Today’s post is more informational than critical. A mysterious Frenchman in Kyoto clued me in to Jali.net (Japan Literature) a couple of weeks ago, so I have been reading the stories. The website features English short stories by four authors, two of whom write science fiction. It is a good way to give Japanese SF a try, especially for those who don’t want to take a gamble buying a book and lack the massive library system that I have at my disposal.

The website itself appears to be run by Hori Akira, a well-regarded Japanese SF author. His partner in crime is none other than Tsutsui Yasutaka, whom we have already met here and here. (The link to Tsutsui’s page doesn’t work off the English home page and requires digging through the Japanese pages. For the sake of simplicity, it is here.) Kobayashi Kyoji and Usui Yuji contribute non-genre stories. It looks rather like Hori created the page in the late 1990s and hasn’t paid much attention to the English side. There is a certain, shall we say, retro look to it all, but at least the broken links aren’t accompanied by blinking text, frames, or self-playing MIDI files. (Wasn’t the Internet great back in the day?) I haven’t spent too much time with the Japanese pages, but people seem to be updating their blogs, so it isn’t a complete ghost town.

As for the stories, Hori contributes one, which I believe to be his only available translation. I have searched for others, but nothing has turned up – if anyone knows better, please tell me. Tsutsui has posted several, some of which have appeared in the books linked to above. Several are new to me, but all of the stories are typical Tsutsui. He is a strange man with a strange view of the world. “The Last of the Smokers” or “How to Sleep” might be the best introductions, the latter offering a particularly demented payoff for those who keep with what seems like a needlessly bizarre and OCD narrative. It would be nice if there were more stories and authors available, but considering that this is all a volunteer effort, I can’t complain.

So despite the straight outta Internet Compton feel of the site, there’s no good reason not to click on the link above and try out a story or two. It may pique the reader’s curiosity or may turn him off completely. Regardless, it is an easy way to try something new.


Hal Duncan

Several year ago when I was getting back into SFF, I remember dipping into the community on the interwebs looking for the newest, brightest stuff coming out. At the time, if I recall correctly, Hal Duncan’s name was being thrown around with Joe Abercrombie, and later Patrick Rothfuss, as a Hot New Voice in fantasy. I noted this, then forgot it. During a recent trip to a library branch I usually don’t frequent, I pulled out Vellum (along with Heavy Planet), vaguely remembered the name, and decided to give it a shot, expecting a “gritty” fantasy similar to the other fantasy books out their that have whipped the readership into such a frenzy. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

I am still trying to make sense of Duncan’s vision. I’m not sure I ever will. Vellum is a polarizing book that I don’t think I’m qualified to judge. It is what might happen when Snowcrash and Dhalgren are joined by, I don’t know, Finnegan’s Wake maybe, in a hallucinogenic drug-fueled, ill-advised hookup and produce an offspring to a U2 soundtrack. If this makes sense, I probably don’t need to write anymore. If not, well, I will try to clarify. As I have said, though, because Vellum is, shall we say, experimental, I feel uneasy giving it a yay or nay. I am not well equipped as a reader to deal with books like that (I distinctly remember wishing that The Sound and Fury would just get on with it when I read it for college lit class), so it is entirely possible that I what find to be rambling drivel is actually quite profound. So for today’s post, I will attempt to be Fox News: I will report and You will decide.

Funny that I should mention Fox News, considering the twin axes of socialist revolution and gay acceptance that Duncan grinds away at. Though I risk putting thoughts into the author’s head, these two topics appear to be close to his heart and are generally about as subtle as Bono on an overwrought afternoon. Overwrought is a good word for the whole book, in fact, because while I compare it to Snowcrash (more on that later), it has absolutely none of that book’s irreverence. I am struggling to remember a single time I laughed during Vellum and coming up empty. It’s not quite eye-rolling, Dawson’s Creek-esque angst (James Vanderbeek!), but that is mostly a combination of dizzying narrative shifts and Duncan’s virtuoso style, rather than content.

What Vellum has going for it, and it goes in spades, is a mind-blowing setup. Some of it has been done before, connecting legends and archetypes through time, our reality being one of many on some master recording of the multiverse, good and evil blurring the lines between each other, true names and words of power, etc., but Duncan succeeds in putting things together in his own inimitable way. Much of it connects originally to Sumeria, thus the Snowcrash connection. (There is even a moment where a character starts ranting about memes and thought bombs originating in Sumeria that was probably lifted directly from Stephenson’s crazy book.) He tells his tale, however, in perspective hopping, dizzingly nonlinear fashion that jumps in and out of first and third person, skips through a number of genres, and tells three or four separate stories that I assume are connected at some level besides shared character names. The experimental tone is where the Dhalgren comparisons take hold, along with the rampant homoeroticism. Where Dhalgren is an aloof, disengaged narrative though, Vellum is emoting on all cylinders.

