Visions of Paradise

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Etched City

K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City received amazing reviews for a debut novel, and I started reading it with two frames of mind: How could it possibly be as good as every reviewer claimed, but what if it actually was?

It did not take me long to realize what the reviewers saw in the novel. The Etched City is an absolutely wonderful novel, the best I have read since Perdito Street Station. Bishop has an amazing way with words, as well as a mastery of scenery and setting plus an ability to draw the reader into her world effortlessly and completely. Almost from the first page I felt part of an Old West-type world, traveling with Raule and Gwynn, two former soldiers on the losing side of a war, escaping the victorious army’s moping-up action.

Bishop also demonstrated a deftness with characterization, easily walking the fine line between showing Raule and Gwynn as stereotypical Old West outlaws and two unfortunate people whose civilized nature is unable to grow in their harsh circumstances and surroundings.

They manage to escape their pursuers, and find their way to Ashamoil where Raule became a mostly-unpaid female doctor in a charity hospital in the midst of the city’s worst tenements, while Gwynn becomes a strong-arm bully for the wealthy figure Elm who rules much of the city’s underworld

Much of The Etched City combines a detailed look at life in the underbelly of the city with many philosophical asides as nearly all the characters, no matter how depraved they might be, are seemingly wont to break into philosophical discussion–and while this is the least believable of the book’s several aspects, it provides it a thought-provoking nature that I found fascinating even when I knew it was highly unlikely.

In The Etched City we meet such people as:

> Marriott, a former companion of Gwynn who greases his way into the underworld, but who is much more distressed about the nature of his activities than Gwynn would ever be;

> The Rev, a priest assigned to counsel the sick and pray for the dead in Raule’s hospital, who meets with Gwynn one day a week to share a meal while arguing the existence of God;

> a boy Bellor Vargey who dies in a pointless knife fight with a rival gang member;

> Beth Constanzin, a mysterious artist who uses a glimpse of Gwynn in her painting, thus becoming the object of his obsession;

> Jacope Vargey, brother of Bellor, who upon the death of his mother assumes responsibility for the welfare of his younger sister Emila.

Most of the book concerns the activities of Raule and Gwynn, and how they fit into the everyday life of Ashamoil. Each of them finds emotional symmetry in a lover whose attitude towards life seems to balance their own: Raule with Jacope Vargey, if only briefly, and Gwynn with Beth Constanzin, much longer and considerably deeper.

At times I was reminded of the movie Gangs of New York with the novel’s burrowing itself into the nitty-gritty details of a seemingly-amoral city. The Etched City offers a rich tapestry which is at times brutal and shocking, while at other times hopeful as well. But while Ashamoil might be amoral, The Etched City is not. Death is never cozy, or easy, always bringing with it a price, whether psychological or emotional. This book is not a glorification of death–as novels designed as action thrillers seem to be–but a refutation of it.

And the philosophical moments, especially the luncheon conversations between Gwynn and Rev, while interesting asides early in the book, become more and more important as the book progresses, so that by its conclusion they are ultimately the very core of the novel itself.

This is not a book for readers seeking well-developed plots to the exclusion of setting and characterization, as the latter two aspects dominate The Etched City. There is a plot of sorts, but it comes late in the book. A sideshow strongman named Hart provides evidence to the authorities against Elm, and whose wife is murdered by Elm’s bullies in revenge. Elm decides to avenge himself in turn, and the chess-playing between Elm and Hart becomes the major focus of the novel’s last hundred pages.

If I were to list all the aspects of the “perfect” novel as I see it, The Etched City contains all of them in varying degrees. It is the type of novel which comes along too infrequently, and which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Favorite rock and roll artists

While this blog is primarily devoted to discussions of fiction (primarily science fiction, although fantasy and historical fiction do appear periodically), my other love which helps keep me sane is rock 'n' roll music. So, with my readers’ indulgence, I would like to discuss music occasionally on this page.

