Friday, April 30, 2010

Reading in April

Absolutely mind-blowing. The Master and Margarita is the kind of book that is both hilarious and disturbing, and it has enough layers that every time you reread a passage something else jumps out at you. All that being said, I’m more than a little hesitant about doing a review. First of all, this is (rightly) a classic; if I butchered the review I’d be quite pissed at myself. Then there’s the fact that I’m writing a research paper on the novel, so I’m unsure if I’ll be in the mood to do more writing on it after that. Until I make up my mind, this website has some very interesting information on the novel.

When I read American Gods, I found it interesting but slow to the point that I had trouble sticking with it. When I finished it, I decided to not read any more books by Gaiman. As time passed, however, I kept thinking about American Gods. It took me a while, but I finally gave Gaiman another chance…and I’ll admit it I was a hundred percent wrong about him. Neverwhere is both incredibly fun and quite touching at parts. Aidan's reveiw is here; my review will be up on Tuesday. UPDATE: my review will be delayed for a bit, though it is still coming.

I may not be the intended audience for Wit, seeing as my entire experience with Donne’s poetry consists of one poem read immediately before the play and the one sonnet quoted in full within the play. As for the play itself, I’m rather mixed. The main character’s dilemma is interesting, but I had trouble with the endless scenes that were, essentially, descriptions of medical procedures. I understand that they were necessary to some extent, and most did try and liven things up, but after a point the wit and meaning of some parts seemed to drown in scans and their ilk. Of course, all of that is likely quite different performed on stage.

For the first thousand pages, Return of the Crimson Guard had me convinced that Esslemont was, without a doubt, in the same league as Erikson. And then it all goes to hell. If you’ve read the book, you can see precisely why I despised the ending on Westeros. If not, suffice to say that a brilliant schemer turns out to be an idiot and an idiot turns out to be…well, still an idiot, but everyone’s convinced that he’s some sort of genius. If you want more information, Pat’s review is quite informative.

When I first started Hat Rack, I read Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon because I was too intimidated to jump in with this trilogy. For the first three hundred pages, The Reality Dysfunction felt like everything I’d feared. The three main plotlines were interesting, but the sheer scope of it prevented everything from fitting wholly together. Then everything clicked, and by page four hundred I couldn’t put this down. I’ll probably write my review once I’ve finished the trilogy, but in the meantime there’s Wert’s review to give you a good idea of the contents and strengths of the book, as well as my post on Westeros from immediately after my reading.

This is the slight outlier on the list, I think. I found this around the house and was actually somewhat curious about how my second oldest reading memories would hold up. (My first were for a book that I took out so many times that librarians said I couldn’t have it anymore, and I don’t even remember the title or author anymore. Damn those librarians!) The answer is…well, I’m not really sure. The book’s kind of amusing, I guess, if in a somewhat painful way. In the end, how can you not root for a pig-esque dude who climbs Mount Everest for the hell of it?

Watchmen taught me a fairly obvious lesson: never discount something just because of the medium. Watchmen is, without a doubt, one of the bleakest things that I’ve read, and the detail that went into the setting is amazing. Of course, the actual mechanics of the ending could’ve been a bit better (a…giant alien squid? C’mon.), but it wasn’t enough to ruin the impact of the story. After taking a bit of time to get used to reading graphic novels (something I’m going to definitely try and do more of, now) Watchmen paid off in spades. If you’ve already read it, you may be interested in Writing Excuse’s “critical reading” podcast on the book. In addition, there's a compilation of other Watchmen-related stuff here.

Anubis Gates was fast paced, filled with great action, and great twists. All that being said, it occasionally got to feel like a tad too much. I read the first half of the book or so in a sitting, but after that the amount that everyone could run in place before getting anywhere began to grate a bit. This is especially prominent when the book’s penultimate battle, ending with the death of a major villain, felt noticeably less climactic than several earlier, entertaining but ultimately pointless, bouts to the degree that I actually only realized it was supposed to be the climax when it, well, ended. Still, Anubis Gates is more than deserving of its reputation; this book contains amounts of sheer fun to rival just about anything else you’re likely to ever find.

I found Fall of Hyperion to be just as ambitious as Hyperion, but not as successful in living up to those ambitions. That’s not say that it’s a bad book, however; Fall of Hyperion still manages to combine fast paced space opera and somber passages on the lives of romantic poets, and that’s a damn fine accomplishment, even if the execution’s a bit marred. Full review here.

As I said back in my beginning-of-the-month post, I bought Tome of the Undergates primarily for Sam Sykes’s personality in interviews and on his blog than because the blurb drew me in. To some degree, Sykes does incorporate the questions he raised in interviews into the novel, but it wasn’t enough to save the book. My full review is here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Negative Reviews

There was a time when negative reviews were my favorite to write. This was back when I wrote reviews for Metal Archives, and I couldn’t get enough god awful albums. First of all, negative reviews are generally easier to write. Justifying why you like something is hard; pinpointing the element that stuck in your craw is usually quite easy. Second, they’re just god damn fun. Back then, I would throw down all pretenses of objectivity and wade into the offending album armed with nothing but rage and sarcasm.

Then something changed. I got an email from a band member who’d seen my review (and it was just a mixed one, at that). He tried to come off as fairly glib, but I could tell I’d really hurt him. It felt like I’d just punched someone in the face. Since then and the time I finished on Metal Archives, I wrote negative reviews, but the malicious glee was gone.

