Thursday, July 30, 2009

Worldcon, Neil Gaiman, and Marvelman

Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, is coming up soon — August 6 to 10 — and I, alongside Claude Lalumière, will be blogging about it for the Montreal Gazette's Narratives blog. I've been reading sf all my life, but this'll be my first convention; Claude has a lot more experience with publishing, fandom, and the like, so the two of us will be able to present both an insider's and an outsider's view of the con.

I've written a preview piece for the print version of the Gazette, which I believe will be appearing this Saturday. As part of the story, I got to interview Anticipation's Guest of Honour, Neil Gaiman. Obviously, I spent most of the interview asking him about Worldcon; but, given Marvel Comics had announced only a few days before that they'd acquired the rights to Marvelman, I also felt I should take a moment to ask him about that. And that part of the conversation is now up at the Gazette's blog.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Readings 2K9: Dying Inside

Dying Inside
by Robert Silverberg

After reading this book, my girlfriend compared it to The Catcher in the Rye, which she’d had to read in high school; she hadn’t enjoyed that book, either. I found the comparison interesting, because after reading the book I compared it to Malamud and Philip Roth, writers I’d had to read in high school and whose work I hadn’t enjoyed. The point being: this isn’t really a bad book, but it has the earnestness and self-conscious literariness of English class. It aspires to be the sort of book that attains bourgeois respectability.

Another way to put it: this book is the story of a middle-aged telepath in contemporary New York City slowly losing his gift ... and that tells you everything you need to know about the novel. Tone, plot, character, there’s nothing surprising in the book at all. Each individual scene is well-written, but put together you start to notice that you see too easily where it’s all going. Each individual character sounds good when you first meet them, but never really add up to more than a collection of stereotypes: the Black nationalist, the bitchy sister, the One Woman He Truly Loved, and so on. It’s ironic, since the book wants to insist on the value of every individual experience — but presents only well-written stock characters. Even the way the theme of The Depth of Every Individual is brought out is unsurprising (the main character, in a flashback to his adolescence, goes deep into the thoughts of a taciturn farmer, a Man Of The Earth, and finds that Still Waters Run Deep).

The style is solid, the construction — weaving flashbacks into the slow progress of the present-day sequences — effective. But the book never becomes anything more than a stylistic exercise, a series of tropes hit in practised order, all the right notes in all the right order. It’s the sort of book, I think, that attracts a lot of praise when it’s first published, and which slowly loses its luster as the years pass — a pat conclusion, maybe, given the plot of the book, but it’s the only assessment I can give. If you’re looking for literary sf, you could do worse — but you could also do much better.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Jewels of Aptor

The Jewels of Aptor
by Samuel R. Delaney

Delaney’s first book, written when he was a teenager, is a fast-paced, imaginative pulp fantasy. Some solid description lifts it above the run-of-the-mill, and there’s a respectable amount of ideas per square inch. Occasionally the writing has some odd gaps in clarity or specificity — a character loses a hand at one point, and I don’t think it’s ever established which hand it was — and some unrealistic psychology; but it’s unrealistic in the style of fast-paced adventure stories, as it were, complex emotions skipped over to keep the narrative moving. It’s not, in other words, great writing. But it’s a good quick read, with strong rhythms and vocabulary, and some oddly psychedelic touches which help make the style stand out. On the one hand, it’s of interest mainly as Delaney’s first work; on the other, it’s far from the worst fantasy-adventure book I’ve read, and stands nicely alongside the pulpier writing of somebody like Michael Moorcock.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Readings 2K9: Artifact

by Gregory Benford

I don’t enjoy writing a wise-ass review. If nothing else, it means I’ve just spent time reading a bad book. But in general, I understand how much work writing is, and how much of the self is invested in a written work, especially a novel length work. So usually I think even a bad book is worth a serious response. Still, there are books which test that attitude; books which read as particularly half-assed, or which feature particularly ugly characterisation — negative portrayals of a particular ethnicity or gender, say — or simply especially simplistic, ugly prose. Which brings me to Gregory Benford’s Artifact, a book that comes close to hitting all of the above.

Let me begin by saying this is a boring, slow book. It opens with an archaeological dig in Greece in the late 1990s, something like fifteen years after the book’s publication in 1984. American archaeologists find a peculiar cubical artifact in a tomb from about 1500 BC, but are chased away by the agent of a new nationalist and socialist Greek government. This man, Kontos, is aggressively unpleasant: a trained archaeologist with a military rank and a tendency to violence, he sexually assaults, or tries to, the female leader of the Americans. The Americans leave at his order, then sneak back to the dig site (with the novel’s main character, a mathematician who came over from the States to work some scientific equipment, in tow) to recover their work, and end up stealing the whole artifact. That takes about 200 pages. Back in the US, they discover the thing’s radioactive, and set about trying to figure out why; that’s good for about another 150 pages. The final 150 pages of the book is about the scientists and the US military trying to prevent an explosion on the level of a 100-megaton blast, despite the interference of those pesky Greeks.

