Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review - "Ship of Shadows" and "Time Considdered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"

Frank Kelly Freas
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This might not be the best cover Freas did (get used to seeing his work in the best professional artist position), but I just love the Starblazers feel from this cover.

"Ship of Shadows"
by Fritz Leiber
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I was impressed by ninety-five percent of this story. It started strong, built atmosphere and tension subtly, and then blew it all by explaining everything including questions that weren't developed on the last page. I couldn't understand how that happened. Leiber's brief, "That's just how it is!" explanations worked fine for this narrative and throwing an extended back story for the whole thing quite literally after the climax just felt wrong.

"Ship of Shadows" is about a spacecraft where people have forgotten the nature of the world they inhabit. This isn't a straight generation ship, it's an orbital zero-gravity environment all plastic and metal. Our protagonist works in a bar in a section of the ship that is plagued by vampires, witches, and werewolves. A local crime lord is trying to put the squeeze on the bar looking for a convenient McGuffin.

The story unfolds slowly. While anyone who has read a bit of science fiction will immediately recognize that they're on a space craft Leiber paces the revelations of the nature of the world and people very gently. Particularly interesting is the character of the talking black cat which provides some rude commentary on the action.

If it wasn't for that last page info dump I would recommend "Ship of Shadows" enthusiastically. As it stands I think that the quality of the vast majority outweighs the undermining of the concepts at the end.

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"
by Samuel R. Delany
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1969 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Delany won the second and third Nebula awards for best novel but never really managed to make a big inroad with the Hugos. Perhaps he is just a writer's writer. This is his only Hugo victory for fiction but this story just didn't do anything for me. I found it to have ameandering flow; the story just didn't really seem to be moving anywhere.

A conman who switches identities as easily as we put on a pair of socks has returned to earth with an unidentified McGuffin (big year for those, I guess) which he intends to sell for more money than he's ever seen. This draws the attention of the secret police who warn him that the moment he moves up in his criminal tax bracket they'll take him out. The conman then proceeds to find a Singer, a person whose tunes are so expressive that they draw complete attention, who carries the secret password for the criminal underground in order to go to a fancy party with politicians and mobsters in the hopes of making an exchange and escaping in the confusion.

Upon reflection I know exactly what bothered me about "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones": the lack of reason. Delany has this complicated world that he drops the reader in with its tiered criminal system that has some kind of central communication methods, a secret police that only cares about criminals increasing their income, and impossibly charismatic singing voices and it just doesn't gel for me. Since so many aspects of the world require that people behave in counterintuitive ways I found myself questioning the how's and why's of Delany's setting and there aren't any answers to them.

That doesn't mean the story isn't well written, it was. And it doesn't mean that the characters aren't interesting because they were. I just couldn't get past that setting and it disrupted my enjoyment of the story.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Review - Storyteller and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop
by Kate Wilhelm
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Related Book

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

I am beginning to suspect that the extended titles for the non-fiction category of the Hugos is intentional.

Normally when I do these I've been dividing them with a nice little section on each. That's not occurring this time. These books are closely related and I am going to be setting them side by side in a duel to the death! Or just a rough comparison of their different strengths. One of those two.

You'll have to search awfully far to find a science fiction fan who hasn't at one time entertained the idea of becoming a writer. It's one of those things that seems so easy from a distance. Storyteller (you're crazy if you think I'm typing that whole title every time) and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy offer a hand to would be writers moving from scribbling in your notebook to writing things that sell.

Wilhelm's book also doubles as a memoir of her time teaching at Clarion, a six week long live in workshop designed to take amateur writers, stick them in a pressure cooker, and then spit out people who could be professionals. I found most of the anecdotes interesting but Wilhelm is merciless with her former students. The griping about their problems overwhelms these sections of the book and what I took from them were a lot of object lessons about exactly what not to do. Particularly amusing to me is the group that threw fit when Wilhelm eliminated all of the most clichéd story ideas and insisted that as a result there was "nothing to write about". I recognized a lot of the problems that her students had as common ones with bad fiction.

