Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Under Heaven

Next to science fiction, historical fiction is my favorite form of reading. My favorite authors of historical fiction include Iain Pears, Andrea Barrett, Steven Saylor and Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kay? Isn’t he a fantasy writer? Sometimes, yes. Tigana and the Fionavar Trapestry are fantasies. But other novels of his are pure historical fiction, except that he likes creating his own events in the past which either did not occur, or might even contradict historical facts. While writers would just alter those events and call it “alternative history,” Kay prefers changing the names of both places and people, and treating it as other-world fantasy. But in fact, except for the name changes and altered events, it reads like pure historical fiction.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in a thinly-disguised Moorish Spain. The Last Light of the Sun is about the Viking invasions of the British Isles. His most recent novel Under Heaven is set during Tang Dynasty China. It tells the story or the three children of famed general Shen Gao, recently deceased, but whose reputation persists: Liu has become principal advisor to the emperor’s first minister; Li-Mei became part of one the entourage of one of the emperor’s minor sons, before Liu convinced the first minister to donate her as wife of a barbarian ruler.

Tai, the second son, is the novel’s main character. After the death of his father, he spends two years at the sight of one of his father’s greatest battles, burying the dead bodies which litter the area. He is alone except for the ghosts of the fallen soldiers, both Kitan (the novel’s name for Chinese) and enemies. He becomes a famous figure through the empire, and is even given a gift of 250 horses by one of the emperor’s daughters who is also a wife of a barbarian king. The horses are a breed so superior to those of the Kitan that Shen Tai immediately becomes a person of major importance to the emperor and his advisors.

Under Heaven is mostly a novel of politics, into which Tai has become intimately-involved. People of importance include:

• Wei Song, a Kanlin warrior who saves Tai’s life early in the novel, and then becomes his protector;
• Wen Jian, a twenty-year old beauty who has become the emperor’s “precious consort,” and the power behind the throne;
• Shinzu, the emperor’s heir, who has a reputation for indolence and drunkenness, but whose true personality shows when political affairs heat up;
• Wen Zhou, the first minister who achieved his rank due to being Wen Jian’s cousin, but who is an enemy of Shen Tai for reasons unknown to him;
• An Li, also called Roshan, is the most powerful general in Kitai in spite of being a “barbarian” rather than a native Kitan;
• Shin Zian, the most famous poet in Kitai, known as the “Banished Immortal,” who becomes a close advisor of Shen Tai.

Although there is ultimately a major war in the novel, Under Heaven is not really concerned with military actions, but rather with the politics surrounding them. This is an outstanding novel, the equal of The Last Light of the Sun, which was my novel-of-the-year in 2004. So far 2011 has been an outstanding reading year, since I have read such classic novels as The City & The City, Julian Comstock, The Windup Girl and now Under Heaven. If only every year could be as good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some observations on the Hugo Awards.

Rather than make subjective qualitative comments on whether I agree with the recent Hugo Awards, I would like to discuss the individual histories of the winners in 13 categories which lend themselves to repeat winners.

Best Novel: Connie Willis for Blackout / All Clear: This is Connie’s 11th Hugo Award, 4 more than any other writers. She is obviously very popular among Hugo voters, but does this large number of Hugo Awards indicate that she is the greatest living sf writer? Or has she been partly rewarded for her entertaining personality and popularity among worldon attendees?

Best Novella: Ted Chiang for “The Lifestyle of Software Objects”: This is his 4th Hugo Award, 3 of which have come in the past 4 years. Either he is peaking as a writer, or is merely on a popularity roll such as Michael Swanwick was from 1998-2003 when he won 5 Hugo Awards in 6 years.

Best Novelette: Allen M. Steele for “The Emperor of Mars”: This is his 3rd Hugo Award, the last one coming in 1997. His other two awards were both in the Best Novella category.

Best Short Story: Mary Robinette Kowal for “For Want of a Nail”: This is her first Hugo Award, making her the token new winner in the fiction categories. She previously won the Campbell Award in 2007 and had another Hugo nomination in 2008. The winning story actually tied for last in the number of nominations received, getting less than half of Peter Watts’ “The Thing,” which it beat handily for the award.

Best Graphic Story: Girl Genius 10, by Phil & Kaja Folio: This is their 3rd consecutive win in this category, all the years of its existence. I was glad to see they did the polite thing and withdrew from consideration next year.

Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form: Dr. Who. This show has won the award 5 of the past 6 years, only losing one year to a sing-along blog, of all things. Dr. Who also dominates the nominations, having had 8 nominations in this category the past 3 years. Does this dominance speak for the quality of Dr. Who or the lack of quality of the rest of televised f&sf?

