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Spiral Galaxy Musings

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary Fiction, and Non-Fiction

Updated: 2017-03-30T08:38:14.358-05:00


This Blog is Dead, Long Live the Tumblr


At the end of 2013, it's time to face the facts. No posting in eight months means this blog is well and truly dead. Mostly that's OK: the reviews that I write generally get picked up by more professional venues, and my smaller thoughts wind up on other media. But for those who are still looking for me, here's where you can find me:

  • A new central "Karen Burnham" website for my information about my writing and engineering work, Not A Blog. This is where the domain now points. 
  • A new Tumblr, where I'll be keeping up with reading lists and small reading thoughts. 
  • I'm @SpiralGalaxy on Twitter, where I mostly talk about sf/f.
  • I'm on Facebook, but only friend people I know IRL. It's mostly for kid pictures.
  • For my engineering work, I have a LinkedIn account with all my current work experience.
  • I'm on Pinterest for pretty pictures and kid's crafts.

While I've given up editorship of the Locus Magazine Roundtable Blog, here are some places where I'm still regularly writing:

And of course the big news: the Greg Egan book will be out in April of 2014!

I'm cutting back on writing right now since I have a second child on the way. It's also due in April 2014! So this is the right time to wrap up this blog and shift instead to easier communication platforms. Thanks to everyone who's read this blog!

Early Notes from the San Antonio WorldCon


This past weekend I was able to join the majority of the organizers of the 2013 in San Antonio to go over plans, facilities, etc. It was a great and very productive weekend, and I was very happy to meet other members of the volunteer teams face-to-face (I'm running the Academic track of Programming). Having had a chance to walk the ground where the WorldCon will be, I wanted to offer a few notes for people who will be making plans for this Summer.The thing I suspect will be most confusing will be the hotels associated with the convention. There's the Marriott RiverCENTER and the Marriott RiverWALK. The RiverCENTER is the party hotel, and will have a share of the programming items. That's also where the Con Suite will be. The RiverWALK is NOT the party hotel, but it is closer to the convention center itself. There will likely only be a couple of functions there. I've made my reservation in the RiverWALK Marriott.The RiverCENTER (party hotel) has 4 elevators going up to floors 25 and higher, and 6 more going up to floors 24 and below. Chances that they will all be jammed after the Hugos? 100%You cannot travel between any combination of the hotels or the convention center without going outside. You can get from any point to any other point by going down to the riverwalk, which should be cooler than street level. However, the riverwalk paths are somewhat narrow, and they get crowded in the afternoons (and will be much more crowded over Labor Day weekend) and it will be more difficult for mobility-challenged people to navigate. The street level may also be challenging over that weekend, since it sounds like there will be a street festival going on as well. So if you have to change buildings, leave plenty of time to get from point A to point B. Remember to wear layers! It will be roasting hot at street level, pretty hot along the riverwalk, and thoroughly refrigerated inside the hotels/convention center. I was wearing short sleeve shirts all weekend and wished I'd brought a jacket when I was inside the air conditioned spaces.There are more food options within walking distance than you can shake a stick at: anything from a mall food court to a Denny's across from the Marriott RiverCenter (street level) to standard Mexican or Italian at the base of the Marriott RiverCenter (Riverwalk level) to high-end steak and nightclubs. There's also a liquor/convenience store between the two Marriotts on the Riverwalk. It has a sign prominently posted letting you know that it is perfectly fine to carry open alcohol bottles/glasses along the riverwalk; and that smoking is also acceptable along most of the riverwalk. Those will allergies take note!For those with kids, if you head to the Convention Center and then climb back up to street level just beyond it, you'll find a really lovely playground at HemisFair Park. Our son (19 months) loved it, and it was generally full of a wide age range of kids. We didn't get to the Children's museum, but it looks like that is only 1-2 blocks away from the Riverwalk. The San Antonio Zoo is also nearby.If you want to take a river tour by boat (recommended), there's a ticket station between the two Marriotts. However, my husband found that you can get 1/2 price tickets through the hotel concierge desk.For those flying in/out who want to buy lots & lots of books but don't want to get charged for extra luggage: both the Marriott RiverCenter and the Convention Center have UPS stores inside them. Easy to ship books/costumes/artwork home!I think that's about it from my notes. I suspect that people (as at all WorldCons) will feel like there's much too much walking to do, and it will be easy to get lost until you get your bearings. However, you're pretty much never out of line-of-sight to a nice bar or restaurant where you can have a seat and restore your spirits. I'm very much looking forward to the convention; it looks like we're going to be in great hands as relates to the ConCom. I hope to see lots of you there! [...]

2012 Year in Review


I noticed this post over on Neth Space and realized that I have all the information needed to do the same (I try to track my reading on Library Thing, and was getting my list up-to-date for awards nomination season).

However, before I get to the numbers, I want to let people know how happy I am to have been nominated for the BSFA award in the non-fiction category! It's for the essay on spacesuits that I did for Ian Sales' anthology Rocket Science, and I'm really amazed by how much attention it's gotten, first from the reviewers and now from the BSFA nominating population. 

I don't expect to win this award--Farah and Paul have both won before, Maureen did a brilliant job with her extended review series, and the World SF blog is a wonderful on-going resource. However, they're not kidding when they say it's an honor to be nominated. I'm also rather pleased to see that I appear to be one of the only nominees ever in this category for a piece that deals more with science than with literature. For one that makes me very happy as I hope to expand out into doing more science popularization writing in the future; and for two I hope that I can act, even in a small way, as a role model: women can't just do science, we can have fun doing science.

In the spirit of Science then, on to the numbers!

Books read in 2012: 30
Fiction: 19
Non-Fiction: 11
Collections of short stories: 7
Published in 2012: 15
Specifically read for review: 13
Specifically read as research for the Egan book: 8
By male authors: 17
By female authors: 7
Avg rating as awarded at the time: 3.4
Avg rating as adjusted after reflection: 3.33

(The male/female numbers don't include the short fiction anthologies unless they were single-author collections)

My highest rated book for the year was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, followed by The Wiscon Chronicles Vol. 5, Timeless, and Beyond Binary. None of the books I read got less than two stars. 

So I'm running about 30/70 Female/Male, which isn't great. And only 30 books? In 2011 I read 53! Aaargh! Already the impact of having little Gadget running around is making itself clear. But I did better at reading things published in 2012 than I'd feared, although I still feel quite a bit behind the curve there. I've got high hopes for 2013 though, as I've already polished off four books so far, with a gender split of 75/25 F/M gender split (although two of those are from 2012... still playing catch up!)

