Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Selected Stories of Lu Xun

Lu Xun is the father of modern Chinese literature. His first story A Madman’s Diary, published in 1918, was immediately influential both on Chinese literature and Chinese society as a whole. In his introduction to his first collection of short stories Call To Arms, he commented on his disgust of traditional Chinese culture and society, stating The most important thing...was to change their spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement.

Selected Stories of Lu Xun contains many of his best and most famous stories, culled from several collections. Perhaps the most famous story, and possibly the best, A Madman’s Diary is a savage attack on the rigidity of Chinese traditions. His characters tend to be outcasts who are treated badly by virtually everybody, often for reasons beyond their control. Ah Q, the main subject of The True Story of Ah Q, is a simple-minded worker shunned and mistreated as a matter of course. Kung I-Chi, another title character, studied for civil service exams, but never passed a single one, so is reduced to petty beggary and thievery to survive.

In Medicine, a poor rural family is forced to purchase an outrageous cure for their ailing son, even though it is obvious that they are wasting their meager savings on a fool’s quest. But nobody seems willing to help them, just as nobody aided either Ah Q or Kung I-Chi, a callousness that Lu Xun particularly rejects as one of the most unfortunate traits of Chinese society.

One of the saddest stories is The New Year’s Sacrifice, about the treatment of lower-class working people, and one servant woman in particular whose mistreatment ultimately leads to insanity and death.

Because of the similarity of theme and mood, the stories in this collection are best read in small doses, but overall they are moving, thought-provoking stories that I highly recommend, especially for people wishing to understand a bit about traditional Chinese culture.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Award Season

I finally received the April issue of Locus in the mail, and I was comparing the nomination lists for the upcoming Nebula Awards and Hugo Awards. It is amazing how few nominees they have in common, a situation which is undoubtedly caused by several factors. One of them is the different constituencies of the two awards, and another is the fact that the Nebula Awards have a two-year eligibility system. But for comparison purposes, it is easy enough to compare this year’s Nebula nominees with the combined this year and last year’s Hugo nominees.

Of the six Nebula nominees for Best Novel, only a single novel made either Hugo ballot, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which won last year’s Hugo. Other than that, the two lists are dominated, as usual, by perennial nominees (Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage and Jack McDevitt’s Polaris on the Nebula ballot and George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows on the Hugo), and highly-acclaimed works (Geoff Ryman’s Air, John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos, Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, Charles Stross’ Accelerando, and Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin). But there are the usual group of surprising choices, such as Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (since humor rarely makes award ballots) and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (which, if reviews are good predictors, was the choice of the diehard Heinlein fans).

Only two of the Nebula novella nominees made this year's Hugo list, Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” (which was easily the most acclaimed story of any length last year and must be considered the favorite for both awards) and perennial nominee Robert Sawyer for “Identity Theft” (which, in my opinion, was not one of the best stories in the novella collection Down These Dark Spaceways). Link does not seem to face a lot of heavy competition for the Nebula Award, her competition being relative-unknowns Albert Cowdrey (“The Tribes of Bela”), Bud Sparhawk (“Clay’s Pride”) and Paul Witcover (“Left of the Dial”). However, the Hugo ballot contains multiple award-winners James Patrick Kelly (“Burn”), and Connie Willis (“Inside Job”), as well as another critical favorite, Ian MacDonald’s “The Little Goddess”, so Link’s chances are somewhat slimmer there.

In the novelette category, two of the Nebula nominees made last year’s Hugo ballot, including the winner, Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag,” which I guess makes her the favorite in two Nebula categories. Newcomer Paolo Bacigalupi is on both ballots for different stories, “The People of Sand and Slag” for the Nebula, and “The Calorie Man” for the Hugo. Considering that Bacigalupi has made various best-of-the-year anthologies the past few years, he is obviously a very talented newcomer (and I personally loved his story “The Fluted Girl” a few years ago), but he has certainly not generated any of the buzz that some new authors have garnered in recent years. Remember the buzz surrounding Charles Stross when he first started appearing in Asimov’s with his “Accelerando” stories?

In any case, both the Nebulas and Hugos contain several multiple award-winners to challenge Bacigalupi’s twin entries. The Nebulas have Eileen Gunn & Leslie What’s “Nirvana High” and James Patrick Kelly’s “Men are Trouble,” in addition to Link’s story, and the Hugos offer Peter S. Beagle’s “Two Hearts,” Cory Doctorow’s “I, Robot” and Howard Waldrop’s “The King of Where-I-Go”.

