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Sunday, November 22, 2015
With Ancillary Mercy, Anne Leckie has completed a trilogy that began with a lot of promise which was almost immediately squandered with the middle installment in favor of, I don't know, let's just say tea. This is perhaps more harsh than necessary, but I do think this series is indicative of much of the strife going on in SF fandom these days.
The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, had a lot going for it. A complex, non-linear narrative that deftly employed indirect exposition to establish its worldbuilding (instead of tedious info-dumps). A heady mix of hard and soft SF, including an ambitious exploration of hive minds or shared consciousness. Galaxy-spanning empires, mysterious aliens, all the Space Opera tropes you could ever want. It was distinctly lacking in plot and storytelling, but as the first in a series, it established a lot of potential. Potential which the second book, Ancillary Sword, almost completely jettisoned in favor of a small scale, colonialism parable. This was so unexpected that you kind of have to respect the reversal. The problem for me is that nearly everything I enjoyed about the first book was gone. Instead, we had lots of interpersonal relationships, petty politics, and lots and lots of tea. Endless drinking of tea, the intricacies of good and bad china, even the exploitation of tea plantations.
This third and final book of the trilogy aims to complete the story, and despite hewing much closer to the second book's small-scale approach, it actually manages to stick the landing. But to continue the gymnastics analogy, the series as a whole feels like a routine that started off with ambitious, high-difficulty release moves, flips and twists and whatever, then moved on to boring filler, and finishing with the simplest dismount possible. Again, this might be too harsh, as this book does comport itself quite well, it's just so different than what the first book seemed to promise that I can't help but feel disappointed.
During this year's whole Sad Puppy kerfluffle, I ran across some non-puppy lamenting the puppy line and proclaiming that science fiction was primarily about the "exploration of the human condition", which is funny because I think that is indeed the whole crux of the matter. With this Ancillary series, Leckie is clearly fascinated by the "exploration of the human condition". And of course, there's nothing wrong with that! Much of science fiction does this, and it's a wonderful, time-honored part of the genre. The problem is that the grand majority of art ever produced is about the "exploration of the human condition". That's not what makes science fiction unique, and while Leckie managed to channel some of SF's unique sense of wonder and conceptual breakthrough in the first book, she basically abandoned that pretense in the succeeding novels. Lots of Puppies complained about Ancillary Justice, but I know for a fact that a lot of them enjoyed the novel. I doubt any of them appreciated the sequels. (NB: while I have some leanings towards the type of works Puppies prefer, I am not and have never been a Puppy!)
So what we end up with is a series with some fascinating worldbuilding and SF ideas that are established but not really explored. What seemed like promising lines of thought in the first book come off like window dressing in this final novel. Leckie even acknowledges this shift in-story. In the first book, we find out that the shared consciousness tyrant that rules an empire had actually fragmented into two factions that were secretly at war with one another. Great idea! In Ancillary Mercy, our protagonist Breq flatly opines that she doesn't care what happens, and thus we get no real exploration of what this civil war amidst a hive mind would entail (and no clarification as to how these hive minds actually work, and how such a situation hasn't happened thousands of years earlier). Another example? A mysterious alien race called the Presger have been hinted at throughout the series. It's suggested that they may be the force behind our Tyrant's little civil war. There's this extra-super-fantastic gun that, at first, is simply undetectable. In this final book, it can destroy entire spaceships with a single shot. As deus ex machina, it works, I guess, but it's pretty indicative of how Leckie treats the Presger. They're there for convenience, not for actual insight.
So I've blathered on for several paragraphs and I haven't even talked much about this book. It picks up where the last one left off, with Breq trying to effect repairs of a space station while overseeing the planet's transition from tyranny to more self-determined government or somesuch. She knows that Anaander Mianaai is going to visit to re-establish her rule, and she will probably have to also deal with the Presger, who will no doubt be a little upset that their translator/ambassador was killed in the previous book's shenanigans. Meanwhile, everyone drinks tea out of cheap china because the good china was destroyed in the previous book, but hey, tea is needed.