Driftings and Endings


I read Ian McDonald’s short story in the January issue of Clarkesworld, and it got me thinking about endings. If you don’t want spoilers, you’d better either stop reading or go read “Driftings” first because this essay is going to be spoilerific. The story is about an artist who picks up debris from the ocean, much of it from the Japanese tsunami, and uses it to make art which he then sells to galleries. He meets a mysterious young woman and shows her what he does. She tells him a story about the pain that goes along with some of these artefacts. Meanwhile the water in the air over the seaside town is turning to salt water: salt fog, rain of salt water, the smell of rotting fish permeating everything. Acting on the woman’s gnomic pronouncements, the artist lovingly collects some of the debris he recently picked up, and offers it back to the ocean. OK, now at this point the story gets three endings. 1) Reith drove back slick as a seal in his wet-suit. As he stepped out of the car the air caught him, breath to sigh to near-sob. Clean. Fresh. He turned his face to the clouds and let pure, sweet water fill up its hollows and stream from its angles.I think that if the story had ended there, I’d be satisfied. The character realized that there were angles that he hadn’t considered regarding the kind of art that he was making, and he started the journey towards increased thoughtfulness, metaphorically speaking. But the next paragraph says...2) Mouse Heart Robot: he had a pure, sweet idea for it. He’s got a new idea for an art piece. Is this idea a continuation of what he had been doing, showing that he hadn’t really learned anything? Would it be art in a radically different direction, incorporating his greater sensitivity and awareness? Having put this sentence in there, I would prefer that the author follow through and develop the consequences. Otherwise, it doesn’t add much--could go either way. It’s ambiguous, but not necessarily in a way that leads to greater understanding or reflection. And then...3) Reith opened the door.The living room was filled with hair. Long, sleek, black hair, hanging from ceiling to floor, sleek black hair, dripping with sea water. The door closed behind Reith. The wet hair rippled, as if someone were moving through it. The End.OK, now what? The story just stops there--what happens next? I believe it’s a sign of a strong story if you wish that the author had written more rather than less, but I seriously feel that ending the story at this point does it a disservice. Yes, it is ambiguous.  But the character has taken actions, and those actions have consequences. One consequence is that the rain stops. OK, that’s a neat ending point. Another consequence is now a room full of hair, probably connected to the mysterious young woman. The consequences of that are not played out--the story just stops. I was thinking about endings as well when I read a reprint of “Solitude” by Ursula K. LeGuin in Diverse Energies, an anthology edited by Tobias Buckell and Joe Monti. “Solitude” is about a woman who was raised by her anthropologist mother to be a bridge to another culture. Realizing that children adopt culture more readily than adults, she raised her daughter and son in this particular culture from about elementary school age. When they grew older she wanted to take them back to her home culture, a more “civilized” place, so they could continue their schooling, etc. The boy was ready to go, but the younger girl wanted to stay. She was now part of the culture, and returning “home” felt very alien to her. The story has a lot to say about growing up under the pull of two cultures. However, one thing that really struck me was the structure. Midway through the story there comes a climax when the girl has to rebel against her mother in order to stay. She has to make a choice and then fight a battle to make her choice stick. When[...]



The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has an interesting article out: "Moondoogle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program." In it he points out that support for the Apollo mission never approached 50% while it was active. As one historian put it:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space...
In 1979, only 47% of Americans thought it had been worth it; that raised up to 77% in 1989. he also points out some major cultural trends that opposed it: activists in the civil rights movement pointed out that the government was ignoring poor minorities while spending unprecedented amounts of money to send some white guys to the Moon; even a significant block of scientists argued that the manned space exploration was a sub-optimal way to get real science done.

 I think this is really important to remember when we're bemoaning the state of the space program today. I had long believed in a narrative that said: "Once upon a time, after WWII, everyone was super optimistic about the American future in space. It was the Golden Age of science fiction, and everyone agreed that heading into space was the right next step--especially since it meant we would beat the Commies!" So it was really a bit stunning to me to realize that the Apollo programs suffered any number of hostile OpEd pieces, angry Letters to the Editor, and accusations from scientists and pundits alike that it was a waste of resources.

 However, those facts make what's happened since make a lot more sense. How did we get from 'everyone loves space' to Skylab falling out of the sky in just a decade? Well, it's because most people didn't love space, and they still don't now. There was never a grassroots space movement. Certainly there were lots of folks who were rooting for NASA (and there still are!), but there were more who saw it as a big waste. We didn't get to the Moon via an up-swelling of popular support--we got there by the top-down fiat of a President and his successor (JFK and LBJ) who saw it as a combined PR victory over the Soviets and peace-time jobs program for the nation's best and brightest technical talent (who, Madrigal's article points out, probably didn't need the help). There's quite a bit more on the PR image issue in Nicholas de Monchaux' fascinating Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. My review of it should be in the next issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Rosten Woo wrote a great review of it in the LA Review of Books last year.

So perhaps it would be OK to spend less time worrying about the lack of popular support for the space program today. It might make more sense to focus on targeted lobbying efforts at the highest levels of government. It's actually a little bit heartening to me to learn that the Apollo mission succeeded in the face of fairly robust public opposition. That means that we don't need to get 200 million Americans on our side to make any progress. What we do need are effective leaders who can communicate clearly with folks who hold the purse strings.

 The future's not what it used to be, and it turns out that it never was.

Changing Up Spiral Galaxy


You may have noticed that the name of the blog has changed above: from "Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory" to "Spiral Galaxy Musings." It's no surprise that I've barely been blogging here for the last year. I realized that one reason for that is that almost any review I write goes to venues like SFSignal, Strange Horizons, Locus Magazine, or Cascadia Subduction Zone--so as long as I thought of my blog as a place for reviews, I didn't have much content to put here.

However, I have a lot of thoughts that aren't necessarily reviews, but that don't fit on Twitter (too long) or Facebook (all baby, all the time). So I think it's time to shift Spiral Galaxy's purpose, and make it more of a "Karen's Thoughts" blog than a strictly reviewing blog. I may still post reviews here, especially whenever I can get back into my Golden Age/New Wave/Non-Fiction Criticism reading lists. But I'd also like to post things like the following:

If any of you follow the Roundtable section of the Locus Magazine website, you might have seen Vandana Singh's post on early Indian SF that she'd love to see translated. She talks about Niruddesher Kahini a story written in 1896 by Jagadish Chandra (J. C.) Bose. She points out that he was a polymath: "His contributions to the science of radio waves predate Marconi, and he also pioneered research in biophysics through his study of electrical impulses in plants." I learned today that the IEEE agrees: they honored him and contemporary C. V. Raman in ceremonies in Kolkata, West Bengal this past weekend. The article describes Bose's work in physics, biology, botany, and archeology. Here's an interesting bit:
After graduating in 1884 with a natural science tripos (an honors baccalaureate), Bose returned to India. A year later, a recommendation from Rayleigh got him the post of professor at Presidency College, in Calcutta, the first Indian to hold that title there. The college’s British administrators offered him only one-third the salary of its European professors. Bose protested by taking no salary at all for several years until the college recognized his value and raised his salary to match his European peers, retroactive to the start of his professorship.
C.V. Raman did groundbreaking work in acoustics and optics, all while working as a civil servant in the Indian Finance Department. He won the Nobel Prize in 1930.

I love reading about the scientists who contributed so much since Newton's day and who aren't as well known as Einstein and Maxwell et. al. It's great that the IEEE is working to bring them some additional recognition. It'd have been even cooler if the article had mentioned Bose's role as an early science fiction writer!

Avengers: Comics and Fandom


I finally got out to see The Avengers movie, courtesy of a wonderful babysitter. I really enjoyed it, and I'm especially glad I got to see it on the big screen. I had fun, and it was everything I expected from a huge Joss Whedon superhero movie. What I'm about to note isn't a criticism, it's an observation, and it's VERY SPOILER-Y, so DON'T READ IT if you don't want the movie spoiled.

I want to talk about the character of Agent Coulson. In the movies that led up to the Avengers mega-movie, he'd become something of a favorite for me and many other fans. He appeared to be an every-man who knew a bit more than everyone else about what was going on. He was cool in a very MIB kind of way.

In the Avengers, he's established even more strongly as a fan-identification character. Pepper Potts knows his first name (Phil) and relationship status (strained, with a cellist in Portland). All the superhero characters respect him. And it turns out that he's a stone-cold Captain American fanboy, with a set of vintage trading cards, who goes all squee-ing on Cap during a plane flight.

So, having established Coulson as an avatar of fandom, Whedon kills him off halfway through the movie. Here's what happens: Coulson has a BFG aimed at Loki during Loki's escape, but starts to monologue. Loki stabs him. Coulson still gets to shoot the BFG, and hangs on long enough to have one last conversation with Nick Fury. Coulson tells Fury that the whole Avengers thing was never going to work, since they needed something... (to believe in, we're meant to fill in).

