Cranky Christopher Priest’s The Islanders Wins BFSA Award for Best Novel

The Islanders by Christopher Priest: BFSA Award winner for Best NovelNo Word Yet if Garnering a BFSA Award Untwists His Knickers

So author Christopher Priest’s latest novel, The Islanders, has won the 2011 British Science Fiction Association (BFSA) award for best novel; maybe that will assuage his feelings that fomented the brouhaha over the Clarke Award. The BFSA awards are similar to the Hugo Awards here in the United States – fans of the genre can vote on the awards, which are held at the annual British science fiction convention, Eastercon; the latest Eastercon just wrapped up last week.

I always thought Eastercon sounded like a religious youth group gathering. In fact the first time I heard of it, I assumed that’s what it was, and questioned some friends intently as to why they were participating in such an event, given their proclivities at cons, which are, um, anything but biblical in nature. More devilish, if you get my meaning.

But I digress, and have no time for that; life and work that pays the bills have co-opted time usually spent on my blogging hobby this week, so this is going to be relatively short in sweet. As in, here are the awards, with no further commentary. Except that is, to praise Locus, which had the BFSA award winners list posted even before the BFSA folk posted them on their site; guess they are still recovering from Eastercon. If they are anything like the aforementioned con-going friends, it may take a few days’ downtime.

Best Novel

The Islanders, Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

Cyber Circus, Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown, China Miéville (Macmillan)
By Light Alone, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama, Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction

“The Copenhagen Interpretation”, Paul Cornell (Asimov’s July 2011)

“The Silver Wind”, Nina Allan (Interzone #233)
“Afterbirth”, Kameron Hurley (www.kameronhurley.com)
“Covehithe”, China Miéville (The Guardian)
“Of Dawn”, Al Robertson (Interzone #235)

Best Non-Fiction

The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition, John Clute, Peter Nicholls, David Langford, & Graham Sleight, eds. (SF Gateway)

Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not as We Know It, Mike Ashley (British Library)
Review of Arslan, M.J. Engh & Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, Ian Sales, ed. (SF Mistressworks)
Pornokitsch, Jared Shurin & Anne Perry, eds. (Pornokitsch)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who, Graham Sleight, Tony Keen, & Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

ArtisDominic Harman BFSA award cover art for author Ian Whates' novel The Noise Revealed (book cover)Best Art

Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed, Dominic Harman (Solaris)

Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow, Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

One Colum Paget Wins James White Short Story Award

James White was a science fiction author from the land of bards and scribes, Ireland. My mother’s family originally hails from Northern Ireland; I still have cousins over there. This may explain a few things about me.

Anyway, the James White Award is an annual short story competition open to non-professional writers with the winner chosen by a panel of judges made up of professional authors and editors. Story submissions must be original and previously unpublished, and entry is free; winners are announced at Eastercon each year.

Colum Paget’s story, “Invocation of the Lurker” garnered the award this year; look for publication of the story in Interzone in the near future. Paget also gets £200 for his efforts. You can read more about Paget and the shorlist for this year’s James White award by following that link. Doncha’ know.

Nominees Named for 2012 Hugo Awards and John W. Campbell Award

Jo Walton's Among Others (book cover): nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award for Best NovelScience Fiction Fandom Speaks with the Hugo Awards: Latest George R. R. Martin Opus, Yet Another Zombie Novel Up for Best Novel

Again with the zombies — but then given the fact that the Hugo Awards are determined by fans, perhaps not surprising.

If you’re like me – middle-aged and cranky – you’re done with vampires and zombies. This is the most horrible aspect of aging, even more so than entropy gradually mucking up your chromosomes and causing your body to fall apart: it’s how everything in popular culture gets recycled. Again and again. And again — ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

And the thing of it is, each time there’s a new generation of people for whom it’s all new and wonderful. I remember when I was that guy, a few decades ago. But now I’m 43, and I’ve seen the vampire thing come and go and come around again. Ditto with the zombies; done with that trope.

Unless the author has come up with something startlingly original – or at least so rarely recycled that it’s original to me – I don’t want anything to do with vampires or zombies. And obviously, I’m in the minority when it comes to popular culture, including popular literary fiction. To wit: the Stoker Award and the Hugo Awards.

Among the five novels nominated in the Hugo Awards category for Best Novel is Mira Grant’s Deadline (see what she did there?), yet another zombie apocalypse novel (this one is part of a series, naturally). Now, before you get your knickers twisted, I’m not knocking it, as I haven’t read it – I’m just saying once more, I’m not interested in zombie and vampire novels anymore – aside from some old friends that I like to reread once in a while.

It’s one thing if you bring something original to the table, but based on the blurbs I’ve read for Grant’s Newsflesh series, it sounds like the same stereotypical zombie stuff. Engineered viruses mutate and just happen to raise the dead, who want to eat the living. Nope, no one’s ever used that idea before. There is some mildly interesting sounding stuff about the evolution of the media, the Internet and politics in the wake of the zombie apocalypse – I guess it’s only a partial apocalypse – but not enough to interest me in reading it.

Again, I’m not knocking Ms. Grant; she may be the authorial bees knees and I’m missing out. So be it; call me when she gets over the zombie thing.

George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons (book cover): Nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award for Best NovelNo Surprise Here: A Dance with Dragons Among Hugo Awards Best Novel Nominations

The fifth book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, his gritty fantasy magnum opus, titled A Dance with Dragons is also among the five novels nominated for the Hugo Awards. Released in July of 2011, it came out nearly six years since the previous book, A Feast for Crows. The lengthy interval became so onerous to some fanboys and girls that they resorted to browbeating Martin on the Internet, including on his own blog.

I guess they all forgave him, given the fact that fans nominate and subsequently chose the winners of Hugos.

While I have mixed feelings about Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, as expounded upon at length here on Barking Book Reviews, generally (and shortly) speaking, I like it – enough to keep reading, at any rate. I read A Dance With Dragons shortly after it came out – naturally it was a best seller the moment it was released – but that was right before I returned to Southeast Asia, and I consequently never wrote a follow-up review. But I will say that it shares the same strengths and weaknesses with the previous books, and that I’ll read the next one when it comes out.

The most interesting sounding novel on the list is Jo Walton’s Among Others, which has already garnered recognition: it was named one of School Library Journal’s Best Adult Books for Teens for 2011, as well as one of io9’s best Science Fiction and Fantasy books of the year for 2011. Walton has previously won a Prometheus Award in 2008 for the novel Ha’penny, and a 2010 Mythopoeic Award lifelode, among other accolades.

After perusing this excerpt of Among Others at publisher Tor’s site, methinks I’ll be adding that to my own shortlist of books to read and review.

The rest of the Hugo Awards list, along with the other major categories; you can find a more complete list of 2012 Hugo Award nominees over at Locus, from which I cadged this short list. Or you can go straight to the Hugo horse’s mouth. Also, again, if you are like me, you have perused that list and thought, “what the hell is a novelette? How does it differ from a novella? And why do we need further, arbitrary distinctions? Follow that link for an answer to the first two questions; as to the latter question, we’ll save that for another time.

On other interesting thing to note about the list for Best Novel: it includes British author China   Miéville’s Embassytown, which is also nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award. This Clarke Award nomination, among others, got fellow British science fiction author Christopher Priest’s panties in a bunch.

Wondering about Cambell Award? Scroll down, dear gentle reader.

BEST NOVEL
Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
Embassytown, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)

BEST NOVELLA
“The Ice Owl,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF 11-12/11)
“Countdown,” Mira Grant (Orbit Short Fiction)
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 10-11/11)
“Kiss Me Twice”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11)
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Ken Liu (Panverse Three)
“Silently and Very Fast,” Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

BEST NOVELETTE
“Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com 6/8/11)
“The Copenhagen Interpretation,” Paul Cornell (Asimov’s 7/11)
“What We Found,” Geoff Ryman (F&SF 9-10/11)
“Fields of Gold,” Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
“Ray of Light,” Brad R. Torgersen (Analog 12/11)

BEST SHORT STORY
“Movement,” Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s 3/11)
“The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu (F&SF 3-4/11)
“The Homecoming,” Mike Resnick (Asimov’s 4-5/11)
“Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue),” John Scalzi (Tor.com 4/1/11)
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld 4/11)

BEST GRAPHIC STORY
The Unwritten, Vol. 2: Leviathan, Mike Carey, art by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
Locke & Key, Vol. 4: Keys To The Kingdom, Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW Publishing)
Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication, Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (www.schlockmercenary.com)
Digger, Ursula Vernon (www.diggercomic.com)
Fables, Vol. 15: Rose Red, Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)

BEST PROFESSIONAL EDITOR LONG FORM
Lou Anders
Liz Gorinsky
Anne Lesley Groell
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Betsy Wollheim

BEST PROFESSIONAL EDITOR SHORT FORM
John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Sheila Williams

BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST
Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Michael Komarck
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoKaren Lord Among Authors Nominated for John W. Campbell Award

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year honors the late editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, now named Analog. Many would say that he is the founding father of modern science fiction; if anyone can be said to be such a thing, it is Campbell. Writers Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss established the award in Campbell’s name some decades ago..

