Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Short Fiction Reviews

There’s been some discussion recently about the need for more (and better) reviews of science fiction and fantasy short stories, much of which is predicated on the various inadequacies of the few existing short fiction review venues.

In general I think more short fiction reviews can only be a Good Thing, because more critical discourse on science fiction and fantasy literature is never a Bad Thing. There’s not enough of it (as opposed to PR and squee). That said, I have a couple of reservations.

First, if the purpose of short fiction reviews is to be useful for award nomination purposes, I have a problem with that. I appreciate that nowadays there are frankly too many short stories being published for any single person to read them all,1 and that award nominators are looking for ways to filter the reading material down a bit. But I have a problem with the implicit assumption that winning awards is the reason for creating works of art. (Winning an award should be an inadvertent by-product, not the point of the enterprise.) If we’re reviewing short fiction because we’re trying to figure out our award nomination ballots, then we’re reinforcing the notion that art is grist for a career: write a story to generate buzz; generate buzz to win an award; win an award to further the career; ???; profit!

We’d also be privileging the latest at the expense of the greatest: reviewing for awards purposes means you only review what’s eligible for the next award season. A story that is only three to five years old may still be worthy of critique and analysis—may still be worth talking about—but if all you’re doing is reading for awards, it has already disappeared down the memory hole. Functionally speaking, it no longer exists.

Neophilia might be good for the publishing calendar, it might be good for writers’ careers, but it’s terrible for art.

Second, if we’re agreed that there should be more short fiction reviews, I think it’s a bad idea for us to simply review it on our own blogs and journals. It’s too haphazard. There aren’t enough people looking for short fiction reviews to have those reviews scattered across the intertubes. There’s a reason why Rocket Stack RankTangent and Locus came to be: collating reviews from divers hands makes a lot of sense. The reader only has a single place to go.

The problem is that short fiction reviews make absolutely no economic sense. I could easily reboot Ecdysis with a new focus on short fiction reviews, but how would I solicit them? Reviewers would expect, reasonably, to be compensated, but what business model (other than Locus’s, but they primarily do book reviews and trade news) would there be for a periodical focused mainly on short fiction reviews? Book reviews get few enough eyeballs; short fiction reviews would be even worse, and without even the faint hope of affiliate income. It would have to be a labour of love, which in sf community terms means a work done for social capital, and that’s often been problematic too.

I’ll keep thinking about this, and listening to other opinions on this subject.

Autonomous

Autonomous (Tor, September 2017), the debut novel from io9 founder and tech editor Annalee Newitz, falls somewhere on the spectrum between the work of Madeline Ashby and the work of Cory Doctorow. It deals with drug patents, autonomy and free will and ownership of human beings and artificial intelligences alike. All at the same time, but there’s a common thread: they’re all about several kinds of property, specifically the intellectual and human kind, and the ways in which possession and ownership interact with freedom and selfhood.

Also, a good chunk of it is set in Canada, about which I have thoughts.

Autonomous is set in the mid-22nd century, but the world is, for all its additional technological enhancements, a familiar territory. A dystopia with recognizable characteristics. Big Pharma is still with us, and has metastasized into Big Brother, a drug-patent oligarchy enforced with brutality that sells productivity-enhancing drugs with some frightening side effects. The narrative alternates between Jack, a drug pirate who has reverse-engineered a productivity drug that is starting to kill people, and Paladin, a robot with a human brain (installed to facilitate facial recognition processing) that has been partnered with Eliasz, an agent assigned to deal with the threat Jack presents. Eliasz also has a thing for Paladin, which Paladin does their best to process. Jack also has a sidekick: Threezed, an indentured slave she inadvertently liberates during a botched assassination attempt against her.

The plot advances briskly, as Eliasz and Paladin move ruthlessly against Jack, wreaking carnage in the process; Jack, for her part, must simultaneously evade capture and find a cure for the drug that she helped disseminate. All the while, it’s via the plot arcs of both Threezed and Paladin that Autonomous explores and develops its eponymous theme, as each learns, via their respective partnerships, to gain (or regain) and assert a certain sense of self. That theme elevates Autonomous beyond mere technothriller; this is a book that is about something, and it’s thought about it. As first novels go, this is exceptionally good.

