Showing posts with label SAFL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SAFL. Show all posts

Saturday, August 18, 2018

WITMonth Day 18 | 10 Recommended Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

I love science fiction and fantasy. I love science fiction and fantasy infused literature too. I love books that have magic in them, books that explore new and invented worlds, and I love books that play around with setting in order to tell their magical stories. I also love women in translation, as you might have noticed, so this overlap was pretty much to be expected. That being said, whatever list I give today will not be able to hold a candle to Rachel Cordasco's brilliant, which covers a whole lot more excellent speculative fiction in translation (including a lot of WIT) than I'll ever be able to recommend. Check it out!

  1. The Wall - Marlen Haushofer (tr. from German by Shaun Whiteside): Post-apocalyptic literature shrunk down to its most intimate, as a single survivor of a mass catastrophe continues to live.
  2. Amatka - Karin Tidbeck (tr. from Swedish by Karin Tidbeck): Queer, dystopic science fiction, exploring individual freedom within an oppressive society.
  3. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was - Angélica Gorodischer (tr. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin): A tremendous fantasy powerhouse detailing the history of "the greatest empire that never was", beautifully translated by another fantasy powerhouse and legend.
  4. The Queue - Basma Abdel Aziz (tr. from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette): An almost too-real totalitarian dystopia turns its eyes on its people following an attempted revolution.
  5. One Hundred Shadows - Hwang Jungeun (tr. from Korean by Jung Yewon): Shadows quietly begin to rise in the slums of Seoul, as two lonely young people grow closer together in their wake.
  6. The Days of the Deer - Liliana Bodoc (tr. from Spanish by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar): Fantasy, but from a purely indigenous American perspective, creating a unique spin on the European invasion of the continents.
  7. The Gray House - Mariam Petrosyan (tr. from Russian by Yuri Machkasov): Disabled young boys and teens in an otherworldly boarding school, in which nothing is quite as it seems and neither are its denizens. 
  8. The Core of the Sun - Johanna Sinisalo (tr. from Finnish by Lola Rogers): A "Finnish weird" dystopia in which women are bred for docility, and life is tightly controlled. 
  9. Hybrid Child - Mariko Ōhara (tr. from Japanese by Jodie Beck): A biological specimen escapes, and begins to live an independent life in a world of rogue AIs and cyborgs.
  10. Memoirs of a Polar Bear - Yoko Tawada (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky): Three generations of entertainer polar bears recount their lives and relationships.
SFF has a problem with publishing women writers, and the overlap with women in translation is even smaller and more disheartening. But as you see, there's still no lack of excellent, exciting, or intriguing books, old and new! Not to mention many YA titles which will be summarized in the next post. What are some of your favorites?

Saturday, August 5, 2017

WITMonth Day 5 | The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

You know those books that you almost don't want to read because of how they suddenly seem to represent everything that's going on in your life? Like when you were a child and suddenly the protagonist of the book you were reading was struggling in school like you were, or finding a book about losing a parent just as your close friend was dealing with her grief. Sometimes books just seem too real, and goodness if Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) didn't feel exactly that.

It's been a few months since I read The Queue, a few months in which it's remained an itchy little reminder in the back of my mind. This is unsurprising, of course - the political climate of late has been so turbulent, so virulent, so baffling that it's hard not to strongly relate to a novel that details the pervasive, insistent, cancerous growth of authoritarianism. The Queue does so from a very specific angle, taking place in a not-entirely-unfamiliar version of Egypt with its own unique struggles (including explicit references to questions of religious purity and specific Islamic values).

And yet somehow, in April of 2017, the novel felt eerily familiar to this reader.

The Queue is not an especially long, heavy, or complex read. Rich with characters as it may be, the story remains focused on a few specific individuals who effectively reside in "the queue" - a long, indeed stagnant and eternal line that is waiting for The Gate to open. The Gate represents the new, authoritarian regime. Unsurprisingly, it remains closed to the public. Even as it demands that citizens acquire specific approvals, documents, and certificates from the Gate in order to conduct normal lives (in some cases, in order to live at all), it remains steadfastly closed, even as it hands down more decrees.

The Gate has remained closed since the Disgraceful Events, when protests against the state erupted. These protests represent both the strength and weakness of the Gate: its strength in eliminating the protesters and convincing the public that these Events didn't occur as witnesses clearly show they did, while also forcing its bunkered retreat. Among the victims of the Events is Yehya, who was shot by government forces. Since the official narrative rejects that the government even needed to use live weapons, the bullet that remains lodged in Yehya cannot exist and thus Yehya's declining health is fictional as well. Yehya's health forms a sort of frame story, guided by the surgeon who initially saw Yehya and identified the bullet that remained within.

Alongside Yehya's story, The Queue introduces additional characters who need the Gate's approval for various issues. One man seeks to reclaim his family's honor, a woman tries to stay afloat as her son suffers from illness, a journalist wanders the queue in a quest to understand their stories... Each story introduces one more small angle of the Gate's authority, from control of the media to control of basic businesses (like the state-run cell-phone provider that doesn't really provide service) to the gradual - and then avalanche-scale - erosion of freedom.

