Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Summer reading

Today is the first day of summer vacation *hooray* and one of the things I plan to do is a lot of reading. Here are some of the books I hope to consume the next 10 weeks:

Three Complete Novels, by John Brunner; I need some light reading for the nine-hour plane flight to Italy tomorrow, as well as for traveling between cities, so this collection of his late-career space operas Children of the Thunder, The Crucible of Time, The Tides of Time should be just right;
Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds; if his novels are half as good as his short fiction, this should be a very good series indeed;
Ilium and Olympos, by Dan Simmons; I must not think of his Hyperion series when I read these books, or else I will surely be in for some disappointment;
Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson; my only experience with this author was with the somewhat disappointing Darwinia, so my expectations are lower for this novel than for Reynolds’ and Simmons’; of course, it was one of the most acclaimed books of 2005;
Best Short Novels 2006, by Jonathan Strahan, which, in spite of its title, contains novellas from 2005, but what the heck does a title matter anyway? I love novellas and Strahan usually has good taste in sf;
Forbidden Planets, edited by Marvin Kaye, the latest collection of original novellas published by the Science Fiction Book Club; since two of the others (Between Worlds, One Million A.D.) were superb, and Down These Dark Spaceways was better than average, I do not expect any disappointment in this book.

Expect some reviews in July and August after I return from Italy and actually do all the reading.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness

I must confess to being a bit prejudiced towards liking the fiction of Kenzaburo Oe. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton University when Fei Fei formed the Nanking Conference committee, and he was one of the first scholars she approached for advice and recommendations. He was very supportive, both of the cause and the conference itself. He made an unsolicited donation of $500 and an unsolicited offer to write an essay for our post-conference book (which, alas, never worked out due to other work commitments on his part when the book was being prepared). That financial donation enabled us to use his name in our invitations to other renowned scholars, a wonderful ice-breaker especially for Japanese scholars who were initially understandably skeptical about the intent of the conference, fearing it would be "Japan-bashing," which it never was intended to be.

Combining our liking and respecting Oe with the fact that he is indeed a Nobel laureate, I found a Grove Press edition of Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of 4 novellas that, hopefully for purely objective reasons, I found absolutely wonderful.

The longest story in the book is "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" whose premise seems straight out of science fiction: a thirty-five year old Japanese man—referred to only as he throughout the story—lies dying in a terminal cancer ward of a hospital, dictating his memoirs to a nurse while awaiting death clad in hospital gown and underwater goggles covered in dark cellophane. There is a catch though: the hospital staff has detected absolutely no sign of cancer in the man at all. They believe his cancer is entirely a delusion.

Most of the story consists of the man’s memoirs, particularly the years 1945-46 when the Japanese Empire lost the war with the United States. We learn of his childish shock when the emperor announced to a grief-stricken nation that he was not a god, but only a mortal, of the relationship between his mother who is grief-stricken over the death of her older son in the war in China, of his father’s less-than-triumphant return from the war and how he hides out in a small shed behind the family home sitting in the dark dying of bladder cancer while wearing underwater goggles covered in dark cellophane!

The story’s main concern is the complex relationship between the boy and his two parents, about his father’s crazy scheme to lead a team of disillusioned soldiers against the government that surrendered Japan’s pride by losing the war, about the boy’s failed suicide attempt and, ultimately, about his father’s dramatic death, which was the defining moment in the boy’s own life, ultimately leading to his lying in the terminal ward of the hospital.

As an outsider who until recently knew virtually nothing about Japanese thought and culture, this novella was quite revealing and totally fascinating. It was also beautifully written, although that pleasure almost pales besides the wonders of the story itself.

Another fine novella was "Prize Stock" which tells the story of a black American soldier who parachutes out of a downed plane and is taken prisoner by the citizens of a rural Japanese village during World War II. This story was very revealing about how the Japanese view non-Japanese. At one point the kids who are the point-of-view characters realize the prisoner is "almost like a human". That is how many Japanese considered Chinese during the time of the Nanking Massacre, which is why they were able to slaughter fifteen million innocent Chinese during the war without feeling evil themselves. As befitting a Nobel Prize winner, the ending of the story is very suitable without being contrived at all.