First off, the book’s got a basic problem: how do you justify the theft of a priceless historical artifact from its country of origin? One way is by portraying pretty much every single Greek person in the book as aggressive, stupid, and/or incompetent. The book does that. Another is to handwave the question away by saying it’s not important. The book does that, too. The point is: for the book to have a plot (however slow in developing), the Americans have to get the artifact back to the States to study it. So they do. I don’t understand why the book couldn’t have been about Greek scientists and archaeologists studying the artifact in Greece; at least that way, a sub-plot about war between Greece and Turkey wouldn’t feel like a tacked-on kludge to force characters to be in certain spots at certain times in order to build up to something resembling a proper conclusion. Which is basically what the subplot feels like now.

At any rate, the book’s one-sided portrayal of Greeks is in keeping with its one-sided portrayal of pretty much everybody. If Benford dislikes a certain group, you really get to know about it. Notably, you can tell whether he prefers humanities like archaeology or hard science like physics: at a description of a physics conference, one character sees the physicists “answering questions, handing out preprints, defending their ideas. It seemed very far from the meetings of archaeologists, who tended to hold forth in lengthy verbal talks illustrated by slides in darkened rooms, answering questions only briefly at the very end. That bull-moose pattern, trumpeting one’s position from a lordly lectern, had always irritated her. The physicists, with their unassuming posters, flatly displayed to lure an audience by snagging their curiosity, seemed more honest and democratic than the humanists.” Yeah, one thinks, dirty filthy humanists, probably the kind of people who’d point out that bit about the ‘honesty’ of the posters, which ‘lure’ despite being ‘unassuming’, and mutter things like “incoherent” or “contradictory” or “Orwellian”. Or maybe just “goofy”. (And then likely go on about the redundancy of "verbal talks".)

Anyway, the preceding quote is pretty much of a piece with the book’s view of things. One of the minor characters of the book is an archaeologist high up in academe; he’s a pencil-necked dweeb who ignores the female archaeologist character and believes whatever the evil male Greek archaeologist says, because of professional courtesy. Physicists, by contrast, are uniformly clever, funny, and respectful of people of the opposite gender (which is always female). We’re told that one of the physicists has a reputation as a ladies’ man, but this turns out to be a smear by those evil humanists.

The book tries to talk about gender roles and old-boys-networks — in the context of those archaeologists, of course — by having one of the main characters be female. You can tell because she’s tough and independent, with a fierce outer shell that she’s had to put up to protect herself from the male gazes around her. Yes, she does end up being rescued by the main male character at the climax of the book, why do you ask? And, yes, she does end up happily married to the same character, who after all is the only man she feels secure enough with to let her inner fears and tensions surface through her take-no-shit exterior. We could see this coming early in the book, you see, when said male character looks at her in her skirt, and wonders to himself whether she might wear garters instead of pantyhose. Guess what? We find out in an aside a few dozen pages later that she does! Of course, it’s because of a tendency to yeast infections, and not for any objectifying sexual reasons. Naturally. So that’s okay. Anyway, the point is, clearly these two were made for each. He’s a bland, generic southerner, she’s a walking stereotype and occasional fetish object. What could be better?

Mind you, the absence of characterisation in the two leads is matched by the absence of character in the rest of the book as well. Everybody’s bland (scientists, agents of the American government) or else straight out of central casting (the comic-opera military strongman who gives the book what passes for a villain). There are no surprises here, only stereotypes. One of the physicists in the book, for example, is a brilliant Italian. So, of course, he’s quiet, thoughtful, reserved. Right? Oh no he bloody isn’t. He’s extravagant and waves his hands about a lot. Sadly, he is also the closest thing to a memorable character in the book.

So the book is not good; it’s slow, somehow turning a story about a global drift toward war into a chore to read, and the characters are flat. Is it aggressively stupid enough to deserve mocking? I think so, yes. It’s not that Claire, the female archaeologist, finds that US Navy men are uniformly “quick, intelligent, and disciplined without being rigid” (she walks in on a group of them aboard ship sitting around watching a PBS documentary); I mean, you know, okay, why not? It’s that it’s part of a pattern of the way the US is presented in the book — “worshipful” is perhaps the adjective I want here, though “adoring” could fit as well. Basically, this is a book in which Americans are always superior to foreign-types, and indeed are unjustly persecuted (we’re told) round the world. So sad.

