Are Conventions Necessary?

The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.

Last September, in a Patreon post about building bridges and equalizing power structures in arts communities, my friend Tim Cooper noted that the science fiction community does those sorts of things less well, partly because the work isn’t being done to the same extent, partly because it’s actively being opposed from some corners. But he had this to say about conventions:

I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.

Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?

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The House of Binding Thorns

Sometimes the Law of Sequels does not apply. The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, is a better book than its predecessor, The House of Shattered Wings (which I reviewed in 2015). It may simply be that book two can get down to business now that the introductions are out of the way, but the characters, setting, motivations — everything seems clearer and in sharper focus. De Bodard has found her groove.

While The House of Binding Thorns can be read on its own without too much trouble, you’d do better to begin with The House of Shattered Wings. That book introduced us to a fin-de-siècle Paris blasted into ruins by a magical war, where powerful fallen angels command rival Houses, while an Annamite (Vietnamese) dragon kingdom lay hidden under the waters of the Seine.

The focus of Shattered Wings was on House Silverspires; in The House of Binding Thorns the action moves to House Hawthorn, where the angel essence addict Madeleine, whom we first met in Shattered Wings, is now back under the control and protection of the fearsome and malevolent Asmodeus. The textbook definition of Lawful Evil, Asmodeus is by turns horrific and charismatic, a problematic but compelling figure who steals every scene he’s in. He sends Madeleine as part of an embassy to the dragon kingdom under the Seine to arrange a political marriage with one of the dragon princes. Philippe, one of the protagonists of Shattered Wings, is also back, on a quest to recover his lost Isabelle, and we’re introduced to a couple of new protagonists: a dragon, Thuan, who has infiltrated Hawthorn to investigate the source of the angel essence the addiction to which is ravaging the kingdom; and Françoise, an Annamite in a relationship with Asomdeus’s sister, Berith.

The character threads — Madeleine’s, Philippe’s, Thuan’s and Françoise’s — are woven deftly together as de Bodard spins a cunning web of addiction, deception and intrigue involving factions within the dragon kingdom and Houses out in the banlieu. Schemes within schemes abound. Interpersonal drama, at the family and political level, is something de Bodard has always excelled at.

Binding Thorns explores colonial themes even more deeply than Shattered Wings, as the pantheons of implicitly Christian fallen and Vietnamese dragon kingdoms intersect with one another. It’s also a fairly explicit allegory of the Opium Wars, and a reminder that addiction is also a tool of control, although a certain aspect of Madeleine’s addiction was unconvincing (it occurs at the end, so: spoilers). All of which makes for a setting that feels breathtakingly real (if not necessarily alive, if you take my meaning), a world that exists beyond the storytelling façades. Combined with the intriguing plot and characters, and you have a book that is very much the total package.

The House of Binding Thorns is out today from Ace in North America and from Gollancz in the U.K. on Thursday. I received an electronic review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) via NetGalley.

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AE Is Resurrecting Itself

AE logoSince November 2014 I’ve been reviewing books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Last September their website went dark; a brief note said that the site had been compromised by hackers and would be back soon. Months passed, and people were starting to wonder if AE would ever be back. (Because I reviewed for them, I got a few emails about it.)

But last week they finally broke their silence: their front page now announces that they will be coming back. Now I’m told that the relaunch is still some time away — months, not weeks. (Remember: this is done in their spare time.) But when that does occur I’ll be back writing reviews and other nonfiction pieces for them.

(If nothing else, I’m glad not to have killed the magazine per the Waldrop rule: the last thing they published before the site went down was my review of Jo Walton’s Necessity.)

All Our Wrong Todays

Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, the first novel from the Canadian screenwriter, begins in a consciously retro future — a present day as imagined by the 1950s and 1960s, brought into being by the invention in 1965 of a device that generates unlimited clean energy. In the words of protagonist Tom Barren, it’s “the world we were supposed to have.” Barren is the mediocre son of the inventor of a time machine; through that family connection he finds himself training to be a chrononaut alongside far more qualified and less nepotistic candidates. When an accident puts the time travel project on hold, Barren transports himself into the past and, through an entirely in-character act of fucking things up, messes with the past; when he returns, he finds himself in a dystopic world that is entirely his fault: ours.

