Saturday, May 9, 2009

My Top Five World Fantasy Award Winners

I have a rule for myself to never comment on my own posting history but I had intended for this to get done yesterday. Something very important came up, though.

Movie? What movie? I don't know what you're talking about.

Anyhow, rather than running down a list of five novels placed in somewhat arbitrary order I am keeping the list in publication order. All five of these books are well worth anyone's time.

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart fits nicely into the mold of classic adventure fiction. There's a quest and a powerful villain and monsters and a lot of other elements that you'd expect to find in the interchangeable Tolkien knock offs that fill shelves. What it does differently is dramatically overturn the point of view. Shifting the setting to ancient China and capturing the cultural attitudes are part of that. Giving one of the "heroes" "one small flaw in his character" is another. If you read the book then you probably giggled at that previous sentence and the light hearted tone that Bridge of Birds maintains also sets it apart. Finally Hughart is exceptional at fitting words together beautifully. It adds up to a magificent book that cannot be missed.

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons is a work that leaves me uneasy in ways that horror novels rarely can. It's built on fear of the others, those dirty foreigners who are beyond our borders are have their own strange ways. It's the kind of thing that rational men are supposed to be beyond and Simmons plays with it better than any author I have encountered. Other authors who use that fear are typically politicians trying to enflame their people against others which adds a deeper layer to the fear that Simmons is envoking. Also he manages to capture the poisonous atmosphere of a densely populated city that exists in the worst conditions.

Replay by Ken Grimwood is notable for the use of a simple scenario (reliving one's life over and over) and playing with all of the myriad of implications. If that was all it had I wouldn't have mentioned it here; Grimwood also focuses on how these events both change and fail to change a man. No punches are pulled with the protagonist as he does some great things and many less than noble ones over his lifetimes. And even when he is at his worst Grimwood makes sure that the reader can understand the character.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami is the most maginal of my five selections but I think that it was successful as an allegorical novel in a way that many mainstream authors dabbling in speculative fiction are not. The theme of fate might be the single most ancient literary concept and somehow Murakami manages to find a unique take on it. Rather than simply being a a set of quietly magical events events occurring among a cast of quirky characters Kafka on the Shore strives for deeper meaning. I think it achieved it since I doubt I'll ever forget this book.

Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe is worth reading for one major reason: the writing. The story is good enough and the characters are interesting enough but what really makes this novel stand out from the rest is how magnficent the writing is. The unreliable narrator has never been more unreliable than in Soldier of Sidon and so Wolfe turns the reader into an active participant in the story. The reader along with the narrator is working from information that is fragmented; the reader might have a better point of view but the narrator could be dishonest on some points. It makes the book incredibly compelling and Wolfe manages to make the rest of the work support that.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I haven't changed my logo to feature the World Fantasy Award winners since with all of the Hugo and Nebula winners it is already a bit large. However I still missed the mosaic image of all of the covers...

(Click to giant size it)

That's better, though I wish I didn't have to keep doing this when the number of award winners were at prime numbers.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

World Fantasy Awards Recap

Looking back at the World Fantasy Award winners the thing that surprised me most was how homogeneous in broad concepts they were. I consider science fiction to be a subset of fantasy and despite that the Hugo and Nebula novels showed much more variety. With the World Fantasy Awards there are:

  • Nine traditional fantasy novels (Western, pre-industrial societies with magic and quests)
  • Eleven historical fantasies
  • Six novels that use or explicitly mimic the nineteenth century
  • Sixteen books that might be called urban fantasy
  • And seven of those where novels that were essentially memoirs with an occasional odd thing happening
  • Only three books looked to the horror side of fantasy
  • And five novels focused on fantasy's traditional partner allegory
  • And zero direct Tolkein-esque knock offs.
But enough about how people repeat themselves. With regard to the actual books I disliked sixteen and enjoyed twenty-four which definitely made it a set of books worth checking out.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review - "The Tower of Babylon", "Guide Dog", "Ma Qui"

It's another two year's worth of outstanding (in both senses of the word) Nebula winners.