Now, an easy solution to this problem would be to just not write negative reviews on Hat Rack. The only problem is that, when I hear statements like “I don’t waste time with the bad stuff,” I cringe a bit (and this isn’t a condemnation of any particular bloggers, just a personal thing). I can’t trust a reviewer who likes everything. If you’ve posted ten reviews, and they’re all positive, how do I really know your tastes? I need to see something you loved, something you liked, and something you did not like, for me to even begin thinking about whether we’re compatible. Besides which, ignoring the issue of recommendation for a minute, I just have a problem with the mindset that negative thoughts shouldn’t be articulated. Why on earth not? Don’t we, as reviewers, have as much of a duty to expose the bad as we do to highlight the good?

Up to this point, I’ve written negative reviews on Hat Rack. The difference was that those weren’t books were I felt like the author was going to hear and feel like I insulted them. I don’t think that Philip K. Dick cares much anymore, and I have a feeling that Stephen King isn’t reading my blog.

But Tome of the Undergates is different. I don’t think that Sam Sykes is going to start bawling, of course, but a large part of the reason that I read Tome in the first place was that I loved Sykes’s online personality. I can’t really say that I know him, of course, but I read enough to realize that he was a cool guy who would probably be awesome to hang out with. I could’ve just not reviewed the book, of course. It would have been easy; I don’t put something in the Upcoming Reviews slot until the review’s finished, so none of you would have ever known it was even being contemplated. I considered doing that, but I felt like I was lying to you, reader, even if it was just a lie of omission. So here we are; the reviews up, and I forced myself to be honest and to not sugarcoat my opinion. In conclusion:

I’m sorry, Mr. Sykes, but I had to do it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sam Sykes - Tome of the Undergates

“I need more. I need …to know that I’m doing the right and proper thing.”

“You’ll never figure that one out,” he answered decisively. “There’s no way to know what the right and proper thing is, you see. Ask a Karnerian, a Sainite, a shcit and a dragonman the same question, they’ll all tell you something different.”

In a lot of ways, I think that we’ve reached the point where subversions have simply gone too far. Tome of the Undergates is about a merry group of adventurers, going off on a fetch quest. Except that they’re not merry, and, while they are adventurers, they’re far deeper than that cavalier title conveys. Each of them is a fair bit more interesting than they first appear. In a twist that is perhaps realistic for a group of severely flawed, violent characters thrust together, everyone hates everyone else. This is not the kind of hate that is eventually replaced by hugs and I Love You’s. No. This is the kind of hate where hugs and I love You’s are met with dialogue like:

“Is this the part where I’m supposed to cry?”

The thunder stopped with her heart; her face screwed up.


“After this delightful little chat about standing tall against the human menace, are we supposed to be charming little friends? Am I supposed to break down in your puny arms and reveal, through tears, some profound insight about the inherent folly of hatred as you revel in your ability to bridge the gap between peoples? Afterwards, we will go prancing through some meadows so you can show me the simple beauty of a spiderweb or a pile of deer dung or whatever it is your worthless, stupid race thinks is important?”

And, at first, I thought it was an awesome concept. But there’s a problem. When you have six people who fight constantly, and they never come to like each other, and they’re together for the whole book, it never ends. The standard arc of: Dislike -> Fight -> Tearful Make Up, which I’m confident every one of us is thoroughly sick of by now, is replaced with: Dislike -> Fight -> Ma-no, Fight -> Fight -> Make u-, no Fight -> Fight. Sykes’s characters seem promising to start, but, at the end, you realize that the promise is all there is. You never get a centimeter deeper than you were in the first half; their relationships never change one iota.

Besides characterization, the book’s other main element is combat. In this department, things are also a mixed bag. The fighting is, frequently, quite well done. Abysmyth demons are suitably powerful to scare the crap out of the reader the first few times they appear. Unfortunately, their appearance is rarely enough for character’s to shelve whatever witty remarks they were about to make. Now, these are frequently hilarious, but they sap all of the energy out of the fight. The book’s opening battle felt something like Obliveon’s dialogue trees, where everything freezes frame while you calmly discuss rumors with your companions until you’re ready to get back to the killing. Still, it’s not even close to enough to break the battle scenes, and some fights, especially toward the end, are great sources of visceral chaos.

In his interview with Aidan, Sykes said:

It’s actually a surprisingly philosophical book. Not the overt, beard-stroking, “what is a chestnut” kind of philosophy, but the sort that delves deep into the psyche of people without being boring. It takes the standard idea of the adventurer in fantasy and asks the questions that are presumed to be answered in the genre: what drives someone to become an adventurer, who is largely presumed to be a graverobber, thief and unprofessional assassin? Would a group composed of many different races, religions and professions really get along so well as to perform a quest? How can they presume a benevolent deity is on their side when they continue to suffer and die? How can they presume that they are in the right when they continue to cause others to suffer and die?

It’s true, Sykes does bring up several interesting questions. The problem is that, like with the characterization, a fascinating premise is all you get. None of the issues are ever explored. Instead, they’re simply voiced by one character or another. Asper questions how she can be doing good while she follows such a bloodthirsty bunch. At the end of the book, Asper still questions exactly the same thing. There are no answers here. Again, perhaps that’s more realistic, but it’s certainly not more satisfying.

The prose is the only great thing about Tome that I don’t have to qualify at all. It’s descriptive, and manages to be atmospheric when appropriate, but it’s also down to earth and always amusing. That being said, Tome has some of the most unflinchingly modern prose I’ve ever read in fantasy, so if you had trouble with Morgan’s ‘55s, you may have some issues here. It’s well worth acclimatizing yourself, though, because some moments are truly hilarious:

[When having a conversation with a Siren]
“I …I do not have a name, I am afraid,” she replied meekly. “I have never had a use for one.”

“Everyone needs a name,” Dreadaeleon quickly retorted. “What else would we call you?”

“Screechy.” Denaos nodded. “Screechy MacEarbleed."

