science fiction

What Makes This Book so Great

17910076What Makes This Book So Great is a series of reflections and essays written by Jo Walton for Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. There are several essays where she offers her opinion and personal experience on a particular topic in a frank, and personalized way. The other essays however are specific things Walton wishes to discuss from her reading experience of particular books. They are not quite reviews, rather, they are snippets of what worked or didn’t work in a book or series for her (as a reader). She states in the introduction:

“there’s no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms”

For the most part I think she has certainly achieved what she set out to accomplish with this collection. There are three essays that caught my attention, which I’d like to discuss at length here. The rest of the essays just made my TBR longer with about five new long series, and a dozen other individual novels.  I loved the ways Walton describes how she reads when she is cozy, or down, or sick, and how comforting is to be in the company of a great book that seeks only to entertain and be fun.

In the very first essay Walton takes a stand for ‘re-reading’ in favour of only reading new books at all times. There are books one would like to read, or likes the idea of knowing its contents, but not necessarily willing to put hours into reading the material itself. Certain histories and political books fall into this category for Walton, and others alike (myself included). This topic is reoccurring through the collection and becomes apparent in the ways Walton describes certain long series. She writes:

“There are readers and re-readers…when I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment…upon a re-read one is not surprised…you have more time to pay attention to the characters.”

The second essay that caught my attention is one where Walton discusses Speculative Fiction as it stand in opposition to the mainstream. She writes:

 “when mainstream writers come to write SF, it’s normally the case that they don’t understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF…the mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF…but they don’t know how SF works…they explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things…In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is our world and the characters are in the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven”

I think this topic gave me pause, for two reasons. The first is that now I think the SFF field has its own sub-genres and its own version of the mainstream. For instance, I consider books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to be so mainstream, because on Booktube everyone talks about it (or has in the past) particularly in the Science Fiction and Fantasy channels. It’s hard to keep in perspective how small this group is overall, and how within society avid readers (10+ books per month) are a small subgroup. I now pride myself on knowing the most obscure texts rather than the mainstream, and yet ‘mainstream’ Science Fiction, is not recognizable by the average person (or reader) as it is a subgenre of a subgenre (speculative). It sort of reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides quote from The Marriage Plot:

“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”

Walton also made me me reflect on the ways I interact with Science Fiction, and how, compared to many other SFF readers I’m still very much a beginner. This language Walton refers to with technicalities, and knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t is at the beginning very excluding to a beginner. When I approached this topic I felt like there was a group of smart people, a nerdy and intellectual crowd, and they ALSO told me that I can’t sit with them. It’s almost like they’ve made up an entirely new vocabulary telling the ‘norm cool kids’ or the ‘belonging to no group’ people like me: NO, YOU can’t hang out with us. It’s like being rejected by every group on the social spectrum.

In chapter 95 “SF reading protocols” Walton is in communication with Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction works, particularly when he was attaching a vocabulary to Science Fiction in 1977 when the field was still finding its defining characteristics. She points out how other genres are defined by their tropes, i.e. romance is two people finding each other, mystery has clues, etc. But

“SF not defined by tropes. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than trying to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and when describing it, it’s more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions…look at the way people read it—those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.”

Walton also considers what leaves a ‘friend’ who borrows a Sci-Fi book and returns it claiming ‘I didn’t get it’ say that they ‘don’t get it.’ They are not stupid, and they can read sentences. But Walton states that Modern Science Fiction assumes you already know how to interpret its language and:

 “It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.”

The last essay (and its alluring title) is the main reason I checked this book out in the first place. The topic is “Literary criticism vs. talking about books.” All I’ve ever wanted to do: talk about books! I want to talk about the books I love, and the ones I hate, and sometimes I simply have an emotional reaction, whereas in formal discussion people want a more objective, distant analysis, which makes things very difficult. In undergrad I joined ‘writing groups,’ ‘poetry clubs,’ and all kinds of groups that weren’t quite what I wanted. They all required of me something different from pouring out my heart and soul on what a book meant to me. The way I’ve been using this platform for instance, is mainly me trying to introduce everything I’ve highlighted in a text so I can keep all the quotations I loved from a book in one place. Some turn into reviews, others just into a log of quotations, and most somewhere in-between–but at no point would I call myself a critic, even when I draw lines of comparison between other texts or schools of thought (at times). Walton writes:

“Critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other…I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how much they love books and how they cried on the train. Most of all I resist because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.”

