and discovers why they didn't want to come back.

"Lewis Padgett", "The Piper's Son" (1945): After a minor nuclear apocalypse, some people are telepaths, distrusted by those who aren't. In a typically adept Moore/Kuttner story, years ahead of what other writers were doing, action and human values combine to create a satisfying narrative which makes the point that elites must serve for the sake of their own protection.

A.E. van Vogt, "The Monster" (1948): This is a "humans are inherently better than aliens and will beat them every time" story, with a good deal of sonic screwdriving (by which I mean "I have whatever power I happen to need in the circumstances"). Triumphalist and not that satisfying as a story, partly because the viewpoint characters, the aliens, are doomed to fail.

James H. Schmitz, "The Second Night of Summer" (1950): Reminded me a little of some of Harry Harrison's stories, like [b:Man From P.I.G. And R.O.B.O.T.|2085709|Man From P.I.G. And R.O.B.O.T. (Puffin Books)|Harry Harrison|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1276689638s/2085709.jpg|2090993], in which unlikely undercover agents cleverly deal with alien threats. This one, refreshingly, is an older woman, a kind of person who seldom gets to be the protagonist in SFF. The little worldbuilding details are fun, too.

Arthur C. Clarke, "Second Dawn" (1951): A fairly typical Clarke story, more about revealing the clever worldbuilding and making a philosophical point than it is about things actually happening, let alone protagonists overcoming fit opposition. He manages to make it an enjoyable ride in any case.

Walter M. Miller Jr., "Crucifixus Etiam" (1953): Blue-collar SF, in which the hero discovers that the dignity of his labour is not in his working conditions (which are horrible) but in the fact that eventually the infrastructure he's working on will benefit others, enabling them to live comfortable lives based on his pain. Which, in my view, is a pretty nasty conclusion.

Frederik Pohl, "The Tunnel Under the World" (1955): Some of the best 1950s SF satirised the growing power of consumerism and advertising. Robert Sheckley was a master of the subgenre, but so was Fred Pohl (in, for example, [b:The Space Merchants|392566|The Space Merchants (The Space Merchants #1)|Frederik Pohl|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1407594017s/392566.jpg|953666]), and this story is a classic in which an entrepreneur gains the means to perform the ultimate A-B test.

Brian Aldiss, "Who Can Replace a Man?" (1958): As humanity slowly dies out from non-nutritious crops, the machines try to take over. Their logical, cold-hearted arguments among themselves are simultaneously amusing and disturbing. The story ends with a memorable twist.

J.G. Ballard, "Billenium" (1961): By the 1960s, overpopulation was becoming a fear, and this is one of a couple of stories in the collection to address it. New York is becoming more and more crowded, as people pack tighter and tighter. But, given the opportunity to have more space, the characters in this story end up where they began, unable to break out of their society's patterns.

"Cordwainer Smith", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (1962): Part of the author's epic Rediscovery of Man future history, told in his inimitable style complete with frequent word coinages, this story tells of a civil rights struggle and a romance and a heist.

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Semley's Necklace" (1964): So, so clever. This story is, at one and the same time, a familiar fantasy story of a woman who seeks an ancestral treasure among the Little People and returns to find her world altered, and SF in Le Guin's Ekumen setting. And it works perfectly on both levels at the same time.

James Blish, "How Beautiful with Banners" (1966): A space-explorer story, but by the 1960s a space-explorer story also had a lot going on about the explorer's unhappy romantic history, and the explorer could be a woman, and in general there was a lot more depth than there had been even a decade before.

Harry Harrison, "A Criminal Act" (1967): This is the other overpopulation story in the collection. Harrison famously addressed the issue in his novel [b:Make Room! Make Room!|473850|Make Room! Make Room!|Harry Harrison|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345057490s/473850.jpg|639744], published a year earlier, which was later used as the basis for the film Soylent Green. This one adds in the SF trope of legalised gladiatorial murder that was also going round at the time: if you have an unlicensed baby, someone gets a license to try to kill you, though you can also kill him, since the net effect is still that the population is stabilised. Harrison manages to wedge in a philosophical rant in the midst of the action, characteristically.

Thomas M. Disch, "Problems of Creativeness" (1967): Personally, I find the alienated loser as a main character difficult to enjoy, not only because I don't share his worldview (a character whose worldview I don't share can be interesting, if well done), but because it inevitably means that he's not a true protagonist. He doesn't know what he wants, and if he does desire something he's not competent to get it. Sadly, the main character in this story is all too realistic, and there are millions of him alive today.

Gene Wolfe, "How the Whip Came Back" (1970): I'm afraid I've never once understood a Gene Wolfe story, and this one is no exception. It's clearer than most - there's a push to reintroduce slavery, and the main character is being pressured to support it, while the Pope of a much-reduced Catholic Church is the sole holdout - but there's a flip at the end which I didn't follow, given what had gone before.

Larry Niven, "Cloak of Anarchy" (1972): This is a good premise. In the Free Parks, anarchy is permitted; you can do whatever you like, as long as you don't offer violence to anyone else, because if you do, floating "copseye" drones will stun you. Some impractical dreamer/artist/inventor wonders what would happen if he knocked out all the copseyes. Exactly what he should have expected happens, making a good point about the limitations of anarchy.