When it comes to writing advice the books take very different directions. Wilhelm starts from a position that the reader is just someone who slaps words down on the page and needs refining from the start. Card takes the contrary option and starts from a position that the person reading the book can write to a reasonable standard and concentrates his advice specifically on science fiction and fantasy.

Wilhelm's format is essentially "Writer's workshop in a book." She offers a handful of exercises and things to consider when pacing your work. Of special interest is her explanation of what point an editor would stop reading and throw the manuscript away. Storyteller has a great deal of advice on structuring your sentences and pacing your work.

How to Write has a little bit of advice along those lines but Card skips to the big things. He's got a very large chapter on world building, for example, where he points out the practical considerations that have to be used when writing speculative fiction. He touches on all the major traps that get inexperienced SF authors: how to not overload on exposition, naming conventions, limiting the scope of magic and technology, and how much the reader can assume versus what the author has to explain. Perhaps most importantly for the budding author he has a lengthy chapter on how to sell your work.

For me the most surprising section is how both authors answered that timeless question, "Where do you get your ideas?" That's a question that ranks at the bottom of questions that I care about from authors since the real answer is everywhere and nowhere but Card and Wilhelm step through the creative process for them. Card focuses on the moments of freehand inspiration which eventually crystallize into a work for him while Wilhelm is more structured in her thought process.

A problem I had with Card's How to Write is that it is badly out of date in some places. Since it was written in 1990 that is to be expected. Card doesn't anticipate the shrinking science fiction market and the boom in fantasy which makes some of his information inaccurate and not as focused as current reader may want. It is my understanding that there is a more recent edition of How to Write but I have not read it since my collection is being built on getting all of the Hugo winning books.

Storyteller's greatest weakness also its greatest strength: the book has a very harsh tone. I suspect it comes from Wilhelm's view of of the Clarion seminar as a "boot camp for writers" and some readers may be turned off by that.

If these were books on house building How to Write book would be about drawing up plans and selling it while Storyteller would be about how to install plumbing and electrical wiring. Both are very short and have a wealth of details in them, but they have different goals. I'd cheerfully recommend Storyteller to anyone who is interesting in writing in general mainly because of its confrontational tone which can trigger moments of introspection that any would be writer needs. Card's book I'd recommend for someone constructing any creative work that features science fiction or fantasy not just books or short stories since he provides a lot of backing on how to do them well. There's plenty of room for both on the shelf of someone interesting in becoming the next Wilhelm or Card.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Criticism

This isn't about me (though since I am an egotist it will naturally come back to me). I have just seen some statements and attitudes repeated from different sources online in the past few days. While I'm under no delusion that griping about it here will make one bit of difference what is a blog for if you don't gripe into the wind.

These attitudes come down to one thing: all criticism is meaningless. Not just random stranger on the internet shouting "U sUX!1!" or the person whose opinion is built off of some wildly incorrect facts but the whole thing. Not that the people expressing these opinions actually come out and say that but it is what their opinions come down to. So I have a few points to keep in mind.

The act of creation is not worthy of praise in and of itself. You may be proud of fanfic but the fact that you squirted out statements onto paper doesn't deserve a pat on the head. I could hold a gun to the head of any person in the United States and demand that they write a piece of fiction based on their favorite television show and get something close in quality to the vast majority of fanfiction out there (perhaps with a few more "Help! Help! A maniac is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to write slash!" statements in the middle). Most people have self-censors that recognize the lack of quality in them and just not do it. Being able to overpower that self-censor is not necessarily a good thing.

So naturally someone eventually reacts with, "Oh boy did that suck. On every technical and artistic level that I could describe it sucked. Anyone to whom it is not immediately obvious that this sucked lacks even the basic building blocks of taste." The response to this tends to be one of saying that just by completing and putting their work on the web that it is worthy of praise. While our unnamed critic (who on the Internet is more likely to abbreviate that statement to "WTFFF!!!") isn't particularly helpful just the statement that it isn't liked is something. A few dozen responses like that should trigger introspection not a demand for pity.