Most of the action takes place in Canada: in the far north, in Vancouver, and in Saskatchewan. It was oddly dissonant to see a future Canada rendered through a funhouse mirror: much was familiar (I’ve actually been to some of the locations mentioned), much unrecognizable. Partly that’s because it’s set in the future, but in a couple of cases I found myself bouncing off geographical errors, if you could call them that, that tried my ability to suspend disbelief. Little details of location or scale that suggested that the author didn’t get things quite right. Not significant, but the kind of thing that can throw a Canadian reader out of the book. (If anything it’s a reminder to my own self to be careful when writing about other people’s geographies.)

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

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Artemis

Artemis (US cover)When your first novel is The Martian, what do you do for an encore?

The Martian was a freak of publishing. Andy Weir self-published it electronically in 2011; when brisk online sales caught the attention of the publishing industry and Hollywood, it went on to be a hardcover bestseller in 2014, and spawned a 2015 movie that grossed more than $630 million. While the book was weak on characterization and prose, it was full of humour and dramatic tension while remaining unapologetically geeky. It was terrific fun to read. (See my review.)

That’s a hell of an act to have to follow up on. Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is out today—published by Crown in the United States and Del Rey in the United Kingdom. And I have to say that while Artemis is a diverting enough read, I don’t expect it to bottle the same lightning its predecessor did.

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Venera Dreams and the Art of the Mosaic Novel

Vermilion is an intense red pigment made from powdered cinnabar. It’s also extremely toxic—cinnabar is mercury sulfide—which is why vermilion has largely been replaced by cadmium-based pigments. But in Claude Lalumière’s new book, Venera Dreams (Guernica Editions, August 2017), vermilion is a hallucinogenic, mystical spice that is only found on the mysterious, hedonistic island-state of Venera, which few outsiders are permitted to visit.

Venera Dreams is a mosaic novel. I’m fond of mosaic novels, and last month at Can-Con I was, fortuitously and somewhat awkwardly in the context of writing this review, on a panel with Claude Lalumière discussing the mosaic novel form. Along with Jerome Stueart and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm we had a fascinating conversation, almost none of which I remember a month later. (This is a normal problem: I never remember what was said on panels I participate on, even what I said. I hope you were all taking notes.) Which is to say that Claude had an interesting and strictly limited definition of what constituted a mosaic novel that I had absolutely no argument with, and for the life of me I cannot recall what it was.

Continue reading “Venera Dreams and the Art of the Mosaic Novel”

The Rebel Alliance Has Terrible OpSec

Rogue One

In the original Star Wars movie, the capture of Princess Leia is a key tactical objective for the Empire because she alone can reveal the location of the Rebels’ secret base. “Now she is my only link to finding their secret base,” says Darth Vader in the opening scenes. That fact is why she is taken to the Death Star and interrogated, and why Tarkin orders the destruction of Alderaan: her singular knowledge is worth the destruction of a world.

But then Rogue One came along and messed all of that up—by making the Rebels’ secret base not much of a secret.

Rogue One reveals that the Rebel Alliance is a shitty rebel insurrection because it does not use a proper clandestine cell structure. Need-to-know is nowhere to be seen; Yavin 4’s location is the opposite of closely guarded. Just about everyone in the Alliance seems to know where the hidden base is. Not only that, but travel to and from said base by high-ranking Rebel leaders—leaders that are almost certainly under surveillance by Imperial security services—appears to be routine.

Here’s the thing. If the Millennium Falcon could be traced to Yavin 4, then so could any other ship carrying someone suspected of being a Rebel. Anyone, from Mon Mothma down to the lowliest private, could be captured, interrogated and compromised—and should have been long before the events of the first film. As depicted in Rogue One, the Rebels are extremely vulnerable to a decapitation strike.

