sábado, novembro 29, 2014

Phildickian SF: "After the Apocalypse" by Maureen F. McHugh

After the Apocalypse - Maureen F. McHugh
(#60 - 2014#). Published in 2011.

This kind of book epitomizes the reason why I prefer SF above anything else, reading-wise.

In my last book review ("The Burning Room" by Michael Connelly), I ranted about the likeness of (some) novels in the SF field.

Most of the novels of today are dull, uninspired, lifeless and more-of-the-same. This is the state of the art nowadays. And then there are short stories…

If books were bricks, short stories would be pebbles, every one of them totally different. A pebble can be polished until it becomes a ruby, and each one is unique, just like a short story.

I’ve always thought writing short stories is more difficult than writing novels: word for word, page for page, they are just far more difficult to write (I’ve got a writer-friend,Álvaro Cordeiro, and I’m always amazed at the way he produces short story prose out of the blue; his short story prose is always asking for something more, ie, we can sense a novel wanting to come out).

The feeling I have while reading McHugh, Cadigan, Shepard, and Cordeiro tells me there’s something here to be learned. In a short story every word is paramount; every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph. Because they are short, this kind of stories have to be polished until “perfection” is within reach. Such “perfection” is much more difficult to attain with novels, where writers can easily afford to waste words, to go in pursuit of the writing Nirnava. That’s why we have bloated novels. The writer of novels is more prone to get lost, because he goes wandering away for several pages, even chapters (I could name a few books, but I won’t…), before returning to the story.

With every passing year, novels grow longer and longer, their themes and ideas stretched ever more thinly. SF novels are beginning to resemble real bricks.

Maureen F. McHugh belongs to the Pat Cadigan, Lucius Shepard, and Greg Egan lineage. They write short fiction of the best kind (even though they also write wonderful novels).

I’m a huge fan of clean, evocative prose. A killer eye for detail is not to be dismissed as well. McHugh’s sympathetic, and humorous view into the human condition, gave me a crafted work of speculative fiction about what humanity might stand to lose (or maybe gain), when we are faced with the burdens of the end times already rearing their ugly heads. Her characters are astute, funny and absolutely believable.

The stories included in this collection are:

The Naturalist”: Zombies in Cleveland. The story is far above the quality of most zombie fiction I’ve ever read elsewhere;

Special Economics”: Not much originality here but the execution is top-notch;

Useless Things” (perfect Story; the best short story in the collection): An unnamed woman builds “reborns,” dolls that look like newborn infants. “The point is to make them look almost, but not quite real;

The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large”: Dissociative fugues. Fugue states in fiction. One word: “wonderful”;

The Kingdom of the Blind”: AI is rampant here. Wonderful characterization. When a cold backup restore takes place, this fact alone will be apocalyptic to an AI machine. The most interesting part of the story is the interaction between the female programmer and the men around her;

Going to France”: Borges' magic realism raises its head here. One of the best treatments of magic realism in SF I’ve ever read. A woman who gives aid to some folks “flying” to France;

Honeymoon”: The destruction of dreams on a devastating level;

The Effect of Centrifugal Forces”: Families may not be able to look after parents as their mental faculties disintegrate. This is a powerful and sad story;

After the Apocalypse”: It’s about biding ties that sometimes fail to bind.

For me there’s always something of Philip K. Dick about the way Mchugh writes fiction. For starters McHugh does not write about heroes, and she doesn’t go for the unexpected twist, so common in fiction nowadays. By just introducing a minor reality displacement to her ordinary characters, going about their business, we are able to read something truly different. McHugh’s minimalist style, grounded in reality is what makes the difference for me.

There really isn’t a bad story here, which is extremely rare for a collection of short stories (be it SF or otherwise).

I’ve always believed that SF is not (only) about the future. “After the Apocalypse” is about what comes “after”, ie, it’s all about us.

This is the kind of book that still makes me believe there’s Story in SF.

