Sci-Fi and Fantasy

The People’s Republic of Everything

39286411Earlier this year I read Nick Mamatas’s essay collection Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. The non-fictional work covered the skill and resilience involved in producing a successful and ‘sell-able’ short story as a freelance writer without waiting for divine inspiration. I immediately requested an ARC from Tachyon when I heard that The People’s Republic of Everything will be published this year. This collection includes fifteen short stories involving a spectrum of science fiction, horror, political satire, and atmospheric settings. Mamatas is very Lovecraftian in his writing style, a presence felt even in his non-fiction. He’s written seven novels and has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Wold Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards.

This collection incorporates a range of stories written over the last ten years. I enjoyed that each story is followed up by Mamatas elaborating on how the story was written, but most importantly, the ever-frequently-asked question: where do your ideas come from? I really enjoyed this aspect because at times short stories in the speculative genre that cross over can be so odd I’m not sure I know what to think of them. Mamatas explains how he came up with the idea and what he was trying to achieve for each one of these short stories. Two stories in this volume are about collecting correspondence to create a personality-emulator. Mamatas writes after “Walking with a Ghost” that he was fascinated by the friendship and correspondence between Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft and their cult following, and the idea that one can gather enough data on a person’s way of addressing to be able to emulate ‘personhood.’ Yes, there is an AI Lovecraft in this collection. The second story follows a Marx and Engels partnership in the style of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—told in a steampunk style. These are just two examples of the variety that can be found in this collection. In the middle there are some that struck a chord with me, particularly “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher” and “The Phylactery”–mainly because there was something very personal to them with a touch of humanity and interesting characters. There are a few stories published here for the first time for which even Mamatas has no further comments. Several of his stories focus on Communism and politics, and concludes with a novella (what used to be a screenplay) about the George W.H. Bush era and the invasion of Iraq which was picked up for a film and then dropped (but we get to enjoy it in novella format).

I have to say, I learned a lot of new terminology in this collection. For one, I never heard of dieselpunk before which according to a Google search is: “a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities,” or as Mamatas puts it “like steampunk, but greasier and more efficient.” Mamatas extracts the essence of several sub-genres and cult followings that are in themselves so niche, obscure, and esoteric and creates a genre that is uniquely him. Mamatas quite recently came out to say that he was done writing genre fiction, but I don’t think he has a genre to which his writing belongs. Kerouac’s language, Lovecraft’s atmosphere, and Bukowski’s coarseness are already sub-groups in larger literary circles where such few people have heard of them, read them (enough to create a fandom). But then, Mamatas takes elements from each and incorporates them in a writing style that is also a sub-genre of a sub-genre like: dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc. Take all that and place it in an urbuan fantasy setting, and you got yourself a Nick Mamatas short story. See!? Not very easy to define.

I liked his writing style. On a sentence-level Mamatas in not pretentious nor exclusionary. His fiction is accessible if you want to be taken into the dark corners of niche-speculative fiction. I enjoyed them very much, and like every short story collection there will be a mixture of what works and what doesn’t on an individual level.

This collection has been announced to be published on September 8, 2018.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution

36510759Peter Watts’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution is an addition to a longer series including The Island (2009) for which Watts received the Hugo Award for best novelette in 2010, Hotshot (2014), and Giants (2014). The Freeze-Frame Revolution will be published in June of 2018 by Tachyon Publications. These works are certainly part of what would be categorized as “hard sci-fi” for Watts does not spoon-feed his readers, nor spends too much time explaining. He drops his characters in some unusual circumstances, and tries to convey ideas about technology, life, the universe, and the limitations of humanity. It is simultaneously focused on macro scale settings and ideas and on micro details with few characters in a rather condensed space of 185 pages. Given these limitations I think Watts was very successful.

The novel/novella follows Sunday who is part of a large crew (in the tens of thousands) and was trained for this mission, to build a web of wormhole gates through space, making interstellar travel more accessible. Eriophora is their spaceship, and simultaneously used for creating ‘gates’ or wormholes through which they can continue to travel. Of the tens of thousands involved, only a handful of people are awake at a time while everyone else is still suspended in unconsciousness. The gate-building ship is controlled by Artificial Intelligence: the Chimp—who decides who he will wake, and what information it will provide to the awakened ones. The people are awakened only for a few days at a time when they are, which leaves very little room to accomplish anything.