Before I do so though, you should have some idea of my musical taste. I started listening to rock ‘n’ roll around the time the Beatles first came to America, and while my taste has broadened since then, it has not really changed considerably. On 9/15/04 I posted a tally of which authors I had the most books by in my collection. So here is the rock ‘n’ roll version of that list, a tally of which artists appear most frequently in my collection, along with a recommended album by each of them.

The Kinks / 39 / Muswell Hillbillies
Bob Dylan / 25 / Blonde on Blonde
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers / 25 / Damn the Torpedoes
Yes / 25 / The Yes Album
The Moody Blues / 24 / To Our Children’s Children’s Children
The Strawbs / 24 / Hero and Heroine
The Beatles / 19 / Revolver
Pink Floyd / 19 / The Dark Side of the Moon
Bruce Springsteen / 19 / Born to Run
Van Morrison / 19 / Saint Dominic’s Preview
Dion / 19 / Yo Frankie
Neil Young / 18 / Harvest
Chris de Burgh / 17 / Man on the Line
Richard Thompson / 17 / Shoot Out the Lights
Elton John / 17 / The Fox
The Who / 16 / Who’s Next
Jethro Tull / 15 / War Child
Rush / 15 / Signals
Metallica / 14 / Metallica (“the black album”)
David Bowie / 14 / Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Billy Joel / 14 / Turnstiles
Simon & Garfunkel / 13 / Bookends
Iron Maiden / 13 / Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
U2 / 13 / The Joshua Tree
Dwight Yoakim / 13 / If There Was a Way
Jackson Browne / 13 / For Everyman
Steve Forbert / 12 / Streets of This Town
R.E.M. / 12 / Automatic for the People
Creedence Clearwater Revival / 12 / Cosmo’s Factory
Emerson, Lake & Palmer / 12 / Works, Volume 1
Led Zeppelin / 11 / Led Zeppelin 4
John Lennon / 11 / Plastic Ono Band
John Hiatt / 11 / Slow Turning
The Band / 10 / The Band
Paul McCartney / 10 / Band on the Run
Allman Brothers Band / 10 / Eat a Peach
Joe Jackson / 10 / Night and Day

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Michael Chabon: Bridging the Gap

The gulf between genre f&sf and mainstream literature has always been a wide one, with some writers, critics and fans on both sides of the gulf trying to bridge the gap while others seemingly build fences intended to keep the evildoers on their own side.

One person who is actively trying to bridge the gap is Michael Chabon. According to his interview in the December, 2004, Locus he grew up loving fantasy and comic books, two loves which he has neither abandoned nor disavowed in light of becoming the darling of the literati and a Pulitzer Prize winner. His novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which I reviewed here on 7/3/04) was a wonderful and wondrous evocation of comic books, in addition to its other strengths. After that novel won a Pulitzer Prize, Chabon totally followed his own muse. He published Summerland, a young adult fantasy; he edited two original anthologies intended to blend literature and genre fiction, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories; and he wrote the script for two volumes of a comic book based on Kavalier and Clay, The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist.

But Chabon is apparently not finished blending genre and non-genre yet. As I was browsing sfnal blogs this evening, everybody was all a-flutter over the announcement that Chabon is editing this year’s edition of the very prestigious Best American Short Stories, (you can read about it at Jonathan Strahan’s “Notes from Coode Street” and Matt Cheney’s “Mumpsinus”) and that he has put his reputation squarely where his beliefs are by selection three genre short stories for the volume. Two of them have already been announced, Kelly Link’s "Stone Animals" and Tim Pratt’s "Hart and Boot". There is much speculation over whom the other selectee is.

