Kim Stanley Robinson

On my list of most awaited 2015 books, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora was right near the top. KSR is one of my favorite authors and the writer of my current best-of-the-decade choice 2312; his newest project has tantalized since its announcement. Anytime Robinson’s name is followed in a sentence by the phrase “generation starship,” I’m instantly on board. Does he deliver? Yes, and we should never doubt him. Does he somehow take a familiar trope and take it in a completely unexpected direction? Of course – to do otherwise is not in his programming. Should we stop asking silly questions and get on with it? Probably, yeah.

Reviewing Aurora presents a bit of a challenge, because it is not long before we have to stop discussing specifics. The proverbial twist comes early in the book and not only scrambles the plot, but makes it virtually impossible for anyone to talk about the book past the first hundred pages without utterly spoiling the story. More crazy things continue to happen, but the defining, and surprising, turn is fundamental to the story, KSR’s underlying themes, and the final impression that the book leaves. And yet, no matter how shocking these events are, Robinson’s trademark sense of inevitability makes it all seem perfectly natural. Just like in 2312 and, especially, the Mars trilogy, Robinson’s storytelling is so completely air tight that events could never have gone in any other direction. Even when I know he’s rigging the game and see the invisible deity’s hands moving all the pieces on the board, I can’t shake the feeling that Robinson is merely reporting the news. An apt comparison might be bunraku, the Japanese puppetry where the puppeteers are out in view and on stage, dressed fully in black, but the audience gradually tunes them out and only sees the puppets, seemingly moving of their own accord. Aurora might as well be history, since nothing could have gone any differently than the book says. Or, at least, such is the feeling that Robinson closes with. It’s remarkable that he continues to pull this off in every book; KSR is like the magician who performs his tricks in full view of the audience, with no fear that anyone will actually notice.

As usual for the author, Aurora is packed to overflowing with ideas. There’s the science at the base: the nuts and bolts of generation ships, the logistics of colonization, and maintaining life in an artificial environment. Then there’s the biology and sociology that go along with things: social structures inside a ship, ecosystems in ships and other planets, and how humans can contend with it all. There are musings about governance and rights (a KSR favorite), the possibilities of AI, and the connections between humans and their native environment. There is a plot, but there is also much space devoted to exploration, both of the world and the ideas that underlie it. Nobody familiar with KSR’s writing will be surprised by any of this; he remains curious and lyrical, rigorous and passionate. In fact, Aurora might be a good starting point for new Robinson readers. It is shorter and more concise than some other works, much more compact in both ideas and setting than the grander, operatic works.

The heart of the book is Robinson’s contention that we and the Earth are inseparable. This shows up in his other works, but is not the central theme quite like in Aurora. The corollary is that, as our (only?) home, we need to spend more time taking care of the planet and less time scheming to escape to some other paradise. I have heard similarly inclined SF authors bemoan SF’s focus on planetary colonization and the excitement of spreading out into the stars, arguing that this mindset diminishes the attention we pay to Earth. After all, if all we need to do is level up our science enough to put people on another planet, we don’t have to take responsibility for the mess here. I agree with this part way, though I still want to see us with Moon and Mars bases. I doubt that KSR is as strident as some of his characters, but the message in the book is still quite clear.

There is one related argument that I disagree with. Robinson’s characters complain about the unfairness of their situation, saying that being born on the generation ship deprives them of any choice in their destinies. It follows that we should stay on Earth because our descendants have no say in the decision to ship them off. I suppose this is true as far as it goes, but nobody chose to be born into starvation in Somalia either. Birth is the first great injustice of life – I don’t see why the colonists get to whine about it any more than I moan about being born in a desolate Rocky Mountain outpost.

There are plenty of other goodies to explore along with the Aurora colonists, whether AI development, macrobiology, or exo-planet theorizing. The book doesn’t share the depth or widescreen drama of Robinson’s heftier works, but is much more accessible and easier to digest. I expect Aurora to be on many best of the year lists at the least, and probably the major lists as well. It’s a must read for anyone trying to stay current with the biggest happenings in SF and one of the most relevant and thought provoking books since, well, Robinson’s last book.


