Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Category: Book Reviews Page 3 of 4

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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Bridging Infinity

bridging-infinityMost hard science fiction isn’t about science at all. Instead it’s really engineering fiction, concerned with building, creating and problem-solving, rather than pure science. To be sure, the two disciplines get blurred in the popular mindset: Heinlein, the field’s patron saint, was an engineer rather than a scientist; so too is one of the most prominent defenders and promoters of science in American popular culture, Bill Nye. Rocket science is as much engineering — materials science, propulsion — as it is physics, and many of the Giant Objects of hard science fiction, such as Dyson Spheres and Larry Niven’s Ringworld, are essentially engineering challenges in novel form (Niven himself described the Ringworld as a suspension bridge without endpoints). And let’s be honest: the holy text of hard sf, Analog, often reads as comfort fiction for engineers, a kind of escapism that reassures the reader that all problems, no matter how big or intractable, can be solved.

I’m probably being more than a bit unfair. Not every hard sf story requires a problem-solving engineer as its protagonist. Certainly that’s not the case with Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies, the fifth and most recent iteration of which, Bridging Infinity (Solaris, November 2016) is all about that hard sf tradition of engineered solutions to future problems. As Strahan writes in the introduction,

Science fiction, or at least the sort of science fiction that was typical in American pulp magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s was founded on a belief that problems are solvable, and that those problems are solvable using technical or engineering solutions. When faced with a problem in a story in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, our engineering hero wouldn’t quail before the challenge, but would instead “science the shit out of it” (as Andy Weir so elegantly put it) and come up with an engineering solution to the problem. And sometime it would take a big solution, a Hoover Dam or maybe moving a planet or two.

While previous volumes of the Infinity Project focused on interstellar futures, or limited themselves to the Solar System, Bridging Infinity‘s stories are about or are set in engineering projects at large — sometimes very large — scales, and the problems they aim to solve. But — and this is important — setting is not story. The fifteen stories by eighteen authors (there are three collaborations) are a good mix of perspective, character and setting.

The characters are as often adventurers and troubadours (for the latter, see “The Mighty Slinger” by Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord) as they are engineers; the marginalized are as present as the managerial, and the problem they’re trying to solve is sometimes their own survival. The settings themselves are fairly diverse as well: they range from cities, ships and installations to massive geoengineering projects on Earth (engineered responses to climate change is a recurring topic) and Venus to Dyson-grade megastructures. Some of the settings are familiar — with “Parables of Infinity,” Robert Reed presents us with another of his Great Ship stories, and Allen Steele returns to the setting of his novel, Hex, with a story that addresses a design flaw in that novel’s setting, a “not-quite Dyson sphere composed of trillions of hexagons.” Others, like the gravity wave generator in Benford and Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants,” are utterly uncanny. And sometimes the scope of the story is as vast as the built environment: see, for example, the multigenerational viewpoints of “The Venus Generations” by Stephen Baxter or Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays.”

I’ve long been a fan of Strahan’s Infinity Project. The stories have been of high caliber — Strahan’s a great editor, one I nominate for a Hugo each year — and I’ve made a point of buying and reading each installment as it comes out. But while Bridging Infinity is a solid and diverting collection of stories — it does what it says on the tin — it’s possible that after five spins of the wheel the returns are beginning to diminish. I can’t point to any single story and say, this is utterly amazing, whereas I could do that with many of the stories in the first book, Engineering Infinity. In the end, my sense of wonder ought to have engaged more than it did.

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

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Invisible Planets

invisible-planetsIn addition to writing some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the past few years (and I hear his novels are pretty good, too), Ken Liu has also been translating Chinese science fiction into English. His most visible work has been the translation of the first and third volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, but he’s also been translating short stories — more than forty of them so far, according to his bibliography — that have been appearing in the online and print magazines. One of those translations, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” won the Hugo Award for best novelette this year.

Thirteen of Ken’s1 translations, including Hao’s “Folding Beijing” and two stories by Liu Cixin, have now been gathered in Invisible Planets, out this week from Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.). It’s a first-rate anthology for a couple of reasons. For one, Ken himself is an elegant writer, and his translations are no less elegant. For another, the process to arrive at these thirteen stories — Ken translating his favourite Chinese-language stories, then picking his favourites of those translations — makes for a selection process akin to a year’s-best or best-of anthology. In other words, we’re getting the cream of the cream of the crop.

At the same time, this is not necessarily a representative anthology — something that Ken warns against in his opening essay:

Any broad literary classification tied to a culture — especially a culture as in flux and contested as contemporary China’s — encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture. Attempts to provide neat answers will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value, or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices.

This is a collection of contemporary stories by up-and-coming writers (with the exception of Liu Cixin, already seen as the dean of Chinese sf). There is no attempt at comprehensiveness or canonicity, though the included essays from Ken and three of the Chinese writers do provide some of the history of Chinese sf. Invisible Planets is in the main about where Chinese sf is going, not where it’s been; it’s an introduction, not definitive.

