Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Forthcoming books

The Hugo nominations are out and, as usual, I have not read any of the fiction nominees yet. That will change when Gardner Dozois’ Best Science Fiction of the Year and Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels 2006 are released and I plan to read both Spin and Learning the World eventually.

The recent Locus had their list of new books being published the rest of this year, and there is some really good-looking stuff ahead which I hope to buy and read, mostly in paperback but some worth buying in hardcover:

Century Rain, by Alastair Reynolds
Best Short Novels 2005, edited by Jonathan Strahan
Year’s Best SF 23, edited by Gardner Doiz
Olympos, by Dan Simmons
Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod
Seeker, by Jack McDevitt
Fifty Degrees Below, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Lord Byron’s Novel, by John Crowley
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow

Is there any wonder why it is almost impossible to keep up with one’s reading? Especially since this past week I have eschewed books altogether to read some issues of Analog from 1971. About 20 years ago, a fellow teacher was cleaning out his father’s collection of prozines and he gave me two huge boxes of magazines from the 60s and 70s, mostly Analog and Amazing, also including many of those reprint Ziff-David zines. I kept all the good ones but have only read very few issues since. For some reason I was in the mood to read a few of them this past week, so that is what I have been doing.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Is it damning with faint praise when the best recommendation I can give to a novel by a major science fiction writer is that it was pleasant reading? Or is pleasant reading the norm I should expect in fiction, with anything better an unexpected bonus?

I am referring to Mammoth, John Varley’s novel about a herd of mammoth which abruptly travels through time from the ice age to modern Los Angeles, arriving on the downtown streets and causing immediate chaos. The first half of the novel reads as if Varley intends to study the possibilities of time travel. It opens as an archeological team uncovers a frozen mammoth with a family huddled beneath it, apparently struggling for whatever warmth the huge body can give it. This would have been a major scientific discovery, except it became fantastic when the scientists also discover a boxlike contraption beside the man, who happens to be wearing a thoroughly modern wristwatch.

Perhaps my biggest complain with Mammoth is that it seems to have been written with the intent of being a bestseller. The early portions alternate between modern scientists trying to decipher the mystery–including a math genius trying to learn the secrets of the briefcase which is assumed to be a time machine of some sort–and scenes of the mammoth herd 10,000 years ago. The scenes set in the past are written entirely too cutesy, and they invariably end with an abrupt statement of foreshadowing which is usually dropped and never really explored.

In fact, the entire first half of the novel is written in an over-the-top manner which makes the novel hard to accept as serious. On his website, Varley states that Mammoth “was originally going to be a screenplay.” That might explain why most of the novel’s thrills more resembled those of a blockbuster movie rather than the thoughtful sense of wonder of a science fiction novel.

The second half of Mammoth seems to be headed in the direction of a routine thriller as the baby mammoth’s handler, who is one of the two main characters of the novel along with the mathematician, kidnaps it because she feels that he belongs in the wide open spaces instead of performing twice-daily at a glorified circus. The mammoth’s “owner” is the same billionaire who discovered the original dead mammoth, and naturally he is determined to get his property back. Fortunately, just when I was ready to reject the novel as totally shallow, the old Varley rears his head and the thriller evolves into some thoughtful speculation about time travel and predestination. The ending was somewhat surprising, although certainly not stunning, and satisfying.

So while I would never place this novel alongside Varley’s major works such as The Golden Globes or Steel Beach, it was, well, pleasant reading. Just don’t expect too much from it other than a few hours’ pleasure.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Raise the Red Lantern

Su Tong is one of the acclaimed modern Chinese writers, and Zhang Yimou is perhaps the most acclaimed contemporary Chinese filmmaker. Together, but separately, they have produced two masterful versions of Raise the Red Lantern, a story of life among the wealthy in 1930s China.

