Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Science Fiction

Review: Wandering Stars

The list of Jewish science fiction writers is extensive and includes several big names. Picking up Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction was a no-brainer: it included stories by Avram Davidson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison. The editor is Jack Dann, whose name I erroneously thought I recognized (but it’s a fortuitous error, as it turns out). The idea of a collection of SF and fantasy stories on Jewish themes is interesting and (for WASPy goyim like me) refreshingly unusual.

After an introduction by Isaac Asimov, the first story is by William Tenn, an old-school science fiction writer who has not published much since the fifties and sixties, and is largely forgotten today. It’s a story about aliens who want to become Jews. Actually, it turns out that if you ask twelve authors to write SFF stories on Jewish themes, 25% of them will be about aliens who want to become Jews. Of the three (or possibly four, if you want to count Ellison’s contribution), Tenn’s is by far the best. It’s the funniest, and beneath the humour there is the angst and strained optimism we expect from Jewish fiction. By contrast, Robert Silverberg’s story seems disappointingly bland, and Carol Carr’s is just suicide-inducing. Read the rest of this entry »

New books

Lately it seems that May through August is the only time I have to read science fiction. I’ve been making preparations in order to squeeze in as much as I can. One such preparation is knocking over Nerman’s Books, a nice little used book and antique store on south Osborne. The difficult thing about science fiction is that all the most important authors are out of print, so a used book store with a good science fiction section is a boon.

There are some miscellaneous short story collections—an anthology from New Worlds Quarterly, an anthology of fiction by Jewish authors, and an Avrahm Davidson collection. Orsinian Tales is a Le Guin book I know nothing about, but I enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness enough to feel safe blindly picking up something of hers. Gateway is a Frederik Pohl book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while now because its premise interested me.

The Illearth War is Donaldson’s sequel to Lord Foul’s Bane, which was the literary equivalent of getting the cherry-filled chocolate from a Pot of Gold box at Christmas. The series has the potential to be better (the first book by all rights should have been better), and I’m curious to see if it actually gets better. But not $10 curious, so I’m buying it used this time.

The last one is Lin Carter’s study of The Lord of the Rings. My memories of The Lord of the Rings are generally positive, but I haven’t read it since I was thirteen and my mind is a little fuzzy on the details. I’m mostly interested in this book because of Carter. From what I’ve heard, he was a good editor and instrumental in getting a lot of important stuff published and reprinted, but his own writing is subpar and his scholarship is laughable—indeed, it set the tone for countless barely coherent fanboy rants over the past thirty years or so, my own included. If I can gather enough material for an article on this, I might just do one.

Still on the “to-read” pile is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which I bought in August and didn’t get a chance to read before the school year got into full swing, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, his incomplete third novel (not SF, but also in the “bought ages ago and haven’t read yet” category).

Review: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Religion is a rare thing in SF. The genre grew up alongside the modern atheist movement, so God or gods almost never appear in any positive portrayal outside of inexplicably Nebula-winning short stories about Mormon space whale rape. This is a shame because it’s led to a very homogenized set of views on religion among SF authors and fans, roughly those dictated by people like Richard Dawkins. It’s not that I disagree with these views, exactly, but they lack nuance and sophistication. If explicitly religious SF was a more common thing, I think everyone would benefit—religious folks from gaining a voice, and others from having their views challenged and clarified.

I read Walter M. Miller Jr.’s short story “A Canticle for Leibowitz” a few months ago in an FSF anthology. Its quietly pious tone was refreshing, and it was funny as hell to boot. Miller expanded the short into a novel in 1960, incorporating another story from the same universe and a third incomplete work to create a post-apocalyptic epic spanning centuries.

In the beginning, the Earth has been made desolate by nuclear holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, roving mobs hunted down scientists and world leaders. They burn books and eventually turn their wrath on anyone who is literate, erasing gigantic swaths of knowledge from human memory. An obscure pre-Deluge technician named Isaac Edawrd Leibowitz founds a monastic order to preserve and copy the scraps of scientific knowledge that remain.

Centuries later, a novice of the Albertian Order of Blessed Leibowitz is visited in the desert by an apparition that may or may not be the Beatus himself. The old man leads the novice to a buried fallout shelter, where some of Leibowitz’s papers are preserved in an old toolbox. This incident prompts vigorous interest in the work of the Order and a renewal of the canonization process for Leibowitz.