And here was the point at which things began to hit close to home.

A major theme in The Queue is the reliability of truth itself. The truth of the truth. Do you believe what you are told so very reasonably? Do you believe what your own eyes have seen, even if it contradicts what you're being told? At what point is the demand of the state truly too much? At what point is it obvious that you are being truly and thoroughly oppressed? These are not trivial questions, and The Queue doesn't pretend to answer them. It's not about having an answer, it's about the route taken. A small lie enables outright, blatant denials of the truth. This not only echoes the new political climate in the US - a world of "fake news" and alternative facts - but Israel, where journalists are often (quite frankly) so shallow that it is almost impossible to identify truth from propaganda. True, both countries are still democracies (if each severely flawed in its own way...), but it felt like that iceberg tip. Just a little more and things might collapse.

The Queue is a good book. Powerful, cleanly written, thought-provoking. Both Yehya's core story and Tarek's frame are emotionally engaging, while the additional fragments from the side-characters build this world in a remarkable way. Pieces of the plot felt a little thick at times, but the relatively short length of the story keeps the book as a whole from getting bogged down. It is, ultimately, a cool-headed dystopian tale of a world that is actually far too real.

Here, at least, we have one truth...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review | The Best of All Possible Worlds

It's official. Karen Lord is not only an author to watch, but she's an author to hunt, track down and follow with a passion. Last year when I read and quite enjoyed Redemption in Indigo, I appreciated Lord's use of a different literary approach than most fantasy. Redemption in Indigo didn't feel like most books in its genre, and stood out marvelously as such. The Best of All Possible Worlds is perhaps a bit less groundbreaking in that sense and I would even almost classify it as more mainstream, but it is still a surprising, unique and impressive book.

The Best of All Possible Worlds could have easily been a simple sci-fi book. The plot points are not so utterly foreign, the framing and the character types are not brand-new, and generally speaking, the single components of the book aren't exactly innovative. What's impressive is the way they tie together to create something, while perhaps not new, but original and special nonetheless.

The first easy and seemingly obvious comparison one can make about The Best of All Possible Worlds is the Star Trek one. This in large part stems from the various similarities between the Sadiri (one of the races/cultures in the book whose planet destruction sets into motion the entire plot) and Star Trek's Vulcans. Really, it's impossible not to see the similarities - like Vulcans, the Sadiri are telepathic (more so than Vulcans, actually), very logical and level-headed, lacking in many outwards displays of emotions (though unlike Vulcans they actually have them), and restrained. From around halfway through the novel, I struggled not to imagine the Sadiri characters with the characteristic Vulcan ears, or bleeding green. Minor note.

More than that fairly superficial similarity is the thematic relation The Best of All Possible Worlds has with the Star Trek universe. The story has a similar "exploration" kind of theme, except instead of exploration for the sake of it (like in Star Trek), Lord's version has a clear goal in mind - the remaining Sadiri (mostly male) are seeking appropriate brides to rebuild their society while maintaining various cultural and biological properties (namely all sorts of telepathic abilities). The main cast visits various societies and cultures on their diverse new homeworld, all the while encountering racism, complications, and gradually developing a future for the remaining Sadiri. The types of messages of diversity that emerge from each visit is reminiscent of Star Trek, but it's much more deftly handled - actions have consequences and nothing really disappears into the haze of "last week's episode", but leaves a clear impact on the characters and their understanding of the world.

The diversity theme is especially strong. This is not merely a remark on the choice of skin color for each of the characters (which is generally, though not necessarily explicitly, not-white) or a character whose gender is never revealed (narrator Grace amusingly often remarks that it's none of our business, if we're so interested we can just ask...), rather the entire premise of different cultures meshing and attempting to balance each other out. One story deals particularly explicitly with the difference between the outward appearance of people versus their various abilities. Together with messages about slavery based on appearance, it's clear that Lord has no intention of shying away from what her original point is supposed to be. This is science fiction with its own original story and ideas, but it's also meant to remind us of our own world. Lord does an excellent job of keeping the message from overwhelming the narrative, but the point gets across perfectly.

Finally - and it would be impossible to review The Best of All Possible Worlds without mentioning this - is the gentle, subtle and rather lovely romance at its heart. The Best of All Possible Worlds is in large part a story of acceptance, and part of that acceptance is of a romantic nature. It's clear from the beginning that Grace and Dllenahkh have their chemistry, but the calm, very mature form of flirtation and the gradual quality of their love story is a thing of beauty. This romance takes along with it many of the other themes mentioned throughout the book and adds to them trust, respect and friendship. This is how a literary romance should be - believably gradual, subtle and yet ultimately extraordinarily satisfying. Beyond Grace and Dllenahkh's core romance is the love between Nasiha and Tarik, a married Sadiri couple who are part of the delegation. Though they're generally side characters (Tarik in particular does not develop very much), they serve as a gentle reminder of another, perhaps more traditional, love. It complements the developing story very nicely.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a great book. It's not perfect - some of the stories were a bit random and unresolved - but despite its seemingly traditional premise, it's a very original take on a lot of familiar ideas. That alone, however, would not make the book worth reading. Luckily, Lord's writing is clear and conversational (if at times somewhat simple), and the characterizations are excellent. Even the minor characters felt like real people, whose motives I could understand and appreciate. All in all, it's a book well worth reading.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The greatest empire, period | Kalpa Imperial

Once or twice a year, I'll read a book that is so amazing, so wonderful, so utterly entrancing that I will devour it eagerly and also hold myself back for fear of losing it too soon. Months ago, I came very close to that feeling with Angélica Gorodischer's unique Trafalgar. I was very impressed by Trafalgar, but I had to admit that I did not fall for it quite in the same way that I had in the past for other favorites. It was good enough, however, to ensure that I would read Gorodischer's earlier Kalpa Imperial, a book that Trafalgar even casually referenced.

