Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Locus Award problems

I have been a faithful reader of Locus for 37 years, and I still consider it a valuable guide to both upcoming sf and reviews of current books. Their most valuable issues are their quarterly Upcoming Books guide and their annual Year in Review issues. But over the years, I have noticed a subtle arrogance has sneaked into the pages of Locus. Gradually it has drifted away from being content to report on the science fiction field to trying to dominate and influence the genre. Consider the following:

Locus has always had a snobbishness in choosing certain authors’ books to review and publicize, while totally ignoring others. And that does not necessarily reflect those authors' popularity. In the past decade Robert Sawyer has been nominated for 10 Hugo Awards, winning Best Novel in 2003, while Jack McDevitt has been nominated for 12 Nebula Awards during that period, winning Best Novel in 2007. But if you read only Locus for reviews and overviews of the sf field, you might not realize those two authors even existed since Sawyer is never reviewed, and McDevitt is rarely mentioned.

Locus makes a big deal of their annual Locus Awards, which have a larger voting base than either the Hugos or Nebula Awards. However, in recent years the editors of Locus have taken great strides to make sure those awards represent their own views rather than the uninfluenced views of their readers/voters in a very sneaky manner: the awards are voted online, and each category has a drop-down menu listing all the works recommended by the editors of Locus. While there is also the option of “writing-in” a different name, we all know the likelihood of a write-in winner beating one of the listed nominees is slim, if not nonexistent.

But Locus made the mistake of opening the voting to anybody who visits the Locus Online website, rather than restricting it to readers of the magazine. So this year the number of voters of the Locus Award who were not readers of the magazine apparently skewed some of the results away from the recommended stories pushed in the pages of the magazine. So as to minimize such free-thinking influence on the awards, the editors of Locus decided after the voting was completed to count the votes of Locus subscribers as double the value of non-subscribers.

That decision made a difference in several awards. Connie Willis is a personal friend of the editors of Locus, and obviously one of their favorites, but she would have come in second place for the Locus Award without the doubling to Cory Doctorow, who has a rabid following online. How dare he take an award from an insider? *tsk tsk*

Quite frankly, the Locus Awards do not matter much in the sf field compared to Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, John W. Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, etc, but pretending the Locus Award is more representative than the others in the broad realm of fandom is contradictory when the award is not-so-subtly influenced by the presenters of the award. Just as claiming to be “the magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field” is a bit of an invalid claim when its coverage deliberately ignores important aspects of the f&sf field.

Fortunately, in this internet age, Locus is no longer the sole newsletter devoted to the genre. Sites such as SF Scope and SF Signal carry daily news items as well as links to other sites, and there are numerous bloggers who discuss f&sf regularly. Some websites, such as SF Site have their own annual awards and, to separate their own opinions from that of their readers, they have two parallel awards, a set of winners from their editors and contributors and another set of winners from their readers. Maybe that is something Locus should consider doing rather than skewing their supposed “democratic” awards.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Banks / Heinlein / prozines

Some random sfnal thoughts:

I was disappointed in Iain M. Banks Culture novel Use of Weapons. While the basic storyline was strong, the author muddled it by jumping around too much from present time to different parts of the main character’s past, as well as inserting numerous sections which seemed like little more than excuses for Banks to demonstrate his writing chops. Since Weapons was published a decade earlier than the wonderful Look to Windward, it seems as if Banks had not mastered his writing ability yet and had bit off more than he was yet capable of chewing. Too bad Banks does not go back and re-edit the earlier novel to eliminate the confusion and bring out the novel’s strengths rather than muddle them with its weaknesses.

I was discussing Robert Heinlein in an email with my fellow blogger Jim Harris, and I confessed to him how few of his juveniles I have actually read. I told Jim that I’ve only ever read 3 Heinlein juveniles largely because I’ve always had some problems with Heinlein’s fiction. I started reading science fiction in the mid-1960s when Heinlein was going downhill so, with the exception of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I read most of his second- and third-tier fiction before going back and reading any of his "Golden Age" stuff. By that time most of his then-innovations were commonly-used stuff by most, if not all, sf writers, so I did not initially understand why he was generally considered the most important sf writer of the past thirty years. By the time I did understand, I had so many other sf books to read that I never had much incentive to go back and read all those juveniles. At this point, I am not even sure which are the ones I should try to read.