Unlike the Hugos, it is a more traditional sort of award; you can read more about it at the University of Kansas’ Center for the Study of Science Fiction. This year’s nominees are:

Mur Lafferty
Stina Leicht
*Karen Lord
*Brad R. Torgersen
E. Lily Yu

*authors in their second year of eligibility.

Check out the Barking Book Review of Karen Lord’s excellent Redemption in Indigo here.

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Morden’s Samuil Petrovitch Series Garners Philip K. Dick Award

Simon Morden's Equations of Life (book cover), the first in the Samuil Petrovitch series -- the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award winner.A Gritty Near Future Thriller Series from UK Author Simon Morden Gets A … Er … Dick. Award

One Simon Morden has won this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, which is – and I quote – “presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States.”

I’m not familiar with Morden or the Samuil Petrovitch trilogy, Equations of Life, Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom, published respectively in April, May and June of last year. But between the blurbs on Morden’s site, and his bio – a house-husband author and father with degrees in geology and planetary geophysics – color me intrigued.

It seems the title character is a Russian refuge who escaped the nuclear destruction of St. Petersburg to the London Metrozone, the last remaining city in the U.K. An apparently amoral man seeking a simple life, Petrovitch’s life gets complicated in what sounds like a Ridley Scott version of future London via Philip K. Dick – I refer, of course, to Blade Runner, which was inspired by Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep.

From the blurb of the first book in the series:

He’s lived this long because he’s a man of rules and logic. For example:

getting involved = a bad idea.

But when he stumbles into a kidnapping in progress, he acts without even thinking. Before he can stop himself, he’s saved the daughter of the most dangerous man in London. And clearly:

saving the girl = getting involved.

Now, the equation of Petrovitch’s life is looking increasingly complex:

Russian Mobsters + Yakuza + something called The New Machine Jihad = one dead Petrovitch.

Intriguing, the gratuitous abuse of CAPS (which I’ve fixed here) notwithstanding. I’m not too keen on so-called thrillers, per se; all too often the cornerstones of good literature are lacking and the resulting structure is subsequently buttressed with ACTION and SEX and other standard genre cliches. Now this is fine, if the author is good enough to pull it off, but that’s a rare thing; typically we end up with a rickety shell that lacks solid foundations.

And I’m quite pleased with this building metaphor, if I do say so myself – and I do, I do. But I digress.

With the Dick Award behind it, I might have to give Morden’s trilogy a read, or at least the first book. Incidentally, the Publisher’s Weekly review says that the first book stands alone, even though it serves as the first of a trilogy. I perused the first chapter Equations of Life, which is available on Morden’s site, and while it may have won the Dick award, my first impression is that it owes more to William Gibson – and every thriller ever written, unfortunately – than anything else. To those familiar with Gibson’s first three novels, Petrovitch’s character certainly would not feel out of place in the Sprawl or Chiba City.

So I figure anything that that wins the Philip K. Dick Award and wears its Gibson influence on its sleeve must be tolerable, at the very least.

Incidentally, as Morden posts on his blog, he was off at something called Eastercon during the presentation of the award last week. His wife watched the live broadcast stream to ascertain he’d won and then called at 4 a.m. to let him know, playing the stream of his acceptance speech, as read by his stand-in.

Somehow, that all seems apropos in a Gibsonesque, post-modern way. …

 Buy Simon Morden’s Equations of Life at Amazon

Christopher Priest Whips Out Epeen, Engenders Clarke Award Controversy

Literature awards inevitably engender some controversy – really any award that involves subjective judgment is going to get somebody’s knickers in a twist. But it’s strange when something as esoteric as the Arthur C. Clarke Award causes enough ruckus to garner coverage in the mainstream media.

The Clarke Award – most assuredly not The Clarkie – is of course named after the grand master of science fiction himself; as he was British the award seeks to recognize British science fiction authors and their works. The shortlist for the 2012 award came out a week or so ago (I first saw the announcement on Locus’ news feed), and seemingly within nanoseconds a ruckus ensued at warp speed, a ruckus that got British news outlet The Guardian’s attention, as well as that of Irish Times blogger Christopher *ahem* Clarke. The latter seems particularly upset about Priest’s slagging of  China Miéville.

Wut? Such is life in the Internet age.

Sheesh, You’ve Already Won A Clarke Award …

Giant space bees from Futurama. They are in author Christopher Priest's bonnet.British author Christopher Priest apparently has a bee in his bonnet over this year’s shortlist, and we’re not talking an ordinary bee, or even an Africanized honey bee, apparently. We’re talking about an insect of gargantuan proportions, on the order of the dread space bee, a la Futurama.

Priest, incidentally, won a Clarke Award last year, and … wait for it … has a novel eligible – make that had – a novel eligible for this year’s award. So it seems kind of disingenuous, not to mention greedy, for him to get all bent out of shape when he thinks the shortlist is lacking. Well of course you are; you missed out on the list and the potential extra book sales that would have garnered, so you decided to generate that publicity and ensuing extra book sales another way.

On the other hand, one can’t really argue that he’s not qualified to offer an opinion; he is a published author with eleven novels under his belt, as well as having garnered a previous Clarke Award among others.

But the thing is, Priest has gone off the deep end, whipping out his epeen and going on a full-on nerd rage on his blog. It’s one thing to say you disagree with the shortlist and offer a defensible argument. It’s another to dish out the cyberspace vitriol. Furthermore, he hasn’t reserved his vitriol for the judges panel, which, again, might seem disingenuous and self serving but still understandable, perhaps. He’s also decided to attack the shortlist authors themselves.

Again, he may be qualified to do so, but it still seems like a base and classless thing to do, particularly when he has a vested professional and financial interest in all this; one would expect better of a writer of Priest’s caliber – whatever happened to the British stiff upper lip? Even sadder still, he makes elegant arguments for the novels he felt should be on the shortlist, and manages not to mention his own potential candidate, The Islanders.

With the director of the Clarke Award pooh-poohing the idea of firing the panel and suspending the awards this year, one wonders what Priest will do next. Threaten to take his toys and go home, never to write again?

It’s all rather silly, but then it’s hardly the first time; the Internet is littered with the carcasses of righteously indignant blog posts; I’ve made a few myself over the years. But if you’re interested and haven’t been following the ruckus already, check here for a good Clarke Award hullabaloo rundown at Strange Horizon’s blog, including links to a lot of other author responses – authors who seem to have exercised some decorum and restraint as befitting people of letters.

My, that last bit sounded a bit pompous. I better quit before I whip my own epeen out.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best of British Science Fiction P.S. Almost forgot: here’s the 2012 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award:

  • Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)
  • Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)
  • China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)
  • Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
  • Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)
  • Sheri S.Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire Wins 2011 James Tiptree Award

Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston (book cover) - the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award winnerHairston’s Novel of a Turn-of-the-Century Hoodoo Woman Wows James Tiptree Award Jurists

Still playing catchup, this time with all of the awards news that took place this month, not the least of which was the announcement of the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which went to Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston. James Tiptree, Jr. – in case you didn’t know, let me enlighten you – was the nom de plume of science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. The award, per the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council, is “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.”

Sheldon, you see, felt she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman author at the time she was writing, so she invented a male persona which she maintained for much of her life. Among Tiptree’s peers, her identity – and gender – were a topic of considerable debate. Ironically, there were those who were positive that Tiptree was a man, because of the way she wrote.

To learn more about Alice Sheldon and her literary alter ego, James Tiptree, check out this biography.

According to the council’s website, apparently there was Redwood and Wildfire, and then there was everybody else. To wit:

Redwood and Wildfire was a favorite of the jurors from the moment they read it. They reported: “This vivid and emotionally satisfying novel encompasses the life of Redwood, a hoodoo woman, as she migrates from rural Georgia to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. While Redwood’s romance with Aidan Wildfire is central to the novel, female friendship is also a major theme, without deferring to the romance. Hairston incorporates romantic love into a constellation, rather than portraying it as a solo shining star. Her characters invoke a sky where it can shine; they live and love without losing themselves in cultural expectations, prejudices and stereotypes, all within a lovingly sketched historical frame.