Norman Spinrad, "A Thing of Beauty" (1973): An amusing story about salesmanship and East-West cultural differences, something that, in 1973, was becoming increasingly salient as the Japanese economy boomed.

"Raccoona Sheldon", "The Screwfly Solution" (1977): A disturbing SF horror story about violence towards women. While I don't share the author's dark view of human (particularly male human) nature, it makes some important points nevertheless.

George R. R. Martin, "The Way of Cross and Dragon" (1978): Martin's trademark beautifully-written nihilism.

Bruce Sterling, "Swarm" (1982): By the 1980s, the idea that "humans will inevitably beat aliens" that van Vogt was using in 1948 was up for question. This claustrophobic story asks whether intelligence is even the best strategy for survival. It's part of the author's Shapers and Mechanists universe, and also has some interesting things to say about bioengineering.

William Gibson, "Burning Chrome" (1982): While Gibson's beautifully-written, even poetic, nihilism is completely different from Martin's, it's still beautifully-written nihilism. I read him for the beauty, and stopped reading him for the nihilism.

Hilbert Schenck, "Silicon Muse" (1984): I'm not familiar with Schenck's other work, but this AI story is amusing. As usual with AI, it makes the mistake of making the machine too human too quickly. It also reveals a certain cynicism about human nature, and the main character - who's not really a protagonist - is whiny and pathetic, but the central literary conceit is well-executed.

Paul J. McAuley, "Karl and the Ogre" (1988): This starts out reading as fantasy, but is arguably SF because it's a post-apocalyptic setting which people with mental and bioengineering powers are transforming into a fairy-tale world (with all the monsters and conflict that implies). The sense of helplessness of the main character doesn't make for a particularly satisfying story, to my mind.

David Brin, "Piecework" (1990): Another bioengineering story. Industrial products are being grown in wombs. For reasons that are skated past with a rapid handwave, human wombs can produce more valuable products than non-human wombs, so there's a whole industry of young women who make their living incubating these products, and young men who don't exactly impregnate them. On top of that premise is built a well-written story of a woman whose ambition is to get out of poverty and her friend who resents her for it.

As a collection, this represents the humane side of SF, the SF that focuses more on characters and their response to their circumstances than on the circumstances and technologies themselves. Despite the discussion of "fabril", there's not a simple, linear "clever engineer solves a problem" story in the lot, even in the works drawn from earlier times, where that kind of story was a staple. Nor is there a simple, linear pulp adventure among them. If the editor was setting out to show that SF can address important human questions, and has been doing so for a long time, then mission accomplished.



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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Review: Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction


Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction
Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



The premise of this collection is, to someone like me who aspires to sell stories to SFF magazines, a compelling one. Much-awarded writer Silverberg collects stories that were influential on him as a young writer, that he learned from, along with essays on each story analysing what he learned from it, and an overall essay about the start of his career in general.

The main drawback is that this is an almost-30-year-old book in which a writer whose fiction I've never really liked analyses stories that were, at the time, more than 30 years old and are now about 60 years old. Studying them might therefore not help a great deal with selling stories in the current market.

Now, there are some things that Silverberg says in the main introductory essay that I think are still useful. He talks about what he learned in his university studies about story in general, from studying Greek tragedy and storytelling theory, and he formulates it well. For example, he talks about how a story is built around conflict, the inevitable clash of powerful forces, and how the protagonist comes to participate in that conflict because of something he or she cares about; struggles against obstacles; and is permanently changed as a result. Reading this helped give me ideas for how to improve my stories: intensify the conflict or make it more interesting, increase the protagonist's investment in it, show more of their struggle, think about how they are changed by it. All of this is good stuff.

The analysis of the individual stories I found less useful. A lot of the stories of the 1950s, most of them, in fact, featured thin characterisation; Silverberg mentions this a couple of times, only in order to dismiss it as unimportant, because the science-fictional idea was what mattered. Perhaps this is one reason I've never loved his stories, because to me a character with some depth is important (it's why I can't abide Scalzi's work, which retains that 1950s flaw of indistinguishable characters who are more or less talking furniture).

I got my copy from the library, and an aggrieved feminist has written in it (in pencil) critiques of a couple of the stories, in particular Robert Sheckley's "The Monsters", in which casual wife-murder is used to make a cheap, glib point about moral relativity. She has a point. Along with thin characterisation, violence against women treated as a source of humour isn't going to play well in the current short story market, and quite rightly.

For that matter, a classical approach to story and plot won't necessarily help you to be published in some venues (Clarkesworld comes to mind), but I happen to agree with Silverberg on that aspect of the craft. And there are plenty of markets which do require a beginning, middle and end to a story, not just a lot of pretty jazzing about until you decide to stop.