In the short story category, both the Nebula and Hugo ballots share a single story, Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down,” which was one of the most acclaimed stories of 2004, but because its first U.S. publication was in 2005 it retained Hugo eligibility for another year. Based on its critical acclaim, it must be considered the favorite for both. The biggest name authors challenging it for the Nebula are Carol Emshwiller for “I Live With You,” Nancy Kress for “My Mother, Dancing,” and for the Hugo fan favorite Mike Resnick for “Down Memory Lane.”

Dare I predict the winners, based entirely on critical reviews and name recognition, which is always a major factor in awards? Why not? Keep in mind that I have a poor history of success in predicting Nebula and Hugo Awards, so please refrain from laughing if I miss every single winner.

Category / Nebula prediction / Hugo prediction

Novel / Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell / Spin
Novella / Magic for Beginners / Burn
Novelette / The Faery Handbag / The King of Where-I-Go
Short Story / Singing My Sister Down / Down Memory Lane

Friday, April 14, 2006

Four Ways to Forgiveness

Ursula K. Le Guin pulled off what is an amazing trick for any writer. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s she was one of the major science fiction writers, turning out such masterpieces as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, “The Word For World is Forest” and seemingly endless others. Then she vanished into the world of borderline fantasies and pure mainstream for twenty years. Several critics even assailed her for abandoning the SF genre totally for purely literary fiction, even though Le Guin never made such a pronouncement herself.

Then abruptly in the mid-1990s, Le Guin returned full-force to science fiction after an absence of over a decade. When writers return to the genre after such a long gap, their work usually pales in relation to their earlier, groundbreaking work. Was the post-Foundation’s Edge Isaac Asimov nearly as good as the Asimov of the 1940s and 1950s? Or the Theodore Sturgeon of the post-“Slow Sculpture” or the L. Ron Hubbard of Battlefield Forever series? Of course, there were exceptions, but I think it is fair to say that very few science fiction writers ever made such a stunning return to the field as Ursula K. Le Guin did after an absence of a decade or longer.

Four Ways to Forgiveness features the Le Guin at her very best, four novellas published in 1994 and 1995. Collectively, they are an absolutely wonderful group of stories based around Le Guin’s usual concerns: incisive character studies set against a backdrop of sociological studies of well-developed human cultures. The characters are generally very intriguing and exciting to investigate; the cultures themselves are fascinating, and the political events that Le Guin unfolds are generally very thought-provoking. And for those who like their science fiction literary, Le Guin remains the master of those works which fall in the overlap between science fiction and literature.

Both “Betrayals” and “Forgiveness Day” are love stories. The former tells of a woman who has abandoned civilization to live along as a hermit, and her nearest neighbor. a former hero of the revolution who was disgraced for selfish, greedy actions. When the neighbor becomes ill, the woman feels obligated to come to his aid, during which time she learns a lot more about the neighbor than she expected. The latter story tells of a female envoy to a male-dominated world which has just emerged from a revolution but which is still war-torn as differing factions struggle for a piece of the spoils. She and her hard-line male bodyguard are kidnapped and trapped together for several weeks. During that time they learn a lot about each other’s attitudes and, as is normal when people are imprisoned together, they develop strong feelings for each other.

“A Man of the People” and “A Woman’s Liberation” are both about freedom. The former story is the weakest story in the book, although certainly not because its plot is weak. Its protagonist grows up on a powerful planet with a rigid culture which he escapes and ultimately become an envoy to the same world as “Forgiveness Day.” He falls in love, almost dies before falling out of love, then becomes involved in a women’s underground movement since the society that freed itself in the revolution has become totally male-dominated and the women wish to achieve their own independence. The problem with the story is that all of this is laid out but nothing really happens. “A Man of the People” is the mere outline of a story. The envoy’s feelings are not explored satisfactorily, if at all, and the women’s struggle for independence is portrayed very superficially. The story ends with the women seemingly on their way to equality, but why? And how? I think Le Guin tried to pack too much into this story’s 70 pages. Either she should have narrowed her focus to one topic, or else expanded the story as much as it needed to do all the topics justice. Probably a 200 page novel would have been more satisfactory.

“A Woman’s Liberation” is a much more complete story about a female slave (called an asset in the story) who undergoes an incredible number of torments as a slave, only to find that freedom , whether earned or given, still contains nearly as many restraints as slavery did. More satisfying than “A Man of the People,” this story could potentially be a masterpiece if expanded into novel-form.

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea
is a collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s post-retirement shorter fiction, just as Four Ways to Forgiveness was a collection of her novellas. And it is just as good.

“Newton’s Sleep” is a powerful story about a group of very intelligent, wealthy people who form a perfect society on an orbiting space station, barely escaping the economic, ecological, and human chaos swirling across the surface of the Earth. Everything on the space station seems so perfect except for a bit of bigotry raising its ugly head, until a few children start seeing the ghost of a burning woman drifting through the space station. Then other people see an old hag, then some bison, and so on and so on. This was my favorite story in the collection.