There is still one thing Chabon needs to do to really cement his genre-association credentials: publish a story in a purely-genre publication, such as Asimov’s or F&SF or Sci Fiction. Other mainstream writers have done it, such as Joyce Carol Oates and even Woody Allen. As soon as Chabon takes the final plunge, he will guarantee himself an invitation to a science fiction convention, and I would look forward to the opportunity to shake his hand and thank him for being one of us.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Kate Wilhelm

Although Kate Wilhelm began publishing in the 1950s, the first stories of hers I read were in the late 1960s when she became a fixture on Nebula Award ballots. Back then I always bought the annual Nebula Award volume, and that's where I read her winning short story "The Planners". Soon thereafter I started buying Damon Knight's anthology Orbit, where Wilhelm published at least a story in every issue (not surprisingly, since it must have been a lot less stressful selling stories to her husband than to other editors). Kate Wilhelm and Orbit were a perfect match since she wrote the kind of quiet, literary SF which Knight favored in Orbit, stories which came into vogue in the wake of the mid-1960s "New Wave”, but which were hard to find in a field whose practitioners still tended to come from pulp origins and scientific backgrounds (although English majors and literary backgrounds were beginning to appear, witness Thomas M. Disch, Michael Bishop, etc.)

“The Planners” was ostensibly about animal experimentation–injecting a type of DNA into a colony of monkeys to spark their intelligence, then experimenting to see if they were actually progressing. But that was just one aspect since, as the story’s title illustrates, it is primarily a story about the scientists conducting the experiments, specifically the main character who hallucinates continuously throughout the story. It was worthwhile reading and definitely thought-provoking.

"Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" was a novella originally published in Orbit 15, which was later expanded into a novel of the same name which won a deserved Hugo Award as Best Novel of the Year. Its premise is typical 1970s: in a near-future Earth all the ecological disasters which humans have ignored for so long–and have actually fostered in the name of increased technology and high standard of living–have finally made life virtually uninhabitable on vast portions of Earth, destroying the fertility of all men and women in the process, and virtually shattering the social structure throughout the entire world. A group of farmers and scientists hidden in a secluded valley begin experimenting with cloning in attempts to resuscitate the dying human race. The story is quite condensed for a novella, covering several decades in time, generally skimming over much of the character development to get to the important events. It's obvious reading the novella that there is a novel squeezed between the lines, so this was a rare instance where the novel was an improvement of an already-strong story.

"April Fool’s Day Forever” is basically a companion piece to “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” in that it also takes place in an ecologically-ravaged Earth where scientific advances have basically split the surviving humans into two sub-races–like Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon, a comparison one of the story’s two protagonists makes several times. The story seamlessly combines sharp character development, science fictional speculation, and the sensibility of a horror thriller in a lowkey fashion that never make you feel manipulated as a reader, but rather draw you into her web of intrigue inexorably like a hapless fly being slowly devoured.

The main characters are a young married couple, the husband a science writer for a popular nightly news program and the wife a sculptor. In recent years she has given birth to two sons, only to have both of them die abruptly in the hospital. Both husband and wife separately feel the light touch of conspiratorial tentacles, although both intuitively and not strongly enough to serve as solid evidence. She fears that the deaths of her children were not natural events, but caused deliberately by a person or several persons in the hospital. He suspects some government hanky panky behind strange quarantines taking place in Britain supposedly for health reasons but whose pattern does not quite follow the health emergency accurately. And his unease is encouraged by the news anchor who, over a strange dinner in a sex club, drops hints about immortality and conspiracies attached to it.

The plot advances a bit too quickly, generally propelled by theories proposed by the wife which eventually evolve through the thriller stage into an all-is-well ending which seems too unsubstantiated, too sudden, and too optimistic considering the world is actually tottering on its last legs. This novella was almost as terse as “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” and would probably be improved by expansion into a novel where the terseness could be replaced by real development. Alas, unlike “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang,” a novel version never appeared.