So, Fury uses Coulson's death as the thing that gets the Avengers to cohere as a team. Coulson (the fans) are the motivating force, the thing that they (the superheroes) want to do proud. I read this as Whedon pointing out the fact that superheroes and superhero comics are, fundamentally, by and for the fans.

But there's one extra bit--and Whedon hits it twice to (I think) make sure the point gets across. Fury tells Cap and Iron Man (the two egos most likely to clash) that Coulson died believing in them, in the concept of the Avengers. That's obviously a lie, since Coulson explicitly says that "it was never going to work." Fury also throws out Coulson's trading cards, now soaked in blood. Later, Agent Hill points out that the trading cards were in Coulson's locker, not in his pocket, and wouldn't have been blood soaked. Fury admits that he added a bit of dramatic flourish to motivate the team.

OK, so having set up this representative of fandom, Whedon kills him and uses him to motivate the superheroes. And Fury misrepresents him to motivate the superheroes even more. To me, this read like a very clear statement: We (the superhero comics industry) are doing this all for you (fandom), and we are also totally manipulating you to get the audience (and dollars) that we want. All this in a movie by fans, for fans, filled with fan service. That's not a surprise, and all art wants to work the most money possible out of its audience. I'd just never seen a piece of pop culture make the statement as explicitly as I saw here, and frankly I rather appreciated it.

So none of this detracted from my enjoyment of the movie, but it was a moment where my critic brain leapt up and said I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE! I'm surprised that more reviews haven't commented on the Agent Coulson character and how he evolved through the films--I assume that it is generally too spoiler-y to talk about so soon. Although maybe I'm reading too much into it? What do you think?

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell


The Sparrow must be the single most tragic science fiction story I’ve ever read. It compares to the most tragic stories I’ve ever read, full stop, except that non-fiction must trump fiction when it comes to tragedy. The Sparrow won the Clarke award back in 1998, so I feel like sufficient time has passed when it comes to spoilers. However, if needed: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.This tale hit me on emotional, intellectual, and visceral levels. As I was reading it my critic brain ran a constant parallel track, noting “I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE,” observing structure, and cataloging flaws in the world-building. But you know what? None of that mattered. In the end, it all paid off. The result was awful, and tragic, and moving, and worth overlooking any flaws that came before. The narrative unfolds in two parallel tracks, one starting at the beginning and building to the climax, and one starting at the end, detailing the aftermath and slowly building to the point where you find out what the climax was. There’s a hole in the story, and everything works up to filling it. I wondered if the climax could possibly be worth the build-up, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it was.The beginning thread tells how a group of friends come to be the core of a Jesuit mission to a new planet. The main character is Father Emilio Sandoz. He convinces two retired folks he’s good friends with to join him working in the slums of Puerto Rico. They befriend a young astronomer at Aricebo telescope and also a young woman who writes AI expert systems to replace human workers--she worked on modeling Sandoz’s linguistic skills, and was in the process of modeling the astronomer. The story spends a lot of time on backstory and character development before we get to the actual space mission, and that’s important. I’ll have more to say about how the characterization works in this book in another essay. Eventually the astronomer discovers a SETI signal that can’t be denied, and from the Jesuit point of view it seems that God has arranged things very neatly in terms of the friends and their skill sets and what they can bring to a mission. The Society throws together a mission very quickly made up of four Jesuits (Sandoz as the linguist), and the four non-Jesuits (the retired couple, the astronomer and the AI specialist). A lot about the design of this mission strains credulity. There is an unfortunate resonance with Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast wherein a similarly composite family group starts exploring the universe with a minimum of preparation. Basically, everything happens much too easily to get the group where they’re going--but that actually reinforces the theme. At its core this book is about religion and perceptions of God. The Jesuits firmly believe that they are doing God’s work, and the fact that everything lines up so neatly over and over reinforces this viewpoint. Once they make planetfall things go slowly and irrevocably wrong. And we’ve known that since the beginning of the book, because we are first introduced to Father Sandoz as the sole survivor of this mission. He is horribly mutilated in mind, body, and spirit. He was tortured, found in a brothel, and he killed a child who sought to rescue him. He spent four months alone in a ship on the way back, and is being cared for by a Society of Jesuits that has been decimated in the aftermath of the revelations about the mission. The entire book is colored by the knowledge that all the central characters will die, except Sandoz who will be shattered. It’s like watching a closed room murder mystery unfold, except that instead of finding the killer you’re waiting to find out how they die. The build-up of suspense is slow and terrible. Ultimately many things happen, both good and bad. The mission mak[...]

Evaporating Genres for Best Related Book


I don't want to bury the lede here: Gary K. Wolfe has never won a Hugo (???), and I believe that he should win one for his most recent essay collection, Evaporating Genres (!!!).I didn't review Evaporating Genres when I read it, because I read it while on maternity leave and finding time to write, much less write coherently, wasn't really my strong suit. However it has stuck with me due to its strengths, mostly in terms of its breadth and depth in what it has to say about the field. Wolfe is amazingly well read, both in genre literature new and old and in works of literary criticism. (There are twelve pages of Works Cited at the end of Evaporating Genres.) As a professor with a PhD in Literature who has read, taught, and reviewed for over thirty years, he brings a depth of knowledge to the field that few others can match. All that is on display in this volume, in essays that delve deeper into his subject matter than the monthly reviews he has done for twenty years at Locus Magazine.There are any number of approaches that critics can take in examining a field, and Wolfe opts for a wonderfully inclusive and accessible style. Far from policing the boundaries of genre and attempting to cram every work into a neat little taxonomy, he celebrates those works that stretch boundaries--that take whatever they need from wherever they find it to make something perhaps more beautiful and almost certainly more interesting than what came before. Hence his focus in these essays on writers like Peter Straub, the horror writer who won the World Fantasy Award for a book with no fantasy in it, and Elizabeth Hand, whose work moves from fantasy to science fiction to mainstream without ever losing the core style and concerns that make it special.Unlike most academics, Wolfe stays up to date with what the genre is doing now, due to his monthly reviewing for Locus. While certain scholarly communities have only recently woken up and discovered that Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is pretty spiffy, Wolfe also looks at "The Word For World is Forest" and her more recent work of criticism. M. Rickert, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Rudy Rucker are as likely to get mentions as Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.Wolfe also extends some of the work that he did in his groundbreaking book from 1979, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. There he examined several well-known tropes of science fiction through the history of the field, looking at how each in their turn have represented different things: the Barrier, the Spaceship, the City, the Wasteland, the Robot, and the Monster. All of these have in time been established, subverted, and subverted again. In Evaporating Genres he extends that approach to the Artifact, the Post-Apocalyptic World, and the Frontier, again examining how each has shifted and morphed over a century of genre literature. Reading Wolfe (in this book, in reviews, and listening to him in person, on panels, and on his podcast with Jonathan Strahan) gives one tools to help you get more out of your own reading and it suggests titles and connections you may never have encountered otherwise. Combine this all with a straightforward, accessible, personable style, and I'd say that you can't go wrong. This is exactly the sort of exemplary work that I think should be rewarded with a Best Related Book Hugo award.A few other notes, which don't reflect on the current book but I think are important: The Known and the Unknown was eligible the very first year that the Hugo included a non-fiction category. It wasn't even nominated. Here's the list: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls (Winner); Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, Wayne Douglas Barlowe & Ian Summers; In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov; The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan Wood; Wonderworks, Michael Whelan. [...]