But like Dhalgren, the author has taken and intriguing premise and given it over to literary experiment. I am accustomed to untangling political economy tracts and the like, so this sort of fiction holds no fear for me. It wasn’t too difficult to keep up with the different eras, interconnected characters, and overall themes in Vellum, though I confess to probably missing a few bits while trying to read over the deafening rumble of snow chained bus tires on the freeway. Duncan doesn’t go as far as stream of conscious or other such narrative nonsense, so any attentive reader should be fine. However, and again this reminds me of Dhalgren, I’m not convinced that there is a reward for the reader’s hard work. Every time the story finally got going, Duncan would tease a resolution and jump onto another track, forcing me to start all over. Momentum picks up on perhaps three separate occasions, but it takes a long while to get there and is over all too soon.

I will give the author two means of escape. First, there is a second volume in this series. Vellum‘s payoff is partial at best, nearly non-existent at worst; this may be because a lot of the fun is waiting in the second book. Second, the whole book may be oozing greater meaning and I, somewhat insensitive literalist that I am, may just be missing it all. If this is true, fine. I never claimed to like this sort of literary hoo-haw and am happy to leave it to those who do. I won’t condemn the avant-garde, because everything needs to have its boundaries pushed, but I probably won’t buy it either.

So do I like Vellum? I don’t know. Will I read its follow up? I don’t know. I’m curious what happens, but not sure I can slog through another 400 pages of the stuff. If it was a straight up read, I’d be all in, even if I don’t particularly care what happens to most of the characters. I’m curious how he chooses to resolve the craziness he’s set up. If it’s more of the same obtuse storytelling and sincere pleas for the gay and downtrodden, I may stick with exploding spaceships and deny my vague curiosity. Do I recommend the book? Give it a try, if it sounds interesting. The reader needs to be prepared for the road ahead, though. Also, I don’t think there’s any shame in quitting 50 pages in – this one doesn’t get any different as you go.

Rating: Considering the lack of avant-garde soccer play, this is tricky. How about a cubist painting of a match, simultaneously showing all aspects of the sport from all angles?

Harbinger of the Storm

Harbinger of the Storm
Aliette de Bodard

No owls were harmed in the writing of this review.

I should probably get the full disclosure out of the way first. While it might be presumptuous to say that the author and I are friends, we correspond semi-regularly via email and blog. We have overlapping interests and I enjoy our conversations, a fact which I won’t deny colors my opinion of her books. However, I maintain the highest standards of critical integrity, as befitting the learned nature of a blog that calls itself “Two Dudes in an Attic,” and wouldn’t just pimp out crap for a quick buck (or for a friend’s quick buck, in this case), so the reader can trust my recommendation of Harbinger of the Storm. I will at least point out that reading the author’s blog and knowing more about how she builds her stories makes it all the more interesting to see in action. On to the story.

While the book, and by extension this review, is nominally stand alone, there’s not much sense in reading the series out of order if it can possibly be avoided. Likewise, a quick glance at the Servant of the Underworld post will aid in keeping up with the funny jokes and witty asides that follow.  All of the books are self-contained, but the world and characters are complex enough that it is certainly simpler to start at the beginning. Just laying out the physical, social, and magical geography of Tenochtitlan is enough to keep the author busy throughout, so the reader might as well make things easy on himself.

When we last saw our hero, he had just saved the world from what we political scientists would call a hegemonic war, or “What We’re Trying to Avoid with China.” One set of disgruntled gods attempted to overthrow the current hegemon, who just happened to be the patron god of the Aztecs, but Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, managed to head them off at the proverbial pass. He also unloaded a fearsome amount of family-related emotional baggage along the way and hopefully stopped moping so much. All of this took place in an Aztec noir setting; Aztec because it is an imagining of what their Empire might have been if their mythology was reality, and noir for the way that the murder mystery plays itself out. I voiced concern at the end of the first novel about the dramatic possibilities of sequels, wondering if the world almost ending once would dampen the follow-ups.