“Intersections of race, class, and gender encompass these characters’ entire lives. They struggle with external and internal forces around questions of gender roles, love, identity, and sexuality. This challenge drives how they move through the world and how it sees them. The characters in Redwood and Wildfire deftly negotiate freedom and integrity in a society where it’s difficult to hold true to these things.”

Sounds interesting, to say the least. But to say “then there was everybody else” isn’t quite fair; to make the annual Tiptree Award honor list is no small feat; the other works in the running can hardly be described as also rans. Here’s the breakdown of the 2011 honor list, as cribbed from the Tiptree Award site:

  • Libba Bray, Beauty Queens (Scholastic Press 2011) — In this atypically comedic Tiptree candidate, a cast of iconic characters trapped on a hostile island (populated by the capitalist analog of Doctor No) illuminates the limited palette of roles for women and offers the hope of more rewarding and rounded lives.
  • L. Timmel Duchamp, “The Nones of Quintilus” (in her collection Never at Home, Aqueduct Press 2011) — This standout story addresses the relationships between mothers and daughters and how the world looks different when you become (or intend to become) pregnant.
  • Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Night Shade Books 2011) — Set on a marginally habitable world divided by a common religion with diverse interpretations, this engaging work explores a militaristic matriarchal society.
  • Gwyneth Jones, The Universe of Things (Aqueduct Press 2011) — Running through these gorgeous stories is a fierce awareness of how gender roles and other social power imbalances are always factors in how we think, how we approach one another, how we see the world. The author questions the status quo, and then questions the questioning, so what emerges is a mature, honest, thoughtful complexity.
  • Alice Sola Kim, “The Other Graces” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2010) — This elegantly written short story revisits the role of mirroring in self-actualization and casts that path in a new and skiffy light as its heroine, Grace, is mentored by her older alternate selves. It also depicts racial/cultural intersections with gender roles.
  • Sandra McDonald, “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” (Strange Horizons, 2010.10.04) — A surreal and subversive take on human-AI relations. An older female character exploring her sexuality is a rare thing in science fiction, and it is refreshing to see it handled here with such a deft hand.
  • Maureen F. McHugh, “After the Apocalypse” (in her collection After the Apocalypse, Small Beer Press 2011) — This title story of an impressive collection brings to the foreground gender expectations concerning the practice of motherhood in extreme situations and then completely and matter-of-factly upends them.
  • Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze (Big Mouth House 2011) — A clear-hearted, magically immersive time travel story that explores powerful ideas. Thrown back through time to an antebellum plantation, a thirteen-year-old comes to understand how women’s experience is shaped by cultural expectations as they interweave with social, economic, and racial truths.
  • Kim Westwood, The Courier’s New Bicycle (Harper Voyager Australia 2011) — This compelling novel depicts a variety of sexually transgressive characters and looks at themes of fertility and alternate family structures through a dystopic lens.

Kameron Hurley's God's War (book cover) - named to the 2011 James Tiptree Award honor's listAll of those sound interesting and worth reading as well, although there are two that stick out among them, in my humble opinion. The first of these is Hurley’s God’s War; religion almost always makes for an interesting topic in the right author’s hands, and a matriarchal yet militaristic culture sounds intriguing.  Religious war is also obviously a very topical theme, in this day and age.

As for McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots,” I’m inclined to read any short story that has the words sexy and robots in it – which probably reveals more about my psyche than you might be comfortable with – throw in cowboys and it’s a done deal.

Fortunately for me and everyone else who likes science fiction, speculative fiction and related genres, Strange Horizons – in it’s total awesomeness – keeps its previously published fiction archived online (props to the authors that allow them to do this, as well). Which means you can check out McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” at Strange Horizons right this instant.

Said it before, say it again: living in the future is a mixed bag, but generally, by and large, pretty cool.

P.S. I feel compelled to add this note, in these Internet times of shoot-from-the-hip emotional reactions and cries of reverse racism and sexism at every turn. For the cynical or misinformed among you, I’ll point out that there have been have been plenty of dudes that have won the Tiptree Award in the past.

Indeed, previous award jurists have been quite open minded; in 2009 the award was split between a novel and a manga title.

Get 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award winner Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston here.

Adrienne Rich RIP, Iceman as Twain, Harry Potter Digitized, and New Vonnegut

As noted over on my personal ranting blog, The Gecko’s Bark, I’ve spent the better part of March suffering and consequently recovering from A6, or Captain Trips, if you will. In keeping with the theme of this blog, of course, this is a literary reference to Steven King and the engineered flu in the The Stand.

I’m still angry about the literal deus ex machina ending of The Stand, 25 years after having read it the first time. But tha’ts neither here nor there, although I will add that I think King’s best works are his short stories; some of his non-horror short fiction is amazing.

Anyway, I’ve also been busy back at work teaching ESL full time, now that my recovery from a torn quadriceps tendon is such that I can walk unaided again. Between working and Captain Trips, I didn’t have much bandwidth for aught else, and that includes Barking Book Reviews among my other hobbies.

But there was so much going on in the world of books, that I feel compelled to play a little bit of catch up. So here’s more Random Book News, Volume XIVMXX what have you, in no particular order:

Poet Adrienne Rich: 5/16/29 – 3/27/2012

I don’t think anyone who has studied American literature at all in modern times hasn’t at least heard of Adrienne Rich and would at least recognize her name. I first encountered Rich’s poetry in a high school honors English class in the mid 1980s – the teacher conveniently skipped over the fact that Rich was a lesbian while discussing her poetry and feminism. I came across Rich again in college several times, in various English classes as well as a women’s studies class.

An aside: to be honest, I took the women’s studies course because of the times it met, more than anything else; I was taking 18 credit hours that quarter, trying to hurry and get my electives out of the way so I could start scheduling journalism classes. But it turned out to be a very interesting and rewarding class – and it turned out I was a bigger feminist, despite being a heterosexual dude, than most of the women in the class.

Anyway, Rich has had a long and enduring career, not to mention a colorful life. Many may remember her for telling the Clinton Administration and the U.S. federal government to take a flying leap when she refused the National Medal of Arts in 1997. Her primary objective in doing so, as I recall, was to protest cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts program, as well as other issues she had with Willie Clinton’s administration.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a lengthy obituary of Adrienne Rich; you can also find out more about Rich’s life at her rather extensive entry at Wikipedia.

New NonFiction: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

David Silbey's The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China (book cover)I will definitely be adding David Silbey’s The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China to my ever growing big pile o’ books to read. The subject alone is an interesting one; the time not so long ago when the imperial powers of the West, including America – which frankly should have known better, given our history and its related rhetoric – sought to open China to trade.

A further incentive is that Silbey is one of the authors of one of my favorite blogs, The Edge of the American West. It’s a blog written by several historians; as such it is about history. Silbey himself specializes in military history; his book about the Boxer Rebellion looks at the revolt that almost succeeded, and its relevance to what is taking place today in the Eastern Hemisphere.

I can’t point you to just one post he’s written at Edge of the American West, so here’s a post about writing a book about the Boxer Rebellion. I encourage you, however, if you are interested in this topic, to peruse this category at the Edge of the American West; you’ll learn much that your history teachers never told you.

Harry Potter Available in eBook Format

While they’ve been floating around torrent sites on the Internet for years – pirated copies having been physically scanned and converted to digital formats — the Harry Potter series books are now available in legitimate ebook format.

J. K. Rowling has resisted the ebook format for a long time, for whatever reason. I suppose I can understand the reluctance of authors to embrace ebooks, but how many people downloaded pirated copies of Harry Potter simply because there were no legitimate ebook versions available? People that would otherwise pay for a legitimate copy, one without the digital artifacts, layout problems and questionable editing that are common with pirate digital copies?

In any event, now they are available on Amazon and at Rowling’s Pottermore site, where the complete series is going for £38.64, or $61.40. That comes out to about $8.77 per book. That seems pretty reasonable, although some people would claim, and perhaps rightfully so, that given the fact that there are no material costs, that ebooks should be cheaper than they are.

It will be interesting to see how many digital copies of the Potter books the publishers can sell.

