Visions of Paradise

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dreamsongs, Volume 2

While everybody else seems to be reading the #1 bestselling book in the country, George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, the latest historical epic in his Song of Fire and Ice series (I hesitate to call the series “fantasy,” since nothing I have read about it seems the least bit fantastic), I have decided to read Martin’s comprehensive volume of his later short fiction, Dreamsongs, Volume 2. I do not have Dreamsongs, Volume 1, and probably will not buy it, since except for a few amateur stories he wrote prior to his first publication, all the other stories in it are contained in one of his earlier collections which I already own (A Song For Lya, Songs of Stars and Shadows, Sandkings, Portraits of His Children). So if you have not read those collections, then you might wish to buy Volume 1 before tackling Volume 2.

Let’s not beat around the bush: George R.R. Martin is a great writer of sf, fantasy, even horror, freely moving between categories. As he states in one of his essays in Volume 2, We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself. The rest, my friends, is furniture. So if you’re willing to cross genre boundaries, this is a great book subdivided into four sections:

A Taste of Tuf. Haviland Tuf is Martin’s everyman hero who travels from world to world dealing with problems which are ostensibly ecological in nature. This series reminds me of Murray Leinster’s fine Med Ship series, although Martin is a better writer than Leinster, so the Tuf stories, while basic problem-solving sf, are even a bit better than Leinster’s;

The Siren Song of Hollywood. Martin spent most of the 1980s in Hollywood writing and producing such shows as the revived Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. Several of his screenplays were never actually produced, so here he includes two of them, one which appeared in truncated form as a Twilight Zone episode, and a pilot which never appeared. Both of them were good enough that I would have loved to see them performed;

Doing the Wild Card Shuffle. Martin created his own “shared world” series, a format I enjoy as the literary equivalent of a continuing tv show. The wild cards series was a realistic look at super-heroes, and the two entries here are so good that they convinced me I should go back and read more volumes in the series (having only read the initial Wild Cards when it was first released). One of the stories introduces perhaps Martin’s greatest character (yes, better than his carefully-designed Haviland Tuf), with the unlikely name of The Great and Powerful Turtle;

The Heart in Conflict. This section contains six novellas which show Martin at the top of his form, and which deserve individual discussion.

To be continued...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blue Mars

When a book has such high expectations as Blue Mars did, sometimes it is almost impossible to meet them. This is the concluding novel in Robinson’s trilogy, in which the first volume Red Mars won the Nebula Award, the second volume Green Mars won the Hugo, and this volume itself also won the Hugo Award.

In my own case, both Green Mars and Blue Mars were my books-of-the-year in the early 1990s, but Blue Mars was published smack in the middle of my science-fiction-burnout, so I never read it previously. That might have been a good thing, considering the expectations it carried.

In the past year I have reread both Red Mars (reviewed here on 9/25/10) and Green Mars (reviewed on 9/30/11), and they were both as wonderful as I recalled them being. But my feelings about Blue Mars are slightly less ecstatic.

The good points first. While politics and ecology continue to dominate the plot, the character development is the real strength of Blue Mars. I particularly enjoyed the chapter-long sojourns into the activities of specific characters, which Robinson has done throughout the series. In Blue Mars we got to spend time with:

• Nirgal, a native Martian who is part of a diplomatic mission to Earth in light of the successful revolution which freed Mars from Earth control;
• Michel, one of the “first hundred” colonists in Red Mars who is returning to his beloved Provence after nearly two centuries away;
• Ann, another of the “first hundred,” who was one of the most radical Reds who was thus alienated from most of her peers;
• Nadia and Art, she being the reluctant first president of free Mars, while he is her close advisor;
• Sax, the nerdy scientist of the “first hundred,” who is probably more responsible for the “greening” of Mars than anybody else.

