Throwdown! Singularity Sky vs. Lord of Light

Singularity Sky
Charles Stross
Lord of Light
Roger Zelazny

I have mentioned before that I often, through the blindest of coincidence, read books in quick succession that inexplicably share themes, despite a superficial lack of any similarity. This happens enough that I am inaugurating a brand new, irregular column called “Throwdown!” where I combine the books into one improbable review. As part of the fun is my stumbling on these crazy connections, “Throwdown!” is by necessity an unplanned, whenever it pops up kind of post. This time I’m tossing one of SF’s hottest newer voices in the ring with an acknowledged master of the art, as Charles Stross and Roger Zelazny pick apart anti-technological authoritarianism.

These two may not seem like a natural pairing. I’m sure Stross has read Lord of Light at some point, as it is widely hailed as a classic of speculative fiction, but I would not place him in the Zelazny clan were I to create SF geneologies. Stross is Hard SF, with a smidgen of zany space opera, while Zelazny is, well, Zelazny. He’s kind of his own subgenre, where New Wave meets The Sixties and casually subverts the hazy border of science fiction and fantasy. Nobody was more surprised than I when both sets of characters started arguing about the exact same things, setting up a bizarre dialogue across several decades and subgenres.

I read Singularity Sky first, so it gets to fire the opening salvo. Stross is one of those authors that exploded on the scene during the ten year break I took from SF. (High school, college, and living out of the country always conspire against reading for pleasure.) I’ve been racing to catch up since discovering him a year ago, reading things in random order as I come across them in the library. He is part of the UK Invasion that occasionally leaves me despairing that US science fiction is going the way of US manufacturing. We may have to institute non-tariff barriers lest the brilliance across the pond do the same thing to our once proud SF industry that the Japanese did to our TV sector. Sky is apparently his first published novel, but I saw little of the awkward rough edges that often populate debuts. Stross is nothing if not confident; fortunately his books live up to the bravado.

Like Vernor Vinge, his literary godfather, Stross is deeply concerned with the Singularity, that moment when either a) technological change reaches critical mass and blows far beyond what society is prepared for, b) the emergence of AI, or c) some combination of the two. In Sky‘s case, the Singularity happened once on Earth, which triggered the events that set the stage for the book, and then another Singularity happens on a distant colony planet and triggers the events recorded in the book. Said events are intensely political, because every political system we have ever tried is built on an economy with scarcity at the heart of it. The Singularity ushers in a post-scarcity economy, which explodes whatever political system is in place. Where Stross crosses the streams with Zelazny is in his target society.

The New Republic is an authoritarian semi-empire encompassing several worlds, within which there are strict rules on technological advance. Innovation breeds instability, which in turn threatens the ruling elite, so technology is carefully controlled and suppressed with the aid of a reactionary religion. The Festival, about which the less explained the less spoiled, stumbles upon a backwater Republic world, drops a rain of mobile phones on the unsuspecting populace, and unleashes a technological fever dream on feudalists and their Marxist antagonists. As the New Republic Navy scrambles to regain control, a pair of observers/agents from post-Singularity Earth tag along for the ride and attempt to influence the outcome. Throughout, the characters argue over stability, suppression, and control versus innovation, opportunity, and entropy.

Lord of Light is a very different animal. Hugo winner, respected classic, and genre bending product of the Sixties, this book has probably never been paired with a Charles Stross work before. Zelazny being what he is, I’m certain that there have been theses written about him in general and this book in particular. I doubt that I have anything new to add to a critical discussion whose page count must run to several multiples of the original book. I grabbed it on the same day as Sky during a trip to an unfamiliar library branch in town, deciding that it was high time I put another notch in the Hugo Winner tally; I even read them back to back. I almost fell out of my bus seat when, in the middle of a wild story about men who have taken on the identity of Hindu gods and oppress the colonists they delivered to a planet far from Earth, a character who had chosen to re-enact the founding of Buddhism starts debating with Brahma whether or not to encourage technical development among the plebes.