As in most hard sci-fi character development isn’t a priority, and the reader will be left with a lot of questions about the characters, the ‘world,’ and sometimes even the plot. This novella will also leave you with a lot of questions but with the knowledge that there is a certain suspenseful beauty in leaving them unanswered.

The travelling through space and gates has been happening for millions of years, and people have been maybe awake a total of few full conscious years where they have scattered memories here and there from the few times they have been awakened at several time intervals (thousands of years apart). The people grow uneasy about their ‘leader’ and AI: The Chimp and plot against him, which is quite the task when they are only awake one day of every thousand. There are also problems relating to the AI’s relationship to the ship, because they are essentially one and the same. The “consciousness” of the ship is also their home (at least that’s how I read it). We are told for instance:

Eriophora’s riddled with blind spots: shadows in crawlways and corners, in the spaces behind looming machinery where no one had any reason to put a camera. There are even places—near powerlines whose massive currents swamp the milliamp signals that connect artificial brains to natural ones—where Chimp is blind to our cortical links.”

The thought that Chimp can automatically know what happens on every surveilled location on the ship makes the ship itself unreliable which gives the reader a sense of uneasiness at all times.

I really liked the ways in which Watts presents some ‘dilemmas’ or concerns for the characters which resemble our daily struggles with online personas, and simulated experiences, particularly with the ability to “plug in.” I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions. Here’s an example:

 “’I suppose I’m thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every couple thousand years, knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like’– She glanced around—’nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.’

‘Honestly, I don’t understand. Any time you want a—a green forest, just plug in…you can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.’

‘It’s not real.’

‘You can’t tell the difference.’

‘I know the difference.’”

It’s hard to omit these dark philosophical moments from the overall suspense and tension—particularly since the main mission itself: creating a wormhole gate network, has lost meaning for the people involved. I enjoyed very much the dark aspects of this novella. The ways in which Watts has this meaninglessness looming over every one little action of the characters, and the atmospheric tension he creates with the ship, and the crypt, coffin-like places the majority of crew members lie in made this work worthwhile and rewarding.

It’s a work of great talent, and I hope that soon all of his connected works, or “Sunflower Cycle” will be published in a single volume together. Peter Watts has created a sci-fi work of art where every word is refined, and has a purpose. I highly recommend this work to lovers of science fiction.

Don’t Live for Your Obituary

36471758What a perfect book to start off my year! This collection of essays (or short blog entries) is an accumulation of John Scalzi’s most popular and best writing on his blog over a decade (2008-2018). I was very intrigued by the title Don’t Live for Your Obituary—even though the entry with this particular title is quite short, it encapsulates Scalzi’s main message to young aspiring writers, and to readers alike: do what you love, live for now, don’t focus on posterity. This message comes across clearly through different topics. For instance, Scalzi discusses finances, writing as a professional, self-publishing versus established publishing houses, ebooks versus physical books (taking a quick stab at Jonathan Franzen on the way), etc. In each topic Scalzi emphasizes just how important it is to write for fun because you enjoy it in your present moment, for people to discuss and enjoy now. Here are some lines that stayed with me:

“Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages…you don’t get a vote…[you won’t know] the values and interests or views of the world that people might have a century from now.”

“Be relevant now”

“writers want to write rather than have to write”

“Either you want to write or you don’t, and thinking that you want to write really doesn’t mean anything.”

“Being a writer isn’t some grand, mystical state of being, it just means you put words together to amuse people, most of all yourself.”

