Monday, August 27, 2012

Book review: Charles Yu "How To Live Safely In A Science-Fictional Universe"

seudo science fiction with a certain melancholy beauty -- that's what we concluded about Charles Yu "How To Live Safely In A Science-Fictional Universe" at the Center For Inquiry book club discussion. It is pseudo science fiction, because while it has science fiction trappings, most of it is author's exploration of how he feels about things. It felt self-indulgent, and for a good reason: the protagonist is the author himself, or at least his namesake. That's not to say that many of us wouldn't be able to identify with the protagonist sometimes. He is a technician who travels in a time machine, and attends the most heartbreaking moments of people's lives. It also means that he doesn't spend almost any time in the present -- most of his life is spent outside time, and he is a stranger in his own era. His capsule, barely big enough to stretch out, is completely bland and featureless. I was all the more surprised that I found its description compelling. Something about it resonated with me. Could it be because many of us spend most of our days in similar blank rooms, a.k.a. office cubicles, performing actions that are, in a way, outside of time? Their impact on other people is softened by many layers of infrastructure, depersonalized, not traceable directly to us. So it's not hard to identify with the protagonist's alienation. I found his father, a quietly brilliant, stoic, underappreciated Asian engineer, to be a more vivid character than the protagonist himself. But that may be just because I identify with an immigrant engineer's experience. That said, the explorations of the character's psyche did not make up for plot shortfalls. It seemed that the author intended for the time-travel mechanism to make sense (it wasn't just a vessel for psychological exploration), but in that sense it failed. At the end, we are expected to believe that the protagonist resolved a deadly time loop he accidentally created. But the ending is so ambiguous that we didn't understand what was going on. It's as if the author tried to hand-wave over the fact that no real resolution was possible. This book has a few interesting science-fictional tidbits, which I can't really call ideas, since they are way too undeveloped. For example, what does it mean to time-travel by grammatical tenses? Or what does it mean to live in a universe that's only 93% installed? Each of those ideas could be tantalizingly interested, if properly developed, but in the book they are just throwaway sentences. One of the book club members said that while he enjoyed the book enough, he wouldn't recommend it except to someone who really wanted a "different" kind of science fiction. This book may be best enjoyed for its melancholy mood, an exploration of a father-son relationship, and a tragedy of a brilliant, but modest person without an ability to sell himself well (the father). That last plotline is where the book really shines.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

ArmadilloCon 2012: What You Should Have Read in 2011 - 2012

A bunch of authors, editors, critics and booksellers discuss their science fiction, fantasy and horror picks of the year.

It's worth noting which of the books or authors got a nod from more than one panelist. This year those were N. K. Jemisin The Kingdom Of Gods, Kameron Hurley God's War and Infidel, Will Macintosh Soft Apocalypse, and anthology Welcome to Bordertown.

Below are each panelist's recommended books, and his or her comments about why they are worth reading.

Willie Siros's recommended books

Margaret Atwood In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

N. K. Jemisin The Kingdom Of Gods and The Killing Moon. -- N. K. Jemisin is one of the most amazing new writers. She has strong ties to Africa, and writes in non-Western ways. The structure of her novels are so amazingly different than what you find in American fantasy.

Ian McDonald Planesrunner -- When someone decides, after a lifetime of writing hard SF, to write a teen novel, it's interesting to see how he's trying not to talk down to the reader. We, adult readers, have seen many science fiction and fantasy tropes, such as alternate realities, but teens might have not seen them yet, and require a different approach.

Neal Stephenson REAMDE".

Bruce Sterling Gothic High-Tech -- short story collection.

Francis Spufford Red Plenty -- Willie called it "my epic fail of the year", though it wasn't clear to me why, because his comments about this book were quite flattering. It's a novel about Soviet space race, and it's not clear whether it's science fiction -- maybe not, says Willie. It could be secret history. In any case, having lived through American space era, it's very interesting to read the same events from the other side. We in the US thought American space program got it wrong, but Russians also thought THEY got it wrong, and had to go back to the roots of Marxism to start over.

Terry Bison Any Day Now is another big secret history novel. It starts out with the usual version of the 1960s, but then you discover that Kennedy doesn't die, and the story drifts just further and further from our history. Willie says that he was amazed by Terry Bison's sense of inertia in history. It's hist best novel since Talking Man.

Laird Barron The Croning -- a horror novel.

James S. A. Corey space series Caliban's War -- American writers trying to retake space opera from Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton and other Brits.

Kim Stanley Robinson 2312. You can see it as a sequel to Mars trilogy, or not, as you wish. But, according to Willie, it is Robinson best novel since Mars.

Charles Stross Apocalypse Codex is the 4th Laundry novel, and it's as strong as the 1st one. Much stronger than the 2nd and 3rd.

Jeremy Lassen's recommended books

Lauren Beukes Zoo City -- She is an amazing writer from South Africa. She got a handle on the non-western-European future science fiction.

Mark Lawrence, Prince of Thorns -- Really weird fantasy series. The setting makes it unique.

N. K. Jemisin The Kingdom Of Gods, and the rest of her The Inheritance trilogy.

Jo Walton Among Others.

Michael Swanwick Dancing With Bears

Greg Egan Clockwork Rocket, a start of a new trilogy, and no, it's not steampunk.