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the authors come down on the side of Science. No gazing fondly into the mists of time for Stross or Zelazny, it’s full speed ahead with industrial revolution and goodbye (eventually) to cholera. Stross in particular is honest about the human cost of development, because there is always a cost, but neither of them see any romance in peasants grubbing around in the dirt when technology could provide them with machines, soap, sandwich presses, and other trappings of civilization. This is an obvious clue to those who can’t decide if Lord of Light is fantasy or science fiction, as few self-respecting fantasy authors would be so gleeful about leaving gallant knights, fair maidens, swords, and serfdom behind.

Aside from this shared theme, there is little tying the two books together. Stross writes a brash, fast-paced tale with a solid base of both science and political economy, plus a whiff of Iain M. Banks nuttiness. Zelazny is the poet laureate of SF, somehow packing enough story, humanity, barely hinted at history, and philosophy to last at least a trilogy, all in the word count that some authors spend in their introductory chapters. He accomplishes, without ever seeming to try, the level of literary depth that so many other fantasy authors reach for, but ultimately fall short of. They strive in rather obvious fashion to Say Something, while Zelazy gives the impression that he tossed off the chapter before breakfast. This is all important, because, as any artist knows, it is the illusion of effortlessness that elevates a work to greatness. His book is full of the Sixties, with its anti-authority tropes, pacifist moments, and the mysteries of both India and Buddhism, while Stross is plugged into the latest debates about AI, economics, and the limits of empire. In spite of this, both arrive at the same conclusion, finding consensus in a conversation they might not even realize they were engaged in. Onward, indeed, to sandwich presses.

Rating: Continuing with the Old Meets New theme, Maradona coaching the Argentine National Team, perhaps? But without the cocaine, frenetic emoting, arguments with the media, or a be-suited Slip’N’Slide maneuver after a critical goal.

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The Seabottom Monster

The Seabottom Monster
Komatsu Sakyo

[This is my translation of the story 海低のおばけ, taken from the book 一宇宙人のみた太平洋戦争 (The Pacific War Seen by One Alien). As far as I know, this is the only English translation anywhere of this story. If I am wrong, or if a representative from the Komatsu Estate or the publisher finds this and is angry, I will take it down upon request. Otherwise, Two Dudes is the only place to read The Seabottom Monster until someone scrapes and plagiarizes it.]

Summer.

The children went to the sea to frolic in the sun and water. The sunlight was blindingly intense, but the black water was still cold. Nonetheless, the children were unconcerned. Unable to wait for summer vacation to come, everyone rushed to the shore when school ended. They shrieked at the cold water, whooped as the waves crashed into them, and rolled around on the red sand. The ocean and the summer are children’s best friends.
As they were playing, one of the smaller children found a strange object, sunk in the quiet waters at the bottom of a cliff. “Huh? What’s that?” Everyone gathered around and peeked over the cliff. A large, long, and slender object was tipped on its side, glowing dimly at the bottom of the black water.
“Maybe it’s a dead fish,” said one of the older children.
“But are there fish that big?” replied a girl.
“I wonder if we can grab it.”
“At that depth, I think we can,” said the oldest. “Let’s try climbing down the cliff.”
“Let it go, it’s too dangerous,” said the girl.
But the oldest children had already climbed down the cliff and jumped into the water. It wasn’t so deep.
The forms of the children gone to retrieve the object seemed to writhe like fish. At length, one child with shorter breath emerged right in front and shouted, “It’s something strange!”
“It’s not a fish?” the children on the cliff shouted back.
“No, it’s much bigger and smoother.”
Just then, the children who were still under water, just about to reach the object, kicked suddenly out of the water, startled. They rushed to the surface, struggling as though chased.
“It’s a monster!”
The children yelled in fright and hurried back up the cliff.
“There’s a monster inside!”
“You saw a monster?” the girl asked, herself frightened.
“Yes. It had windows and we could see a monster looking out. It waved at us.”
“Let’s go tell the teacher.”
No sooner had one said this then they all started running. When they reached the school, all the mouths started talking at the teacher. The teacher stretched his neck and stood up.
“I wonder what it is. Shall we go take a look?”
“We can’t, teacher,” said a child from the back. “The sea is getting rough, a storm is coming.”