This is a book to try the patience of experienced science fiction readers. Not for its prose, which is quick and engaging (there are 137 short chapters in 369 pages), or its clever and well-handled plot. But All Our Wrong Todays begins inauspiciously, and sets off many genre reading protocol alarm bells. A retro future that is not immediately ironic — that’s one thing. Barren is, at least at the outset, one of the most annoyingly pathetic protagonists I have ever encountered. He’s a dim bulb surrounded by luminosities, whose motivations are powered in large part by his manpain, which is generated by his own mediocrity as well as the the fridging of two — count ’em — two female characters. It does get better — Barren does learn better — but the book takes its time getting there, and it’s not necessarily pleasant or enjoyable until it does.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between genre and non-genre science fiction (of which this, like Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, is an example of the latter). One that came to mind during a recent sleepless and pain-filled night is subjectivity. A non-genre story will tend to focus more narrowly on its subject, and that subject’s inner life and personal growth, than a genre story might. It will be about people, rather than events or ideas, whereas a genre story, with its adventure-pulp traditions, might have different emphases: the point of saving the world, after all, is saving the world; character growth is a side effect. Which is to say that All Our Wrong Todays seems off-balance in these emphases to the point of profound solipsism. As we watch its self-absorbed protagonist struggle to become a better person as a result of radically changing the timeline, we might be struggling ourselves to give a shit.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Perfect Machine

In Canadian sf circles, Brett Savory is best known as half of the husband-wife duo (with Sandra Kasturi) responsible for ChiZine PublicationsBrett — with whom, full disclosure, I am somewhat socially acquainted — recently stepped back from his publishing duties to focus on his writing. Not coincidentally, he has a new novel out: A Perfect Machine, while published by Angry Robot, is very much in the ChiZine ethos of dark and seriously messed-up speculative fiction, inhabiting the crossroads between science fiction, horror and bizarro fiction.

A Perfect Machine’s premise is bizarre enough: a secret society of Hunters and Runners operating on the margins of society, protected by a kind of amnesia that prevents outsiders from remembering what’s going on. Runners, when shot, do not die — they accumulate lead. Henry Kyllo is the first Runner (to his knowledge) whose body reaches 100 percent metal content — at which point, Runners believe, they achieve ascension. What follows is the story of his weird transformation, peppered by violence, intrigue and survival in the gutters.

From time to time while reading this relatively short book I would pause and mutter under my breath, “This is some seriously fucked-up shit, Brett.” Which I’m sure is what he was aiming for. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book succeeds, because for me, at least, it didn’t. Its characters are Tourette’s-afflicted cardboard clichés. Its prose aspires to a toughness, a street-level grit, that it does not achieve, with repeated use of sentence fragments as paragraphs that gets old fast. And its transfigurative ending comes out of nowhere, failing to achieve anything other than absurd bathos. It’s quick-paced, but feels rushed — it’s a potboiler with some deliciously messed-up imagery, but it came off the stove a bit too soon. A Perfect Machine is basically a B movie in book form, with all that implies, both good and bad.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Stars Are Legion

Book cover: The Stars Are LegionI’ve read Kameron Hurley’s stuff before — namely her first novel, the Nebula-nominated God’s War (Night Shade, 2010) — so I knew what I was getting myself into with her violent and visceral new space opera, The Stars Are Legion, which comes out next month from Angry Robot in the U.K. and Saga Press in the U.S. and Canada.

A tale of intrigue, war, and betrayal set among a fleet of artificial worlds travelling through space, The Stars Are Legion could easily have been a less distinctive work, but for the fact that the worlds are organic — and, incidentally, dying — and exist in a symbiotic relationship with the humans that inhabit them, who give birth to parts that maintain them. That Hurley’s archipelago of worlds is populated entirely by women is, in other words, essential to the survival of the whole apparatus, as well as to the story. But as regular Hurley readers might expect, survival is neither gentle nor pretty: those with body horror or other squicks be warned.