NB: Too bad Maureen F. McHugh isn’t more prolific. For me, she’s got a 2 out of 2 5-star rating review (the other being “China Mountain Zhang” – vide review here).

SF = Speculative Fiction.

segunda-feira, novembro 24, 2014

Fiction Without Fiction: "The Impostor" by Javier Cercas

(Original Review, 2014-11-24)

The Impostor is the story of Enric Marco, a fake holocaust survivor from the Flossenbürg concentration camp and one time chairman of the French association Amicale de Mauthausen. Cercas labels it a "novel without fiction", presumably because literary awards for fiction are sexier than those for non-fiction. It’s been done before, as Cercas points out, referencing Truman Capote and Emmanuel Carrère (but not poor Norman Mailer). To be fair, it’s been done before by Cercas as well. Ever since the success of "Soldier of Salamis" rescued his faltering literary career back in 2002, Cercas has been grafting fiction to varying degrees onto real life characters and events. 

Enric Marco is also a textbook case. His story mirrors that of many other fake holocaust survivors and even fraudsters like disgraced 9/11 survivor Alicia Esteve Head aka Tania Head (also name checked). Cercas traces Marco’s motivation in his troubled childhood, born out of wedlock from a schizophrenic mother in a mental asylum and passed around different relatives eventually ending up with a sympathetic uncle. The diagnosis is pretty straightforward, Marco is a Narcissist (cluster B by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). And yet, while admitting his craving for admiration, it was empathy. The pop psychology is mercifully limited to passing guilt at having abandoned his mother in the asylum and lack of physical contact with his father, who never held his hand. Cercas is also happy to discount profiteering, an accusation otherwise leveled at Jerzy Kosiński after the publication of "The Painted Bird."

From the outset, Cercas displays a passive aggressive attitude towards Marco. He keeps procrastinating (possibly because he lacks the exclusive) and, I’d speculate, is only persuaded by the endorsement of Claudio Magris.

While I am morally and politically repelled by the character, I confess my admiration as a novelist for his prodigious narrative skills and his power of persuasion, akin to those of the greatest fantasizers in the history of literature. On top of that, Cercas’ son, Raul, who starts off videotaping the interviews with Marco, (before getting bored, or changing career, and dropping out), points out that Marco is a smarter version of Alonso Quijano who assumes the fantastical and fictional character of Don Quixote in Cervantes’ novel, whilst failing to be persuasive to any extent. Cercas establishes from the outset his position, he’s there to listen, not to justify. Problem is he ends up doing most of the talking. It takes him 60 odd pages to even get started (he has reservations, see) therefore exposing his own narcissism. Amidst countless narrative loops, Cercas does eventually get to the facts. Marco was never an anti-Franco, antifascist militant, he didn’t participate in the invasion of the Balearic Islands, he wasn’t captured by the Germans while acting for the Catalan resistance in France, but emigrated to Germany to work and escape military service. Alas, none of this is presented with any panache, as Cercas casts himself not as a historian but as a fact checker.

domingo, novembro 23, 2014

Everybody counts or nobody counts: "The Burning Room" by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room (Harry Bosch, #19) - Michael Connelly
Published on the 3rd of November 2014.

Publishing editors come and go. They move to different companies, they take over several different lines. Some who run SF and Crime Fiction lists know nothing about SF or Crime Fiction and care even less, but they usually move on editing other kinds of book.

The greatest obstacle to novels becoming identical is the fact that every author is different, every book he or she produces is different. Or they should be. This’s what the word “novel” means. Something which is new.

Unfortunately authors are discovering that the easiest way to book publication is to produce something which is exactly like another, either the kind of thing which they have done before or that another writer has done before. Publishers want books which are “in the tradition of this” or “will be adored by readers of that” or “are the latest in the bestselling series of…”

For a writer, novels are a great investment of both time and effort. They have to make a living, and they cannot afford to write books which will not be published. The result is evidenced by what can be found on bookshop shelves. More and more writers are producing books which are written without heart and without soul. Dull and uninspired, lifeless and identical. These are the bricks of the trade.