Authors Choose Favorite Literary Monsters

I first spied this on author Hal Duncan’s blog; Duncan was one of the authors to participate in Weird Fiction Review’s poll of various writers’ favorite monsters. Duncan, in his wonderfully erudite manner, explains why he chose to kick it old school, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

I have to go with a classic, Frankenstein’s monster, because Shelley’s creature doesn’t just exemplify monstrosity, it interrogates it. What makes it visually monstrous is not a matter of cheap gimmickry. Shelley doesn’t just snatch features from the animal world that naturally freak us out?—?mandibles, pincers, horns, tentacles, slime, so on?—?doesn’t just push buttons to disturb us with undercurrents of sex and power a la Stoker. I think it’s an awesome move to have the monster explicitly created from components that are all beautiful and right in and of themselves; they just don’t fit together *proportionally*. It founds monstrosity on almost a pure abstraction of Order Transgressed. Which cuts to the core of it for me.

Hard to argue with that. But there is a wide spectrum of answers from nearly 50 authors; as pompous as this sounds, some of them — both authors and monsters — I have not even heard of. Obviously my education has been neglected, as of late. Some of the answers are truly intriguing, some are obviously tongue in cheek and some are clearly phoned in as the author couldn’t be arsed (perhaps they are on deadline, which would admittedly be an excellent excuse).

Props to Karen Lord, author of the excellent Redemption in Indigo, though, for choosing a Bradbury creation:

My favourite monster (i.e. most horrifying) is the unnamed infection in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fever Dream’. It’s an intelligent plague that not only keeps its host alive but also sufficiently ‘normal’ to become an efficient vector for transmission to other unsuspecting hosts. If that sounds like pure fiction, look up Toxoplasma gondii. Truly horrific monsters always have a real-life counterpart to make you wonder … could it really happen?

Above all, I imagine the real Charles: blind, deaf, powerless, and silently screaming for help inside his own walking, talking, stolen body for the rest of his life. That’s horror.

Steven R. Boyett also has an interesting response. He chooses from Robert Matheson’s I Am Legend. But it’s not the monster you think it is.

Val Kilmer to Portray Mark Twain

Val Kilmer as Mark Twain; photo by (and all rights to) Neil JacobsIt seems like a right of passage for actors of a certain age, playing Mark Twain on stage. It also seems like it would be tough to beat The X-Files’ Deepthroat at portraying Twain – that would be actor Jerry Hardin, who first portrayed Twain in a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation – and no I’m not making this up as a I go along. Hardin actually made an excellent and thoroughly convincing Twain, and he apparently so enjoyed portraying the author on TV that he went on to develop a successful and critically lauded one-man play in which he portrayed Twain.

Kilmer is apparently doing just that in preparation for a movie about Twain and one of his favorite boogeymen – er, boogeywomen – Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. Of course Kilmer will always be Madmartigan from Willow to me. But then to many women of a certain age I’ve dated, he’ll always be Iceman from Top Gun.

Squee! Previously Unpublished Vonnegut Novella Basic Training on Amazon

Kurt Vonnegut's previously unpublished novella, Basic Training (book cover)Apparently Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions author Kurt Vonnegut – actually, whenever I think of him, Cat’s Cradle is the first work to come to mind, as I read it at an impressionable age, and to say that my youthful self found it disturbing (in a good way) would be an understatement – left a lot of unpublished material when he died. Indy publisher and ebook pioneer RosettaBooks, apparently chosen by Vonnegut’s estate, has released Basic Training, written by the author nearly 60 years ago. It was never published, having been rejected by the Saturday Evening Post — d’oh! — in the years following WW II, long before Vonnegut became a notable literary figure.

RosettaBooks says Basic Training is a precursor to the author’s “trademark grand themes: the lunacy of kings, the improbability of existence, the yearling hero’s struggle with duty and love and the meaning of heroism.” In a sign of the times, the book is being released exclusively as an Amazon Kindle Single for $1.99.

 

Review: Redemption in Indigo

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is Not Your Parents’ Speculative Fiction

Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in IndigoHaving recently caught up on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, as well as having gone back and reread Tolkien – damn near all of it; people with torn quadriceps tendons need comfort food – Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo was quite a refreshing bit of fantasy, if you can call it that. It was nominated for a 2011 World Fantasy Award, so I suppose we can. But the term speculative fiction fits Redemption in Indigo better, however, as there are elements of physics – albeit of a fantastical flavor – interwoven with Senegalese folklore and spirits called djombi – reflections of its author’s Carribean roots (she’s a native of Barbados) and the larger African diaspora, perhaps, as well as a professional life steeped in academia.

Redemption in Indigo is remarkable in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it is a splendidly well-written first novel. But it seems remarkable to me that here is a rather slim and succinct book – in comparison to today’s genre fiction with its stereotypical bejillion-page magnum opus XI of XX – that has no swords in it and really no visceral violence to speak of contained within its pages. There are no swooning damsels – in distress or feeling randy – although our main character is certainly in distress of a kind (but not the kind that can be fixed by white horses and shiny armor).

Really it’s remarkable that books like Redemption in Indigo get published at all in this day and age gritty fantasy. But it’s fortunate for us that we do. Cheers to Small Beer Press, the dead-tree counterpart to Weightless Books.

The beginning – even books about the spirit of Chance and its tool, Chaos, have a beginning – of Lord’s Redemption in Indigo finds the aforementioned Paama fleeing her ten-year marriage. Her husband, Ansige, you see, is a gourmand in the worst sense of the word – “not an epicure, but a gourmand,” as Lord’s narrator tells us. In short, he is an irredeemable glutton. Thus we find Paama, getting close to the wrong side of youth, her marriage a childless and loveless failure, having retreated to her family’s home in its ancestral village.

It may sound trite, if not down-right yawn inducing, but in Lord’s capable hands, it doesn’t read this way at all. In fact the book’s opening vignette is rather skillfully humorous. As we meet bumbling and hapless Ansige, he is undertaking a perilous journey to Paama’s village – perilous because he is limited in the amount of food he can take and prepare along the way to sustain his usual-yet-ridiculously voracious diet. And it is here, even before we meet Paama, that we meet our first djombi, and get a hint that this book might be more than it initially seems.

It is here, too, that we first meet our narrator, the story teller. If I have a bone to pick with Indigo in Blue, it would be with Lord’s use of the narrator. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s get back to Ansige and Paama.

Ultimately Ansige, a minor character, turns out to be not a humorous figure at all but a tragic one; he has only himself to blame for his circumstances. Paama, on the other hand, is fate’s plaything – or rather that of Patience. And plaything is really not the right word; let’s call her an instrument of Patience, as she uses Paama to achieve the redemption of the spirit of Chance, or at least offer him a path to rehabilitation.

While Paama is a central character in Redemption in Indigo and of critical importance to its plot, it is Chance that is the main character; Lord uses the folktale of Paama and Ansige to introduce what I suppose we can call the spiritual dilemma of the undying djombi. As Karen Lord explained in a recent interview with Carribean Beat arts magazine, there are no fantasy elements in the original story at all; she added these as she developed the story.

Chief among those is the character of Chance, who has become disillusioned with humanity and subsequently filled with ennui. As an immortal being imbued with the power of Chaos, this is – well, I’ll let Lord’s narrator tell it:

Remember what we mentioned to you before. This is a dangerous person. He enjoys lulling the prey into a feeling of safety before killing it. That instant of betrayal, that twist of perception when one realizes that one’s entire universe is founded on a lie – that is the moment that acts on his boredom as splendidly as champagne on a jaded palate.

This description comes near the beginning of the story, soon after Paama has been given the power of Chaos unknowingly, and Chance has come looking for it. It is when he finds her that the story at the heart of Redemption in Indigo begins. Let us skip to the end of the story: having been confronted by the most powerful being in his pantheon, Patience, Chance is, shall we say, offered another chance.

“What changed, she asked him.

He walked a few more pensive steps, and then answered. “Paama is an unusual woman.”

… “Not as unusal as you might think,” she said, replying at last to his comment about Paama. “There are many women like her, considered by some to be virtuous and lyal, considered by others as foolish and week. What about Paama changed you?”

“Nothing stopped her from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair. She was willing to learn, and when she felt the lesson was beyond her capacity, she was willing to simply obey.”

“Ah, so you saw her duty,” Patience said, sounding pleased.

“No, not at first. She saw her duty long before I noticed it. There are many things that I once knew but which I had forgotten, and one of them was that human duty is not very different ours.”

And, later in the conversation, when Patience has put her offer on the table:

Chance looked at her and considered long and hard. He had tried isolation, and it had been sterile and useless. He had tried to do as he pleased with humans, and instead of senseless vermin he had found Paama, remarkable in her own ordinary way, and very burdensome on his conscience. He found himself running out of choices.

