Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Science Fiction Antithetical to Religion?

SF Signal's Mind Meld tackles a fairly weighty question this time around with some rather interesting answers from some of the biggest names in science fiction right now. I enjoyed reading this - I enjoyed agreeing with and disagreeing with the various respondents and it was fun to puzzle out just who knew what they were talking about (all had interesting things to say, but some of these people have clearly thought about this in great detail). I sure would have liked to see a feminine perspective though.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell

Well, I gave it almost 100 pages.

Only very rarely do I not finish a book – I think around 8 years has past since the last time I gave up on one without finishing. In all honesty, I’m busier now than I’ve been through the majority of my life, and have much less reading time as a result, so I just don’t have the time to spend on a book that I’m not enjoying. At another time I may have stuck it out, but I’d not read too much into that – the very fact I decided not to finish Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell likely says more than anything that follows.

The portions of Wind Follower that I managed to read revolve around the late-adolescent son of a warrior clan leader, Loic, who falls in love with Satha, an older woman in her twenties of a different tribe and already considered something of a spinster. The politics of households and differing tribal cultures are eclipsed by spoiled rotten young Loic as he rushes to marry Satha, breaking cultural norms along the way.

Wind Follower feels like a novel still two or three revisions from being ready. The frame of a very interesting story is there, just not the polish necessary to pull it off. McDonnell tries too hard in her descriptions and fails utterly to make the characters interesting. Beyond the first chapter, nothing about Loic is remotely appealing – while there is a lot about Loic that the reader isn’t supposed to like, McDonnell fails to find the line necessary to actually keep the reader interested enough to continue. Not helping is the inconsistency with which she writes – characters suddenly know more than they should and their actions are sometimes totally at odds with the personalities she has built. Satha is particularly inconsistent in both her thoughts and actions – one page she is a strong-willful individual, the next a meek, subservient woman with no adequate justification. Much of the first hundred pages are told in a first person narration with as the Loic and Satha alternatively tell their stories from some point far into the future. Perhaps some of these inconsistencies are due to an unreliable narrator, if so the clumsiness of this execution is equally disappointing.

While the cover doesn’t indicate as much, McDonnell herself calls Wind Follower Christian fantasy. Seeing the potential of an epic fantasy told in something of an African setting had my hopes high, even though I don’t typically read Christian fantasy. I’d not call the religiosity ‘in your face’, but Wind Follower lacks subtly with things a bit on the conservative side for me. Perhaps this is not the direction things go as the story continues, but McDonnell failed to make me want to find out.

I debated posting this or not – after all, I can’t fairly call this a review since I did not read even a third of the novel. In the end, I decided that there isn’t a good reason for me not to post my thoughts on the first 100 pages and why I didn’t read the rest.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Miscellany of Links

I have loads of work I should be doing, yet I’m bored, so naturally I’ve chosen to distract myself. This is an eclectic group of links that I’ve found interesting in the last few days – not all are SFF-related, and they contain both stuff I found positive and positively enraging. Have fun!

That’s it for now – we’ll see if this becomes a regular feature or not. There are more than enough link round-ups out there, but then this one is a bit more tailored to what I’ve found interesting in the last few days (of course, will anyone besides me care about that…).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Steven Erikson Answers Questions Five

Steven Erikson leaped on to the epic fantasy scene a few years ago with his debut fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon, the beginning of an ambitious 10-book series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s often a case of love them or hate ‘em when it comes to his books, but he has a rabid fan base that I count myself a part of. Publishing the books at rate of about 1 book a year, 7 of the 10 are already published with Toll the Hounds due out later this year. And, in my opinion, his shorter fiction is even better.

I am pleased welcome Steven Erikson to Questions 5.

What is the perfect cup of coffee for writing your books? Do ever need something a bit more…leaded?

SE: I’m pretty consistent with a skinny latte, two shots, no foam (crazy that I need to specify no foam, since if I wanted foam I’d ask for a cappuccino, wouldn’t I?). As for ‘more leaded,’ no, barring the occasional shot of industrial flame retardant and a spritzer of malathion.

How is said cup of coffee (and/or leaded beverage) reflected in your writing?

