Books Read- 203 Books to Read-282 Percent Complete- 41.86%

Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Having finished 'Dhalgren' I dove right in to something a little lighter, I've already finished 'The Borders of Infinity' by Lois McMaster Bujold.  It's a collection of three short stories set in the Vorkosigan universe that I've been saving for a little while now, just finishing 'Dhalgren' seemed like the right time.  Borders didn't win any awards for best novel, though one of the short stories in the book, 'The Mountains of Mourning,' won both the Hugo and Nebula for best novella.  Maybe I'll try to read all those once I've finished off all the novel nominees, also maybe I shouldn't set goals for ten years down the road.

Now I've moved on, I'm reading 'Jack of Shadows' by Roger Zelazny.  It's a different book, really in keeping with Zelazny's style.  He's got a real seventies thing going, but he does write great books.

I was thinking a little about 'Dhalgren' after I finished it.  Even though I really enjoyed the novel and think it's both important and groundbreaking I'd be hard pressed to say it's actually entertaining.  Several reviewers had things to say about the book being for smart people only, and that 'dumb' people wouldn't like the novel.  Most reviewers will go out of their way to say that the book definitely isn't for everyone.  I'd agree with that assessment, but I think it's more about being in the right mindset when you pick up the novel.  I'm sure there are people that pick up Faulkner or Plato for a little light Sunday reading, but if you're anything like me you really need to prep yourself before you tackle a book like that.  I'd put 'Dhalgren' in the same category as those two.

Another thing to think about before you crack this book open is: What are you actually looking to get when you read a book?  Some people are just looking for a little relaxing entertainment, and that's fine.  But, if that's the case then you should probably avoid this book.  'Dhalgren.' 'Moby Dick,' 'Magister Ludi,' 'Robinson Crusoe,' these are all books that I'm very glad I've read but did very little to entertain me, and all of them bored me close to tears at some point.  But, they're all important works that inspire thought and introspection.  For me sometimes that takes the place of entertainment on whether or not I want to read a book, I just need to be ready when I set out to do it.  Stumbling into 'Dhalgren' like I did was probably not the best way to get introduced to the book.

There are some difficult books to read out there and I think the manner in which you approach them is just as important as what you're looking for in a book.  I think being forced to read 'Catcher in the Rye' when I was a kid influenced my enjoyment of the book, and I know being forced to read 'The Great Gatsby' ruined the novel for me.  It's important to approach whatever book you're reading organically, and actually wanting to read a book is probably the first place to start.  I don't think it's as cut and dry as 'smart' people like these books and 'dumb' people like those books.  No one reads just one type of book all the time, even I take a break from SF from time to time.  Goal be damned I need a break every now and then. 

1976 Nebula Award Nominee- 'Dhalgren' by Samuel R. Delany

I have no idea how to start a review of Delany's 'Dhalgren.'  It's a difficult work, and inspires a strong reaction from almost everyone who reads it.  There's plenty of Amazon reviews for people who didn't like the novel.  Here's a Goodread's review by a man who thinks 'smart' people like it and 'dumb' people don't.  The Millions describes it as a 'Difficult Book' along the lines of Joyce's 'Ulysses' or Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying.'  Plenty of people have things to say about 'Dhalgren,' and almost none of it actually informs us of anything about the novel.  And this review won't either.  If someone came here looking for an explanation of the novel they're not going to get it from me, and I don't believe they're going to find it anywhere else either.

I bought 'Dhalgren' on a whim, knowing nothing about it, without having read any Delany before.  I actually made it several hundred pages into the novel before realizing I was out of my depth.  I was able to recognize that there was a lot of symbolism in what I was reading, and that some of it even read like recurring themes from the author, but I couldn't attach any meaning to what I was reading about.  I set the book down and went back for more Delany.  'Dhalgren' sat on my shelf for several years while I finished 'Triton,' 'Nova,' 'The Ballad of Beta-2,' 'The Einstein Intersection,' and most of the rest of Delany's work, including 'The Jewel-Hinged Jaw,' and some of his other literary criticism.  Sort of a Delany primer so I could get familiar with the writer and his style.  And I have to say it helped.  There are a lot of recurring images in Delany's writing, the young character with one bare foot, and large overly masculine hands on an otherwise normal character both show up in several of his works.

Armed with this knowledge and a better understanding of Delany's style I went back at 'Dhalgren,' and failed.  So I tried again, and failed.  And after several more attempts at finishing it off I finally got myself in the right mindset and polished it off.  When people say that it's a difficult book they're not fooling around, both the subject matter and the writing style make this novel difficult to grab hold of.  Delany plays pretty loose with the time structure in the novel, the protagonist has blank spots in his memory early in the novel that seem to be filled in further on, though there's no indication if it actually was chronologically later. 

The edition of the novel I read had a forward written by William Gibson and I think his assessment is the best.  This novel is a question without an answer, a riddle that wasn't meant to be solved.  The novel is open-ended, and open for interpretation.  Whatever story you're looking to find inside of 'Dhalgren' is there, but if you're looking for help from the author in what to see you're not going to find it.