Want the fastest route to not improve? Don't engage in any self-exploration and place yourself in an environment where regardless of what you do you just get praise. Even if you start out taking a hard look at your work getting told over and over again that it was good erodes that and before long you're trapped and your creative work will never get better. You can't swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting someone that this has happened to and in fan produced derivative works (fiction or otherwise) it is especially prevalent.

The corollary to this is everyone's favorite statement "Well where's the one that you did?" It would be nice to think that anyone over the age of ten could know why this isn't a valid response to criticism but I see it over and over again from people who claim to be adults. If you can't work out that understanding and creating are two separate processes then there's no hope for you.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review - Neuromancer

by William Gibson
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.

I challenge you to find a better opening line to any science fiction novel. You'll be hard pressed to find better opening lines for any novel at all (though there I've got a tiny handful that I'd put past it). Besides being a great line it conveys in one sentence a lot about the novel, most importantly that it has a technology fetish that will drive it. It also says that the reader is in for something really special.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Neuromancer. It's the atomic bomb on the unsuspecting city, the planet smashing comet wiping out the lumbering giants leaving the nimble mammals behind. Even disregarding cyberpunk which was birthed here, flared, and died Neuromancer infected just about everything that follows with its viewpoint and technology.

It's a popular refrain that some technology in the real world was first thought up by a science fiction author. Really the majority of those are tangential at best but that doesn't stop people from trying to inflate things. Neuromancer is a book where they don't have to make tenuous connections. It's not the technology predictions that matter, those were based on existing trends, it's that Gibson defined a view of computers and software that has become the basis for a lot of the common understanding of the Internet. His memes that start here are impacting you right now just by being online.

Case was a hacker at the top until he was betrayed by a client. They destroyed his nervous system, breaking his ability to surf cyberspace and killing a part of himself. He is offered a chance to fix it by a mysterious benefactor who will pay for a new procedure to fix his nerves in exchange for help in pulling of the heist of the greatest prize in the world.

Neuromancer's blend of noir and computer technology was distinctive when it was released and would have far too many imitators within a few years. It was defined by a certain technology fetish where the devices were as important as the human beings (mainly by being part of them) but Gibson didn't let the humans be overshadowed. It's a deft balancing act he used and I can't think of anyone who has been more successful at it.

My only problem is that Gibson's writing occasionally switches from florid to just plain dense. It makes the conclusion of the book particularly rough to follow. I don't think that it undermines the quality of the book as a whole but as the flowing narrative from the beginning breaks down it can be annoying.

Neuromancer is not one of my favorite books but I'd have to be blind not to see the impact that it had on science fiction. It is the most important science fiction novel of the last thirty years and any science fiction fan should read it just for that. Having a good book in there as well means that there is no excuse for not running out right now and reading it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hugo Awards Early 80's Recap

Sometimes the publishing world changes rapidly. Things change from one state to another with hardly a step in between. In this case the early 80's are the dawn of the brick.

It's like someone woke up on January 1, 1981 and said "From now on, no books less than four hundred pages long! And five hundred or more would be even better." Before 1981 the average page count of the Hugo winners was roughly 250 pages. There was occasionally a monster book like Stand On Zanzibar but they were exceptions. Fountains of Paradise by my rough reckoning is the last winner under at that size, then suddenly everything doubles in page count. The Snow Queen and Downbelow Station top five hundred pages, Startide Rising approaches that number, and even Foundation's Edge is grasping at the four hundred mark.

Despite the added page count a lot of these books don't feel like they're really have anything more than the previous books. Cherryh managed to use the additional pages in Downbelow Station to pack in interlocking subplots but the other long winners felt like they could have been streamlined considerably. It isn't simply "too big to edit syndrome" (TBTES) the disease that effects authors who's books sell more than 100,000 copies and causes them to overwrite their books and refuse to cut out the useless sections (Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are famous victims of this debilitating illness); none of these authors were "too big" when they published these books.

