Thursday 25 February 2016

Review: Dreams of Distant Shores

Dreams of Distant Shores Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every now and then you'll see a fantasy writer go on about how magic has to have rules - rules that the reader knows about in advance. Otherwise, the argument goes, the author can just cheat by using magic to resolve the problem, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

Well, that's one approach to magic. It assumes, among other things, that the main characters have the magic, and that they're setting out to solve a problem - neither of which is necessarily the case. This is why Patricia McKillip (and many other authors, mainly, but not exclusively, those writing before the 1970s commercial fantasy boom) can get away with magic that isn't like that.

In McKillip, the magic isn't what it needs to be to have the plot work; it's what it needs to be to have the poetry work. Usually, the protagonists aren't in control of it. They're experiencing its effects more than they're using its effects. They're not necessarily solving a problem, either, so much as coming to a realization, and for this, magic that doesn't have fixed boundaries works perfectly fine.

I will say that this approach tends to work better for me at shorter lengths. I didn't enjoy the novella in this volume (Something Rich and Strange) as much as the shorter pieces, and I think it was because the characters didn't have a clear goal and clear steps to take in order to strive towards it. I missed that structuring element, as I hadn't with the shorter stories. Still, Something Rich and Strange did give me my favourite of many fine moments in the collection: "I don't know how to bargain for Jonah. I don't know how to say, you can have this for him, but not this. I don't know what he's not worth because right now he's costing me everything." And there you have the book in a nutshell, and the reason that rules and limitations on the magic would simply be wrong: for the stories to be emotionally all-in, for the characters to reach the realizations they reach, the magic has to be unrestrained, wild, not circumscribed or calculated.

The opening story, "Weird," does something wonderful with the in medius res approach: a couple are forted up in a bathroom (a nice one), with supplies consisting of a luxurious picnic, while outside terrible noises imply that something is dreadfully wrong. Their conversation consists of the man asking the woman what's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to her - and she doesn't lead with "this". If that isn't guaranteed to keep you reading, I don't know what's wrong with you.

"Mer" is a prime example of magic without rules or restraints. A nameless witch, apparently immortal or very long-lived, transforms into various shapes as the story requires. It isn't the witch's story, though, but the story of ordinary people who encounter her and are vexed and challenged and changed by the experience.

"The Gorgon in the Cupboard" is set among Victorian artists and their models, and the magic is more a way of pushing events along and creating reflection on them than it is the core of the story. The core of the story is a woman who's been treated badly, and is now being treated kindly; who was the model for Persephone, and is now the model for Medusa. Alongside that runs a theme of the artist and his love for a "goddess," the wife of his mentor, and how he comes to see her, and his own model, as human. It's intricate and beautiful and draws power from myths while, at the same time, questioning a mythological view of the world.

"Which Witch" is a music/magic story, which for me are hard to pull off, partly because it's too easy to lean on poetic descriptions that don't really convey the experience of listening to music, and then having the magic arbitrarily happen while the audience is distracted. That's not a trap McKillip falls into (she's too experienced for that). In this case, the protagonist does have magic, but she doesn't know exactly what it can do, and when it activates she still has to exercise love and courage to battle on behalf of her familiar.

"Edith and Henry Go Motoring" is another very English period piece (like "Gorgon"), with none of the horrible wrong notes that American writers so often hit when they attempt to write about English people in England. It involves a psychological journey for the main characters in the guise of a physical journey.

"Alien" is, I suppose, technically SF, but only because the narrator's grandmother has seen aliens rather than Fae. Or has she? The story is about the response of a family to a beloved elder's unlikely claim of an experience, and the relationships are where the emphasis lies.

Something Rich and Strange I've already said a little about. It's full of the magic of the sea, with a sometimes heavy-handed ecological message (still, doesn't it need to be?). The main characters spend most of the time wandering lost and confused (literally or figuratively), ill-equipped to counter the moves of ocean gods. Though I felt it was overlong, it still had power and beauty.

McKillip closes with a reflection on "Writing High Fantasy," a kind of manifesto in which she declares that simply tromping through the tropes is not enough - that the challenge she chooses is to take the trappings of high fantasy and twist them just enough to be interesting. She offers examples from her novels.

In an afterword, Peter S. Beagle celebrates McKillip's genius, from his perspective as someone who knows her personally and writes in the same genre. He claims, I'm sure genuinely, to be jealous, and that he couldn't write some of these stories as well as she has done (he goes through personal reactions to each one of them). It's an enjoyable close to the book.

Overall, this is a fine collection of a rare type of story, the mythopoeic kind of fantasy that evokes wonder and shows us complex human people undergoing realizations about themselves that shake them to the core of their identities.

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Monday 22 February 2016

Review: The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2 The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2 by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Early," in this context, means the 1950s, and here are much the same concerns and ideas as you'll find in, say, Sheckley: consumerism, the Cold War--memorably mashed together in one story, in which social pressure makes everyone into nuclear doomsday preppers, because fear of your family's destruction has proved the best way to stimulate the economy--commuting from the suburbs to a job you hate, working with technology you don't understand. Women are housewives or secretaries (even in the stories set in the future), and are not protagonists. Because this is PKD, there's also a strong thread running through all of this of uncertainty about one's identity or what is real. In the best stories, this culminates in a powerful moment of existential horror at the end.