Richard Morgan

I sometimes ask myself where cyberpunk went. Science fiction as a whole long since absorbed both the subversive attacks and the near-future tech tropes into its Borg-like mass, but once in a long while, true cyberpunk still leaps out of the shadows. (Japan seems to maintain a steady export business: Mardock Scramble, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) Until he got sidetracked into grimdark fantasy, Richard Morgan made aggressive claims to the contemporary cyberpunk throne, with Thirteen his strongest appeal. Morgan has said in interviews that he will be returning to SF soon, to which I say, “Huzzah.” He burns with the rage of a much younger idealist, writing in worlds that descend directly from 1980s-era Gibson or Sterling. It warms my Max Headroom influenced heart.

One question should be briefly addressed before digging into the really nerdy stuff. Thirteen‘s title in the UK is Black Man; the decision to change the name in the US has come under some fire. Given that Morgan’s protagonist is black, and that Thirteen/Black Man digs deeply into issues of discrimination, there is a certain whiff of cowardly marketing to the new title. However, in addition to being black, the hero, Carl, is a GMO from a frightening group known as “Thirteens.” His skin color is sometimes an issue, but the primary reason he is persecuted is his genetic modification. If the publisher is trying to highlight the real discrimination in the book, Thirteen is the more accurate title. I do think that the decision had much more to do with trying to avoid controversy in the racially charged US, but I also think that the US title is probably a better reflection of the story. Reasonable minds may differ.

Back to the fun stuff. Morgan builds his story on two assumptions. First, the US has divided into what might be seen as its natural political geography: the West Coast, the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and everything else. That everything else is referred to as Jesusland and not painted in the most flattering light, while the NE and West Coast are basically what we would expect those places to turn into, at least in a vaguely dystopic and cyberpunky future. Second, Morgan has a particular sociological theory at the base of things, one that postulates human societies gradually moving from a male structure (violence, hunting, hierarchy based on raw strength, competition) to a female structure (cultivation, cooperation, compromise). The males who can’t function in this new world are weeding themselves out by doing stupid things like extreme sports, carrying loaded guns to Home Depot and shooting themselves in the butt, flocking to military and para-military groups, and generally finding ways to bow to evolutionary pressure as the traditional feudal patriarch drifts into genetic obsolescence. (One of those things was in the real news, not the book, but fits well.)

The above is pretty heavy philosophizing. Fortunately for the reader, most of what actually happens in Thirteen is super tough people beating the crap out of each other, usually with vivid descriptions of traumatized internal organs or detached, airborne limbs. Morgan is quite the most gleefully violent of the cyberpunks. Thirteens were originally created to be remorseless super soldiers, something that sounds great to governments until they suddenly have an excess of death machines just sitting around with no appreciable job skills beyond mayhem. After some retrenchment by the powers that be, Carl gets a job hunting down his fellow GMOs to either ship them off to Mars, incarcerate them in a remote camp, or dispose of them. Shades of Blade Runner. Actually, now that we bring up that iconic film, there is another bit that invites comparison. For whatever unknown reason, thirteens are probably the chattiest bunch of superkillers ever put to page. Anyone who enjoyed the last scenes of Blade Runner and their long soliloquies will love Thirteen. Not content with merely shooting and beating each other, thirteens love sitting around talking about who is superior, usually as someone lies dying on the floor.

Anyway, Carl’s job lands him in the middle of a serial killer plot, wherein he hunts down a Thirteen who is in turn hunting others. In standard cyberpunk noir fashion, we meet cops (from both coasts), hookers, gangsters, hackers, and assorted corrupt government types as Carl travels the world and unravels the convoluted mystery. These are all the plot beats deprived cyberpunks like me have been missing, but updated with the politics and economics of the new millennium. Morgan gives more depth to the story with the philosophical bantering and social commentary, so readers can engage at any level: flying heads, near-future grit, or populist anger.