I have to say that I really did enjoy the novel.  I don't have any insight to offer as far as interpretation.  I think each person just has to read 'Dhalgren' for them self, find their own meaning in it.  I will say that it helps to be in the right mindset when you open the book, and this is one of those novels that almost needs to be read at a specific point in one's life.  I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I read it when I was in a more tumultuous period of my life, but as it was I did enjoy it.  I've got my own theories about some of the things that occurred in the book, and what the ending means, and I've got my own questions about the book that I'd really like someone to answer for me.  I've seriously thought about checking some college libraries to see if anyone had written their thesis on this book.  I still don't know if I'll do it.

One thing I can say about the book is it really is timeless.  This novel could have been written a year ago and it would read just the same.  Knowing it was written in the seventies might inform our opinion of the novel somewhat, but it's not as important as some other books.  It's rare to find an SF novel (if this can be called SF) from the seventies that doesn't date itself, but Delany managed to write something with equal appeal now as then.  Also, as difficult as this book is to wrap your head around you need to remember that it was a best seller, selling over a million copies when it was published.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I've finished 'Dhalgren' by Samuel Delany, and I still have no idea how to go about writing a review.  I've even checked out a few other reviews on websites and blogs on the Internet, they all seem to either talk about how difficult of a book this is, or give a synopsis of the plot.  The plot summary is something I have no interest in, both because I started this blog to write reviews that avoided just summarizing plot, and because the plot of 'Dhalgren' is unimportant.  I don't think it needs saying that it's a tough book to read, there's another review out there that says just that.  I don't think there is any reason to retread that ground.  No, the review I write will probably be around 'Dhalgren,' poking around the edges, because I just don't know how to dive in and dissect what it is I just read.  I'll try to get a review up soon.

On a different note this year's Nebula Nominees were released.  I'm kind of excited about it because most of these are by author's I've never even heard of.  Jemisin is an author I really like, and so is Robinson, but I'm excited to try out all these new authors.  Sometimes I feel like a heel for using the nominee list to guide me in what to read.  The problem is I just don't know how someone would have the time to keep up with what's good in current SF, especially when there are so many great older books out there to read.  I'm sure there's plenty of novel that weren't nominated that should really be given a chance, and I try to find and read them, but it's tough. 

Most of the books I read are older SF, but I really like where the more modern SF is heading.  Newer authors like Ian McDonald, Jemisin, James Corey, and China Mieville are all putting out really interesting stuff.  Which is just great because for awhile there in the '90s SF was starting to get a little dull.  I think between the Hugo and Nebula Awards a person is given a pretty good survey of all the SF and Fantasy in a given year, and if I miss out on anything there's always Jo Walton' revisiting the Hugo blog to point out what was overlooked in a given year.

Like I said I'm going to try and get a review up for 'Dhalgren' pretty soon, and as soon as I pick out a book to read next I'll mark it up at the top. I'm thinking something simple and light.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I'm still reading 'Dhalgren' by Samuel Delany, and I'm actually making some pretty good headway into it.  I've started it a few times before, and on my first attempt even made it a couple hundred pages in.  Now I'm only a few hundred from being done so I feel pretty good that I'm going to finish it up this time.  I've talked about 'Dhalgren' being a tough book to read and compared it to 'Gravity's Rainbow' a few times.  Looking through 'Dhalgren' reviews I've found that I'm not the first person to make that comparison.  'Dhalgren' is basically one long descent into madness, and at the point I'm in now in the novel is just the plot less ramblings of a madman who has a lot of sex.  Which is not to say that it's not a great novel, just tough to read.

Usually by the time I'm almost finished with a novel I have a good idea of what type of review I'm going to write.  Unless there's some sort of big plot twist right at the end of a novel, like with 'Glory Road,' I know whether I like a book or not, and what I want to say about it.  I have no idea what to say about 'Dhalgren.'  The novel comes pretty close to defying explanation, and even though I'm not finished yet I've been looking for reviews and analysis online to help explain what I've read so far. Maybe I should just post a bunch of links to other people's reviews of it. 

I'll put up some kind of review when I'm finished with 'Dhalgren,' I just don't know what it's going to look like yet.  Once that review is up I'll start working on my next one, I don't know what that's going to be either.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I just put up a new review for 'Orphans of Chaos' by John C. Wright below, and this review really begs a little explanation.  I've been kind of mocking myself for constantly introducing my reviews with posts even though someone could just scroll down and take a look for themself.  I have to say I try to give the books I review all the respect I can.  People put a lot of work into what they write, and the worst novel can take just as much blood and sweat as a great one.  Too often people dabbling in criticism on the Internet can get away with anonymously blasting things they didn't like, and I think that's wrong.  You need to treat even those works you don't like with at least a modicum of respect, someone's out there trying to make a living off what you're reviewing.

Wright- 'My dirtiest fantasies
are at your local library if
 you want to read about them,
just saying.'