However, Wilhelm did not abandon the theme of immortality since it reappeared in what I consider her best book, the collection Listen, Listen, specifically in the wonderful novella “The Winter Beach”, which was subsequently expanded into the novel Welcome, Chaos. This book shows Wilhelm at her most mature, and “The Winter Beach” is a well-crafted, slow-paced story which walks the boundary between character study, thought-provoking idea story, and mystery thriller about as well as any writer has ever done. Its main character is a history professor who gives up her career to research eagles for a book. In the process she forms a friendship with a refined elderly man and his young servant who obviously possess a secret, although she does not know if it involves something as mundane as drug smuggling or as profound as their possession of an immortality serum. The story avoids all the mistakes of “April Fool’s Day Forever” and is much more leisurely than the compact “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang,” and both it and its novel expansion succeed in being totally satisfying in their similar, but different ways. If you want to see Kate Wilhelm at her very finest, and indeed thoughtful-yet-thrilling science fiction at its finest, I strongly recommend either the collection Listen, Listen or the novel Welcome, Chaos.

It's a bit sad that in recent years Wilhelm has virtually abandoned science fiction and horror in favor of mysteries. The good news is that her mysteries are quite good indeed, containing the same kind of character development and thought-provoking premises that fill her science fiction. I totally enjoyed Death Qualified, her mystery concerned with chaos theory in a very science fictional way, and most of her mysteries are contained in the same series as that novel.

Overall, if you like thoughtful, slow-paced, character-oriented science fiction, you cannot go wrong reading Kate Wilhelm.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Moon and the Sun

Vonda McIntyre is a very deliberate, seemingly unemotional writer, similar in many ways to Kim Stanley Robinson. However, I have not read much of her recent fiction because it's either been part of her long Starfarer series or media-related fiction (both Star Wars and Star Trek). So while I loved such early novels as Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, as well as her excellent short fiction of the 70s and 80s, I had kind of forgotten about Vonda as a serious writer of SF.

So I was shocked a half-dozen years ago when she won a Nebula Award for The Moon and the Sun, a novel I had never even heard of. Going back through the Locus recommended novels of 1997, I saw it had been nominated as one of the best fantasies of the year and finished #6 in the annual Locus poll. So the novel was not totally unknown to fandom in general. Apparently it was just I who missed it somehow.

The Moon and the Sun is the type of science fiction novel which would not have been written as recently as ten years ago. It's a historical novel about life in the court of Louis XIV, with nearly all the action taking place at his chateau at Versailles. It reminded me of the Chinese epic Story of the Stone in its detailed examination of life among the rich and powerful and their total ignorance of the realities of life outside their walls. I am not an expert on late 17th France, but I do know enough about that era to believe Vonda has done an excellent job in creating a believable milieu.

But this is not only a historical novel. It is also pure science fiction in that one of the characters is a Jesuit naturalist whose sea expedition recently captured a sea monster which he has brought back for King Louis' menagerie. Louis sought the sea monster because he believed the species was immortal and contained an organ which conferred immortality on humans. Hence, besides examining life in that era, the novel also examines the conflict between fading medieval alchemy and dawning scientific exploration.

In addition to that conflict, the emotional core of The Moon and the Sun is the struggle for freedom. Freedom for Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, the novel's viewpoint character who is the sister of the Jesuit. She spent much of her childhood as an orphan, trapped in a convent where she could not indulge her loves of music or mathematics or scientific study. Now she has been freed to live at the court of Louis XIV where she is equally trapped by her obligations to the nobles and to the king himself. Also freedom for the sea monster who is cared for by Marie-Josèphe and soon reveals herself to be an intelligent being rather than an animal, so that
Marie-Josèphe wonders how she can save the sea "woman" from the dissection which is her ultimate fate. And freedom for Odelette, a Turkish princess who has been captured by the French and become Marie-Josèphe's personal slave. Marie-Josèphe considers Odelette her sister rather than a slave, but even though she has been a prisoner of others her entire life, even Marie-Josèphe cannot understand that in spite of their personal closeness, it is much different being the owner rather than being the slave, no matter how close they are emotionally.