A number of successful Hollywood movies have been based on PKD's stories, but not on these ones, which are so much of their time that they wouldn't translate well into another decade. That isn't to say they're bad stories. Some of them are excellent. What they are, though, is limited by the viewpoint of their time, and littered with unexamined assumptions about that time--most of which would come up for examination in the 1960s, by PKD and other SF writers.

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Tuesday 16 February 2016

Review: Insistence of Vision: Stories

Insistence of Vision: Stories Insistence of Vision: Stories by David Brin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Insistence of vision" describes David Brin well - he's a contrarian and a controversialist, vigorous in his promotion of his vision of the world (and of himself, I might add). I assume the title also references the phenomenon of "persistence of vision", and possibly the famous John Varley story by that name. In Varley's story, a drifter encounters a community of people who are deaf and blind and must adapt his perceptions to their world; in Brin's, augmented reality creates artificial deafness and blindness to other people's existence.

I'd read a couple of Brin's novels and enjoyed them, and more recently one of his short stories -which I thought was OK, if a bit handwavy in places - and I follow his rants on Google+, so when this came up on Netgalley I asked for a review copy.

Brin's fiction tends towards hard SF, as befits a scientist, and this can sometimes mean that the proportion of science to fiction is higher than I prefer. Like much hard SF, Brin's fiction is often about ideas more than it is about people (something he freely admits in his commentary on some of the stories). The emphasis therefore becomes delineating and (at length) explaining the world, more than developing the characters. There are exceptions, such as the story of Venusian colonists in this volume, which made it into a Year's Best anthology. The characters are still not deep, but their struggle is much more front-and-centre than the worldbuilding, and that's to the story's advantage. At the other end of the spectrum, another story is filled with the biology of life stages, and very short on characterisation or plot.

As in his nonfiction, Brin's fiction has an unfortunate tendency to employ the exclamation mark when it is only Brin, the narrator, who is exclaiming (not a character in dialog) - an old-fashioned style of author intrusion. He also falls prey, in this unedited, pre-release version, to the occasional homonym error, "let's eat grandma" omitted comma, or misplaced apostrophe. He hyphenates phrases which ought not to be hyphenated, and places commas where they have no business being (between a number and a following adjective, for example). I hope a good copy editor will remove most of these tics and stumbles before publication.

Several of the stories here are collaborations with Gregory Benford, and there's a clear contrast in the style: much smoother and more fluent, highlighting how clunky Brin's normal prose sounds.

His ideas are interesting, though, and although this is far from the best fiction I've read lately, Brin's thinking is often thought-provoking, and this makes the book worthwhile.

A number of different possible futures are explored here. Some are only touched on for a single story that plays with one idea; others are more fully realised, such as the several stories in which the alien Coss have invaded and taken over the solar system, reducing humans to servitude. I was also delighted to find a longer story set in the continuity of his popular Uplift universe, and featuring enhanced dolphins. Brin does alien perspectives well (perhaps it's part of his contrarian outlook on life), and the story also highlights an important philosophical question; it's Brin at, I think, his best, and certainly his most appealing.

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Tuesday 9 February 2016

Review: Dimorphic

Dimorphic Dimorphic by Cy Wyss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is really a 3.5-star book, but I didn't quite like it enough for four stars.

I read about it in a guest post by the author, and liked the idea of an ordinary person with an unusual situation (able to inhabit the body of her brain-dead twin brother while she is asleep) deciding to become a superhero. The sample seemed well-edited and showed promise of an action-packed and gripping story.

Further in, though, I started hitting more copy editing issues - including several basic homonym errors - and, more importantly, I felt that the story lost its way a bit. The main character stayed reactive and largely incompetent, rather than becoming proactive and effective, although she did manage to escape from custody at one point (but only in order to send a message to get herself properly rescued, the rescue occurring in a manner that I found hard to believe). The plot seemed to thrash about without a clear goal for the main character that she was pursuing with focus and urgency. There were plenty of reactive goals, but no clear story question that I could see.

The "one person in two bodies which are different genders" aspect could also have been developed more, I felt. On the other hand, it often wasn't clear until partway into a chapter which body the consciousness was in, which led to unnecessary moments of reorientation. The fact that the protagonist's confederates didn't push the question of why the two bodies were never awake at the same time was another aspect I found difficult to believe. And the love triangle (plus side seduction) just reduced my, by that point, already low respect for the main character's life skills and general head-togetherness.

I think that was the main problem, in fact. I didn't like or respect the main character much, in part because she didn't have or pursue a clear and definite goal with growing competence, urgency and determination, which is what I look for in an action-oriented story.

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Review: Everything is Fine

Everything is Fine Everything is Fine by Grant Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everything is definitely not fine in this haunting collection of stories, which range from horror through fantasy to SF. In each one, there is something wrong, and the protagonist doesn't usually fix it, either.

A number of them are set in Auckland, where I live and where I assume the author also lives, and although this is usually an incidental detail rather than something that gives the story an element that it couldn't have if set in any other city, I did enjoy the existence of SFF set in my hometown.

The strongest part of these stories is their emotion. Darker emotions tend to predominate, but I didn't usually feel that the tone was completely hopeless. Even in the worst situations, the endings tended to sound a hopeful note.

The weakest part is the copy editing, in particular the "let's eat Grandma" error (missing comma before a term of address), which is frequent. There are also capitalisation issues and the occasional accidentally missing word. It's a pity, because these stories deserve good editing; the storytelling and other craft aspects are excellent, and I recommend the collection to anyone who enjoys atmospheric SFFH short stories.

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