“Writing is an act of setting down in words the things about which you have a concern”

(Regarding writers being assholes as portrayed in mainstream media):

“it’s correlation, not causation”

Scalzi is a good writer, and a successful one. As he gives examples for each topic and/or argument he uses his most popular works and explores why they were successful (with the privilege of hindsight) often referencing The Old Man’s War, and Redshirts. Again, topics range from finances, to digital platforms, to posterity, MFA programs, inspirational authors, making fun of some successful authors in good spirit, to even showing how one can still be a writer while being a stay-at-home dad (or mom). I particularly enjoyed his portion breaking down what it means to have 1000 devoted fans, and how authors like Dan Brown and E.L. James don’t do a disservice to authors as a whole, because they don’t take away from other authors, rather, they bring more readers in. This book is filled with wisdom for this day and age. I found it so much fun to read, and I feel like it caught me up on 10 years of Scalzi. What I loved most about it was that even though it was filled with advice from an experienced person it maintained a light sense of humor. I think this book is perfect for anyone who struggles with getting started, has anxiety because they live only in the future, or for those who are fans of Scalzi’s science fiction and want to hear his opinions. Reading this felt like I was sitting with Scalzi over a cup of coffee and he was just answering all my questions.

Starlings by Jo Walton | Review

35909363Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction author. She is the winner of the John W. Cambell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, The World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004, and most famously known for her Nebula and Hugo award winning novel Among Others (2011). Most recently, the Thessaly trilogy has been completed and published as an omnibus containing The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity: A Novel.  Starlings is the first collection of Walton’s shorter works and it will be published by Tachyon Publications.

In the introduction to Starlings Jo Walton writes:

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories…I had published nine novels before I figured out short stories…so that career advice for writers isn’t necessarily the way it has to work. Funny that…Writers are different and write in different ways and there is no off-the-peg writing advice that works for everyone.”

Walton knows her craft so well that even on works she says she “never found easy,” or “recently figured out,” she still manages to amaze and inspire.

Starlings is a mix of short stories, poetry, and even a play. This work is an accumulation of all the side projects Walton has been working on for seventeen years. I am a big fan of seeing an author in different moods, and at different skill levels across several years within the covers of the same book. This work is playful and experimental. Each short story, play, or section is followed by an afterword by Walton where one often encounters the words “experiment,” “exercise,” or “challenge.” Reading this collection felt like watching a wizard at the cauldron having fun with new spells.

At several points short stories are really just “poems in disguise” as Walton puts it. Her use of language is highly atmospheric. There are imagined letters between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, an encounter with an alien told from the perspective on an 89 year-old woman whose memories are slipping, as well as poems containing myths, legends, and familiar characters. My absolute favourite short story in this collection is “On the Wall.” This story was previously published for Strange Horizons back in 2001 and it’s a retelling of Snow White, pre-Snow White (character) told from the point of view of the magic mirror. In this tale we come to know how the magic mirror came into existence, gained consciousness, and how it came to the possession of who we now know as the Evil Queen. The mirror’s voice stayed with me several days after reading this short story:

“I do not know how long it was before I learned to reflect people. People move so fast, and must always be doing…I learned not merely to reflect them but to see them and to understand their words and commands…what I liked best was hour upon hour of contemplation, truly taking in and understanding something.”

Even the mirror, with all its abilities and magical power, feels inadequate and incomplete.

“I am a failure. I can only see what is never what is to come”

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fantasy, Jo Walton’s previous works, or wants to try shorter works before committing to longer ones. Many thanks to Tachyon for sending me a copy for review.

 

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson | Review

Acadie_coverAcadie is part of the Summer of Space Opera hosted by Tor.com, the last of the five to be published, scheduled for the 5th of September. Dave Hutchinson, the author, was born in Sheffield in 1960, studied at the University of Nottingham and became a journalist. He’s the author of five collections of short stories, and four novels.

Acadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them. We find that:

“the Kids were superbrights, tall fragile children with towering IQs, and a penchant for terrible jokes.”

Conversations between the Kids resemble equations as they are hardwired to see all problems in doing a specific activity.