The Moon and the Sun features a wonderful cast of characters who display the perfect combination of believability as true people as well as representatives of the nobility of that era. They include Marie-Josèphe's Jesuit brother Yves, King Louis XIV himself; his second wife Madame de Maintenon; his brother Monsieur and his family: wife Madame, male lover Chevalier de Lorraine, and daughter Mademoiselle, whose relationship with Marie-Josèphe mirrors the latter’s relationship with Odelette in many ways.

Without doubt the finest character other than Marie-Josèphe herself is Lucien, Count de Chrétien, 29 year old confidante and advisor to Louis XIV, who in spite of being a dwarf is the most important member of the king’s entourage. Gradually he becomes Marie-Josèphe's supporter and confidante as well, and the only person who takes her seriously when she tries to convince King Louis that the sea woman is intelligent and deserves her freedom, neither deserving to be dissected by Yves as he dissected the male sea monster or served to the king as a meal fit for Charlemagne himself.

The climax of the novel is nearly-perfect, combining page-turning excitement with suitable action by the novel’s various characters, neither so predictable as to erase its excitement nor so contrived as to be unbelievable. And it reaches a suitable resolution for nearly all the novel’s major characters.

The Moon and the Sun is an epic tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, a struggle among members of the Kings court, a struggle for freedom, a deep emotional novel, and an incisive look at life among the French nobility. It is both thought-provoking and gripping, emotional yet objective, a success in every possible way, and a fine, fine science fiction novel. I recommend it most highly indeed.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Listmania, part two (cont'd):

Here are the historical fiction and nonfiction books on my list. At the rate this list is growing, I do not think it is possible that I will ever buy and read everything on it.

Part Three: Historical Fiction:

Lorna Doone / Blackmore, R.D. / 17th century England
Render Unto Caesar / Bradshaw, Gillian / Pax Romana
The Lady and the Unicorn / Chevalier, Tracy / 15th Century France
The Magician’s Death / Doherty, Paul / 14th century England
The White Company / Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan / Medieval England
The Count of Monte Cristo / Dumas, Alexander / Medieval France
The Three Musketeers / Dumas, Alexander / Medieval France
The Name of the Rose / Eco, Umberto / 10th century England
Sarah Canary / Fowler, Karen Joy / 19th century America
The Inheritors / William Golding / Neanderthal Era
I, Claudius / Graves, Robert / Roman Empire
City of God / Holland, Cecelia / Renaissance Italy
Soul Thief / Holland, Cecilia / Viking Era
The Witches' Kitchen / Holland, Cecilia / Viking Era
Ex Libris / King, Ross / 17th century England
An Army of Angels / Marcantel, Pamela / Joan of Arc
Moby Dick / Melville, Herman / 19th century whaling ship
Empress Orchid / Min, Anchee / 19th century China
The Eight / Neville, Katherine / 18th century France
Time and Chance / Penman, Sharon Kay / Thomas Beckett
The Sunne in Splendor / Penman, Sharon Kay / Richard III
The Nautical Chart / Perez-Reverte, Arturo / 17th century
The Club Dumas / Perez-Reverte, Arturo / contemporary
The Girl Who Played Go / Shan Sa / World War II Manchuria
Captain Blood / Sabatini, Rafael / Pirating era
The Judgement of Caesar / Saylor, Steven / 1st century BC Rome
Ivanhoe / Scott, Sir Walter / Medieval England
On Emerald Downs / Shaw, Patricia / 19th century Australia
Prince of Foxes / Shellabargar, Samuel / Renaissance Italy
Captain From Castile / Shellabargar, Samuel / 16th century Spain
Justinian / Turteltaub, H.N. (Harry Turtledove) / Roman Empire

Part Four: Nonfiction (a lot of travel books and history):