I need to mention something of my plans. First, I'll be following up the World Fantasy Award winners over the next few days. Then I'll be doing some Nebula catch up with this year's Nebula winners. After that I plan on mixing some Hugo stuff with reviews of a new award.

"The Tower of Babylon"
by Ted Chiang
1990 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

One of the rare pleasures for me as I read these award winning stories is to come across a story that I read a long time ago, enjoyed, and haven't seen since. I had a subscription to Omni when Ted Chiang had this appear there as his first published story and I remembered it as magnificent, haunting, and impressive. Upon revisiting it I found that my memory was accurate.

In the story the Babylonians have constructed a huge tower extending to the top of the sky and have managed to connect the heavens to the earth with it. To breach the dome of the sky and gain access to heaven they have sent for a team of miners who will spend months climbing the tower with their gear and then dig upward to seek God. So "The Tower of Babylon" is about the miner's journey upward.

When I read the story it was the first time that I had encountered an author taking ancient tales and extrapolating some natural feeling consequences out from them. Obviously Chiang was not the first person to do this but "The Tower of Babylon" might be the greatest single example of this. Once you accept the premise that a construction of mud bricks could be hundreds of miles tall and the universe was something that could be climbed through with it then the rest of the world building follows naturally. It's like science fiction from 3000 B.C.E.

Of course if the story was just page after page of cosmology and tower building descriptions then this was be a pretty lousy story. Chiang's story is really about man confronting god, living and working in harsh conditions, and how environment shapes a person. The miners climbing the tower throughout the story aren't undergoing vast spiritual changes as they progress but they are being shaped by what they find and there's always something strange and wonderous around the next corner. This story is exceptional and well worth reading.

"Guide Dog"
by Mike Conner
1991 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Early on in "Guide Dog" I worked out the general shape of the story. I was ready for some heavy handed use of the themes and some ugly moralizing. Conner surprised me when he took this material which has been used very poorly by other storytellers and doing a pretty good job with it.

On an alien world one way that the human colony attempts to integrate is by training children to be guide dogs for the flying, bat like aliens that have lost their senses. The humans can only communicate through a cybernetic interface and since the aliens are empathic their human guides must be able to overcome the flood of emotions from them. The most promising of those trained to be guide dogs is given to an artist. The two of them bond while dealing with the complications that come from the human chafing at being thought of as a dog.

From that brief description you can probably paste on a general outline that comes pretty close to the mark. Conner manages to take some of those overworked concepts and breathe life into them by retaining the tension. All of the characters in this story are broken by their circumstances whether they aknowledge it or not. Consequently even the healing that you'd expect is distorted. It makes the whole story better than the sum of its parts and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

"Ma Qui"
by Alan Brennert
1991 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

"Ma Qui" was the worst of these three stories. Oh sure it isn't a bad story and I liked what I found in it but someone has to be on the bottom of the totem pole. It was like "The Tower of Babylon" without the spiritual aspects and in a story about ghosts the lack of spiritual aspects is a problem.

In Viet Nam a soldier is gunned down and finds himself a specter wandering loose from his body. His body vanishes into the jungle and since his fellow dead vanish as they're bodies are recovered the soldier decides that he needs to return to his in order to find his way to his eternal rest. On that journey he encounters the dead of Viet Nam who maintain their own ghostly existance according to their traditions.

That's the problem with "Ma Qui": it's a story about the mechanics of the afterlife instead of the people. I could have gotten that same information from reading the wikipedia article on the Vietnamese afterlife beliefs. I didn't find the dead soldier to be a compelling character and so "Ma Qui" didn't thrill me.

Which isn't to say it's a bad story since I found Brennert to be fairly effective with his prose. I was just left wanting more of a story in "Ma Qui". In terms of stories about the just dead (a surprisingly large subgenre) I've read much worse and I think I would have liked the story more if Brennert expanded it so that it didn't feel so much like a recitation of setting details.