A certain demographic may prove unable to enjoy just the flying heads. Morgan is not coy with his politics and is especially condescending to Jesusland and its denizens. Many Two Dudes readers probably share the Dudes’ opinions of the American South, its political and religious situation, and its racial history; these people will merely smile and nod as Carl carves a swath of destruction through Florida. Others will no doubt get up in arms about Socialism, social justice, or some other bugbear and fling their copies across their double-wide trailers. The gentle reader should consider himself/herself warned, but also advised that skipping out on Thirteen means missing a big pile of fun. A pile of fun, even, with mirrorshades on.

Morgan is not subtle, but he is entertaining and kinetic. With one intentional exception, Thirteen hurtles along at breakneck speed, leaving carnage and metaphysics in its wake. The book is like Carl: tough, takes no prisoners, and delights in confrontation. This is cyberpunk shorn of Gibson’s sardonic veneer, Sterling’s sinister weirdness, or Rucker’s Muppets-on-LSD lunacy, leaving the flaming core of rage at The Man and the revolution it engenders. The violence and the politics mean it might not be for everyone (hi, mom), but Thirteen is hypnotic and compelling.

KIC 8462852

KIC 8462852

The designation above is, for those not rabidly following astronomy news, the name of a star that may end up being the biggest scientific discovery of our lifetimes. An article dropped recently on The Atlantic that every SF-nal person should check out. The short form: the Kepler telescope discovered a star called KIC 8462852, which contains a bizarre enough light signature to attract in-depth study from scientists since 2011. Generally light flicker patterns are used to search for planets, but this particular flicker is unlike anything seen before. A paper came out earlier, concluding that the only plausible explanation within our current knowledge is that another star wandered through that system with fantastically good timing, depositing a wreath of comets around KIC. Not impossible, but, apparently, rather implausible. Bigger news: another paper is about to be published suggesting that this light signature is more suggestive of gargantuan, artificial structures orbiting the star. Not conclusive of course, but it is still a bombshell.

Nobody is calling this a definite thing of course. I think all of us are fully aware that we shouldn’t see something strange in the night sky and say, “Hey! Ringworld!” Still, there is an opportunity to find more evidence. And if the evidence mounts? What happens then?

In practical terms, very little I think. KIC 8462852 is 1500 light years away from us, give or take. Thus, we are seeing today events that took place shortly after the fall of Rome. Unless this mysterious race has faster than light travel, and everything we currently know says that FTL is impossible, it will be awhile before they wander over here. Why? Well, the first signals our planet gave out that anyone is here are less than one hundred years old. I’m hazy on whether or not radio/TV waves attenuate over long distances, but even if they are detectable, Flash Gordon episodes aren’t due to KIC 8462852 until 3400 AD or thereabouts. If we decided to meander over and take a look, we’re currently talking about multiple thousands of years. Acceleration to, and slowing down from, an appreciable fraction of the speed of light is still beyond us. We can probably put first contact fears behind us for now, at least for this prospective civilization.

I’m very curious about the possible effects on our society though. A surprisingly large number of people in my fair country have yet to fully process the existence of dinosaurs. How will they deal with a civilization capable of ringing its sun in power satellites while we were still hacking at each other with iron swords? I doubt it would dent religion at all, but there would be entertaining debates over where Jesus/Mohamed/Buddha/etc. fit into a universe where we are no longer God’s only children. Would this bring about the same level of change as the heliocentric solar system did? Would it spur us to greater scientific achievements, knowing that it was already possible for someone else? I don’t give much credit to the idea that we’ll all curl up in an emo ball of malaise because someone else is better than us; that doesn’t seem like the way humanity responds to crisis.