Lots of questions then to answer about Harbinger, so let’s begin with Acatl. Not only has he stopped staring off at the horizon, wishing for what might have been, but he is slowly turning into an effective leader and advocate. So much so, in fact, that “Acatl Pulls His Head Out” has to be in the running for Harbinger’s subtitle. He’s not done complaining, though, mostly with the fact that he has to deal with the politics of The Empire. Acatl is the type who is much more at home sacrificing owls to the God of the Dead and acting as the royal undertaker than dealing with the scheming and maneuvering of the other High Priests. He could probably stand for a session of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or at least a Christmas gift of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but realistically, how many coroners out there are irrepressible social butterflies? Some of the most hilarious scenes in the book involve Acatl dealing with attractive women; he is painfully awkward. But again, how many servants of the underworld are smooth operators? I decided after yet another obtuse encounter between Acatl and those who obviously consider him dim that another good subtitle might be, “Priests of the Dead Need Love Too.”

As for the story, there’s a lot less noir this time and a lot more political thriller in place. Fewer harlots, fewer dark alleys, fewer shady characters with questionable backgrounds. These have been replaced by shady characters of highborn heritage and royal corridors; a much different cross section of the Aztec Empire. Where the first book hinted at machinations, but largely kept the action anchored in the mundane, Harbinger brings the politicking of both men and gods to the forefront. This goes a long way towards diffusing possible dramatic hangovers from the first book. Since most of the characters return, they tend to wave off the previous capers as water under the bridge, and nothing to concern oneself about now. In hindsight, the reader is tempted to say, “Wait, you were trying to overthrow gods there – this isn’t just dropping and breaking a ceramic bowl.” In context though, it works. Acatl shrugs it off and we do too.

The situation is reported assiduously from Acatl’s perspective; if he thinks someone is venal and power-grubbing, that is what we see. I was reminded a bit of Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books, where all of the bosses are so petty and clueless that it’s a wonder the Reds didn’t overrun Britain decades ago. There are hints that deeper games are afoot than Acatl sees, and that his narrow perspective is blinding him to possible alternatives. He remains central to the execution and resolution of the plot, however thinking back I wonder how a more savvy Acatl would have handled things. This is not to say that Acatl’s ham-fisted meddling fouled things up, just that someone a little more tuned into political happenings may have found a different solution. Presumably he is right though, so without his anxious investigation, bad things would truly have happened.

One aspect of the story that interested me the most was the end. This is wandering a bit into spoiler territory, but I won’t be too specific. On her blog, de Bodard has written how she dislikes the Western trope of the Action Hero, one who goes out and willfully Changes Things, acting boldly and decisively to solve problems. Acatl is periodically willful, but is often a passive character. A lot of things happen to him, he occasionally happens back. He is surrounded by men and women who are strong, involved movers and shakers, but he would prefer to stay at home with the corpses. Finally, in the defining climax, Acatl saves everyone not by some heroic action, but by accepting those around him and their collective place in society. He has the opportunity to act, to stand up for what he believes is right, but instead triumphs by not acting, by subordinating his sense of morals to the greater pragmatic good. This is subversive stuff, here in a place that Overcomes Evil and brooks no ideological dissent. (By contrast, I suspect that many an Asian reader would skip through that part without noticing anything amiss.)

So to sum up, Harbinger is well worth the read, if for no other reason than the unique setting. Add to that a well-executed political mystery, sympathetic characters, and a quietly different outlook on heroes and heroism, and we have a fantasy series that deserves some digging into.

Rating: Tigres UANL, the Monterrey-based reigning champions of Mexican football.

Dragon Sword and Wind Child

Dragon Sword and Wind Child
Ogiwara Noriko

I am not the target demographic for this book. I checked it out because it’s a Haikasoru book, it’s fantasy based in ancient Japan rather than ancient Europe, and I rationalized that maybe my daughter would enjoy it if I read it aloud to her. My daughter never made it past the first chapter, but I gave it a shot on my own despite my general reluctance to mess with YA fantasy. The bad news is that this is definitely YA and pretty clearly the author’s first book. The good news is that Dragon Sword and Wind Child (DSWC) is not nearly as targeted towards adolescent girls as it initially seems, and that the author manages to be rather inventive with the material at hand.

The big draw here is of course the setting. DSWC is built around Japanese legends, most strongly the story of the Goddess Ameterasu as recorded in the Kojiki, one of Japan’s core historical/ legendary volumes. Ogiwara has naturally changed it around a bit, but the foundation for whole tale lies in a well-known ancient myth. Er, well-known to the Japanese, that is. This isn’t the Japan of Kurosawa samurai movies, nor is it even the time traveling historical fantasy of The Lord of the Sands of Time. In fact, Ogiwara is vague through most of the book as to whether or not the characters are romping through ancient Japan, or just some fantasy world where everybody just looks like they’re from Japan. (Rather like how much high fantasy is in a world named, to pull something out of my behind, Ereboran and all the inhabitants are named Sir Brian of Helmslee and just happen to act like Europeans circa 1257 AD. Ho there churlish knave, and all that.) I think at the end though, she commits herself to Japan’s actual geography, though this raises questions of just who exactly is in danger. Will the whole world be destroyed? Or just a relatively small island part of it? These quibbles aside, Ogiwara’s Japan reminded me most of Princess Mononoke.