The weather, quick to change in this season, soon deteriorated as the storm arrived. The storm was strong enough to blow rocks around and lasted all night. The weather finally calmed the following afternoon. The children went with the teacher to the cliff, but the mysterious object was gone.
“Hmm, the waves carried it away,” said the teacher.
“Teacher, what do you think it was?”
“Hearing the description, it sounds a little like it might some kind of transportation, like a spaceship,” said the teacher as he peered into the empty water.
“But, inside, those were definitely monsters.”
“It must have been a spaceship carrying life from another star. I’ve heard stories before about something landing here. There’s bound to be other intelligent life somewhere in this big universe.” The teacher stood as he said this. “Now, hurry straight home without stopping to play. Tests are coming soon and you need to study.”

“Hey, what kind of monsters?” the girl asked the oldest boy.
“They were really weird!”
“So what kind of weird?”
“They only had two eyes! And just two arms! And the ends of the arms were split into about five waggly things!”
Behind the oldest boy, as he waved and wriggled his hands, the twin suns of Alpha Centauri cast double shadows on the red beach sand.

Master of the House of Darts

Master of the House of Darts
Aliette de Bodard

Master of the House of Darts starts just as the first two books in the series do: with the death of an owl. There is also a murder to solve and a kingdom to save, but those are both so cliché, compared to an owl. It might as well be a dark and stormy night. Anyway, full disclosure at the beginning: I received a free copy of this book for timing a blog comment just right. I’m always inclined to look favorably on free stuff, but I doubt that my opinion of this book would change had I paid for it. I enjoyed the first two books and enjoyed the third just as much. As before, Darts builds on the prior tales in both the narrative and the themes underpinning the story; de Bodard brings the story to a more or less happy end while digging further into the mind of her main character and the society he moves in.

In fact, the viewpoint character, Acatl, is very much at the heart of the story, moreso perhaps that the plot. He slowly grows into his position as the High Priest of the Dead throughout the trilogy, while the author moves along a parallel path, her narrative growing into its teller and inhabiting his mind with increasing comfort and self-assurance. Acatl is both the hero and the author’s avatar as she explores her ideas of what a hero can and should be. Perceptive readers will find Acatl to be a very different kind of hero than we are accustomed to reading about, but the action and the mystery proceed so smoothly that some may never notice the gleeful contrariness that lurks below the surface. (It is clear to me on reflection, but I have also participated in several conversations with the author and her blog readers about this very thing.)

Acatl is not, and this is apparent from much earlier in the trilogy, a typical action hero. He is not even a typical mystery solver, at least not in the Western idiom. The first book is based on noir tropes, but Acatl is quite different from Sam Spade or some other archetypal detective. (If we’re talking Eastern traditions, I’m less qualified to judge.) There is an interesting interview here on Clarkesworld, where de Bodard talks more about Acatl and writing from his perspective. Acatl is a reflection of a common character type though, but not one we usually see in a starring role. He is, instead, the straight man, the pessimistic worry-wart whose main purpose is to emphasize the hero’s wit, courage, and daring. Think Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in Inception – no humor, no imagination, just straight-faced competence and a seemingly endless capacity to absorb jokes from the others. This is Acatl. He is an undertaker and coroner, a priest and an administrator. He is not funny, free-wheeling, an iconoclast, or a loose cannon. He helps dead spirits find oblivion in the Underworld; he does not sweep women off their feet or topple a status quo run by entrenched fuddy-duddies. That he remains appealing and sympathetic rather than orthodox and sepulchral is a tribute to the author’s skill.

The truly subversive stuff is down one layer from the archetypes. Like the previous book, de Bodard is emphatic that Acatl will not triumph following a typical Western action movie pathway. In keeping with his stuffy persona, our intrepid High Priest of the Dead overcomes evil conservatively, in a way that fortifies existing power structures and institutions. So what, the reader may ask, he vanquishes bad guys, right? Yes, he does. But he doesn’t win by overturning anything, taking bold and individual initiative, or by showing those fossilized old people that the world has changed and, by golly, it’s time for the youth and their newfangled ideas to take center stage. Instead, Acatl spends the entire book trying to protect the status quo. At one point, a god calls him out as the one who will maintain balance in the Fifth World (our reality). How many Hollywood plots involve the good guy bolstering the existing regime and trying prevent drastic change? All the moreso when the current ruler, who Acatl helped install in the previous volume, is obviously a fool who could easily destroy the city.