Tome is quite big. Alright, it’s not quite Steven Erikson’s Dust of Dreams, but it’s a respectable 692 pages, hardback. And it should not be. Tome is not a sprawling epic fantasy; it is a book of a single group of characters that go on a simple mission. The pacing in the book feels fast, and there is generally always at least one character in mortal danger, but it goes on for far too long to be effective. The book opens with a (now infamous) fight scene. It could be a dramatic way to open the book, but it goes on for one hundred and sixty pages. It is not a massive engagement featuring thousands of soldiers and munitions that crack the earth. It is six adventurers killing some pirates. Then some more pirates. Then some more pirates. Then some frogmen allied with the pirates. Then some more frogmen. Then some more frogmen. Then things finally get interesting, but by that point I just wanted everyone to calm down and do something that doesn’t involve killing someone. Like have tea.

Essentially, Tome of the Undergates is a seven hundred page book that has the content of a novel half its size. If fifty percent of the fighting was removed, and seventy five percent of the infighting went the same way, it could be quite good. As it is now, however, it is a colossal exercise in maintaining the status quo. At the beginning of the book, the characters have a magic book, hate each other, and have a series of interesting internal debates. At the end of the book, the characters have regained their magic book, still hate each other, and still have several philosophical puzzles to grapple with. Yes, it’s not quite the ordinary set up for adventurers, but, by that point, we’ve seen it before. At the beginning of the book. And I don’t think we needed to see it again.

I realize that this review is a bit harsh on Sykes. Tome of the Undergates is not a bad book. It’s entertaining, even laugh out loud funny on occasion, but I was expecting more. I haven’t given up on Sykes, but I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed.


This review by The Book Smugglers does an excellent job outlining the faults of the novel. On the other side of the equation, Wert's review also does this quite well. On the opposite side of the spectrum, both the Mad Hatter and The Speculative Scotsman were fans. In addition to reviews, the three interviews (Mad Hatter, Speculative Scotsman, and A Dribble of Ink) were all fascinating and hilarious in equal measure.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Dark Commands...Again [Cover Art]

God damn it.

I mean, it's not AWFUL, but it has almost none of the atmosphere I initially loved. I guess the bluish glow is supposed to make it feel ethereal, but all it does is make me feel like someone should turn the lights down and think that everyone looks slightly transparent. Seeing as this is the US cover art, I suppose that one can hope the UK is not similarly afflicted.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dan Simmons - Fall of Hyperion

Every age fraught with discord and danger seems to spawn a leader meant only for that age, a political giant whose absence, in retrospect, seems inconceivable when the history of that age is written. Meina Gladstone was just such a leader for our final age, although none then could have dreamed that there would be no one but me to write the true history of her and her time.

Like Hyperion before it, Fall of Hyperion is a marriage of styles and goals that sets nothing less than the fundamental questions of our existence and our spread into the universe as its subject manner. These lofty ideals cause most of the problems in the novel, but, when all is said and done, they are what make Fall of Hyperion worth reading.

Hyperion encompassed everything from high octane space opera to noir mysteries to somber reflections on the meanings of God. Fall of Hyperion has almost all of the same elements, but the key difference is that they’re no longer separated into their own separate stories. Now, every aspect of the narrator is thrown into the same stew. Unfortunately, this results in them bumping up against each other far more often than it does in them aiding each other.

A key example of this is Fedmahn Kassad’s battle with the Shrike. The fight doesn’t occur in one go; instead, the two travel backwards and forwards through time as they battle, and their bout is woven into the narrative in various places as the two pop in and out of the timeline. The effect succeeds completely in making the battle seem like an epic, world changing affair, but it also reduces the scenes themselves. The timeless feel of the two warrior’s war squashes the brutality of their battle, reducing the (otherwise well written) scenes of their fight to more of a reminder of their existence than a source of tension.

In a work so full of elements that reach for the stars, I don’t think that anyone will be surprised to hear that several elements fall a bit flat, at least in comparison to what they were built up to be. Each of the seven pilgrims, we’ve been told, has been selected for a reason, and each of them has a VITAL part to play, without which humanity is doomed. It’s a bit hard to reconcile that with the massive anticlimax that is Martin Silenus’s conclusion. His story in Hyperion was some of the hardest reading in the novel, but was ultimately one of my favorite sections, as Silenus/Simmons pondered the relation between writer and muse and as we saw the Hyperion Cantos prophetic power. His part in Fall, however, basically consists of writing a few words (though not finishing the poem) and then…falling off the face of the earth. Alright, there’s a bit more to it than that, but I see absolutely no reason for the fate of humanity to have been imperiled by his absence.

In the same manner, Gladstone’s plan is a truly bewildering thing. In Hyperion, we receive hints that the benevolent AIs are not what they seem. In Fall, Gladstone is determined to plunge the Hegemony into chaos, if need be, to try and eradicate the threat. But, when her plan finally goes into action, we discover that it was driven entirely by circumstances she could never have known about while formulating it. Are we to believe that the (otherwise brilliant) ruler of mankind’s best idea was to go: fuck it, I’m sure something’ll look promising when the time comes?

On a final negative note, the appearance of a second Keats cybrid is a wee bit ridiculous. For a poet who’s supposed to be all but forgotten, to be brought back twice is a bit much. The new cybrid narrates the entire story. His sections aren’t bad, but the method in which he sees what is happening elsewhere in the world comes across as contrived and overly convenient.

Sticking with the theme of poetry, I enjoyed the way that Simmons’s integrated his knowledge of the romantic poets into his story, while generally avoiding coming off as too pretentious, but it brings up a question. Does the history of poetry in Simmons’s world have a gap with absolutely no works of note between Keats and Silenus, because every single piece of quoted poetry is either brand spankin’ new or written by Keats and his contemporaries.