Su Tong was only in his 20s when he published the novella Wives and Concubines (the story’s pre-movie title), a tale of first year college student Lotus whose father goes bankrupt and can no longer afford to pay her tuition. Soon after she returns home, her disgraced father slashes his wrists, killing himself in the bathroom. Lotus' stepmother gives the girl a choice: get a job or get married. Lotus, grieving but practical, chooses marriage. When asked if she prefers a rich marriage or a poor marriage, she quickly chooses a rich marriage.

Which is how Lotus became a concubine, the fourth wife of wealthy Chen Zuoxian, and smack in the middle of a family full of mutual distrust, constant scheming, and resultant resentment and hatred. What follows is a taut tale of survival, of Lotus' inability to adapt from college student to concubine, of her inability to fit into the family emotionally, of her relationship with Second Mistress Cloud and Third Mistress Coral, with First Son Feipu who is very fond of Lotus, with Swallow her devious personal servant, and with Old Master Chen himself. And then there is the mysterious well on the property behind the house where several concubines in previous generations drowned themselves after committing adultery.

Wives and Concubines is a bittersweet story whose ending seems foreshadowed until Su Tong fools the reader quite successfully. And he leaves you with many thoughts: did it have to be that way? Was this how life felt for so many Chinese concubines? For all Chinese women? Or just for the weak of heart who could not adjust emotionally to that way of life? Such a question cannot possibly be addressed in the abstract, so I was forced to consider how would I feel if roles were reversed and I were Lotus or Coral. Would I have been able to give up my freedom and my career for such a life? Or, perhaps more importantly, would I have even tried to adapt any more than Lotus seemed to try? Su Tong, writing from a vantage point 60 years removed in time, but perhaps not as far removed in place and culture, raises important questions that deserved to be considered very seriously, although it is unlikely such questions can ever be answered by a 21st century American.

And then along comes Zhang Yimou with one of the most incredible movies I have seen. In several ways the movie version of Raise the Red Lantern reminded me of the best works of Stanley Kubrick’s, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and, perhaps even more so, A Clockwork Orange. The movie was a visual treat, its scenes generally sparsely done but with seemingly every object placed very deliberately for a definite purpose. Zhang uses color incredibly well, often creating an entire mood by his use of a single color. The red lanterns, which were his creation entirely and not in the book at all, were a masterful stroke. So was the gentle snowfall which accompanied the movie’s climactic scene.

More than just visually, the pacing of Raise the Red Lantern felt just right. After Yimou created his moods visually, he successfully amplified them with a frozen moment here, a single line of speech there, silence another time. Like Kubrick, this was a very careful, slow-paced movie, one intended to be eaten slowly like a gourmet feast rather than like so many fast-food junk meals that parade as serious entertainment.

Every important aspect of the book was in the movie, and done well. And the climactic scene was absolutely stunning. Terrifying in one way, deeply emotional in another. Very seldom do I feel this way, but that scene alone made the movie superior to the book itself (a rarity, since I enjoyed the book very much)

I recommend this double experience to all my readers. Both the movie and the book are strongly character-oriented, although the plot is strong enough to entertain by itself. And you will not forget the ending of either for a long, long time.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Between Worlds

Between Worlds, edited by Robert Silverberg has the premise of futuristic sf with characters “between worlds” both physically and emotionally. While not all the stories satisfy that premise strictly, they are all good enough to be at least interesting, with some quite good indeed.

Silverberg’s own “The Colonel Returns to Space” tells the story of a retired hero of the Imperium who devoted his life to dealing with problems arising from the imperium’s total control over its member worlds. After decades of success, and subsequent fame, he is finally living in a pleasant and well-deserved retirement until an official of the imperium arrives to tell him that his most hated enemy, his former protegé who turned against him and almost killed him, is not dead as has been believed for many years, but alive and fomenting a rebellion on a world which is attempting to secede from the imperium.

The official insists that only the colonel is able to deal with his former protegé, and while he resists at first, his long unfinished dealings with the man who has been his supposed-dead enemy far longer than he had been his protegé convince him to accept the assignment and do what he can.