I know it sounds like I'm being dismissive of the tea stuff, and to a certain extent, I feel justified in that, but it actually doesn't bother me that much. I enjoy the tea minutia more than I would have thought, and as a beverage nerd who enjoys a cup of tea every now and again, it's got its charms.
Anyway, the plot of this one actually works a good deal better than the second book. It's not as episodic, and hangs together better. If you can go with the deus ex machina of the Presger, the story actually works really well. The pacing is still off, and too much time is spent on the seemingly endless parade of officers that have severe emotional problems (seriously, this is the culture that conquered most of the galaxy? How?) For instance, at one point a mysterious ship shows up out of nowhere. It's the new Presger translator/ambassador! She will no doubt be a little miffed that the previous translator was killed! Whatever shall we do? Apparently, we need to sit down and discuss how microagressions make a member of the crew feel. And look, I'm not predisposed to hate that sort of thing, but it kills plot momentum and is one of several such instances. On the other hand, the new Presger translator is, by far, my favorite part of the book. She has a very weird affect about her, coming off as nonplussed and yet somehow wise, and primarily acting as comic relief. Her disaffected demeanor fits well, and is used to good effect throughout the novel, almost making up for contrived role the Presger play in the series.
The conclusion actually works, too. It is, of course, not a conclusion to all that was set up in the first novel and again relies on the deus ex machina of the Presger, but it does resolve the smaller-conflict at the heart of the book in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. At the start, I thought Leckie had written herself into a corner, but she manages a couple of twists and turns that make sense. I left the book feeling pretty happy that I read the series, even if I have my fair share of complaints.
Despite my reservations, this book has been well received critically and fans of the series seem to love it. I have no doubt that it will make next year's Hugo ballot (indeed, even the Sad Puppies are talking about it), even if it will probably not make my ballot. I am actually curious to see if Leckie will revisit this universe, maybe even tackle some of the unrealized potential she so ably established in the first book. I would like to read that, actually.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
Whither the SF Classics
A couple weeks ago, author Jason Sanford kicked up a fuss about the "fossilization of science fiction and fantasy literature", suggesting amongst other things that "No one still discovers the SF/F genre by reading Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or Tolkien." Needless to say, this caused a lot of consternation in some quarters, though my guess is that the medium of delivery had a lot to do with the response. Sanford posted all this in a series of Tweets, which by necessity are brief and thus come off as pompous and dismissive. Sanford later posted a clarification on his blog in a much more friendly tone, even if the weight of his argument is the same. Others have taken up the call as well, notably John Scalzi who notes:
The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this.And indeed, I'm not surprised by this notion, but it does represent a difference in the SF/F world. I was a teen in the 1990s and read all sorts of stuff from the 1930s-1960s corridor that generally represents the Golden Age, the same way (near as I can tell), teens in the 70s and 80s did. This is literally the first time in history when readers weren't introduced to SF/F via Golden Age authors like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein (as Scalzi notes, Tolkien probably still reigns in Fantasy). What has changed?
I think a big part of it might have something to do with the on-demand nature of our current media environment. To take an example from another medium, kids growing up in the 70s didn't have much choice as to what movies they watched. It was whatever was playing on TV or the local theater, and a lot of what played was in the public domain. In other words, film nerds in the 70s saw a lot of silent movies by default. I grew up in the 80s, and with the advent of cable, I didn't really see any silent movies until I started actually studying film. I did, however, watch lots of black and white movies or movies from long before I was born, simply because that's what was showing on Cinemax or whatever. You can really see the difference in film critics who grew up in an earlier era, they have a much broader base to draw from when discussing current movies. Nowadays, it's all about what's on Netflix.
Bringing it back to SF/F, I think this is a big part of it. Many folks hit up the classics of SF/F back in the day because they were basically the only thing available. Book stores had tiny SF/F sections and primarily stocked the classics with the occasional new release. These days, kids can snag an ebook or even an audio-book on-demand, and their available choices have exploded in the past couple of decades. SF/F has sorta conquered the world, and is widely available everywhere. Thus the classics, while still available, are getting dwarved by other books.