Best Professional Editor - Long Form: Lou Anders. This is his first award in a category which previously went to David G. Hartwell twice and Patrick Nielsen Hayden twice, both of whom declined nominations this year. This was a close vote between Anders and Ginjer Buchanon.

Best Professional Editor - Short Form: Sheila Williams. The is the 18th time the editor of Asimov’s has won a Hugo Award, George Scithers twice, Gardner Dozois 15 times, and this first win for Williams. A prozine is only as good as its editor and, at least in the eyes of the Hugo voters, Asimov’s has been very fortunate with its editors.

Best Professional Artist: Shaun Tan. After a considerable amount of publicity the past year, including an Oscar, Tan managed to squeak out a victory over Daniel Dos Santos. Previously this award was won 13 times by Michael Whelan, 10 times by Kelly Freas and 8 times by Bob Eggleton. Three of the last four years it was won by Donato Giancola.

Best SemiProzine: Clarkesworld. For years fans have complained about the dominance of Locus in this category, but for the last three years the award has been won by fiction zines: Weird Tales in 2009 and Clarkesworld the past two years. The latter winner is exclusively online, which might be more indicative of the future of this category than the fact that the winners have published fiction. Clarkesworld was actually trailing in the voting until Lightspeed, another online fiction zine, dropped out and its voters mostly favored Clarkesworld over Locus.

Best Fanzine: The Drink Tank. This is probably the most consistently-published fanzine, having had nearly 300 issues since its inception in 2005. The winner and its editor have paid their fannish dues, having had 8 prior nominations before winning this year. Although Drink Tank is the third consecutive online winner, it is a much more traditional fanzine than last year’s podcast zine StarshipSofa which offended so many people that there has been discussion about banning such zines from this category. It was beaten handily by Drink Tank in this year’s voting.

Best Fan Writer: Claire Briarly. Another winner who has paid her fannish dues, having had 8 prior nominations before winning this year in a close vote over Steven H. Silver. This category has been dominated in the past by a small handful of fanwriters, such as Richard E. Geis (7 awards), Dave Langford (21 awards) and Mike Glyer (3 awards), before going to two professional writers for their blogging 2 of the past 3 years (John Scalzi and Frederik Pohl).

Best Fan Artist: Brad Foster. Like Fan Writer, this category tends to go to a few repeat winners, such as Tim Kirk (5 times), Alex Gilliland, Bill Rotsler, Teddy Harvia and Frank Wu (4 times each). But Brad Foster is the most popular winner with his 7th award spread over a 25 year period, designating him as one of the best fan artists ever. This category was the closest vote of all, with Foster winning by a single vote over Randall Munroe, in spite of the latter barely making the final ballot by a single vote.

Overall, 6 of the 13 winners–Mary Robinette Kowal , Lou Anders, Sheila Williams, Shaun Tan, Claire Briarly and The Drink Tank–are first-timers, which is an unusually-high number for recent Hugo Awards. Next year is guaranteed to have at least one more newbie with the Foglios withdrawing from their category. Perhaps we’ll be fortunate and Connie Willis will not publish any stories this entire year, opening the door for other winners in the fiction categories. (Please don’t send me hate mail if you believe Connie Willis is the greatest writer in the history of science fiction. My reply to that is simple: sorry, she’s not.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sidewise Awards

One of the awards announced at the Renovation worldcon taking place this weekend are the Sidewise Awards. I am a big fan of historical fiction, including alternative history, so these awards appeal to me, and often suggest some good reading for me as well.

For those of you who enjoy alt hist as much as I do, here is a listing of all the winners of the Sidewise Award. Happy reading!

Year / Long Form Winner / Short Form Winner
2010 / Eric G. Swedin, When Angels Wept / Alan Smale, “A Clash of Eagles”
2009 / Robert Conroy, 1942 / Alastair Reynolds, “The Fixation”
2008 / Chris Roberson, The Dragon’s Nine Sons / Mary Rosenblum, “Sacrifice”
2007 / Michael Chaban, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Flynn. "Quaestiones Super Caelo Et Mundo" tied with Kristine Kathryn Rusch. "Recovering Apollo 8"
2006 / Charles Stross. The Family Trade, The Hidden Family, and The Clan Corporate / Gardner Dozois. "Counterfactual"
2005 / Ian R. MacLeod. The Summer Isles / Tilton, Lois. "Pericles the Tyrant"
2004 / Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America / Warren Ellis, Chris Weston, and Laura DuPuy Martin. Ministry of Space
2003 / Murray Davies. Collaborator / Chris Roberson. "O One"
2002 / Martin J. Gidron. The Severed Wing tied with Harry Turtledove. Ruled Britannia / William Sanders. "Empire"
2001 / J.N. Stroyar. The Children's War / Ken MacLeod. The Human Front
2000 / Mary Gentle. Ash: A Secret History / Ted Chiang. "Seventy-Two Letters"
1999 / Brendan DuBois. Resurrection Day / Alain Bergeron. "The Eighth Register"
1998 / Stephen Fry. Making History / Ian R. MacLeod. "The Summer Isles"
1997 / Harry Turtledove. How Few Remain / William Sanders. "The Undiscovered"
1996 / Stephen Baxter. Voyage / Walter Jon Williams. "Foreign Devils"
1995 / Paul J. McAuley. Pasquale's Angel / Stephen Baxter. "Brigantia's Angels"