Ultimate Journey / Richard Berstein
Yak Butter and Black Tea / Walter Brackenbury
The Chinese in America / Iris Chang
A Brief History of the Human Race / Michael Cook
My Journey to Lhasa / Alexandra David-Neel
Readings: Essays & Literary Entertainments / Michael Dirda
An Open Book / Michael Dirda
Used And Rare : Travels in the Book World / Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
Good Luck Life / Rosemary Gong
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtse / Peter Hessler
Kon-Tiki / Thor Heyerdahl
On the Missionary Trail / Tom Hiney
Brunelleschi's Dome / Ross King
My First Revolution / Winthrop Knowlton
Sacagawea’s Nickname / Larry McMurtry
A Traveler in Italy / H.V. Morton
A Traveler in Southern Italy / H.V. Morton (currently OOP)
Screaming in the Castle / Charles Nicholl
Dances with Luigi / Paul E. Paolicelli
Under the Southern Sun / Paul E. Paolicelli
Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria / Mark Rotella
The Brendan Voyage / Tim Severin
The China Voyage / Tim Severin
Lust for Life / Irving Stone
Riding the Iron Rooster / Paul Theroux
The Pillars of Hercules / Paul Theroux
Italy / Travelers Tales Books
Tibet / Travelers Tales Books
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World / Jack Weatherford
1688: A Global History / Jon E. Willis

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Listmania, part two: Recommended Reading

As I mentioned on January 20th, I keep a list of recommended books which have struck my fancy and which I hope to buy and read someday. For your reading pleasure–and hopefully additional recommendations (or thumbs down, if necessary), I am printing that list here in two parts: Science fiction and fantasy books this time, historical fiction and nonfiction next time. Enjoy.

Part One: Soon to be purchased:

SF: Best of 2004 Haber & Strahan, eds
Fantasy: Best of 2004 Haber & Strahan, eds
Best Short Novels 2005 Jonathan Strahan, ed
1610 Mary Gentle
Best SF of the Year 22nd volume Gardner Dozois, ed.
Mortal Love Elizabeth Hand
Iron Council China Mieville
First Heroes Harry Turtledove and Noreen Doyle, eds

Part Two: Still in the hopeful stage:

Brighten to Incandescence Michael Bishop
Summerland Michael Chabon
Novelties & Souvenirs John Crowley
Tapping the Dream Tree Charles de Lint
Time Out of Joint Philip K Dick
The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant Jeffrey Ford
Rats and Gargoyles Mary Gentle
Walking the Labyrinth Lisa Goldstein
Dark Cities Underground Lisa Goldstein
Bibliomancy Elizabeth Hand
One King, One Soldier Alexander C. Irvine
Tigana Guy Gavriel Kay
A Song for Arbonne Guy Gavriel Kay
Boy’s Life Robert McCammon
Speaks the Nightbird Robert McCammon
Polaris Jack McDevitt
The Prestige Christopher Priest
The Separation Christopher Priest
Forty Signs of Rain Kim Stanley Robinson
Calculating God Robert Sawyer
Frameshift Robert Sawyer
The Jaquar Hunter Lucius Shepard
Trujillo Lucius Shepard
The Alien Years Robert Silverberg
Between Worlds Robert Silverberg, ed
They Walked Like Men Clifford D. Simak
Perfect Circle Sean Stewart
The Silver Gryphon Turner & Halpern, eds
Guns of the South Harry Turtledove
Emphyrio Jack Vance
City of Saints and Madmen Jeff Vandermeer
Secret Life Jeff Vandermeer
Alien Emergencies James White
The Infinity Box Kate Wilhelm

Part Three: Series

1st Foreigner Trilogy C.J. Cherryh
2nd Foreigner Series C.J. Cherryh
Ash: A Secret History Mary Gentle
The Three of Swords / Swords’ Masters Fritz Leiber
Neanderthal Parallax Robert Sawyer
Sorcerers of Majipoor / Lord Prestimon / The King of Dreams Robert Silverberg
Baroque Trilogy Neal Stephenson
Lyonesse Trilogy Jack Vance