Experts disagree on how we should feel about extraterrestrials. And by “experts,” I mean “SF writers and fans,” because, really, who else is thinking seriously about this? I used to be part of the optimistic bunch that assumed that any civilization who had progressed enough to build Dyson spheres had probably also gotten rid of war, inequality, starvation, and all that sort of thing. It makes some sense, if one charts straight line growth into the future vis a vis how far we as a species have come. More and more though, I find myself aligning with the tribe that assumes that we’ll take most of our warts with us into the future, that enlightenment probably won’t follow naturally on the heels of technology. I think things will get better, but will probably level off at some point.

These groups have directly opposite views of aliens, naturally. The first welcomes First Contact on the assumption that anyone advanced enough to find us will have already put utopia together. The second fears the same Contact, suspecting that it will lead inevitably to subjugation or extinction. While the Culture is a possible future (and one worth hoping for!), imagining what would happen today if a Bronze Age society appeared and said, “Hi folks! Let’s be friends and initiate one-sided trade and technology exchange,” leaves me skeptical. It someone is indeed at KIC 8462852, it may be in our best interests to hold off on the signal flags until we know what we’re potentially dealing with.

I realize that I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Still, with all the recent news close to home – water on Mars, details about Pluto, and more – the KIC 8462852 news really stirs the pot. How will we feel if this really is it? What if we know that we aren’t alone? I’m preparing for disappointment, but the thought of something artificial orbiting a (barely) visible star is enough to fire up the wildest imaginings.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume

Star Wars and the Power of Costume

We take a break from our regularly scheduled book reviews to bring you a look at science fiction from a slightly different angle. (And by “regularly scheduled,” I mean “whenever I’m not playing gigs, coaching soccer, cleaning the house, or doing the other zillion things that have eaten away my life in the last year.” Most recently I lost two nights of blogging time because my kids brought home seven (!) goldfish they had rescued at the fair who were suddenly in dire need of a home. We now have a lovely new aquarium, the pieces of which I begged, borrowed, and bought in a state of high emergency. I digress.) Last Sunday I went to Seattle’s Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and caught one of the last showings of the Smithsonian produced exhibition, Star Wars and the Power of Costume. Consequently, today I can talk about assorted pieces of cloth rather than white wood pulp.

A teeny bit of background. Last Christmas, Mrs. Pep got me a membership to EMP. For those not in the know, EMP (Experience Music Project) is Paul Allen’s two-pronged museum of rock music and science fiction. Unfortunately for the former half, I don’t go for rock music all that much and most of the hands-on activities are music tasks that I do quite regularly. It’s entertaining however, and a good chance for the kids to get a sense of what I’m doing all those nights I’m not at home. I mostly go for the science fiction, and that half consistently delivers. I primarily enjoy books, and it’s hard to make a museum of books, but there’s always something fascinating to see anyway. Lots of movie props and costumes, but also a fair bit of interactive stuff and deeper explanations of what makes the whole of speculative fiction tick. There is also a room in the museum dedicated to the Seattle Seahawks that contains the actual Superbowl trophy. Woooo!

Until October 4th of this year, EMP is hosting the first leg of the Star Wars exhibition tour. We’d put off going during previous visits, but time is running out. It was Sunday or nothing. The display at EMP is split into two levels. The bottom floor is heavy on Republic fashion, be it senators’ robes or Amidala’s dresses. My wife and daughter gravitated to this part of the show, especially the wedding scene from Attack of the Clones. My son appreciated the Emperor’s robes, showcased next to Mace Windu and another Jedi with whom I was not familiar. (Somewhat alarming when my 7 year old can name more Jedi than I can.) Explanations of the Terran origins of things were also fascinating – African hats paired with Victorian skirts, World War II military styles for the Empire, a mix of European monks and samurai armor for the Jedi, and more. Naturally C-3PO and R2-D2 were the highlights here for me.

The good stuff is on the second floor. I am naturally more attached to the original trilogy, if for no other reason than my age, so walking up the stairs and bumping head-on into Ben Kenobi’s costume sent the first shivers down my spine. Things got better as we walked towards Leia’s bounty hunter get-up from Return of the Jedi, then down the line past Han Solo, a Chewbacca suit, and the Imperial officers. I will confess that the gold bikini didn’t thrill me as much as others, but I never really had those thoughts about Leia when growing up.