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang is perhaps the best science fiction writer who has never written a novel. I realize a few people reading this might be thinking Ray Bradbury (who has written at least 6 novels) or Harlan Ellison (at least 5 novels, all written early in his career). But there is nothing wrong with mentioning Chiang in the same breath as Bradbury or Ellison, since he is as fine a writer as they were in their prime, and all three writers have at least one similarity: none of them are routine story-tellers.

Ray Bradbury began writing with a strong interest in horror fiction, and his first collection Dark Carnival showed that. But even as he matured into romantic fantasies, Bradbury was still primarily interested in arousing emotions in his reader rather than telling a story.

Harlan Ellison’s stories have also been highly emotionally-charged, and while he never wrote straight horror per se, his stories frequently aroused the same type of sharp emotions in his readers as the best horror fiction did.

Ted Chiang is not interested in arousing emotions, but rather arousing intellectual curiosity in his readers. A typical Chiang story starts with some speculative concept, then explores it through his characters. He rarely bothers with deep characterization, nor much detailed plotting, but arouses intellectual sense of wonder about as well as any writer possibly could.

If you still doubt that Ted Chiang deserves being mentioned in the same breath as grandmasters Bradbury and Ellison, consider this: since his first publication in 2001, Chiang has published 12 stories, 9 of which have been nominated for major awards (Nebula, Hugo or Sturgeon), and he has won 4 Nebula Awards, 3 Hugo Awards and 1 Sturgeon Award.

As for my own opinion of Chiang, he has had 3 stories on my best-of-the-decade lists already, 1 of which was my favorite story of the 1990s. So it will not be surprising when I mention early in this review that his first collection of short fiction Stories of Your Life and Others ranks with such debut sf collections as Roger Zelazny’s Four For Tomorrow, Samuel R. Delany’s Driftglass, and John Varley’s The Persistence of Vision.

The first story in the collection, which was Chiang’s first publication and a Nebula winner, is “Tower of Babylon,” which examines what it was like for the builders of the immense tower which took several centuries to complete and who basically spent their entire lives living in the tower itself, raising families which in some instances have never seen the ground. The story’s climax, in which the tower finally reaches heaven itself, is interesting, as is the Babylonian cosmology which is an intricate part of the story.

“Story of Your Life,” which was my favorite piece of short fiction for the 1990s, tells about an alien race which arrives in Earth orbit and establishes contact with humans. It is basically the story of two scientists, a male physicist and a female linguist, who attempt to communicate with the aliens. The linguist is the viewpoint character who discovers that the aliens’ language is not linear, but holistic, and as she immerses herself in it, her own worldview begins changing (not surprisingly, since linguists rightfully claim that a culture’s language is very influential on their view of the world). The alternating passages of the linguist’s personal life seem a bit misplaced at first, but as her worldview changes, the connection becomes both obvious and startling. An outstanding story.

“Hell is the Absence of God” takes the premise that God exists without any doubt, and whose angels periodically manifest themselves in our physical world, during which they occasionally cause great damage by their very passing through, but at other times they create miracles. Add to this the fact that when a person dies, their soul can be seen either rising to heaven or descending to hell. Chiang does an excellent job examining the life and emotional struggles of a man whose beloved wife has died and whose soul has risen to heaven. But he has never felt particularly close to God and thus fears his soul will descend to hell when he dies, thus cutting him off from his wife for all eternity.

Outstanding as these three stories are, there are four other fine stories in the book as well:

• “Understand” tells of a man who undergoes an experimental treatment for brain damage which makes him the most advanced mind in the world;
• “Division by Zero” tells the story of a brilliant mathematician whose entire world is shattered when she discovers a proof which destroys the underlying foundations of all mathematics;
• “Seventy-Two Letters” examines a world in which golems do exist, which has profound effects on the shape of 19th century life (this story would be considered “steampunk” were it published nowadays);
• “Liking What You See: A Documentary” examines a scientific technique which removes a person’s ability to differentiate the esthetics of other people’s faces, spurring a potential movement on campuses to equalize all students’ beauty in each other’s eyes, while causing great concern in the cosmetics industry.