Kameron Hurley God's War -- another real science-fiction book. Incredibly unique setting, a cast of characters that features strong women taking control of their hyperviolent world. The wold is ruled by a Queen, all men are sent off to war. So it's just old men, and women, and children running this world.

Will Macintosh Soft Apocalypse -- very depressing, a gut punch of a book. It looks at Apocalypse as something that happens not with explosions, but with lowered expectations, something that happens when unemployment reches 40% and Walmart runs out of stuff. The protagonist's life just gets grimmer and grimmer. It's a hard book to read.

Rob Ziegler Seed. It's similar to Paolo Bacigalupi's "Windup Girl", but with faster pacing, and with more likeable protagonist. Rob and Paolo live in the same small town, so it's an interesting bit of serendipity.

As an aside, someone from the audience recommends Paolo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker as being much better and with nicer characters than Windup Girl.

Rudy Rucker Jim and the Flims, in which Rudy Rucker comes to terms with his own mortality.

Geoff Ryman Paradise Tales, short story collection from Small Beer Press.

Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, ed. Welcome to Bordertown, an anthology. They rebooted the Bordertown anthologies, which were urban fantasy before urban fantasy was created, and got a whole new cast of writers.

Jeremy Lassen, Bill Parker, Willie Siros, Michelle Muenzler, and Bev Hale on What You Should Have Read in 2011 - 2012 panel.
Jeremy Lassen, Bill Parker, Willie Siros, Michelle Muenzler, and Bev Hale on What You Should Have Read in 2011 - 2012 panel. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 are in my photo gallery.

Bill Parker's recommended books

Ernest Cline Ready, Player One. Ernest Cline is native to Austin. This science fiction novel is set in 2044, and society has changed quite a lot. One character is a game designer from the 80s, and there are lots of references to 80s music, movies, and culture. It takes you through the game industry in little bits and pieces that are plugged into the story. By 2044 a game company has shut down, and opened up with a new product they called Oasis -- a virtual reality world. Kids don't go to school anymore -- they study in the Oasis. People don't go to the office, they work in the Oasis. One character lives in a trailer park, where trailers are stacked 30-high. The gist of the story is that the creator of Oasis has died, and left 3 Easter eggs for people. Who finds them, becomes rich. The story is about people who are looking for eggs, while an evil corporation wants to find them and make everyone pay for Oasis (which is currently free).

Some readers from the audience mentioned that there are also 3 Easter eggs in the book, and whoever finds them can win a prize.

Michelle Muenzler's recommended books

Haruki Murakami 1Q84 -- a very long and intricate story, that's very Murakami in the sense that every detail in it is very important. You can't just skip over chunks of text, because every detail is needed in order to understand what happens.

Johnathan L. Howard Johannes Cabal The Detective.

Ayize Jama-Everett The Liminal People -- a novel about underworld people who have powers, but you wouldn't consider it a superhero novel. It's a bit more gritty, realistic than most superhero novels Michelle has read. The protagonist's daughter disappears, he tries to track her down, and gets entangled with people with horrible powers.

J. M. McDermott When We Were Executioners

Martha Wells The Serpent Sea and The Cloud Roads -- very creative, vast world-building. Exploration of crazy-ass alien cultures clashing and interacting.

Jason Heller Taft 2012 -- hilarious, brilliant book. President Taft disappears, and 100 years later he wakes up on the White House lawn. The book is extremely fast-paced. It has Twitter conversations discussing his political views.

Kameron Hurley Infidel

Will Macintosh Soft Apocalypse

John Love Faith -- a massive battle, a dance between two spaceships, really fun.

Stina Leicht And Blue Skies from Pain

Rose Lemberg, ed. The Moment of Change -- a speculative poetry anthology. Very story-oriented poetry, resembles Year's Best SF anthologies.

Bev Hale's recommended books

Kage Baker Best of Kage Baker.

Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, ed. Welcome to Bordertown.

Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris Phoenix Rising -- steampunk.

Jim Butcher Ghost Story.

Rachel Caine Bite Club and Last Breath -- the last of her two Morganville Vampires books.

Gail Carriger Heartless

Kendare Blake Anna Dressed in Blood

Laura Anne Gilman Pack of Lies

Laurie R. King The Pirate King

Seanan Mcguire Discount Armageddon

Kim Newman, Professor Moriarty: The Hound Of the D'Urbervilles -- a spin-off of "Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series, where Sherlock Holmes got retired, got married, and still doing stuff. This book has Professor Moriarty as protagonist.

Tim Powers Hide Me Among The Graves

Cherie Priest Hellbent

Ransom Riggs Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

John Scalzi Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts -- Bev Hale liked Fuzzy Nationbetter than she liked Redshirts, though both were fun.

F. Paul Wilson Nightworld

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, ed. Down these Strange Streets -- an anthology.

Willie's recommendations of books that are very new, or are yet to come out

Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and a couple of other authors The Mongoliad -- because Neal Stephenson has an obsession with swords.

Mark Teppo Sinner: A Prequel to the Mongoliad, and Earth First

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter The Long Earth. Someone said it would be funny if Terry Pratchett wrote the science in that book, and Stephen Baxter the characters.

Iain Banks Stonemouth and Hydrogen Sonata. The latter revels bits and pieces from the beginning of the Culture.

Robin Maxwell Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan -- a Tarzan novel written from Jane's point of view. Burroughs estate gave Robin Maxwell, an award winning historical writer, access to Burroughs notes about Tarzan's backstory.