Let’s take a break to talk about Star Wars. I realize that George Lucas is basically a one-hit wonder who can’t stop crapping all over his own legacy, but I’m not sure anything had a bigger effect on young me than the original trilogy. Star Wars and I came into the world in the same year, my parents allegedly took me with them to see Empire Strikes Back at a drive in, and I have vague memories of seeing Return of the Jedi in a theater. While I’m not sure when I consciously watched each movie for the first time, I do know that by junior high school, I watched one or another of them almost every weekend. After long nights of junk food and roleplaying games, we would pop in a frazzled VHS tape and fall asleep as we mumbled our favorite lines. The original Star Wars RPG was second only to Mech Warrior in playing time, usually with a horde of Jedi wannabes and one person forced to be a smuggler, since we had to have a spaceship somehow. I even played some of the X-Wing computer games, though we as a group were always partial to Wing Commander.

I admit that my Star Wars immersion attenuated as I grew older. I was initially in the apologist camp for the new movies, but they wore on me. Timothy Zahn’s first set of books was amazing, but after awhile, I stopped reading in the expanded universe as much. I always meant to introduce my kids to the magic, but my daughter was never interested and somehow time for movie watching has all but disappeared. Instead, without any urging on my part, my son has found The Clone Wars and is now as big a fan as I ever was, even though we can’t watch the originals until I pick up a working VHS player from the thrift store. (Or I cave in and get the Lucas reworks on DVD. Boo.) Even as we speak, he is pushing through a Clone Wars chapter book above his grade level, because that’s what I can get him to read after school. Somehow, the obsession has started again. Life, as they say, finds a way.

So for my son, things weren’t quite what he hoped. He wanted clone armor, Captain Rex, Commander Cody, etc., whoever they are. Unfortunately, all of his favorites are, well, animated. Me? I was staring open-mouthed at Luke’s X-Wing suit and the TIE Fighter pilot. In the end, we all gazed reverently at the slightly faded Storm Trooper armor, then my wife snapped a photo of me, the kids, and Darth Vader, our hands identical in the force choke position. An iconic moment indeed for this rapidly aging nerd.

We still don’t have a VHS player, so instead settled on Attack of the Clones to close out the evening. Even the women watched until we shut it off partway for bedtime, feeling a bit of the magic from the exhibition I suppose.

I don’t know where else the costumes will go after they leave Seattle, or how many readers will have the chance to see them. For those that do, my recommendation is to take advantage. There remains some undeniable power in the display. I will never use the Force, to my great dismay, and never see Coruscant or Endor, so standing face to face with a Storm Trooper will have to be enough. It almost is.

2015 Hugo Debrief

2015 Hugo Debrief

August has been pretty catastrophic for Two Dudes, as reading and writing withered away in the face of reality and visiting relatives. The latest blow came last Tuesday, when I picked up the entire family from the airport and took them straight from Japan to a funeral in Idaho. Not the plan any of us had in mind, least of all the mother-in-law who got dragged off to the wilds of the Mountain West and forced to spend time with a wacky extended family, the likes of which she has never seen. Obviously, due to funeral related stuff, the blog was far from my mind. There is a hidden connection however, one that allows me to segue smoothly from excuses to actual genre conversation.

There are two accepted ways to get from Seattle to Idaho Falls. The first runs down through Oregon and Boise, and is technically the shorter route. It suffers from boring scenery though, and has the disadvantage of Oregon: awkward gas stations, lower speed limits, and gung ho Highway Patrol. The second route runs across Washington, through the Idaho panhandle and W. Montana, before turning south on I-15 at Butte. The mountain passes make for a challenging, but much more attractive drive. Also, speed limits are more like speed suggestions for long stretches of highway. We took the first on the way down, the second on the way home, for a complete loop. Why does this matter? A major stop on the Northern route is Washington’s second largest urban area and the host of the 2015 WorldCon, Spokane.