There’s also the matter of ‘spoilers.’ Often academics go to the core of what they want to discuss in order to have a frame for their greater philosophical or historical point, that they completely forget that some people might have not read the book. The way SF assumes you know the terminology, academics assume you have read every book they refer to. Walton mentioned how a footnote from a Penguin classic of a Victorian book about three chapters in spoiled the ending of the book. This doesn’t happen in bookish circles (like on Booktube, Book Blogs, or just gatherings of bookish friends) because we are quite cautious of spoilers.

“In academia spoiler warnings are fannish and embarrassing….re-reading is forever, but you can only have the experience of reading a book for the first time once.”

The fact that a footnote, or an academic/critic can ruin someone’s first reading experience of a text is devastating, and I have a feeling this happened for lots of people who took literature courses in University, carefully choosing courses they loved, and subsequently having those books ruined for them. Finally I loved the ways Walton distinguishes herself from critics and puts herself in the category of people who love to read and just to talk about books. She writes:

“I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them…the lines of respectability in the SFF world, or that if something is studied it ought not to be fun, and you can only have fun with certain books…I feel as if I’m not really a grown-up critic. And I don’t want to be. It’s too much of a responsibility and not enough fun”

Yes!

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.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

9781509827886journey to the centre of the earth_2_jpg_247_400A few days ago, I came across the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions of various classics. I think I’ll try to get all my future classics in this edition. They are small and portable, a pleasure to hold, have gilded edges, and are accompanied by the most beautiful illustrations. It was upon this occasion that I returned to this sci-fi classic (as I did not yet have it in my personal collection). I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) a really long time ago, and I think I was much too young to appreciate it. This time, I was able to compare it to contemporary science fiction and tease out its ‘Vernian’ elements.

The illustrations in this edition are those completed by Édouard Riou, who worked with Jules Verne on six of his novels and created illustrations for all of them. His illustrations were then engraved by Pannemaker, Gauchard, Maurand (1867).

Simplified Plot: Axel (the narrator) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating  how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.

Jules_verne_cryptogramme

Runic Cryptogram

The reason I’m writing on classics here, is not really for “a review” as they obviously do not need one, but I would like to use this platform to keep track of things I found interesting.

On Women

While the main three characters on an adventure are men, Verne wrote the character of Gräuben in a very interesting way. Gräuben and Axel have been dating for a while because she immediately assumes he came to visit her again. Even though she cares deeply for him, and wants to marry him, Gräuben doesn’t oppose him going on such a journey, which at this point no one really thinks of as dangerous, rather, they look at it as a potentially foolish undertaking. She doesn’t seem controlling, but she still cares deeply. I also like that in the 1800s, Verne portrays a young relationship as a mutual courship, rather than an obligation. We get right away that Otto Lidenbrock is the ‘old guy who is kind of a misogynist and doesn’t understand women,’ but we also see the narrator and/or Axel does not really stand for that. Lidenbrock says:

“Ah! women and young girls, how incomprehensible are your feminine hearts! When you are not the timidest, you are the bravest of creatures. Reason has nothing to do with your actions.”

To which Axel narrates:

“I was disconcerted, and, if I must tell the whole truth, I was ashamed.”

Verne uses Gräuben as a plot device often encountered in adventure stories: the “I’ll wait for you” girl. The way Rosie Cotton is “the girl back home” for Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, and Penelope for Odysseus, Verne gives Axel a reason, and yearning to return to Hamburg. I think this device is really useful because it doesn’t allow the protagonists to give up hope if things get really bad, or to get too comfortable if the new place is too exciting that they might want to stay there forever.

