Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science fiction. 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?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Broken Earth... more like The Perfect Books

This isn't really going to be a real review. I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a real review of such a powerful series, nor do I think I really need to. Others have written intelligently about N. K. Jemisin's brilliant fantasy (almost sci-fi-esque) series.

Frankly, I just want to gush.

Do you know how long it's been since I read an entire series and adored all of its parts? I genuinely cannot recall. Most of the time, series decay along the way for me. Or there's an outright dud along the way. With The Broken Earth, I kept waiting for the sequels to disappoint. I kept expecting the sequels to disappoint me, somehow, but they never did. The Fifth Season was brilliant. The Obelisk Gate was brilliant. And The Stone Sky was brilliant. The entire series (as a single entity) was brilliant. It's a series that feels utterly confident in itself and unlike many other titles in its fantasy genre, it's a series that knows exactly where it's going. Having read the three books relatively close together (I truly forced myself to wait at least two months between each book, just to make sure I didn't get disappointed by a "binge"), the clarity of the three titles as a single series is made even more obvious. It's a refreshing sight in a genre that is cluttered with books that believe that more depth means more.

Because The Broken Earth doesn't infodump. Heck, it doesn't even answer all of its own questions. There is potential here for sixteen more books, if Jemisin chooses to write them. How did the world order become as it is? What happens afterwards? How does the world change? How does the world rebuild? How do the cultures and traditions that develop come about? There is so much more, but the lack of high-resolution details never feels like Jemisin is cheating her readers out of information. On the contrary, it feels like a reminder that fantasy can have sharp, in-depth worldbuilding without giving readers every single detail. The books end up feeling more tightly written... and clearer too.

It's a series brimming with real-life inspirations. The way that history is warped and passed down felt so real, in a way that most fantasy novels often fail at (by having too highly detailed "legends" that are clearly meant to foreshadow or serve as outright exposition). In The Broken Earth, the pieces of history feel like they contribute more to my cultural understanding rather than any plot-based need. In The Stone Sky in particular, chapter endings felt like they were there to remind readers of real-world racial injustices rather than foreshadow any particular plot point. (Though, I should point out, they always sort of did. In a very quiet way.) (There are a lot of very important other messages about persecution and oppression. They are not overdone and yet they are also not subtle. It is very well done. This series is great.)

It's also a series that despite its surface bleakness is brimming with hope and life. I can't get into more detail without spoiling a lot of the books, but know that The Broken Earth feels like the series that restored my personal faith in the world. Books are powerful and this series is wonderful.

Gushing complete. For now.

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.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Brave, bizarre, disappointing | Among Others

I'll say this - Jo Walton does deserve some praise and respect. Not only does Among Others break free of many of fantasy and sci-fi's traditional tropes, it does so through crisp and readable writing. It deals with issues in a way that doesn't feel like it's "Dealing with Issues". It has characters who are foreign and local, straight and gay, disabled, complicated, realistic. Unfortunately, much as I read through it with some degree of interest, the book ultimately disappointed. Really disappointed. Not simply because of some weird stylistic choices Walton made, or because of the book's structure, or the general lack of characterization, or even because of the extremely weak and frustrating ending (though this is the primary reason). At the end of the day, Among Others read like a blog, not a novel. And I'm sorry to say that sometimes that's just a bad thing.

There were a lot of reasons I read Among Others late into the night. The style is very brisk, very contemporary, very... believable. Even with the fantasy elements, even as it's infused with a healthy dose of sci-fi fandom, Among Others is written in a natural teen tone, with natural thoughts and feelings and behaviors, all expressed extremely believably. Sometimes even too believably. Mori thinks and writes about her love of sci-fi, the fairies she sees, her family, sexual thoughts, friendships and more. The flat-written parts of Mori's diary were utterly realistic, but they were interspersed with that all-too-familiar nonsense of having quoted speech in what is supposed to be a diary. The real-time versus post-time storytelling felt skewed and awkward, as it usually does in "recorded" stories.