It just so happens that we blew through Spokane more or less as the Hugos were being announced. I had hoped to be at WorldCon this year, since it will never be so close to me again, but the timing of the family trip to Japan and logistical nightmare of getting everyone out there while fighting jet lag were too much. I certainly didn’t think that I would be in the area on the return leg of an emergency trip to Idaho. There I was though, with everyone asleep in the rental SUV as I peered through the forest fire induced haze and wondered what could have been. Just as well that I didn’t fork over the membership fee, though I regretted it at the time.

Of course once I got home, with everyone settled and luggage put away, I jumped on the computer to see what the Hugo results were. I am very happy that Three-Body Problem won this year; I think it was the best choice of the books available. (And also my prediction! Woo!) It may not be the best book I read from 2014, or my favorite (not necessarily the same thing), but I think that the win is both a victory for Liu Cixin and a victory for the Hugos as a whole. I am happy for translated books, happy for Hard SF, happy for Asia, and happy that lots of people seem to agree with me. I hope this opens the doors for more translated SF.

I was less excited to see that the Sad Puppy idiocy bumped City of Stairs from the ballot. Three-Body is a triumph for the community, but City of Stairs was my favorite read of the year. It deserved at least the nomination.

Speaking of Sad Puppy idiocy, I have written quite a bit about it, but have nothing to say here. My entire reaction is encapsulated in this reply to a Puppy comment from a Black Gate article: “Still… which is a more satisfactory result for you? That the electorate was so disgusted with the slate that they rejected it out of hand, as I was, or that they accepted the Puppy slate in good faith, and then found it terrible? Either way, it seems like a stinging repudiation.”

I will be getting a membership and nominating next year. Who knows, I may even get to Kansas City. I have a cousin there who would probably let me stay for a night or two.


I can’t say how I will do with the blog going forward. School starts for the kids, I am coaching soccer again, my bands are getting busier, and my wife works ever longer hours. Time will be at a premium, but I am not giving up yet. I can only hope that reading and writing levels will stabilize, though it could be some time before I match my output from 2013. Please bear with The Dudes for a bit longer.

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

With the family out in Japan, a small bit of free time opened up for such luxuries as movies. Or, at least, movies targeted at a demographic over age ten. I’ve had a promo DVD of Conan sitting around since my brief fling in film-related work and figured it was time to give it a try. A good thing the children were out as well, since this quickly earns its R rating. (One would certainly expect that, considering the source material.) Keeping in mind that I don’t watch many movies anymore and am not qualified to be a “film critic,” I had a few thoughts.

I haven’t read the entirety of the Conan canon, but enough of the Robert Howard stories to respect them for being more than their pulp origins might suggest. It’s not Sarte, but there’s a touch of philosophy, social criticism, and, to be honest, some troubling attitudes in the stories underneath the kinetic action. The original film adaptation strips out most of the former, doubles down on the latter, but still finds itself a deserved cult classic. It also led to pale imitations like The Beastmaster and Krull, for which we may praise or condemn; mileage may vary, possibly in direct proportion to viewer alcohol consumption.

The 2011 version of Conan utters a sentence or two that might be construed as sociology, but mostly he just glares. Smolderingly so. This version is even more gleefully violent than the last, with bewilderingly inventive ways to obliterate characters and less story between the bloodletting. Finally, there are nods towards diversity and gender equality, but they are Hollywood nods. We’ll talk more about this later.

To give the film some credit, the scenery is fantastic. The villages, cities, camps, castles, and nature in between are diverse and beautiful. One might even suspect that parts of the screenwriting budget were requisitioned for props and locations. Unfortunately, all of the eye candy feels like it’s in the same neighborhood; somehow the sense of a vast world is completely lost. I don’t know how exactly one would change this, but the something about the pacing or editing gives the feeling that one location is a quick hike from another. Desert slave camp today, mountain monastery tomorrow.