None of this is any kind of secret; I’m not revealing some kind of Kabbalahic knowledge here. But between the flesh eating demons, virulent plagues, vengeful ghosts, and empires on the brink, it’s easy to lose the finer points of the character study in the rush of the story. One has to sit back with a fried newt and maize flatbread and take a deep breath to really notice these things. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear that people were missing this completely in the mayhem. The plot hurtles forward on multiple parallel tracks, finally coming together at the end in a somewhat hurried resolution. Hurried for both the characters and readers, as the author is juggling a lot of balls in the three hundred plus pages of story. Taking a bit more time (and page count) to make sure all of the connections are clear and to give each successive bit of the resolution a bit more space to breathe might have been a good thing, a rare admission from a ruthless prose utilitarian like me. There were a few loose ends and a few more questions when I put Darts down, though I am willing to concede that my own sloppy reading habits may be partially at fault. Still, as the decisive actions cascaded through the final pages, it occurred to me that in the rush, each piece of the final solution wasn’t getting the time it may have deserved.

That is a fairly minor quibble, however. The breadth of the Aztec Empire grows with each book in the series, as de Bodard has increasing narrative space in which to add detail. The machinations of various characters, both men and gods, have time to percolate across the books, despite each volume being nominally stand alone, which gives a certain richness to mess Acatl finds himself in. The author’s touch for characters and human relationships is as strong as ever, a constant surprise from someone who is essentially writing part-time. (I can barely crank out blog posts while I hold down a job. I can’t even imagine writing novels like this.) The entirety of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy gets high marks from Two Dudes, for creativity, execution, and gentle subversion. Not just recommended, but, to paraphrase Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, strenuously recommended.

Rating: US-Mexico at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City: a venue pulsating with passion and hostility, and plenty of political subtext for those who look for that sort of thing.

The Last Light of the Sun

The Last Light of the Sun
Guy Gavriel Kay

I should begin at the end and say right now that I enjoyed and recommend Kay’s tale of Vikings, Welshmen, and Anglo-Saxons. I want to get that out of the way now, because I have an inkling that the following commentary will range far and wide, and perhaps seem overly critical of what is quality fantasy. I’m late to the party, as I often am, but I can now finally say that I’ve dipped a toe into one of fantasy’s best bodies of work and read some Guy Gavriel. I’m glad I finally did, as I have heard many times that he is one of our current masters of the genre. Kay does, however, seem a bit like an archetype for quality fantasy, as such he is going to become a guinea pig for the following thought experiments.

The ideas I have been kicking around since finishing the book are a combination of two recent conversations. The first, here, was the spontaneous State of the Genre discussion that Jose and I conducted last week. My initial comments were triggered in part by finishing Last Light that morning and centered around the dour gravity of so much fantasy. The other was a recent David Brin article, rehashing a long-running commentary of his that divides fantasy and science fiction not by swords and laser guns, but by the author’s attitude toward change and progress. Follow-ups delve further into why people would be so eager to experience and defend a time that involved such wonderful relics as serfdom, pestilence, infant mortality, body odor, and hunks of meat not seasoned with dry rub and barbecue sauce.

I knew from the start that I was in for a very serious book. Within three pages, the reader learns that the Viking men smell like sweat, mead and bear fat. The reader also finds out that someone has stolen a valuable horse, but that the village is on a very small, comparatively inaccessible island. Neither of these revelations comes with even a hint of amusement, despite ample opportunity to mock. I finally chuckled lightly at page 181, but that was the only mirth to be had in the entire book. Not everyone needs to be a comedian, and not everything needs to have a wry, ironic detachment, but still, why so glum, Guy? Why the long face? I realize that life wasn’t great for these people, what with dysentery, Viking raiders, mud hovels, and all, but surely people laughed once in awhile?

I suspect that the tone is a result of the author wanting to say something meaningful in his book and wanting to be taken seriously by readers and critics outside the genre. Kay is hardly alone in this, and I don’t condemn him for it, especially the first. The truly excellent among us are always striving to be better, to create something lasting no matter the medium, so using a book about Vikings and fairies to plumb the depths of human emotion is perfectly acceptable. It may not, however, be quite what I’m looking for in a book, nor do I think it is the reason why people read genre fiction in the first place. Many of us, though I can’t speak for all, read SFF to have our minds blown by something awesome. I’ll go read a Booker Prize winner to level up my humanity and compassion stats. Profound thoughts are a plus, but to me they are the maraschino cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of wild and crazy hijinks. Still, I refuse to dock points for authors trying to do more. I may poke fun at them, though.

