Monthly Archives: October 2009

Nojiri offers a solid first contact story in Usurper

Something bizarre, bigger than anyone could ever build, was protruding from the surface of Mercury. She was not sure whom to tell. She was not even sure she should tell anybody at all.

Title: Usurper of the Sun
Author: Housuke Nojiri
Year: 2002
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

usurperVIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint has, for a while now, been publishing English translations of Japanese science fiction in order to bring it to a wider audience. Since I have no familiarity with Japanese sf, I thought it was time to dive in and have a closer look. My first taste of the Haikasoru library is Usurper of the Sun, a first contact story in a hard sf vein with a compelling premise.

Aki Shiraishi is a precocious member of her high school’s astronomy club. While observing a Mercurial eclipse with the school’s telescope, she discovers something unexpected: an apparent structure on the planet’s surface. A huge structure. What is it? How did it get there? Maybe more importantly, who put it there? As Aki’s observations are confirmed by the scientific community, these questions rage around the world as seven billion people debate the meaning of what may be the most important event in human history.

Soon, though, it becomes clear what the structure on Mercury is doing. The very material of the planet is being ejected, launched into space, and is slowly being assembled into a gigantic ring around the Sun. All the previous questions of who, what, and why are now transferred to the Ring, whose purpose is unknown. What is known is that the Ring has already begun blocking part of the Earth’s share of sunlight, and things will only get worse as the object grows.

This is a wake-up call for humanity to grow up fast, to stop all its petty bickering and fighting, and to join together to address the common threat. Over the course of several years, a spacecraft is built and a mission planned to investigate the Ring at close range. During this time, Aki has become a world-famous figure. Her discovery sparked in her an unquenchable passion to uncover the truth, and after an intense college education in the sciences she has become the world’s foremost “Ringologist.” So it’s no surprise when she is chosen for the mission.

Upon reaching the Ring, Aki succeeds in discovering it’s purpose — or at least a part of it — which leads to an even bigger revelation: our solar system is going to have visitors. This leads to a whole new set of questions. What will these aliens be like? Why are they coming here? Is it an invasion? Do they even know there’s life on Earth? How can we communicate with them?

The book’s cover blurb compares it to the work of Clarke, and I do get a vague sense of that, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why. I was reminded more of Lem, actually, in that one of the main themes of Usurper is the unlikelihood of any truly meaningful communication with an alien species.

This is a well-told and engaging story with a fascinating premise that takes a mature approach to the well-known first contact scenario. My only complaint might be that there’s a certain innocence to the whole thing, a kind of airy, Young Adult style to it. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, or if maybe that’s a general Japanese aesthetic, or what. I just would have preferred a bit more sophistication in some of the story’s aspects, particularly in the characterization department. But minor complaints aside, it’s a good fun read, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Revisiting an old favorite — Friedman’s In Conquest Born

The K’airth-v’sa — literally, “mate of the private war” — was as attractive to the Braxaná warrior as he or she was deadly. And it could be a woman. Yes, though years of male dominance had buried that fact. And if any woman deserved the title, this one certainly did.

Title: In Conquest Born
Author: C. S. Friedman
Year: 1986
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

conquestbornI don’t often re-read books because there’s too much out there I haven’t read yet, and I don’t like to spend time retreading old ground. I pulled this old favorite out for a re-read for two reasons. First, I hadn’t read it since back in the 80’s. I recalled it as one of my very favorites, but my recollection was becoming hazy, so I wanted to see how it compares to my memory. (As it turns out, it’s not quite the masterpiece I remembered from my teen years, but it’s still a very strong novel.) Second, I only recently noticed that Friedman wrote a sequel which was published a few years ago (The Wilding, 2004), so before reading that I needed to get back up to speed.