There isn’t much to say about the plot. It is utterly predictable and riddled with holes, but anymore, I expect nothing less from Hollywood. To be honest, I don’t know how one would cram a coherent, large-scale story into just two hours, and clearly, not many writers or directors do either. We can give movie makers a pass and acknowledge this, but I don’t think that’s fair. With the budgets the go into these projects, Hollywood should be able to afford the very best writers. After all, isn’t storytelling the foundation? If I excuse Conan because making a tight, consistent, and epic plot is difficult, there’s really no point in ever watching movies. I want to hold these to a higher standard, just like I demand the best from the books I read.

As for diversity, we’re looking at another Hollywood token effort. There is a black dude, but not only is he a sidekick, he’s not allowed to come along for the good parts. I don’t know why this decision was made; Conan says that he must go it alone and his friend agrees. At least he isn’t killed, which I guess is progress. There are two prominent women. Both are allegedly strong and independent, and both demonstrate this by killing people. Hooray. Conan’s love interest starts out with promise, but it isn’t long before she is doing as Conan says, getting herself in trouble, and being fought over by the men while screaming in terror. It feels very mansplain-y. “Yes, she has no agency, but it totally makes sense in the story. Also, check it out, she stabs this dude.”

Of course, reading this, many people would respond with one of the following: “It’s just the way things were back then,” “What did you expect from an action movie for guys?” or possibly, “Why does everything have to be about this anyway? Can’t we just have fun without worrying about feminists?” Just like plot issues, accepting these excuses forces us to devalue our opinions and expectations. I prefer to reverse the questions: Why NOT imagine a world where one group isn’t subjugated? Why NOT expect more from an action movie for guys? Why NOT build fun around feminism, equality, and diversity, rather than declaring it not fun? The fact that we are still fighting for this exceedingly low bar is depressing. I have to remind myself that things were once even worse.

At this point, I refuse to say that I’m thinking too much about this. I’m not angry about Conan, or even disappointed. The film was entertaining for what it was, I spent nothing but some time on it (not even fully engaged), and I don’t think anything in the movie was actually harmful to people. Well, real people. An awful lot of imaginary people suffered horrible demises. But, cries my heart, it could have been so much better. I rarely watch movies anymore not because of time, but because the reward is rarely worth the investment. I don’t read many crappy books because there are so many brilliant ones out there. I don’t listen to bad music because I have hundreds of jazz and classical albums at my disposal. I don’t watch many Hollywood productions because they fall so short of the entertainment I can get elsewhere. It wouldn’t take much to change that though. More attention paid to the underlying messages in the film, someone with actual writing credentials to work over the script a little, and the simple courage to strive for a sheen of originality, and Conan could have at least risen to cult hit status.

I am guessing that the film came and went with little impact. Had it made money or received critical acclaim, we would no doubt be seeing a train of sequels. Instead, it washed away in the sea of franchises and remakes, possibly to re-emerge some twenty years hence with yet another reboot. This time around though, I wasn’t ready for the next chapter, the only feeling I had at the end was a desire to see the Arnold version again. As someone or another said when teaching me about jazz, “If you’re gonna sound like Miles, people are just gonna go put on a Miles CD and forget about you. You gotta do your own thing.”

Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear

I have a complicated relationship with Westerns. Raised in the wilds of Eastern Idaho, I grew up with a white-hot loathing for country music, giant belt buckles, and manhood-enhancing pickup trucks. (It wasn’t easy being a jazz musician, soccer player, and Democrat.) Westerns, while not offensive like the above, were still a little too close to the culture I was trying desperately to flee. In Japan however, a certain nostalgia for sagebrush, red rocks, and distant horizons herded me gently in the direction of movies filmed near my homeland and I found myself taking DVDs of Silverado, Unforgiven, or other such cowboy tales home from the video store. I’ve drifted from Westerns again, now that I’m back on the continent and have little time to spare for non-SFF genres, though I did enjoy Armless Maidens of the American West.