And then, lo and behold, Kalpa Imperial is that book: beautifully written, wonderfully translated, magical, unique, imaginative, entrancing, enticing, absorbing, amazing and just... brilliant.

Really. I'm understating here.

Kalpa Imperial (subtitled The Greatest Empire That Never Was) is exactly the sort of book I've often imagined writing myself. It creates a fictional empire and tells stories about it. That's it. There's an order, sure, but I was never really certain that the story was being told entirely chronologically. There are references to previously mentioned stories, but these are calm connections that - despite being located in what is officially the same empire - could be taking place in entirely different worlds.

One of the incredible aspects of Kalpa Imperial is its ability to take full advantage of its short story style, while still making the book feel overall like a coherent, balanced whole. There are no duds in Kalpa Imperial, no stories that seem out place. It's clearly not a novel, but unlike most short story collections, Kalpa Imperial has no moment in which the standard slips even a smidgen - the stories flow seamlessly into each other, painting an ever growing portrait of this entirely fictional empire. And these stories are absolutely amazing.

Kalpa Imperial falls into the category I've decided to call "imaginative fiction". This is the genre that Borges, and Calvino, and Michal Ajvaz and a whole host of other authors belong to. I think by this point it's safe to say that I really, really like these types of books - the crossover between the believable and the imaginary, the gentle overlapping of fantasy with reality. Each of the above authors takes it to a different level and uses different techniques to tell their story, but there's no doubt that Gorodischer's imaginary kingdom (and also the lovely techniques used in Trafalgar) place her directly in this category.

Kalpa Imperial is fantasy unlike any other - there's no hero's quest, references to magic are far and few between (and even then may just be myths that have been twisted along the way), the society hardly seems based on medieval Europe (I kept imagining various Middle Eastern kingdoms, to be honest), there are vague references to modern technology such as cars and buses, the time frame is huge (thousands of years!), there are no warring gods... and yet it's all clearly fantasy. It doesn't merely build a world; it builds an entire history, legacy, culture and, indeed, empire. I wish I could describe the perfection of these stories (among which one ranks as the greatest 30-odd pages of literature I have ever read) but I can't. It has to be read, it has to be experienced.

As for the writing: clear, beautiful - a perfect storytelling technique. But there's another tone here, one that I often felt creeping into Gorodischer's style: that of Ursula K. Le Guin, the grand mistress of fantasy and sci-fi herself, who translated Kalpa Imperial. Small witticisms and offhand remarks rang so clearly as those of Le Guin that - had the translation been any less perfect and the writing even slightly less smooth - they could have jolted me out of the story. This didn't happen. Le Guin, it turns out, is also a master translator, imbibing Kalpa Imperial with just a dash of her own tone while still letting Gorodischer's style reign supreme. It's incredibly done.

I don't know what else I can say to possibly convince a reader who hasn't been convinced yet. Only this, I suppose: Kalpa Imperial is worth it. It's worth taking a day off from work to sit and read. It's worth stepping out of your comfort zone if this isn't the type of book you'd normally read. It's worth it for fantasy fans, sci-fi fans, fans of Le Guin, fans of unique stories, fans of imaginative fiction, readers who like being challenged, readers who like feeling at home, readers who like stories... It's worth reading, it's worth recommending to your library, it's worth buying. It's worth every minute you may spend on it. My list of perfect books is very, very short, but Kalpa Imperial is on it. And it's near the top.

One final note: Small Beer Press, thank you for publishing two wonderful books by Angélica Gorodischer. Now... please publish the rest.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SAFL #13: Gunnerkrigg Court

Early art style, chapter 1
My labeling of Gunnerkrigg Court as SAFL breaks two "rules" I set myself when beginning this project. The first was to avoid books belonging to ongoing series. It didn't seem fair to readers (or to myself) to include incomplete stories in this account. The second (far more important) decision I reached was to avoid including any books that readers would find inaccessible for some reason or other (the point of the project being, after all, to encourage readers who normally ignore sci-fi and fantasy to give these particular gems a shot). This has often meant excluding kids books (due to the fact that many adults will not read kids books, or young adult books on principle), and would certainly mean excluding most graphic novels.

The child friendly webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court which seems far from ending certainly breaks a lot of rules. But it is absolutely worth your time.