Silverberg tends to write two types of stories: well-plotted tales concerning historical trends, and character studies of people seeking emotional or spiritual relief. This story has elements of the latter as it moves steadily towards a classic confrontation of two long-time enemies, but it is primarily the former type as it examines the relationship between the two men and spends much of its time concerned with how the colonel will coerce his former protegé into giving up his intended rebellion.

This is an enjoyable and thoughtful story, containing scattered elements of vintage Silverberg, and ending in an unexpected, yet satisfactory denouement.

Interestingly, the book’s first three stories cover similar hard-science scenarios far away in both time and space. The running theme through the stories is visiting the galactic core (in two of them) and virtual uploads of human beings in all three. The stories treat these similarities in different manners though, and all are mostly successful overall.

Stephen Baxter’s “Between Worlds” takes place after a galactic war when a virtual representation of a thousand year old messiah becomes a negotiator with a war refugee who sneaked a bomb onto a spacecraft, demanding that she be returned to her homeworld to see a daughter who, according to all records, never existed. Baxter ranks with Alastair Reynolds as the best storytellers among the newer hard-science writers, and this is a strong story by him. The story contains enough strangeness to feel futuristic, particularly spiked, intelligent ships such as the strangely-named Ask Politely, climaxed by the huge swarming of ships.

The characters are also fascinating, especially the virtual Poole and Futurity’s Dream, the religious acolyte who is the main viewpoint character of the story. Like the Silverberg story, the climax is both unexpected but believable.

Nancy Kress’ “Shiva in Shadow” tells the story of a ship’s crew of two scientist and a captain-nurturer studying the core of the galaxy while releasing a probe into the core containing uploads of all three of them. The story is told in alternating sequences of the three humans on the ship and the three uploads on the probe. Kress does a fine job developing the characters of both two groups, as they grow in parallel yet different manners as the stress of their studies progresses. From a literary point of view, this was the finest story in the book.

I have never been a huge fan of the fiction of James Patrick Kelly, considering him a journeyman writer who borrows from current trends rather than adding much to them. “The Wreck of the Godspeed” tells the story of a group of pilgrims on a ship whose intelligence seems to be breaking down, and they fear that it will never permit them to return home when their tour is finished. This is a bit of a subtle, psychological horror story, which is mostly effective in its emotional impact.

Mike Resnick’s “Keepsakes” has the most fascinating premise of any story in the book. A mysterious race of aliens known as the Space Gypsies periodically contact humans in trouble, always offering to solve their problem at a really low financial cost, but also demanding a small keepsake in each instance, which they will select after they complete their job. The keepsake always turns out to be something of such high emotional value that the person is highly distraught, sometimes to the point of being shattered for life. The protagonist is a government agent seeking out these aliens who so far have avoided all authorities. Unfortunately, the story is mostly a glib detective story, nearly all surface with only occasional attempts at any depth. That’s too bad, since a story whose primary focus is emotional depth should have contained some of that depth as well. Too bad.

The best story in the book is Walter Jon Williams’ “Investments,” a political drama involving an interesting cast of characters which develops into a rousing adventure. Lord Martinez is a member of a heredity peer group who is given his first political posting on a world which he realizes before he arrives is a hotbed of corruption. Meanwhile, his junior officer Severin is not a peer but became an officer during a long war which was apparently detailed in Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy. Severin is a member of the common people who, as an officer, is neither fish nor fowl, forced to live as a commoner while serving with the peers.

When Martinez goes to his posting, Severin is piloting another spaceship which mysteriously finds itself under attack from what turns out to be a pulsar, whose waves will next reach Martinez’ posting and destroy most of that world, including all its inhabitants. The struggle to save the world is exciting, although the solution to the corruption problem is a bit too easy. Still this was a strong story overall, which convinced me I should read the entire Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy.

Interestingly, the best 2004 novella I had read prior to this collection was Walter Jon Williams’ “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid,” giving him perhaps the two best novellas of that year.