And this is before you get to all the other options kids have to occupy their attention these days (video games, anime, internet stuff, etc...) There seems to be a dismissive streak running through fandom these days. Perhaps its because there's so much new SF/F flooding the market. There's too much to keep up with; you don't have a choice but to filter in some way.
One thing a lot of people mention when it comes to this is that kids don't like the classics because they can't relate, which seems kind of silly to me. Sure, old books were written in a different context, and there's a lot of weird stuff people were exploring. But for crying out loud, this is Science Fiction we're talking about here! The whole point is to explore alien ideas and blow your mind within the confines of a rationally knowable universe. When people are pining for the Golden Age of science fiction, they're craving that Sense of Wonder we got from Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Lots of great science fiction is being written these days, but a surprising amount is dystopian misery porn or boring character studies with a veneer of SF Tropes. This is especially rampant in YA fiction, which is so melancholy that I'm wondering why we're so excited by it. Maybe the reason people keep recommending Heinlein juveniles is because so much of YA fiction is dedicated to gloomy settings and grim despair. There's nothing wrong with that type of story, but is it really surprising that some of us crave Golden Age throwbacks like, say, The Martian?
I suppose the worry is that this represents another cultural battleground where kids don't read the classics because they're trying to establish a "safe space" or some other such nonsense. Again, I find that odd considering the whole point of speculative fiction is to expand your horizons. To a lot of people, reading is a passive activity, but it really isn't. If you're not interrogating what you're reading, you're doing it wrong. This gets us into strange territory though, and we'd have to go about discussing what really makes the SF genre work, which is probably better served in its own post someday.
None of this is malicious or necessarily dangerous, but it is different, and for the first time in 70ish years, kids aren't reading the "classics". One can't help but wonder what that will mean, but I'm not too worried. People like what they like. I don't like the idea of dismissing the classics out of hand, but I wouldn't be surprised or upset if someone got into SF by reading, say, Scalzi or Weir. For instance, I don't think Fantasy is anything but strengthened by the popularity of Harry Potter. The same is probably true with SF, even if I'm not a huge fan of dystopian YA...
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Weird Book of the Week
Last time on Weird Book of the Week, we fell in love with giant pink space bunnies who shoot laser beams out of their nose. This time, we amp up the weirdness with something that is 100% chosen because of it's title. Behold: I Don't Care if My Best Friend's Mom is a Sasquatch, She's Hot and I'm Taking a Shower With Her. I think that pretty much says it all. Probably a good companion piece to a former Weird Movie of the Week, Yeti: A Gay Love Story.
It appears the author, one Lacey Noonan, has quite a back catalog of raunchily titled books, including A Gronking to Remember (first in a series of Rob Gronkowski themed erotica novels), Seduced by the Dad Bod, and The Babysitter Only Rings Once. Quite prolific.
Sunday, November 08, 2015
Two link dumps in a row? I'm the worst. I shall endeavor to produce something of quality and originality within the next few weeks, but for now, here are some links worth checking out:
Wednesday, November 04, 2015
With six whole weeks of horror movies, the link repository has been growing and growing with lots of interesting tidbits from the depths of the internets:
Sunday, November 01, 2015
6WH: Speed Round and Halloween
It appears that time flies when you're scared out of your wits and the infamous Six Weeks of Halloween ended with the main event yesterday. As per usual, I have not covered all of the movies I watched during this glorious six week period, whether that be because it didn't fit with a given week's theme or perhaps I've already seen and written about it or maybe I just didn't have that much to say about it. So here's a quick roundup of things I saw that haven't already been covered...
Thursday, October 29, 2015
The Scarlet Gospels
"I am doing another Books of Blood collection and I'm writing a sequel to the book on which Hellraiser was based - this will be Pinhead's first appearance on the page, because he isn't even named in the original." - Clive Barker, from an interview in Imagi-Movies, Vol 1, No 2, Winter 1993/94The story that would eventually be published as The Scarlet Gospels has been a long time coming. To my knowledge, it was first mentioned in 1993, and has gone through innumerable permutations on its way to its current incarnation, published in May 2015. First it was to be but a single small story amongst others, then it ballooned into a 230,000 word behemoth, and finally it was cut back down to around 100,000 words. It's been quite a journey, and while I remain fully committed to the notion that authors don't owe their readers anything, teasing a story for 20+ years is perhaps a bit excessive. The biggest problem with this novel is one of expectations. Even if I found myself enjoying the book, it's hard to live up to 20 years of anticipation.