Two relationships are the core of Blue Mars:

• Nadia and Art. Against her wishes, she became the first president of Mars, while he is a recent emigrant and representative of Praxis, the only metanational corporation on Earth which supported Martian freedom rather than trying to manipulate the Martian colonies for their own purposes. They were a closely-working pair in Green Mars who were largely influential in the development of the Martian constitution following the revolution. Their relationship continues to develop as they race around the planet in the unsettled years when the future of the constitution is very much questionable in the face of groups trying to ignore it, including radical Reds still determined to destroy all attempts at terraforming, and other groups striving to gather as much political control as possible (specifically the “Free Mars” group and its charismatic leader Jackie);

• Sax and Ann. After a series of physical challengers, including a stroke caused by Earth’s metanational enemies of a free Mars, Sax finally begins to appreciate its dwindling natural beauty as that original beauty is increasingly endangered. He also strives to renew his shattered friendship with Ann when their differences about the future of Mars drove them far apart emotionally as well.

Nirgal is also a fascinating character. He spends considerable time traveling alone on Earth, viewing the aging culture from the viewpoint of a native Martian outsider. And when he returns from Earth, we spend another chapter with him as he grows increasingly dissatisfied with the direction the “Free Mars” movement has taken during his absence, which leads to his attempt to find a niche for himself in the rapidly-evolving Martian civilization.

Wrapped around the character studies, Robinson shows us the continuing development of Martian culture, the “greening” steadily developing into a “blue-ing,” and the beginning of further expansion of human culture into the asteroids and satellites of the gas giants, and finally the first colonization expedition out of the solar system entirely. Since the book’s primary focus is on Mars itself though, we do not spend much time on these other locales, which perhaps await a future book.

If Blue Mars had been 200 pages shorter, concentrating on everything discussed above, it would have been as outstanding as the previous books in the series. One aspect which bored me a bit though was the endless political bickering between the various groups of Martians. Fortunately, Robinson seemed to feel similarly, for as the novel progressed, the politics slowly faded into background events which were mentioned rather than explored endlessly.

However, my main complain is that Blue Mars, even moreso than the previous books, was packed with endless expository lumps explaining everything from the ecological development of Mars through Martian geology and even a half-dozen page explanation of human brain processes. I accepted the ecological examinations in the first two books since that development was important to the political situation on Mars. But the dry lectures seemed mostly unessential in this book and–quite frankly–boring at times. I can't tell you how often I actually skimmed over long, meaningless paragraphs. For that reason, I cannot recommend Blue Mars as highly as I did Red Mars and Green Mars.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Science Fiction and the Future

I was never a fan of cyberpunk for several reasons, including too much emphasis placed on current technology. But perhaps my biggest complaint with it was that it almost exclusively featured near-future dismal settings. Unfortunately, cyberpunk’s popularity was the first chink in the wall of far-future science fiction. Soon afterwards the genre saw the emergency of alternative history, followed by urban fantasy and horror.

As a result, the far future has become somewhat of an endangered species in science fiction. While it would be almost impossible to verify this trend by analyzing all published sf novels, I have decided to use the Hugo Award for Best Novel as a snapshot of sf trends. Consider that from 1960-1990, 74% of the 31 Hugo-winning novels were set in the far future:

Far-Future settings (23): Cyteen; The Uplift War; Speaker for the Dead; Ender's Game; Startide Rising; Foundation's Edge; Downbelow Station; The Snow Queen; The Fountains of Paradise; Dreamsnake; Gateway; The Forever War; The Dispossessed; Rendezvous with Rama; The Gods Themselves; To Your Scattered Bodies Go; Ringworld; The Left Hand of Darkness; Lord of Light; ...And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal); Dune; A Canticle for Leibowitz; Starship Troopers

Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings (8): Neuromancer; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang; Stand on Zanzibar; The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; The Wanderer; Here Gather the Stars (Way Station); The Man in the High Castle; Stranger in a Strange Land

However, from 1990-2010 the trend reversed with only 30% of the 24 Hugo-winning novels set in the far future:

Far-Future settings (7): A Deepness in the Sky; Mirror Dance; A Fire Upon the Deep; Barrayar; The Vor Game; Hyperion; Rainbow’s End

Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings (16): The Windup Girl; The City & The City; The Graveyard Book; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Paladin of Souls; Hominids; American Gods; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; To Say Nothing of the Dog; Forever Peace; Blue Mars; The Diamond Age; Green Mars; Doomsday Book; Spin; Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

In recent years, the trend has not shown any signs of slipping back to the far future. Consider the Hugo nominees for Best Novel the past 4 years:

Far-Future settings:
The Last Colony
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Brazyl; Halting State; Rollback

Far-Future settings:
Saturn’s Children; Anathem; Zoe’s Tale
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: The Graveyard Book; Little Brother

Far-Future settings
: none
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: The Windup Girl; The City & The City; Boneshaker; Julian Comstock; Palimpsest

Far-Future settings:
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: Blackout; All Clear; The Dervish House; Feed; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The four year total is as follows:
Far-Future settings: 5
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: 16

Only 24% of the recent Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel are set in the far-future, and this is at the height of the New Space Opera movement. Ironically, none of the nominees in the past 4 years can actually be described as “new” space opera.

Granted, the Hugo Awards are only snapshots of current trends in science fiction, but with the evidence from those awards showing such an overwhelming shift away from the far future, it is hard to believe that is not a genre-wide trend as well.

And for those of us who grew up loving the far future, that is a sad future to envision.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in John Purcell’s fine fanzine Askance #2, which is available at]

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Air We Breathe

One of my favorite writers of historical fiction is Andrea Barrett. She excels when writing about scientists’ passion for their work, my favorite books being the collection Ship Fever and the novel Voyage of the Narwal.

Her most recent novel The Air We Breathe is set at the tuberculosis sanitariums which were popular in the Adirondacks of northern New York State during the early decades of the 20th century. The novel is concerned with two such sites: a private home for rich people to rest and absorb as much of the fresh air as possible; and a nearby dormitory-type sanitarium where poor people are sent by the state for the same purpose.

The cast of characters is a varied one:
• Naomi, the daughter of the caretaker at the rich house, who works endlessly under her mother’s obsessive thumb;
• Eureka, her best friend in the village who works at the sanitarium and who spends every available minute in its basement, learning to use the x-ray equipment;
• Irene, the x-ray technician who serves as Eureka’s mentor;
• Miles, a rich factory owner staying at the house who has fallen passionately-in-love with Naomi, even though she considers him almost old enough to be her father;
• Leo, a Jewish immigrant staying at the sanitarium whose passion is chemistry, which he studied before coming to America, and who becomes friendly with Eureka and Irene;
• Dr. Petrie, one of the doctors at the sanitarium;

In order to enlighten the poor residents of the sanitarium, most of whom are immigrants from central Europe, Miles initiates a weekly session in which interested patients can gather to listen to educational lectures. He runs the first two meetings, but soon other patients begin telling their own stories. This gives the novel a bit of a Canterbury Tales format, although the author is much more concerned with how the patients react to each other’s stories than the stories themselves.

The novel changes from slower-paced character-oriented to faster-paced plot-oriented when World War I begins and people are struck by a combination of patriotic fervor and fear of Eastern Europeans (reminiscent of the Japanese internment in WW2 and the current anti-Muslim fear). To make matters worse, there is a mysterious fire at the dormitory and Miles, the most fervent pro-war patriot, places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Leo, the Jewish immigrant. Meanwhile the entangled relationships between Miles who loves Naomi who loves Leo who loves Eudora begins affecting events at both the sanitarium and house.

My only complaint with the novel, and it is a minor complaint, is the strange narrative viewpoint Barrett uses for the novel. Events are told as if from the collective point of view of the patients at the dormitory. Initially this is a bit distracting, but once I got used to it I found it not much different than using the omniscient third person, and just as effective. I’m still not sure why Barrett chose such an unusual viewpoint, or why she felt it was necessary.

But that complaint aside, The Air We Breathe was probably her best novel, and equally as good as her collection Ship Fever. Any fans of historical fiction should enjoy it.