So what choice does he make? You’ll have to read the novel to find out. But Chance’s potential redemption is not the only one on offer in Indigo; there is that of Paama as well. Chance takes her on a journey through space and time in an effort to show her that Chaos is not a power that is easily wielded, even with the best of intentions. As Lord describes it early in the novel:

Chaos was a far subtler force than most people realized. It would be so easy to sense if it threw off thunderbolts or sent barely sensed thrummings through the fabric of reality, but it was nothing more than the possible made probable. It did not break or bend any laws of nature or tip the balance of the universe. How would a mere human understand how to manipulate it? They would end up thinking they were merely lucky, or blessed.

What’s more, our jaded immortal tries to convince her that humanity is not even worth the trouble. But in the end, Paama may have illustrated for him otherwise.

As for Paama’s own redemption, again, you’ll just have to read the novel. And you really should.

Raucous Storyteller or Unnecessary Convention?

Now, about that bone of contention. Narrators that stick themselves into stories that are otherwise told from an omniscient third person point of view almost always bother me. If a story otherwise told in the third person needs a narrator as character, then there’s a problem with the story (or the author). I think it is a convention that rarely works, even for accomplished writers. Furthermore, I think it’s often done because of writers’ lack of faith in their own abilities; sometimes those fears are unfortunately real, at other times unfounded.

While I can’t speak to the inner workings of Karen Lord’s mind, I can certainly say there is certainly no lack of writerly talent in Redemption in Indigo, and certainly none that needs to be bolstered by a narrator as character. Initially I was a little put off by the presence of this narrator – yes, it’s a bias, I’ll admit, but one with reasonable foundations, I’d argue – but in Indigo the narrator’s presence works and works well for the most part, enriching both prose and story, rather than getting in the way.

I read Redemption in Indigo on my Kindle, and when I looked through most of the quotes I had made from the book, the majority of them in fact comprise clever asides by the narrator. To wit:

Alton’s Love Poems to Neila have been famous for years, as everyone knows, but if you want to sample them for yourself, or try a verse or two on your own beloved, I fear that you will have to buy the published works or attend one of the performances still running in theaters in many of the major cities. A minor writer such as I cannot afford the cost of reproducing the words of the poet dubbed Love’s Own Laureate.

And to be fair, Lord’s narrator mostly keeps out of the way, while still offering up those clever asides, like this early description of our aforementioned poet:

A terribly shy man, he was far too self-deprecating, an unhelpful trait in any person who aims to sell snatches of empty air shaped around vowels and consonants, or worse, bits of white paper irregularly stained with black ink.

Or this gem, again with regard to the hapless poet:

Women fell into that category of fantasies and dreams that worked well when unfulfilled but presented all kinds of problems when brought out into the real world of trial and failure.

And lastly:

Many women, by their beauty and sheer presence, have reduced intelligent men to babbling idiots or gaping mutes, but few have inspired to such heights of eloquence a man who can only be described as mediocre. There is the secret. Show a woman that she has the power to improve you a thousand times over, and she is yours for life.

That last one literally made me laugh out loud when I read it. Like all good humor that relies on hyperbole, there is a grain of truth in there.

But there are times when Lord’s narrator becomes needlessly intrusive, and this is annoying at best.

… but I am hearing some rumblings from my audience. You are distressed that I have spoiled the moving and romantic tale of how Love’s Laureate courted his beautiful wife? You complain that I have turned it into a cobbled pastiche of happenstance, expediency, and the capricious tricks of the djombi? I bleed for your injured sentiments, but to dress the tale in vestments of saga and chivalry was never my intent. A sober and careful reading of history will teach you that both lesser and greater persons have been treated more roughly by fate. Be content. If it was only a djombi’s vanity and aversion to human company that caused Alton to become a merchant prince for one night, if it was fear of discovery and capture that made that djombi flee, thus settling a lordly mantle on Alton for all time, how does that come to be my fault? I am only the one who tells the story.

It is particularly annoying because her prose stands on it own and easily; it doesn’t need this sort of thing and it consequently only serves to disrupt the story. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Karen Lord, author of Redemption in IndigoHaving said that, there admittedly may be a cultural nuance here that I’m missing or just otherwise don’t understand, being a native of an Ohio suburb. In the course of looking for some biographical information on the author, as well as some background on cultural beliefs with regard to djombis, I came across several reviews that praised Lord’s narrator as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling in African cultures and consequently the African Diaspora – namely the West Indies. The idea that our spirited narrator was a nod to cultural roots – either consciously or otherwise, never occurred to me, quite honestly. Furthermore, I have to admit that in that context, the feisty narrator as character makes more sense.

In any event, Redemption in Indigo is an excellent novel, at turns amusing and insightful. Let us hope that Karen Lord’s muse will inspire many more such works.

And now that I’ve read two of the six nominees for the 2011 World Fantasy Award in the novel category – Lauren Beukes’ amazing Zoo City – I’m curious to read the winner, Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death. It just occurred to me, incidentally, that all of these novels have an African connection. Zoo City is set in a South Africa of the near future, while Who Fears Death is set in a far-future Saharan Africa.

P.S. For an interesting review of Redemption in Indigo that delves into how Lord weaves physics into her narrative, check out review at Small Axe Salon.

P.P.S. This novel was the winner of a Mythopoeic Award, a Crawford Award and a Frank Collymore Award, in addition to being a World Fantasy Award finalist. It was also longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literatures and shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

P.P.P.S. Longlisted? Er?

Get Karen Lord’s Rdemption in Indigo here.

Anthony Shadid’s Memoir, Truth vs. Fact and Life Imitates a William Gibson Novel

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been paying attention or because of some arcane aspect of the publishing cycle, but it seems as if there is all sorts of interesting news in the world of books these days. Of course much of what I’m blogging about here is particularly relevant to my interests, namely the books I like to read and subjects I’m interested in. So there you go.

Thus without further ado: Random Book News, Vol. V (or thereabouts):

Is There Room for Facts in Truth?

When I was perusing the New York Times ‘book section – online – last Sunday afternoon while feeding my coffee (shop) addiction, I clicked on a link by accident. Or was it fate? Because I discovered a book that I just have to read, one that I likely wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for that errant click.

On a side note, I absolutely loathe using the touchpad on a laptop, but the little mobile, carpal-tunnel mouse that followed me from Viet Nam to the United States and back to Viet Nam finally died recently, God rest it’s tiny little optical sensor. But in this instance it was perhaps fortuitous happenstance. But I digress.

The Lifespan of a Fact is a nonfiction account of a fact-checker at odds with a nonfiction writer, one who argues that art and truth trump facts – particularly when they inconveniently diverge from the author’s sense of timing and aesthetics.

I’ll let the Times’ review tell the story of The Lifespan of a Fact, and author John D’Agata’s head-butting with the diligent Jim Fingal (Fingal … apparently there is at least one of Tolkien’s Eldar that didn’t sail into the West). I will just add that as a writer and former journalist – some would argue that I’m not former, but we’ll save the semantics debate for some other time – truth vs. fact is a subject near and dear to my heart. On one hand, I understand where D’Agata is coming from, but on the other hand, I feel that we owe it to history to not subvert fact in favor of truth, as truth in this sense becomes subjective.

Part of my attitude undoubtedly comes from having worked as a professional journalist for 20-odd years (and some of them were quite odd years). There there was the time spent at the hardcore journalism school at Ohio University too (not enough money or grades for Columbia or Stanford) – an errant fact in a story was an automatic “F,” usually.

But on the other hand, when it comes to longer forms of nonfiction writing, there is room for art, truth and fact to coexist – at least there is in the hands of a skilled author. Don’t misunderstand me; in the eternal debate over whether or not writing (as distinct from journalism and news reporting), both fiction and non fiction, is art or craft, I tend to lean toward the former. But that doesn’t mean that creation doesn’t require technical skill. A musician must know how harmony and melody work together; a painter must know how to hold a brush and how to use it. In the same way a writer must now how words go together – beyond grammar and punctuation.

Shadid’s Memoir Serves as an Epitaph

House of Stone by Anthony Shadid (book cover)Speaking of journalism and the New York Times, it seems that esteemed foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack recently while covering the bloody civil strife in Syria, has published a memoir that was just released this week. Although Shadid died Feb. 16 at age 43 – the same age as yours truly – he accomplished more with his time than most, to be sure.

One would think that his memoir would be about his time covering wars all over the world; and if it had been, it no doubt would be a gripping read. Had that been the case it would be an account of winning Pulitzer prizes and getting shot while covering war and bloodshed, including in his ancestral home of Lebanon (Shadid is an American of Lebanese descent who spoke Arabic fluently).

