Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
April 2007

Nebula Awards Showcase 2007 edited by Mike Resnick
Roc, 2007, Softcover, 383 pp, $15.95

Book awards really only matter to the people who regard the respective voters doing the accolade-doling as legitimate authorities in a given literary community. An author's real challenge isn't to compete with his or her peers for the right to maniacally stamp "Hugo/Nebula Award Winner!" on their books, but rather to write down the stories they care about in such a way that they manage to find and engage the attention of the kind of people who care about the same types of tales. Some of the best work never wins a thing, and some of the worst trash might be praised the most effusively, depending on the tastes of those doing the judging. Even the idea of singling out specific writing as being The Best of a current year inherently implies that those that aren't picked are less worthy.

But less worthy for who? Does the fact that Joe Haldeman's Camouflage won the Nebula over, among others, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell really mean that Susanna Clarke's novel is somehow inferior to Haldeman's fine work? Nonsense. Dressed-up silliness or indulgence of a naked emperor; take your pick. Far better to just say that different people respond to stories in different ways and leave it at that.

Still, "official" award ceremonies do confer a needed feeling of legitimacy to an artform. It's the ancient storytelling-primate in all of us, creeping back to the surface as we engage in our strange social rituals. It really can help a struggling, first-time author to know that somewhere out there is a community of people open to the possibility of caring about the kind of story he's struggling to tell. He can point to the award when his less-sympathetic relations ask what he's doing wasting his life writing that spaceship mush, that swords'n'sorcery gook:

"Because this is possible," he might say. "Because there are other people who might receive value from what I'm trying to do."

In spite of my quibbling moral objections, then, I think it's generally a good thing that we have a system set up to recognize and honor what some portion of us deem to be quality work. It's not like an award ceremony erases all the stories that don't win -- and if a showcase book like this one has to happen at all, editor Mike Resnick has done a commendable job of choosing representative new work.

Oh, there are the inevitable clunkers, to be sure; Dale Bailey's "The End of the World as We Know It" isn't so much a story as it is an extended, vaguely-dramatized screed against his version of a certain prominent religion's conception of God. Might've been edgy and daring decades ago, but it reads as just another ho-hum, conservative-without-realizing-it's-being-pro-establishment affirmation of belief for those who are enraged by their own interpretation of a common deity. (And I'm not, by the way, a member of that religion myself, for anyone who's thinking that the only people who get annoyed by such simplistic propaganda are those immediately affected.)

Robert J. Sawyers' "Identity Theft" is another disappointment -- moreso, in fact, because this is the same Sawyer who wrote the illuminating essay on the state of Canadian science-fiction found elsewhere in the collection, as well as the excellent new novel Rollback (see review below). Perhaps I'm just not a member of the right audience to appreciate hard-boiled detectives spouting unfunny one-liners while flouncing around kicking cyborg posterior in a Martian future, because this one overflows with perhaps the most embarrassingly juvenile cliches I've ever read in a single story.

And yada yada: some of the essays read as well-intentioned filler, the excerpt from Haldeman's Camouflage really doesn't work as a stand-alone, etc., etc. Thing is, despite the usual amount of eye-rollingly passe material, the vast majority of the stories included are simply wonderful, and absolutely deserve recognition.

Kelly Link, for instance, well-represented with two stories in the collection, is a deeply talented rising star. "Magic For Beginners" should be utterly unreadable -- the premise of the silly fantasy TV show that turns out to be real is so exceedingly cringe-worthy that I would have been impressed if Link had merely managed a passable mediocrity. Instead, it's a breathless, heart-wrenching portrait of a family on the verge of collapse, and a meditation on friendship, and an aching evocation of pastel-colored nostalgia tinged with effervescently playful surrealism, and, and ... well, enough to say that there are more things happening in this tiny story than in many full-length novels. "The Faery Handbag" is similarly predisposed to be ridiculous, and similarly throws any lingering regard for The Usual Thing out the proverbial window. The characters Link writes about are the kind of people no one writes about; the faces we see in our neighborhoods, the anonymous strangers on the street whose self-stories are unknown to us.

