Friday, April 17, 2009

Getting Some Nebula Audiobooks

StarShipSofa has made all of the Nebula nominated short stories for 2009 available as podcasts via iTunes. I plan on listening to them on my commute next week though I've found that I can't focus on the language as well with audiobooks. Of the ones I've read "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" is my favorite so give it a listen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review - The Facts of Life

The Facts of Life
by Graham Joyce
Tied for 2003 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I think I'm getting a grip on modern urban fantasy. All you have to do is take an innocent protagonist, send them on a spiritual journey (particularly if it's a coming of age story), and have them encounter a series of strange things which you assemble by randomly selecting adjectives and nouns. You can pad things out by giving the protagonist a dysfunctional family life.

Of course it helps if you tell this story as well as Graham Joyce does. It's just that this structure has become almost as rigid as the epic fantasy quests and that's not a healthy thing for a genre.

Our protagonist is a boy born into a large family living in Coventry just after the end of World War II. The family is touched with magic that lets some of them be aware of spirits around them. His mother is flighty and prone to vanish for days at a time so it is arranged that he will be passed from family member to family member. As he grows the child encounters the strange quirks of his family members and learns to appreciate each of them in their own way.

What makes The Facts of Life really stand out in the crowd is that Graham Joyce gives the book an impressive voice. For the first ten pages I thought it was going to annoy me. There's a shift after the first chapter to a different style that Joyce uses through the rest of the book. It's a style that is colloquial to the 1950's UK and it gave the book a very friendly tone. It turned the narrative voice into one of the extended family that is at the heart of the book and by extension brought me as the reader in closer.

The family itself is a mix of familiar archetypes and unusual breaks in convention. The negligent mother, for example, is not negligent due to any of the usual reasons (though that might be expected given that this is a fantasy novel). On the other hand the benevolent dictator of a matriarch who keeps the family together is an archetype that will be very recognizable even when Joyce adds his own tragic spin on it.

The only real misstep in this that I found was an unfortunately heavily cliched trip to a commune where college intellectuals attempt to put their radical beliefs into practice. It fits the novel's themes but this group of characters is about as interesting as dishwater.

The city of Coventry itself places a large role in the novel. It grows from the ashes at the same time as the child grows and the history of the city is often referenced. I'm sure it is something that will be familiar to any readers in the UK though American readers might have some trouble with the references.

One more positive thing about The Facts of Life is that Joyce never loses the thread of his novel like some urban fantasies do. The book is a collection of vignettes from the protagonist's childhood and Joyce remembers that it is the story of that child growing up which means they flow into each other. Even the digressions exist to illuminate what happened to this family. It's a shame that I have to mention that but too many books I've read lately are a random assortment of anecdotes that drift around until the book ends. I can't say that The Facts of Life really builds to a climax since there is no moment of revelation or dramatic confrontation; what it has is an ending that let's the reader know that life has changed and it will be better.

The Facts of Life is a familiar story told very well and for that reason I recommend it. Graham Joyce painted a picture of a family that will be instantly recognizable to anyone and at the same time has their own unique quirks. The result is a very enjoyable book.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review - "The Blind Geometer", "Rachael in Love", and "Forever Yours, Anna"

I'm not sure what it was about 1987 but there seemed to be a real rise in Campbellian scientists in that year's Nebula winners. All three stories feature that old science fiction cliche of a scientist working in isolation coming up with an amazing breakthrough that would revolutionize the world if someone noticed it.

"The Blind Geometer"
by Kim Stanley Robinson
1987 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

There's a point in most badly written conspiracy fiction where I get annoyed beyond the breaking point. It's inevitable that the agents of the evil corporation/government agency/religious sect/whatever will do some obviously illegal things to get the macguffin and yet the protagonist refuses to do the most obvious thing: be public about it. Go to the police with a reporter in tow and drop that massive pile of evidence in their laps. Even if the evil conspiracy can buy their way out of court (and in pretty much every one of these stories they couldn't just based on the sheer quantity of witnesses and physical evidence they leave behind) the evil scheme inevitably would fall apart when placed under public scrutiny. Bad writers ignore the plethora of options available to someone under such harassment or try to hand wave it as "They control everything" without thinking of the implications of "controlling everything".

Obviously "The Blind Geometer" is one of those stories and in it our conspiracy harassed victim doesn't go to the authorities or make the situation public even when he has handy evidence to shut them down and send them all to jail for a few decades because he's "self-reliant". The protagonist is blind and refuses assistance whenever possible even when it takes suspension of disbelief well beyond the breaking point.

A coworker of the titular blind geometer approaches the mathematician with some special government work. The population of a scientific outpost on the moon has vanished with the exception of one woman who has been drawing complex geometric projections. The projections look like something similar to what the mathematician has been working on so he agrees to look and is pulled into a web of conspiracy.

Besides my problems with the plot structure the story also lacked interesting characters. The protagonist was defined more by his handicap than any personality; everything was about how he was blind and that made him boring. And since he's the only major character in the story who isn't "mysterious" there's no one else for the reader to attach to.

There's nothing in "The Blind Geometer" worth reading. It's a poorly told story about an uninteresting character doing stupid things because the author demands it. It definitely is not worth seeking out.

"Rachael in Love"
by Pat Murphy
1987 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A scientist develops a technique for placing a mind into a new body and after a tragic accident uses it on his own child. When the scientist dies, though, the child is forced to depart into the world where the robot becomes a superhero...

Hang on, I seem to have "Rachael in Love" mixed up with Astroboy.

Okay, in "Rachael in Love" the scientist overlaps his daughter's mind with that of a chimpanzee. When the scientist dies she is caught by animal control and is sent to a research center where they breed chimps for labs. And there Rachael has to figure out what her place with human and chimpanzees.

The most surprising thing to me in this story is that Murphy didn't spend the story preaching about the evils of animal testing. The humans treat Rachael like an animal and are consequently indifferent to her but that's goes back to the story's theme of trying to find the dividing line between human and animal when someone has poured in an equal mix of both. Murphy pokes at that theme from a variety of angles though many of them are used subtly.

It's her exploration of Rachael that makes "Rachael in Love" worth reading. The tension between human and animal, instinct and thought, childhood and maturity, and child and parent are all given an interesting perspective.

"Forever Yours, Anna"
by Kate Wilhelm
1987 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

In a world where graphology isn't simply a scam along the lines of astrology a graphologist is asked to analyse some love letters between a scientist who died under mysterious circumstances and an unknown lover. The letters have all been carefully edited to remove anything that could identify her but the lover must be found because she is in possession of the results of the scientist's research. As the graphologist examines the handwriting he becomes obsessed with finding the woman himself.

There's a twist at the end of the story which gives me a headache. I won't say what it is since I hate spoiling stories; it's just that in this case I can't work out how the story comes together with the new information. It falls apart when examined and so it left me at the end with a bad taste in my mouth.

Even before that I wasn't feeling much affection for the story. Wilhelm's use of graphology as a science struck another sour chord for me and I didn't care about the graphologist. He was a boring non-entity for the majority of the story and at the same time he was really the only character in it. On the positive side of things Wilhelm is just as skilled in forming her prose as she has demonstrated for me in the past. This time out I just couldn't care.