I can spend hours discussing the gradual improvements in the striking artwork. I can talk endlessly about the use of mythology and fairy tales throughout the series. I can ramble about all that I've learned from Tom Siddell's management of the site in regards to eBooks, how to support authors, and my views on internet availability. All these points would probably make you say, "Huh, yeah, I should look into that" but then you'd forget eventually. No. That won't do.

Recent Annie: Chapter 34
The reason you should be reading Gunnerkrigg Court - the reason you should start reading it now - is because Tom Siddell is hands down the best storyteller I've come across in years.

This is a high bar to cross, and Gunnerkrigg Court has leapt over it easily. And when I say "the best storyteller", I mean the best. This is including Bartimaeus, this is including Wolf Hall, this is including the beginning of "Battlestar Galactica" (the end is pretty easy to surpass...). I'm not just saying that Siddell has written (and drawn) a good comic (though he has), I'm saying that he has written an excellent story, and in such a way that I am constantly in awe of his writing abilities.

Robot humor
Gunnerkrigg Court has everything. There's science fiction, there's fantasy, there are strong heroines, there's humor, there are gods and mythological creatures, there are robots and laser cows, and there's a bigger, looming story behind everything. Unlike many ongoing stories, Siddell manages to keep his readers confident in his ability to get the story to its conclusion. I've never wondered if Siddell has gotten lost on his way to solve mysteries introduced in the comic's earliest pages; I've never been concerned that Siddell is unsure of the story's future. Siddell seems to understand his characters through and through, and their development is both realistic and natural.

But it all comes back to storytelling, written or drawn. Siddell employs subtlety in a way that repeatedly astounds me. His characters feel alive. One wordless panel tells the reader more than twenty pages of standard exposition.

Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is my favorite webcomic is easy. Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is one of my favorite stories overall will, hopefully, encourage you to take the "plunge" and click on over to the archives (or read the lovely print books). This is a beautiful, fascinating, wonderfully entertaining story for adults and kids alike. Well worth the "rule" breaking.

Gunnerkrigg Court's Annie and Kat, chapter 6

Friday, April 6, 2012

SAFL #12: Redemption in Indigo

Original and enticing
A friend - upon noticing a clear preference for science fiction in her recent reads - once commented that she had found herself reading less fantasy, as it all seemed grounded in the same European-Medieval tradition. While my friend presented it somewhat bluntly and black-white, the truth is that fantasy is often deeply grounded in Western European models. This is not to dismiss that setting (I happen to have a particularly cherished spot on my literary shelf for the Medieval times), but cliches of any kind can grow quite tiresome. Even though my fantasy re-education is still at its start, I make a point to steer clear of a European domination and have sought out fantasies that belong to other schools of thought.

So far, the absolute best of these is Redemption in Indigo. Relatively short, Redemption in Indigo is a book that applies an old-school storytelling style narration that sneakily presents a whole world without really presenting, well, anything. Descriptions are fairly limited in scope and content for the most part, but despite this minimalist storytelling style, Karen Lord succeeds magnificently in exactly that field: storytelling. Concise and clean, Redemption in Indigo has a strange, fable-esque story, and is populated characters drawn in a fairy-tale like manner. The result is all around impressive, allowing the book to stand out as an excellent example of non-standard storytelling.

Redemption in Indigo is, ultimately, fantasy for those who have grown tired of fantasy cliches. The village setting, the character models and the overall story come through in a wonderfully original fashion alongside the mythological and fairy-tale styling. A fine example of quality fantasy literature, especially for those seeking something with a slightly different taste.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Worlds within worlds within words | The Golden Age

To say that I loved reading The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz would be an understatement. This is the book I've been waiting for: that fantastic experience that caught me off guard and absolutely enchanted me. When I talk about wanting books that challenge and surprise me, I'm talking about this. I'm talking about a book as beautiful, as confusing, and as magical as The Golden Age.

Layers and layers of stories
I know this isn't a book for everyone. I know it's a book that has frustrated some readers with its digression, its stories within stories within stories, with its disconnect, and even with its distinct storytelling style. But it's a novel that appealed to the fantasy-lover within me (and in one particular story, even to my personal sci-fi lover), a novel with a lyrical and light writing style, and wondrous ideas. The novel's structure reminded me of everything I love about stories - the way they digress, the way they fit around each other, and the way they tie back together (or don't).

The back of the book would describe the novel as a "travelogue". I found myself thinking of it more as a very descriptive story. The narrator relates to us what he saw and encountered on the unnamed island in a style that one Goodreads reviewer criticized for being all "tell" and no "show". But given the focus of the book on storytelling and language and words, I was not surprised by this telling. Ajvaz creates a lovely miniature world before the reader and hands it off gently. I felt like Ajvaz was sharing something with me, sitting next to me, smirking as I tried to find my bearings in his multi-layered world.

I can easily divide the book into two parts. The first focuses more on straight-up descriptions of the island - a few anecdotes and references, but it's mostly Ajvaz building the island and its world. The second (which does have a small overlap with the world-building) is more storytelling itself. Ajvaz's focus on language melts away into stories that twist around and rise up from the depths of each other. To a certain degree, this writing style reminded me of the wonderful World's End (Volume 8 of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman), in that it houses many levels of stories within stories and is told in a similarly magical tone.