DSWC came first, however, so I wonder if Miyazaki isn’t influenced by it (and its sequels). After all, the authors share many common themes: strong young women as protagonists, a deep connection to nature and the environment, backdrops formed from disparate elements of ancient Japan, and complicated views of good and evil. This actually occurred to me just five minutes ago, almost two weeks after finishing the novel, and has just changed the status of Ogiwara’s sequels from “Maybe check out some time” to “I’d better look into this further.”

The next bits are somewhat spoilerific, as I want to dig into the best parts of the story. The heart of the plot is, of course, the eternal struggle between Light and Dark. Light is represented by Prince Tsukishiro and Princess Teruhi, immortal warriors of the God of Light, forever young and beautiful, and tireless generals in the Army of Light. Dark is a ragtag bunch of rebels, hold-outs, frontiersmen, and other followers of Earth Goddess. Light is pure, clean, white, and disconnected from the grubby reality of ancient life. Dark moves with the rhythm of the earth, lives in the forests and fields, and is alright with a little bit of mud. The world is sundered between the two because of the split that came between the God of Light and the Earth Goddess long ago, part of the Ameterasu myth that forms the foundation of the story.

DSWC stands out from the crowd of YA fantasy because Ogiwara doesn’t just flip the identity of good and evil, she detaches these two adjectives from the battling sides. Dark is clearly the sympathetic faction; they are indeed “right,” but neither side is entirely “wrong.” This paves the way for a resolution that is more of a reconciliation than a triumph, since what the two sides need is communication and understanding, rather than subjugation. This, I would argue, is a very Japanese way of approaching a problem, in contrast to a more Western tendency to overcome evil, not negotiate with it. (Which is itself a reflection of the Christian affinity for Manichean conflict, rather than a more nuanced view of clashing ideas which are ultimately connected in ways not readily apparent.)

Looking over what I’ve written, it occurs to me that, while I may not be giving Ogiwara too much credit per se, I am certainly reading more into the story than its intended audience would. This is still YA, there’s still a lot of fluttery hearts and the discovery of true love, a gaggle of youth bearing some grave destiny that they can’t run away from, and teens learning to be happy with who they are, even if that identity happens to include a homicidal dragon or the power to quell angry nature gods. I have long since learned to love me for me, so large portions of The Message induced eye rolling rather than productive introspection. To the author’s credit, though, every time I started to cringe at the teen girl conversations, Ogiwara pulled back from the precipice of cattiness and returned the story to more respectable topics, like war or angry gods.

DSWC shows many of the signs of a first novel. There are some questionable pacing decisions, visible seams between parts of the plot, and an ending that feels a bit too pat. In fact, I am starting to realize just how difficult a solid ending is to write. Rhythmic irregularity and coherent plot strand connections are challenging for a veritable plethora of more experienced authors, so I don’t fault Ogiwara too heavily here. Still, everything seemed a little too happy for me, considering the violence and drama leading into the finale. I am also baffled somewhat at her reluctance to pull the trigger on certain characters that deserved worse, while others got the ax in jarring fashion, but that may just be a reflection of the injustice of real life. Technical issues aside, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t read this to my daughter – Wind in the Willows it is not. At least, not unless I missed some violent deaths, suicidal harem maidens, and a fleeting moment of icky incest on my last read that particular classic.

Trying to condense all of this into a recommendation paragraph is tricky. DSWC would be a good place for anime fans to first dig into Japanese writing, since that group is likely more forgiving of the technical flaws and general adolescent vibe, but would enjoy the Japanese-ness of it all. (Shrine maidens! Kimonos! Koi ponds!) Sci-fi and fantasy grognards like me will probably look askance at the emoting and Destiny, but appreciate the unconventional (by our standards) setting and mythical foundation, as well as Ogiwara’s willingness to toy with our expectations of Good and Evil. John Ringo fanboys should probably move on down the line; there’s nothing to see here.

Rating: A U-17 championship match. Some quality and a lot of potential on display, but ultimately limited by the players’ age and experience.