SE: As far as I can tell, it isn’t. Coffee exists to sustain detectable life signs in what would otherwise be a clinically dead writer (in this case, anyway). Coffee’s reflection on my writing is evinced in that I am actually writing. Without it, a vast ominous silence would ensue.

Far into the future, the equivalent of an archaeologist from a significantly advanced culture (not necessarily a human culture) unearths a set of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. What theories about us might they come up with?

SE: Well, having been an archaeologist, you’d think I’d have a glib answer for this one. I don’t. There’d probably be a huge debate over the veracity of the ‘history’ as I’ve written it, inasmuch as say, people still argue Homer (bronze age/iron age, gods and goddesses, etc), so will people one day argue the cultural specificity of revered religious icons in holy sites like Hollywood, as well as those wearing ceremonial headgear (baseball caps, football helmets, etc). Anyway, a lot depends on how much other stuff survived, and whether or not the next species has a different concept of physics that might accommodate magic and miracles and godly visitations. More likely, our inheritors will simply eat the paper remnants while thinking about other, more important things, like: wouldn’t it be nice if the planet wasn’t one giant desert?

What peculiar qualities of The Malazan Book of the Fallen should readers be aware of?

SE: I really haven’t the foggiest. It’s about people, mostly normal people, and it’s not necessarily told in a linear fashion, but everything fits together. Also, I believe in the cathartic value of tragedy – if my readers don’t, then they’re in for a rough ride.

Why should The Malazan Book of the Fallen be the next thing that everyone reads?

SE: When all ten books are done, they’ll look awesome on a book shelf. You know, it’s almost impossible for me to answer a question like that – I wish I could. I wish I could just lay out the sales pitch, but I can’t. My sales pitch is there, word by word and line by line in the books I write. I hope people buy in and I hope they enjoy the experience. When they do, I’m happy, and I write more, which is what I love doing – so, all I can promise is that I’ll keep to my side of the bargain and hold faith that my readers will reciprocate. Writing is a dialogue. When writers tilt noses up and say they write only for themselves, they’re full of rubbish. If it was true, they’d feel no need to get their work published; they could just stick it on the shelf and leave it there. We engage in a dialogue, with people most of whom we’ve never met – and if the story we tell does its job, we find in it common ground. And therein lies the reward for everyone involved.

Pax Malazica
Steven Erikson

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's Tourney Time

Fantasybookspot is having their annual tournament - one for 2007 releases and one for all-time. It was real hit last year and this year should prove to build on that (now there's a nice, shiny prize). So, go vote, participate and we'll see if I can offend an author's entire fanbase again this year.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Michael Swanwick Answers Questions Five

Since coming on to the scene in 1980, Michael Swanwick has been one of the most acclaimed SFF writers that no one is talking about (at least it seems so these days). He has been nominated for and won almost every major award of his field, including the Nebula, Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. He’s written everything from hard science fiction to high fantasy, often playing with the common tropes of SFF in interesting ways. His books include The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), Jack Faust (1997), and Bones of the Earth (2002) and several short fiction collections. The Dragons of Babel (my review) is his newest novel and one that I cannot recommend enough.

I’m very happy that Michael Swanwick has taken the time to answer Questions Five.

The people of Philadelphia have a reputation for displaying quite a bit of vitriol when it comes to sporting events. How has this impacted your life and writing?

MS: People from elsewhere mistake Philadelphian intensity for hostility, when all we’re doing is just busting your chops. The other day when I was buying milk at the corner store, an old man in line ahead of me painfully negotiated a couple of bills from his wallet and said, “I tell ya, it’s hell being old.” The young guy behind the counter looked at him said, “I wouldn’t know. I ain’t never been old.” Anywhere else in the country, that would have been rude. Here, it’s just a less trite way of saying, “Having a nice day.”

I like to think that living in Philadelphia helps keeps me in touch with reality. When you’re writing a fantasy novel, you really need that, to prevent your fiction from losing its grip and floating away.

What type of protection do you recommend for genre promiscuity?

MS: If by that you mean mingling and confusing genres, then none whatsoever. Let a thousand bastard genres bloom! Everybody loves a baby. But if you’re talking about promiscuity within works of genre, I do not agree with those who claim to approve of sex scenes only when they’re necessary to the plot, rather than gratuitous. Personally, I like gratuitous sex. And I believe it has a place in fiction as well.

