Monday 21 September 2015

Review: Herland

Herland Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first thing to understand about Herland is that it's what's sometimes called a "milieu story". In other words, exploration of the setting takes priority over plot or characterisation. This isn't to say that there is no plot and no characterisation, or that they're badly done, just that the plot is basic and stretched over a lot of material, and the characterisation is also basic and doesn't involve a lot of character development. This is normal for a utopian novel, and as utopian novels go, this one has more plot and characterisation than most.

With that caveat out of the way, this is not only a classic feminist utopia, but a competently written one. It's told almost as if it's a pulp adventure of the "lost world" type, by a male narrator. The narrator is one of three men who find an all-woman society on an isolated plateau which is implied to be somewhere near the headwaters of the Amazon (partly, I'm sure, for symbolic reasons, the Amazons being a classical, legendary all-female society). At least two of the three are types, and risk being straw men, but in my opinion are accurate and recognisable enough types to escape that pitfall.

Terry is a "man's man," the classic two-fisted pulp adventurer, who recognises two types of women: attractive and to be used for his sexual satisfaction, and unattractive and therefore to be ignored. When he meets with the independent, intelligent women of Herland, who have no time for his crap, he reacts with anger, and ultimately violence.

Jeff is the kind of man who puts women on a pedestal. He fits happily into Herland, and adapts himself to it.

Van, the narrator, claims to be somewhere between the two, though he's a lot closer to Jeff. His main fault is that, like the other men, he can't bring himself to be completely honest about the defects of their society in the face of the well-ordered society of Herland, which the women have been consciously improving for a thousand years.

The women are not arrogant about their society, but are open to learn, and even to re-adopt "bisexual reproduction" (by a miracle which they attribute to their Mother Goddess, they give birth by parthenogenesis, all of their men having been killed in a series of unfortunate events many centuries before). It's pretty clear, though, that they have a lot less to learn from the rest of the world's cultures than vice versa.

This kind of book easily becomes preachy and filled with infodumps. In my view, the author manages to avoid both of these traps (perhaps narrowly on occasion); exposition is mostly in dialogue, and the superiority of the women's society emerges as a reluctant conclusion reached by the narrator, rather than in speeches from the women themselves.

There are some excellent observations about society, culture, the nature of humanity, and, of course, gender scattered throughout, and I recommend it for anyone who doesn't automatically run from the words "feminist utopia".

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Friday 18 September 2015

Review: Beginnings, Middles & Ends

Beginnings, Middles & Ends Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was excellent, not least because it's very well laid out, with a clear flow from point to point and chapter to chapter. (As you would hope from a book on beginnings, middles and ends.)

All too many craft books, I'm finding, don't have much to teach anyone who isn't a beginner. This is an exception. Even though some of the ground it covers is inevitably ground I've seen covered before, it does it so clearly and thoroughly that it provides fresh insight.

For example, the section on endings gave me an "aha!" moment about one of my own stories. The editor I'd submitted to liked it apart from the ending, and requested a rewrite. I realised, reading Nancy Kress's explanation, why the rewritten ending had worked where the original had not: it directly addressed the conflict which started in the first paragraph and was developed through the middle of the story.

This was the main point I gained from the book: the beginning, middle and end form a unity. However, there's also useful material on characterisation, motivation, promises, climaxes, and a structured approach to revision.

The author helpfully points out some differences between short stories and novels along the way. She also makes clear something that had been vague to me: how non-plotted or "literary" stories are supposed to work, and how to signal that you're writing one of those, and not a plotted story. I believe I'll now approach the non-plotted stories I read with more appreciation for what the author is doing.

This is the second book I've read in the Elements of Fiction Writing series (the first being the highly useful Scene and Structure ), but I'll be searching out the others, given the excellent quality of both the ones I've read so far.

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Tuesday 15 September 2015

Review: The Martian

The Martian The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing could be more old-school, as far as writing a science fiction novel is concerned, than taking "clever engineer solves problems" as your premise. It wasn't new when Hugo Gernsback did it (very boringly) with Ralph 124C41+ in 1911, and it remained a staple well into the 1960s and beyond.

And if you're going to go old-school, you need to do it really well.

The Martian is a "clever engineer solves problems" story, and it's done really well.

I didn't just have to take other people's word that this would be the case. Thanks to David Morgan-Mar and his Irregular Webcomic, I knew about Andy Weir and his Casey and Andy webcomic, so I knew he was funny. I'd also read the webcomic he did after that one, so I knew that he could tell a story as well as pull off a gag. I therefore went in thinking, "He might just be able to pull 'clever engineer' off and still make it a good story with plenty of humour."