For my first forty years reading sf, I subscribed to various prozines. Galaxy was my first love, and I subscribed to it from 1963 through its untimely death in 1980. Worlds of If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, and Asimov’s all passed through my mailbox for many years. But about a dozen years ago I realized that reading prozines was taking up such a large portion of my limited reading time that if I did not eliminate my subscriptions I would be missing out on many worthwhile books. A decade later I do not really miss the prozines, and buying a few best-of-the-year collections enable me to keep up with the pulse of the sf field.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Recommended reading for the summer

Some recommendations for the summer:

• 6 sf classic novels you may want to revisit:
> Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
> Timescape, by Gregory Benford
> Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
> Rite of Passage, by Alexei Pansion
> Nightwings, by Robert Silverberg
> This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny

• 6 sf classic novellas:
> “We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line,” by Samuel R. Delany
> “The Last Castle,” by Jack Vance
> “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” by James Tiptree, Jr.
> “April Fool’s Day Forever,” by Kate Wilhelm
> “Her Habiline Husband,” by Michael Bishop
> “Green Mars,” by Kim Stanley Robinson

• 6 classic single author collections:
> Four For Tomorrow, by Roger Zelazny
> Driftglass, by Samuel R. Delany
> The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley
> Blooded on Arachne, by Michael Bishop
> The Earth Book of Stormgate, by Poul Anderson
> Neutron Star, by Larry Niven

• 6 sf classic anthologies:
> Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Healy & McComas
> A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher
> The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, vol. 1, edited by Robert Silverberg
> The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction, edited by Silverberg and Greenberg
> The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels, edited by Silverberg and Greenberg
> The Science Fiction Century, edited by David Hartwell

Check my sf blog Out of the Depths for more recommendations.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Ideal SF Story

Every reader likely has a different vision of what precisely they are looking for in a science fiction story. For some it might be something amorphous such as “a good read” or “characters I can relate to” or “sense of wonder”. For others the ideal story contains several distinct elements which vary from reader to reader. For me the ideal sf story would contain all of the following aspects:

• a thought-provoking foundation: I prefer a story which leaves me thinking after it is over about some moral or philosophical issue which lay at the story’s core. Stephen Baxter stories tend towards this as well as any contemporary author;

• well-developed, primarily sympathetic characters: if I cannot understand the people inhabiting a story, I tend to take it less seriously; and if none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, I generally lose interest in the story rather quickly. This latter reason is why I never particularly enjoyed Cyberpunk. Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Bishop are sf writers I look towards when I consider good characterization;

• a strong plot which is well-developed and interesting: I have never particularly enjoyed either end of the non-plot spectrum, either mindless adventures or navel-gazing stories. Poul Anderson and Robert Silverberg are my prototypes here;

sense of wonder: if this were not one of the aspects I prefer I would enjoy contemporary fiction a lot more than I do. My wonder is usually excited by exotic settings, particularly alien worlds or far-future societies greatly different from our own. Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.J. Cherryh and Jack McDevitt come to mind here;

• strong writing: you might think somebody who grew up reading pulp sf (referring to the type of stories, not the paper it was printed on) would not care about the writing style, but my Golden Age was during the New Wave, so writers such as Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany scarred me forever.

historical development: whether “true” history, alternate history, or well-developed future history, the development of historical change has always fascinated me (I recall in high school being totally obsessed with how feudalism could possibly have grown out of the remnants of the Roman Empire!). Robert Silverberg and Jack McDevitt come to mind on the sf end, while Steven Saylor and Iain Pears on the historical end.

