Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Year’s Best Science Fiction, vol 25

There are pros and cons in reading a 788 page collection such as the twenty-fifth annual collection of The Year’s Best Science Fiction (containing stories published in 2007). The pros are primarily twofold: (1) that is a hell of a lot of pages, so there is room for some outstanding novellas and novelettes published in that year; (2) editor Gardner Dozois is primarily a fan of science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, slipstream, magic realism, and all the other sub-genres which nip around the edges of sf. Since my own taste is primarily sf as well, I prefer his annual volume (or Hartwell & Cramer’s) to those which combine f&sf, horror, and fringe genres.

There are two primary cons in such a huge volume: (1) A reader should not think of it as a “best of the year” volume while reading it, since an editor’s views will definitely diverge from the reader’s views, and having the expectations that each story will be a “best” story can easily lead to some enjoyable stories being dismissed as too “minor” to deserve inclusion in the volume. The more important con though is (2) that sf is not so much a “genre” as an umbrella for various types of speculative fiction: space opera, worldbuilding (both physical worlds and cultures), future history, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history (which it shares with historical fiction and might be a separate category itself, but there is enough connection between AH and SF to mention it here), secret history (ditto), hard science, and probably several others I’ve forgotten momentarily. Since I prefer certain sub-genres to others, it is unlikely that I would like every story in the book. Not that there is anything wrong with abandoning some stories mid-stream, but as a reviewer it is important that I explain my prejudices instead of blithely rejecting stories as “bad stories,” when in fact they might be very good stories which just fall outside my own comfort zone.

The volume opens with David Moles’ “Finsterra,” the story of poachers trying to kill endangered alien species which are so huge they serve as worlds themselves. The protagonist is an engineer in the employ of one of the poachers, a totally despicable person engaged in a basically evil activity, but she serves him without qualms or self-doubts. Perhaps I have a moral blind spot, but it kind of puts a damper on the story when the only moral people in it are treated as the enemy. Fortunately, the story is enjoyable reading and all works out well in the end,

John Barnes’ badly-titled “An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away” tells of two documentary film-makers who are stranded far from rescue on a distant world during a natural disaster. Léoa is a despicable person who first tries to undercut Thorby’s efforts for her own advantage, but who is later injured seriously in the disaster and rather than abandon her, which he could easily have done, Thorby struggles to save her life in addition to rescuing himself. A good human-interest story combined with a believable adventure.

“The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small,” by Chris Roberson (and what is it with these mock-poetic titles?) is set in his alternate history Celestial Empire in which China is the dominant power in the world. The story tells of an astronomer who has spent much of his life imprisoned by the emperor after having been tortured for information which he has never revealed about the military weaknesses of the Mexica Empire which has been at war consistently with the Middle Kingdom. The story’s primary concern is the conversations between the prisoner and a bureaucrat writing a report on the feasibility of invading Mexico, a struggle of wits between a desperate interrogator (who needs to complete his report at the risk of his own future) and a seemingly senile old-timer. Goods stuff.

Robert Silverberg’s “Against the Current” tells of a man who suddenly finds himself slipping backwards in time, slowly at first, but increasingly faster. At first thought this might seem intriguing–think of all the knowledge of the future such a person might employ–but things are rarely so simple, and Silverberg is too smart to fall into such a trap. First the man’s money is useless since all American currency has been changed in recent decades. Then his credit card’s expiration date is unbelievable. This was an intriguing story, more evidence that even in his semi-retirement Silverberg is still one of our finest writers.

I do not normally enjoy either military sf or adventure thrillers seeped in high tech, but Neal Asher is one of the few writers in those genres whose stories I find both readable and interesting. When an amoral fortune hunter nearly kills a xeno-archaeologist to steal the ancient artifact he has uncovered (which might have the capability of reviving a long-vanished alien race), it starts a series of events involving the xeno-archaeologist tracking her down both for revenge and to recover his artifact. There are no moral characters in this story (which is one reason why I prefer Alastair Reynolds to most other writers in the high-tech sub-genre of the space opera sub-genre, in addition to the fact that he never forgets that the story is primarily about the people in it), but the plot is fast-moving and always interesting. I suspect that some other readers would really like this story a lot if I enjoyed it as much as I did.