At one point, it put me in mind of Arthur C. Clark's A Fall of Moondust , which (judging by the back matter) the author has almost certainly read. Both involve people trapped off Earth after an accident, having to contend with the physics (etc.) of an unfamiliar environment in order to survive and be rescued. Both stories manage to make it at least as much about the people as about the science, which for me, and for most people, is important in a hard-SF story. I don't just want a tour of the clever engineering science museum.

I did occasionally find the science a touch dull, but the voice of Mark Watney, the wisecracking, indomitable narrator of most of the book, rescues it with laugh-out-loud moments. There's also genuine tension and suspense; it's an emotional journey, which I'm sure is the key to the book's popularity.

It misses out on my rare "well-edited" accolade for one reason: the author's habit of combining a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of the same sentence. Other than that, few and minor errors meant a smooth, enjoyable reading experience.

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Sunday 13 September 2015

Review: Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Hot Lead, Cold Iron Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A while ago now, I read (or tried to read) a book that shall remain nameless, which had the premise of a fantasy being acting as a detective in a this-world noir setting. I abandoned it because it lacked the wonderfully punchy language that, to me, is one of the best things about noir. (In fact, I was so frustrated that, in reaction, I wrote a short story set in a sword-and-sorcery city, but told in the style of Damon Runyon.)

Lacking in noir-ness is happily not a fault of this excellent book, in which a member of the Aes Sidhe, working as a private eye in 1930s Chicago, struggles against mobsters, technology, the politics of his own people, and inimical Italian witchcraft.

He struggles well, determinedly, and in a good cause, which is how I like my heroes. The prose, besides being suitably noirish, is competent, fluent and well-edited. There's plenty in place for a rousing sequel, while this story is wrapped up satisfyingly.

Recommended, and I will be buying more in this series.

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Saturday 5 September 2015

Review: Some of the Best from 2014: A Tor.Com Original

Some of the Best from 2014: A Tor.Com Original Some of the Best from 2014: A Tor.Com Original by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had this on my Kindle for a while, having picked it up when it was free. I've delayed reading it, because I often don't like the stories published at impression, from reading the occasional one, is that they're darker than I prefer, and rely too often on standing back and pelting the characters with adversity to get an emotional reaction from the audience. Since it's probably the highest-paying market in SF, though, I wanted to get a better idea of what they publish.

Possibly related to the fact that they pay 25c/word, I tended to feel that the pieces were often slightly over-written, with a high proportion of words to story. On the other hand, this leaves plenty of room to show the events affecting the characters.

**** "As Good as New," Charlie Jane Anders: I' d read this before, and while I liked it, I didn't feel like rereading it. The old genie-wishes trope, but freshened up cleverly.

"The End of the End of Everything," Dale Bailey: Skipped this, because I don't enjoy post-apocalyptic.

*** "Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch," Kelly Barnhill: A magic-realist piece without a great deal of story to it, but the atmosphere it created was enjoyable.

** "Sleep Walking Now and Then," Richard Bowles: Didn't much like this dreary tale of a theatre production; filled with telling, and lacked a basic facility with commas.

**** "Brisk Money," Adam Christopher: I was wary going into this one, having given up on the author's novel Empire State when it became way too violent way too early. This time, however, he held the violence until after I was already hooked, instead of before. It's a well-written noir detective story with a self-aware robot in the gumshoe role. Issues, though:
1. I saw the ending coming a mile away.
2. The action the antagonist takes at the end seems incompatible with her goal of continuing to get away with what she's doing, because it would result in her exposure.
3. This is what I think of as a "retro story," one which could have been written in the 1960s (when it's set). Even though it's well done, I generally prefer my spec-fic to work forward from today, not 50 years ago.

***** "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade," John Chu: A well-written, tense piece, which uses a wonderfully weird setting involving literalised metaphors as a background to a brilliant young man's struggles with his father's high expectations.

**** "The Color of Paradox," A.M. Dellamonica: Felt like a part of a much larger story, in which brave Time Agents struggle against the effects of the Time Press and their own moral qualms to delay the destruction of the world.

**** "The Litany of Earth," Ruthanna Emrys: Though it's based in the world of the Chthulhu Mythos, this avoids the overwrought language, and even the creeping horror, which is usually found in that subgenre and tells a story of a survivor of government persecution, explicitly parallel to the internment of the Japanese in World War II. She must make difficult and painful decisions in a situation with no good choices. Powerful.

***** "A Kiss With Teeth," Max Gladstone: Writing at his best (as in his first novel), Max Gladstone is amazing, and fortunately that's what we get here. (I didn't care for his second novel nearly as much.) Genuine suspense as a monster struggles to become something more for the sake of the people he has come to love.