None of these problems, however, are anything even approaching crippling. Fall of Hyperion can almost be compared to the fusion of a lamp, an ipod speaker, and a bicycle. The light is dimmer, the sound quality is worse, and the bicycle doesn’t go as fast, but the combination is far more interesting together than the three objects are apart…or, at least, it would be if that wasn’t such a god awful example. The success of Fall comes not from the individual triumphs of its elements, but from the stunning depth of theme and characterization, and the epic scale that it displays.

The story’s scope is so vast that all the human characters feel insignificant when held up against it:

I am merely a poet dying far from home.

The story arcs of the new Keats cybrid and Meina Gladstone are almost complete opposites. Gladstone’s story is about a woman – a leader of worlds, yes, but still just a single person – rising up to face insurmountable odds and do what she can to safeguard humanity. Keats’s story, on the other hand, is the tale of a man literally lost amidst the turmoil around him, a conduit to repeat the world shattering decisions that are too large for him to alter, gradually coming to the realization that he’s not a true player.

The Hyperion pilgrims don’t go through any major character revelations, but they don’t need to; they have all been perfectly set up in Hyperion. Some of them, like Fedmahn Kassad, stride forward and meet their promise brilliantly. Others, like the aforementioned Martin Silenus, don’t quite do the same. One of the most interesting aspects of the first novel was Sol’s pondering of the Abraham question. The answer presented here is satisfactory from a narrative perspective, though I wish that it could have been deeper from a broader point of view. Of course, there I’m being unfair. The questions raised by Sol in Hyperion are ones that I’ve personally debated since long before I read Simmons’s take, and I suppose that I can’t expect Simmons to neatly wrap up age old questions for me.

Fall of Hyperion is anything but a perfect ride. It tries to exist on a level that few SF authors have ever even attempted, and the fact that it occasionally fails to get there certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t a successful work. If you’ve read Hyperion, there’s no reason at all to not continue…just don’t expect to be wowed quite as much.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Guy Gavriel Kay Interviewed (Elsewhere)

Most of you have probably already read Pat's interview with Kay, but I figured I'd mention it, if only for the sheer excellence of the following quote:

What is your view as to fantasy's function?

I resist, inherently, grand unified field theories. I back away from the examples you’ve offered as much as I am uneasy with someone explaining the ‘function’ of music, art, or novels as a whole (psychological, evolutionary, whatever). For one thing, as you noted above, yourself, the fantasy field is increasingly fragmented and it is also increasingly blended into mainstream fiction. Does someone really want to try to be definitive about the shared ‘function’ of paranormal vampire detective-romance and Robert Jordan and Guy Kay and Le Guin’s Lavinia (compared to her Earthsea)? Good luck to them. Take it even further: might not the ‘function’ for you be very different regarding the same novel, from its function for me, or someone else? I’ll suggest chances are good they are different, in smaller or larger degrees. Art serves many and varied needs, and the very same work can serve quite different purposes for different people - and for the same person at different times in his or her life.

The rest of the interview is just as excellent, which goes to show that I really need to get around to ordering Under Heaven.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Richard K. Morgan Doesn't Play Well With Others

I mean, play Gears Of War; those characters, you can’t imagine them doing anything besides running around shooting monsters.

This is certainly not the first time Morgan’s stirred up some controversy, but everything’s really coming together now. Morgan’s previous target was Tolkien, though I think that he made a few fair points (and, say what you will about the quality of the novel, The Steel Remains did address those points). This time around, it’s even harder to avoid thinking that Morgan’s just doing his best to rile people up.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the people reporting on this couldn’t possibly have slanted their articles more. I’m primarily referring to is this, which has really mastered the art of taking things out of context. Yes, Morgan did say:

Halo is full of these bullshit archetypal characters and there's no real emotional effect.

but it wasn’t an unprovoked assault. In fact, the question he was asked was:

Do you think getting that greater depth of character is made more difficult by the faceless nature of Nanosuit 2? Master Chief syndrome, you might call it.

It’s a question about deep characters in videogames and specifically asks whether Morgan thinks he can overcome what the interviewer thought was the problem with Halo’s characters. It would be a bit odd for Morgan to not discuss Halo’s storytelling merits at that point, would it not be? Morgan is saying that he doesn’t anticipate a problem, because he doesn’t think that was what was wrong with Halo. Not seeing the malice here, sorry.

The defense in the comments of both that article and the one here is frequently just as off base. What is being accomplished by spouting games like Mass Effect (which may not be the best choice to contend charges of archetypical writing)? Morgan is not saying that no games have good stories; he is a fan of Bioshock, for one. Other comments say that gameplay is more important than long cut scenes, though Morgan’s already answered that:

…a 20-minute cut-scene is embarrassing.

It seems like very, very few people commenting have actually read the whole interview. Either that or their minds simply shut down after the Halo comment, and they started looking for stuff to hate:

What is wrong with comic books BTW? Do writers who deal with a character like the Joker automatically suck as writers because it is "bullshit, man... that's comic book?" Tell that to Allan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison. Or Warren Ellis. Or Neil Gaiman. Or Brian Michael Bendis. Or Mark Millar.

I know, Morgan must really hate comic books.

Morgan is not saying that story triumphs over gameplay; he held up Bioshock as an example, a game with the best integration of the two concepts that I’ve ever played, not Heavy Rain. Morgan isn’t even insulting the games, just their stories, which makes comments like:

Halo games were always supposed to be light on story, heavy on environment: big weapons, awesome vehicles, wide-ranging and artistic tech, epic landscapes. That, to me, is Halo.

utterly pointless. No one is attacking smashing someone in the face with a speeding Ghost; they’re just saying that there isn’t all that much behind Halo’s story. And I can’t disagree with him there. Ignore the books for the moment; the discussion’s about the video game Halo. Are people really trying to tell me that Sergeant Johnson, characterized by being tough and chewing a cigar, is a deep character? Really?