“The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganaan” are companion pieces about the first ships experimenting with the faster-than-light churten drive. The interpersonal dynamics of the crews of the ftl ships partially determines the nature of the societies on the worlds they reach, a fact which is the mystery of the first story, but which becomes the basis of examination in the second. Together they form a top-notch novella about reality and how one’s perceptions shape it. Two highly-recommended stories.

“Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” is an example of Le Guin in her society-building mode. This story examines the scientists who develop the churten drive, especially how the dedication of one scientist to his experiments drastically affects his family and personal relationships. The ending is a bit contrived, and probably a bigger leap in suspending disbelief than the churten drive was over Le Guin’s ansible communication, but since in any Le Guin story the science itself is only incidental to the human relationships, it is a non-damaging little conceit in yet another well-done story.

It might seem ludicrous to see that Le Guin returned to the field better than ever after her two decades away, but both collections are absolutely delightful, combining characterization, sense of wonder, maturity, and thoughtfulness are all rolled into compact little packages. What more could anybody expect from modern science fiction?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Double Helix

I don’t normally enjoy thrillers. They are generally so artificial, with thrill piled randomly on top of thrill, red herrings bucking up against unexpected plot twists, mostly intended only to excite the reader rather than give them anything solid to think about. Of course, there are exceptions to almost everything, and one thriller so enthralled me that I stole five minutes of valuable teaching time in both my Calculus classes to highly recommend it to my students: James D. Watson’s The Double Helix. This is the true story of the race between Watson and his collaborator Francis Crick on the European side of the Atlantic, and Linus Pauling on the American side, to determine the true structure of DNA. The action took place during 1951-1952 when Pauling was already an acclaimed genius whom every other research scientist assumed would determine the structure first. Crick was a loose cannon, a creative genius who rarely carried through on his ideas, so much so that in his early 30s he still had not earned a PhD. Watson was a more solid, hardworking scientist in his mid-20s with a PhD in hand.

Watson and Crick were an unlikely pair to crack the code first, especially since they had more hindrance than assistance from their establishment. So what ensues is truly a thriller. Much of the book is the array of ideas generated by Watson and Crick, about their analysis of the ideas, and ultimate rejection of most of them. About the clues they discover along the way which eventually guides the solid Watson—not the genius Crick—to the actual solution (keeping in mind, of course, that Watson wrote the book, so there was always the shadow of “winners writing the history” to consider in allocating credit for the discovery). The cast of characters includes Maurice Wilkins, an introverted, insecure researcher whose years of dedication and hard work proved invaluable to Watson and Crick, and who eventually shared in the Nobel Prize with them; Rosy Franklin, Wilkin’s assistant who proved a major source of irritation to him and to Watson and Crick as well; Sir Lawrence Bragg, who had the ultimate authority to determine the direction Watson and Crick’s research took, and who was also a major hindrance to them, although ultimately he wrote the glowing introduction to the book.

And, of course, although he only appears in the last chapter, the presence of Linus Pauling was a major character in the book, perhaps the major character after Watson and Crick themselves. The book’s most exciting semi-climax came when Pauling publishes a paper announcing his discovery of the true nature of DNA. Watson senses despair and failure until he reads the paper and discovers a glaring error in Pauling’s theory.

Anybody interested in science, particularly research science, should find this book incredibly exciting. I am not a scientist at all but I enjoyed this book immensely. It kind of makes me wish that I were interested in science just a little bit more! ☺

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction as the Reflection of Science Fiction Across the Time Axis

I am probably similar to most readers of this column in that I do not read an exclusive diet of science fiction stories. In 1996 I was burnt out from reading so much science fiction the previous 20 years that I abandoned it almost entirely for an entire year. Instead I enjoyed the freedom of stretching across the entire spectrum of fiction and literature. Looking back on my overall reading material from that year, I realized that contemporary fiction was still almost nonexistent in my reading. Whatever percent had previously been spent on f&sf was instead spent almost exclusively on historical fiction.

On a rough estimate, my current reading falls approximately into the following categories:
• 50% science fiction and fantasy
• 15% nonfiction about science fiction (including fanzines)
• 25% historical fiction
• 10% miscellaneous nonfiction (primarily history)

Basically, my reading falls into two symmetric categories, 2/3 f&sf related and 1/3 history related. Those have always been my areas of greatest interest, with science fiction usually dominant, probably rising as high as 80% from the 70s through the early 90s, then falling back to 0% in 1996 before settling into the current amounts.