But then there's the matter of the story. And the characters. Because my true frustration and disappointment from Among Others stems from here. The entire first half of Among Others builds a general background story for Mori to live in - we are introduced to her family dynamic, her fantasy world, her status as a "cripple" (which we know is from a relatively recent accident). We're introduced to half sketched characters - Mori's sci-fi loving father, her trio of utterly personality-less aunts, both her grandfathers, her "close" aunt from her mother's side, her schoolmates, her friends... and of course, her absent mother. These characters are loosely drawn at the best of times, having a clearly defined personality trait for the sake of "character", but not much beyond. The characters fit in nicely as background items, but though they certainly felt believable, I never felt like I could understand them fully. Their motivations are unclear. Their behaviors are inconsistent. Believable, yes. But not real.

Place these characters in strategic locations and you'd expect to get a plot. But there's no plot. There's a bit of story, yes - Mori's struggles to fit in at school, to find friends in her sci-fi book club, to move past the accident that left her disabled, the accident that killed her twin sister, to avoid all contact with her mother... These are story elements, but when Walton tries to tie them together to form a plot, the whole thing sort of collapses. The entire premise of the final magical climax felt utterly ridiculous, so baseless, that I was certain my library's digital copy must be damaged. I was certain there must have been parts missing, because nothing in the ending felt remotely developed. Quite frankly, it fell from the sky, and not in a good way. And the final lines were even worse, a clumsy attempt at resolving everything that really resolved nothing. I finished the book and wanted to throw it. Really. Throw it.

Is magic meant here as a metaphor? Probably. Is Mori's love of sci-fi meant to show us of her desire to find new and better worlds to live in? Maybe. Does it come together to form a cohesive novel? Absolutely not. Among Others has some wonderful, brilliant moments scattered throughout, but I cannot by any means refer to it as a good book. It's nostalgic in the best of ways and it's given me a lot of classic sci-fi book recommendations, but I have no idea beyond the nostalgia and perhaps Mori's believable voice as to why it's received such high accolades. Yes, it's a brave book (to a certain degree), with the way it uses magic and sci-fi and the characters it includes and some of the half-themes it houses, but I won't pretend that overall it was anything other than a disappointment. I would love to see what Walton does with a real plot and some better developed characters, but Among Others? Just a shame.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Magic on other worlds | Trafalgar

There's a hint of "finally" in my discovery of Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by Amalia Gladhart). Not just because it's one of the better books I've read this year. Not even because I had to wait a few weeks between reading the first chapter in this book and the rest. Mostly, it's a feeling of finally finding what I'm looking for - high quality, well-written, unique fantastic sci-fi from an interestingly non-Anglo perspective. It's almost as though Gorodischer has tailor-made this novel-in-stories for me. Decades before my birth. And continents away. Well played, Angélica Gorodischer, well played.

If you're looking for information on Trafalgar, you'll be hard pressed to find any on its back cover. Rather than giving hints about the stories found within its pages, the blurb instead aims to set a mood. Relax, it says. Open your mind. Take in something new and different and maybe just a bit unexpected. This might be frustrating for some readers (indeed, I personally found it to be an annoying gimmick-like choice), but it does set the mood fairly well. Because these aren't whip-fast, neck-breaking stories. These aren't swashbuckling sci-fi tales to set your hair on fire. These are coffee-shop stories that happen to take place on other worlds, with other cultures, and other frames of reference.

The first thing of note in Trafalgar is its wonderful clarity. A lot of books (particularly sci-fi) stumble over how to build their world without resorting to bloated, heavy-handed descriptions, but Gorodischer leaps over this hurdle lightly, opting instead for a casually limited scope. Because each story takes place on a different world, and because the stories are being told directly to another character, they remain small and relatively undeveloped. But we don't expect there to be a lot of descriptions of the places, the buildings, the people. That wouldn't be very conversational, would it? By making these actual stories, Gorodischer is able to get away with a crisper, cleaner storytelling style. I loved it.