The monk makes an illuminated copy of one of the blueprints he found. When the Vatican finally declares Leibowitz a saint, many years later, he brings the copy and the original relic with him on a pilgrimage to New Rome. On the way he is waylaid by bandits and the copy—but not the original—is stolen. So far this is all in keeping with the 1955 short story. Miller rejiggers the ending of this section and calls it part 1, “Fiat Homo”. The next two parts deal with the reinvention of electric lighting (“Fiat Lux”) and a second nuclear war between spacefaring civilizations (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”).

Miller manages to say his piece while avoiding the common pitfalls of this type of story, at least for a while. Part 2’s Thon Taddeo is no Hollywood-style Santa-slaying atheist, but neither is he an Ayn Rand hero. The various priests and abbots are dogmatists but not cruel ones, and they have some sense about morality and leadership that one can only wish was possessed by actual Catholic clergy. Miller presses his point without compromise but also without self-righteousness. He acquits himself well, at first. But toward the end it starts to come apart. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Consider Phlebas

Iain M. Banks’s first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, opens on a forceful, mythic note. An intelligent warship flees its pursuers and, at great risk, jettisons its Mind, an unfathomable super-intelligent computer, to a protected planet. Across the galaxy, a shapeshifting Changer is being executed by the Gerontocracy of Sorpen in their unique way: they lock him in a septic tank and hold a massive banquet. This sounds funny, but it doesn’t read that way at all. The first thirty pages or so are some of the most intense science fiction I have ever read.

During this stretch, the principal factions are introduced. There are the Changers, a minor species of humans, all but extinct, with the ability to shapeshift and a host of weaponized body parts such as poisoned nails and acid sweat. The hero is the aforementioned drowning Changer, Bora Horza Gobuchul. The Changers are allied with the Idirans, which are a good approximation of what an actual race of warrior-aliens would look like. The Idirans are at war with the Culture, an advanced post-Singularity human society whose driving force is the need to feel useful. The series that grew from this novel focuses on the Culture, and with good reason. They are a fascinating creation, a society where humanity is largely superseded by super-intelligent machines and is now free to live in hedonism, but great feats are still accomplished out of simple boredom.

Horza is rescued by the Idirans and hired to go to the protected planet and retrieve the Mind, which would be a military and intelligence coup for the marginally less advanced species against the Culture. The book takes a strange turn shortly after all this, however. Horza gets into some shenanigans involving space mercenaries, and the story’s momentum never quite recovers. At first it is Foundation streamlined and blown up, but it develops into reheated Firefly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

This book’s premise is contingent on something that I don’t fully accept as true. I have always found claims to the effect that men and women are inherently different in temperament to be somewhat dubious. It offends my sensibilities; it feels like giving in to the bad comedians. We are socialized differently, and there are some biological differences that affect how people interact. But surely at bottom, in the mind, who you really are isn’t male or female, right? Surely the differences are just superficial.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a thought experiment on this very subject. Suppose, it says, there was a world of people biologically very similar to humans as we know them (in a panspermic universe), with only one difference: most of the time, they are asexual. At the end of a 26-day cycle, they go into a phase called “kemmer”, during which they become sexually aroused. When they meet a partner, their sexual organs reconfigure and one of them becomes male, the other female. This happens at random; most of them have no tendency one way or the other and the ones who do are considered strange deviants. The same person can give birth to some children and father others.

Gethen, the world on which they live, has winters harsher than anywhere on Earth. Roads are often impassable, and the snow can get several metres high. The Gethenians are a slow-moving people who lack much in the way of large-scale coordination. They have nation-states, but there is no war as such, only skirmishes along the borders: frequent but extremely small-scale. The people are generous. There is an understanding that travellers will be taken in, fed, and sheltered no matter where they stop. Descent is reckoned matrilineally, because the parent who gave birth to the child is understood to have a deeper and more important connection to them.