In Conquest Born is a tale of obsessive personal vengeance set against the background of a never-ending war between two divergent branches of humanity. Zatar is a Braxaná, one of the ruling class of the Braxin Holding. Braxin society is male-dominated, racially segregated, highly warlike, and regards cruelty and hatred as virtues, the softer emotions as disabilities, and barbarism as a desirable aesthetic value. The Braxaná are their rulers, a different racial strain that perpetuates an image of superiority over the masses. They have almost unlimited power — they can put ordinary Braxins to death on a whim, take over command of military fleets, or raze entire planets that oppose them. Their philosophy might be summed up like this:

We recognize that in man’s nature there is a drive to oppress others, be they truly alien or his own women. Perhaps the true measure of his power is how openly he can indulge in this.

Anzha lyu Mitethe comes from the Azean Star Empire, perpetually at war with the Braxins. The Azeans pride themselves on their egalitarian society with total equality between the sexes, so different from their enemies. The Azeans put more emphasis on the mind than on brute physical force; over the generations, through their understanding of genetics and a program of breeding, they have produced a small population of telepaths. This is one of their prime tools in the war, to the disgust of the Braxins, who see psychic ability as an abomination. As a child, Anzha witnesses the death of her parents, in a particularly gruesome manner, at the hands of Zatar. Her desire for vengeance will change the very course of the war. And she just happens to be the most powerful telepath to come along in a long long time.

The personal vendetta between these two is the fuel that drives the story, and it’s fascinating to follow the course of their rise to power as a means of pursuing it. Interestingly, they eventually come to feel more connected to each other than to others of their own kind. Both are misfits in their own way, trying to find a way to succeed in the societies into which they are born.

Those societies themselves are also an interesting study. On a surface level, Friedman sets them apart visually: the Braxins are white-skinned and dark-haired and of medium height, while the Azeans are tall, golden-skinned and white-haired. But it immediately becomes clear that these are not white and black hats to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” These two societies certainly see themselves differently, but at heart they both fall prey to the same kinds of flaws. The Braxins openly practice discrimination based on sex, class, and race, but the Azeans are really no better. Azea long ago decided on their ideal physical form, and babies are genetically manipulated so as to match that ideal. In fact, it’s a requirement for citizenship — one which Anzha doesn’t match and must struggle against. Their practice of racial conformity is no less repugnant than Braxin practices. I suppose the point is that every culture has problems, no matter how self-righteously it views itself.

This is a very enjoyable novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the sequel has to offer. Friedman is a highly capable writer whose output has been less than I could wish for; but given a choice between quality and quantity, I’ll take quality, and fortunately Friedman provides it.

The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970’s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.

Through the wormhole — 10/8/09

A few weeks ago Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an article for New Scientist, Science fiction: the stories of now. It’s a stirring defense of the genre and its importance in today’s world. Robinson criticizes the jurors of Britain’s Booker award for judging “in ignorance” when they routinely overlook sf. You tell ’em, Kim!

By going here you can find an audio file of a radio program titled “The subversive side of science fiction.” This aired on an NPR affiliate in Louisville, KY, and features two guests, both sf authors/editors/scholars: Amy Sturgis and James Gunn. I loaded it on my mp3 player and listened to it while taking a walk one night. Good show.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie District 9, just don’t make any plans to see it in Nigeria; it seems they’re offended by it and are pressuring theaters not to show it. The reason?

Information Minister Dora Akunyili told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that she had asked the makers of the film, Sony, for an apology. She says the film portrays Nigerians as cannibals, criminals and prostitutes.

To which one person replied:

“It’s a story, you know,” he said. “It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.”

This article in National Geographic News is about predictions made by H.G. Wells that have come true.

Soon you’ll be able to see the pilot episodes for a couple of Gene Roddenberry shows that could have been. From the sound of it though, I’d say it’s a good thing he went with Star Trek instead.

Costumes of the sci-fi stars will be on display at the California Museum in Sacramento, running through January 10. Way too far from me, but maybe you’re luckier than I am.

Here’s something I found interesting. It’s an interview with Patrick Gygar, who is the director of the Maison d’Ailleurs (“House of Elsewhere”), a science fiction museum in Switzerland.

And lastly, the Wall Street Journal’s Book Lover column received a letter from a woman asking how to get her 13-year-old nephew off of reading science fiction and onto other genres. To her credit, the columnist, Cynthia Crossen, defended the boy’s interest in sf, and told his aunt:

So Aunt B.’s mission is to gradually nudge the boy along the spectrum from Godzilla and 50-foot women to H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Douglas Adams.