The novel brings together two of Barker's most famous characters. There's the Cenobite popularly known as Pinhead (but don't call him that to his face), who we meet as he's finishing off a quest to obliterate all living human magicians and in so doing, wrest all of their arcane knowledge for himself. You probably know Pinhead from the myriad filmic portrayals in the Hellraiser series of movies, but his origin is rooted in Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart. Then you've got Harry D'Amour, the private detective with a knack for finding himself at odds with the supernatural, as he did in Barker's The Last Illusion (from Cabal) and Everville. Here, he starts off on a routine assignment to clear out a dead man's magical library. Amongst that man's possessions is Lemerchand's Configuration, the infamous puzzle box capable of opening a door to hell that is usually occupied by our Pinheaded friend. It turns out that Pinhead would like Harry to act as a witness for the next phase of his nefarious plan. Harry is naturally reluctant, but when Pinhead kidnaps Harry's best friend Norma Paine, an old blind woman who can nevertheless see and speak with the dead, Harry has no choice but to round up a posse to chase after Pinhead. Their travels naturally lead them to hell, where Pinhead is waging all out war on hell's establishment.
I tend to vacillate back and forth on Barker. I love a lot of his short work, but he also has a tendency to get lost in language and stylistic machinations. That being said, I often find that he's able to right the ship just before I'm about to actually give up on what I'm reading. His best work manages the balance incredibly well, other works are a little more uneven. This one actually veers towards the more page-turnery side of the divide, but perhaps he's gone a bit too far. It feels pretty mainstream for what I normally think of from Barker. Even his grotesque imagery feels a little staid, nowhere near that edgy stuff he was writing in the 80s. On the other hand, this was actually quite a fun read, and I mostly enjoyed the whole experience.
I tended to prefer the plot threads centered around Pinhead, who remains a fascinating and somewhat obtuse character. On the other hand, I think I've figured out that I'm not a particularly big fan of Harry D'Amour. He's fine, but I feel like we're constantly told how badass he is, rather than actually seeing him doing something cool. For the most part, he seems to just blunder through the story, barely making it through alive. This story is often pitched as Pinhead versus Harry D'Amour, but if that was the case, Harry'd be dead on page one. He just doesn't display the competence that we're constantly informed he is supposed to have. Take, for instance, his encounter with Lemerchand's Box. He actually recognizes it for what it is (competence!), but he picks it up and starts playing with it anyway, thinking to himself that he can stop before it goes too far. As a reader, you're just sitting there in shock that a character who is supposedly smart when it comes to the supernatural is doing something so utterly stupid. He does slightly better as the story proceeds, but that's mostly just because he's so ineffective that no one actually considers him a threat, and thus he can act as Pinhead's witness.
Hell is always an interesting place to visit, and Barker's hell is an interesting one. A bleak, blasted landscape filled with impossible architecture and grotesque creatures, not to mention an almost bureaucratic streak that runs through everything, Pinhead guides us through it all with aplomb (Harry just follows along in Pinhead's footsteps like a dope). We're eventually treated to a glimpse of the morning star himself, Lucifer, and what follows is a well plotted and interesting confrontation. The ending seems oddly appropriate, though I have no idea where hell is supposed to go from here...
So was it worth the wait? It doesn't really feel like it, but that doesn't make the book bad either. It's clearly missing the edge that Barker's earlier work so astutely captures, but it's still worthwhile and actually quite entertaining (if a bit on the perverse side). It was certainly a good Halloween season read, which is all I can ask for...
Sunday, October 25, 2015
6WH: Week 6 - Now Playing
As usual, this week is something of a cheat since most of these aren't exactly playing at a theater near you. On the other hand, the advent of OnDemand and other streaming services means you can watch these in the comfort of your own. Truly, we are living in wondrous times.
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