In summary, then, I did learn something useful from this book, but most of it was early on. I did enjoy some of the stories (Frederick Pohl's "Day Million", for example, which closes the book, and which is an obvious inspiration for Harry Turtledove's 2013 story "It's the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine"), and it's a good idea to know the classics, if only, as Silverberg points out, so you can avoid rewriting them from ignorance. The idea of the book is a good one, and I'd really like to see the same thing done again by another writer with more recent stories. Maybe I'll even attempt it myself, drawing on the many stories that are free to read online these days.



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Review: The Golem and the Jinni


The Golem and the Jinni
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



It took me a while to read this book from when I first became aware of it. I sampled it, and concluded that it hadn't gripped me enough in the sample to pay whatever price the publisher had it at at the time, but that it was well enough written to buy when the price dropped. Eventually, it did, and I found that the rest of the book didn't grip me all that hard either, despite being well done in many ways.

Although two of the characters are supernatural beings, in many ways this is a literary novel. By that I mean that it is concerned with the inner lives and the relationships of the characters more than with the outward plot (although there is an outward plot), that it spends a lot of time on these inner lives and relationships and on conveying the setting (New York at the turn of the 20th century), and that it therefore moves rather slowly for someone used to genre fiction. It's beautifully, and in the main competently, written, as well. (I say "in the main" because of several malapropisms: "adapted" for "adopted", "born" for "borne", "exorbitant" for "extravagant" and "precedence" for "precedent". Apart from these, I spotted no typos or proofreading errors.)

In a more "pure" genre novel, the focus would have been much more on resolving the problems of the Golem (an artificial woman who has ended up without a master and may be dangerous, despite her uptight manner) and the Jinni (a spirit of fire who has been trapped in human form by a wizard). Although there is some resolution to these problems, there's a lot more about their relationships with each other and the humans who befriend them.

Initially, we're introduced to a number of different characters who haven't met yet, or who have met briefly and then parted, and are living what seem to be non-intersecting lives. The title characters don't meet until about a third of the way through the book, and it isn't a short book. To me, even though I took it on faith that these apparently irrelevant characters would eventually meet up and take part in the story, this meant I had to work hard to be interested in them, given that they didn't connect to each other or anything that had gone before yet. Because a lot of what goes on for the characters, especially early in the book, is relatively mundane, this wasn't all that easy.

The contrast of the mundane and the magical is part of what the book is about, as is what might be broadly called law versus chaos (represented by the main characters' personalities). Personally, I found I had to wade through a lot of mundane that wasn't really doing a lot for me in order to reach the magical, and I wish there had been less of it and that the pace had been quicker.

If you enjoy more literary fantastical novels, like [b:Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell|14201|Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell|Susanna Clarke|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1357027589s/14201.jpg|3921305], you'll find a lot to like here. The depiction of New York is lovingly detailed, including its ethnic neighbourhoods, and the relationships are well depicted. The characters have depth, but I didn't feel they had a lot of vitality, all in all.



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Thursday, 1 January 2015

My Top 14 Books for 2014

I finished 2014 with nine 5-star books, so rather than do a Top 10 I decided to do a Top 14. There are probably five of the four-star books that are notably better than the others, right? Let's see.

First of all, here is Goodreads' handy graphic of my 2014 reading:


You'll notice that the bulk of the books, 70 out of 104, got four stars. Four stars means I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't quite amazing enough for five stars. I've got very good at filtering this year, and haven't been doing reviews by request, so haven't felt obliged to continue with books I wasn't enjoying.

Actually, that's not quite true. I have felt more-or-less obliged to continue with books from Netgalley that I've said I'll review, and that accounts for 8 out of the 23 3-star books (and one of the two 2-star books).

Anyway, let's start the top 14.

14. Engines of Empathy, by Paul Mannering. In a bizarre world where machines are driven by emotion, things are not as they seem. Full review.

13. Derelict, by L.J. Cohen. Angry young people in space have to learn to get over themselves and work together. Full review.

12. A Cold Wind, by C.J. Brightley. The direct opposite of grimdark, and emotionally beautiful. Full review.

11. Judgement Night, by C.L. Moore. Destroying science fiction since the 1940s. Full review.

10. The Secret History of Fantasy, by Peter S. Beagle (editor). This is what else was happening while generic commercial fantasy took centre stage. Full review.

9. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. I love dragons, and this is a wonderful take on them. Full review.

8. Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. African-style storytelling at its best. Full review.

7. Night Broken, by Patricia Briggs. The insight into manipulative relationships was what got this one its fifth star. Full review.

6. Dreams of the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn. Superhero novels need to be about the relationships, not the fights, and this one gets that. Full review.

5. Orison, by Daniel Swensen. Sword and sorcery done right, but never grimdark. Full review.

4. Random, by Alma Alexander. This is what YA can be, and should be, and, I'm glad to say, frequently is. Full review.

3. Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Neilsen Hayden (editors). A wonderful collection that shows that SF is in good hands. Full review.

2. Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie. Fully deserved its many awards; a fine piece of craft. Full review.

1. The Just City, by Jo Walton. It's a tough contest for the top spot, but Walton gets it for taking on a massive premise (time-travelling Greek gods experiment with Plato's Republic) and winning. Full review.

I could easily have made it 20, and I look forward to another year of excellent books in 2015. Enjoy!