I’ve stopped reading most of SF and Crime Fiction because of this. I can’t stand the déjà vu feeling…for the publishing industry, everything would be far simpler if all novels were just identical.

I’m not sure whether this is what readers want (I sure don’t!). Do they buy “bestsellers” because that’s what they wish to read, or because advertising and promotion makes such books seem so attractive? Is the pressure for “more of the same” from publishers or the readers? Readers can’t buy what publishers don’t publish. On the other hand, publishers won’t produce what they believe readers don’t want to read.

This long preamble sets the scene to the Michael Connelly novels. Do the Connelly novels belong to the usual book fodder? Nope, nope, and nope. I was not surprised to see “The Burning Room” ranked 4th in the NY Times. Connelly is writing what he does best. Bosch is one of the icons of Crime Fiction, and rightly so.

Bosch has evolved. In the beginning he was a loner. The novels reflected that. Now, he’s no longer that. Connelly had also to evolve to make Bosch evolve. After the 19thBosch novel, we can see this evolution. The Bosch novels are not the same. They show us that, despite the fact the setting is essential the same (LA; Hong Kong doesn’t count…), what we get is always different. The kick I get each time the newConnelly, Sansom, P.D. James appears in the bookstands, is not equal, in terms of quality, to much of what’s being published nowadays (please another final Daglishafter “The Private Patient”, before the curtain closes.  There’s a rumour The Baroness is working on another Daglish, but they’re just that. Rumours).

Connelly has spent so much time, so many years developing the Bosch character and he’s been able to get into his skin so thoroughly that the novels are utterly convincing and addictive.

What have we got in “The Burning Room”? A new sidekick (Soto) which reflects the way Bosch is getting older (The Old - Bosch vs The New - Soto), and two crime threads, and a Finale that will move Bosch to different territories.

Why is so difficult to translate Bosch onto the screen?  That’s not surprising. I have serious doubts on how well the Bosch novels would translate onto the silver screen: Bosch is obsessive, his backstory is interesting, but his personal life is not that engaging (he’s a widower, raising up a daughter and his work precludes any lasting relationships, the crimes he gets into are sordid and horrifying and there are no car chases and very few shootouts). That’s why we so far haven’t seen any Bosch on the (big) screen, because this kind of Crime Fiction is not good at the box office (as soon as I finish writing this, I’ll watch the pilot of the TV Series “Bosch” starringTitus Welliver as Bosch. Is Welliver a credible Bosch…? That’s the crux of the matter).

For me Bosch has evolved into something more like a personal acquaintance than a fictitious character. After having read “The Burning Room” I just wanted to pick up the phone and have a conversation with him. That's what sets Connelly's writing above the norm for me.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sexta-feira, novembro 21, 2014

Cthulhu is back: "Revival" by Stephen King

Revival - Stephen King
King’s 66th book (published 11/11/2014).  

“That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.” (H.P. Lovecraft)

I’ve never been a Stephen King die-hard fan. There were a few of his novels that I elevated to Nirvana status (eg, “The Stand” being one of them).

When I think about King I always have two things in my mind:

  1. He once said, I don’t remember where, and I now I’ll paraphrase, that Stephanie Meyer couldn’t write anything worth a damn. For me that was the start to see Mr. King in a new light…;

  1. When King won the National Book Foundation, I remember Harold Bloom saying that (I’ll paraphrase again), Mr. King was destroying Literature (with a capital “L”).

I’m not particularly fond of Bloom, and I abhor Stephanie Meyer’s novels.

Anyone who bashes Meyer and thinks that Bloom is an hack (who hasn’t produced almost nothing worth reading), has my fully deep appreciation.

Having said this, I have (almost) all the conditions to appreciate this King Novel. I only need to have a good novel in my hands, which is the case here. I haven’t read everything King has written, but I’ve read a good chunk of his body of work (I haven’t made my acquaintance with Mr. Mercedes yet).

