Sunday, February 28, 2016

February Reads Part Two

Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Software by Rudy Rucker
Trouble and her Friends by Melissa Scott
The Nether by Jennifer Haley
Mississippi Blues by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Deception Well by Linda Nagata
Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski
253 by Geoff Ryman
Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock

Let's start with the play, The Nether by Jennifer Haley. This was recommended to me by a stranger who asked me about my research interests. The play does sound entirely up my alley: cyberspace, selfhood, the body, ethics, etc. However, The Nether is clearly not written for me or other people well-versed in science fiction. Instead, this play is Baby's First Science Fiction. None of the content is remotely novel nor is the execution particularly forceful or compelling. The plotting is pedestrian and the characters have the annoying tendency of announcing themes in hyper-articulate fashion. Not that the stage absolutely needs realism, but a more deft hand could have walked the line between Brechtian estrangement and didactic pronouncements more successfully.

This is sci-fi for people who have never encountered sci-fi. The Nether really calls into question the class dynamics of the theatre in an interesting way: while the novel is intrinsically bourgeois, the stage should be less lateral in class accessibility. Yet, more and more, the stage has become the playset for the elite, as ticket prices increase to prohibitive levels. The Nether, with its simplistic ethics and bourgeois attitudes around sex and performance, speaks to its rich audience, inflating their ego with pseudo-intellectual nonsense that sci-fi has already been working out for decades, in the "ghetto" of genre. Frankly, cyberpunk and postcyberpunk theorized and problematized the ethics of virtuality twenty to thirty years in better, more stylish, less tryhard fashion.

In a typically bourgeois manoeuver, the play uses pedophilia to make its "shocking" points, because I suppose audiences wouldn't consider the ethics of a crime less sensational. Of course, The Nether would involve pseudo-Victorian garb, language, and architecture in its cyberspace as nothing speaks more of the corruptible innocence of youth than a Victorian orphan. This play is like a 15 year old's attempt at being edgy. The Nether is awful.

As of February 28, I'm waiting to see if my review of Goonan's Mississippi Queen will be published to the SF Mistressworks blog that reviews and revives forgotten or underappreciated works of science fiction written by women. In case that post does not appear in time for this post to be published, I'll say that I thought it was an improvement over Queen City Jazz in terms of technical execution; Goonan's weaving of theme with worldbuilding is exquisite. However, the sequel also treads some of the same weak spots that plagued Queen City Jazz: characters have an exceedingly annoying tendency to avoid answering direct questions, all for the purpose of prolonging the plot. More frustrating than Dumbledore. It's also a bit too long, maybe, but what novel isn't, really.

Rudy Rucker's Software was super entertaining and obviously the first winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. In fact, I can't imagine this novel without the looming influence of Dick. The more science fiction I read, especially of cyberpunk and its derivatives, the more I realize that Dick's impact on science fiction cannot be overstated. Without Dick, I’m sure a bunch of disparate and discrete authors would have eventually assembled the riches of ideas that Dick provided us, but he did it all himself. Other than maybe Asimov and Clarke, I can think of no other presence in science fiction that’s completely and 100% indelible. Rucker's novel doesn't exist without the tropes and paranoia that fuels Dick's fiction and ideas. This doesn't mean I didn't thoroughly enjoy Software, I just want to point out how completely indebted the novel is to Dick. It's hard not like a novel that features numerous scenes of robots and people exclaiming they need to literally eat brains.

Deception Well was a fantastic read. I was worried before starting it, as I wasn't terribly impressed by The Bohr Maker and the reviews on Goodreads implied the novel was a misfire. Well, as per usual, Goodreads is fucking wrong. Deception Well is a vast improvement over her first novel, as Nagata's plotting improves by leaps and bounds. The plot is almost too intricate for its relatively brief length (~400 pages, which I read in a single day!); I needed to doublecheck my understanding of the plot with a summary from the Internet, just to make sure I comprehended everything. Still, I don't consider this a detracting element as I wish more books were optimistic that I could follow along.