The main protagonist is Zan, a woman who has lost her memory. Sent repeatedly to attack a mystery world, Zan has no idea who she is or what she is supposed to do, though she has conspirators and collaborators who do, including the second protagonist, Jayd, who is given in marriage to the ruler of another world. The intrigue surrounding Jayd’s marriage is one plot thread; Zan remembering who she is, and her original mission, is another. The latter also enables Hurley to pull a Tiptree, viz., “start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don’t tell them.” We’re just as much in the dark as Zan is; the shape of the universe reveals itself in starts and fits, as much to us as it does to her. (Though certain McGuffins do appear on obvious mantlepieces, and the reveal can be guessed at.) In the process of finding herself and her purpose, Zan goes on an unexpected journey through unexpected terrain, with scenes that to me are redolent of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, that despite the blood, bone and viscera, manage a kind of awe that verges on the Clarkean.

This is a space opera like none other I’ve read, but it nonetheless combines adventure, passion, sound worldbuilding and compelling storytelling with that elusive sense of wonder so highly sought after in science fiction — and, it must be said, seldom found. Those who demand it may not expect to find it here, but find it here they will — that is, if they have the stomach for it.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Lightsaber Black Market

By the time of The Force Awakens, the Skywalker lightsaber is at least 50 years old. This suggests that lightsabers are extremely long-lived and durable and, considering that it spent most of those years locked away in storage, require nothing in the way of maintenance.

But if lightsabers are built to last, it does raise an interesting question: where are all the other lightsabers?

I mean, there used to be quite a few of them around. Prior to the Clone Wars there were apparently some 10,000 Jedi Knights, each of whom had their own lightsaber. After they were massacred — and at the time of The Force Awakens Order 66 is still within living memory — what happened to their weapons?

Presumably the Empire confiscated most of them — as we learned in Rogue One, the kyber crystals that power lightsabers were needed for the Death Star’s superlaser — but they would almost certainly have become a valuable black-market commodity. Even leaving aside their highly sought-after power source, lightsabers are extremely useful tools in their own right, good for slicing open tauntauns and a million other household uses — though it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to use one openly, unless one wanted to attract some ominously heavy-breathing attention. And for historical and nostalgic reasons any lightsaber would have an enormous collectible value, though few could command the price of the lightsaber wielded by both Skywalkers.

Small, easy to conceal, and nearly priceless, lightsabers would be a favourite cargo of smugglers and pirates. I wouldn’t be surprised if Han Solo ferried a few of them in his career. Several of them might well have passed through Maz Kanata’s hands before the Skywalker blade turned up. But you’d think she’d have tighter security on such a valuable item. It’s like any scavenger could just waltz in and touch it …

John Scalzi’s Miniatures

I’ve been expecting a short story collection from John Scalzi for some time now: it’s the sort of thing one periodically sees from science fiction writers, once their novel-writing careers are established enough to warrant one. But Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (Subterranean, Dec. 2016), his first collection of short stories (apart from the linked collections The Human Division and The End of All Things) is not that collection. Miniatures has a specific remit: it focuses on Scalzi’s short fiction at its shortest, its funniest, and (you might say) its scalziest.

Scalzi’s past career in the newspaper biz trained him to write short and make your point fast: the average length of these 18 stories is 1,310 words. Most of them adopt the form of interviews, memoranda, transcripts, or other non-typical narrative styles — there are even two tweetstorms — which I heartily approve of on general principle, but is almost essential when dealing in super-short lengths.

And they’re also appropriate when you’re writing humour. Because, make no mistake, there are some very funny pieces here. Laugh-out-loud funny. In another context I called Scalzi quite possibly the best humorist working in science fiction today, and these pieces do little to disprove that thesis. (Though I should warn you that there is a cat-story-from-a-cat’s POV in here.) If anything his humour works better at short lengths; when he does it at novel length it runs the risk of tedium. As Scalzi says in the introduction, “If drama is a marathon, humor is a sprint. Get in, make ’em laugh, get out.”