Heavy Planet

Heavy Planet
Hal Clement

Heavy Planet is an omnibus of Clement’s best known series. It includes Mission of Gravity, Star Light, and some supplementary short stories and articles. The first is widely credited as being an early benchmark of Hard SF; the stories related to Mesklin, the strange planet where Gravity takes place, are reputed to be his most popular works. Coming to this after a run of books that push the cultural envelope of SFF, there was something comforting about 400 pages of competent, two-dimensional white men acting rationally. Clement does indeed fix the pattern for most Hard SF with these books, so how one feels about Hard SF in general is probably a good indication of how one will feel about Heavy Planet.

Star Light takes place on a different planet, but the other stories are all on Mesklin. Clement reasoned carefully through his odd creation, which orbits a double star, has an 18 minute day, and has gravity ranging from three times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth at the flattened out poles. The Mesklinites are 15 inch long centipede-like creatures, the protagonist of which bravely sails the methane seas of his planet with his hearty crew of merchants. Barlennan, for that is his name, meets with space-faring humans while he is settled in for the equatorial winter, who employ him to travel across Mesklin to help them retrieve an unresponsive space probe. This is about as deep as the plot goes, since the focus really isn’t on the story, but on Mesklin and its inhabitants.

Clement’s world is a quintessential science fiction creation: brilliant, odd, unforgettable, and yet utterly plausible. Mesklin is what places like Ringworld would later be, fantastic lands that dazzle the reader, even as details of plot and character slip away. The Mesklinites too are complete creations. Little details that might go unnoticed otherwise, like their transparent roofs or lack of a jumping reflex, are carefully planned and explained. (When under 700 gravities you live, jumping will you too avoid.) All of these make Barlennan’s journeys a source of adventure and discovery for the reader too. The Mesklinites also show some traits of Clement’s ideal people. As a race, they are hardwired without feelings of panic or impatience; the Mesklinites are calm under virtually all circumstances and able to carefully reason their way through problems. Perfect engineers, though I am sympathetic to Clement’s unvoiced wish that people were a bit less flighty. However, like much of Hard SF, the invention starts and stops with the universe and its scientific justifications.

Instead of a narrative arc, all of the stories are more like a procession of engineering problems. Barlennan and his crew run into trouble of some sort, reason their way through it, move forward, find a new problem, rinse and repeat. In Mission, these are sometimes trouble with other Mesklinites. The other stories are almost exclusively physical obstacles. Clement clearly enjoys these puzzles, as he gives detailed explanations of how something happened, the principles underlying it, the equipment used to solve the problem, and the final, step-by-step solution. The reader will learn much about ammonia-oxygen reactions and varying gravity effects. There is less insight into human psychology or the meaning of life. If one is looking for a book to give to the non-SF reader in one’s midst, Heavy Planet should not be at the top of the list. It is everything critics of Hard SF complain about: shallow characterization, thin plot development, and an obsession with scientific detail.

I will admit, however, that after recent forays into near-future San Diego, magical Tenochtitlan, Ho Chi Minh’s revolution in space, and Japanese mythology, I felt right at home on Mesklin. Something about the calm, Anglo competence, the complete absence of any demands made on me emotionally or philosophically, the carefully explained alien landscape, and the problems that answered to rational explanation were like a hamburger and fries for dinner. Mileage will vary, however, since everyone has a different background. I spent my formative years buried in Hard SF and Big Mysterious Objects, so I know how these stories are supposed to work. Golden Age SF is what it is; if the reader understands this and doesn’t demand more than the story is prepared to give, nobody will be dissatisfied. Heavy Planet is essential reading for Hard SF fans, but cautions go out to those who demand a little more depth with their aliens.

Rating: The Long Ball – a staple of the traditional English game, direct and unsubtle, much derided by advocates of “finesse.”

Scattered Along the River of Heaven

Scattered Along the River of Heaven
Aliette de Bodard

Today’s post is a little off the Two Dudes beaten path. I’m not normally a big consumer of short stories because I prefer the storytelling possibilities of novels. It’s rather like how some people argue that three and a half minutes is the perfect length of time for a song, while I prefer the challenges inherent in music that stretches out to seven or eight minutes. There’s simply more to it. But just like a Bach fugue is generally perfect at its length, there are plenty of short stories that pack a level of power equal to their longer cousins. (Conversely, there are plenty of books and tunes that are far, far too long.) Some short stories are even meaty enough to justify an entire review. This is one of them. (Do yourself a favor and read it before finishing this review. You’ll be glad you did. </second person>)