Fortunately, the Empire seems to be run by fricking idiots. If they were dead serious about finding the hidden base, they would have made capturing alive any operative—any soldier, any pilot—a top priority. Leia’s resistance to the mind probe was considerable—the Force runs strong in her family, after all—but the same could not be said for every ground-level Rebel.

Instead, they shoot them down, throw grenades at them, vaporize the general area in which they are found with a Death Star superlaser, and, well …

Star Wars

Pretty sure this guy knew where the secret base was too, Darthie-boy. Nice going.

The original Star Wars2 made sense if the Tantive IV practiced good operations security—if it never visited the secret base on Yavin 4, and its personnel were unaware of the base’s location.

But thanks to Rogue One, they’ve been there. This is a problem, because Leia isn’t Vader’s “only link to finding their secret base.”

Star Wars

Look at what we have here! Prisoners! Half a dozen or so of them, plus two astromech droids whose memory banks are probably full of actionable intel.

Unless Imperial intelligence is as much of an oxymoron as precision stormtrooper sharpshooting, the Empire doesn’t need Leia at all.

At. All.

DARTH VADER: You will tell me the location of the secret Rebel base. (does hand-wavy Jedi thing)

REBEL REDSHIRT: I will tell you the location of the secret Rebel base. Ah, it’s Yavin 4. Here, I’ll give you the exact coordinates. It’s longitude—

DARTH VADER: No need. Seriously. No. Need.

What can I say? The new movies strike the right emotional notes, but they don’t do plot logic or continuity very well. It’s one of the few things the prequels did better. (Possibly the only thing.)

Infinity Wars

With Infinity Wars (Solaris, September 2017), Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project turns its attention to military science fiction. Each volume of Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies—Infinity Wars is the sixth—has taken some aspect of hard sf and turned it on its head a bit, offering fresh takes on old themes, often from authors not normally known for writing hard sf. (I reviewed Engineering Infinity, the first book of the Infinity Project, in 2001; last year I reviewed the fifth book, Bridging Infinity. I’ve read them all.) Now it’s military sf’s turn, and if there’s a subgenre of science fiction that could use some shaking off of the shibboleths, this is it.

That’s because military sf has more than its share of detractors, a result of it being associated, rightly or wrongly, with a certain ultra-conservative, anti-government, paranoid brand of American politics, one whose bent has gotten more and more strident as its mantle passed from Heinlein to Pournelle to a younger generation: Disch traces the evolution of this strain in his 1998 study, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.3 See also David Auerbach’s piece for The Daily Beast. These survivalist/soldier-of-fortune power fantasies aren’t the only kind of military sf out there, but there’s an awful lot of them (whereas, as Disch points out, masterpieces like The Forever War are singular), and it’s what people think of when they dismiss military sf.

If Infinity Wars seems like a breath of fresh air, it’s because what Crank! editor Bryan Cholfin once called “war pornography”4 is nowhere to be found. Yes, there are military operations; yes, there’s some awfully clever military hardware; and yes, there’s a mercenary or two (in Elizabeth Bear’s “Perfect Gun,” the eponymous weapon has more of a conscience than its mercenary owner). But the 15 stories in Infinity Wars, by and large, explore war—their remit was for them to imagine the future of warfare—without going so far as to celebrate it. The perspectives are diverse, and so are the authors (fewer than half are men); if there’s a common thread, it’s that most of these stories take place on the ground—at the front, in the trenches, at the supply depot—or after the war is over. The cost of conflict—on populations, on the soldiers themselves—is never ignored.

These stories see grunts and clerks dealing with the fog and confusion of war: a maintenance worker at a depot seconded to the war effort in Carrie Vaughan’s “The Evening of Their Span of Days”; a young and confused soldier sent to defend the aliens whose arrival disrupted the world’s economy in Nancy Kress’s “Dear Sarah.” They see veterans dealing with the aftermath: Eleanor Arnason’s restrained and powerful “Mines,” a story ostensibly about a minesweeper telepathically linked to a mine-detecting rodent that has things to say about PTSD, damage and survival.