Excellent advice.

Is Transition SF? Fantasy? Slipstream? Philosophy? Maybe all of the above.

We work to make the many worlds better.
There. That’s the official line.

Title: Transition
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 2009
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

transitionAt first glance, the latest novel from Banks is a conspiracy thriller set against the context of a familiar science fiction concept: the existence of a multiverse containing infinite versions of reality. Within this multiverse (of which our own Earth is but one infinitesimal piece) operates a shadowy group called the Concern, which seeks to manipulate specific events in the many worlds in order to influence the direction of their societies. The Concern’s agents (assassins, very often) are able to flit, or transition, between worlds by taking over local bodies, and few of them ever question the organization’s assertion that what they do is all for the greater good, a mission of philanthropy. But there are those who don’t buy the official line, leading the reader to the inevitable question: what’s the Concern really up to?

However, perhaps a second glance is advisable. If you take Transition at face value you’re likely to be disappointed. As a straightforward sf novel it leaves a lot to be desired. Approached primarily on the level of plot and resolution of the conflict, it may leave you wondering just what the point was. But then, there’s much to suggest that it’s not meant to be straightforward at all. Banks doesn’t approach this multiverse idea in anything like a science fictional manner. There’s no attempt at a scientific underpinning — no discussion of physics or mathematics or cosmology, no exotic theories to invest the concept with plausibility. In fact there’s nothing distinguishing this multiverse from the way it might be used in a fantasy setting (for instance, the “shadows” of Zelazny’s Amber series, which this reminds me of in some ways). Transition might best be described by the term “slipstream” — that vaguely-defined variety of literature blurring the lines between speculative and mainstream fiction. Which is fitting, since apparently one of the motivations for this book was to bridge the divide between Banks’ two alter egos — the Iain with the “M” and the Iain without. In the words of Bruce Sterling, slipstream “makes you feel very strange,” and by that criteria the book definitely merits the label.

Indeed, this novel is so strange that by the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll find yourself questioning whether the multiverse presented therein actually existed or not. But don’t feel too bad. Even one of the main characters — a transitioner himself — can’t decide:

And I accept that all that happened happened, and I accept my part in it. I accept, too, that it is over, and that still the most rational explanation is that none of it happened, that I made it all up….

There’s a heavy philosophical slant to this book. There’s much reference to solipsism and the possibility that we create our own reality. This is conveyed by the metaphor of the magnifying glass: just as it gathers light from a certain radius and focuses it to a point, so we suck meaning from our surroundings and focus it in our own consciousness, using it for our own (usually selfish) ends — creating what is important to us while disallowing what is not. In fact Transition has a lot to say about human selfishness and our tendency to see ourselves as the center of existence, to the exclusion of everything else (especially to the exclusion of anything that might challenge our supremacy). Going along with this is the fact that we’ve encountered no alien life; Banks presents us with the strange thought that maybe this is so because we’ve created a universe in our own image, and we don’t want any competitors. Of course, this isn’t going to persuade those of us who believe in an objective reality to change our views, but it is fun to think about such weird ideas. This book would make great reading and discussion in a philosophy class.

Transition is also very political, and has some very pointed criticism of Anglo-American behavior after 9-11 regarding the “War on Terror” and particularly the use of torture. (A warning to the squeamish: torture and inventive methods for killing people play a rather prominent role in the story. I thought the death by induction heating was brilliant — and horrifying.) Going along with the selfishness theme, the book also takes a few swipes at certain aspects of capitalism (our world is one of a whole category of realities the Concern labels “Greedist worlds”). Also up for criticism is the ever-increasing concentration of authority in leaders who simply take new powers for themselves. The book’s main villain is shameless in this regard, and obviously shares this trait with America’s former president.

All in all, a very unusual book, but one worth reading for those with enough imagination to be open to some bizarre perspectives. It’ll certainly give you some of those to ponder, and that’s almost never a bad thing.