Monday, March 21, 2011

Conjuring Austen

This new type of fantasy appears to be all the rage: take a romance, fold in liberal amounts of fantastic elements, be they magic, zombies, or vampires, and, hey presto! a new potboiler. A lot of them are fun, like Gail Carriger’s stories of the Parasol Protectorate, or Naomi Novik’s excellent Temeraire series. However, since they are so much fun, everyone seems to be in on the act, from established writers to fairly green Newbies. Mary Robinette Kowal is hardly a newcomer, and her story Shades of Milk and Honey reflects skill and polish.

Jane Ellsworth, going on 29, is plain and has resigned herself to spinsterhood, when events conspire to bring not one, but two suitors into her life. Her younger sister Melody is beside herself with jealousy.

These are the makings of your typical Victorian romance. What makes this story something other than a venture into sensibilities and tastes of a bygone age is that Jane is quite an accomplished glamourist - a person skilled at creating illusions from the ether.

As you can see from the story’s setup, its elements are practically rote. The story wouldn’t be remarkable if it weren’t for the skill that Kowal applies in putting all of the required elements in place, without making the entire business seem contrived.

Quite a bit like an accomplished glamourist, I’d say.

Anyway, like all Victorian romances, this one has the appropriate amount of upset and quandary, and finishes off with a proper happy ending. If you’re going to read it, it’ll be not for something entirely new, but for something familiar but well done. Afterwards, you might have a strong hankering for re-reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

I did enjoy the story a lot. I wish it hadn’t been so short.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

An Alien World

In my quest to find great f&sf books published in 2010 I’ve taken up the Nebula Award nominees. Often those are excellent picks.

“Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor is the story of Onyesonwu (her name translates as the story’s title), a young woman living in a future version of the Sudan. Some things haven’t changed, and so it is that Onyesonwu is the product of weaponized rape, and has to survive in a climate of intense racism directed at her and her parents, while towards the west a war of ethnic cleansing is brewing.

Onyesonwu is by no means an ordinary person, but she struggles as much as anyone else - perhaps more, because of her unique burden. She does learn to use her strengths, and in the end she goes to confront her father, the man who raped her mother.

The story’s makes use of African folk tales and beliefs, alongside of remnants of technology that indicate this is all happening at some future time. Magic and technology, side by side, create a vivid backdrop for the story, told by Onyesonwu to her biographer.

Younger readers ought to have some guidance while reading the story, as it deals not just with issues of rape and racism, but it also talks about female genital mutilation, a practice carried out in large parts of Africa, even though most governments there have outlawed it. In Okorafor’s narrative most young girls undergo the procedure voluntarily, albeit under a great deal of social pressure. I have no idea to what extent that reflects reality.

“Who Fears Death” is one of my favorite stories published in 2010.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Gem Spotting

There's not a lot of money in short stories, so it's not surprising that the short story doesn't receive as much attention as novels do, but some of the best SF published still comes in that format. Many magazines have excellent editors, so the stories are at least quite good, and often they are amazing. Authors may also be invited to contribute to anthologies. Those can be veritable treasure troves.

Some authors publish enough of these gems that they will in turn be published as a separate anthology. I love it when I come across these collections, because they will almost invariably be some of the most satisfying reading I'll do all year.

Walter Jon Williams's collection The Green Leopard Plague is a fantastic anthology of nine of Williams's best short stories. They range from a disturbing view of future childhood, "Daddy's World," to a raucous buddy-adventure, "Send Them Flowers." "Incarnation Day" and "Pinocchio" also deal with growing up, taking place in a future that Williams describes as a world "where everything went right." Of course in Williams's utopias there's still plenty of room for excitement, drama, and even tragedy. There's a man who has lost his true love to a rare incident of permanent death, "Lethe," a couple celebrating their 1,000th wedding anniversary, "The Millennium Party," and treasure hunting in the China Sea, "The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid." The book's titular story, "The Green Leopard Plague," is one of this utopia's origin stories, a fantastic braiding of two points of view. "The Last Ride of German Freddy" is an alternate history fiction, re-imagining some of the events surrounding the fight at the OK Corral.