“Revival” comes very close to “The Stand” quality-wise. It’s not as big as “The Stand”. I think King has started pruning his books. In terms of character development (Jamie, Jacobs, not so much with Jenny), this is definitely one of his best novels.

King has never been the king of the things unsaid, but the approach here comes very close to that. There’s an undertone that makes the book very hard to read. Each time I put the book aside I had to breathe some fresh air. We can feel the Dark lurking…

What makes this one of the best King-wise?

All narrative is about what's left out as much as what's present. Let me try to explain. Let me show you one of my favourite paintings, “Summer Night” by Winslow Homer:

To me, this painting would lose its power if we could see the mother’s face. 

The most powerful sort of line in a radio play is, "Oh my God! Look at that!" It's less powerful if the line is more explicit: "Oh my God! Look at the size of that turd on the sidewalk!". When my brain cannot make comparisons, it supplies its own comparison, which is, at least for me, much more powerful than anything King can come up with.

It's absolutely possible to omit information in books, and, in fact, it's vital if a novel wants to be a truly mighty experience. 

A writer can play with the fact that what makes my day is not what’s in the novel, but sometimes it’s precisely what’s not.  A writer that can play with the fact that it's impossible to look around to see the woman’s face is much more valuable to me. It puts me in SF mode, ie, it tantalizes and pushes the novel to an unseen dimension.

The synonym of a great writer, in my book, happens when he’s able to toy with me by omitting information. This can be done several ways: by pushing that information out of the sentences, or the way information is not conveyed in words (necessarily and also naturally absent).  This allows me to be a participant in the story. This makes that particular prose interactive (eg, as in most of Christopher Priest’s novels).

I don't think anyone in his or her right mind and who knows a little about literature would put King in the same category as Shakespeare, Jean Austen, Christopher Priest, etc, not because these writers are great and King isn't, but simply because they are different writers with different audiences, as well as writing in completely different times. The comparison is pretty meaningless; Orange and Apples…In this novel as in “The Stand”King was able to crawl into the head of each one of his characters (very few) as if he'd spent his entire life there. By doing that, he lays bare the emotional wreckage wrought by car crashes (the way King describes one of them made it one of the highlights of the novel), as well as lots of other traumas with the same unflinching exactitude he’s used to depict crazy dogs and human-devouring aliens.

As usual the writing here is some of the best of Stephen King's career. King’s use of gritty realism shows us that he’s in top form. His technical expertise as a writer is impossible to ignore. The way he was able to concoct accessible POV, his mastery of a kind of conversational grammar, produced an effect difficult to be mirrored by another writer:

“In spite of its vast power to kill and cure, in spite of the way it’s reshaped the lives of every person on the planet, and in spite of the fact that it is still not understood, scientific research in this field is viewed with good-natured contempt! Neutrons are sexy! Electricity is dull, the equivalent of a dusty storage room from which all the valuable items have been taken, leaving only worthless junk. But the room isn’t empty. There’s an unfound door at the back, leading to chambers few people have ever seen, ones filled with objects of unearthly beauty. And there’s no end to those chambers.”

How can one of King’s simplest novels be so powerful? Pruning at work?

There's a reason why we still read Shakespeare.  King is no Shakespeare, but interactivity is the key word here, and in that aspect King is king.

King’s (best) novels. The stuff our nightmares are made off…

NB: SF = Speculative Fiction (as a follow—up to my last review, “The Revival” also belongs to this category)

“Something happened”.

sábado, novembro 15, 2014

Intertextuality in SF: "What Makes This Book So Great" by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great - Jo Walton
I've been reading SF for more than 30 years.

I've probably read everything worth reading in the field, and I’ve been always intrigued by the two questions:

1 - What makes a SF book a good example of its kind?
2 - Why is SF relished by practiced readers, while others hate it?

Walton's book tries to answer the above-mentioned questions. Walton is clearly a SF devotee (on top of being a SF writer as well, which I've never read in fiction mode by the way).

One crucial factor is that SF is written in a kind of code, which must be learned by apprenticeship. This necessity, of course, intensifies the skeptic's bewilderment at the bother taken by those who learn it in the first place. I learned all of the SF narrative codes when I was very young.