If I had to level any complaints against this beautiful book, I would have to admit that the ending is abrupt. It's bad enough that I didn't want the book to end at all, but like any book of this kind, there can be no true cut-off. Ajvaz himself, in referencing the internal stories, admits that stories can go on forever and ever. You can always go deeper. You can always find another story that relates. You can always keep the magic going.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

SAFL #11: The Golden Age

I'll be posting more about this one in a couple of days, but even after several days of thinking about it and writing about it, I'm still amazed by how incredible this novel is. Heavily focused on the magic of words and stories, The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz has that fantastic quality that makes it the very definition of SAFL.

The Golden Age seems to begin in a somewhat standard fashion - the narrator tells us of a wonderful and exotic island. Soon, though, fantasy elements make their way into the story and internal tales begin to twist and turn around each other, eventually overtaking the original narrative. This makes for fairy-tale like stories that contain within them enough fantasy (and even science fiction, in one substory) to transform the novel into something utterly magical and beautiful.

There are many lovely and quote-worthy sentences in the book (see here), but this one has to be my favorite:
I have noticed that a lot of literary critics are bothered by the mixing of genres; indeed, some of them are so easily offended in this regard that they experience distress when faced with trifles like the use in a passage of fiction of concepts of theory (as if there were some fundamental difference between stories of people, animals, plants and objects on the one hand and stories of concepts of the other). -p. 187

Sunday, February 19, 2012

SAFL #8-10: A few classics

When I think of potential Science and Fantasy Literature candidates, there are a few that are so clearly classics - cornerstones - of the genre. These are books I'm nervous to go into too much depth about in part because they've been done by people much more qualified than myself, but also because it's been so long since I've read them that sometimes the finer details escape me.

But the fact that each of these classics managed to completely blow me away is not something I've forgotten.

SAFL #8: On the sci-fi end, we've got Ursula K. Le Guin's stupendous The Left Hand of Darkness. This is a book that challenged my typical understanding of sci-fi. A book so wonderfully written, so fully complete and so diverse, The Left Hand of Darkness cannot fail to surprise and enchant readers. Le Guin is an excellent storyteller, creating realistic and interesting characters, raising fascinating social questions and preferring a more subtle, quiet form of writing to the bombastic style that characterizes many pulp sci-fi books. A classic in its genre, and a wonderful work of literature overall.

SAFL #9: On the fantasy end, I find myself returning to some of those old-school kids classics. In this case, the book is Michael Ende's wondrous The Neverending Story. The first book I ever properly summarized and reviewed in my then-new review notebook, it was also one of few books that managed to keep its status in my memory years later. A rich, fantastic book, The Neverending Story is as much about the magic of literature and stories as it is about its main characters. This is one I'll often return to in bits and pieces (by opening a random page and reading short passages) and one that will likely never leave my memory for long. A beautiful, magical story.

SAFL #10: Finally, we have a book that can certainly be counted as one of the high-water marks of science fiction... but one that I sometimes think blurs the lines between sci-fi and fantasy. Frank Herbert's Dune is intelligent, fascinating and shines in its focus on world-building. While it comes from an earlier age of sci-fi, it never feels trite, instead remaining as interesting and entertaining to readers today as it must have been years ago.  Dune is a book partially marred by disappointing sequels and by its occasionally dry style, but it creates one of the finest worlds in science fiction, strong central characters, and an incredibly well-written, good story.

Monday, January 23, 2012

SAFL Roundup: How to justify

Much like the very concept of SAFL, I'm stealing this idea directly from Space Station Mir. For those who may have forgotten (due to my disappointingly sporadic updates regarding this "project"), SAFL (Science and Fantasy Literature) seeks to name 20 powerhouse sci-fi and fantasy books that deserve to be ranked as straight-up Literature. I was naive at first, convinced that I'd be able to name twenty such books easily, without too much effort.

I was wrong. What I took on as a slight, light challenge, turned into an almost vicious determination to find books that qualify. My goals shifted as the project grew - I decided to minimize the number of young adult or kids books to be included in the list, I decided to try to find as many original proposals as possible, and to pick books that could be universally viewed as worthy recipients of the "Literature" stamp.

When I started seeking out SAFL, I was more open to including young adult or kids books in my list. Seeing as A Wrinkle in Time and The Giver are the first books that come to mind when I think of quality science fiction that has stood the test of time, these both made the early cut. The fact that both books are geared towards children and helped shape my perception of literature and science fiction in particular is only an asset, in my mind. The two books are intelligent, entertaining, well-written and truly timeless.

Among the adult books, though, there's a slight divide regarding my own definition of SAFL. On the one hand I have straight-up science fiction - books that undoubtedly belong to that genre but transcend it due to higher quality or classic status. These are books like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End or Stanislaw Lem's excellent Solaris. On the other end there are books that incorporate fantasy or sci-fi within their more standard stories, books that perhaps have an easier time appealing to audiences unused to sci-fi and fantasy. Here I recommended One Hundred Years of Solitude (literature by anyone's measure, fantasy by mine) and the sadly underrated The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years. And then Flatland just lives in a world of its own.