The stories themselves touch on such a wide array of topics that it's hard to even classify them. Our titular main character, Trafalgar, doesn't seem to find anything wrong with this either. His stories aren't quite adventures, really - he's a businessman, after all. These are just the odd things that sometimes happen on his business trips. We get glimpses of wonders through this very particular filter.

There were two things I kept finding myself comparing Trafalgar to: one with a bemused excitement and one with a fair share of annoyance. The first was related to the way certain phrases and philosophies of the book resembled Star Trek (with a particular resemblance to TNG, which would not exist for another decade as of this book's original publication). In more than one story, Gorodischer touches on themes that often crop up in Star Trek, such as various cultural distinctions and even ideas resembling the Prime Directive. The stories were just light enough to keep me from getting too bogged down in them, but also thoughtful enough to keep me thinking throughout them. Also afterwards.

The third comparison is both the strongest, and the most frustrating. Because, though a much better book, Trafalgar very strongly reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, a book I've been struggling with for many, many months. Both are novels in stories, surrounding the somewhat bizarre travels of seemingly ordinary people in outer space (engineers in The Cyberiad, a businessman in Trafalgar), to odd, yet often very human, societies. Superficially, this makes these books extremely similar. Except whereas The Cyberiad is utterly absurd - and seems perfectly aware of this - Trafalgar is subtly whimsical. The Cyberiad drags on and on, while Trafalgar ends quickly and as lightly as it opened. The Cyberiad piles on more and more details; Trafalgar focuses purely on its storytelling.

This, of course, is Trafalgar's major flaw. A book that is so slim and so heavily tilted towards a storytelling form cannot dig quite so deep in other areas. World building is obviously low on Gorodischer's list of priorities in this book, but so is character development. The characters are just that - characters - but they move through their stories comfortably. They didn't feel out-of-place or particularly stiff. They don't necessarily leap from the page, but... it works. Within the context of Trafalgar's storytelling style, it makes sense.

I enjoyed Trafalgar. If it had just a bit more of a firmer impact on me, I might have even said that it was brilliant. But it falls just shy of that claim. Instead it will stand as a wonderful book with a lot of interesting ideas and vividly imagined stories. Easily recommendable.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sci-fi shorts

A couple years back, I spent a day scouring Gutenberg for all kinds of free goodies. Specifically, I wanted to see what public domain science fiction and fantasy there was. I soon realized that the copyrights of a lot of old sci-fi magazines had long expired, and that these stories were all freely available. I didn't download all the available stories, obviously, but I downloaded somewhere in the realm of one hundred, opting for those with the silliest and most dramatic titles ("Spies Die Hard!", "Martians Never Die", etc.). It was a fun way to pass an afternoon, but my attention span is exceedingly short and I mostly forgot about the stories and never actually got around to reading them.

I started to fix that recently when I decided to organize my (no-longer-newish) Reader Seshat (a fine heir to Artemis' noble legacy). Now I read a short story once every few nights, writing up a one-line assessment at the end for the sake of my own forgetfulness.

It's an interesting experience for a number of reasons. There's the obvious one: I'm reading old stories. And these are old, mostly pulp stories. This isn't literature at its finest. It's not even sci-fi at its finest. I think it's best described as sci-fi at its mediocre-ist. But the fact that these are typically sub-par stories makes the reading experience that much more interesting. I try to put myself in the shoes of whoever read these stories back in the 30s, or 40s. I see what type of writing style was popular at the time. I see which character cliches appear again and again. It's pretty amazing.