SF reading is like learning a language, ie, the younger we are, the better we'll be prepared to fully appreciate it. If one tries to start reading SF later in life, it's almost always a hit or miss situation. Most of the time, it's a miss. For those readers for which it’s a miss, it usually means they lack proper “tools” to able to fully engage with the text.

In this book, Walton does not try to attempt a deep and rigorous approach to SF criticism (vide her last essay in the book “Literary criticism vs talking about books”; two other essays worth reading are “Why I re-read” and “Do you skim”). What she aims to accomplish is a way to give us a particular take on some very distinct works in the SF field. Most of the time I don't agree with her (eg, her analysis of the Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, which Walton elevates to Nirvana status, but that I particularly hate; that's for another occasion; on the other hand, her deep reading is spot on in some cases: eg, “Icehenge” by Kim Stanley Robinson: “He reads Cavafy, but he breathes T. S. Eliot”, making an intertextual comparison between both works).

Speaking for myself, when I embark on a SF text, what I look for is estrangement, ie, the ability to search that ethereal quality of transcendence. It goes without saying that the ability to provoke transcendence is not exclusive to SF. The function of estrangement in SF is not identical with the kinds found in certain other narrative texts (eg, mainstream/mimetic literature). For example, we can value History for its ability to give us estrangement of other ancient times and what they can tell us about the present, ie, History is interesting for its alterity. Unfortunately History, no matter how imaginatively depicted, cannot go beyond its own limits. Only SF can/may enter into the truly other (vide novel "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand" bySamuel Delany, which Walton also “analyses”, for a wonderful example of this; it's also one of her best essays in the book).

What seemed really strange in this book was the absence of negative reviews/opinions. For someone as well-read as Walton, it’s weird. Only a handful of essays contain mild and en passant “negative” opinions (eg, “The Mars trilogy” byKim Stanley Robinson, James Tiptree Jr’s biography by Julie Phillips).

Bottom-line 1: I read SF for the meta-reading it allows me. It’s an endless journey…

Bottom-Line 2: After finishing it, I felt like (re-)reading some of the referenced novels (eg, “Tam Lin” by Pamela Dean, which I’ve never read; “Neuromancer” byWilliam Gibson, which I’ve read multiple times, “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson, ditto, “Biting the Sun” by Tanith Lee“Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand”by Samuel Delany“China Mountain Zhang” by Maureen F. McHugh, which I’ve read late last year, and in my opinion it’s one of the best (SF or not) novels ever written – vide review here).

SF = Speculative Fiction.

Off-topic: I was thinking of doing a particular post about this, but I won’t bother. Here it goes. I’ve been receiving emails to clarify what I mean by “speculative fiction”; this was first used by Heinlein, and it’s a broader term that comprises everything an author is able to create, ie, where anything can happen. It’s a place beyond reality, a place that could have been, or might have been, if only the rules of the universe were altered. “Speculative fiction” goes beyond the mundane and takes me into a world of might-have-been, science, intertextuality, transcendence, otherness, estrangement, etc. It’s a world where I leave part of myself behind when I return to the universe as I know it. It pushes the limits of the imagination. A good SF story makes me think, and also provides a new insight into human nature or even give me a new outlook on life. It’s a tall order I know, but that’s what I always aim for in a good SF book. Even if after reading this, you still have doubts about what SF is (or isn’t), I’ll give you a clue: It’s not about magic swords, spaceships, robots, dwarfs, leprechauns, pixies, elves, and the like. SF allow us to see the world with new eyes. SF is about you and me.

sexta-feira, novembro 07, 2014

The De-romanticization of Tudor England: "Lamentation" by C.J. Sansom

Lamentation - C.J. Sansom
Are we born with the innate gift of writing stories? I’m not sure. What I’m pretty sure is that it takes more than being born with a knack for words to write something worth reading. There’s no point for a writer to complain to the gods that she or he does not have the writing skills of Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Heinlein: what a writer needs to do is to the best he/she can with whatever gifts the writer may have, constantly striving with all one’s soul to enhance the mastery of the craft. That very well may be how all those great writers whose natural endowments we all envy had had to achieve their greatness. Probably by constant study, practice, and sweaty hard work. Shakespeare’s first plays may have been better than anyone else’s first plays, but even he didn’t turn out Lear and Othello during his apprentice years.