That said I really didn't like Orphans.  I'm not a prude when it comes to sex in literature.  There have been a lot of good books written just on that topic, it's a big part of everyone's life regardless of how you feel about it.  There have been and always will be plenty of books about sex.  But, there's a big difference in writing a book that examines our views on sex, and just throwing it out there for it's own sake.  A lot of times SF and Fantasy writers will almost blatantly throw in some off the wall sex scene, to where after awhile you know, absolutely know, that this weird kinky thing that keeps popping up in an author's book is what gets their rocks off.  And, they're only throwing it in there because they like to write about it.  Anyone who has read The Sword of Truth series knows exactly what I'm talking about.  I know way too much about what Terry Goodkind fantasizes about. 

Goodkind- 'I assume you already
know about mine, judging by this

Orphans has some good points, but it's interspersed with a lot of sexual exposition that just kind of grosses me out.  Once you weigh the book along with the two sequels you realize that the things you were willing to let slide after the first book are just too much later on.  And once again you know a little too much about the author's sex fantasies.  I'm sure there's a really good book waiting to be written about a young girl who is into being dominated by an older man, but I don't really want to read it, and I don't think this is it (actually I think it's '50 Shades of Grey' right?).

It turns out that Wright hates gay people, and feminism.  So I really don't expect to be seeing much more of his novels nominated for SF awards, as those two groups are pretty fundamental to the genre.  A little research dug up this blog post by Wright.  I only read to the second paragraph before I started feeling a lot less guilty about dissing Orphans.  I dare you to read further than that.  It turns out there's another Wright blog post out there where he bashes homosexuals, but it seems to have been taken down from his website.  I don't really have a burning desire to scour the Internet searching for it.

In online reviews though I've actually turned up more positive views for the Chaos Trilogy than negative ones.  Most people seem to either appreciate Wright's protagonist, or at least look past his depiction of women.  I'm not saying there aren't women out there into bondage or whatever, I just think that when you put that character into a book you need to have a little more respect that women are more than sex objects.   In the spirit of full disclosure I have to say I do have a daughter, and these semi-misogynist books that depict all women as weak or submissive really get me angry.  When an author tries to say or imply that all women deep down want to be dominated or exploited it makes me want to write a 10,000 word essay on why he's wrong and people shouldn't read his book.  You can check it out below.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2005 Nebula Award Nominee- 'Orphans of Chaos' by John C. Wright

It can be telling sometimes when only one book out of a series is nominated for a Hugo or Nebula award.  You have to ask if maybe that one book was the one shining point in an otherwise dull series.  Maybe it was the climax of a series, where all the hard grunt work an author had put in during the previous novels paid off at the culmination.  Maybe it's like 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' and the Hugo selection panel finally bowed to overwhelming public demand, or it could be that, like Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal' or Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'The Heritage of Hastur' nomination committees are finally giving a little recognition to some of these series that, while none of the individual works stand out are overall deserving.  The way that raises my eyebrows the most is when only the first book in a series wins or is nominated for an award, and the rest are left in the cold.  This is is the case with 'Orphans of Chaos.'

Part of a series, Orphans is followed by Fugitives and then Titans, of Chaos naturally.  The opening novel has a lot of original points, and certainly involved a lot of legwork on the part of the author.  The story involves a group of children (who are gods) that are being held hostage by another group of gods. The author goes out of his way to include almost every single Roman, Greek, and Egyptian God, as well as a few characters from Norse Mythology.  He uses some of these well known characters' original names, and brings up quite a few of the lesser known Gods as well.  It took a little research for me to figure out who 'Phobeter' or 'Alcinuous' were.  It can be a fun game to play when a new character appears to try and figure out which mythological character they are based only on Wright's description and whatever crazy name he decides to dig up and give them.

Wright sets up an interesting system of magic in the novel which deserves mention as well.  Though there are a variety of characters from different mythologies there are only four distinct styles of magic, which surprisingly do not conform to the four elements.  Each one can cancel out one other, draws against a wielder of the same magic, and fights well against the two remaining styles.  It's really quite simple compared to the type of magic you would often encounter in a similar book, and serves an important purpose sorely lacking in a lot of Fantasy novels by creating rules for the world.  Too often when an author throws magic into a book it is just that, magic, the solution to any problem.  Unless an author truly wants to show the reader that magic is capable of anything (like 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell') they need a  few rules for the magic they introduce.  Too often in fantasy novels the rules of the magic aren't fully explained, allowing for the sort of Deus Ex that crops up in a lot of work (The Sword of Truth series is a good example).  Wright's system of magic works great at preventing this, the only problem being that often the magical  battles between the characters can begin to feel like an extremely complicated version of rock, paper, scissors.  Which is never good.

The Chaos Trilogy (I made that name up, the trilogy has no set name) has been compared to an 'Adult version of Harry Potter' by several reviewers, which is an apt comparison, though I will get into the 'Adult' portion of that in a minute.  The novel separates itself from the Potter books in one way by the magic system I talked about.  The Potter novels contain magic that can ostensibly do anything, often any limitations on the magic seem to arise only to serve the means of the plot.  I love Harry Potter but we have to admit that there is no concrete system to what's going on with the magic in those novels (which is fine, that's not what those novels are about).  Chaos at least is structured in such a way that the magical system stays true to itself.