And on and on: Nancy Kress is at her challenging and enigmatic best in the earnestly heartfelt and deeply alien religious-questioning of "My Mother, Dancingl" Carol Emshwiller chimes in with a story so genuinely, wonderfully, creepy that I forgive her for my utter inability to understand what the hell was going on in "I Live With You." "Still Life With Boobs" by Anne Harris manages to contain both a sweetly tender romance and a hilariously perverse sex-farce about the unusual problems that crop up when certain, ah, "appendages" decide that they want to detach from their owner's bodies and go out dancing with other like-minded reproductive organs. James Patrick Kelly's "Men Are Trouble" is a horrific and thought-provoking extrapolation of what the world's reaction might be if demonic aliens erased all men from the planet. And newly-named (though it was a long time coming) Grand Master Harlan Ellison's decades-old story "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie," while having nothing whatsoever to do with fantasy or science fiction, is still a remarkably undated example of how he can meld the manic with the melancholy in the lives of a faded actress and the people who break under the weight of their own indulgence in the fantasy ideal of the Hollywood lifestyle.

Bottom line: this year's Nebula Showcase actually succeeds in showcasing a great variety of truly good work. Read it now.

Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
Tom Doherty Associates, 2007, 320 pp, $24.95

Beneath the everyday chaos of our lives, there is a great hidden comfort in the fact that no matter what we do, we're always traveling into the future and getting older and older together. Everything progresses at a steady rate, every year ticks by right on time. Yeah, I know, as the seasons pass we're all doomed to die, and Earth will fall into the sun at some point, and the universe might very well implode as entropy smirks at our feeble helplessness. Still, the basic patterns and rhythms of life are a comfort in their blessedly mundane regularity.

For Don Halifax, reaching his eighty-seventh birthday and his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his wife Sarah is an occasion to look back and take stock. They've made a good life for each other, he concludes, and now it's time to sit back and enjoy whatever time they have left together. Naturally, this is exactly the moment when all the loose ends from their past decide to resurrect themselves and make things interesting.

Sarah, in her younger days, had translated the first ever radio message from aliens and helped to send back Earth's response. Due to the tremendous distance between planets, no one thought she'd still be around by the time the next part of the glacially-paced conversation between worlds took place. She is, though -- just barely, hanging on with a grandmother's fingernails, but still alive. How can she possibly beat back her body's decay long enough to lend her experienced help to the next phase of the project?

As it turns out, an insanely wealthy businessman is willing to sponsor Sarah and help her to undergo a revolutionary new treatment called a "Rollback," which rejuvenates the body to any desired previous age. It costs more than the budgets of entire countries for even a single person to be treated, but Sarah is adamant that if she is to become young again, her husband Don must be allowed to as well.

And everything seems to be fine ... until they realize that Sarah's treatment is not taking hold, even as Don's is. Don ends up as an eighty-seven year old man in a twenty-six year old body, while Sarah remains separated from him by the vast distance of their differences in physical age.

It's a delicate thing Sawyer pulls off, a heart-rending character-story wrapped in a fascinating idea-story. In the end, while the two competing focuses don't sync up entirely seamlessly, he comes as close as is probably possible -- and the tension derived from watching them slam-dance is exactly what science fiction exists to explore. This is a sharp book, with taut new moral dilemmas emerging on nearly every page. Divided into two simultaneous storylines, one taking place in the future and one set in the present day -- when the characters were in their prime -- many hot-button issues are raised, and a good number of different perspectives are given attention. (I'm not, however, going to tell you which perspectives are actually given the most weight, since the idea of refusing to read a book just because it might lean more "conservative" or more "liberal" than your own views is one of the dumber reasons I've heard for self-imposed censorship.)

Of course, the characters have naturally all made religions out of whatever sciencey-stuff the author throws in -- occasionally smug, occasionally smarmy. But then, that's perfectly true to their characters, and if you look at this book as an anthropological study, it's really quite good as a record of what a certain subset of our community believes. In the effort to keep things entertaining and the storyline moving, Sawyer inevitably leaves out some perspectives on certain contentious contemporary issues that are at least as compelling and well-represented among people as the ones he managed to find a place for. This is not a flaw per se, just my personal wish to see even a bit more even-handedness and accuracy in some places than is already present.