My personal and completely unsupported theory is that printing improved in the 70's making better bindings more viable. Once that was in place it was possible to make bigger books more cheaply. Book buyers when presented with a book at 250 pages and another one at 500 pages at a close price chose the 500 page one (I'll admit at the time I was one of those; I have since learned about the pains of TBTES). Editors noted this and started looking for longer books. More books of that length published and read would equal more readers to vote for them in the Hugos and here we are.

Other than the books suddenly becoming huge there were a few notable things in this period. The Snow Queen was the first "fantasy" book to win. Admittedly Vinge tied it up in science fiction dressing but the style was all classic fantasy. Hugo voters still weren't really to go all out for fantasy yet and it is the last for a while.

Foundation's Edge is the only Hugo for novels that I would call a lifetime achievement award. The book was terrible but the award was for Asimov himself. This is not repeated.

We're starting to see the impact of the linked novels on science fiction in the awards this time as well. One winner was a direct sequel (Foundation's Edge), and two other winners were new novels that used existing settings (Downbelow Station, Startide Rising). Before the early 80's there were books that got sequels and one book that used an existing setting (Ringworld) but now we get a lot of books that are either sequels or written with a sequel in mind.

On the liked/didn't like scale:

Liked: 20
Didn't Like: 11

This is the worst block of winners for me with three books I didn't like: Fountains of Paradise, Foundation's Edge, and Startide Rising. I enjoyed Downbelow Station and The Snow Queen which curiously enough also means that I liked all the books by women and didn't like the books by the men. Feel free to read something into that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Review - Startide Rising

Startide Rising
by David Brin
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1983 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Though part of my reading goals in working through all of the Hugo award winners was that I would read any preceding novels in series. As it turns out Sundiver, the first book in Brin's Uplift series, costs more than my car payment in hard cover. In fact, the two Uplift books that did win the Hugos cost more than my car payment if I purchase them in hard cover. Now I'm an obsessive nerd (obviously) and I had my mind set on a collection but that's pushing things. The omnibus that's pictured here was my compromise so that I could afford the books in hard cover. It was something that I had to do quite a bit with the winners that were printed in the 1980's which says something pretty negative about the publishers with regard to these books.

So if I wanted to add Sundiver to my collection properly then it was very expensive. Fortunately checking around I found that Sundiver is not required at all to enjoy Startide Rising so I skipped it and moved right into this book.

The Uplift universe is the real star of this book. Brin took some of the standard space opera tropes and attempted to justify them. The result is a very interesting take on some very old ideas.

A few hundred years from now humans have begun "uplifting" other animals; a process that grants them human level intelligence and reasoning. Dolphins and chimpanzees are the first and uplifted members of those species are recognized as equals to humanity. We've also built our first faster-than-light space drive but our first trip out brings a host of surprises. We encounter a friendly species immediately and it turns out that the universe is packed to overflowing with intelligent life. The species that exist breed new species of sentience and uplift them but as part of their culture any uplifted species becomes the property of their creators for one hundred thousand years. Only one species developed sentience on their own, the mysterious progenitors, who have been gone close to a billion years. Civilization is completely stagnant as everyone is certain that everything there is to know has been written down in the libraries which are commonly available to everyone.

Humanity is a polarizing force in the universe. Not only do we have the audacity to claim that we weren't uplifted by anyone we also uplifted two more species without permission which is grounds for the elimination of a species. We also avoid the dependence on the library preferring to find things on our own. And finally, and worst of all for most other sentients in the universe, human beings do things on a time scale of dozens of years rather than thousands. So humanity is a weak newcomer facing overwhelming opposition from the rest of the universe.

In Startide Rising the first dolphin commanded exploration vessel has discovered a fleet of progenitor space craft and recovered one of their bodies. It's a prize that has value beyond measure in the Uplift universe and so they immediately find themselves pursued by vast fleets of warships. The dolphins intentionally crash onto a world where the majority of the surface is an ocean and find more mysteries as a month long battle for who gets to seize them rages over their heads.