In the space of a year, I have managed to name and justify only seven books that I feel belong to the Literature camp. But there are a lot more, I'm just not posting about them. Some, it's true, don't fully deserve to be called literature, but are worth discussing for their shuffles between the two worlds. Others are classics I greatly enjoyed, but read so long ago I feel uncomfortable writing about them now that most of the details have faded from memory (Dune and The Lord of the Rings come to mind...). Furthermore, it's easy to notice my personal skew towards science fiction as opposed to fantasy, something both unintentional and misleading.

I'd like to fix these problems. I'm still searching for twenty SAFL titles, still searching for books that maybe don't get the readership they deserve because of their genre, still looking for books that incorporate science fiction or fantasy into an otherwise "literary" story, still looking for sci-fi and fantasy that makes my mind bend in a way only quality literature can. I just need to make a point to discuss my findings a bit more periodically.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

SAFL #7: Solaris

It's been a while since I've done a SAFL (Science and Fantasy Literature) title but I recently finished reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and my mind is sufficiently blown that it's quite obvious that Solaris is SAFL. And excellent SAFL at that.

I specifically chose to read Solaris in Hebrew right around the time I first heard of the book. More specifically, upon learning that this was a classic case of double-translation gone wrong. Solaris, originally written in Polish, was translated into French not long after publication. The translation into English, for some unknown, godforsaken reason, went through French and is by most accounts atrocious.

Luckily, I faced no such problem with the Hebrew translation (which is surprising, given the increasing propensity to employ double-translations into Hebrew... but that's a rant for a separate post). I bought the book back in June and it has been quietly awaiting my attention since. I don't understand what took me so long to get to it. It's the kind of book that you can't quite let go of.

Solaris can as easily be classified philosophical or psychological fiction as it can be classified sci-fi. In the finest example of sci-fi being used as a mirror - or even as a tool - for dealing with bigger, more fundamental issues than simply aliens or star-travel, Solaris digs deep regarding the definition of man and questions of identity. And communication. And even insanity. Yes, this is all within the framework of one of the most pulp sci-fi settings ever (hyper advanced black sludge alien, anyone?), but it transcends it incredibly. It's no surprise that even in Israel - where sci-fi and fantasy are genres typically marginalized and separated from the mainstream (to the extreme) - Solaris is marketed as straight-up literature and refuses to be boxed into an (unjustly) ignored definition. Hopefully this will lead to many more readers enjoying Lem's fascinating novel.

As for the English speaking world... I can only be thankful that there is, at least, the audio book. Solaris is a classic of sci-fi for a reason... I hate to think that this masterpiece is marred only by a notoriously poor translation. Here's to hoping for a quality Polish-to-English translation to be published sometime in the near future.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Out of your Plane you go!

Image from Wikipedia
Disclosure: I tried to read Flatland a while back but somehow stalled, despite quite liking it. I never really forgot about it but earlier this week I started reading it from the beginning and... whew. What a hilarious, interesting, confusing and bizarre little book. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself constantly highlighting paragraphs and taking notes (on Artemis, my Sony Reader). In part thanks to that extensive notetaking and the very nature of the book, this might be an almost-review scale ramble.  

***Profanity warning
***Also, some readers may consider the following (fake) summary of the book as a spoiler, so be warned.

To merely describe Flatland as a math book is only doing it a service. If someone had told me that Flatland had so much philosophy and satire, I'd have probably said, "Uhh, no thanks." But instead, I was pretty much given the following description of Flatland by someone who read the book for math class as a teen:
There's like, this line or something, and he's taken to the second dimension. At first he's like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY" but then he realizes it's true, so he goes to tell his friends, "Hey, there's a second dimension!" and all the first dimension people are like "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY". Then he tells the second dimension people, "Hey maybe there's a third dimension too!" and all the second dimension people are like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY."
To say the least, this description had me sold. Then again, I won't pretend I wasn't disappointed by the lack of profanity (though "Fool! Madman! Irregular!" is pretty splendid in itself). But it turns out Flatland is a lot more than just a book about geometry (and the plot doesn't quite follow the above description, but that's irrelevant for all intents and purposes). It's a book bursting more with ideas, some mind-bending concepts, and the very concept of the mind-bending.

One of the first things I noticed was the notion of the "Irregular", essentially a significantly deformed perversion of the Flatland mentality. In a world where everyone is perfectly angular, where the number of sides you have indicate your social class, anyone "irregular" is:
from his birth scouted by his own parents, derided by his brothers and sisters, neglected by the domestics, scorned and suspected by society, and excluded from all posts of responsibility, trust and useful activity. His every movement is jealously watched by the police till he comes of age and presents himself for inspect; the he is either destroyed, if he is found to exceed the fixed margin of deviation, or else immured in a Government Office as a clerk of the seventh class[...]
This subclass intrigued me, particularly after it became obvious that Flatland has a strict and rigid hierarchy. Take, for instance, the position of women in Flatland. It's... not particularly good. Because women are straight lines, they are also sharp (and dangerous) points. Therefore, laws like this exist in Flatland:
Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus's Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed.
And then, sentiments like these exists:
[S]ince women are deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion, they ought no longer to be considered as rational, nor receive any mental education. [...] My fear is that, with the best intentions, this policy has been carried so far as to react injuriously on the Male Sex.
So the problem isn't that women are no longer educated at all, but rather that it might harm men. At the end of the chapter, our narrator proposes reinstating education for women. But the reasoning is so that it may benefit men. So not so noble after all...