I was immediately suspicious of “The Great Wall,” by Justin Stanchfield because of its premise: an immense wall is found on Titan, presumably an alien artifact, reminding me of Alastair Reynold’s fine novella “Great Wall on Mars.” But the story drew me in quickly: its setting is a ship containing government protectors whose job is keeping everybody away from the wall while governments on Earth argue over who has jurisdiction over it. The ship follows another ship presumably containing fortune hunters onto the surface of Titan right near the wall itself, where they encounter a mystery so stunning and so absorbing that I was totally hooked. This is one of my favorite types of sf story, a future mystery seeped in wondrousness, but involving real people who are more than placeholders. While the story’s ending did little to clear up the mystery of the wall, I was still pleased with its outcome.

Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact” is a quintessentially-British story about a cozy end-of-the-world, in which the main character is primarily concerned with having time to care for her garden before the end comes, as compared to a similar American story which would probably descend into hysteria and violence. The story was fascinating for its glimpse at British attitudes moreso than for any other reason, sfnal or otherwise, but I definitely enjoyed it.

Alastair Reynolds is known for his very high-tech far futures in which civilization has progressed fairly directly from its current technological level for several millennia. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter,” he proves that he has more weapons in his writing arsenal than just that one, writing a tale about a rural future in which civilization is struggling to survive following some type of total technological meltdown. The story has a fantasy ambiance about it (which itself is stunning for a Reynolds story), but it does a fine job of exploring how the remnants of that lost technology might still affect the new parameters of civilization.

Kage Baker is a fine writer whom I have been wanting to read more stories by for some time, but sadly she will not be writing any more stories since she died recently. This is more incentive to go back and read some of her other critically-acclaimed fiction from the past decade. “Hellfire at Twilight” is a Company story about a researcher seeking some forged papers from early 19th century England, where he encounters a weird cult which decides to use him as the centerpiece of one of its ceremonies. This is not the finest of her stories that I have read, but enjoyable, as all her fiction that I have read is.

Three of the stories struck me as the finest in the volume. First was Vandina Singh’s very strong “Of Love and Other Monsters,” a novella about a boy Arun who has no memories prior to his being rescued from a fire by a shopkeeper in India, who then raises him as her own son. The boy has the unnatural ability to enter people’s minds and somehow “meld” them with the minds of other people. Apparently there is another person Rahul Moghe with the same ability who stalks Arun for much of the story, successfully kidnapping him at one point. The story’s twin concerns are Arun’s search for his own origins, and why Rahul is so desperate to win him over to his own purposes. Both as a character development and a mystery, this story is very successful and bodes well for Singh as a major science fiction writer.

I reviewed Gregory Benford’s “Dark Heaven” on 11/1/09, but I’ll repeat here that it impressed me in several ways. The story is a noir mystery featuring a hard-boiled Louisiana detective named McKenna investigating a series of drownings which have all the earmarks of homicide, including mysterious marks on the arms of the victims. The fact that two such drownings occur within a few days of each other push the deaths past coincidence into probable murders. But there is so little evidence that McKenna seems to be spinning his wheels futiley as his superiors wait impatiently for him to turn his attention to other crimes awaiting resolution.

In the background of “Dark Heaven” are a race of aliens who have come to Earth and established a basehead on an island near the murders, totally isolated by federal agents who pretty much bully anybody who dares to come near them, including local police investigating crimes. At first, the aliens seem to be mostly background, the sfnal ingredient in the story but, knowing Benford’s fiction, I knew that would not last for long.