But Shadid left all of that at the office, so to speak, Rather, House of Stone is about a year spent restoring a family home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, Lebanon, following the breakup of his marriage and family. This is framed by an historical account of his family’s flight from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to the United States.

But as Times’ reviewer, author and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll notes, House of Stone is a far cry from This Old House: Lebanon.

House of Stone is an elegant narrative that creates unity from diverse elements, much like the Ottoman-era cemento tiles over which Mr. Shadid obsesses and bargains during one stage of his beguiling restoration work. The book tells the story of his family’s migration from Lebanon to Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and along the way it illuminates the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall; the binding ties of bayt, or home and belonging, in Arab families; the workplace ethics of Mr. Shadid’s small construction site in Lebanon; and the flavors of that battered society’s bitterness and resilience.

I think I’m going to have bump this one up to the top of my long, long list.

Amazon.com Bots: I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That, Dave

I don’t always agree with what Corey Doctorow has to say, and I’ve never read his fiction (although it’s on my list, as I’m curious). But he does tend to frequently post interesting book and publishing-related news on seminal blog Boing Boing.

Take for example this “damned weird story,” as he puts it:

Carlos Bueno, author of a kids’ book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon’s sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book.

Amazon.com’s many bots feud over book-prices

Apparently Bueno isn’t the only author finding that Amazon’s HAL 9000 is acting strangely.

Veteran author Jim C Hines offered some of his titles independently direct through Amazon’s Kindle store. He discovered that Amazon reserves the right to arbitrarily reprice his books — slashing the cover price of a $2.99 title to $0.99 — and pay royalties on the lower price.

Author discovers that Amazon can reprice his indie Kindle books however they want and cut his royalties

Kind of amazing, stunning even, to consider that the world of ebooks and ebook publishing is really only about five years old or so, and yet it’s come to this already. Perhaps HAL, the errant, sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t an apt metaphor so much as the Borg from Star Trek: The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation. We are Amazon. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Science Fiction Author Dave Marusek Gives It Away

The Wedding Album by Dave Marusek (book cover)I think I originally discovered this on Boing Boing as well. Author Dave Marusek is notably going about things backwards, or so it would seem. Marusek penned the successful novella The Wedding Album, which was originally published in Asimov’s and subsequently reprinted a number of times and translated into five different languages as well.

He recently published the novella as an ebook, along with My Morning Glory, a collection of three so-called flash science fiction stories that originally appeared in the scientific journal Science. What’s more, he gave them away for free, in both Kindle and Nook formats, for one week each. I’m not sure what format the Nook version was, but the Kindle version is in Amazon’s proprietary standard.

Marusek explains why he’s ebpublishing an already successful print book in an lengthy and interesting post on his blog:

Not to make too big a deal about it, but this is more than just a book launch. It’s also the launching of my new role as e-publisher. The synergistic, skill-extension effect of the personal computer and the Internet has finally caught up with authorship, and all hell is breaking loose. With the introduction of the Kindle only three years ago, the traditional barriers to book manufacture and distribution have been battered down. Tens of thousands of aspiring authors have rushed in where only traditional publishers used to tread. Now, literally, anyone who’s ever wanted to publish a real book (in both digital and POD editions) and sell it around the world can do so at minimal cost and fuss. (Grammer, speling & punctuation is optional; )

Suddenly there are channels to put books into the hands of the reading public that do not involve traditional publishing. Trailblazing authors have already racked up digital bestsellers without NYC’s input. Traditional publishing is reeling with the changes and trying to adapt, and someday it may figure out a new business model (transmedia novels, anyone?). In the meantime, we mid-list authors of the old regime are scrambling to stay afloat in the new. One thing many authors are doing, now that we’ve been given the tools, is to bring out our backlists in ebook format. I’m giving that a try; in my case I only own the ebook rights to my short stories, and I’m only planning on e-publishing these few. (You can already buy “MMG” and “TWA” along with 8 other stories in my Del Rey collection, Getting to Know You.) If all goes well, I may self-pub my next novel, Camp Tribulation, (partly because I’m doubtful any legacy publisher will touch it–it’s that good!–or, maybe it’s no good at all; I don’t know; still too early to tell; it’s about two years away from completion).

One may wonder why I am e-publishing “TWA.” After all, it’s been reprinted about a dozen times and translated into five foreign languages and is easily found on pirate sites. Hasn’t everyone already read it who’s going to read it? I hope not. The fact that it has done so well for so long suggests that, given a little nudge, it might have the right stuff to find new readers on its own who may become new fans.

I may be one of those new fans. I’ll let you know before too long; I took advantage of the giveaway and downloaded both. But as someone who has been through the violent crash of print journalism and the Internet – literally at ground zero, in Silicon Valley – I can sympathize with the Marusek’s of the world and the a changin’ times. Believe me.

Grove Press’ Barney Rosset Dies

I’m only passingly familiar with Grove Press, having read a few well-thumbed volumes published by this imprint back in my university days, Beckett, Burroughs and whatnot – the kind of books that I wanted to read in college, but never really seemed to get around to reading. Yes, a bit cliché, I know.

Anyway, Grove Press’ founder Barney Rosset died last week at age 89.

Download the Universe: Niche Reviews for eBook Niche

As Carl Zimmer notes on the inuagural blog post of Download the Universe, science books have been around for about as long there have been books – and important books at that. Look at all the trouble Darwin’s Origin of the Species has caused.

Download the Universe is a new book review blog dedicated to science ebooks – not the print ones, but specifically the electronic ones. As Zimmer says:

Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.

But there’s something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.

Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books.

Among the editors – many of whom are authors themselves – listed on the site, I spied some familiar names (to me, at least, being the nerd that I am). Among them are: Annalee Newitz, whose byline has been popping up in alternative pubs for some time and who is currently editor-in-chief at Io9; Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger (Cocktail Party Physics, anyone?); and Maggie Koerth-Baker, who I’m familiar with from her work on Boing Boing.

An interesting and worthy endeavor, Download the Universe is. Among the reviews there already is an essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: The state of the eBook, early 2012, by John Trimmer. It’s a nice overview of where the market and the technology stands at the moment. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to believe that the ebook market has only been around for five years, and the Kindle for three.

Living in the future is cool.

J.K. Rowling to Pen Adult Novel

I’m sure a lot of copy editors initially wrote headlines like this when the news first broke a few weeks ago that Harry Potter author Rowling has a new book in the works, this one aimed at big boys and girls. Then said editors paused and thought “wait, no, that sounds like she’s writing a pornographic novel.” And then they opted for headlines that were perhaps more clear.

To wit, this new book is to be for an adult audience, in that it’s not going to be written for children – not, ostensibly, an adult book in the sense that Anne Desclos’ The Story of O is a decidedly prurient adult novel.

Not that prurience is necessarily a bad thing. And judging by some of the freaky, twisted Harry Potter fanfic out there, there would be a market should Rowling decide to turn to erotica. Just think: The Story of H. As in Hermione’s erotic awakening at the hands of a dashing, elder professor at Hogwarts — we know she has a penchant for dashing professors, after all.

Moving on …

“Although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series. … ” Rowling said in a statement – statement meaning that this was her marketing-and-PR-approved quote composed by some poor sap at Little, Brown and Company’s PR firm, and not words that she actually said in front of a journalist (God, as a former journalist I have always wanted to write that. Now I have). “The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry’s success has brought me.”

Anyway, there apparently aren’t any more details out there beyond that. Publisher Little, Brown and Co. merely announced that it acquired the rights to Rowling’s next novel; there is no word on when Rowling’s next effort will appear in bookstores.

Having said that, I will I say that I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I reread all the books while on a recent vacation and can say that they stood up to the scrutiny of a second reading, for the most part, particularly the earlier works. They are not without minor faults here and there, but then most published works rarely are, and it’s to Rowling’s credit that she was able to maintain the quality of her writing across the seven works. So many sequels to initially successful popular fiction books today are clearly half-assed attempts to cash in on said success; it’s often painfully clear when an author is phoning it in and subsequently cashing in.

On the other hand, Deathly Hallows could have used some editorial pruning. But then given Rowling’s rock-star status and the tendency toward bloat in popular fiction today, I suppose that’s no surprise. In any event, it will certainly be interesting to see where Rowling’s muse leads her post Potter.