It's only in the second part of the book that the math takes over. In a lot of senses, it reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time, probably because it goes into trippy dimensional explanations. It made my head hurt, but it also made me think. Which is kind of the point. The end of the book is frustrating, in that I was frustrated (like our narrator) that the citizens of Flatland did not realize the truth about the dimensions. It's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment.

But this is only ever internal disappointment. Setting aside the questionable morals of the Flatland world, Flatland as a book is excellent. It's cool quasi sci-fi (or particularly mathematical fantasy), it's a fascinating social satire (at least, I hope it's satire... sometimes it's so seriously done it's hard to know...), and is full of interesting philosophical questions. It's an easy enough book to read (being very short and very plainly written), but it's bursting with complex ideas that are just as relevant and confusing today as they may have been in the 1880s.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

5. The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years - Unexpected displacement

I first encountered Chingiz Aitmatov's The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years thanks to a few great posts by the Amateur Reader. In it, I didn't even notice this sentence: "The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years has, intermixed with Yedigei's story, a genuine science fiction plot, about alien contact." So basically, when I finally got around to reading this great book, the sci-fi story came as a complete surprise.

The camel get center stage on my edition
To call The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years a sci-fi novel would be... wrong. It's not. It has a sci-fi story that, as the Amateur Reader explains much more eloquently than I ever could, serves as more of a metaphor than anything else. It's a book that could easily fall into that annoyingly titled "literary fiction" category - full of stories, vivid characters and strong writing. But it does, at the same time, carry within it, some curious sci-fi. Not particularly original, a little unrelated to the rest of the book and not quite enough of it, but it's there.

What is SAFL if not literature that incorporates science fiction or fantasy? Because that's precisely what The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years does - it slips in this small sci-fi story without blinking an eye, without really letting it take over the story. And the rest of it? Wonderful. It's an interesting and different book, quite unlike just about every other book I've ever read. So deeply rooted in its setting (Kazakhstan), it completely displaced me. And isn't that what the greatest SAFL titles do?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

4. Childhood's End - One of those classics

To say that I loved Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke would be putting it a bit strongly. I liked the book. It was interesting, it was confusing and it has hovered in my mind since I first read it. I will certainly read it again one day.

But part of the reason that I'll read it again is because I don't remember it very well. Scenes - yes. I remember a few scenes particularly well and in a very positive light, but I feel like I'm missing part of the point of the book. Childhood's End contained within it a lot of complexities and I feel like only a year and a bit later, I don't quite have the grasp on them.

Why, then, am I recommending this as a SAFL title? If this isn't one of my all-time favorite sci-fi books, why place it on the list at all?

Because "literature" (that nasty word) often includes titles that may not be every reader's favorite. Literature takes into account a lot more than my own difficulties in understanding what is no doubt an excellent example of quality science fiction and storytelling. It takes into account the voices of many readers and critics. It looks at the history of the book, the overall reception and the impact it has had on the world - not just readers, but the books that may have followed it.

Childhood's End is a classic of sci-fi, a book that comes well-recommended (rightly so) and serves as a wonderful example of alien sci-fi. It's well-written, it's interesting and it isn't of the rambling school of science fiction. And I did really like it. It's a great book - a classic and is certainly worth reading.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

3. The Giver - Choices

"But I’ve never been a writer of fairy tales. And if I’ve learned anything through that river of memories, it is that we can’t live in a walled world, in an “only us, only now” world where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color and diversity would disappear feelings for other humans would no longer be necessary. Choices would be obsolete."
-From Lois Lowry's Newbery Acceptance Speech

The Giver is the kind of book that I actually read as a kid, as a slightly older kid and as an adult, where the level of admiration for the book did not once diminish. The thing is, The Giver is clearly a kid book. Simplistically written and plotted, it's meant for a child reader. This does not mean, however, that adult readers cannot appreciate and enjoy it.

The Giver is not the first in its genre. In a sense, the dystopia it presents is fairly tame (when compared to some of the more recent, overwrought examples...), but starkly important when one realizes that the matter of choice, of individualism and free thought are all ideas that we - and the generations after us - will need to maintain. It's a story about growing up, about a world that at first seems almost identical to our own and gradually shifts as the reader realizes the differences.

This is dystopian literature in the true sense of the word - to almost every member of Jonas' society it is a utopia. To Jonas and The Giver it isn't. It's a book that inspires thought, continues to speak to readers across the generations, and one that deserves its status as one of the greatest works of children's fiction (or science fiction, or dystopian fiction...) to have been published.
"The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.

It is very risky.

But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."
-From Lois Lowry's Newbery Acceptance Speech

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Seven years of rain

This counts as fantasy
My father is a slow reader. Reading Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece was a project for him - several years of careful, deep reading that never became difficult. Ask him for his favorite book, he answers comfortably: Cien años de soledad.