Stories of Your Life is a fabulous collection, but keep in mind that characterization and routine story-telling are not Chiang’s main concern. He is an old-fashioned “hard” science fiction writer who is examining ideas first and foremost, but doing so about as well as I have ever seen it done. I recommend this collection very highly.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Dreamsongs, Vol. 2 (continued)

The first novella is “Under Siege,” whose premise is that after a devastating nuclear war, life on Earth is both precarious and dismal. A project is underway to send the minds of six mutants back in time into the minds of historical people who were important figures at the crux of changes which could alter history and hopefully prevent the devastating nuclear war. But five of the mutants have died during their trips through time, so the last surviving mutant is the only hope to prevent the nuclear war and save life on Earth. His chosen event seems somewhat problematic to me, part of a war between Finland and Russia during the Napoleanic Wars, but selecting any important turning point in history is always subject to debate. This is a strong story with an unexpected ending.

“The Skin Trade” is a noir mystery set in a midwestern city controlled by a small group of rich people who are secretly werewolves. Several of them have been murdered by the particularly gruesome method of being flayed while alive. Their deaths are being investigated by a private detective and an insurance investigator, the latter a werewolf himself. Keeping in mind that I generally dislike urban fantasies, this was still fascinating reading which held my interest throughout, even as the wheels kept turning and turning.

I had initial problems with “Unsound Variations” since all the five characters in it were particularly unlikeable. The main two characters were a young couple who do nothing but fight and harass each other. They are attending a reunion of his college chess team, where they meet up with three other unlikeable team members, particularly the team outcast who has become incredibly wealthy and is using the reunion as his chance to finally get revenge against his former teammates. Overall, the story was interesting, and events progressed in a generally good direction with a satisfying denouement.

Anybody who read George R.R. Martin’s early stories, such as “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and “A Song For Lya,” could not miss the influence of Roger Zelazny on his fiction. In one of Martin’s section introductions, he discusses his move to Santa Fe where he became personal friends with Zelazny. So it was not surprising when I reached “The Glass Flower” to find it the most Zelaznyish story I have ever read by any author other than Roger Zelazny itself. It resembled a typical Zelazny story in mood, structure, and plot. The main group of characters were highly-emotional beings with strange powers engaged in dealings which risked their very lives. This might have been the strongest story of the group, except the more I read it the more I felt it was more form than actual story, so determined to resemble a Zelazny story that it was difficult to really appreciate it for its own merits.

Next came “The Hedge Knight,” which is set in the world of his Song of Fire and Ice historical series, which I assume is intended to be an epic fantasy series. However, except for a brief mention about dragons (from the past, seemingly more legendary than factual), there is nothing really fantastic about either this story or the very similar “The Mystery Knight,” also in the same series, and which appeared in the recent anthology Warriors. This is the story of Dunk, the hedge knight of the title, who enters a jousting tournament in an attempt to earn some much-needed money, and his squire Egg, an orphan boy who basically forced Dunk to accept him as a squire, and who seems to know more about the knights in the tournament than Dunk does, thus becoming a valuable source of advice for him. The early portion of the story is primarily concerned with the tournament, and the individual battles which take place in it, very similar to “The Mystery Knight” and also similar to Ivanhoe, an obviously influence on both stories. But once the plot started moving when Dunk fights off an arrogant prince who is attacking a young puppeteer, the story became much more interesting. I liked this story better than “The Mystery Knight,” and it intrigued me to look up more stories in this series (if not yet tackle the 6000+ pages of the novels).

The last story is the Nebula-winning novella “A Portrait of His Children,” a story about the relationship between a writer and his fictional characters, and how that relationship affects his relationship with his real family. Much of the story’s premise is understandable to any serious writer, but I strongly disliked parts of it, since I am not a fan of any story in which rape and violence play such a major role. I can understand why Martin felt he needed to do so, for it made the story’s climax more powerful, but I really wish he could have done it less violently.

Overall, Dreamsongs, Vol. 2 is a major collection covering the second half of Martin’s career, definitely well-worth reading. My immediate thought upon finishing it is that I wish the author had not abandoned most short fiction (except for occasional Song of Fire and Ice stories) in favor of his massive epic series. My second thought was that I wish he would finish the damned series so I can decide whether to read it or not.