This novella is short but filled with humour and great character interactions. While it resembles “hard sci-fi” it has many moments of reflection and character development. As readers we get an insight into Duke’s history, opinions, and frustrations. I found it particularly interesting when Duke tells readers that after travelling in space for long enough “it’s all just stars and emptiness…all space looks the same.” The writers and engineers who work for Isabel Potter, the original creator of the Kids, are like a giant fandom group from Comic-Con dressed as LOTR and Star Trek fans or as Duke calls it: early 20th century media references. The ‘Writers’ in this novella have higher powers. Their ‘creations’ shape more than expected and they have abilities like conducting complete memory-wipe on another, should they choose to.

The last few pages contained a surprising ending (which I will obviously not spoil) but it added a different dimension to the novella. It can be easily read in one sitting and it’s very exciting. I think this is one of the reads I would add to “get out of a reading slump” kind of book lists because it’s short, well-written, and highly atmospheric.

Also, the cover design by Stephen Youll is absolutely beautiful. I’ve linked his website so you can take a look at all his extraordinary artwork.

Artemis by Andy Weir | Book Review

35097384Earlier this year I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Artemis is Weir’s second novel and it will be released by Crown/Archetype on November 14 this year. Weir is both blessed and cursed with The Martian being his debut novel. On one hand we all know his name and look forward to every project, and on the other, every work will be compared to The Martian which is a high standard, considering the blockbuster success that followed.

Jasmine Bashara (Jazz) is the protagonist of Artemis. She is a young, ambitious, daring woman of Saudi Arabian descent. She lives on the moon. Set in the near future, Artemis focuses on the first village that humans will have on the moon and how humans will most likely interact with it. The geography of this village is laid out on the first pages as having five domes each named after a famous astronomer. Only the wealthy can really afford to own property on the moon with a luxurious apartment, and the rest are mere employees and household staff. The five domes are mostly underground and the entire village functions as a ‘Vegas-like’ amusement location. Jazz is one of the lower class citizens and aspires to one day afford a roomier place on the moon. Her side project is smuggling contraband on the moon for rich people like Trond, who has a big request of Jazz driving the plot.

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The set-up of the village on the moon

I enjoyed immensely the ways in which this moon village comes to life. There are Earth tourists getting a field guide coming and going, the whole place runs like a resort, there is smuggling and crime, and like all places the moon has its own currency known as Slugs (ğ). In this projected future the moon is reserved for the privileged and is an honor not bestowed on many. The financial situation driving Jazz to do certain things, the description of her headquarters, the occasional ‘space-related’ incidents bring Artemis to life. There are also projected inventions which amused me like the self-cleaning, reusable, self-sterilizing condom.

The book has so far received a criticism of which I am wary and I must address. The early reviews criticize Weir for not being capable of writing a female character. According to some she sounds like a 15 year old boy, or sounds exactly like Watney in The Martian with no added dimensions or changes. I felt similarly near the beginning of the novel and there are moments where she sits a certain way and a male character will say “do women know they look sexy when they sit like that” and she’d say “yeah of course that’s why we do it” and this is just one of many examples, but then I realized that I can’t pinpoint one female character in literature with this much male-like confidence. If Jazz is just what a woman with the confidence of a man looks like then you know what… I like it! She’s the female equivalent of Rothfuss’s Kvothe. She’s confident, attractive, good at what she does, and she’s not shy about it. Also, if you think about it, the moment a character is raised a lifetime on the moon surrounded by a particular kind of person, I think it’s understandable why her personality evolves this way. Why should a woman or a different background origin differentiate her talking ways, her ambitions, or her personality? I think it makes perfect sense for Jazz to be written this way given the context and her upbringing.

As for the writing, there is a secondary reason why Artemis won’t come close to The Martian, and Weir addressed it himself in an interview. He says:

“… for The Martian, I was doing it as a serial, and I posted a chapter at a time to my website, and I could get feedback from the readers right on the spot. But for Artemis, it’s more traditional. I had a publishing deal from day one. The feedback, I got from my editor, my agent, and some close friends and family members. I couldn’t post it online for a few thousand readers.”

He admits that he misses the fact-checking and feedback provided by a wider audience of readers pre-novel publication. I’ll link the entire interview here because Weir has a good sense of self-awareness when it comes to his work and he is quite humble.

Overall I enjoyed Artemis, and I look forward to sharing it with my friends come November.