Ken has also done two things that anthologists tend not to do. Most anthologies don’t have more than one story per author; he’s included three each from Chen Quifan and Xia Jia, and two each from Hao Jingfang and Liu Cixin. And he’s included longer stories. Many anthologies load up their table of contents with smaller stories (more bylines, better value); Ken’s eschewed this. Not only do the stories get more room to breathe, but we also get to see more than one side of each of Ken’s seven writers.

So what can be said about these stories in particular? Ken argues that these share “a sense of imbalance” reflecting the fact that China is a society in extremely rapid transition, split between poor villages and high-tech cities. That sense is most keenly apparent in a story like “Folding Beijing,” with its critique of class, poverty and privilege, or in Chen Quifan’s “Flower of Shazui” — the poor and traditional bump up against the rich and advanced. But it echoes in stories where the cost of that transition is scrutinized, as in Chen’s poingnant “Fish of Lijiang.”

I also think that these stories are engaged — socially aware, concerned with the impact of technological, political and environmental change. The uninitiated reader who assumes that Chinese literature must necessarily exist in a modern-day Biedermeier period will be startled to read something like Ma Boyong’s story, “The City of Silence,” a parable of censorship and repression that reads like Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age.

There is a recurring theme of loss and endings: we see it in stories that focus on old age and the end of life, even the end of human civilization (Xia Jia’s “Night Journey of the Dragon-house”) or existence (Chen Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies“). Care for the elderly is a recurring topic, both literally — Xia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” explores telepresence — and allegorically: Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” looks at the elder care requirements of the dying race that created humanity.

If these stories say anthing about Chinese sf, it’s that it’s a whole, complete, living breathing thing, capable of both pocket-protector crunchiness (Liu Cixin recasts a scene from The Three-Body Problem — using armies as calculators — as a historical tale) and real poignancy. There’s a there there — and it’s worth paying attention to.

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

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Note
  1. To avoid confusion between Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, I’m calling Ken by his first name.

Shoot the Moon

As hobbies go, astrophotography has murderously high barriers to entry in terms of equipment costs and skill, and the money and time required to acquire each. Fortunately there’s an exception. Taking pictures of the Moon requires neither specialized equipment or skill: my first photo of the Moon was taken with an entry-level digital SLR and a telephoto zoom lens, and people have used smartphones to take decent photos of the Moon through the eyepiece of a telescope.

From that first shot I graduated to prime focus lunar photography, using adapters to connect my SLR to a telescope, making that telescope essentially a gigantic telephoto lens. Here’s an album of those prime focus photos.

shoot-the-moonBut those aren’t the only ways to shoot the Moon, as Nicolas Dupont-Bloch demonstrates in his magisterial new book out this week from Cambridge University Press, which is coincidentally called Shoot the Moon: A Complete Guide to Lunar Imaging.

Let me say at the outset that beginners should stay as far away from this book as possible (they should start with the advice in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide). This is a comprehensive reference that covers every available way for amateurs to capture lunar imagery with their own equipment, and it does so in a systematic fashion. In method it’s not at all dissimilar from Michael Covington’s Digital SLR Astrophotography (from the same publisher), but for some reason I found the Covington easier to follow than the Dupont-Bloch.

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Not So Much, Said the Cat

not-so-muchIt’s hard for me to review Michael Swanwick’s latest collection of short stories, Not So Much, Said the Cat (Tachyon, August 2016), without coming across like a total fangoober. That’s partly because, when it comes to Swanwick’s work, I am a total fangoober, and have been for decades. He’s one of my favourite writers and a literary hero of mine, so I’m primed to like a collection of his—I always have. But it’s also because Not So Much, Said the Cat is such a good collection—far better than any book of its kind has any right to be.

Not So Much, Said the Cat includes most of Swanwick’s short fiction production from 2008 onward — the only exceptions I’m aware of are the collaborations with other authors, the miniatures he’s written for his wife’s Dragonstairs Press project, and the Mongolian Wizard stories, which presumably will get their own volume (though the fourth story in the series, “House of Dreams,” is included here). Which is to say that it’s one of those short story collections that are iterative and reasonably all-inclusive: here, these collections say, are the stories that have appeared since the author’s previous collection—in this case, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (Tachyon, 2007).

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Ghost Talkers

ghost-talkersFirst, a caveat. I’m a (lapsed) historian; for me, reading historical fantasies and alternate histories unavoidably sets of alarm bells in the positivist/materialist corners of my brain. That’s largely my problem, not the genre’s. Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, Ghost Talkers (Tor, August 2016), her first since wrapping up her five-volume Glamourist Histories, is, like that earlier series, a historical fantasy, and an engaging and readable one at that. But the fact that it’s a historical fantasy set during the Great War, which was one of my areas of focus during my studies, means that I brought more than the usual baggage to this book when I read it. My take on it is more complicated than the typical reader’s would be.