End of the Year


2011 draws to a close, marking the end of a year that has probably marked the biggest single change in my life, ever. Posts have been thin on the ground here at Spiral Galaxy, but I have no regrets. I've managed to keep: my child alive and healthy, my job (and gotten into a new and awesome group at NASA), the Locus blog going, and my book draft going (although with a new deadline of August 2012 instead of March 2012). Of the things that needed to be thrown overboard, this blog and other reviewing seemed the most reasonable things to go. But I haven't stopped reading! Here's some capsule thoughts on books I've read since little Gadget was born, on August 30th.In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan. I had previously bounced off Goonan's work with the Queen City Jazz cycle, and this didn't change that. There are some authors where I can see their virtues, but the work just doesn't resonate with me, and Goonan appears to be one of those. I really liked the historical bits in War Times, but the jazz lost me and I didn't find the super-physics convincing. I had planned to read this preparatory to This Shared Dream, but I think I'll let that slide.The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. Charles Brown used to say that this book was the most horrific that he'd ever read, but it didn't strike me that way. One thing I liked is that between this and Ubik, I now know that I like PKD as a sentence-level writer much more than I thought I would. However, I was specifically reading these to see if they linked in with Greg Egan's altered/virtual reality futures, and I don't think that they do. PKD's characters are on very unstable ground, never knowing what their position is vis a vie reality, whereas Egan's characters are pretty much all rational actors in a rational universe, whether that universe is physical, digital, or both. Completely different affect and theme.Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Probably not the right book to read right at the beginning of my maternity leave. However, I found it very well written, very convincing, often amusing, and definitely enlightening. Thanks to Farah Mendlesohn for the recommendation!Book by Book by Michael Dirda. A short book full of Dirda's notes on reading. Light and charming, but pretty fluffy. I've always enjoyed reading his thoughts, and this was no exception.Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynn Jones. I'd enjoyed the film when it came out, and enjoyed this as well. I hadn't before realized just how YA the original book was. I thought the middle got into a bit of a muddle, but definitely enjoyed the characters and the whole milieu.Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I appreciated this for many of the same reasons I loved Les Miserables--the in-depth and incisive character portraits. I know people today who share many depressing characteristics with M. Bovary. But I didn't fall in love with it the way I did with Les Mis, probably because it lacked Hugo's epic sweep. By the by, it was Dirda's book that finally inspired me to pick this up.God, No! by Penn Jillette. Another book full of assorted thoughts and vignettes, rather like Dirda's book but for atheists instead of life-long readers. Lots of amusing anecdotes from Jillette's improbable career and life.The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust. This book deserves a bigger, better review than what I'm writing here. I loved it. It's a twinned tale of mythology and urban African-Canadian (although I imagine African-Americans would find it equally apt) experience. The contemporary and non-fantastic part follows a troubled black teenager as he finds a role model and a place in the community--although his is not an easy story and it doesn't have an easy ending. The fantastic portion describes a young man navigating a mythic landscape, learning about his powers and leadership. Argh, that [...]

Histrionic Waffling


Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think [1948] is an unusual book for the "Golden Age" of science fiction; it focuses on the psychological as opposed to outward sci/tech adventure or even more purely sociological world-building. There are a lot of elements to appreciate, but the blend doesn't work for me--largely because of tone. In the story, lycanthropes are real and less limited than simple old-school werewolves. They can transform into almost anything, are invisible to most humans when transformed, and manipulate probabilities (what today we'd more likely label quantum uncertainties) at will, enabling them to walk through walls and arrange nasty 'accidents.' However, for the most tenuous of hand-waving reasons, dogs and silver still pose a mortal threat to them.Will Barbee is the protagonist, a decent newspaper reporter and alcoholic. The story starts as an expedition returns from an H. R. Haggard story--or rather, from an archeological/anthropological expedition in the deserts of Asia. The leader of the expedition, once a mentor of Barbee's but since estranged, begins to make a dramatic announcement, but dramatically falls dead in the middle of it. His younger assistants, contemporaries and friends of Barbee's, cut short the press conference with a show of "nothing to see here," and set about securing a green wooden MacGuffin.Using his instincts, Barbee quickly determines that a new reporter he met at the conference, a woman wearing white fur named April Bell, is responsible for the doctor's death--she was carrying a kitten (the doctor was allergic to cats), and Barbee finds the kitten strangled and stabbed with a pin. Despite this rather disturbing scene, he becomes besotted with April Bell and starts trying to learn more about her.Next, he begins having dreams where she calls to him, and he turns into various creatures, follows her, and helps her kill the other people involved in the expedition. It turns out that in ancient times there was a war between homo lyncanthropus and homo sapiens, which 'normal humans' more or less won. However, the lycanthropes are regaining strength, and April Bell enlists Barbee to help make sure that the anti-lycanthrope weapon the expedition brought back from Asia in the green wooden box is destroyed. Barbee spends most of his time being psychologically torn in many directions. He's in love-or-lust with April Bell, despite the fact that everything he can find out about her paints a very unpleasant picture of a woman who is either a witch or psychotically disturbed. During his dreams of being a werewolf (or were-sabre-tooth-tiger, or were-snake, etc.) he is torn between arguing to save his friends and killing them. He checks himself into a mental institution and is torn between the fact that his dreams seem real (and the consequences are absolutely real), but everything he knows to be true about the natural world argues that lycanthropy is impossible. Williamson's telling of Barbee's inner conflict makes this book unsatisfying and frustrating. It's obvious from the narration that Barbee's dreams are real--there are no conditionals about the language used (Barbee 'does' this and that, instead of 'feeling' like things are happening, or feeling like things 'might have' or 'could have' happened). The reader obviously is meant to understand that the fantastic explanation is the correct one, so when the psychologist explains how all this would look under a non-supernatural Freudian analysis, it is plain to us that it is so much obscuring fluff. However, it takes until the final pages of the book for Barbee to come to terms with the reality of lycanthropy and witchcraft. He spends almost the entire narrative waffling between the different poles of his inner conflict, and having general histrionics about the events he's i[...]

Things Were So Easy Back Then


So over the last couple of weeks, I've been getting back into my sf classics reading. I pulled out my 1950's-era paperback of George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), and then downloaded a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (1939) on my iPhone. Old text, new tech--gotta love it! Even though about 10 years separate these two books, I couldn't help but notice some similarities. In both, a single (white, male, graduate student) protagonist is thrust into a vastly alien landscape with no warning or preparation. In Earth Abides, Ish has been doing field research alone in the California wilderness. He's bitten by a snake, and thus misses both the end of civilization and the plague that causes it. In Lest Darkness Fall, Martin falls through a crack in time into Italy at the dawn of Europe's Dark Ages. In the first third or so of each book, the protag has some time to take stock of the situation and get his bearings. Ish realizes the enormity of what happens, and is able to travel from San Francisco to New York and back (driving) before getting settling into establishing-a-future-for-humanity mode. Within the first day of being in historical Italy, Martin is able to understand the language, get some money, food, and lodging. The next day he's secured a loan to go into business introducing more advanced products to the ancient culture (starting with distilled brandy). Let's start with the fact that Martin doesn't keel over from an ancient disease that he's not immune to. Even though he takes great care with his hygiene, given the prevalence of air- and water-borne diseases in ancient cities, this is a lot to swallow. And I find Ish's cross-country odyssey likewise full of super-human luck. I couldn't shake the feeling that both authors were glossing over huge numbers of practical difficulties in order to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Which are both good stories, don't get me wrong. Even though it took me awhile to warm to Stewart's style in Earth Abides, it eventually won me over, especially the periodic interludes that explained how the natural world was adapting to the absence of humans as the decades pass. Apparently Stewart wrote other books that focused on the natural world rather than the human one, and I think that's the primary strength of this classic. I was also impressed that the central human relationship of the book was interracial, even though the narrative never makes a big deal of that. That had to be incredibly progressive for the time. Lest Darkness Fall was even easier to like. Martin's interactions with the easily-caricatured Italians and Goths are really funny, and the whole thing is fast-paced thanks to the aforementioned glossing over of difficulties. Lest Darkness ends on a more triumphal note than the more elegiac Earth Abides. Martin has clear-cut goals (introducing technological and political innovations and stabilizing an Italian-Goth kingdom so that southern Europe doesn't enter into the Dark Ages) and is 100% successful is achieving them. Ish has more nebulous goals (trying to teach the children of his community enough so that they won't have to re-invent everything once the resources of the old world finally run out), but is only moderately successful. He doesn't manage to pass on the gift of literacy, and it doesn't take more than two generations for the younger cohort to return to magical thinking about the world. However, he does manage to make sure that they know about bows and arrows and how to make fire, so that's something. Of course, both these books are problematic from today's point of view: Lest Darkness is pretty much exactly the kind of story that uses history as an theme park that Judith Tarr talks about in this post. And Earth Abides uses a terribly inaccurate[...]