For my taste, the finest story in this book, and one of the best of the entire past decade, was Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” Chiang is probably my favorite (and presumably a lot of other sf readers’ favorite as well) current writer of short fiction. This story tells of a “gate of years” which enables a person to step 20 years into the past or future and visit themselves temporarily in that alternate time. Several people do so, and their stories are always fascinating, but Chiang is not merely a storyteller. This story is also a morality tale about how one’s actions influence not only other people, but also oneself. This is one of Chiang’s finest stories (the others being “Story of Your Life” and “Hell is the Absence of God,” in my opinion) and well-deserved all the awards it won. If you have not read it yet, either find this volume or the recently-published The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction (reviewed here on 9/12/09).

As usual, I recommend the 25th volume of The Year’s Best Science Fiction very highly.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Twelve Greatest Living Science Fiction Writers

This is a risky list to make, since it is invariably influenced by personal preference, although I have tried as much as possible to avoid that. My criteria for selection on the list are (1) overall high level of writing; (2) several true masterworks; (3) importance to the sf field; and (4) longevity. Anybody who disagrees is free to send me the name of their own great living writer whom you feel that I overlooked.

The authors are listed in roughly chronological order, not in order of preference:

1. Frederik Pohl is probably the senior living writer of science fiction, a major figure during two different eras. In the 1950s he co-authored a series of major satirical sf novels with Cyril M. Kornbluth, titles such as The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law. After spending a decade as editor of Galaxy and Worlds of IF, he returned to full-time writing with such important works as “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” and the Heechee series, notably Gateway.

2. The publication of The Martian Chronicles alone make Ray Bradbury a worthy addition to this list, although other titles such as Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes and collections The Illustrated Man and The Golden Apples of the Sun contained wonderful pieces of science fiction which emphasized ambiance and characterization over science and technology.

3. Has there ever been a better master of sense of wonder and creativity than the wonderful Jack Vance? I cannot recall any sf more fun to read than the Demon Prince or Dying Earth series. But Vance can be serious as well in novels such as The Languages of Pao or The Grey Prince and in short fiction “The Last Castle” or “The Moon Moths.”

4. Whenever I am looking for a good, solid read which combines future speculation, outstanding storytelling, and an emphasis on historical development, I seek out either Poul Anderson or Robert Silverberg. Any of “Nightwings” or Dying Inside, The Book of Skulls or “Born With the Dead” could have been the capstones of entire careers, but they were merely a few of the many gems written by perhaps the finest single living sf writer.

5. Brian W. Aldiss is a chameleon, able to flit between core science fiction and purely literary fiction, often incorporating elements of both in the same stories. The Hothouse series was superb far-future speculation, and such works as the Helliconia series and Graybeard rank among the pantheon of all sf of the past half-century.

6. Ursula K Le Guin is probably the most renowned writer on this list, and deservedly so. Her seminal works such as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are reason enough for her great reputation, but other works such as her Earthsea novels and Hainish series (the latter including the above-mentioned novels) are also outstanding works by a truly great writer.

7. If there is one writer whose absence in recent decades saddens me, it is the wondrous Samuel R. Delany, whose fiction excites as much as they infuriate, since they often require multiple readings to fully understand everything which is taking place in them. He created the foundation for cyberpunk fifteen years before it became popular in the 1980s. Works such as Babel-17, Nova, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, “The Star-Pit,” “Empire Star,” and “We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move in a Rigorous Line,” were truly the mark of a genius (a word which I do not throw around loosely).

8. Gene Wolfe is in some ways the descendent of Jack Vance, since Vance’s Dying Earth series certainly influenced Wolfe’s New Sun / Long Sun / Short Sun series, although the latter are much more in-depth explorations of a far-future milieu rather than the former’s fast-paced romps. Like Delany, Wolfe’s fiction often demands multiple readings, whether in his detailed series mentioned above, or shorter works such as The Wizard Knight or short fiction such as “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” or “The Death of Doctor Island.”

9. Another great writer missing-in-action the past two decades is Michael Bishop who combines serious literary analysis with a strong sense of humor. Consider his series of novellas about a modern woman’s affair with a primitive human in racially-charged Georgia (Ancient of Days) or his sequel to Frankenstein in which the monster becomes a minor league first baseman (Brittle Innings).