This segues semi-gracefully into Brin’s question. I have already suggested that one reason for the somber tone of the book is the nature of life in the period Kay portrays. In spite of this, Last Light is clearly fantasy by Brin’s definition. Change is coming to all of the people in question, both technological and societal. Power is slowly concentrating in the hands of a few wise (or just ruthless) rulers, native religions are succumbing to the Christianity stand-in, the Anglycyns (English) are figuring out ways to remove the Vinmark (Viking) threat permanently, and the “Vikings” are in turn slowly leaving the raiding life behind. Most poignant, Humanity is slowly taming the wild forests and pushing out Faery. Mad props, as it were, to Kay for confronting Change head on, as so much fantasy assumes a static society and goes on its merry way. Like Tolkien, however, a whiff of sadness lingers everywhere, as the characters quietly lament the passing of the old way of life. Things are getting better for all, with education, safety, and health on the up and up, so why the nostalgia? Kay is basically writing an elegy to dysentery.

Two explanations present themselves to me. The first, the simplest and least interesting to talk about, is our own wish fulfillment. The misty past lends itself more to magic, which I’m sure many of us wish we could wield. Magic, for me at least, is all the more romantic and enticing if it is long ago; much moreso than wizards walking through modern day Cleveland. The second, and much more interesting idea, is what seems to be a natural human yearning for the feudal state. This was discussed at length in the comments following Brin’s article and is a vaguely disquieting concept. (I have no background in this sort of thing and make no claims to accuracy, but it is something to ponder.) I can’t explain why we rabid defenders of democracy and freedom seem drawn to this sort of thing, but it’s hard to escape the allure of idealized feudal life.

This is not limited to books. Consider the recent insanity directed towards the British royal wedding. Why on earth should people in the US care? We fought a rather famous war to escape the British royals. For the same reason, why go to Renaissance Fairs or join the SCA? I’m not sure what it says about us that epic fantasy is currently far more popular than its science fiction cousin. I can’t deny the same appeal, though I couldn’t have cared less about weddings. On a trip through Vietnam, we visited the pre-colonial capital in Hue. Standing in the throne room, I felt the allure of the feudal past. Even though the throne was just an uncomfortable looking wooden chair, I was in awe that a king had once sat in it. Then I shook myself and wondered what I was mooning about.

It is time to bring things back from the dizzying precipice of Greater Meaning and return to the book. Last Light is good fantasy. There are no epic quests, no destinies or prophecies, and no Dark Lords taking over the world. Instead, there are a few groups of people, with whom we hold varying levels of sympathy, pursuing their own incompatible ends. There is one truly bad guy, one or maybe two good guys, and everyone else placed somewhere along the black to white spectrum. It is all rather like real life, if a bit lacking in fun. I plan on reading more of Kay’s books when the fantasy urge hits me again, as Last Light is one of the best I’ve read recently.

Rating: Classic British matches with a bunch of old guys talking about how everything was better back when you could hoof long balls down the field and break people’s legs on tackles. (I may have used this example before, so we’ll call it a sequel and be content.)

Mathematicians in Love

Mathematicians in Love
Rudy Rucker

Mathematicians in Love is an utterly mad book. Hal Duncan only wishes he was this crazy. I haven’t read any other Rudy Rucker, but if this book is any indication, he is pretty bonkers. This is a good thing too, nestled between the deathly serious fantasy I’ve been reading lately; I need some madcap shenanigans to lighten the mood on my way to work each morning. (All the moreso when people are being laid off around me. Stern Vikings and emo deities are just not the way to go when the company turns south.) First of all, some background.

Math, though it turns out to be not the least bit cyberpunk, is part of my ongoing campaign to educate myself in the standard works of the subgenre. Rucker’s name is spoken with the same kind of reverence as Gibson and Sterling; my choice at the library was between a lengthy omnibus and a short romp. Considering the recent size of my library pile, I went with the short romp. The cover is pretty straight up about what to expect, so there was no shock when I found the book to be a story about two Berkley math Ph.D students rather than leather-clad hackers with mirror shades. I was, in fact, slightly apprehensive of the insanity promised within.