My Critical Reading List


While I'm list-making, I thought that I might also make a post detailing the critical works related to genre that I've read and still need to read. Lists like these definitely seem to help me focus when I'm staring at my to-read piles and asking myself, "What should I read next?" I hope that other folks will find them useful too. (The dates on many of these may be inaccurate--in some cases I may have dates from a later edition instead of original publication.) In the comments, feel free to suggest works to add or works that can be skipped. I've marked the ones I think (or suspect) are especially useful/important with **.To ReadPilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction, J. O. Bailey [1947]Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing, ed. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach [1947]Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1953]The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism [1959]**In Search of Wonder: Essays on Science Fiction, Damon Knight [1960]Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis, Alexei Panshin [1968]Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1974]The Craft of Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor [1976]**The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Samuel R. Delany [1977]Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, H. Bruce Franklin [1980]Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin [1982]David Lindsay, Gary K. Wolfe [1982]**How to Suppress Women's Writing, Joanna Russ [1983]The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth [1983]Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf, Algis Budrys [1985]**Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss [1986]The John W. Campbell Letters, John W. Campbell [1986]The Tale that Wags the God, James Blish [1987]The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany [1988]Grumbles from the Grave, Robert A. Heinlein [1989]Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery [1992]Reading by Starlight, Damien Broderick [1995]Outposts: Literatures of Milieux, Algis Budrys [1996]The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch [1998]Critical Theory and Science Fiction, Carl Freedman [2000]Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, Anthony R. Lewis [2000]The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, Karen L. Hellekson [2001]Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery [2002]Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space, De Witt Douglas Kilgore [2003]**x, y, z, t: Dimensions of Science Fiction, Damien Broderick [2004]Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, ed. Jane Espenson [2004]A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference, Jeffrey Allen Tucker [2004]Bound to Please, Michael Dirda [2005]Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Michael Dirda [2005]My Mother was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles [2005]Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Justine Larbalestier [2006]Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John C. Rieder [2008]The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem, Peter Swirski [2008]On Joanna Russ, ed. Farah Mendlesohn [2009]A Short History of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn [2009]The Secret Feminist Cabal, ed. Helen Merrick [2009]Chicks Dig Timelords, ed. Lynne Thomas and Tara O'Shea [2010]The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism [2010]Twenty-First Century Gothic, ed. Daniel Olson [2010]Pardon this Intrusion, John Clute [2011]**The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn [2011, pending]Already ReadImmortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, Sam Moskowitz [1954]New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis [1960]**The Issue at Hand: Studies in Contemporary Magazine Science Fiction, William Atheling, Jr. (James Blish) [1964]M[...]

Golden Age Reading List


For my own reference, to be updated as I read:

  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes I, IIa, IIb edited by Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova
  • World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt [1945]
  • Earth Abides, George Stewart [1949]
  • Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp [1939]
  • Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson [1948]
  • The Once and Future King, T. H. White [1958]
  • Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance [1950]
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller [1960]
  • City, Clifford Simak [1952]
  • The Space Merchants, Fred Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth [1952]
  • Slan, A. E. van Vogt [1946]
  • A Case of Conscience, James Blish [1953]
  • Mathematics of Magic, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt [1941]
  • The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber [1964]
  • The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett [1953]
  • Conjure Wife, Fritz Leiber [1943]
  • Best of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin [1946]
  • Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake [1946]
  • Fury, Henry Kuttner [1947]
  • The Humanoids, Jack Williamson [1949]
  • Star Man's Son [1952], or Star Soldiers [1953], or Uncharted Stars [1969], by Andre Norton
  • Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker [1952]
  • Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut [1959]
  • Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut [1963]
  • Three to Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson [1959]
  • Way Station, Clifford Simak [1963]
  • The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley [1958]
  • Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper [1962]
  • The Big Time, Fritz Leiber [1958]
  • Portable Novels of Science, ed. Donald A. Wollheim [1945]
  • They'd Rather Be Right, Mark Clifton [1954]
  • Best of C. M. Kornbluth [1939-1958]
  • The Body Snatchers, J. Finney [1955]
  • What Mad Universe, F. Brown [1949]
  • A Star Above and Other Stories, Chad Oliver [1955]
  • Untouched by Human Hands, Robert Sheckley [1954]

Might hold over for the New Wave:

  • Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber [1970]
  • Tau Zero, Poul Anderson [1970]

A Weekend of Egan


I had a really wonderful weekend up in Oakland, CA. I stayed at the Locus house for a few days, and ransacked their archives for non-fiction stuff related to Greg Egan. Everyone was wonderfully nice and accommodating--especially Amelia Beamer, who ran me around to and from the airport, Carolyn Cushman who helped me find things, and Kirsten Gong-Wong and Aaron Buchanan who took me out for Ethiopian on Friday. I had gone prepared to go to Baycon and maybe record a podcast or two if I had time, but instead I found ample material in which to bury myself for the solid two-and-a-half days I had.

I was able to find almost everything I was looking for--and even better, I found lots of things that I wasn't looking for. I think that's the biggest difference between making use of search databases + inter-library loan vs. actually having access to a large archive. I was searching mostly for reviews of Egan's books and reader responses to his stories, mostly in venues such as Locus, NYRSF, Interzone, and Foundation. I also found interesting discussions about posthumanism in sf and definitions and arguments about hard sf. I was able to pull copies of Eidolon, Utopian Studies, and SFStudies as I found them referenced in other venues. I enjoyed flipping through the Letters columns of Interzone particularly, as one got to watch decades-old flame wars unfold in slow motion--and also some letters from well-known names, before they were well-known. Most importantly, I got a great overview of critical reactions to Egan's work, how they've evolved over time, and additional avenues of research to pursue.

This was probably my last trip of the year--in July, August and September I definitely won't be able to travel for reasons of pregnancy and infancy. I don't have anything planned for June. Curtis and I are tempted by World Fantasy in San Diego (we bought tickets in Columbus last year), but it will depend entirely on the baby's health and my own. If we're both doing well I doubt I'll be able to resist the temptation, but if either of us is sickly we'll definitely let our tickets go to a good home. Anyhow, given that this was my last sf-related trip for a while, I'm glad it was such a great one.

Another thing that became clear to me is that I'm going to have to take off my reviewer-hat for awhile if I want to preserve my sanity over the next year or so when the baby and the book are both due. I've got a couple of things on tap to review, but I won't be taking any new assignments until next spring. I want to conserve energy for the book and for editing the Locus blog. I've also got a couple of articles I'm writing--I hope to be done with those by August, and also not take any new commitments along those lines. This might actually mean that I'll post more here, since I won't be 'saving my energy' for more official venues. But no promises!

Ancient Greek Folly?