The thing of it is ... and the reason why I feel the tone of this review is appropriate ... between 1967 and 1974, Greece was ruled by a military junta backed by the United States. The junta was notable for mass arrests, use of torture, and the deprivation of civil rights for the population of Greece. Bill Clinton formally apologised for America’s support for the junta (which some people have described as a fascist government) in 1999. For Benford to write a book in 1984 in which he portrays Greeks as being, essentially, stooges who turn toward Marxism for no reason, and as anti-American for no valid cause, is ... ‘troubling’ is probably the mildest word usable. There’s no mention whatsoever of the American-backed junta, no basis given for the attitudes of the Greeks in the book. Why did he write the Greeks so negatively in the first place? One wonders whether he saw some article about anti-Americanism in Greece in the early 80s, or perhaps reacted to the election of socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou (who had talked about withdrawing from NATO in his election campaign — he didn’t follow through, but Greece’s withdrawal from NATO in the book is presented as a sign of their essential wrongheadedness). In any event, it underscores the essential cluelessness of the novel.

In the end, politics are perhaps less significant from a reader’s angle (weirdly, a disclaimer on the book's copyright page claims that "The political views stated or implied in this novel do not reflect those of the author", which I don't even know what to do with) than the book’s uninteresting central premise — it’s just dull as ditchwater, a scientific what-if unconnected to any human question or theme — and the unremitting blandness of the prose. The sentences have minimal variation in their structure, no real complexity, and an impoverished vocabulary. The characters don’t sound as intelligent as their positions would suggest they have to be; on one level, that strains credibility, but on another level, it’s a reflection of the book’s overall dullness.

Not recommended.

Readings 2K9: Native Tongue

Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden Elgin

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. It had an interesting premise — in a future where women are subjugated, families of linguists are the only means for humans to communicate with dozens of extraterrestrial species; the United States government tries to usurp their power even as female linguists plan an unconventional rebellion. And there are good things about the novel; structurally, it’s nicely put together, with character and plot dovetailing well. The climax, with its presentation of reality shaped by language, makes for an interesting conclusion. Multiple perspectives are for the most part well-handled (though individual characters are often flat), and bring out different aspects of the theme and setting. But ...

The setting doesn’t really make sense to me. There’s a constant confusion between ‘humanity’ and ‘the United States’ which is really troubling; the US is the only nation that seems to be challenging the linguists’ monopoly on alien communication, and indeed other countries and cultures are only vaguely waved at in passing. Linguists are given the ability to manipulate people by language, which is okay, but the depiction of this process is clunky and unsubtle; it’s impossible to believe in the presentation we get. And the presence of aliens — nearly fifty of whom have dealings with humanity — has apparently not led to any significant change in human society.

This last is particularly odd given the subjugation of women in the novel’s society. Many of the aliens apparently have gender (both biologically and linguistically) — are all of them patriarchal, as human society has become? If not, how does that affect human relations with the aliens?

Crucially, the issue of the subjugation of women is confused. In the novel, women all over the Earth are legally disenfranchised, reduced to the status of children in the eyes of the law. There are references made to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US, and to discoveries in the 1990s — the novel was published in 1984 — which proved that women were mentally inferior to men. I get the impression that the reader is meant to assume that the chauvinism which led to the defeat of the ERA led to bogus scientific discoveries buttressing claims of male supremacy, in the same sort of way apartheid-era South Africa churned out studies claiming that White people were superior to Blacks. The problem is, that’s not really what the book actually presents. In the future the book gives us, countries all around the world apparently take these experiments as proven fact, and change their laws to match. Note some countries actually have, or had, the constitutional guarantee that the US voted down. Canada, for example, would have had to radically alter its constitution to fall in line with the kind of society Elgin suggests is normal in the future. It’s inconceivable that the failure of a single piece of American legislation (however regrettable) could have had that kind of global impact. So ... the only way to make sense of the world of the novel is to conclude that in this world, women really were proved to be mentally inferior to men. Which then becomes problematic, if only because there’s no hint in the way the characters think and act that the women are in any way less intelligent than the males, and certainly nothing in the book that examines the implications of the premise.

So, basically, the setting of the novel really doesn’t make a lot sense, and suffers from an annoying America-centric perspective. I get the impression that the novel was written as a reaction to the failure of the ERA; if so, it reads like it needed either one more or one fewer draft. One more, which would have fixed some of the problems with the setting; or one less, which might have allowed the emotion that inspired the book to come through. As it is, it’s an occasionally interesting but fundamentally flawed read.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Readings 2K9: June summation

Well, I read 20 books in the month, as I wanted. That's not counting three books I read on the computer. Two of those were library books, though, and I added four books over the past month (well, two months, as I forgot to mention picking one up in May). Annoyingly, I noted I was inconsistent in the way I was counting totals so far (getting confused about whether to count books added to the apartment against my total, which is what I really should do). So, as I make it now: 71 read for the year, 32 fewer unread books around the place in total. I've got a ton more books to read in preparation for Anticipation, the World Science Fiction Convention being held this year in Montreal. These would be sf books I've owned for a while, and Worldcon gives me a good excuse to finally sit down with them -- so hopefully I'll have another decent month in July.

Now I just have to write about them.