Each of the stories comes with a brief post-script by Williams, explaining some of the story's genesis, and adding even more to its enjoyment.

I wish I could promise you that all single-author anthologies are going to be as satisfying as The Green Leopard Plague, but at least I can promise you that this particular collection will be some of the best reading you'll do.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Under Whelming

If Herman Melville tried to sell Moby Dick today, he would be disappointed. Fashions change, and how we tell a story is as much part of fashion as any other cultural construct. For example, the time-honored "once upon a time," which everyone knows will introduce a story of kings and beautiful princesses and talking frogs, is a fashion.

We don’t use it anymore, except when re-telling the old stories. New stories, even when they involve kings and talking animals, generally do not start that way.

In other countries fashions are different. That’s no surprise. What may surprise some people is that even such a thing as how to tell a story has different fashions in other countries, and other times. There’s a certain rhythm to a story, plot points everyone understands must be included, short cuts for characterization, all kinds of established tradition and accepted fashion that make story telling possible in a cultural context. Without this context, a story teller must work much harder to reach a given audience.

I enjoy reading stories from other countries. Most of the time things proceed along familiar paths. Then I notice the tiny departures from familiar fashion, the minor infractions of the rules I know. Most of the time they are enjoyable, like a new flavor in ice cream, or a mysterious spice in a sauce.

But some fashions are torturous. Some fashions crippled feet, maimed bodies; some fashions killed. There are also bad story telling fashions, of which Moby Dick is an example.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven takes place in historical China. Names have been changed, and in Kay’s story ghosts really do cry under the sky of abandoned battle fields, and shamans have real magical powers, but otherwise it is a recognizable version of China. The story begins on a battle field, where Shen Tai is gathering the bones of the dead to bury them and lay their ghosts to rest. I really liked Shen Tai. Kay describes him as a man who is always searching for his center, seeking a life that has meaning. This has lead to his act of piety during the time he is mourning the death of his father, general Shen Gao, whose last battle took place where Tai is now gathering the bones.

Tai gains the attentions of various powerful people. There is the princess in the West, who makes him an extravagant gift. There are other people who want him dead. Tai must balance his fight for survival with other things that are important to him: people whom he cares about, people whom he owes loyalty, and, of course, the emperor, the Son of Heaven. I worried about Tai, about his love Spring Rain, about his sister Li-Mei. I had a nice hate going for the foolish first minister, and I was terrified what Roshan might end up doing, especially since the Banished Immortal foreshadowed what would happen. It was great! It’s a ripping yarn, full of beautiful and wily women, powerful men, and dangers at every turn.

I was truly enjoying the story. I told Elysa she should definitely read it.

And then I got to about two-thirds into the story, and Kay lost me.

Up until that point, Kay tells the story well. It is interesting, exciting, difficult to put down.

But suddenly Kay lapsed into a passive voice. He started blathering about historians, and the problem of truth. Where is that coming from? Kay, it seems, is writing this story with a Point. Yes, it must be capitalized. For the rest of the book Kay is drumming home his Point, not even a new and interesting one, and almost completely abandons the tone he has set in the first two-thirds.

I think I know the reason. Reading Kay’s acknowledgements at the end, he writes of studying Tang China, of reading the works of the poets of the day (which even included a Banished Immortal). I have read stories from old China, myself. I think I recognize the mode. I think Kay is imitating a Tang period story telling fashion, in all its torturous form.

The result is disappointing. Why Kay’s editor didn’t make him re-write the last part of his book I don’t know. Kay writes that he’s worked on this story for a long time. I wonder if his story telling instincts were at war with his desire to tell a story in the fashion of the ancient Chinese poets.

I give Under Heaven passing marks. For me, the start of the book is worth reading it. If the entire book had held up to the beginning, it would have been one of my choices for this year’s Hugos.

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