10. One prime aspects of great science fiction is the ability to think creatively and write serious stories based on fantastic premises. John Varley possesses that talent, as well as being an outstanding storyteller. His seminal short fiction such as “The Persistence of Vision,” “Blue Champagne” and “The Pusher” continue to astound, and his novels such as Titan and Steel Beach are both entertaining and rich with thought-provoking ideas.

11. One of science fiction’s major aspects is creating and exploring distant worlds and alien races, the specialty of C.J. Cherryh who is also a master storyteller in works such as Downbelow Station, The Faded Sun and the Chanur and Foreignor series. Any reader with an interest in anthropology should find Cherry’s aliens truly wondrous reading.

12. A relative child of less than 60 years old compared to the other writers on this list, Kim Stanley Robinson combines the best elements of literary merits, detailed future history, thought-provoking ideas and storytelling. Novels such as The Wild Shore, the Mars series and The Years of Salt and Rice would each be a highlight in another author’s career. If any writer can equal Silverberg in my personal pantheon, it is Robinson.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Least Favorite Authors of SF

Other than as a market category, science fiction is not a “genre” per se, but a huge umbrella which envelops numerous types of speculative fiction: space opera, worldbuilding (both physical worlds and cultures), future history, cyberpunk, steampunk, alternate history (which it shares with historical fiction and might be a genre itself, but there is enough connection between AH and SF to mention it here), secret history (ditto), hard science, and probably several others I’ve forgotten momentarily.

So what this all means is two things: (a) SF contains something for just about every reader who is not instinctively repulsed by any fiction which reeks of genre; and (b) it is unlikely that every fan of SF, not matter how devoted he or she might be, is going to enjoy every single sub-genre.

Thus, as I suspect is true of most SF fans, there are several popular writers whose fiction rarely resonates with me. Those writers tend to fall into three categories: writers pre-occupied with technology, writers who specialize in dismal views of the near future, and writers more concerned with flash than with substance.

In the past I have often listed my favorite writers, so here is a listing of my least favorite writers of SF:

Charles Stross. I have tried to read his fiction, including several of his “Accelerando” stories and his novella “Missile Gap,” and I have found them too much sturm und drang and not enough storytelling or character development;

Vernor Vinge. His interest in high-technological developments mostly bores me, although I did enjoy one of his novellas many years ago in Analog called “The Barbarian Princess,” which was a total departure from most of what I have seen by him;

Bruce Sterling: I cannot pinpoint why I generally finish a Sterling story with a feeling of dissatisfaction, but I usually do. It might have something to do with the fact that I generally feel no empathy for his characters, who generally have attitudes totally different from my own. If I cannot relate to the characters in a story, I generally remain cool emotionally to the story itself;

Greg Bear. I used to like Greg Bear stories until he decided to reinvent himself as a writer of thrillers. I dislike most thrillers which seem too artificial to me, little more than a series of unlikely complications strung together more for the purpose of keeping the thrill quotient high than actually being an absorbing story;

Terry Bisson. A simple reason here: I am not a big fan of humorous fiction. It usually falls flat with me, which is why I have hesitated to read any of Terry Pratchett’s acclaimed Discworld novels;

Greg Egan. Too much hard-science dominating his stories. I don’t mind a strongly-plotted story which has a hard science foundation, but Egan’s stories are mostly about analyzing the scientific basis of the story, and that’s too much for me;

R.A. Lafferty. There’s a point where strangeness becomes so dominant in a story that I totally lose interest in it. If I cannot relate to any of the characters, or become absorbed in the storyline, then the story has no purpose to me;

Paul McAuley. Read my comments about Greg Bear;

Spider Robinson. Reading a story of his usually reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where Eric Idle is smirking, “Nudge nudge, know what I mean?” while elbowing the person next to him. With the exception of “Stardance,” I’ve never enjoyed the other Robinson stories that I’ve read;

Rudy Rucker. See R.A. Lafferty above.

I assume that all of the above writers have written atypical stories which would not fall into my blind spot, but which I have not yet seen, so any such recommendations are welcome.