The Vernian Element

Something that stood out to me reading this sci-fi classic, particularly after diving into many contemporary sci-fi works this year, was how much Verne wanted for everything to make sense, and for it to be believable. Verne didn’t drop you in a random world and hope you pick up clues as you go along, he explained everything with the utmost details in such a way that a skeptic would have scientific and/or academic proof that what he is narrating might actually be true. Then I remembered what Peter S. Beagle mentioned in his introduction to New Voices in Fantasy. He wrote:

“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”

Having seen the action-packed adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I forgot how calm and academic Verne’s prose is. It made me feel safe, and  I actually understood what was happening (which was comforting). The first few chapters are full of details on the manuscript and runes. He makes sense of the way Otto and Axel decipher the code. Then, once they embark on this journey everything is planned out realistically. I even looked up how long it takes to get to Iceland from Copenhagen by boat, and it was exactly as long as Verne said it was. The man did his research properly. Once they descend below the Volcano, Verne uses many details from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology Vol 1. and 2, (which heavily inspired Charles Darwin as he himself read volume one on his Beagle Voyage). There are passages upon passages describing the sediments, the rocks, the way they look, feel, or smell. He takes you on a sensory journey along with the three protagonists.

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Illustration by Riou

There were also reminders throughout of the kinds of walkers and adventurers from back in the day, when walking miles daily was no big deal. I have to go out of my way to get at least 7,000 steps on my Fitbit every day. The things they do, and the distances they go by on horse, where Hans chooses to walk–and the character of Hans the guide altogether, was absolutely fascinating. He’s kind of a Thoreauvian or Native figure who knows the land and could walk forever. He is connected to all the elements in ways Otto and Axel are not. He can pick up signals from the land, and signs from the sky, wind, animals. I think this time around, Hans’s character was by far my favorite. I also could appreciate a lot of the references. For instance, upon their descend there are references to Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, which I probably wouldn’t have picked up on in high school.

I really enjoyed this work, if you haven’t read it, by all means give it a go! I must admit that my favourite Verne remains 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I still have to read a lot of his other works.

 

 

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istavan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. a Summary, Discussion, and Review

“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”

5925031My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke.  Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.

Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.

The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.

This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):

“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”

The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):

  1. Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elivish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
  2. Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
  3. Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
  4. Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
  5. The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
  6. The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
  7. Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.

He writes:

“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”

I recommend this  book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.

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.

 

August Wrap-Up

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August has so far been my worst reading month, and it wasn’t due to a “reading slump,” I  was just caught up in too many things, the main one being: moving. When you hoard so many books… moving is difficult. Heavy box, after box, after box filled with books…followed by re-organizing. I am still not done organizing them. This is what I had the opportunity to read this month:

Books I Read For Early Review

Acadie_coverAcadie written by Dave Hutchinson is a Tor.com novella which is part of the Summer of Space Opera. It was very short, but I enjoyed it. My full review HEREAcadie 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.

 

34889267Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry by Konstantin Batyushkov, translated by Peter France. Batyushkov was a contemporary of Alexandr Pushkin’s and was highly admired by him. Batyushkov is studied in Russia as a great pillar of the Russian canon, but is not known so well in the West as his works have hardly been translated. My full review can be found HERE.

 

Books I Read For Myself 

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

6380284I had many thoughts on this book and highlighted a lot so I made an individual post/review about it. Full review HERE. In this collection, Le Guin questions why we consider “literary” literature as important, and who decides what that looks like. One quotation from the series that strikes to the core is this:

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

Earlier this year I reviewed New Voices of Fantasy, and in the introduction, Peter S. Beagle recalls speaking to Le Guin and her saying to him:

“all of us [fantasy writers] feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’”

I think that sentiment comes across strongly in Cheek by Jowl. The dominant essay is on the role and presence of animals in fantasy and children’s literature. If you want to know more about it click on the full review link above.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick 

9780307908797This book was highly anticipated reading for me. Time is one of the most interesting concepts to me and when I heard that there is a book focusing on time travel I ordered it right away. It is a lot shorter than I anticipated, but what surprised me was the content and structure of it. Gleick focuses on our relationship to time travel in fiction. He begins by explaining that before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine people didn’t discuss time as a linear concept, something one could go back or forward to. He briefly shows how Einstein’s creation of the fourth dimension in the scientific realm opened up way to a lot of science fiction stories. He then tells readers about the plots of several science fiction works. I wish more time had been spend discussing time with philosophical lines of thought or tapped into something interesting on the topic. I found that it was a bit frustrating just recapitulating the plot of several works that I’ve already read. I still enjoyed it a lot. Again, it was quite short, but all in all enjoyable.

Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald 

25573977This book was recommended to me by a friend. With the news being so terrifying on a daily basis I needed a good, easy read that would put me in a pleasant mood. This was that book. When Sara arrives from Sweden to the United States to live for two months with her pen pal Amy she finds out that only a day before, Amy passed away. The town of Broken Wheel is very small, and Sara can’t drive away. Being too proud to admit to her parents that she should have traveled somewhere more crowded, and still in shock with Amy’s passing, Sara decides to stay in Broken Wheel. The book features letters Amy sent to Sara over time about her town, and about books. The more we learn about Sara the more we, the readers fall in love with her. She is Elizabeth Bennet, Matilda, Hermoine Granger, Jane Eyre and all the ‘reading woman character’ merged into one. Again, this is just an easy, pleasant read and it’s one of those ‘books about books’ similar to The Thirteenth Tale, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Among Others, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, and The Shadow of the Wind (to name a few). What I enjoyed most were the letters from Amy. After every chapter, a letter from the past that Amy sent to Sara is presented to us where we learn what Sara knows about the town, or what Amy told Sara about certain books before. I enjoyed this aspect because it was a reminder of the influence dead people can have on the living even when gone. Their voices continue to exist and we carry them with us in our experiences. Even Sara ponders about death in relationship to books–vessels of ideas. Or letters: written down mementos.

“That night Sara sat in Amy’s library for hours, thinking about how tragic it was that the written word was immortal while people were not, and grieving for her, the woman she had never met.”

Bivald’s description of books, reading spaces, and book-based friendships are really well constructed. I certainly enjoyed it.

Upstream by Mary Oliver

29358559This is a collection of essays written by the poetess Mary Oliver. This book was just a reaffirmation for me of how much it matters who writes the book when it comes to non-fiction or memoir/personal writings. Earlier in the year I discussed reading Spinster at same time as Travels with Charley and while the first had more depth, research, and stronger opinions with vastly more interesting subject matter, I couldn’t bring myself to care as much as I did for the latter because it was written by Steinbeck. I had the same experience here. I never read any poetry by Mary Oliver, so I picked this up as my first experience of her. After a few chapters I didn’t think much of it. I was ready to stop reading it. I then looked up Mary Oliver and read her poetry (or as much of it as I could find). Knowing a little about her, her creative corpus, and that she is a poet turned this essay collection around for me. The wording, the language, and her opinions on transcendental poets, Walt Whitman, and her relationship with nature became so interesting.

“You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul.”

Although I enjoyed it more after knowing Oliver’s poetry, I still wanted more from this collection. For instance, I found it unnecessary to get a biographical introduction of Emerson and Thoreau. I felt a bit spoon-fed at points. I wanted to get more of her impressions, and feelings about these poets’ work, or their relationship to nature, or how she herself relates to nature. I think this collection tried to sound academic and reflective while at the same time being personal and poetic and in the end didn’t manage to accomplish either. There are shorter anecdotes like a dog breaking free from his rope, or the adoption of a little bird with attempts to extract proverb-like endings like: “or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.” For the most part, when discussing other poets or writers, I felt like Oliver was just listing books and poems in a way that was “I read this and liked it” rather than diving deep and discussing it at length. The truth is I feel like I’ve read better nature books lately with essays and opinions that left me in awe. For me, anything by Tristan Gooley, or Andrea Wulf (recent) or things written by medieval monks and botanists like the abbess Hildegard Von Bingen, managed to inspire that love of nature and felt like reading a love letter to nature in a controlled academic way whilst still using personal anecdotes and poetic language than this collection has. Upstream has a few well-written lines that makes you want to highlight and keep from time to time, and those keep you going, but overall it wasn’t what I wanted to obtain from this collection.

Too Many Books at Once

Lastly, I’ve been dividing my reading between several books lately which I am trying to finish. The books are: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, still trying to finish the first book of the Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu, and then I went ahead and took out far too many books from the library… I am also currently working on an early review for another nature book called The Biophile Effect. It has been a busy month and I am a little disoriented by how many projects I’ve started and aware that I have finished far fewer.

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.