I needn’t have worried. Yes, the narrator and his friend are exceedingly nerdy, as most math Ph.D students probably are, but we are spared most of the coming of age angst that books about college seem to ooze with. Instead, there is wild, abstract math, dysfunctional families and friends, commentary about the banality of life in the Internet age, sidelong digs at Republicans, alien math nerds, and Scandinavian heavy metal. There is also a brilliant scene involving a common household appliance, some punks, and a precipice.

All of this is taking place in a parallel California, in the Bay area city of Humelock. UC-Humelock is the flagship UC campus, a prestigious university, and the deadly rival of Stanford. (It probably also has an underachieving football team and a reputation for crazy liberals and/or naked students.) Our hero is Bela Kiss, a Chinese-Hungarian mathematician who is struggling with his Ph.D. He teams up with his roommate Paul and their hostile advisor to create a system that predicts the future accurately. Bela’s girlfriend Alma introduces an element of entropy into their lives that, paired with inter-dimensional alien mathematicians, lead Bela and Paul to warp the fabric of space time. In his spare time, Bela is a video blogger and rock guitarist, the latter providing the vector for the aforementioned Scandinavian metal bands to invade the story.

Explaining much further would ruin the fun of the story, but there are a couple of observations I can safely make. First, this is kind of a companion piece to Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End. They don’t share much in tone, but each is a look at near future California. (San Diego in Vinge’s case, and the Bay Area for Rucker.) Math is almost a cyberyuppie story, but ends up spending more time on math or rock music than the interwebs. Second, Rucker is surprisingly optimistic. I don’t know how this compares to his other books, but I didn’t expect the more or less content tone of the story. He mocks people quite freely, but in the end remains upbeat about life. This is a feel-good book, even though it’s a very quirky good feeling. Finally, I have to give him credit for the music bits. Bela’s road to stardom is a little too easy, but Rucker has a handle on the chaotic nirvana that is a good gig. (Even my most explosive bands fall far short of the rock lifestyle, but I can easily extrapolate.)

To sum up, Math is a quick, fun read, with enough below the surface to please the dour end of SF fandom. It might not be the ideal commute read, because one is likely to get weird looks from fellow passengers for various stifled snorts and guffaws.

Rating: Anytime Monty Python plays football.

Jose and Pep Talk Fantasy

Jose and Pep sat down the other day to mull over various mundane topics like work and family. Talk, however, soon turned to books, in a spontaneous State of the Genre conversation about fantasy. None of this was rehearsed, prepared, or planned (though it has been edited a bit), merely a glimpse inside the heads of the Two Dudes brain trust.

Jose: I’m going to take something up for reading on my trip this weekend.

Pep: Have you picked it yet?

Jose: Was thinking about some Glen Cook.

Pep: Good times. Though I’ve only read the first Black Company books. He’s someone I need to read more of.

Jose: Agreed. Also, Steven Erickson has finished up his entire series now. I probably should just buckle down and read the whole damn thing from start to finish.

Pep: I need to read book four, but it’s kind of a long investment of time.

Jose: KARSA ORLONG. I’ve read up to book eight, though he’s never hit quite as good as book three. You’ve read Memories of Ice, right?

Pep: Yes.

Jose: So cool, from start to finish. The crazy artists and their frog? Amazing. “Go eat another clod of paint.” Books 6 – 8 are generally awesome.

Pep: Slowly I will get there. Right now I am about to finish my first Guy Gavriel Kay.

Jose: I like him.

Pep: I wish he would declaim in stentorian tones a little less.

Jose: (laughs)

Pep: His story is good enough without the soap opera narrative asides. Seriously, I smiled once at p. 181 and haven’t since.

Jose: Kay has a problem where he wants to make things dramatic, and it’s a big problem. Fantasy authors need to get away from the concept of serious human interaction. Seriously, they’re not good at it. What we do appreciate is descriptions of some dude hacking millions of crazed cannibals into a house and then setting it on fire and turning into a war god. THAT is what fantasy is for.