Like last time, I can’t shake the feeling that Morgan’s setting out to infuriate as many people as he possibly can, but, also like last time, I can’t really deny any of his points. Unfortunately, the odds of my computer being able to run Crysis 2 are laughable, so I suppose I’ll never get to see if he lives up to his own hype.


Morgan himself has come back to comment on the misrepresentation of his opinions:

...the gaming press has taken a series of freely expressed opinions from me, borrowed selectively for negative content, created misleading titles around said comments and so bolted together an image of me as some arrogant interloper who thinks my writing is superior to anybody else’s working in games.This process reached a head yesterday when Koku Gamer started openly misrepresenting my views on the game Uncharted 2 by substituting the views of another, entirely different person working at Crytek and claiming his opinions were mine. The good news is that the view they’ve claimed I expressed is so diametrically opposed to other well-reported comments I made about Uncharted 2 (in short, that it was superb), that Koku are just going to end up looking like the fuck-wit lying assholes they clearly are.

I guess that's the problem with twisting everything someone says; when you go too far, they can prove you're wrong and throw the whole thing in your face. Thumbs up for journalistic integrity?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review Index

Dan Abnett - The Founding
Dan Abnett - Ravenor: The Omnibus

Daniel Abraham - Leviathan Wept
Daniel Abraham - The Dragon's Path
Daniel Abraham - The King's Blood

Robert Aickman - Cold Hand in Mine

Alma Alexander: 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens

Leonid Andreyev - Visions

Angel: Season One

Assassin's Creed 2

Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas
Iain M. Banks - Player of Games
Iain M. Banks - Against a Dark Background
Iain M. Banks - Matter
Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail

Batman: Arkham Asylum [Game Review]

Battlestar Galactica: Season One

Robert Jackson Bennett - The Company Man

Algernon Blackwood - Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories

Poppy Z. Brite - Drawing Blood
Poppy Z. Brite - The Lazarus Heart
Poppy Z. Brite - Liquor
Poppy Z. Brite & Caitlin R. Kiernan - Wrong Things

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Five
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Six
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Seven

The Cabin in the Woods

Ramsey Campbell - The Face that Must Die

Raymond Chandler - The Long Goodbye

Justin Cronin - The Passage

Philip K. Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Doctor Who: Series Five

Stephen R. Donaldson - The Real Story

Arthur Conan Doyle - A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

E.R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros

Steven Erikson - Bauchelain and Korbal Broach

Ian C. Esslemont - Night of Knives
Ian C. Esslemont - Return of the Crimson Guard
Ian C. Esslemont - Stonewielder

Brian Evenson - Last Days

Fantasy & Science Fiction: March/April 2011
Fantasy & Science Fiction: May/June 2011
Fantasy & Science Fiction: July/August 2011


Neil Gaiman - Neverwhere
Neil Gaiman - American Gods
Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys
Neil Gaiman - Fragile Things

Felix Gilman - Thunderer
Felix Gilman - Gears of the City
Felix Gilman - The Halfmade World

David Goodis - The Wounded and the Slain
David Goodis - Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s

H.A. Goodman - Breaking the Devil's Heart

Kate Griffin - A Madness of Angels
Kate Griffin - The Midnight Mayor
Kate Griffin - The Neon Court

B.B. Griffith - Blue Fall

Eirik Gumeny - Exponential Apocalypse

Allan Guthrie - Hard Man

Peter F. Hamilton - Night's Dawn
Peter F. Hamilton - Fallen Dragon
Peter F. Hamilton - Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained

Dashiell Hammett - Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett - The Continental Op

James Herbert - Sepulchre

Jack Hight - Siege

Joe Hill - 20th Century Ghosts
Joe Hill - Heart-Shaped Box

Christopher Hitchens - God is Not Great

Robin Hobb - Farseer
Robin Hobb - Liveship Traders

William Hope Hodgson - The House on the Borderlands
William Hope Hodgson - Carnacki the Ghost-Finder

Kameron Hurley - God's War

I Am Number Four [Movie Review]

Inception [Movie Review]

Iron Man 2 [Movie Review]

N.K. Jesmin - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Poppy Z. Brite & Caitlin R. Kiernan - Wrong Things
Caitlin R. Kiernan - The Ammonite Violin & Others
Caitlin R. Kiernan - The Drowning Girl
Caitlin R. Kiernan - Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart

Stephen King - Carrie
Stephen King - 'Salem's Lot
Stephen King - Cujo
Stephen King - Skeleton Crew
Stephen King - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
Stephen King - Duma Key
Stephen King - Everything's Eventual

Daniel Kraus - Rotters

Mark Lawrence - Prince of Thorns

Thomas Ligotti - Songs of a Dead Dreamer
---Thomas Ligotti - The Nyctalops Trilogy
---Thomas Ligotti - "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech"
Thomas Ligotti - Noctuary
Thomas Ligotti - My Work is Not Yet Done
Thomas Ligotti - Teatro Grottesco
Thomas Ligotti - The Conspiracy against the Human Race

Jeff Long - The Descent

H.P. Lovecraft - "The Nameless City"
H.P. Lovecraft - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Little Fockers [Movie Review]

Marjorie M. Liu - The Iron Hunt

Jeph Loeb - Batman: Hush

George R.R. Martin - Sandkings
George R.R. Martin - Fevre Dream
George R.R. Martin - Nightflyers
---George R.R. Martin - "Nightflyers"
George R.R. Martin - Tuf Voyaging