These stories also reveal an up-to-date understanding of warfare. And by that I don’t mean tech. As Strahan writes in his introduction, “War seems to have evolved from an easy-to-spot state-vs.-state conflict to something muddier and harder to understand, where individual acts of terrorism contrast with hi-tech conflict conducted at arm’s length by soldier-bureaucrats with devastating affect [sic] for those on the ground.” That understanding shows up in many ways. Two of them, Rich Larson’s “Heavies” and Genevieve Valentine’s “Overburden,” offer takes on colonization and occupation, and the damage occupation does to occupier and occupied alike. Several stories explore disinformation and propaganda. In “The Last Broadcasts,” An Owomoyela tells the story about an information officer told to censor news about a colony world that cannot be rescued; Aliette de Bodard’s “In Everlasting Wisdom” implants “appeasers” with symbionts to enforce loyalty to the emperor; and E. J. Swift’s “Weather Girl” weaponizes weather forecasts, with information on oncoming storms hidden or revealed as part of military strategy. In “The Oracle,” Dominica Phetteplace explores how predictive software can be turned to military purposes.

The anthology ends with a novelette from Peter Watts, “ZeroS,” that touches on a theme Watts returns to repeatedly: the nature of human consciousness. In this story, soldiers’ consciousnesses are suppressed so that they can fight using their non-conscious selves (intelligence without consciousness: something Watts posited in Blindsight). It’s a difficult circle to square, but one deeply relevant to the subject matter. There is a tension between war as dehumanization and war as a deeply, almost quintessentially human activity. What does it mean to have our humanity stripped away? Or more precisely: is what being stripped away here our humanity. Tor.com has reprinted the story, so you can read it online.

These are bracing stories, stories that ring true and feel relevant, in a way that stories about space navies thundering against each other can never be, because those stories are an anachronism: rules of war from the age of sail, transmogrified into an interstellar setting. The best stories about war are universal.

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

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My Can-Con 2017 Schedule

Can-Con, Ottawa’s annual speculative fiction convention, is only a couple of weeks away. This year it takes place from October 13 to 15 at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Ottawa. Once again I’ll be taking part in programming, and, now that the draft schedule has been posted, I can tell you (with reasonable confidence) where and when you can see me make an ass of myself offer my profound insights about the field.

On Saturday, October 14 at 2:00 PM I’ll be appearing with Claude Lalumière, Jerome Stueart and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm on the Art of the Mosaic panel in Salon C:

A mosaic story takes a series of seemingly disparate stories or vignettes and ties them together, either through theme or setting or something more. How exactly do authors construct these complex narratives and what literary effects do they achieve with this technique? Can the same be done for a short story? Which authors are the best (or worst) examples of this very distinctive literary form?

And on Sunday, October 15 at 11:00 AM, join me, Amal El-Mohtar, Peter Halasz, Ursula Pflug and Su J. Sokol in Salon D for You Should Have Read This in 2017:

Our expert readers discuss the cutting-edge novels and short fiction in science fiction, fantasy, horror and romance that you absolutely should have read. Bring your Goodreads app or a REALLY big notebook.

Looking forward to seeing people there.

Amatka

Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention in 2012, with the publication of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg), a slim collection of quietly disturbing stories. Tidbeck, a Swedish sf writer, manages the difficult task of writing in both English and Swedish, writing in one language and translating to the other as required. Her first novel, Amatka, was also published in 2012, but because it was written in Swedish and published in Sweden it escaped my attention. But earlier this summer an English translation by the author was published by Vintage Books, and it’s no less quiet and no less disturbing.

Amatka is set on a bleak and austere colony world; as it opens a young woman, Vanja, is sent to the outlying community of Amatka to conduct some mundane market research. But we quickly see that for all the flat affect of it and its inhabitants, this is not a mundane world. Objects manufactured on this world, from the raw (fungal) materials, fall apart if they are not “marked” (i.e., named) by their owners on a regular basis, as though they need to be constantly reminded of what they are. Mass-produced consumer goods, toothbrushes and suitcases, each, like golems, brought into being — and kept there — by a word.