Then there's the entertainment factor. Because a lot of these stories are ridiculous, and I don't think they were necessarily intended to be so silly. But their outdated styles and exaggerated character portrayals make them a lot more laugh-out-loud funny. When taken in small doses, it's actually a whole lot of fun.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sci-fi vs. fantasy, revisited

In an interesting post over at, Steven Padnick writes in defense of "red matter":
Red matter is... the stuff that explains the science fiction in your story. Or, rather, the stuff that refuses to explain anything and just excuses the science fiction in your story. A single source origin story for everything impossible that you want to include, no matter how disparate and bizarre.
This premise is certainly thought-provoking, but is made even more intriguing by a later paragraph in the post:
But most science fiction isn’t really about the how. Most is about why we want the impossible to happen, and what the consequences are if it does. Wells, and Orwell, and Bradbury, and L’Engle used the impossible to comment on society, and government, and family, and love, and used only the barest explanation of how any of this was done.
Comments essentially raised the same eyebrows that I did: The moment there's an unexplained "scientific" tool to wash away any of the unbelievable occurrences, the story mostly moves from the "because it's the future, dammit" realm to "because it's magic, dammit" - to fantasy, essentially. It doesn't help that one of Padnick's leading examples is actually from a fantasy TV series...

Padnick isn't wrong that science-fiction deals with much bigger pictures than simple spaceships shooting at each other. Like most literature, sci-fi often uses the flexibility of its setting and its imagined future to drive home specific points about society, humankind, existence, etc. It's the approach towards sci-fi as something much more akin to fantasy that has me bemused. It reminds me of N. K. Jemisin's recent argument against magic systems because that essentially turns the story into sci-fi, except... backwards.

On the one hand, I believe in blurring genre definitions. I don't think there's anything wrong with fantasy and science appearing in the same work of fiction, I don't mind fantasy having scientific structures, and I really can't see anything wrong with having very out-there and scientifically unlikely sci-fi. On the other hand, I think that science fiction as a genre is rather clearly defined as its mysteries being explained by science. You can have a made-up particle that explains away your problems, but it still needs to be scientific, if not outright science. If your "red matter" falls apart under the microscope, then the book isn't really sci-fi - it's futuristic fantasy.

The truth is that once we accept genre-blurring, all of this is irrelevant. But as long as we have defined genres such as science-fiction and its (distant) cousin fantasy, there do need to be distinctions. And just because something takes place in outer space doesn't mean it's necessarily sci-fi. As one of my favorite examples, I happen to think Dune, for all its status as a sci-fi classic, is actually pure fantasy*. So I get what Padnick is trying to say, but for now, I must politely disagree and turn my head away from any kind of "red matter".

* But don't tell my brother. He "doesn't like fantasy", yet he loved Dune. I wouldn't want to ruin his innocence.

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, March 2, 2012

Sci-fi vs. fantasy

I recently heard this excellent distinction between the two genres.
Fantasy: Because it's magic, dammit! 
Sci-fi: Because it's the future, dammit!

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.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Links for the weekend

From an excellent guest post by Sharon T Rose over at Drying Ink about the relevance of science fiction:
Science fiction in all it incarnations steps outside of the usual and presents us with a fresh look at some things that are actually quite familiar to most of us. Star Trek is a classic example: all the issues and conflicts in the far-flung future make-believe were actually very relevant to the modern human audience. Class battles, racism, government, love and/or lust, culture clash, inequality ... those are all issues that you and I deal with in our everyday lives.
On another end of the genre scale, a case for the classics by the ever-thoughtful Amanda of Dead White Guys (hat tip Entomology of a Bookworm):
[Classic] authors spent a great deal of time addressing the evils they saw in society. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo attacked society’s treatment of the poor. Tolstoy’s meditations on serfdom speak to economic inequality in modern society. Dostoevsky addresses political oppression. Jane Austen and the Brontes all critique society’s treatment of women.
Finally, Biblioklept has a wonderful write-up about one of my all-time favorite books (A Wrinkle in Time, discussed here and here) in honor of the fiftieth anniversary edition:
Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways.

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.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fads in cyberspace

Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly. -p.58, Neuromancer
While William Gibson is best known for coining the term "cyberspace", he should (in my mind) really be remembered for predicting our modern internet culture, as is evidenced by the above quote...