I read Door into Ocean back in May of 2014 and I enjoyed it, sort of. Now that I've read Slonczewski's "sequel," Daughter Elysium, I can't help but see that first novel as merely prologue for a deeper, more complex, more rewarding bit of feminist/sociological/ecological science fiction novel. Daughter Elysium takes place hundreds of years into the future and features a cast of dozens from a plethora of species that are lovingly detailed. Slonczewski juggles dozens of plot threads and themes, from the ethics of bioengineering, of abortion, of colonialism, to the very definition of sentience and personhood. For some, the lack of forward momentum in the plot might present a bit of a hindrance, as the novel lacks the classic structure of "obstacle, resolution, obstacle, rinse repeat" but rather, characters bouncing off ideas and concepts and each other. Conflict comes from complex political and sociological differences, a main theme of Door into Ocean but expanded and multiplied by more species and races. Generically, Daughter Elysium straddles a line between science fiction and fantasy, as the narrative deploys numerous paradigmatic fantasy tropes (eg. the barbarian medieval feudal race, the close to nature spiritual race, etc) but grounds them in some very detailed biology and genetic science that must have been cutting edge in 1993.

The focal characters for the novel come from a matriarchal society that still insists on a form of gender equality: the women bear the children, the men raise the children. The husband is a physician, the wife is a linguist, both have important jobs and functions within their society. Sometimes, especially when commenting on relations between sexes, Daughter Elysium comes off as incredibly 70s feminist camp, the kind skewered by Futurama in their fourth film. The novel also feels stunningly essentialist in that gender roles are rigidly defined and there seems little space for a gender non-conforming individual. Even the queer folk are written as performing their gender without deviation. Still, the novel has its heart in the right places, and perhaps as a scientist, Slonczewski was not at the cutting edge of gender theory (Butler's Gender Trouble was published in 1989) (additionally, I've found many science fiction writers who are hardline scientists to be rather skeptical of gender theory anyway). Ultimately, Daughter Elysium was a fantastic read, slow, but extremely rewarding.

I only meant to read the first twenty or so pages of 253 by Geoff Ryman, but I ended up reading almost half of it in one sitting. The book's premise is so exceedingly clever, I'm angry that I didn't come up with it on my own. 253 is composed of 253 chapters comprised of 253 words, each chapter focusing on an individual on a perfectly full train in England in 1995. Each chapter has three sections: what they look like, what they do, what they are doing/thinking. Some characters are linked in some obvious ways (eg. marriage) and others in not so obvious ways (one robbed the other but do not recognize each other). Ryman manages to convey a spectacular cross-section of London, in terms of class, gender, age, race without seeming like characters are token. Some chapters are funny; some are heartbreaking. Beyond the 253 words of each chapter, there are footnotes that may or may not be misleading or informative, some are short, while one or two are David Foster Wallace-style long (including a bizarre tangent in which the poet William Blake finds himself in the modern day). Ryman's voice is wry and sardonic, and he even admits that he initially came up with the footnotes as an opportunity to be "bitchy." Predicting Twitter's character constraints a full decade before, 253 finds art in limits, showcasing Ryman's carefully selected phrasing and insightful eye. I read The Child Garden in December 2014 and didn't love it, but Ryman seems to invent himself with each book. His ambition was enough for me to get over my initial disappointment with The Child Garden and I'm glad I did. I'll next read his 1992 Was, a postmodern examination of The Wizard of Oz.

As much as I enjoyed the first Elric book, Sailor on the Seas of Fate was a spectacular increase in quality. Consisting of three linked longer short stories, the second book brings together Moorcock's other Eternal Champions and pits them against a set of twins who will sap the multiverse of all energy if these Champions don't step in.

A brief interlude. When I was a child, I had Lego and action figures and I told stories using them. I had characters with deep histories, mostly cribbed from other sources (eg. I had a "Phoenix" like the X-Men). So, in order to circumvent the contradictions inherent in competing canons, I devised a multiverse. Certain Lego minifigs fulfilled different roles in this multiverse. Specifically, one of my Blacktron minifigs was the protagonist in almost all of my "sagas" but not always as the same character. Here's a picture of him:

I imagined that I was a writer-God and that these action figures and minifigs were performing roles in an epic meta-saga that encompassed all of the multiverse in its totality. I also imagined a universe in which a character rose to the level of a God and was able to reach through universes to combat other characters that I created. And on and on and on. Inspired by the galactic scale of comics by Jim Starlin, I created whole universes just to destroy them. The stakes in my sagas were enormous.

I mention all this just to give you an idea that I was not prepared for how similar Moorcock and I are in terms of how we approach storytelling. The climax of the first story in this book features the four Eternal Champions combining and using an ultimate sword that literally slices through planes of existence to puncture the eye of a creature that manifests as an infinite building that breathes. In other words, Moorcock has gone from being an author I'm interested in to an author that I must read everything by. We share a sensibility about the possibilities of storytelling, one that he exploits with a large canvas, a scale I haven't seen since Hickman's run on The Avengers. This is the type of insanity that I can get behind.

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