The plot, where someone who might as well be an ordinary Earthling circa 1969 attempts to convince the planet’s people to join the interplanetry Ekumen, is an excuse for exploring the all-important experiment. Each new detail complicates things further, and there is a tremendous interplay of ideas between the Gethenians’ sexual characteristics, their political arrangements, and their response to their climate. The implication is that the lack of dualistic gender roles is in large part responsible for their extreme differences from other planets, but in the end you never can tell exactly what causes what; the nature of these variables is that they are not isolable. Left Hand is a gem of old-school sci-fi worldbuilding. It’s short, but it encompasses a whole lot.

Review: The Black Corridor

Michael Moorcock is an author who thinks a lot about fascism. He famously wrote an essay censuring The Lord of the Rings for its politics, and has been critical of the often baffling ideologies espoused by his contemporaries. Yet his portrayal of it in 1969’s The Black Corridor is remarkably unsophisticated and suggests that, politically speaking, he might be full of shit.

The book depicts a future where rioting mobs in Britain have turned on “the aliens”, vaguely defined as “the men—and women…who are different.” There are of course no real aliens at all, and the whole thing is a transparent ploy to demonize anyone who disagrees with or expresses the slightest reservations about the ideas of the “Patriots”. This explodes into worldwide ultra-nationalism, which causes closed borders, fragmented nations, and international and eventually civil wars.

Amid all this, Ryan, the owner of a toy factory, sees himself as one of the few sane people left in the world. He considers himself a pragmatist, and does a number of morally questionable and downright despicable things for the sake of political expediency. He fires his top manager, who he suspects to be a Welshman, to avoid the wrath of the Patriots. He eventually begins manufacturing ammunition and radio equipment instead of toys to help the war effort. Toward the end, he collects his clique of relatives and close friends, holes up in his apartment, and makes plans to escape to another world on a rocket that had been prepared for launch in the days when such international cooperation was still possible, and had since been forgotten.

En route to their new home, Ryan’s friends and relatives are kept in stasis while he stays awake and maintains the ship during its five-year journey. After three years with only a computer for companionship, the loneliness starts to get to him in the form of hallucinations and flashbacks. Or, at least, that is apparently the case. Read the rest of this entry »

Preachifying

I read Christopher Priest’s now infamous essay on the Clarke Award shortlist, though like many commentators I have not read any of the books on the list. Priest’s work is also unknown to me; I’ve seen the movie of The Prestige, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen his work in a Canadian bookshop. So I feel more or less qualified to throw in my two cents.

First, Priest’s piece itself. Others have noted that Christopher Priest is a prose stylist, and his priorities in criticism reflect that. This is pretty clear from a casual look through his site. There’s not a bumpy sentence to be found in any of his published articles or blog posts, and he gives more attention to pretty language in his one-off piece on independent movie theatres than many authors do in their main work.

He devotes six paragraphs to China Mieville and Embassytown. I can’t speak to this work in particular, but I have read novels by Mieville, and it seems to me that Priest’s criticisms are astute. Mieville’s books are marked by an odd linguistic whiplash between his eloquent descriptions and his characters’…less-than-eloquent speech, and I don’t think it’s entirely intentional.

He does seem pretty much uninterested in his characters: Billy Harrow of Kraken is a cipher, and while Isaac from Perdido Street Station at least has a personality, Mieville is careful not to let it get in the way of the rest of the book. In fact, as has been noted by many others, the main plot is often the least interesting thing about Mieville’s novels.

Whether or not Mieville is “under-achieving” in Embassytown, it’s always suspicious when the same person is nominated year after year for an award, especially after multiple wins. It’s unlikely that between 2001 and 2011, Mieville wrote one of the top six books of the year four times, and vanishingly unlikely that three of those times, he was number one. Compare this with Meryl Streep’s frankly shameful Oscar win this year, her seventeenth acting nomination and third win. Does anyone honestly think her role in The Iron Lady was worth even a nomination, let alone a win?

Streep is nominated for just about every role she has, whether it’s worthy of an award or not. The result for the Oscars is that a Streep nomination no longer means anything. The result for Streep is the kind of artistic complacency that leads one to star in movies like The Iron Lady. By putting Mieville on the Clarke shortlist five times since 2001, the Clarke people are turning him into science fiction’s Meryl Streep.

Again, I haven’t read Embassytown, so I honestly don’t know if it deserves to be on the shortlist. But there’s always more to an award than the merits of the individual work in question. Read the rest of this entry »