I'm still having fun reading the ancient Greeks. I'm about a third of the way through Thucydides, so I've been learning a lot about ancient warfare, and modern and ancient rhetoric. When it comes to war and politics, I think my favorite thing about the classical Greeks is their deep and abiding cynicism.

Which brings me to Plato's Republic. It provides one of the early selections in the Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism that I've also been working through at odd hours. I remember reading the Republic for the first time, and thinking that when Socrates (or Plato) talked about literature, he must have been having a little fun at the expense of his interlocutor. After all, he proposes throwing out huge amounts of literature that we consider treasures of the Western world, including large chunks of Homer. Considering that even back then Homeric poetry was revered, I thought he must have had his tongue at least partly in cheek.

Coming across these arguments again in the Norton Anthology, I'm trying to give them their due. But is there any reason not to throw out all of his points? Is there any value in insisting that fiction literature be only upstanding, moral, virtuous, and educational; encouraging only right behavior and never giving examples of wrong action? I understand that there are probably still some folks who think this way--and any form of entertainment aimed at children will always be under a lot more scrutiny (see the cyclic uproars about: rap lyrics, video games, LGBT-positive children's stories, etc). But it seems both futile & silly.

Reading some of the Great Classics of Western Literature, I've noticed that some of them, especially those stemming from the oral tradition, probably survived partly because of their appeal to children. And in the same way that kids can watch a funny car-crash scene from Toy Story 2 twenty times in succession without any diminishing enjoyment, I can imagine some child from 2000 years ago saying "Tell it again, tell it again, Grandpa! Tell how the hero hit the bad guy so hard that his EYES flew out!" (from the Iliad). Or 1000 years ago: "Tell how Beowulf tore the monster's ARM off and BEAT him with it!" And let's not even get started on the Canterbury Tales. If you applied Socrates' standard to all literature, you'd have to throw out so much of what we now consider classic. Midsummer Night's Dream--gone!

Is there any defense of this approach today, or can I put it out of my mind? I don't want to dismiss it out of hand if there's something I'm missing, but I can't see it having much value in my own approach to literary criticism.

When it comes to the Norton Anthology, I'm looking forward to getting into Aristotle, who comes next. I haven't read Poetics or On Rhetoric before, and suspect that I'll find something that, if not more useful, will at least be new (to me).

Some Great News!


OK, some of you may have noticed that I've been mentioning that I may not be able to travel to WorldCon or WorldFantasy this year. That's pretty much confirmed at this point, and here's why:

Curtis and I are expecting our first baby! It's due smack in the middle of Con season, with an ETA of August 28th. Needless to say, we are hugely excited!

The picture above is from the first ultrasound I had last week, where they estimated the little one is about 14 weeks along. I got to see it wiggling around, and we confirmed 2 arms, 2 legs, and 0 tentacles.

Now, I don't want Spiral Galaxy to become a baby blog--so of course I started a separate baby blog. For anyone who wants to follow what's going on in Curtis' and my expanding family (and see more pics), you can check out our new family blog. Spiral Galaxy should continue on uninterrupted.

Of course, babies throw a huge wrench into planning. It's easy to say that we will skip out on WorldCon and WorldFantasy this year. But what I can't predict is how much impact there will be on the rest of my activities: editing the Locus blog, reviewing for folks, and writing a book. The little one should be about 6 months old when my Greg Egan manuscript is due--how the heck is that going to work? I'll be trying to keep up with everything as long as I can, and with luck I'll be able to bow out of things gracefully when I start to get overwhelmed.

Speaking of grace: it turns out I've been pregnant since Mid-December, and I found out in mid-January. For those of you who got over-sharing, over-emo, or over-sensitive emails in that time, I most sincerely apologize. I've been cranking my internal censor up since I found out, and I'm trying to prevent that sort of thing from happening again. ::sheepish grin::

Awards Season!


I'm home sick today, but apparently a squidgy stomach has given me a clear head--I admit that I've read all the 2010 fiction that I'm going to. I'm just going to have to suck it up and do my awards voting and nominations based on what I've read so far. So with some extra time on my hands, I've decided to do my Hugo nominations and Locus Awards voting today. This is going by Hugo categories--I figure the fiction categories overlap, and in the non-fiction/anthology/collection categories I don't have too much to say anyway. But here's what I've got.NovelsI focused so much on short fiction in 2010 that of all the novels on the Locus Recommended Reading list, I've only read 3 and a half. (The half was Mieville's Kraken, which just didn't work for me and I didn't finish.) And I think I've only read about six 2010 releases in total. So I'm pretty much leaving those categories alone when it comes to the Locus awards. However, for Hugo nominations I feel free to nominate books that I want to read, since I generally manage to read all the fiction on the Hugo shortlist. So here are five books that I want to read this spring:The Dervish House, Ian McDonaldWho Fears Death, Nnedi OkoraforThe Quantum Thief, Hannu RajaniemiUnder Heaven, Guy Gavriel KayHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles YuNovellasHere I'm getting more into my comfort zone. By far the two best novellas I read this year were:The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted ChiangThe Taborin Scale, Lucius ShepardIn the category of "haven't read yet but want to:"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window, Rachel SwirskyCloud Permutations, Lavie TidharThe Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, Liz HandNoveletteAll things I've read, and it was hard to narrow down to five:"The Mad Scientist's Daughter," Theodora Goss"The Revel," John Langan, F&SF July/Aug"The Butterfly and the Blight at the Heart of the World," Lavie Tidhar"Generation E: The Emoticon Generation," Guy Hasson"The Tetrahedron," Vandana SinghOthers I could have easily added:"And Blow Them at the Moon," Marie Brennan"Still Life (A Sexagisimal Fairy Tale)" Ian Tregillis"As the Wheel Turns," Aliette de Bodard, GUD Summer "Or We Will All Hang Separately," Nancy Jane MooreLooks like I'll be doing a lot of typing over at the Locus poll--most of these aren't on the Recommended list.Short StoryAgain, all read & hard to narrow down:"Paul Kishosha's Children," Ken Edgett, Shine Anthology"Throwing Stones," Mishelle Baker"On the Banks of the River Lex," N. K. Jemisin"The Green Book," Amal El-Mohtar"The Ice Moon Tale," Eilis O'Neil, Abyss & Apex 3rd QuarterOthers I'd be happy to see nominated:"Futures in the Memory Market," Nina Kiriki Hoffman"Ghost of a Horse Under a Chandelier," Georgina Bruce"Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain," Yoon Ha Lee"Amid the Words of War," Cat RamboLooks like I'll mostly be skipping Best Related Work and Graphic Story this year. Also both the Dramatic Presentations - I'm glad to let other people tell me what I should be reading/watching in those categories.Editor, Short FormJonathan StrahanDash (Editor of Expanded Horizons, the website doesn't list Dash's full name)Neil Clarke, ClarkesworldBill Schaeffer, SubterraneanCatherynne Valente, ApexThe above represent the short fiction magazines that I enjoyed most in 2010, as well as some great anthologies and collections. I'll again leave Editor, Long form to those more knowledgeable than I.Pro-ArtistI've been keeping track of artwork that stood out to me as well this year:John Barry Ballaran, Clarkesworld #45Ertaç Altınöz, Clarkesworld #49Mitenkov Maxim, Ap[...]