Mastery of craft is a matter of process, not of a single blinding moment of attainment. The writer goes on working toward it all his life. I’ve always maintained that if one goes about things the right way, one gets better and better all the time, and that means one may get very good indeed. This goes for all spheres of life, being it writing, programming, cooking, inline-skating, scuba-diving, project management, whatever. Heinlein once wrote (in “Time Enough for Love”):

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” (I’ve done most of the things on the list. Unfortunately there was much more manure than sonnets involved…).

I’m not sure about this. This is one of Heinlein’s aphorisms with which I’ve always had the most trouble with. My specialization is in engineering and in later years, management. I used to fit solutions to systems. Other things I’ve done: repair and ride a mountain bicycle, build and fly a rockets, build and race model radio control and slot cars, scuba-diving, inline-skating, kick serious ass in computer-based real time strategy games, create art in a small handful of media, programming, read music, chewing gum, dragging my feet, and twiddle my thumbs. Like any other human being I am capable of carrying out a great number of things, but I specialize in the one thing in which I am outstanding: engineering.

I’m not talking about real proficiency in the functions I’ve listed above. I’ve just stated that I can do these things. To make a difference, I need to stick to the one thing I'm good at to be most effective, and that is engineering. There are also things I am very lousy at: fiction writing, lawn maintenance, handyman at home (eg, picture hanging, woodworking, plumbing, etc). If I need some of these operations performed in and around my house I am likely to call in an expert (my wife). Why do I need to expand my skill set to include specialties I have already shown a lack of talent for? Let me do what I do best, dabble in what I like but lack talent for, and completely ignore that which I suck at (the abovementioned woodworking, plumbing, handyman at home, etc).

I’ve always interpreted Heinlein’s quote as meaning something more along the lines of experience rather than actually performing or mastering all of those tasks, ie, life is meant to be experienced, to be lived in every possible way. Humans should go out and try everything they can in order to feel the joy of living (I’ve taken up mountain bicycle riding, which I hadn’t done in a long time).

Of course, writing is a different thing altogether. There’s much more to writing than mastery of technique. Technique is merely a means to an end, and in this case the end is to convey understanding in the guise of entertainment. The storytelling art evolved as a way of interpreting the world, ie, as a way of creating order out of chaos. To perform the task effectively, the fiction writer must peer into the heart of chaos. This is where C.J. Sansom’s latest book shines.

The plot is deeply satisfying. I didn’t expect the final twist and revelation of who was behind the intrigue against Catherine Parr. All the characters are superb as always. Sansom mix of fact and fiction is quite entrancing. On top of that there is a real feel for 16th century London and Tudor society that allowed me to be “there”. Despite its almost 700 pages, I read it almost in one gulp. What makes this 6th installment so good? It’s not the prose. Sansom’s prose is very workmanlike, but there is something in the setting and the characters that made this one hell of a read. Maybe it’s the de-romanticization of Tudor England?

This is the mark of a wonderful writer, ie, the fact that it’s difficult to pin-point what makes a writer great. As soon as his Shardlake’s books come out, I just grab one, turn off the light, and embark on the journey…Sansom’s books were one my most heartfelt “discoveries” (P.D. James was the culprit).  The finding of a new writer that one wants to keep on reading because its imaginative engagement with the world, in this case ancient, was an happening for me.  This kind of experience does not happen often, I can tell you.

The Shardlake books retain a marvelously fresh and invigorating quality: They epitomize the hope that Christian faith and charity (at least in individual cases), might yet redeem our inveterate viciousness, and this not due to technique alone. There’s something else at play here…