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.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A sci-fi and fantasy story

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to walk around the Israeli Fantasy and Sci-fi Convention (ICon). It was an interesting experience, not least because of the rare opportunity to see Israeli fans of science fiction and fantasy. Though the ICon accommodates just about every medium for sci-fi and fantasy, I (of course) found myself more attracted to the bookish aspects of the convention.

The ICon offers a few outlets for book buying and I have to admit that all were tempting. One of the leading Israeli bookstore chains Tsomet Sfarim is a sponsor of the events and thus has a prominent tent right near the entrance of the events grounds. Within, readers can find the chain's entire sci-fi and fantasy stock spread before them in both English and Hebrew. I was surprised by the sheer amount of books in English offered, but soon realized that given the limited translations of science fiction and fantasy into Hebrew, most fans have had to make do with improving their English and reading the originals. Fans don't seem to mind whether or not they're buying an original or a translation: all that matters is reading the book.

But beyond this tent, a three minute walk away, other booths offer other treasures. One long set of tables offered heavily discounted books but across a wider variety of genres. Independent authors and publishers approached potential customers with their books, coaxing them to crack open the covers. One publishing booth boasted that their new book would soon be "interactive". When asked what exactly they mean by that, one of the sellers laughed and said, "Soon you'll be able to interact with the characters and the story on Facebook! Everything will be on Facebook!" His companion to the booth hastily added, "We hope. It's in development."

And then there was the used books booth. Here, again, one could see Hebrew and English titles shoved alongside each other. Unlike Tsomet Sfarim's booth, I was able to find books all across the spectrum - classic sci-fi, not-so-popular fantasy, standards, newbies, oldies, obscure books... everything. The bookseller - who seemed to know the prices of all his books off the top of his head - told me proudly, "You think this is a lot? This is only a tenth of what I've got in my store!" I took his advertising bookmark and resolved to visit the store soon.

But it was on the other side of his booth that I found the true treasures. Here, the bookseller had spread out his assortment of collectible and valuable items: first editions, spiffy DVDs, elegant editions of popular books... this was the shelf. And on this shelf, I also found the loveliest leather-bound edition of the excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, as autographed by Ursula K. Le Guin herself. Unable to contain myself any longer, I called the bookseller over. His tension at finding me handling this beautiful book abated once he noticed the care with which I held the volume. "I have to know... how much for this one?" I asked, holding the book close. He looked at me somewhat sadly, recognizing, I suppose, my age deficiency as an indicator of my potential income. "1200 NIS*," he said, and I slowly returned the book to its appropriate place.

"Maybe next year," I said, "when I'm a billionaire..."

The lovely collectibles/expensive shelf
* Approximately $330

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Breaking rules for Stanislaw Lem

Buying The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem broke one of my rules - never acquire more than one book by an unread author. That's the tipping point, in my mind, when the stacks begin to grow for no reason whatsoever. That and the oh-so-dangerous sales at Hebrew Book Week. But something about The Cyberiad made me forget my rule, even though Solaris is still on my shelf, waiting for me. First was the fact that it was available at Border's going-out-of-business sale (bizarre that Borders had it in the first place, awesome that it made its way to my hands). Then the second reason nailed it home: the first story entertained the crap out of me.

The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories. Sort of. I think. Because it looks like the characters are going to be consistent throughout. But these are definitely stories, individual bites of brilliance. Even from the first pages, it's clear to me that Lem has a sharp, wonderful mind. It's everything I love about old-school science fiction - the wit, the intelligence, the quick drama. Quite refreshing.

I'm not going to read The Cyberiad any time soon. First Solaris (after all, I did buy it a few months earlier) and then I'll be able to devote my attention to these stories. And knowing my flightiness and general impatience with short stories, I wouldn't be surprised if I read the book sporadically and in a most disorganized manner. Still, I'm pleased I broke my rule for once - I'd rather like to reread the opening story - How the World was Saved. That's already worth it.

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.