There are pre-colonial products that don’t do this — “good paper,” for example — but they’re growing increasingly scarce. There is other evidence that society is beginning to become frayed. Life is tightly structured, disciplined and conformist, especially, Vanja learns, in Amatka, a liminal space where laxity has greater consequences: she could get away with sloppiness in the capital, but not here on the margins. Bored, Vanja begins digging into the truth; she learns that the objects manufactured on this world are not only kept together by their thoughts; on this world thoughts create reality, and uncontrolled thoughts can lead — and have led — to literal destruction.

Tidbeck’s prose is as austere as the world she creates, and it’s devastatingly effective in its control and restraint. She paints a society whose totalitarianism is utterly convincing down to the smallest, lived detail. This novel reads like it was written behind the Iron Curtain; the parallels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be ignored. But Tidbeck is far more existential than Orwell: in Amatka we see a society engaging in rigid self-control, to the extreme of lobotomizing its dissidents, not in an attempt to maintain the political order, but to sustain reality itself. It questions the extent to which reality is consensus-based, and explores the desperation that can lead to authoritarianism. In the end, it is a parable of thought control of startling wisdom and profoundity, one I expect we’ll be reading for years to come.

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

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The Delirium Brief

I don’t make a habit of reading series, especially if they go more than two or three books, mostly because I’m unwilling to make the kind of investment required to keep all the books’ moving parts front of mind. One series I have made an exception for is Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, a trope-busting mishmash of spy thriller, bureaucratic satire, deadpan humour and Lovecraftian horror in which demonology is a branch of higher mathematics and Chthuloid threats are dealt with by a government bureaucracy, with all that implies.

In The Delirium Brief (Orbit/Tor.com, July) the eighth book in this series, the threat is the British government itself. The story picks up in the immediate wake of The Nightmare Stacks (2016), in which an invasion of, well, elves from a parallel Earth has left the city of Leeds in ruins, thousands dead, and the British public suddenly very much aware of the existence of the Laundry, as the British secret agency dealing with occult threats is known.

Thrust into the spotlight to deal with the incipient PR nightmare is—oh, hello again—Bob Howard, back in the protagonist spotlight for the first time in three books. The Laundry, blamed for the slaughter in Leeds, is at real risk of being privatized by an austerity-minded British government, and a private sector group headed by the Rev. Raymond Schiller, back after being seemingly left for dead at the end of The Apocalypse Codex (2012), makes its play. Things spiral downward fast: the Laundry is disbanded without a succession plan, and Bob and his co-workers and allies, many of whom are coming back from earlier books, have to go to ground. Schiller has, of course, grander and more sinister plans than contracting for government services—the means to his ends are much squickier than they were last time around. To defeat him, what’s left of the Laundry are forced to make uneasy, lesser-evil alliances with other villains, also from earlier books, that we thought we’d seen the back of.

This is where Calvin says “His eye twitches involuntarily.”

To a certain extent The Delirium Brief justifies my ambivalence about long series, because I can’t see any way you can follow this book unless you’ve read every previous book in the series. (Hell, I’ve read all the books, and the short stories too, and I had a hard time keeping up, because: keeping track of moving parts, problems with; see above.) This is not an entry point. What The Delirium Brief is, is the payoff book, the one that brings together several previously developed narrative threads, with explosive effect. It is to the Laundry Files what The Avengers is to the MCU: the book in which the team, whose members we’ve seen in action before, gathers to form Voltron deal with the big boss threat.

A thing I appreciate about the Laundry series is that it’s about the approaching darkness but still manages to approach the darkness—it’s not a static situation fit for endless sequelizing. There’s an end point, and in the Laundry universe we’re getting there sooner than we’d like or are ready for. The Delirium Brief is, believe it or not, not that end point: CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is still to come. But it’s necessarily a darker and grimmer tome than previous iterations, but in Charlie’s hands it’s not depressingly dark or grim, or grimdark. Black humour has always been a hallmark of this series, and that’s no less the case here as the bodies pile up and the geopolitical situation implodes. The Delirium Brief ends on a messy note, but then so have the last few books. It’s only going to get worse from here.

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

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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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