New Lovecraftian Fiction


It’s always nice to see a new short fiction market come online. Through SFSignal’s Free Fiction round-up, I spotted Lovecraft eZine’s debut issue and decided to take a look. I see from their submission page that they pay $50 per story, nothing to sneeze at. However, to put it charitably, it may take this magazine a few issues to find its feet. (To be fair, I thought the same thing about Lightspeed’s first issue, and they’re already producing award nominees.) All these stories have merit, but some extra TLC in the editing process would help them really stand out.Issue #1 has four stories, starting off with “Sledding and Starlings” by Bruce L. Priddy. This was a nicely atmospheric piece about a couple who (for no good reason) decide to go sledding in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm. Despite an ominous flock of starlings, they have fun for awhile until the wife disappears in an even more ominous fashion, sending the husband into paroxysms of grief and madness. The main problem I had with this story came in its final paragraph, which uses the “I did not think about the thing that did not happen” structure heavy-handedly to let us view the wife’s disappearance retroactively. Between deconstructing the syntax and using a late flashback to depict the story’s climax, this served to severely distance the reader from the scene, diminishing the horror of it.“Rickman’s Plasma” by William Meikle was a story with a great premise that I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish. The premise is a nice blending of Lovecraftian magic with sf. The titular Rickman is trying to use his Dream Machine to capture the zeitgeist of the city, but he’s getting nowhere. With a flash of inspiration he points it to deep space instead, and begins to create a hypnotic and driving groove complete with a ball of plasma, and overlays it with his dreams. The plasma takes on a life of its own and starts eating people, starting with Rickman. Two policemen come to investigate. The death of one of the cops is particularly horrific, although my suspension of disbelief was shaken when her partner is unable to stop the elevator doors from closing and is forced to watch her death from the elevator door’s window. Generally speaking even the crappiest elevator won’t close the doors with an obstruction in the way. But no matter, the death was distractingly gory! Moving on!Unfortunately, the story becomes increasingly distanced after that. The narrative viewpoint draws back to the city police as the plasma eats some city blocks off stage. It eats the cops, it eats the National Guard. I put the story down for good when the viewpoint is removed again, to the national level, as the plasma eats the state of New York, off stage. This scene shift is accomplished using exactly the same words as the first shift, which is distracting and a bit silly and once again distances the reader from any ongoing horrors the story might contain. I can see where the technique could be used to establish rhythm and ramp up tension, but here it struck me as artificial and jarring. So I’m afraid this story didn’t work for me.“The Brown Tower” by John Prescott is the story of two young men investigating a spooky tower in a spooky small southern town. It really hits its stride at the end, as they face the consequences of poking their noses into the unknown, at night, armed only with lighters. The unspeakable horror is effectively sketched rather than shown, and the ending is genuinely gripping. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of awkward phrasing and dialog to get through[...]

More Numbers: 200 Short Stories


As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been reading a lot of short fiction. This has been partly for my column in Salon Futura (column #6 is here). I've kept up with the spreadsheet thing, although I've consolidated it into 1 sheet and moved more of my note-taking out of my Moleskine notebook and onto Evernote. Thanks to all this, I know that I have now hit 200 stories, and I thought I'd update the numbers here.[Caveat Emptor, same as the first: this is the most biased possible set of numbers. It only tracks stories that I've read, and specifically stories that I've finished. I skip a story if it doesn't grab me. So these numbers inevitably reflect my own taste. But there is an underlying field out there, and my own proclivities can only distort it so much. Elements here consist of a huge number of subjective classifications, based on nothing more substantive than my own whim. Also, I've been limiting my reading to venues that I can read in a convenient electronic form.]Here are the genres that I've seen:SF 108Fantasy 76SF w/ some F 6Horror 3Alt hist 3Mainstream 24This round skewed towards sf because of a couple of anthologies that I read for other review venues, each of which was sf-specific.Protagonist gender:Male 95Female 83 Less perfectly matched than the last time, possibly because of the late skew towards sf. Other protagonist categories:Child/Teen 20LGB 8Transgender 3Gender Undefined 4Alien 6Ghosts 2AI/Robots 2The number of stories passing the Bechdel test perfectly doubled to: 40.I've also found 34 protagonists that are human and identified by non-white ethnic markers.I'm also keeping track of POVs, but there's nothing terribly shocking here:1st 812nd 33rd lim 753rd omni 313rd mult 8 More interesting are settings. Of those stories set on Earth:Earth's past 21Earth Present 42Near future 51Mid future 24Far future 17A few more far future tales this time, although again that was skewed by a specific anthology.How about physical settings? We're still sticking pretty close to home:America 68Earth 39Generic Fantasy Earth 25 We've got 47 stories taking place in some sort of space setting, including extra-solar planets, space stations, etc.Finally, I've been keeping track of some tropes. Here are some of the most common:Violence 64Aliens 40Happy Ending? 32Shape-shifting 25Biotech 20Gods/Goddesses 20Ecological damage 19Politics 17Religion 17Mythical beings 16Magic artefact 15So that's what I've got so far. I feel a bit odd about the themed anthologies skewing the data, but they are equally part of the field. I definitely feel the need to read a fantasy-oriented one (maybe Zombies vs. Unicorns) to even things out.Once again, here are the venues from which I've been getting my short fiction. Let me know if there are other places I need to be looking!Strange HorizonsClarkesworldLightspeedFuturismicFantasy MagazineAbyss & ApexNatureFlurbF&SFExpanded HorizonsBeneath Ceaseless SkiesPort IrisCrossed GenresBasement StoriesAsimov'sSubterranean OnlineDaily SFApexTor.comWeird TalesBrain HarvestMidnight EastGUDAbsent Willow ReviewAndromeda Spaceways Inflight MagazineAlbedo OneKenyon ReviewElectric VelocipedeAnalogWorld SF BlogIcarus [Much easier to access now that it's available through the Wizard's Tower Press eBook store]Destination: Future [Anthology][...]

Insanity and Happy Frankensteins


Things are ticking along pretty well over at the Locus Blog. We've had some good posts and comments already, and there's even more interesting stuff developing behind the scenes. So I thought I'd come up for air and toss off some impressions about more stories from the SFWA Hall of Fame Volume I, edited by Robert Silverberg. I talked about the first two stories back in November, "A Martian Odyssey" and "Twilight."The next two are "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey and "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon (skipping "The Roads Must Roll" by Heinlein since I had read it several times before). "Helen O'Loy" is a story I had read about but never read before. It's usually mentioned, as in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, as "One very obvious example of early sf's masculinist orientation..." Can't really argue with that. This guy builds the 'perfect woman' robot. He eventually falls in love with her, runs away with her, and lives out his life happily with her. At the end of his life, she kills herself so that no one will ever know she wasn't real. To say that this hasn't aged well is an understatement. A woman who literally exists for no other reason than to love and care for a man, where this is presented (mostly) as a positive, is just really creepy. Also, there's an aspect of what I'll call 'easy insanity' in this story as in many others from this period. The narrator suspects that towards the end, Helen's husband had simply forgotten that she wasn't human, and the narrator helps her keep up the illusion of aging. I might add that lots of people go conveniently and interestingly insane in these stories--I feel like that trope isn't quite so common these days."Microcosmic God" (1941) is one of the stories that will really stick with me from this anthology. When contrasted with Greg Egan's "Crystal Nights" (2008) it is especially chilling. The protagonist of Sturgeon's story is James Kidder, a self-made multi-millionaire who is good at everything he does. He goes to live on a private island to develop whatever sci-tech niftiness he sees fit. Eventually his banker (and only connection to the rest of the world) gets greedy and goes gunning for the golden goose. Kidder has been evolving a species of intelligent beings. He keeps them contained and forces them to evolve by presenting them with threats. He occasionally kills off some of them randomly to keep them from getting complacent. He makes sure that they can never survive in Earth's normal environment. When he gets attacked by the banker's forces (let's not think about that too closely), he directs the colony to invent an impenetrable force field, which they do. He is able to live out his life entirely in isolation after that.I kept waiting for the colony to tell him to shove it and use their epic problem solving skills to escape and leave him hanging out to dry. Because that's pretty much what the beings did in Egan's story. Egan also has a self-made billionaire creating artificial life, only these are in a computer simulation. He also is using them to solve problems, although he wants them to investigate more about the nature of the universe. He also tortures them to get them to evolve: especially when he realizes that pain makes them evolve faster. In the end, hearkening back to sf's gothic roots (Frankenstein), they turn on him in a very satisfying way. To have Sturgeon's Kidder and Helen O'Loy's creator avoid the fate of all those other Dr. Frankensteins was jarring and quite disturbing. It seemed like some sort of ultra-col[...]