This collection provides good views into Japanese culture and attitudes, especially during World War II, and is highly-recommended.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Sundial in a Grave: 1610

Sometimes the boundary between historical fiction and alternate history can be confused by the reader’s knowledge of historical facts. British history is not my strongest area, especially events in the 17th century regarding the conflicts between the Scottish Catholic royalty leading up to the Puritan Revolution. Thus the events in A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 were occasionally confusing as to whether they were primarily a fictionalization of actual events, or virtual history as created by author Mary Gentle. Fortunately, the novel’s categorization did not matter much, since it was enjoyable enough to be appreciated by readers enjoying either preference.

The basic premise of 1610 is the relationship between accomplished swordsman Rochefort and his teenaged nemesis Dariole. Early in the novel, Dariole seems obsessed with tormenting Rochefort as he repeatedly humiliates him in battle, at one point even forcing him into a homosexual act which has considerable ramifications for their subsequent relationship.

When Rochefort is forced into participating in the assassination of French King Henry of Navarre by his Medici wife Queen Marie, he flees France fearing she intends to have him killed for his knowledge of her own involvement. For reasons not quite explained, Dariole follows Rochefort to England where they become involved in an assassination attempt against King James Stuart.

At this point historical fiction, or alternate history, veers slightly into historical fantasy with the involvement of Dr. Robert Fludd, a necromancer who predicts future events quite uncannily through the use of arcane mathematics. Because of his predictions, Fludd conspires with James Stuart’s son Henry to kill the king and place Henry on the throne. Fludd’s predictions indicate that Rochefort will be the catalyst of James’ death, which is why he forces his involvement in a second assassination attempt, at one point kidnapping Dariole and threatening his life.

A series of memorable characters join the activities, including:

1. a Japanese samurai Saburu stranded in France when the ship on which he is serving as an aide to the Japanese ambassador to England flounders;

2. a former nun named Caterina who is the only other surviving necromancer whose predictions counterbalances Fludd’s and who believes that the assassination attempt on James Stuart must be foiled;

3. Robert Cecil, British secretary of state, who is the power behind the English throne;

4. James Stuart himself, whose appearance halfway through the novel signals the start of several hundred pages which are the most exciting and involving part of the novel.

For 1610's first several hundred pages, the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole seems forced, and not totally believable. Their constant verbal and physical sparring is more the actions of enemies who should separate rather than flee from France to England together. And Rochefort’s forced involvement in James Stuart’s assassination attempt seems more like manipulation by the author than flowing naturally from the novel’s previous events.

But when James Stuart arrives in the novel and the assassination attempt takes place, the entire level of the novel improves considerably. The masque in the cave, which is the setting for the assassination attempt, combines hilarity with drama. The subsequent flight of Rochefort, Dariole, Saburu and James Stuart is as gripping as it is entertaining, and Stuart’s return to power is exceedingly well-done.

And just when it seems as if the novel has reached its natural conclusion, it takes an abrupt left-turn. Robert Fludd escapes with the aid of an unlikely ally, and Rochefort and Dariole pursue him to Japan, where the rest of the novel takes place.

This last third is not as gripping as the middle portion, but it is saved by the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole which has grown from confusing in the first third to engaging in the last third, a good piece of development which I had not expected Gentle to pull off successfully.

Overall, A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 is a strong, enjoyable historical fantasy which should satisfy fans of both sides of the “fantasy” line. You will need a bit of patience in the first third, although not too much since events do move swiftly enough not to drag. It is all worthwhile for the middle portion which make the entire novel worthwhile.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A night at the bookstore

After a long week at school, Friday night is a night of relaxation. Jean and I usually go to some low-priced place to eat, Panera Bread being our favorite location. Afterwards Jean shops while I spend an hour or so browsing at one of the local bookstores. There are no good private bookstores, so it is either Borders or Barnes & Noble, both of which have “superstores” in the area.