This is an important point for all genre writers to remember, and especially SF writers.  A reader can buy into anything, whether it's talking trees or interstellar spaceships people will believe it, as long as the people react to it in a relatable manner and the structure of the magic (or spaceships, or tree-talk) stays true to the internal world the author has created.  You need to have a healthy suspension of disbelief to read any SF or Fantasy, and authors need to work hard to maintain it.  Staying true to the world an author creates, and obeying the rules they have set up is integral to this, and Wright does a good job. 

So, I've talked about the originality of the character even though they were ancient myths, and, I've talked about the internal integrity of the system the author uses for magic which are both good points.  The only thing left to talk about with Wright's novel is the sex, because it will make you feel dirty.  Sometimes I feel like writing instructors need to start telling potential authors that the place to air your sexual hangups is not in a mass produced novel.  I am not against sex in literature, I loved 'The Void Captain's Tale,' I made a fool of myself gushing over 'The Man Who Folded Himself,' and 'The Masks of Time' is one of the books that got me interested in SF in the first place.  I have no problem with sex in literature, it's a topic that invades our lives and needs to be explored, but it is one thing to have a ship piloted by orgasm, or a time traveler have sex with himself, and it is something completely different to have your teenage female protagonist dressed up like a schoolgirl and get aroused by being spanked in a multi-page passage of your novel. 
One of these things is not like the others.  Almost every review you read for this novel will discuss the sexual aspect of the book, if people don't like the novel that's why, if people do like the novel they find an excuse for it.  The odd thing is it's no more, and often quite less, explicit than some of those other novels I mentioned.  The character getting spanked in Orphans is a much less graphic scene than say, the oral sex scene in Void Captain, but why does it feel so much dirtier?  The problem is that the sexuality in Orphans does not contribute to the plot, which implies to the reader that it is only in the book because the author wanted to write about it.  Which makes me feel gross.  If an author has something interesting to say about sex (or something funny, or weird, or anything at all) I don't mind reading about it, if you want to tell me what gets you off then stick to literotica.

I've written before about judging a work based on it's own merits.  We should not take into account the author's personal life, political views, or other works when judging a piece of literature.  But I believe when a book is a part of a series we do need to take a look at all the books of that series to truly understand the worth of a novel, I discussed this at length in my review for 'A Dance with Dragons' (and that's the reason I'll really have to rewrite that review when the series is finished).  So, while the rest of the books in the chaos series did not receive any nominations and I won't be reviewing them here, I do believe it's important to look at the series as a whole, because they inform upon the work that was nominated.
Which brings us back to Nebula nominations.  This is the only book in the series to be nominated for any awards.  It's not the only book that this has happened to, 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' by Farmer was the first and only novel in the Riverworld series to be nominated, and with good reason.  But, we have to take a close look at what Wright brought to the table with Orphans, and what was missing in the later installments.  He created a magical world, one in which children were finding their powers and trying to escape their omnipotent captors.  A world bound by concrete rules regarding that magic that the author was able to stick to throughout the story.  He populated that world with interesting characters, and the story he told in that world, while not necessarily the most original, was at least compelling enough for the reader to forgive him if he took a few authorial liberties into unnecessary sexual exposition.  The first novel in the series contains enough promise and originality that we can optimistically hope that the rest of the series will continue in the same direction.  That optimism is what got the book nominated, just the same as our optimism about The Expanse series is what garnered 'Leviathan Wakes' a nomination even though the series isn't complete yet.  In 'Orphans of Chaos' that optimism is never realized and completely gone by the time the series is complete.  In the wake of those series that didn't live up to the promise of their first novel you almost have to wonder if Farmer or Wright would have been better off not even completing them, leaving them unfinished with that optimism still intact.

As the series goes on the reader realizes that creating that world and that system was all that Wright brought to the table.  As the series progresses the value of the story steadily decreases, the originality of the world and magical system wears away, and the amount of sexual 'ick' steadily begins to rise.  At the end of the novel almost everything seems to revolve around placing his female protagonist into sexually questionable scenarios, with the character of Colin harassing her at every turn.  It comes to a point where the reader almost feels culpable in belittling the character, as it becomes increasingly impossible to buy into her enjoying her treatment (which is what the author would have us believe).  While the world Wright has created, and the rules he governs it by have been well thought out, it is his characters that ultimately fail the reader, that break the suspension of disbelief.

There are more than enough novels out there that belittle and victimize women.  This novel doesn't even present that victimization in a manner inspired enough to provoke discussion, only to titillate.  And that is perhaps the lowest cut of all, that to read Wright's series he asks not that we simply view the belittlement of women in his writing, but that we enjoy it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I've got a review for Lois Bujold's 'The Vor Game' down below.  It comes right in the middle of the series, but it's the first Vorkosigan books that I read so it's a good a place as any to start my reviews.  It's getting a little weird to be reviewing these books that I read a long time ago.  If I'd read Vor Game more recently I might have had a little more actual criticism either good or bad to lay out in a review.  Having read it a few years ago the book has kind of glossed over in my mind and my review kind of lacks some specifics.  I've been working on reading all the books nominated for the Hugo or Nebula Award for awhile now, and I'm not going to start doing it over just so I can write better reviews of some of those novels I read when I was a kid.  Watch out for when I write a review for 'Stranger in a Strange Land,' I read that one over twenty years ago and I'm actively avoiding re-reading it so I don't damage how much I actually enjoyed the book.