Early Hugo Thoughts


So the nomination period for the Hugos is open, and already folks are talking about what's eligible, what's good, etc. As usual, I am woefully behind on my reading-of-novels-that-were-published-in-2010. I am not so ill-informed when it comes to short fiction, and my picks for the Hugo noms in the short categories will get a separate post later. But when it comes to novels, I think that my strategy will be to nominate books that I really want to read, so that I'll have an excuse to read them when they're nominated. (I'm usually very good at reading all the nominees between April and June.) So right now, my list looks something like this:

  • Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
  • Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The Dervish House, Ian MacDonald
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu
Or something along those lines.

I'm also wondering if I can't raise Niall Harrison's profile a smidge and help maybe get him nominated for Best Fan Writer. He got 22 votes last year, only 7 below the cut-off for the category, and I dare say that his 2010 work on Torque Control should easily convince anyone that he's a worthy nominee. Also, as he'll probably be moving more firmly into the Editor camp in 2011, having taken over as editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, it may be that 2010 is the best possible year to get him a nod for Fan Writer. So I just want to remind anyone with a Hugo nominating ballot to consider him as one of your nominees, thanks!

Late to the Party


Back in November, Niall Harrison wrote this post responding to this post by Jason Sanford. This kicked off the annual Reviewers Introspection Week, which I unfortunately missed because of Thanksgiving travels. By the time I got caught up it seemed that the moment had passed. (Sanford also posted a response-to-the-response here.)

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was in Barnes & Noble with a $25 gift card burning a hole in my pocket. I found their essays/lit crit section and a copy of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism jumped into my hands. It's on my list of Books I Ought To Read, so I bought it and started browsing. In the introduction, I found this:

The subject matter of literary criticism is an art, and criticism is evidently something of an art too. This sounds as though criticism were a parasitic form of literary expression, an art based on pre-existing art, a second-hand imitation of creative power. On this theory critics are intellectuals who have a taste for art but lack both the power to produce it and the money to patronize it, and thus form a class of cultural middlemen, distributing culture to society at a profit to themselves while exploiting the artist and increasing the strain on his public. The conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manque is still very popular, especially among artists. It is sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and procreative functions, so that we hear about the "impotence" and "dryness" of the critic, his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on. The golden age of anti-critical criticism was the latter part of the nineteenth century, but some of its prejudices are still around.

Nothing new under the sun, eh? And here's Frye's take on Why We Critique:

There is another reason why criticism has to exist. Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything. And, whatever it sounds like to call the poet inarticulate or speechless, there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues... The artist, as John Stuart Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard but overheard. The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with.

My Dance Card Fills Up


It's all official now that I'll be stepping up as the editor of the Locus Roundtable Blog. This is a great opportunity, and it's already going pretty well. We're planning to start posting new content in January, to accompany the even more exciting launch of Locus Magazine digital editions. Speaking as someone who is paying more for a digital subscription to Scientific American than I would for a print subscription, I am really looking forward to seeing this!

I'm also very happy to have found a new way to help out the Locus folks. I feel like Charles Brown and everyone at Locus were all instrumental in helping me become part of this amazing community (as I wrote when Charles passed away). Previously the best avenue I've had for helping them out in return is to help staff the Locus dealer's room table at any con where we happen to coincide. This is a way better and more intensive challenge to undertake.

So here's what my dance card looks like for 2011:

I think I'm just about full up. Of course I'm always thrilled to hear about new opportunities in and around the community, but these are some big plates to juggle. I'm thinking that Spiral Galaxy will get even fewer posts, if that's possible, and mostly my occasional thoughts about classic sf/f stories.

Speaking of which you may ask: But Karen, the Spiral Galaxy blog has relatively few posts, and vanishingly small amounts of traffic? How the heck are you going to handle a Big Name Blog? First off, it's much easier for me to get motivated to Get Stuff Done for Locus than it is for my own dinky blog. And more importantly, we'll be making use of the help of lots of Friends of Locus. Locus has always been central to the conversation of our genre community, and we're hoping to bring some of that conversation onto the blog. As editor-in-chief Liza Groen Trombi puts it: Locus is People! So I'm planning on recruiting a broad and diverse swath of people to chime in over the next few months. Please contact me either at my email address or at LocusRoundtable [at] if you have any ideas for what you'd like to see there.

Luckily I managed to avoid getting roped into all this until after I finished my Master's degree, and thank all the fates that I managed to graduate early! It looks like I'm going to be ::ahem:: "Fully Engaged" in 2011, but it's shaping up to be a fun and interesting year.

An Unusal Beginning


It’s weird how many different ways there are to read things. If I had picked up Greg Egan’s first novel An Unusual Angle just on a lark, I may not have finished the first chapter. That said, reading it in the context of researching Egan’s fiction for a critical book, I found it fascinating. I mentioned that I was reading it and someone asked me if it was “good.” I didn’t even know how to answer that question. The way I was reading it, “good” wasn’t even something I considered. Here’s what Egan says about this novel when asked about it in his first interview in Eidolon:For the benefit of those readers who have no idea what the book is about - most of them, I hope - An Unusual Angle is a kind of eccentric teenage loner story with surreal elements. The narrator literally has a movie camera inside his skull. I wrote it when I was sixteen, although I revised it slightly just before it was published, six years later.It was very big-hearted of Norstrilia Press to publish it, but it didn't do them, or me, much good. They blew their money. I laboured under the mistaken impression that I could now write publishable fiction; it took me a while to realise that that simply wasn't true. Quarantine is the eighth novel I've written, and the first publishable one. That An Unusual Angle was published at all was really just a glitch.He’s not wrong about that. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:I’ll track-in from darkness, that’s a good way to start; isolate the school in a frame of blackness, cutting out all distractions. And then what? It’s too late to make more plans, here comes the vital (fatal (unexceptional)) corner.He’s got nested parentheses, italics, and single-word paragraphs all on the first page, and the narrator even calls himself out for “melodramatic crap” in the fourth paragraph. So yeah, it’s not “good.” But it is interesting.This is Greg Egan we’re talking about. The guy who can dramatize general relativity and talks about sex between digital entities. He’s the hardest hard sf writer since the 80’s. But in An Unusual Angle, there’s very little sf. In fact, if you wanted to be a little quirky, you could categorize this story as slipstream.At first I thought that the ‘camera in the head’ angle of the story was purely metaphorical--that the narrator was using that as a mental technique to distance himself from his unpleasant and boring school days. But the narrative makes it clear that it has physical reality, so that pushes it from kind of mainstream over to slipstream. I think it works rather better as metaphor than it does as a concrete reality. Certainly the info-dump segments that explain (rigorously) how the camera came to be and how it operates were less than 100% convincing. Most of the touchstones of this story are from film: counter-culture films from Britain in the 60’s and 70’s feature prominently (such as “if...”), as well as TV, movies, and sf. There’s a surreal and sarcastic rabbit that may or may not be an alien, and may or may not be a projection of the narrator’s self. But mostly there’s a kid in high school (the story covers four out of five years of schooling), way too bright for his classes, bored almost literally out of his skull. There are no characters other than the narrator; some of the teacher’s get names but they’re just archetypes. [...]