Robert McCammon - The Wolf's Hour and The Hunter from the Woods

Cormac McCarthy - No Country for Old Men

Graham McNeil - The Ultramarines Omnibus

Micmacs [Movie Review]

China Miéville - The City and The City
China Miéville - Embassytown

Frank Miller - Batman: Year One

Sandy Mitchell - Hero of the Imperium

Elizabeth Moon - Sheepfarmer's Daughter

Alan Moore - Batman: The Killing Joke
Alan Moore - V for Vendetta

Richard K. Morgan - Market Forces

Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami - After Dark
Haruki Murakami - 1Q84

Adam LG Nevill - Banquet for the Damned
Adam LG Nevill - Apartment 16
Adam Nevill - The Ritual

Mark Charan Newton - Nights of Villjamur
Mark Charan Newton - City of Ruin

Larry Niven - Ringworld

Yoko Ogawa - Revenge

Félix J. Palma - The Map of Time
Félix J. Palma - The Map of the Sky

K.J. Parker - Scavenger
K.J. Parker - Engineer
K.J. Parker - The Folding Knife
K.J. Parker - The Hammer
K.J. Parker - Sharps

Cameron Pierce - Cthulhu Comes to the Vampire Kingdom

Terry Pratchett - Going Postal

Cherie Priest - Boneshaker

Alastair Reynolds - Thousandth Night/Minla's Flowers
Alastair Reynolds - Terminal World
Alastair Reynolds - Deep Navigation

Patrick Rothfuss - The Wise Man's Fear

Jeff Salyards - Scourge of the Betrayer

Brandon Sanderson - "Defending Elysium"
Brandon Sanderson - The Way of Kings
Brandon Sanderson - The Alloy of Law


Sylvia Shults - Price of Admission

Joan Slonczewski - A Door into Ocean

Scott Smith - The Ruins

Mary Shelley - Frankenstein

Shock Totem #1
Shock Totem #2

Dan Simmons - Fall of Hyperion

Peter Straub - If You Could See Me Now

Charles Stross - Glasshouse

Steph Swainston - The Year of Our War

Larry D. Sweazy - The Rattlesnake Season

Sam Sykes - Tome of the Undergates
Sam Sykes - Black Halo

Thomas Tessier - Wicked Things

Roland Topor - The Tenant

Catherynne M. Valente - Ventriloquism

Jeff VanderMeer - Veniss Underground

Vernor Vinge - A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernor Vinge - A Deepness in the Sky
Vernor Vinge - The Children of the Sky

David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace - The Broom of the System

Jeffrey Wilson - The Donors

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Alastair Reynolds - Terminal World

And in that time, before the gates of paradise were closed to them, men and women were as children. And so plentiful were the fruits and bounties of paradise that they lived for four-score years, and some lived longer than that. And in that time the Earth was warm and blue and green and many were its provinces.

Alastair Reynolds’s latest novel is the easy equal of anything the man’s yet written. Terminal World contains many elements familiar to Reynolds readers; in many ways, Terminal World is the culmination of several trends that have popped up in almost everything that Reynolds has written. Despite those, Terminal World is an outlier in the Reynolds catalog, and if you need proof, let's just look at the covers. Spaceship, spaceship, spaceship, spaceship, spaceship... dirigible?

One of the main differences is Terminal World’s extremely focused narrative. Revelation Space didn’t have an astronomically large number of point of views, but they were scattered over awe inspiring distances in both space and time. Chasm City, as well as many of Reynolds’s other work (Absolution Gap, for instance), features two plot threads that don’t come together until the very end of the novel. Since then, however, Reynolds has been making a conscious effort to streamline his stories. In Terminal World, we see the world only through the eyes of Doctor Quillon and a few one off characters. The change is marked. As opposed to something like Redemption Ark, where Clavain and the other main characters were the ones guiding the story, we see events from the periphery a good amount of the time. That’s not to say that Quillon isn’t important, of course, but he’s only one player amongst many. This close focus adds tension to several parts, but can also occasionally lead to a plot without a clear goal.

As a result of Quillon’s dominance, Terminal World is a very personal novel. To that end, it’s a definite plus that the characterization is generally excellent. At times, Reynolds’s characters seem in danger of falling into standard archetypes, but the traditional climaxes, expected from page one, are absent and the illusion always gives way to something deeper. A good example is Meroka. She has good reason to despise Angels; Quillon is an angel of sorts. I don’t think that anyone will be shocked by knowing that she finds out what he is, and that she hates him for it. In that phase of their relationship, she gives Quillon the following speech:

And you’re wrong about me, if you think there’s forgiveness deep down inside, if only you can find it. Truth to tell Cutter, there’s only more hate. That’s what I am. Clinical-grade hate, all the way through. Keep digging, you’ll only come out on the other side.

Amusingly written, but not particularly surprising. Surely, they are going to have a tearful reunion at some point, right? Well…no. Reynolds characters often tread familiar paths, but they do so without the usual road signs. Melodramatic declarations and epiphanies often allow authors to point out the change in characters without having to make the characters actually change. In Terminal World, the characters never go through one hundred and eighty degree reinventions. Instead, their personalities and friendships evolve subtly and naturally.

Thematically, Terminal World deals with many of the same issues that Reynolds has always dealt with, namely man’s struggle to adapt and survive in a vast and uncaring world. In this case, the endless emptiness of space is replaced with the Zones, different areas that each dictate a different level of technology, or, in extreme cases, prohibit all life.

Reynolds’s prose and worldbuilding here is primarily set to evoke wonder and awe. Moments like the first vision of the Swarm were powerful enough to make me put down the book for a few seconds and just revel in the image. The majority of the book is built like that, with the effect of making the contrasting scenes all the starker. Fleeing in a train that feels like it’s going backwards in time, the delicious strangeness of the scene is stabbed through by the appearance of hellish hunter angels. The variety between the feel of scenes set in Neon Heights and Horsetown, let alone the hellish wastes, is nothing short of amazing.