Life Imitates Art: Gawker Editor Lives William Gibson Novel Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (book_cover)This is a strange post-modern tale, if there ever was one. Someone sets out to discover the creator of a Clickbank ebook seller website – ostensibly just one plot in an entire Clickbank content farm. Why would someone do this? Well it seems that creator of said horse-related ebook site, in order to get around Twitter’s spam bot filters, has set up an automatic scrape of random books and websites, publishing them out of context as tweets several times a day, ostensibly to pad the obvious spam bot tweets.

This random text has apparently developed a genuine cult following.

About seven times a day, Horse_ebooks spurts out bits of context-free nonsense, like: “Worms – oh my god WORMS,” and “I noticed that my hair grew faster from spending time in my pyramid.”

The feed’s strangely poetic stream has been embraced like a life-preserver by internet users drowning in a sea of painfully literal SEO headlines and hack Twitter comedians. Since it appeared in August 2010, word of Horse_ebooks has spread steadily, propelled by blog posts and Twitter chatter by internet obsessives. But unlike many internet culture phenomenons, it never truly went viral. Horse_ebooks is too weird, too much of an acquired taste to break into exponential growth.

Being one of the obsessives, Gawker editor Adrian Chen — quoted above — set out to find out who was behind Horse_ebooks. But it seems that some among the community were afraid this revelation might dispell the magic, prompting threats.

Seriously, this is straight out of William Gibson. Chen actually manages to discover the identify of this person, after doggedly pursuing his identity through the WhoIs information of his many websites – he’s a Russian web developer, but of course – and confirming it through a Facebook page, where there was a link to the developer’s personal portfolio website.

Ah brave new world, that has such webpages in it.

Now this is only tangentially related to books and book reviews. But if you’ve read Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, then you can see the parallels between this work of fiction and Chen’s story are downright eery – so much so, that I just had to comment on it.

Life imitates art — specifically that of William Gibson. As he himself has observed, he no longer has to write about the future; the present has gotten plenty weird as it is.

2011 Nebula Awards, Arc Magazine and Locus (Print Edition) Online

The Nebula Awards logo (this is a registered trademark of SFWA)The Nebula Awards – the Nebbies? Probably not – are the ones written by science fiction writers by namely those in the club: the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Here’s the 2011 list of nominees by which came out earlier this week:

Novel

  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Night Shade)
  • The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Firebird by Jack McDevitt (Ace)
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (Del Rey)
  • Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine (Prime)
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)

Novella

  • With Unclean Hands by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog 11/11)
  • The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF 11-12/11)
  • The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 10-11/11)
  • Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11)
  • The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu (Panverse Three)
  • Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

Novelette

  • Six Months by Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com 6/8/11)
  • The Old Equations by Jake Kerr (Lightspeed 7/11)
  • What We Found by Geoff Ryman (F&SF 9-10/11)
  • The Migratory Pattern of Dancers by Katherine Sparrow (GigaNotoSaurus 7/11)
  • Sauerkraut Station by Ferrett Steinmetz (GigaNotoSaurus 11/11)
  • Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse 4)
  • Ray of Light by Brad R. Torgersen (Analog 12/11)

Short Story

  • Her Husband’s Hands by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed 10/11)
  • Mama by We Are Zhenya by Your Son by Tom Crosshill (Lightspeed 4/11)
  • Shipbirth by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s 2/11)
  • Movement by Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s 3/11)
  • The Axiom of Choice by David W. Goldman (New Haven Review Winter ’11)
  • The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (F&SF 3-4/11)
  • The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld 4/11)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book

  • Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson (Orchard UK; Carolrhoda)
  • Chime by Franny Billingsley (Dial)
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (Greenwillow; Gollancz as Fire and Thorns)
  • The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout (Bloomsbury USA)
  • Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King (Little by Brown)
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Viking)
  • The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman (Big Mouth House)
  • Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor (Little by Brown)

The winners will be announced at SFWA’s 47th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend May 17 – May 20 in Arlington, Virginia.

Via Locus.

Ye Olde New Scientist Magazine Launches New Science Fiction Magazine

What? Exactly. Fortunately it’s not called that, but rather Arc magazine. Apparently this came down a few months ago around the first of the year when I had other things on my mind, like a torn quadriceps tendon. Anyway, the fist issue is out: the dead-tree version is a whopping hardbound 152-pages and sells for $29.95; digital copies for iOs, Android, Kindle and regular ole’ Windows and Mac ‘puters sell for $6.99.

Seems stodgy ole’ New Scientist isn’t quite so stodgy; Arc doesn’t have a website per se that I could find, but rather an Arc tumblr blog. I guess I’m the stodgy one, eh? Per the inaugural post:

Arc will explore the future through cutting-edge science fiction and forward-looking essays by some of the world’s most celebrated authors – backed up with columns by thinkers and practitioners from the worlds of books, design, gaming, film and more.

This first issue includes:

  • Editorial: “Welcome to the future” by Simon Ings and Sumit Paul-Choudhury
  • Forward: “The object of posterity’s scorn” by Bruce Sterling
  • Short Story: “A Journey to Amasia” by Stephen Baxter
  • Unreliable Narrator: “Alien Evasion” by China Miéville
  • Short Story: “Bearlift” by Margaret Atwood
  • Present Tense: “Breaking the fall” by Paul Graham Raven
  • Short Story: “In Autotelia” by M. John Harrison
  • Unevenly Distributed: “Sir John Schorne’s Devil” by Simon Ings
  • Prior Art: “What hpapnes fi it atcully wroks” by Sumit Paul-Choudhury
  • Short Story: “Topsight” by Hannu Rajaniemi
  • The Tomorrow Project: “Making the Future” by Justin Mullins
  • Texts: “Three Surprising Theories About Science Fiction” by Adam Roberts
  • Games: “Three Ways to Play the Future” by Leigh Alexander
  • Spaces: “Three Stories on Dreamland” by Simon Pummell
  • Short Story: “The Water Thief” by Alastair Reynolds

Via SFscope.

Subscriptions, Back Issues of Locus Available Digitially, DRM-Free via Weightless Books

October 2009 edition of Locus Magazine featuring author Connie Willis on the cover.I’m playing catchup here, but it certainly bears repeating, if you haven’t already heard. Now don’t get too excited, the back issues only go back to January of last year. Still, it’s pretty sweet that you can now subscribe to this venerable science fiction trade publication or buy individual editions in pdf, epub, or mobi format without any annoying digital rights management dictating how you use the content that you paid for.

A year subscription to Locus’ digital edition of its print mag – that’d be 12 months – runs $48; six months’ is $27.00. Individual monthly editions go for $5.50. Hooray for Locus and Weightless Books.

The latter, by the way, is an independent ebook (e-book, (e)Book whatever) store that originally featured books and whatnot from Small Beer Press and Blind Eye Books; since then other publishers have been added. Best of all, everything they sell is DRM free – no worries about backing up to multiple devices and hard drives. Registered users of Weightless’ site also get a backup library of titles they purchase, kept on the site. Living in the future is cool, huh?

Originally via BoingBoing via SFscope.

Looking Back on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series book covers, as purloined from ye olde Wikipedia.Nerd that I am, I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, including the sequels and prequels. Actually that’s a bit of a misnomer; I had read the Foundation series — the original three — years ago, back in my college days, but had never actually read the sequels and prequels written some 30 years later.

This isn’t going to be so much literary criticism as it is merely personal reflection, observation and pondering. After all, a serious critical treatment of the entire series would be the stuff of graduate school theses, and I don’t have the time on my hands that I once had when I started Barking Book Reviews.

Of course, the original Foundation trilogy is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it won a one-time Hugo Award for Best All Time Series, ahead of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Remember, this was way back in 1966, long before Hollywood ever got a hold of either Tolkien or Asimov. Nevertheless this was perhaps at the height of Tolkien’s popularity here in the United States (as distinct from that of LoTR as modern media phenomenon) — this was the era of “Frodo Lives,” after all.

At the risk of beating a dead critical horse, in many ways, the original trilogy is stereotypical of when it was written: the 1950s. Women characters are virtually nonexistent. Colonization of space is seen as inevitable — sort of a Galactic Manifest Destiny, as it were, although conveniently there isn’t the nuisance of any indigenous species to subjugate and/or slaughter. Asimov, incidentally, actually finds a reason for this empty galaxy — this struck me as odd the first time I read the novels — which he elucidates near the end of the sequels.

But Asimov can’t be dismissed as so many ’50s-era science fiction writers can, those who imagined a bright, shiny future where men were men, women were women and Science — with a capital S — made everything better. While science is the hope of human civilization in the Foundation series, it is mathematics, psychology, sociology and history — all of them together comprising Hari Seldon’s psychohistory — not nuclear rocket ships and and square-jawed, crew-cut manly men.