So this review might the review I've written so far that I'm least happy with, but I'm still going to throw it out there for public consumption.  I don't like reviews that are just plot summaries or gushing over how much a person loved the novel.  You can get a review like that anywhere.  I want to try and show some of the influences from previous SF impact a novel, what other authors influence this one, and why a certain work might be important to SF as a whole.  Well I'll admit I just haven't done this in my review for Vor Game.  I don't think it's a work in the Vorkosigan Saga that demands a lot of introspection or examination.  There will be time for that when we get to 'Mirror Dance' and 'Barrayer.'  Some of these works that I read a long time ago aren't going to get the most in depth reviews.

'The Vor Game' is an entertaining novel, but I think it's one of the weaker Hugo Winners.  I don't know what I would place above it as far as the other Hugo Nominees, maybe 'Earth' by David Brin, and the Nebula Nominees don't really have anything else that really stands out either, maybe 'Tehanu' by Ursula Leguin, but that's more about name recognition than anything else.  Maybe 1991 was just a weak year for SF, though Vor Game isn't the worst winner by a long shot.  Not every year can be groundbreaking.

1991 Hugo Award Winner- 'The Vor Game' by Lois McMaster Bujold

I had a hard time figuring out where to start my reviews for Bujold's Vorkosigan series.  I bought 'The Vor Game' a few years ago and found out it was part of an ongoing series, and normally I set those books aside and try to get the entire series so I can read them in order.  I started doing research on this book later and then couldn't figure out where the series started.  I felt like an idiot, but the series seemed to have no definite beginning.  The problem is that Bujold didn't write her series in order, she had the books written but couldn't find a publisher for the first few novels, then she would jump back and forth in chronology filling in different gaps in the story.  The other problem with this is that Bulold's writing gets stronger as she writes more books and she begins to tackle more complex narratives while not necessarilly further down in chronological order.  It can make for a complicated series to jump into.

So just forget it, chronological order is not important to the series.  There's a few points where you'll want to have read some of the other books before certain other ones (don't read 'Mirror Dance' before 'Brothers in Arms') but if you just read the books in the order written you'll be fine.  I didn't do that, I jumped around a little bit with the books, then went back and finished off most of the ones I hadn't read.  I didn't just stick with the Hugo and Nebula nominees (of which there are quite a few), and I still have a few of the novels to finish off.  The important thing is to remember that however daunting the series can look like as a whole there's really no bad place to start reading.

As far as reviewing these books instead of doing this in series or chronological order I'm going to review the Vorkosigan saga in the order I read them.  I finished Vor Game about a year ago, and it was such an entertaining read that I quickly grabbed the rest of the series.  At first I used them as quick filler reads between other novels, but after I read 'Mirror Dance' I started to find the series compelling enough to shove everything else to the side until I'd finished it off.  I'm still sitting on 'Cetaganda' and 'Borders of Infinity,' as it makes me sad that I might soon run out of Vorkosigan novels to read.
The series is just a lot of fun, and Bujold has handled it well.  The characters age and grow, the plotlines increasing in maturity with the age of the people who inhabit them.  The character of Miles Vorkosigan has been talked about in a lot of reviews, but it's worth saying that he's a lot of fun.  I really like that as a reader we've been able to watch him grow from this young kid desperate to prove himself in novels like Vor Game into this older man who can look back wistfully on his life in 'Cryoburn.'  It's just a lot of fun, and kind of a new way to handle this, in a different authors hands we might still have Miles Vorkosigan bouncing around space getting into adventure, with no explanation for why he has become Peter Pan, forever the same age.
'The Vor Game' might not be the most serious novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, and throws back a little to 'Shards of Honor' by feeling like a loosely connected group of short stories rather than one longer narrative.  Which it is, the first few chapters was previously published as the short story 'The Weatherman.'  This opening story deals with Miles' first military posting on a frozen crappy world.  The story follows up with a second half in which Miles is arrested and has to rescue his emporer.  Later he ends up foiling an invasion plot and gets his mercenary army put on secret retainer for Emperor Gregor.
So maybe this isn't the best place to start reading the series.  Reading that last paragraph makes the story sound too complicated a place to start the series.  It would have been nice if I had known who Emperor Gregor was, or who the Dendarii Free Mercenaries are.  But, this world isn't rocket science and it's not that hard to jump into the middle of this story and figure out what all the pieces are.  There's an outer space army that Miles' alter ego is in charge of, there, now you're caught up to speed.
This is just a really fun read, along the lines of John Scalzi's 'Old Man's War' or Corey's 'Leviathan Wakes.'  If someone liked either of those books they're going to like the entire Vorkosigan series.  The character of Miles has the right attitude to carry off this sort of grand space opera without limiting the scope or trying to overly humanize the large action pieces. 
While the Vorkosigan series as a whole does get to places where it will have important statements to make about life or ethics, this book does not press the issue so much.  Instead Bujold uses Vor Game to expand this universe and tell an entertaining story.  There's not much else to say about the novel, it's entertaining, and occupies a space in the life of Miles Vorkosigan where he is in between roles and still discovering who he is.  It aims simply to entertain and it does the job marvelously.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I finished off my review of 'The Void Captain's Tale' yesterday.  It was a tough book to review actually, it's kind of difficult to convey just how off the wall the story actually is, compared with how steadfast the writing style is.  I'm really glad that Void Captain got a nomination in 1984, that year and 1983 were fairly traditional years for the Hugo and Nebula.  Almost all the nominees for that year were traditional SF writers at the end of their career.  83 and 84 saw the last nominations for Asimov, Heinlein, and McCaffrey three solid and well known writers.  There were also nominations for Gregory Benford and Jack Vance, some lesser known but still respected SF authors and editors.  These two years also saw nominations for Gene Wolfe's 'Book of the New Sun' series, which is just great taken as a whole and the winner of both awards for 1984 was 'Startide Rising' by David Brin, which is more than deserving.  Also there was 'Tea with the Black Dragon' which is just a great little book that I'm glad got nominated otherwise it might be totally forgotten.  Looking at this list of books maybe I'm wrong to say these two years were dull or traditional, they might just look that way because 1985 saw 'Neuromancer' which was a groundbreaking work, and the years prior were still flying high on the craziness of the 70s.