One of the main feelings you get from reading Terminal World is that of a world with tremendous depth. Everything that we’re shown feels like a part of something much larger, and it’s something that the very limited point of view only emphasizes. As opposed to some settings that feel like a city prop for a play, vibrant when in use and husks of wood when not mid performance, this is a world that feels like it exists round the clock. I can picture people living their lives in Horsetown, and I can picture running in fear from Skullboys even when the camera’s far in the air in another part of the world. I’m praying for a sequel to this world at some point, though I’m unsure just how likely it actually is.

Terminal World’s ending is one of its few weak points. With a few notable exceptions, Reynolds’s endings have always been hit and miss. Now, it seems to me that you can have two kinds of ambiguous endings. You can have the kind where a character’s personal goals are accomplished, but the grander struggle goes on, or, to inverse that, one where the character’s life is still in flux, but the greater battle is done. Both can, and obviously have, been done to great effect. Unfortunately, Terminal World’s ending is ambiguous in both ways, leaving the reader with the feeling that the movie cut out in the final five minutes.

Still, complaining too much about a slightly disappointing ending after reading such a marvelous book feels petty, and the ending does not, after all, come anywhere near damaging the rest of the book. Terminal World is one of Reynolds’s finest works yet. It has everything that has made him such an excellent writer over the years, as well as a whole host of new things, almost all of which succeed brilliantly. If you are even remotely interested in Reynolds (or just good science fiction), you owe it to yourself to read this.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Rebooting the Classics

Recently, John Scalzi announced that he has written a “rebooted” version of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. Now, I have a decent amount of faith in Scalzi. I’ve only read Old Man’s War by him, but it was quite good, and I’ve read a slightly ridiculous amount of Whatever over the past few weeks. I don’t think that Scalzi is going to start producing hackwork any time soon, but Scalzi isn’t the whole field, and, as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies proved, unique ideas stay unique for roughly as long as it takes for the first reader to pick up a copy. Anyone who can’t see the potential for ludicrous amounts of derivate dross in these reworkings is mind bogglingly optimistic, but what actual impact is this likely to have on the genre?

Let’s stick with the Spliced fiction (ala Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) for a bit, as it’s quite similar to this new (potential) phenomenon. Neth recently posted some musings on his blog, and I think he raises most of the important points. It’s a fun concept, sure, but is it actually worthwhile? I can’t give you a definitive answer, and I’d be lying if I said I was well read in the new fad. I do, however, think that it’s something that could have potential…but, in order to reach that potential, they’ll need to do more than just mash two things together. As it is, for the most part, Spliced fiction is taking an old idea, leaving it entirely unchanged, and then sticking on some flashy disco lights to obscure the fact that you haven’t done shit in the way of actual innovation. Entertaining, sure, but not exactly groundbreaking. If any of these new authors want lasting success, they’re going to have to create something more than a comic idea. It’s the same as with Science Fiction. You can’t just say “my book has a spaceship,” and expect it to sell. You have to do something with the spaceship, and so far I remain unconvinced that anyone’s actually done anything with the spaceship in all these Spliced stories.

I have a bit more faith in the merit of near future Rebooted fiction. This type of thing is relatively unheard of in fiction, but is commonplace just about everywhere else. One of the most obvious comparisons is the tribute song. The vast majority of tribute songs are simply a note for note reproduction of the original, generating the same feelings if well done, but not adding anything. The players of these songs, however, aren’t trying to add anything with their covers. It is, in general, more to show an artistic debt than anything else. This kind of cover is analogous to the fan fiction that’s always existed. Entertaining, and a good building block for other things, but not noteworthy – nor likely to ever really impact the field –on its own.

The second kind of tribute, however, is a totally different ballpark. This is the kind of cover in which the covering band doesn’t just replay the song, but reinvents it. Excellent examples of this include Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and Judas Priest’s cover of Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust. These covers are not so much a regurgitation of the original idea but a reenvisioning of it through a new perspective. If this concept was extended to fiction, as Scalzi seems to intend, I see no problem with it at all.

So, why have neither of those styles of tributes ever caught on with fiction? Well, alright, there have been a few examples, but all of them have been on the fringe of Scalzi’s Rebooting and nothing closer. The most obvious of those, at least to me, is the continuation of the works of Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft after the authors’ death. The difference there is that those stories are extensions of the authors’ work, not revisions of it [see comments for an expansion on this by Taraniach]. Moving away from exceptions, the reason that these revisions have never done much in fiction is that their main cause is gone. In video games and movies, fields where this kind of thing is common, the primary reason is technology. You may debate the degree, but it’s impossible to say that graphics and the like do not impact the experience at all. Newer gamers, say the people who started on an Xbox, are going to have a damn hard time going back and playing older games, regardless of their quality. As a result, revisionists get their chance to shine every few years as they raid the graves of past giants for a new audience.

In books, however, there’s nothing like technology to necessitate revision. Yes, language changes, but not to the degree that you’re going to need to translate The Hobbit anytime soon. What does this mean? Well, barring a few oddballs, I’m hoping that the majority of these Reboots will be done out of a love for the original work, and a belief that it can be altered in some way, rather than because seventeen, or two hundred and six, years have passed.