The setting of Startide Rising is extremely interesting and that was a major problem for me. All of the action in the book takes place at the planet the dolphins crash on and in space around it. We never find out details about the exploration that finds the ship (it's not part of Sundiver) and the resolution to this conflict and the consequences for the humiliated forces is not given. I wanted to know about all of that stuff and Brin occasionally gave me a glimpse of it but then he turned away back to the weaker parts.

And it may be that those "weaker parts" aren't really that bad, they just weren't interesting compared to the big space opera stuff Brin did for half-pages at a time. The bulk of the book focuses on the dolphins which he gives some distinctive viewpoints. Those viewpoints made it impossible for me to connect with them, though. I never connected with any of the dolphins who comprise three-quarters of the cast of the book. Since they're the focus of the book this was a major problem for me.

And really that's what it's going to come down to. If you can connect with those uplifted dolphins then you'll probably enjoy the book. Brin's prose is pretty good (despite having a lot of haiku, a form of poetry that has made far too many people think that counting syllables is a perfectly acceptable form of art) and his ideas are neat. I just was bored out of my skull when the dolphins were there. In the end that makes me not recommend reading it but at the same time I recognize that if someone else can get over that mental hump then they'll probably like it a lot.

I'm going to cheat a bit here and say read The Uplift War instead. It's loosely connected to Startide Rising but the previous book is not necessary and you get the same concepts in a better package. Then if you really like it try going back to Startide Rising and maybe you'll find yourself liking the dolphins more than I did.

Review - "Nightwings", "The Sharing of Flesh", and "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World"

Jack Gaughan
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

by Robert Silverberg
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

In a future where civilization has collapsed and been rebuilt the earth has been regimented into a tightly controlled class system where most people are known only by their professions. Most of these professions are key to the function of society but one of them, the Watchers, just scans the sky at appropriate times each day watching for the invaders who caused the previous fall. "Nightwings" starts with a Watcher traveling to "Roum" (read that as "Rome") with a Flier and Changeling, two genetically modified individuals one of whom is accepted by the society and the other is not. Once there they encounter some difficulties and examine their roles in the society.

Silverberg's story takes a long time to get to its point but the narrative manages to carry it well. The three main characters are what carries the story and they are multifaceted. The Changeling is rejected but obsessed with the past, the Flier appears to be an innocent young girl but is willing to trade herself for safety, and the Watcher questions the value of watching. Most of the major portions of the plot are very predictable (which is why I avoided discussing it at all in my summary) but the details that surround it are not.

Taken as a whole I found "Nightwings" a good read. There isn't a lot of depth to it and I wouldn't put too much thought into the caste system that the story has but it was enjoyable.

"The Sharing of Flesh"
by Poul Anderson
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

This is my favorite of Poul Anderson's many award winning short stories. In his earlier ones I found that the narrative was weak or the prose wasn't very sharp but I really liked "The Sharing of Flesh". In it he posits a bronze age civilization where ritualistic cannibalism has become a regular part of life. Outsiders from other human settled worlds have found this civilization and must decide whether they should receive assistance in rebuilding. One of these explorers is killed and eaten by an inhabitant and his new wife who comes a culture that emphasizes retribution wants to hunt down the cannibal.

What made this story work for me is the conflict of civilizations that Anderson creates. The cannibals feel that their way of life is a necessity as does the woman who is seeking revenge. Other members of the exploration party react to both of them with horror at the requirements of their culture. Anderson's prose still isn't very polished but it is better than his earlier efforts. Still the central ideas work well enough to carry the entire story.

"The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World"
by Harlan Ellison
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This short story reminded me a lot of "Riders of the Purple Wage". It too was pretentiously overwritten with purple prose that mainly existed to obfuscate the story and make it appear to be something more than it was. The key idea here is that the madness that we experience in our world is due to madness being dumped into it from another universe. Really its hard for me to say more than that because really the story is a chaotic mess. Ellison provides little in the way of exposition and while over done, clumsy exposition is a problem with a lot of science fiction here there's just enough to follow the basic point but not enough for a lot of what happens to have any real meaning to reader. The reader is stuck trying to puzzle out what's going on through the prose which makes "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" more annoying than clever.