I found out about Scattered Along the River of Heaven from the author’s blog. She posted that Clarkesworld had picked up the story, confessed that it was one of her most ambitious efforts to date, and asked for opinions. Being the hard-nosed critic that I am, [Ed note: Change to “obsequious suck-up.”] I immediately used some of my employer’s valuable time to read it and post some thoughts. The story and its reactions are a fascinating summation of broader conversations going on in a particular corner of SFF, one that Two Dudes is a very small part of. Ms. de Bodard is part of a new cadre of writers. Science Fiction has traditionally been the preserve of white men with science backgrounds, writing in English for a Euro-American audience. Fantasy has been a bit more open to women, but is still aptly described by a famous Mystery Science Theater 3000 ditty from Mr. B. Natural: “Gosh, we’re white, we’re really, really white, we’re really, really, really, really whiiiiiiiiite.” A rising generation though, is seeing more writers of both genders (dodging the rest of this debate!), different racial makeup, and different backgrounds gain notoriety. Aliette de Bodard could be a poster child for this movement, a true global citizen of science fiction, and one challenging the (unrealized?) Western biases sprinkled throughout SF.

How does this rant fit in with Scattered? I’m glad I asked. Scattered is a far future story with, I think, no white people. It’s Asia in space. (China and Chinese influenced SE Asia, to be precise. Not a whiff of Japan in there; things would be very different if there was.) The author responded to my comment that she intended the San-Tay, the colonialists, as “sort of Franco-English,” but to me they came out looking like Communist China in their dealings with subjugated territories like Tibet and Xinjian. The Mheng felt a bit like the Vietnamese, or any other of the Asian groups that were long dominated by the Middle Kingdon. The Mheng revolution, however, read very much like Mao’s Communist uprising in China. I may be assigning these purely based on my own biases towards Asia, since Scattered has much to say about colonialism and revolution in general. More on this later, though.

How, someone might ask, can I be so certain that these are all Asians? To me, the words basically rearrange themselves into a large, flashing, neon sign that says “ASIA AHOY!” I wonder how others read it though, people who aren’t used to mannerisms and customs from the Mysterious Orient. I think the brightest flash was when the bots, buglike robots that perform menial tasks for the San-Tay, prepare a snack for a visitor. “Mmm, gyoza,” thought I (or dumplings, or pot stickers, depending on language). Those words are never used, but to someone who makes, or at least eats, gyoza every few weeks, no words were needed. These were accompanied by tea, of course, another touch that an American writer would never include. (Quick: how often to people on fictional spaceships drink coffee? Eat a burger? Eat anything that we assume is a common Western dish?) It’s not only food and drink, though. Character mannerisms, relationships, and interactions are all distinctly Asian. Each person’s sense of place relative to others in the room, a lingering but ever present touch of Confucianism, colors every scene in ways we oblivious Westerners plow through like William “The Refrigerator” Perry at the goal line. The atmosphere in this story is completely unlike anything John Campbell ever published.

The whole Asia in Space thing, said in a dramatic Muppet voice of course, is not actually the point of the story. The story proper is about a revolution and its aftermath, with more attention paid to what happens after the revolutionaries win and the news cameras leave. I think it’s easy for us Americans, with our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances, and our Constitution that we all but offer human sacrifice to, to forget how messy revolutions are and that democracy is not necessarily a natural progression. Scattered doesn’t address the form of government that the Mheng settle on, but shows both the brutal side of revolution, no matter how justified, and the ruthless politicking that occurs once the new regime consolidates its power. In many ways, as we’re learning now with Libya, the fight between revolutionary factions is every bit as desperate as the fight against the oppressors.

Scattereds dual narrative follows one woman as she goes from prisoner to revolutionary, then hero to exile; it also tracks the woman’s granddaughter as she comes to terms with her family heritage and its uncertain place in the Mheng societal narrative. Anyone who has studied Mao, Castro, Lenin, or almost any charismatic freedom fighter, will recognize the perilous transition from insurgent to politician, and the tragedies inherent therein. We can’t all be Vaclav Havel. The fact that these lessons are reflected in a short story about space stations and funerals is even more remarkable. I don’t know if the author was watching the Arab Spring while writing Scattered, but the politicians monitoring its halting progress should probably take twenty minutes sometime to drop by Clarkesworld. Certainly much of US punditry could do with a refresher course on what usually goes on when governments are overthrown. (Hint: it probably doesn’t involve flowers floating gently through the air to land at American military feet.)

Amazingly enough, there’s even more to the story. There is generational discord, minority relations, moms and daughters making sense of each other, and Chinese poetry. I’m not really into family stuff and my appreciation for poetry is limited, but the author’s breadth is impressive. (Note: I don’t hate poetry, or think it’s for pansies, or anything like that. I just don’t have a taste for it, like I don’t for opera, or French cuisine.) It should say something that I’ve spent as much time on a short story as I have on entire trilogies. If any dear readers haven’t read Scattered Along the River of Heaven, despite my earlier urgings, here‘s the link again. Go read it now.