As such, I hadn’t really planned to read Elizabeth Bear’s newest novel. She’s on my list of must read authors, since until this point I had only started and abandoned Hammered. (I had it as a MS Reader lit file several laptops back; I think that was the one that still ran Japanese Win 98. Needless to say, the file is long gone.) Still, the plan was to start elsewhere, not on a steampunk Western. Then I heard Bear talk on a podcast, probably Skiffy and Fanty, and she immediately hooked me. Most of the conversation surrounded the political aspects of Karen Memory, about which more later. The clinching factors were a bit less idealistic though: Karen Memory basically takes place in Seattle, and there is a licensed mad scientist guild.

The latter doesn’t play much of a part in the story unfortunately, but its mere existence is enough for me. The former is front and center though, to my great enjoyment. Bear says in the acknowledgments that Rapid City is based on multiple NW locales, but in all the important ways it is Seattle. This makes me inordinately happy, especially as it focuses on Rapid City’s identity on the frontier (staging post for Alaska), the development of what is now the Underground in Pioneer Square, and the complicated racial mix that has always been a part of the area. Pike’s Place Market even makes an appearance or two, though I suppose Bear maintains plausible deniability with that. And even though the author lives on the East Coast, the book felt like a native had written it. I suppose it’s a shallow reason to enjoy a novel, but enjoy it I did. Sue me.

Bear has bigger fish to fry than hippie cities and mad scientists. Her stated aim with the book is to offer a correction to the whitewashed history of the era by opening a window into a more diverse, multicultural Wild West than one sees in John Ford movies. Our viewpoint character, Karen, is a, ahem, seamstress, working in one of the finer houses of, er, seamstressry in Rapid City. She even occasionally sews. The seamstress with a heart of gold is a worn Western trope, but Karen gives us a salty, confident, female perspective. Further, within the first twenty pages, we meet a few blacks, someone from China, Indians of both Native American and South Asian stock, some lesbians, a transgender character, and the johns that love them. (Or some of them – not everyone is a seamstress.) In other words, this book is a Sad Puppy nightmare. Even worse for them, this is a far more accurate picture of the day than we might be used to.

On the literary end, Bear writes an unabashed dimestore pulp. Lots of derring-do, dastardly villains, brave heroes, shocking twists, cliffhangers, and mad capers. She is both subverting and celebrating the genre, taking the best traits of what were often admittedly crappy novels, and replacing the junk with her own invention. The result might best be compared to a Japadog: gourmet hot dogs from Vancouver topped with a variety of Japanese sides. (Super delicious – everyone should try kimchi seaweed dogs at least once.) Karen Memory is hugely entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking. There are literary gags and historical references, frontier politics, power armor, airships, and the lawman Bass Reeves. (Yes, power armor. Just roll with it.)

I will say that Karen is upfront with her opinions, and a certain demographic may disagree with her politics. One might even accuse Bear of activism, which is reasonable, but in a first-person story told from Karen’s perspective, is it so unexpected to see her engaging in proro-feminist debates? Of course for me, arguments about racism and misogyny are perfectly acceptable territory. Times being what they are however, we seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against some awfully prehistoric attitudes, so I find it impossible to overestimate the stupidity of some dark genre alleys. We have yet to find the floor in this discussion. Fortunately for the Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang, our books are much wittier than the alternative.

(If that last sentence makes no sense, please read here and here. I hate to tie everything back to this debate, but Bear’s book is yet another attack on Valiant Brad’s position. There’s really no way to ignore that aspect of the novel.)

So yes, if the gentle reader has not yet picked up Karen Memory, I strongly urge him or her to remedy that as quickly as possible. It’s massive fun. Even those turned off by Westerns or steampunk will have a good time with this, since Karen and her crew shine so brightly. There are a few who will be turned off my Karen’s unrepentant progressive views, but, realistically, nobody who thinks like that is going to hang around this blog for very long. The rest of you are almost certain to have a riot.