Last night Jean wanted to shop in Ledgewood, so my destination was Barnes & Noble. As usual, I started at the magazine rack next to the store entrance where I looked at the science fiction magazines for sale. They have a fairly good selection, including Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy. All were issues I had seen before, and none particularly enticed me to buy them. Although I let my subscriptions to prozines lapse years ago (mid-90s for Asimov’s and 2000 for F&SF), I still buy an occasional issue, usually their double-issues since I particularly enjoy novellas and they tend to save their best novellas for those issues.

Next I browsed the other magazines, including National Geographic (not an issue worth buying), History Magazine (whose articles are generally too short without enough depth to interest me), and several Italian cooking magazines (fortunately I had just eaten supper or I might have bought one of them, haha).

Then I went to the science fiction section where I salivated over several dozen books I would have liked to buy. The new David Hartwell Year’s Best SF 11 was there. I stopped buying that series after #3, not because of lack of interest, but because a half-dozen years ago Gardner Dozois’ taste was more to my liking than Hartwell’s. But recently I have been drifting more towards traditional science fiction than any time since the early 1970s, and Hartwell’s book looked more enticing than it did previously. This does not mean I have lost interest in the more serious sf though, and I still intend to continue buying Dozois’ book as well as Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels–the newest volume which I just received in the mail from the SFBC–so I need to be a bit selective in my buying. I’ve already bought 11 new sf books this year which, along with about 100 other unread books, glare at me angrily from my bookshelf every time I buy another new book. And I do tend to have moderate completist tendencies, so if I buy Hartwell’s #11 that will leave me with a gap between #4 - #10 which will grow to dominate my bookshelf as time goes buy. So it was better to ignore Hartwell for the time being.

What other sf books looked particularly good to me last night?

• Having recently read and enjoyed Greg Benford’s Beyond Infinity, his books The Martian Race and Cosm were attractive;
• Jack McDevitt’s Infinity Beach. I’ve been eying that one ever since I read Polaris last year;
• Alastair Reynold’s books in the Revelation Space series, but they were easy to resist since I will probably read the first book this summer, so I do not know yet how much I will enjoy it;
• Julie Czerneda’s In The Company of Others. She is an author I have never read but whose reviews make me anxious to try one of her books;
• two Culture books by Iain M. Banks, another unread author who interests me;
• Silverberg’s The Alien Years.

Next I drifted to the general fiction section–which was about four times the size of the f&sf section, where I looked exclusively at historical fiction:

• Shan Sa’s novel set during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the early 1930s, The Girl Who Play Go. She also has a new acclaimed novel Empress about the only female emperor of China. I definitely need to read one of her books sometime;
• Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge was enjoyable enough that I am anxious to read some of his other historical fiction, but not his Richard Sharpe seagoing adventures. Both his Grail Trilogy and his standalone Gallows were there waving at me;
• I’ve never read any of Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling adventures, and they interest me mainly for his historical color rather than the adventures themselves. My main interest is Bellarion the Fortunate since it was the inspiration for Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe series, but I’ve never seen it at a bookstore or I would have probably bought it long before now. Instead they had the more popular Captain Blood and Scaramouche;
• Ben Indick has piqued my interest in reading Dickens, and while I have several volumes in my collection, two books about which I have recently read favorable comments are Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, neither of which I have;
• Barnes & Noble had a book called The Stephen King Companion which rated his 100 best stories. Since my favorite two Stephen King novels are The Stand and The Shining, which were ranked #2 and #3 respectively, I was naturally intrigued by their selection of It as #1, calling it King’s magnum opus. That naturally caused me to add It to my Recommended Reading list. You can laugh if you wish, but that list now contains 27 sf books, 26 historical fiction, and 20 nonfiction.

So I came home last night and did some reading of Gardner Dozois’ 2005 edition of The Best Science Fiction of the Year, specifically Kage Baker’s novella “Mother Aegypt.” Ah, life is grand!