Pep: (laughs) It’s true though. I’m not reading these books for insights into human nature. I’ll read Hemingway or something for that. I want something awesome on my way to work, nothing more.

Jose: I enjoy Stephenson’s answer, actually. He shies away from serious human interaction and places all of it within the boundaries of some crazy issue; either crazy complex calculus or ontology [ala Anatheum] or the completely ridiculous. That way he can say whatever he wants and it seems to be relatively legit.

Pep: Agreed. You can say things about people without dripping in sincerity.

Jose: Right. That’s a serious problem. The things in real life where we learn most about people aren’t in some heart felt break down. It’s in the little asides, how they phrase their day to day life. Not some stunning reveal of their emotions.

Pep: Some of these genre writers remind me of Mormons. We so desperately want to be taken seriously by other Christians, and the writers so desperately want to be taken seriously by lit snobs.

Jose: It’s a good analogy I think. And I think you’ll find that, generally speaking, good fantasy only comes in a singular variety. It doesn’t bother so much with character and instead focuses on a world that’s so completely alien that it becomes a fantastic reality. It’s why I hate George R.R. Martin, by the way – his concept of people is totally awful.

Pep: I’ve never tried to get into him, except for about 50 pages of Game of Thrones, which didn’t impress me. I just got the feeling that 1) nothing good is going to happen here and I will just get depressed, and 2) I’ve read all the plot/world details before.

Jose: He’s revered because he doesn’t have a good guy.

Pep: And kills people. Er, characters.

Jose: Right. But the problem is he’s still awful. It’s why I appreciate people like Glen Cook, Erickson, or Gene Wolfe. No attempts at “AWESOME AND DEEP CHARACTERIZATION.” It’s about making a world that’s internally consistent and blows your mind.

Pep: The thing is, Cook nails it with the first Black Company trilogy. I loved some of those people. I even got behind the romance angle, which is unheard of.

Jose: And you never actually get any serious monologues.

Pep: Wolfe is just on another planet. That guy has no peer.

Jose: The problem is, of course, sometimes Wolfe is just on another planet.

Pep: Also true!

Jose: Whether or not that is a good thing is to be determined. But as a general function, Gene Wolfe does things in the Book of the New Sun [not really read much of his other stuff] that I think most fantasy authors should take serious notes from.

Pep: I haven’t read anything either, but need to. Most current fantasy doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t get Martin, never got into Rothfuss, won’t touch Sanderson because he’s a BYU product.

Jose: Fantasy wants to be mainstream. It’s yearning for the accolades of the Protestant pulpit as it were. I think basically Erickson is the sole author carrying the torch right now.

Pep: He might be.

Jose: Pinto was awesome, but his book [s?] descended quickly into “I want to write about gay relationships.” But the first 250-ish pages had a.) people getting killed, b.) weird blood rights, c.) strange fantasy aliens, d.) best of all, opium trips. Then it descended into happy happy homosexual relationship land, which, while not a problem, became sort of preachy.

Pep: I haven’t read those, but Hal Duncan was the same. I’m ok with gay characters, but am not happy with manipulation via gays. I wish I had more fantasy names to throw out there, but I just haven’t read a lot. I get a craving once in awhile, then I end up reading something weird like Hal Duncan and have to get back to space opera for awhile

Jose: I think the perfect mix is always a combination of hard sci-fi and fantasy. You want the ability to manipulate the rules via unobtanium; things like magic do that.

Pep: Midnight at the Well of Souls.

Jose: But it has to be about the environment and the world; NOT some goofy David Eddings rip off. Because let’s be frank, the Belgariad did protagonist-based fantasy better than anyone else.

Pep: Har. THERE’S someone I don’t dare return to. Can’t ruin my childhood memories.

Jose: Actually, it holds up pretty well. You can sort of see the artifice when you return, but it works well and he knows it works well. To this day the 1500-esh page romp of the Belgariad is probably the best protagonist based fantasy I’ve read. The Mallorean is good too, but mainly because it doesn’t suck and it’s fun to watch Belgarion yell at people and throw lightning bolts. Other than that, Eddings is awful,

though the Redemption of Athalus is pretty much the greatest book for the first 500 pages, and then the worst book for the last 300 pages.