Why, you may ask, is such a book in a list of fantasy literature? Readers unused to García's writing style may think this is simply due to the idea "magical realism", often tossed around when García's name is mentioned. It's not a wrong phrasing, but truth be told: One Hundred Years of Solitude is fantasy. And wonderful fantasy at that. Things happen in a strange and mysterious way, all without a single logical explanation from the author.

A few weekends ago, the subject came up. My father mentioned that one aspect he loved so much about the book was that:
It could appear to be completely normal and everything would be entirely realistic and all of a sudden something happens that doesn't make any sense.
"Like seven years of rain," I mentioned. Yes, now he remembered. Seven straight, completely acceptable years of rain. Or a character living forever. Or the wonderful ending.

This is not a man who likes fantasy. Not fantasy as it's typically perceived, at least. Almost every reader I've encountered who has read One Hundred Years of Solitude would probably balk at the idea of putting it on a list of fantasy greats, but I call it as it is.

If I mentioned in my definition of fantasy that Lord of the Rings is fantastic without being magical, here is a book that is entirely magical and entirely fantastic, perhaps without being pure fantasy. Much as my father said: things just happen. And as they happen, it makes sense. Except for how it absolutely doesn't. It's this fantastic quality to the storytelling. Pure magic.

Friday, January 28, 2011

1. Time Quartet - Good vs. Evil

The Time Quartet
I originally didn't want to include too many young adult books in this list of powerhouse science and fantasy literature books (SAFL) but I inevitably find myself turning to young adult classics, and specifically Madeleine L'Engle when times are tough. Or when I need to name excellent science fiction. To make sure you get your bang for your buck (these books are short), I'll refer to the whole Time Quartet (ignoring the fifth wheel An Acceptable Time, which fits neither mood nor quality of the other books...).

I have a long and close relationship with these books, one that no matter how many years go by, I'll always be able to rely on. This is a series that I was absolutely obsessed with in 4th grade (and a bit of 5th). One of my best friends and I would sit for hours and hours, pretending we were the characters and could bend time and space as they could. I recall during one history unit, we needed to create characters and write a background story for them. We decided to be Murry twins Dennys (him) and Sandy (me), getting so into our characters that on a class field-trip (several days away from home), my family sent me a letter signed with all the character names in place of themselves.

The first lesson
This introduction doesn't do much justice to these books. The fact is that they're strange and confusing at times, and to pretend that these books didn't deeply impact the way I viewed the world would be completely wrong of me. Like the picture included here (and discussed at length here), every page of A Wrinkle in Time held some fantastic truth for me to hold close. The Time Quartet isn't like the Wikipedia description. It doesn't ever feel like there's religious subtext (I honestly have no idea where they pull this stuff out of...), nor are they books that necessarily promote, well, evil. In fact, the three books that make up the original Time Trilogy (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet) all come down to one very simple premise: good vs. evil. Guess who wins.

There's an odd book out here, and it's Many Waters. Though taking place chronologically before A Swiftly Tilting Planet, it focuses on two characters who until that point got very little screen time - Murry twins Sandy and Dennys. It's a book that focuses more on fate and love as a grand, dramatic statement rather than a simple battle of "good vs. evil". Hints appear (good angels versus bad), but it's a very different story and wonderfully fresh in that sense. Reading it third in the quartet worked well for me... it showed me something completely different.

Any reader who seeks quality science fiction or fantasy needs to look no further than L'Engle's wonderful series. Though adults may not be as heavily influenced by these books as I was as a child, the Time Quartet is a cornerstone in science fiction for younger and older readers alike.

Monday, January 17, 2011

It should be called "Science Literature"

In a post about 2011 reading goals, Space Station Mir mentioned something worth noting:
...I would like to dedicate most of it to fantasy and science fiction. I feel that I haven't been reading enough of the two genres that have often brought me the most pleasure and I am also on a mission to discover more high quality writing in the genres. [...] I hope to be able to pinpoint 10-20 science fiction/fantasy books that I would also consider literature. 
When I think about it, this sentiment ties into everything that's sad about these two (albeit different, but inexplicably tied) genres. For many readers, these are genres that bring us pleasure. At some point, though, there seems to be this feeling that sci-fi and fantasy are genres that aren't serious and are not "literature". I don't want to get into the definition of literature, though. It's a subject that crops up often in my posts and book thoughts, but every time I try to define it, I find myself failing to do it justice. Still, I can try, perhaps, to explain why I get so frustrated when I encounter things like this. Ultimately, literature is made up of good books and who's to say you don't have books of this kind that happen to take place in outer space, or have magic in them?

Like every genre, sci-fi and fantasy have a lot of crappy pulp and some awesome literature. That's how it works. Not everything is amazing, the vast majority sucks and we need to do the dirty work of finding what we like, what we can call good, and we ought to give to others. So I'd like to be able to give Space Station Mir (and all other readers out there) a hand.

The goal is simple: to name (and justify) 20 powerhouse science fiction or fantasy or bizarre or non-standard-"literature" books that I feel definitely fall into the literature category ("Science and Fantasy Literature" - or SAFL). Maybe I'll even discover some good books along the way.