Some comments on these aspects:

• Obviously all 6 aspects might not take place in any given story, but the more of them which occur successfully in a story, the more likely I am to enjoy it;

• If only a single aspect dominates one particularly story, but does so very successfully, I could very well love that story in spite of its lack of the other aspects;

• A handful of sf stories come to mind as containing the above aspects to my satisfaction: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion; Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings; Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light; Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series; C.J. Cherryh’s Brothers of Earth; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy; China Mieville’s Perdito Street Station (which might be fantasy, but so what?); Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee collection Resplendent; Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels; Marion Simmer Bradley’s Darkover novels; Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories. I am sure there are others, but I would be very happy reading sf as strong as these works for the rest of my life.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Pillars of the Earth

For readers of science fiction, there are certain acknowledged classics which all serious fans eventually read (Dune, Foundation Trilogy, Martian Chronicles, etc.) The same is true for readers of historical fiction, and one of those recent classics is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Follett is primarily a writer of contemporary thrillers, certainly one of my least-favorite genres, but many people have told me such good things about his historical epic, and its premise about the building of a medieval cathedral in England also intrigued me. I knew eventually I would read the book, and my interest was spurred even higher recently when he published a quasi-sequel World Without End which also garnered very positive reviews.

There are several main characters in Pillars, most of them dedicated to the building of the cathedral, several whose lives interact with the builders, and two who are dedicated to the destruction of the cathedral:

• Prior Philip is the dynamic prior of Kingsbridge Monastery who spearheads the plan to build the cathedral and spends the rest of his life carrying out those plans;

• Tom is the “master builder” who works hand-in-hand with Philip until his unfortunate death threatens to derail the entire project;

• Jack is Tom’s stepson who is a wild card early in the novel but who during his travels across Europe becomes as enamored with Kingsbridge Cathedral as Tom and Philip ever were;

• Ellen is Jack’s mother who is considered a witch by most other characters in the novel for reasons which remain the novel’s overriding mystery until its very end. Initially she and Jack live in the forest until she falls in love with Tom and eventually follows him to Kingsbridge;

• William is the son of the Earl of Shiring who does whatever is possible to destroy both the cathedral and the entire town of Kingsbridge which, under Philip, has grown from a tiny village to a thriving community rivaling Shiring in importance;

• Bishop Waleron is initially Philip’s supporter in the building of the cathedral, but soon his own greed turns him against Philip as he becomes a supporter of William. Waleron is also deeply involved in the mystery surrounding Ellen and Jack’s mysterious father;

• Aliena is the daughter of the original Earl of Shiring who makes the mistake of supporting Queen Maud in the civil war with King Stephen of England, while William’s father supported Stephen. Aliena’s father is killed and she falls under the protection of Philip.

Obviously Follet is a master plotter, and while Pillars shows evidence of his thrillers, it is primarily a long, detailed saga. The people are varied and interesting, not only the main characters but many of the secondary ones as well. Only the villains–William, Waleron, and Tom’s elder son Alfred–could have used more rounding as they were all fairly one-sidedly evil.

Follett also does an outstanding job in creating 12th century England by showing its people, their activities, and their surroundings. The way the civil war between Maud and Stephen affects the lives of ordinary citizens is shown in numerous ways, some subtle, some important to the overarching story of the cathedral. While I am not a historian, I truly felt absorbed into the life of medieval England.

Follett is a master at writing exciting sequences, such as the burning of Kingsbridge, the collapse of the cathedral, and the defense of Kingsbridge against William’s second attack. But what really raises the book above the level of a simple-plotted adventure is the cathedral itself, since it is the real main character of Pillars. Through nearly 1,000 pages we watch the cathedral grow and fall and its effect on the lives of the people involved with it as well as on the entire community of Kingsbridge. Later we watch the cathedral transform and grow even bigger and more majestic. The fact that Philip, Tom and Jack all love the cathedral gives the novel a focal point which helps make Pillars greater than the sum of its various parts. While I cannot guarantee that all readers will be enamored either with the cathedral itself or, as I was, with the characters’ love of the cathedral, still Pillars of the Earth is an exciting and fascinating look at life in 12th century medieval England. I recommend it highly.