Rating: Futsal championships. Not as big as the real thing, but just as cool when done right.

Best of 2011

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Best of 2011

Much like my family Christmas letter, I prefer to keep end of the year wraps a day late and a dollar short. Add to this the fact that my Published/Released in 2011 reading list is pretty scant, and we have the makings of a pathetic ranking. (Two or three titles I think?) Instead, I’m just going to go with the 10 best SFF I consumed in 2011, regardless of copyright date.

And so, in no particular order:

The Devil’s Eye – Jack McDevitt
I like all of the Alex Benedict novels, but this is my favorite of the three I read last year. It’s also one of the best because of the way it ties together multiple threads from earlier novels into one grand arc about Humans coming to terms with their unpleasant fellow spacefarers.

Harmony – Project Itoh
Despite a disjointed ending that gave me narrative whiplash, this is one of the best SF novels to ever come out of Japan. Those who look will find a window opening far into the depths of the Japanese soul, revealing a lot more than sushi and Hello Kitty. Itoh died shortly after publishing this, which is a terrible loss for the SF community.

Mardock Scramble – Ubukata Tow
Another Japanese juggernaut, I called this a “convoluted anime love letter to classic cyberpunk.” The first 200 pages made my head explode. They also made up for the next 300, which were compelling, but odd. If anyone ever wondered how goth-loli and cyberpunk go together, this is the answer.

Chasm City – Alistair Reynolds
This isn’t the first novel in Reynolds’ Inhibitor series, but it is a standalone and probably a less daunting place to start than Revelation Space. This universe is an unforgettable combination of space opera, Bruce Sterling weirdness circa Schismatrix, rigorous Hard SF, and Warhammer 40k Gothic. I confess to not reviewing this yet on Two Dudes, a fault I must rectify soon.

Ghost in the Shell – Shiro Masamune
More Japanese cyberpunk. This award goes to both the manga and the anime, as both have strengths. Required reading/viewing for anyone who likes Japan, cyberpunk, The Matrix, philosophically inclined robots and androids, and all around good storytelling. Shiro consistently produces groundbreaking stuff.

The Last Colony John Scalzi
Scalzi is the winner of the Two Dudes Inaugural Post Award. The whole series is good, but The Last Colony is what got read in calendar 2011. Some people like it for the action, others for the characters, still others for the laughs. I like it because Scalzi (unwittingly?) writes a three volume Military SF treatise about International Relations theory. I may be a bit odd.

Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a magnificent accomplishment. His vision of our colonization and transformation of Mars is so complete and overwhelming that I have been unable to touch any others. (Bova, Bear, there’s probably another couple.) These three books should be required SF reading for pretty much everyone.

The Sunless Countries – Karl Schroeder
Another series, of which I read at least book four and possibly book three in 2011. Schroeder’s Virga is brilliant world building paired with fun storytelling. The fifth and final volume is slated for release in a few months; expect a big review when I finish it, because the Virga series is some of my favorite stuff from the last decade.

Redliners – David Drake
This isn’t my favorite Drake, that would be Northworld, but it’s one of the most important books in his canon. Understanding Redliners is understanding the author, who is as fascinating as any other author out there. I have as much fun reading about him as I do his books.

I’ll toss one film on here, even though it’s from 2010 and I missed all the 2011 fare. I’m mildly surprised that Inception earned the cash and devotion that it did, considering its complexity. Just goes to show that, once in awhile, Hollywood does alright by not underestimating our brain power. Some people left confused I guess, but I saw it as transplanting cyberpunk cliches into Nolan’s conception of dreams. (inception = hacking, noir period fashions, etc.) This is a rare Hollywood movie that demands multiple viewings.

Rainbow’s End

Rainbow’s End
Vernor Vinge

The eagerly awaited sequel to Vinge’s award winning A Fire Upon the Deep was published recently, so it seemed like a good time to read some of his novels. Unfortunately, everyone else in town seemed to agree with me and the waiting list for any Vinge books at the library is weeks long. Goodwill to the rescue! I never turn down a 79 cent Hugo winner, so I am now the proud owner of this near-future whirlwind. Vinge keeps enough new ideas fluttering about to power several lesser novels; I confess this time to reading a few reviews to make sure I had everything straight in my head before setting into my own attempt to distill the pure essence of Vinge-ness onto (virtual) paper.