I'm still reading 'Dhalgren' by Delany, and I probably will be for awhile.  It's going to take awhile to finish this one.  I'm going to start setting myself a goal of reviewing two books a week, which will be kind of tough.  I know most people haven't read Void Captain so the review is unlikely to appeal to most people, but I think it's important to bring some of these older books to peoples attention.  A lot of older, less popular SF novels are completely out of print.  Void Captain is one of these, and it's not likely to come back into print any time soon unless Norman Spinrad sees a huge upswing in popularity.  I get a lot of these older novels from online used bookstores like thriftbooks, but the SF publisher Gollancz is doing a lot of cool work with e-books.  They're one of the few places that are working to make sure less recognized work is still available to the public, they have an e-book version of Void Captain available at Amazon, which is pretty cool.  It's a little ridiculous that the e-book costs eight bucks and the used version is only a dollar, but it's nice to know that these books will still be available for years to come.

I won't even try to guess what my next review will be, I'm going to try and stick with my plan of reviewing one older book followed by a more recent novel.  So my next review will be a newer novel, I just don't know what it will be yet.  I'll try and have it up by Friday.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

1984 Nebula Award Nominee- 'The Void Captain's Tale' by Norman Spinrad

I've talked before about SF authors setting their sights a little too high, and some of the novels nominated for the Hugo or Nebula getting by more on concept than actual delivery. In my review of 'Dark Universe' I talk a little about Samuel Delany's opinion on 'story' and 'writing' and why I think he's wrong to say a novel's delivery cannot be exceeded by it's concept. I might be putting words into Delany's mouth (I had trouble finding the actual quote), but either way Void is a good example of the concept, no possible story could live up to the originality of the idea. This is a story about spaceships piloted by orgasm. Let that sink in for a second. No actual story could live up to that, could it?

 This story has a spaceship piloted by orgasm and a Captain so enthralled by a woman, so consumed by her that he is willing to sacrifice his spaceship, passengers, and himself just to give her what she wants. This book doesn't just have sex scenes in it, this book is about sex, around sex, on top of and underneath sex. There's no way to extract the sex from this novel without completely changing the story.  It's there on the first page and it's there on the last.  It's as if someone challenged Spinrad that he couldn't write a compelling novel that was intrinsically about sex and he used the nuclear option to prove them wrong.

People have found this novel offensive or distasteful, but some people have felt that way about most of the author's writing. Spinrad was a big proponent of the ‘New Wave’ SF movement going on in the 60s and 70s.  New Wave strove to intentionally push the boundaries of what could be written about in SF, going out of the way to shock readers. Not necessarily a good thing, but many of the books that were adherents of this, some almost banned at the time, are more curious than offensive now (Spinrad's most famous novel 'Bug Jack Baron' is a good example of this).  On the other hand Void Captain, which came out several years after the heyday of the New Wave, would have offended people no matter when it was written, and that's probably a good reason why it's mostly unknown.  People have been offended by books with a lot less sex than this one.
Long passages of the book are given over to either descriptions of sexual acts or orgasms themselves. Some of these work out better than others. One would assume that these scenes would be salacious and pandering, that the actual sex scenes in the book border on the gratuitous, but they don't.  The style and tone in which Spinrad presents the topic almost precludes any notion that this is pornographic.  The best way to describe his writing style is 'detached.'  Spinrad has the narrator maintain the tone of a captain throughout the novel.  Even as his life spirals out of control and he agrees to destroy everything he has worked for to help his mistress 'Go On' and commit a form of sexual suicide the narrator's voice never changes.
This style is wordy, and strange enough quite formal.  This can be off putting, and can read somewhat dated, but readers should note that this is a style Spinrad affects for this story, his other works like Jack Barron are written in a completely different tone. I think the tone of the novel does a good deal of the work in helping the story not devolve into farce or pornography, something that could have easily happens with a lesser writer.  By working so hard to keep the narrator dignified in speech throughout the novel, even as he loses all his dignity in everything else, does a lot to maintain balance in a book that gets pretty out there.
The style also does the work of presenting the future as an alien place, foreign to us. The characters in the story choose their own names, and any introduction between two characters begins with the sharing of names, and how each character settled upon the names they have.  Spinrad injects foreign words and phrases into the daily conversation of his characters, something he also has done in 'Child of Fortune.' It is not as distracting as it sounds, and does a lot to contribute to the tone I was talking about.