Overall, the reason that I’m confident the market won’t be flooded with revisions is, in part, what I just mentioned. I don’t think it’s going to be all that much of a cash cow, because there’s very little reason for a reader to pick up a newly written copy of A Red Badge of Courage over the original. People have proven that they have absolutely no problem paying again and again for something that’s just like Tolkien, but I have a hard time believing that they’ll pay the same amount for something that is Tolkien. Or perhaps I’m just being a bit of an optimist here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Philip K. Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

On his way to work Rick Deckard, as Lord knew how many other people, stopped briefly to skulk about one of San Francisco’s larger pet shops, along animal row.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a Science Fiction classic, the inspiration for Blade Runner, and sports one of the best written blurbs I’ve ever read. The good ideas don’t stop on the back cover. The book tackles several interesting themes and presents a whole host of unique, and well integrated, ideas. Despite all this, Do Androids… fails to live up to its reputation.

The book’s cornerstones are the androids and the concept of empathy. As more and more realistic androids are built, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish them from humans. On almost all levels, intellectual, emotional, etc, they conform perfectly to the norm. The humans still on earth are terrified by this. What if, one day, there is an android so advanced that no test, no matter how intricate, can separate them from people? How will they be hunted down, kept separate and subjugated? More importantly – for the reader, if not for the police organizations of future earth – how can we justify hunting down and killing something that is the same as us save for its manner of birth?

Ironically for a book so focused on empathy, where Do Androids… falls short is the prose’s ability to convey emotion. Put simply, the text conveys none at all; everything is conveyed in the same listless monotone. Let’s imagine a standard metal song, beginning with an acoustic intro. After a minute or two of the introduction, the electric guitar comes in and the feel of the song completely changes. We go from atmospheric and quiet to loud and aggressive. Do Androids… is the equivalent of the entire song played by the acoustic. Yes, the notes are the same, but the feeling’s totally changed; it’s no longer dynamic in the slightest.

This fundamental lack of vibrancy, of change, in the text hampers it in many ways. Fight scenes and climaxes are both stripped of their power:

“Why won’t my laser tube fire?” [The Android] said, switching on and off the miniaturized triggering and aiming device which he held in the palm of his hand.

“A sine wave,” Rick said. “That phases out laser emanation and spreads the beam into ordinary light.”

“Then I’ll have to break your pencil neck.” The android dropped the device and, with a snarl, grabbed with both hands for Rick’s throat.

As the android’s hands sank into his throat, Rick fired his regulation issue old-style pistol from its shoulder holster; the .38 magnum slug struck the android in the head and its brain box burst. The Nexus-6 unit which operated it blew into pieces, a raging, mad wind which carried throughout the car. Bits of it, like the radioactive dust itself, whirled down on Rick. The retired remains of the android rocked back, collided with the car door, bounced off, and struck heavily against him; he found himself struggling to shove the twitching remnants of the android away.

The above is supposed to be a thrilling moment, a betrayal, an abrupt ambush-like action scene, and yet the explanatory dialogue dulls the effect entirely. Deckard’s reaction to having a gun pointed at him is to explain the precise mechanics preventing his skull from decorating the car door. In addition, the entire affair is over before it can begin. When, after the lackluster opening ripostes are exchanged, the fight begins in earnest, there’s barely a paragraph of the android’s execution; there isn’t time for even the most involved of readers to detect even the faintest whiff of danger before said danger’s dispatched, a process matched only in speed by the writing’s desire to meander about explaining the cranial anatomy of androids. In this manner, almost all of the book’s climaxes are disposed of, after pages of buildup, as a vague flash in the rear view mirror and with the faintest feeling of that’s it?

Worse, the reader is prevented from ever identifying with Deckard at all, not just when he’s in mortal danger. Deckard’s relationships never draw us in, we never get to develop our own feelings for any of the character’s, and we don’t truly get to share Deckard’s, leaving us with just the shallow knowledge of his physical and verbal response to those around him. As a result, the conflicts of interests, and what should have been the validation of all the novel’s themes, falls almost wholly flat.

Furthermore, moving past the prose, there’re instances where things seem to be done in order to augment a certain theme, or just for convenience, when it’s hard to think of a rational reason for them to be done that way. For instance, there are several companies that make androids. Everyone who goes to Mars – and everyone who isn’t dirt poor goes – gets a free android. So, if the demand is on Mars (it is, in fact, illegal to be an android running around on earth), and the companies are rich enough to go (they’re described as, essentially, swimming in money), why the hell are they still on earth? In addition, partway through the novel, Deckard stumbles onto a nest of androids. In the middle of the nest is a single human. The man’s existence eventually leads to a thematic coup de grace, but I’m unable to think of a single reason for him to be there at all.

Amazingly enough, almost none of these flaws exist when the point of view switches over to John Isidore, a mentally crippled “Chickenhead.” Contrary to in Deckard’s sections (where any semblance of emotion is subtle-ized itself right out of existence), Isidore’s moods are painted in broad brushes. The effect can occasionally be comic, but amidst the overacting the character gained my sympathy in a way that no one else in the book came even close to matching. I guess I’m a bigger fan of melodrama than I am of blank stares.

Perhaps a part of my liking for Isidore comes from his job as an ambulance driver for an electric animal company. The obsession with animals was by far my favorite aspect of Dick’s work; it showcases the changes to earth perfectly. The most interesting portion of the entire novel comes from a discussion of the merits of real and mechanical cats.

Approaching the question raised between humans and androids in a totally different way, Dick makes us look a bit closer at our own empathy. The majority of the technology is of a similar vein, seamlessly integrated and fascinating. Perhaps chief among them is the Penfield Mood Organ, a device that dictates your mood upon the dials you push. All of these devices are treated so irreverently by the characters that it often takes several seconds to realize that we don’t (yet) have real world equivalents, and all of them are thematically charged to an impressive degree.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel that I failed to connect with on any meaningful level. That being said, it’s not a novel that I could advise someone to not read. The book has enough interesting ideas that I can easily see why it’s considered such a classic…it’s just a pity that those ideas are so let down by the prose.