And though the characters might occasionally devolve into placeholders to graft ethical dilemmas onto, in the end, the heart of the story is found in the heart of Don and Sarah's tender, struggling, relationship. Though the exploration of the ethical quandaries inherent to burgeoning new technologies is fascinating, and Sawyer's milieux are completely believable (and wonderfully Canadian!), the best part of the book is the complicated family life. What it would be like to have a parent younger than you, what it might mean to fall in love with someone from a different time. Sawyer writes with fluid clarity and power.

This book is going to annoy people on both sides of everything, and it's going to annoy them for exactly the right reasons. It'll become a talking point, a place of reference, a base to start conversations from and form communities around. So read it, and nod in agreement that someone got it right -- or grimace in annoyance as I did that people who disagree with you have the temerity to present their views in such enviably, infuriatingly eloquent ways.

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
Canongate, 2007, Hardcover, pp 428, $24.00

You pretty much know if you're in the audience for Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts the minute you spot it in the bookstore looking up at you, all boldly-colored and intense-like. By the schwag cover design and edgy typeface, it's obviously being marketed to that select group of people who are content to bask in the comforting glow of conforming with the usual tattooed mainstream-ized "alternative" scene.

Thankfully, I'm a card-carrying member of that particular cult, so I'm glad it's easy to find books I'll like. This is emphatically one of them:

The Second Eric Sanderson wakes up one day with amnesia. His only clues about his past come from letters from the First Eric Sanderson -- himself, back in his "previous life," written when he knew he was going to lose his memories. It seems that somewhere in the murky thought-streams of human communication, somewhere in the vast ocean of all the stories humans have believed in and acted upon over the centuries, a sort of conceptual shark evolved, a Ludovician.

The Ludovician wants to, uh, eat Eric's brains, sorta. Highbrow stuff here, y'dig?

The Shark Texts is a hugely entertaining metaphysical thriller, and easily deserves all the fuss it's getting. I can hear some of the critics crawling out from under their rocks, though: "Oh, it's just neutered Danielewski!" or "Enough of this "action" and "adventure" and "romance;" read some Hofstadter if you want real brainfood, because this is just juvenile schlock!"

Wrong wrong wrong.

Sure, Hall's prose is that usual kind of artsy, typographically-intense, stream-of-conscious, word/picture-combination cliche that was old hat before I was born. There's even a wordshark-flipbook at one point. Doesn't matter. What might come off as annoyingly affected actually ends up heightening the earnesty and power of the tale. His writing has a charmingly cadenced fluidity to it, a frenetic buoyancy that begs to be read aloud and ensures that the story never drowns under the weight of what might otherwise be ponderously overblown and vaguely Matrix-y metaphysics.

A key point for us readers is meeting Scout, a young woman who rescues Eric from the Ludovician and Mr. Nobody (one of the most genuinely scary characters I've ever read). She throws a letter-bomb, which is basically a firecracker wrapped in words designed to confuse the beasties with all the conceptual "histories" associated with them. Eric and Scout high-tail it to a little bed-and-breakfast mom'n'pop motel that becomes their headquarters, where Scout, it turns out, might or might not be a sort of reincarnation of Eric's dead girlfriend Clio. The book ends up as a heroic romance between the two lovers as they struggle to regain their lost identities. Underneath the pyrotechnics, the story retains a core of sadness, a meditation on the death of loved ones, and what we'd do to see them again.

Oh, there's all manner of amusing flim-flam about secret conspiracies and ancient ninja mental exercises, as well as enough references to movies like Jaws and cult hit books like Fight Club to give the literati their requisite portion of warm decoding-ring happies. Still, in the midst of all the breathless superlatives and manic running around, the main pleasure of the book is the sheer delightful wonder of finding out where the adventure will lead next, what happens to the characters (both major and minor) that we come to love. This book deserves to be in your memory as soon as you can possibly cram it in there, so get thee hence!


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