The story is interesting in that the narrator lays down the entire tale on the first page. There is no suspense regarding what will occur, only how and in what manner it will be presented. The novel begins with the captain sharing his 'name story' with the reader, followed by a quick section in which he lists the action of the novel.  Nothing is hidden, if readers were expecting some major twist or surprise from the book they will be sorely mistaken, Spinrad plays no tricks and the entire tale is there at the beginning.  It's an interesting tactic on Spinrad's part, and I thought it played to the novel's strength and originality.

This novel sits in my brain, and I cannot and probably will never be able to separate how good the story actually is from how original and fascinating I find the concept. A lot of time I read novels off the list of Hugo and Nebula nominees and find a real masterwork that has been sadly forgotten, think 'Stations of the Tide' by Swanwick. A lot of others are middle of the road SF whose authors were popular years ago, their work still worth a look but nothing to scream about. Occasionally, I'll find something like Void Captain, which defies categorization. Something truly original doesn't ever come in a form you would expect (obviously), and people rarely know how to judge it. Despite being a book over twenty years old this is still one of the most original works I've ever read. 
Does 'The Void Captain's Tale' set it's sights too high?  Maybe, maybe not.  Like I said, I don't know if any novel could live up to the promise and originality of that premise.  But the novel is good and gets points for being both classic and postmodern, oddly enough.  Does it strive to be shocking?  Yeah, a little, I have to admit the ending where the captain sets out to sleep with every woman on his stranded ship so as to figure who would make the best replacement pilot felt a little weird.  But if a novel this original and out there can't exist in the halls of Science Fiction then where can it?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I just put up a review of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell' by Susanna Clarke.  I suppose I could really do without writing these little previews to my reviews, the reviews are right down there anybody can see them, but there are a few things I don't put into the reviews that I'd like to say about the books.  For this one it's that a reader would almost expect something a little more dense and meaningful than what you find in Strange and Norrell.  Not to say it's bad or anything, more that it's pleasantly surprising to find a book this long and this complex that is just aiming to entertain.  I really liked the book, and I give Susanna Clarke my best wishes on completing the sequel to this novel.  She worked on this novel for over a decade so I wouldn't expect anything too soon, and she's already mentioned some health problems so it might never happen.  There were enough unanswered questions left over at the end of this book to warrant a sequel, I mention some of them in my review.  I kind of feel like those questions only arise because I wasn't an astute enough reader.  So much of the novel was revealed right at the end during the conclusion, I kind of raced through it, if anyone feels like they know more than me jump right in and tell me so.

Who could resist this cover?

I've kind of set up a pattern of reviewing one book that's more modern and well known followed by a lesser known older book, so my next review will be Norman Spinrad's 'The Void Captain's Tale,' a book that's just amazing based on concept, and not bad in the delivery department either.  I've almost got it finished and I'll post it today or tomorrow. 

I haven't decided what I'm going to read next but I'm thinking about Delany's 'Dhalgren.'  I won't come right out and say it's going to be my next book as I've started and put it down several times, but after a book as long and entertaining as Strange and Norrell I kind of feel like something difficult and challenging, so maybe this will be the time I can get into it.  You need to be in the right mood for Delany and I think I'm there.  If not I think I'll read Effinger's 'What Entropy Means to Me,' I really like Effinger's work and it's got this fabulous cover that I really need to get to the bottom of.  It's a Nebula Nominee cult classic, it says it right there.

I read a lot of books in a given year, but I think it's a bad idea to look at that as a statistic that carries any meaning.  I could read hundreds of books in a year if they were all as short and easy to read as 'Glory Road.'  Little two hundred page paperback adventures, or I could read about ten 'Dhalgrens' in a year, these complex and dense stories written to challenge the reader.  If I try to read both 'Dhalgren' and 'Gravity's Rainbow' in the same year there's no way I'll read more than about thirty books.  I made fun of some friends once and said I could read more books in a year than three of them combined, but that's just me talking.  It's more important to read things you want to read, not focus on length or ease of reading. 

I'm trying to do this project because I want to, I like to read SF and I like to write about it as well.  Sometimes I'll finish books quickly and sometimes I won't.  I can try to project when I'll finish all the Hugo and Nebula nominees by estimating how fast I read over how fast they're added, but that's another statistic that has no meaning, I'll be done when I'm done.  If I stop enjoying SF I'll stop writing reviews.  But a person shouldn't feel bad if they don't finish books as fast as I do, I certainly don't feel jealous if a person reads faster than me.  I do get embarrassed sometimes if I forget to mention or don't know something important about a novel (like 'The Man who Folded Himself' being based on a Heinlein story like I brought up last week) but the speed at which a person reads is not something to take much pride or shame in.