*** "A Short History of the Twentieth Century, Or, When You Wish Upon a Star," Kathleen Ann Goonan: Signals early on that it's going to entwine several 20th-century phenomena: the Nazi rocket scientists taken from Peenemunde to form the basis of the US space program; Walt Disney; the 1960s counterculture; the change in the status of women during the latter part of the century. While it does entwine them competently, the resulting story didn't speak to me as much as I might have wished, perhaps because I wasn't immersed enough in the main character's viewpoint.

**** "Cold Wind," Nicola Griffith: An ancient hunt plays out in a contemporary city. Well-written and atmospheric.

**** "The Tallest Doll in New York City," Maria Dahvana Headley: Told in a style similar to Damon Runyon's (with past events referred to in the present tense), a style I have a personal fondness for, and which is harder than it looks. A lovely piece of magic realism, in which buildings and other objects come alive in New York City on a Valentine's Day in the 1930s.

** "Where the Trains Turn," Pasi Ilmari Jaskääläinen: I gave up partway through this one, which I felt was far too long and wordy for the amount of story I was getting (or how much I cared about the characters). The English is fluent, but not always idiomatic.

*** "Combustion Hour," Yoon Ha Lee: Would, I'm sure, have worked a lot better for me if I was familiar with the conventions of Asian shadow puppets. As it was, I found it difficult to follow.

***** "Reborn," Ken Liu: Liu specialises in stories which place people in difficult situations where their loyalties are divided because of personal connection, and this is one such, though, happily, lacking his trademark infodumping. The particular combination of loyalties and difficulties could only be achieved in SF.

**** "Midway Relics and Dying Breeds," Seanan McGuire: A somewhat cynical story set in a postcapitalist utopia which, as the narrator notes, couldn't actually be a utopia because people. I found it hard to consider the world-weary young protagonist as less selfish or less dangerous than the antagonist. It earns its fourth star because it's well done, though I didn't love it.

**** "Anyway: Angie," Daniel José Older: Creepy and effective, with hints of postapocalyptic. Even though I don't especially enjoy damaged protagonists in gritty settings, it was compelling enough for four stars.

**** "The Mothers of Voorhisville," Mary Rickert: A little too long and with a few too many characters to keep track of, but a haunting exploration of the many things that motherhood can mean. I'd call it magic realism, because the inexplicable thing that happens never is explained, it just triggers events.

*** "Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome," John Scalzi: I read this on when it first came out, and my review is here: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome. Like the other Scalzi pieces I've read, it runs the gamut from average all the way to competent; every character sounds the same, and nothing is described.

"Among the Thorns," Veronica Schanoes: Starts straight into the torture in the first sentence, and keeps it up for... I'm not sure how long, since I bailed after a page and a half.

*** "The Insects of Love," Genevieve Valentine: One of those extended-metaphor stories that Connie Willis does, where there's a lot of information about some obscure area of knowledge, and somehow that relates to the story and the characters. Not my favourite style, but the author does it well. What she doesn't ever do is resolve the mystery of why the narrator keeps experiencing nonlinear alternate pasts.

*** "Sleeper," Jo Walton: I felt this one needed more development, unlike most of the pieces in the book, which are, if anything, overwritten. It's a good concept (in a corporate-dominated future, a simulation of a man from the 20th century who may have been a Communist sleeper agent is convinced by his biographer to influence people towards revolution), but it gets to the end of the exposition and stops.

**** "The Devil in America," Kai Ashante Wilson: Had me well drawn in by the time it got tragic, so I stayed. It got very tragic, as a tale of how blacks have been treated by whites in the American South is inevitably going to do. There's a postmodern thing where there are interpolations from (or supposedly from) the author's father, some of which comment on its status as a story and how the author is telling the story. For me, these detracted a lot more than they added. I'd file this under "well done, important, but harrowing".

"In the Sight of Akresa," Ray Wood: Another one that starts straight into the cruelty before establishing anything else, so I again bailed out immediately.

**** "A Cup of Salt Tears," Isabel Yap: A quiet, reflective piece about love and loss and saving what you love.

So now that I've read the collection, how has my view of stories changed? Yes, they're filled with powerful, dark emotion, loss, terror, and all the rest, which is not what I primarily look for in fiction; I prefer something lighter. At the same time, they're often (not always) extremely well written, and the powerful emotion is often (not always) a genuine effect arising out of the premise, rather than a gimmick to draw attention. They range widely, from clear SF to magic realism via urban fantasy, but if there's one thing they usually avoid, it's tired genre tropes. They often take us to cultures and experiences that aren't those of white men, which I appreciate (despite being a white man; I read SFF because it takes me to other conceptual spaces, after all).

I probably won't read another collection of them, as a matter of personal taste, but I appreciate them as well done.

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