Vinge is writing in the subgenre I will henceforth call “cyberyuppie.” Like his predecessors Gibson, Sterling, etc., Vinge fills his novel with hackers, Internet shenanigans, and a level of technology that seems tantalizingly close. Unlike these fellows, however, the people Vinge has doing that hacking are not back alley characters in black, hit men, or hookers, but high school kids, nerds, and mid-level network admins. Like his ardent disciple Charles Stross, Vinge takes the punk out of cyberpunk, and replaces it with the people who power the tech market today: the middle class. I’m sure somebody has already written a book about the connections between cyberpunk’s evolution and the democratization of high tech, but I haven’t read it yet and am left to ponder things on my own.   Rainbow’s End is probably the best example I have seen of how the iPod listening, Kindle reading, MMORG playing tech middle mass is changing science fiction. Surveying the technology landscape right now, it seem just as, if not more, likely that the wanker writing that trojan horse I just picked up is not some steely character living in a capsule hotel in an Asian suburb, but really just a pimply faced yuppie’s child in Illinois. (Note: I don’t actually get trojan horses because I use Linux, but I am bravely resisting the use of second person.) This shifting reality is clearly reflected in the diversification of IT in science fiction. (Compare Stross and his cyberyuppie Halting State to the convoluted anime love letter to classic cyberpunk that is Mardock Scramble.)

These genre musings were some of the biggest questions kicked loose by Rainbow’s End, but hardly the only ones. Vernor Vinge reminds me a lot of Iain Banks or Neal Stephenson, not in subject matter or story construction, but in sheer audacity and the way that ideas carom off each other before winging out randomly and striking the reader in the face. A Fire Upon the Deep has this same kind of exuberance; just when the reader is getting used to the out-there concept of Zones of Thought, Vinge tosses in AI’s and their Frankenstein human construct, then strange pack sentient aliens, then a maniacal alien psycho that is apparently devouring entire races while the rest of the universe glances and the news and goes on with its daily business…. Now in Rainbow’s Edge, we get a Rip Van Winkle story combined with high school angst, university politics, bizarre showdowns between rival gamer/fan bases, global terrorism, mind control, the possible emergence of AI, and some marital strife thrown in for good measure. The reader is best served by sitting back, letting the madness wash over, and trying to sort it all out later.

Another concept that struck me was Vinge’s portrayal of work. The elite in his society are not just those who can make sense of the data overload inherent in a perpetually wired-in world, but those who are able to direct the hordes of individuals that sift the data. Alice Gu, one of the supporting characters, is a legendary figure in her industry because of her skill at sensing the broader trends in news and research, then nudging her army of analysts towards bigger answers. We can see this in its infantile stages now, with wikis, the blogosphere, and whatnot, but Vinge extrapolates it into a complete economy. Even his high school kids are recruited as, and recruit each other into, low-level affiliations and networks. These operate as a kind of pyramid scheme for information, as the lower levels pass their data up through the chain while rewards and money flow downward.

Finally, a more prosaic attraction was the setting. Rainbow’s End takes place mostly in and around the campus of UC San Diego, with its iconic library at the heart of the action. I don’t have much of serious connection to the San Diego area, but UCSD was my second choice for grad school. The book doesn’t give me the sense of “wow, that was my life!” like, say, Napoleon Dynamite. It does, however, add to my list of What Ifs that relate to my grad school decisions. (I made the right choice, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look wistfully at pictures of La Jolla during the long, damp, gloomy NW winter.) Anyone who has attended UCSD or spent much time there will probably wet themselves during the culmination of the combination demonstration/virtual riot/All-Consuming LARP Battle near the end of the story.

Rainbow’s End took a little while for me to get into, mostly because the first hundred pages are concerned primarily with high school and old people, not my favorite topics. Once the setup and world building are out of the way though, Vinge’s tale runs like a freight train through West Texas. The fun plot (the terrorism bit) blows through the sensitive plot (repulsive old dude figuring out his new life and redeeming himself somewhat) as everything starts to explode: high level intelligence operatives do super secret stuff, an anarchist hacker with very mysterious origins runs rampant and leaves virtual carrot scraps everywhere, nerds on missions clash in battles that rage in and out of a couple levels of reality, a lot of books are violently shredded, and Marines drop ordinance on UCSD. Good stuff. Vinge doesn’t really resolve a bunch of crucial questions at the end, which no doubt irritates some readers. Life is like that though, with inadequate closure, insufficient explanations, and a decided lack of comeuppance for bad guys. Anyone looking for a sensitive portrayal of profound characters and probing questions of what it means to be human may leave unsatisfied. They’re in the wrong genre though, so I recommend sitting back, enjoying the spectacle and getting one’s mind blown. That is, after all, what Vinge is best at.

Rating: Manchester City. Things were rocky at the start and it took awhile to get it all together, but the team is well-nigh unstoppable now.