The entire book is about the length of a novella, and will afford a pleasantly diverting afternoon’s worth of reading. His longer short stories are generally available online or as individual ebooks; whether those stories will also be collected remains to be seen.

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Ted Chiang in The New Yorker

What I like most about Arrival (which, believe it or not, I still haven’t managed to see) is that it’s stimulating interest in Ted Chiang’s work. People who haven’t read him are in for a real treat. (The book you want is Stories of Your Life and Others.) Now Chiang has gotten that rare thing for a science fiction writer: a profile in The New Yorker, in which his legendary reticence — he’s laconic to the point of monosyllaby — is on full display. (I’ve met him: he’s like that in real life.)

Pirate Utopia

PrintBruce Sterling’s latest, Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) brings together several Sterling preoccupations: alternate histories, secret technologies, and liminal, out of the way places. This time the place is the city of Fiume (modern-day Rijeka, Croatia) at a complicated point in its history.

In September 1919, Italian irregulars led by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio marched into the city to prevent it from being handed over to Yugoslavia in postwar peace talks. A year later the Italian Regency of Carnaro, an anarchic, corporatist, proto-fascist state was proclaimed. It would prove short-lived: D’Annunzio refused to recognize the Treaty of Rapallo, which established Fiume as a Free State, and his regime was expelled by Italian forces in December 1920. Fiume itself would be formally annexed by Italy in 1924.

When reading alternate history that is set in the more obscure corners of the past (see also: two thirds of Howard Waldrop’s oeuvre), it can be tricky to separate the obscure from the fictional. How do you know what’s changed when the factual is unfamiliar and the counterfactual is, shall we say, subtle? Everything mentioned in the previous paragraph is historical fact. Sterling’s changes, apart from the off-screen elimination of certain world-historical figures, are subtle, suggesting a future in which Carnaro might survive long past its historical sell-by date.

Sterling’s version of Fiume is a polyglot ramshackle town that has attracted all manner of pirates, insurrectionists and scoundrels from across Europe, most of whom turn out to be real. (And some of whom are bizarrely unexpected.) A key figure, and the story’s protagonist, is one of the few fictional characters in Pirate Utopia: Lorenzo Secondari, the Pirate Engineer of Carnaro. Secondari reminds me of another of Sterling’s characters, one with the same initials: Leggy Starlitz, the hustler of the late 20th century who appears in three stories and the novel Zeitgeist (Bantam, 2000). For all intents, with his mechanical ability, unflagging luck and tenuous grip on existence, Secondari is Starlitz, who by the way also happened to find himself in the world’s liminal places (the third Starlitz story, “The Littlest Jackal,” is how I first heard of the Åland Islands).

Sterling’s purpose in Pirate Utopia is to shed some light on a key if overlooked piece of European history: when Futurist artists in Fiume began creating the theories and symbols that would later form the core of Italian Fascism. In Sterling’s version, Futurism goes off in a different direction and just at that point the story — if it can be called that — ends abruptly. In an interview included in Pirate Utopia, Sterling defends his decision to do so:

I decided to cut it off with that moment, because it makes a statement about the nature, the appeal, of fascism. How lofty and spiritual it is, and how people come to agree with it, like they get hypnotized by the inhumanity of it, and the scope of it. Fascism does have the appeal of science fiction in some ways.

All the same, Sterling’s aesthetic decision leaves us with only the first act of a story that would inevitably have taken Secondari away from Fiume to where his ideas would have had a much greater, and almost certainly more murderous, impact. We can see where the narrative is headed, so we don’t feel quite as cheated as we might: we can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Still, those reading for story will be somewhat disappointed, and the book, which includes an introduction and three afterwords, plus interior illustrations by John Coulthart, may come across as a bit padded out and just a little too impressed with itself. Pirate Utopia is, in the end, a rather odd artifact in book shape. Somehow that seems appropriate.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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