Pep: Hmm. You tempt me to retry those sometime. I loved those books like you wouldn’t believe, so I’m scared to touch anything he’s done now. See, Belgarion and the Dragonlance crew pretty much defined my childhood, up until the time (partway through Tad Williams) I gave up fantasy and moved to Hard SF. I knew Dragonlance was silly, so it didn’t hurt to reread it and know that it was bad, but I don’t want to lose those happy memories of Garion, Polgara, et al.

Jose: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is amazing. If you haven’t read it, you have to. It’s really that good.

Pep: It’s on my list. That’s the one I gave up partway through. Of course, he wasn’t finished writing it at the time and I just ran out of fantasy steam.

Jose: Its 4,000-esh pages of awesome, though it takes time to get into.

Pep: I do need to sit down with a butt kicking fantasy soon.

Jose: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a good choice. Simon has some very good moments, like attacking a dragon.

Pep: It’s been on my list for awhile, though of course I don’t move methodically down that list.

At this point, talk turned elsewhere, then wound down for the night.

Extra Credit, Feb. 7, 2012

Extra Credit, Feb. 7, 2012

In lieu of a book review, it feels like time for a link post. I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff here and there lately, but haven’t really had a forum to share most of it. Since I’m replacing a ~1200 word post with a bunch of links, I will try to engage in each of them a bit and offer commentary beyond, “hey check this thing out.”

The Monsters of MM9 Haikasoru has been on a roll lately, publishing some of the craziest, deepest, funnest stuff from Japan. Their newest release is by recent Seiun winner Yamamoto Hiroshi, the author of The Stories of Ibis. MM9 is a monster story, or rather a story about the Meterological division that measures and classifies the giant monsters that periodically attack Japan. I have yet to get my grubby paws on it, but Haikasoru has posted an essay by the author giving some background to the story. Hopefully I can get a copy soon and post a review.

Military SF on Tor.com The weekly Tor.com offerings are always a mixed bag, but when they come through, they really come through. The end of January was Mil SF week for Tor, with reviews and commentary about a whole host of topics. Some of the books are good, some are crap, some articles made me tear out my hair, some were brilliant. I’ll leave it to out readers to decide which is which. Recommended, however, are any articles by or about David Drake. Frequent readers will already know my opinions about Drake, but they bear repeating. Drake is a rare author who is as interesting as the books he writes. The more I hear him talk about his life, the more crazy his books seem. Definitely check those ones out. Also good is the summary of anime SF and the look at Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato to the Japan-aware).

The World SF Blog Without highlighting a particular article, this page is a treasure trove of the obscure and off the wall. Where else can you find a report on the Hungarian Science Fiction Convention or an article about Israeli pulp novels on display at Arizona State?

My Favourite Reads of 2011 at Walker of Worlds. This is a page I came across recently, forgot how, but I was happy to see this list. I wasn’t really paying attention to new releases last year, so someone else’s summary is welcome. I’ve already put one selection on hold at the library, even if I disagree with some of his choices. (Honor Harrington? Egad.)

Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits Just in case people weren’t clear on the idiocy of chain mail bikinis and molded breast plates, a real live armorer explains it all.

Good Show Sir I’m always hesitant to pass along funny things, because I fear that I’m the last to know about them and everyone else will just say, “That’s dumb, I knew about that in 2009.” (Case in point: until about four days ago, I thought that NyanCat was a Japanese smart phone game.) With that risk acknowledged, I can’t pass up this collection of terrible SFF book covers. I suspect there are a few hidden in my own library somewhere; maybe I should send submissions.

The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy at Contrary Brin. I’ve read David Brin’s ideas on this before, but it never ceases to interest me. A lot of people seem to take issue with this definition, which probably says more about our contradictory beliefs and self-images than about Brin’s penchant for stirring the pot. Still, I wonder if this isn’t the root of my preference for SF.

The Nearest Exoplanets at Karl Schroeder’s blog. This is a late addition. He looks at some recent data and makes startling predictions for the number of planets actually out there. Heartening for those of us that think life is out there somewhere, even if it isn’t whizzing around Nevada in flying saucers.

Two Dudes Twitter Finally, we are at long last Twittering. Join in the fun!