The obvious question arising from this reading pattern becomes: is there are natural relationship between science fiction and history that together they should dominate my reading taste? Recently I looked at the Locus poll of a few years ago in which they selected the top 50 science fiction books ever published. Due to ties, there were actually 52 novels on the list, and examining those titles I was not surprised to realize that the vast majority of novels on the list fell under the general category of future history. All of them incorporated some aspect of science or technology, but primarily in their background rather than their foreground, so that less than 20% of the novels can be considered even remotely “hard” science fiction. But nearly all of them examined the future history of humanity in some way.

Surprising? Not really. Science fiction and history go hand-in-hand. In fact, using mathematical terminology, if we consider the contemporary world as a time axis, science fiction is the reflection of history across the time axis. After all, when most–perhaps all–writers devise sfnal futures, don’t they base them in large part on realistic historical pasts? They could be as overt as Isaac Asimov basing his Foundation Series on the Roman Empire. Or they could be more subtle futures drawing together strands from a variety of different historical epochs.

So for somebody who prefers to read fiction than nonfiction–and I certainly fall into that category–reading historical fiction should provide many of the same pleasures as reading science fiction.

Consider: if science fiction is truly the study of potential future change as many people believe it is, isn’t much historical fiction about real historical change? Renaissance Italy is the setting of a lot of historical fiction and that was an era drenched in change after the long stagnation of the Dark Ages. The fall of the Roman Empire (or the Ottoman Empire or any of the various Chinese empires) are all about change. The industrial revolution is about change. How many writers have set their stories in the era when Neanderthals co-existed with the first homo sapiens? If that was not about change, what the heck was it?

You like sense of wonder? I love sense of wonder in my fiction, and good science fiction provides large doses of it. But so does historical fiction. There’s wonder in artistic passion (such as Irving Stone’s Lust for Life) or scientific discovery (nearly all of Andrea Barrett’s stories are filled with such wonder) or tales of great exploration (such as historical novels about mountain climbing or jungle exploration or the early discoverers of the New World) or examining the amazing cultures of past eras.

Historical fiction satisfies many of the same cravings as science fiction. Granted, it does not satisfy all of them. If scientific change is your preference–such as the works of Alaistair Reynolds, Greg Egan or Stephen Baxter–then you will find a scarcity of it in historical fiction–although certainly not a total lack of it. If learning about aliens and their cultures really excite you, that does not occur in historical fiction–unless, of course, you prefer stories about cultures so exotic and so different from western society they are truly alien. I suspect that is part of the reason behind my fascination with Chinese society through the centuries.

You like space adventures? How about adventures in untamed lands? Military science fiction? Military historical fiction also exists. Science fiction which incorporates many of the aspects of literature? There is much historical fiction which is as much literary as the science fiction of Ursula K Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Bishop.

Obviously, not everything which wears the garments of science fiction is truly science fiction, nor is everything that pretends to be historical fiction truly historical fiction. Some fiction which was contemporary fiction when it was written two hundred or two thousand years ago is about universal human aspects having nothing specifically to do with the era in which it was written. To be truly historical fiction, the setting must be an intricate part of the story, as much a factor in the story and character development as any other aspects. So just as some supposed science fiction is a contemporary story which happens to be set on 3rd millennium Venus–are you familiar with the term “Bat Durston” which is a derogatory term given to cowboy stories transplanted wholesale to some alien planet?–some supposed historical fiction could be easily moved out of 3rd century Rome and transplanted in 20th century New York City without any editing at all. Just as science fiction must be about the future in which it takes place, historical fiction must be about the era in which it is set.

So while admittedly it is simplistic to say science fiction is the precise reflection of historical fiction across the time axis, it is fair to state that the two genres have much in common, offer many of the same pleasures, so I think the majority of lovers of science fiction would likely enjoy much historical fiction as well.

So if you are a rabid science fiction fan who has not read much historical fiction in your lifetime, here is a sampler of historical fictions which I have either enjoyed tremendously myself or have been highly recommended by people whose opinions I trust and which are now on my own Recommended Reading list. Enjoy!

Shogun / James Clavell / medieval Japan
Spartacus / Howard Fast / Roman empire
The Pillars of the Earth / Ken Follett / Medieval England
Pillar of the Sky / Cecilia Holland / prehistoric times
An Instance of the Fingerpost / Iain Pears / restoration England
A Dream of Scipio / Iain Pears / 4th century/14th century France
Daughter of Time / Josephine Tey / 15th century England*
Story of the Stone / Cao Xueqin / Ming dynasty China

* Daughter of Time actually takes place in contemporary times, but it is so intimately wound around the era of Yorkist England that it is as much historical fiction as contemporary fiction. It is also one of my very favorite books which I recommend as highly as any other book on the list.