If The Dragons of Babel were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

MS: “You are the rightful King of Babylon. Too bad you were kidnapped as a baby.”

How would you interpret this fortune if were your own?

MS: I’d look on it as good news. Have you ever noticed that everything that fantasy tells you is something good is actually something bad? The king is restored to his throne and we’re supposed to cheer. As an American, I can’t identify with that. Patriots shed their blood to free us from a foreign despot, and we’re expected to be okay with some twit of a descendant reasserting power over us?

In my earlier novel, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, the protagonist, Jane, winds up as a chemist in Pittsburgh. This really grinched a lot of stone fantasy fans, who were unhappy that she didn’t end up as Queen of Everything. But she got to be a chemist – in Pittsburgh! Pittsburgh is a great city, and chemists are interesting people with jobs they love. Any genre that expects you to sneer at that has something wrong with it.

Why should The Dragons of Babel be the next book that everyone reads?

MS: It’s been getting rave reviews from all the critics, so I’d like to learn what real people think of it. And it’s got something that people don’t expect from me – a happy ending. My wife, Marianne, was reading the book as I wrote it, and one chapter from the end, she said, “This doesn’t end well, does it?”

“Yes, it does,” I told her.

“It won’t end well for Alcyone.”

“Yes, it will! There’s a happy ending for everybody.”

And there is. Honest.

Review: The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick has made a career of turning genre on its head, winning a bunch of awards in the process. He wrote cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk at the beginning, and with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter he essentially laid out the blueprint for the New Weird years before the term existed. The Dragons of Babel follows in the same world, though it should not be viewed as a sequel, but a story all its own. After reading it, my first work of Swanwick’s, I consider it almost criminal that a genre writer of his caliber is so rarely discussed on the various blogs and message boards I spend time at.

The story begins with a standard coming-of age story of orphaned Will le Fey in a village far removed. The setting is Faerie – not the Faerie you’ve seen time and again – but a war-torn, post-industrial Faerie indirectly overlapping with our world. Dragons are iron-wrought behemoths full of technology and running off of jet fuel. Hippogriffs and griffons park side-by-side with motorcycles, BMWs and limousines with all matter of mythological races living amongst one another. If you think New York or London is a melting pot, wait until you see Babel.

A war dragon crashes into Will’s remote village, immediately installs himself as King, and chooses Will as his agent. Isolated from the village as a result, and in spite of his eventual rebellion against the dragon, Will is exiled from the village. His service to the dragon leaves him scarred with a dark power inside of him, not entirely in his control.

Will becomes a refuge fleeing the war zone, landing for a time in a refuge camp; and eventually in the great city of Babel. Along the way, Will picks up a surrogate daughter, becomes an apprentice of sorts to a trickster, a leader in an underground rebellion, and meets the love of his life. Beyond that, let’s just say that Swanwick has an interesting, even subversive take on the orphan of destiny trope.

It becomes instantly clear that Swanwick knows how to write well. His economic prose sets the mood and brings the world vividly to life with as few words as I’ve seen it done. While another author would have turned this story into a trilogy, in Swanwick’s skilled hands The Dragons of Babel weighs in at a mere 320 pages – a very welcome length to this over-busy blogger. Even with the relatively abbreviated page count, the pacing feels just right. Only the build-up at the end feels rushed, and even then, not very rushed.

Surficially, Swanwick pulls together a fresh-feeling, fun, satiric, and at times, heavy plot while focusing characterization on Will. The supporting caste should be viewed as literary vessels designed as true support for Will and the city itself, Babel. The character of Babel remains in the background, but of equal importance to that of Will, as it represents the whole of a society that Will is but a key part of.

Thematically, The Dragons of Babel almost has a schizophrenic feel about it – in the beginning it seems as if each chapter focuses on different elements. It’s not just about Will’s coming-of-age and the building of an eventual leader. It’s about everything in a modern society and its internal and external conflicts. Sides aren’t truly taken, with things laid out for the reader to absorb – just as they are for Will.

The Dragons of Babel is the first book by Michael Swanwick that I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. Call it fantasy, urban fantasy, new weird, or something else entirely; The Dragons of Babel is a powerfully entertaining (and entertainingly powerful) book for all – a book that should be talked about. 8.5/10

Related Posts: Michael Swanwick Answers Questions Five


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