Ghost Talkers is powered by a clever premise. Spiritualism, the craze that swept the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is real and has been put to use by the British Army on the front lines of the Great War. Their soldiers are conditioned so that when they die, their ghosts report in to teams of mediums, providing valuable intelligence from the front lines. (One imagines suicide missions for intelligence reasons becoming increasingly acceptable.) Ghost Talkers’ protagonist is Ginger Stuyvesant, an American medium working for the British Army’s Spirit Corps, a secret wing of the army’s intelligence services. Her work, and those of the other mediums, is overwhelming: the toll of the dead is relentless, and Ginger, like other mediums, runs the risk of having her soul separated from her body.

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Too Like the Lightning

too-like-the-lightningAt the final Farthing Party in the fall of 2013, Tor managing editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden read the opening from a book, the first of a four-part series, that he had just acquired. We the assembled multitudes were impressed, because it sounded fantastic, and also a bit annoyed, because we knew we’d have to wait some time before the book came out, and we wanted it now.

Our wait is now almost — finally — over, because that book, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, comes out in two weeks from Tor Books. I have read it, and I have thoughts.

We don’t talk enough about authorial voice in our field. New and emerging authors are under certain pressures to conform: to achieve publishability, to get it right. It’s a process that risks filing off all the interesting bumps and edges found in an author’s writing and results in a certain sameness of tone and theme. Clarion grads with English degrees workshop the distinctiveness out of one another. One libertarian space jockey sounds more or less like any other. Epic fantasies blur together. In other words: they play it safe.

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The Winged Histories

winged-historiesSofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer, 2013), won the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. Her second novel, The Winged Histories (Small Beer, March 2016) does not function as a sequel to that earlier book, though it too is set in the Olondrian Empire during the same time period, and there is some overlap in characters. The density and richness of Samatar’s world is profoundly intoxicating, to say nothing of her prose, and fans of the first book will welcome a return to it. A prior familiarity is not strictly required (a good thing for me: A Stranger in Olondria was 115 books ago and my memory of it was poor).

Instead of the first book’s Bildungsroman we have a book that very much lives up to the noun in its title (the adjective is more subtle): these are histories — chronicles told by four women who play key roles in a many-layered civil war that splits along familial, regional, ethnic, religious and even interspecific lines. These are tales about the margins of empire, and colonial relationships, and things that are hidden and not spoken of. Each of them ends much too soon, leaving the reader hungry.

The reader will stay hungry, too: news that this book marks the conclusion of Samatar’s Olondria project (which she “always envisioned as a two-book adventure”) will no doubt be disappointing, though mad props for the integrity of her decision (other authors would have written their secondary worlds into the ground, with all-too-familiar results).

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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Snakes of the Southeast

There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters. They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.

snakes-southeastOne of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region.1 More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.

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The Semi-Secret Life of Andrew J. Offutt

Andrew J. Offutt was a well-known figure in the science fiction and fantasy field. Though he never quite levelled up to the top tier of writers, his stories and novels were well-regarded, he was a frequent presence at sf conventions, and he served two terms as SFWA president. Less widely known was the fact that most of his writing was pornographic novels for men—a genre that more or less disappeared with the advent of home video in the mid-1980s. Offutt published hundreds of them, under a variety of pen names, using a system that enabled him to write them in a few days.

my-father-pornographerWhen Offutt died in 2013, his son, the writer Chris Offutt, inherited his father’s papers, including the smut, both published and unpublished (the latter including four thousand pages of an erotic comic called Valkyria). Going through those papers has resulted in the younger Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, out this week from Atria Books.

The portrait of Andrew Offutt that emerges from My Father, the Pornographer is not a flattering one. A difficult crank by the most charitable definition, the elder Offutt built a world around himself where he could be in control, like a big fish building a small pond around itself: his work, his family, his convention appearances. Many families will find something familiar about the Offutt household, where other family members twisted themselves in knots to accommodate his demands. The catalyst was when Offutt quit to work full-time: he basically disappeared into his work, and his office, where he could channel his private demons into his writing.

To be sure, the daddy issues are strong in this one, but while unflinchingly honest, Chris Offutt is unfailingly empathetic: more than capable of expressing compassion for a man who was not himself always kind or generous or (for that matter) present, a frankly tormented individual who found in words a means of escape. (Chris is considerably less kind with sf fans, no doubt a result of having been dragged to conventions as a child and then left to fend for himself while his parents were off having fun.)

My Father, the Pornographer is mainly a family history; if you’re primarily interested in the writing side of things, much of what’s in the book can be found in Chris Offutt’s piece for The New York Times Magazine, which came out last year. But the book, in its portrayal of Andrew Offutt the person, is far more haunting.

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

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