I'll put up that review for Void Captain soon, and I'll try to post on what I'm reading next.  If it's 'Dhalgren' don't expect a review for at least a month, and even then don't expect it to be very meaningful.  Even if I finish it I don't expect to have a strong enough grasp to write a good critique, Delany's a lot smarter than I am.

2005 Hugo Award Winner- 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell' by Susanna Clarke

This is a big book and it took me a little longer than normal to finish.  I wasn't aware of it at the time but apparently this book is fairly famous, moreso than your average Hugo Winner.  The publisher, Bloomsbury, did a pretty hard press on pushing the book onto the public, at least that's what most of the reveiws said.  There may have been a reason that in my mind I always associated it with the Harry Potter novels, because it hit the market at just the appropriate time for a novel about British Magic, right after the Potter novels were published, and Bloomsbury was also the publisher for Rowling's books.  So, though deserving in it's own right, Strang and Norell did ride the coatails of Harry Potter to a certain degree of fame.

I really did like this novel a lot, though I guess some people are put off by the length of the book, the tone, or the impressive amount of footnotes.  It's made a lot of lists for being one of those novels people pretend to have read.  I don't know if someone should go out of their way to lie about having read it, but I will admit that it's a pain in the ass carrying this book around with you, and I can't imaging someone trying to read a few pages on a bus or train, the thing has some weight to it.  I should have sucked it up and read this on my Kindle.

The tone of the novel reminded me a lot of Connie Willis' work, perhaps because of the very Britishness of it.  Clarke really get into the historical side of things, and even introduces a few real life characters like the Duke of Wellington.  Both writers are willing to bide their time and let the story wander in order to build setting and tone.  This can be a bad thing for some readers, and many reviewers voice complaints about the slow moving story, for both authors.  Willis' work can sometimes irritate me, but she always seems to pull it back together with her stellar conclusions.  I had no complaints about Strange and Norrell, the novel takes it's time, but all of it is worth it, and I didn't go into the novel expecting to be finished in a day.

Several of the reviews I've read have described the book as 'Historical Fiction,' 'Magic Realism,' and 'British Comedy.'  Though the novel really defies categorization, Clarke does a good job of avoiding some of the major pitfalls of these genres, while at the same time utilizing what makes them good.  Yes, this can be seen as an alternative history novel, which I usually don't like, but instead of my usual boredom I was excited to see the true life characters like Wllington make an appearance. I enjoyed how Clarke crafted her magic, and while she did make it almost omnipotent in utility I felt it stayed true to the world Clarke had crafted and contributed to the story.

At first I was shocked that this is Clarke's first novel, but now I've found out that she had been working on it for over a decade.  It seems sad, since she has crafted such a complete world, that we will not be revisisting it any time soon.  An author as slow and deliberate as this will not be cranking out a book a year, or writing a long involved series.  Strange and Norell does stand alone, but throughout the author raises enough questions that another novel wouldn't necessarilly be pandering, there's more than enough left to explore in a sequel, I just wouldn't expect it anytime soon. 

One of the plot points that Clarke left open (other than the ending) was the fate and truth about John Uskglass.  I continue to feel that I am missing something and a closer read of the novel will reveal where he actually went and why he left England.  Perhaps it is meant to be just a mystery, but I feel like Clarke knew exactly what she was doing with the character, and is unwilling to leave anything to chance.  The author leaves several of these strings dangling off her story, like mentioning in one of the footnotes that Wales has been hidden from public view and is now considered a myth, but it is not as irritating as it sounds and goes a long way to building the world the characters inhabit.  I just wish I could get to the truth about Uskglass, maybe someone has a better idea than I do. 

I felt like the character of Vinculus was trying to say that Uskglass' magic had guided all the action of the story, but that would seem to imply that The Raven King had to plan hundreds of years in advance to defeat the man with the thistle down hair, something we already know not to be true as Uskglass is the king of the fairies (If you are trying to read this review before reading the book I won't even mention that was a spoiler because I totally lost you there.)  Though the end of the novel seems to imply that Uskglass views Strange and Norell in the same way a person views an ant, their summoning of Uskglass obviously works and like Vinculus says, they are all living in Uskglass' magic.  Anyway, I just finished the novel yesterday and I'm still trying to parse out where all the characters ended up.  Maybe I'm devoting a little too much thought into this but I feel like I missed something and wish someone would point it out to me.

So despite being a long and intricate novel this is actually a pretty light read.  Other than a few light criticisms about class distinction (which I don't think anyone is defending anyway) the author has no deep or powerful message to convey to the reader, just an interesting and compelling story, and that's not a bad thing.  Most books that aim simply for fun and entertainment are not nearly as long as this one, nor as complex.  The marvel here is that Clarke is able to keep the reader pulled into the story without losing any of our interest over the seven hundred pages of the novel.

There are several other good reviews out there for this novel, and the only bad ones I've seen have complained about the length, the British tone of the novel, or the lack of action.  People should realize what they're getting into when they open this book, and if you aren't a fan of involved descriptions of 18th Century England I'd steer clear of this one.  But if you don't mind taking a slower and more deliberate look at characterization and story progression, this is just a great novel to read.