Indeed, Asimov said that he originally conceived of the series as a science fiction version of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This isn’t the the pulp or even pop sci-fi of Buck Rodgers movie serials; this is the thinking person’s science fiction. The ideas here are not only the central plot conceit but also essentially the main characters, and it’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer that he pulls this off with aplomb.

It’s also to his credit that Foundation stands the test of time. It’s true that certain aspects of it seem dated, but nevertheless its central themes and ideas — the individual vs. society, cultural evolution, fate and predestination (and the moral ambivalence they engender), the inevitability of entropy and decay (and humanity’s inevitable balking at same) — seem as relevant today as they surely must have back then. Bear in mind that at that time the first Foundation novel appeared in book form (it was first serialized in Astounding Magazine in the 1940s) World War II had concluded only a few years before, the Cold War was getting into full swing and nuclear war was consequently a real possibility – not science fiction but terribly disturbing fact.

They Have Sex in the Future, Don’t They?

But then as has been widely observed, science fiction isn’t really about the future; it’s about the current time — the Future is just a literary conceit. This becomes readily apparent when we look at the sequels to the original trilogy. While the third book in the trilogy, Second Foundation appeared in 1952, the first of the sequels, Foundation’s Edge, appeared in 1982, followed by Foundation and Earth in 1986.

While Asimov remains true to the original trilogy and its ideas in these two books (yes, there are contradictions, but that’s the nature of the literary beast), two things are evident: 1) Asimov has matured as a writer; and 2) there are signs of the times, so to speak. With regard to the former, the characters here are considerably more developed, replete with moral flaws and all. The female characters (and male characters’ attitudes to them), while not perhaps paragons of feminism or even egalitarianism, are nevertheless a far cry from the female characters found (few and far in between) in his earlier work — the character of Dr. Susan Calvin perhaps being a notable exception that proves the rule.

This brings us to the latter: in these latter-day Foundation sequels there is … gasp! … sex! In Asimov’s early works, there might be the occasional nod to the fact that men and women bump uglies from time to time, but it was always an oblique reference at best – someone mentions spending the night, or someone (always a man, of course) who has been up the gravity well for a long time and is looking forward to getting back planet-side, because it’s been a long time since he’s seen a dame.

But flash forward 30 some years, and not only do we have characters having sex, but we have female characters initiating it. Sometimes the characters even talk about sex. Of course, by today’s popular fiction standards, the brief and occasional sexual interludes among Asimov’s characters seems almost quaint (not to mention a little awkward).

Still, “the idea’s the thing,” if I may paraphrase the Bard.

Isaac Asimov in a (deservedly so) kingly pose, in all his mutton-chopped glory (art by Rowena Morrill).The ending also struck me as one that Asimov would not have written in the 1950s – and indeed, didn’t – even if his muse had instructed him to write the sequels back then. I have to admit – and this isn’t a bad thing – I didn’t see it coming. The fact that the character himself is caught by surprise by his own decision that determines the future of humanity is perhaps a sly acknowledgment of this on Asimov’s part (but I’m purely speculating here).

I hesitate to engage in specifics, and thus spoilers, so I shall remain vague. Looking back on the previous books, it wasn’t a complete surprise – I’m referring to the ultimate fate of humankind, or rather the course of its development as determined at the end of Foundation’s Edge – and I think it caught me by surprise since I tend to always compartmentalize Asimov as a writer from the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. As such, again, had he written Foundations Edge in, say, 1955, I somehow don’t think he would have brought the series to the same conclusion as he did in 1982, on the other end of the 1960s and ’70s.

Incidentally, I would add that one of my first thoughts upon finishing Edge was that the conclusion was more reminiscent of Asimov’s colleague Arthur C. Clarke than of Asimov himself. One wonders if Asimov was perhaps influenced by some of Clarke’s more idea-driven works, but then one is indulging in speculation once again. Asimov was a big fan of Clarke, however – so much so that he declared Clarke the best science fiction author of their time, while he, Asimov, was self-declared (albeit with a bit of tongue in furry cheek) the best science (as in nonfiction) writer.

I should back up a moment here; if you haven’t read the books and you’re a bit confused, I don’t blame you. I keep talking about “the end,” but Foundation’s Edge isn’t the last book. Without getting too spoilerish here, as mentioned above, the course of the future development of humans is set at the end of this next-to-last book. But of course there is still one more sequel, and you may be thinking, “Yikes! How do you write a sequel when the course of Life, the Universe and Everything has been decided?”

Well, Douglas Adams gets away with it, and Asimov does too. In Foundation and Earth, we follow along as the character who is tasked with determining the course of humanity’s development in the previous book seeks to confirm that he made the right decision. Along the way he finds the mythical origins of humanity, working his way across the galaxy – it’s worth reading Foundation and Earth just to come along for this ride — and Asimov ties in his earlier robot books and empire books here as well.

It’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer and a man of ideas that he pulls this off: writing a tolerably good sequel after the fourth book in the series determines the eventual fate not just of the Galactic Empire and Hari Seldon’s Foundation, but of all humanity to the end of its evolutionary track. Most authors of popular fiction, when faced with such a task, seemingly phone it in to milk the resulting cash cow. Oh the names I could name …

Foundation Prequels: More Substance than Milk

Isaac Asimov's Prelude to FoundationOne might think that said milking might be the case in the prequels that were written after the two sequels (and the original trilogy), but this is not the case. Rather than looking literally at the big picture once more (and sticking to a successful formula), in these two books Asimov drills down to examine the life of Hari Seldon. Up to this point we the readers have known little of Seldon, the mythical founder of the Foundation, who looms large over the original trilogy despite being, in terms of the plot, a minor (albeit very important) character who never appears again – in the flesh, at least – beyond the first part of the first novel, Foundation.

I have to say in retrospect, I found these two chronological prequels – the last two, in terms of the order in which Asimov wrote – to be perhaps the most fulfilling. Here we get the most well-developed characters of the Foundation series, and certainly some of the most interesting. While one can argue that character development and plotting were not among Asimov’s strengths as a writer, I think it is fair to say that in these later novels – this is true of the later robot novels as well – we see Asimov at his best as a writer. While he lamented a lack of ideas late in his life, he seems to nevertheless have perfected his art.

Here we see Asimov deftly weave his robot novels together with the Foundation novels as well. This tie-in first occurs at the end of Foundation and Earth, and while placed in a context that makes sense, it still comes across in terms of plotting as rather tacked on or last-minutish – as in, “I want to tie in these two different series of novels, so I’m just gonna throw this chapter on here at the end and do it.”

But in the two prequels he goes back and expands and firmly establishes this tie-in, giving it roots by elaborating in detail historical events mentioned in brief before. In fact, if one were to read the books in the proper chronological order – prequels, original trilogy, two sequels – the ending of Foundation and Earth would not appear tacked on at all. In fact a clever reader will see it coming; Asimov clearly had the ideas for the prequels in mind even as he was writing the sequels.

One more note about the prequels. I think it’s fair to say – as many others have observed – that we can draw parallels between the aging Hari Seldon and an aging Asimov. He did acknowledge that he thought of Seldon as his literary alter ego, after all. Either way, there is a ring of truth about the aging Seldon – both in his middle age and in his elderly years – as depicted by Asimov.

Perhaps having suffered a heart attack in 1977 and bypass surgery in 1983, and consequently having faced the spectre of his own death, he subsequently experienced a rather expansive spate of creativity – nothing like pain, misery and death to awaken one’s muse. In any event, the Foundation sequels and prequels, while perhaps not eclipsing the original trilogy in terms of ideas and scope, do manage to surpass them – and much of Asimov’s earlier work – in terms of artistry.

Isaac Asimov by Rowena MorrillAgain, its a credit to Isaac Asimov as an author – an incredibly prolific one in both fiction and nonfiction – that he wrote some of his best work not at the beginning of his life or even in the middle, but at the end. Perhaps his widow, Janet sums it up best with the title of the posthumous collection of her husband’s diaries and personal letters: It’s Been a Good Life.

P.S. So I set out to jot down a few thoughts on the Foundation series, and ended up with 2,100 words. D’oh!. But then I’ve  been doing that since college.

P.P.S. That rad portrait of Asimov sitting on the bas-relief throne? That’s by Rowena Morrill. You’ve likely seen her work sitting on a bookshelf. Be prepared to spend some time perusing her excellent artwork, if you follow that link. And just for the heck of it, here’s another one of Asimov by Rowena.