Jonathan Crowe

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

Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy (Page 1 of 5)

AE Is Back Online

AE, the Canadian online science fiction magazine, is finally back online after a hiatus of nearly two years. It went down in September 2016 after being hacked; its resurrection took a lot longer than anyone expected, including those working on it, but as of today the fiction and nonfiction archives are accessible again. Peruse at your leisure! New material is coming, too: I’ll let you know when the first new issue launches, if for no other reason than I think I have a review essay in it.

Previously: AE Is Resurrecting Itself.

Reading Gardner Dozois

In my post about the passing of Gardner Dozois, I mentioned that I was a fan of his fiction, even if his reputation was mainly as an editor. I’d forgotten that his backlist is back in print, at least as ebooks: Baen Books reissued a bunch of them in 2012, and it now appears that all his novels and collections, including the heretofore-elusive collection of his collaborations, Slow Dancing Through Time, can be had for a few dollars each. I list those books below. (Warning: contains slimy affiliate links.) I’ve also gone and assembled a list of his stories that can be read for free online, also below. Because I think he needs to be read.

If you’d like to read something about Dozois’s fiction, there’s Being Gardner Dozois (Old Earth Books, 2001) a book-length interview conducted by Michael Swanwick that discusses every single story Dozois had published to that point. Toward the end of that book, Dozois said, “I figure there’s about five people in the world who are going to want to read this book. Maybe that’s overestimating it.” Bear in mind that it’s not a book you should read unless you’ve read his fiction. But it’s fascinating if you have. [Amazon/iBooks]

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Gardner Dozois, 1947-2018

As editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction from 1986 to 2004, Gardner Dozois probably did more to shape my taste as a science fiction and fantasy reader than any other figure in the field. Reading the Dozois-era Asimov’s exposed my young self to cutting-edge writers and genres and styles I hadn’t encountered before. It was a heady, eclectic and catholic mix, and it expanded my reading horizons (imagine, if you will, a teenage reader going from reading Isaac Asimov to reading Lucius Shepard in one jump); were it not for that magazine I might well have been stuck in a hard-sf Golden Age ghetto. It taught me to be open to newness in science fiction.

Gardner Dozois died this afternoon of an overwhelming systemic infection. He had been in poor health for a while—he missed the Nebulas last weekend—but as early as yesterday he had been expected to recover. He was 70 years old.

I met him a couple of times at conventions back in 2011. He was in person what his reputation promised: a madcap and ebullient performer, the polar opposite of most of his fiction, which was bleak and beautiful, written with elegance and grace, and tended toward the dark end of the spectrum.1 For an introduction to his writing, his short story collection, When the Great Days Come, which I reviewed in 2011, is still in print: it’s a mix of his best early work and his more recent stories. What may be his final story, “Unstoppable,” appears in the current (May/June 2018) issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I was a devoted fan of his fiction, but he was far better known as an editor: of Asimov’s and of decades of Year’s Best and theme anthologies. Michael Swanwick once said that Gardner was a better writer than he was an editor, and that, like John W. Campbell, saw his writing be overshadowed by his long tenure as an editor. But Gardner was not only a better writer than Campbell, he was also the better editor. He was arguably the best editor the field has ever had. No, check that: the best. More relevant, more transformative, more impactful than anyone else I can think of. His fingerprints and his footprints can be found on every exposed surface of the science fiction and fantasy field, and if you see your favourite writer mourning his loss tonight, there’s a reason: he opened the door for so very, very many of them.

Photos: Gardner Dozois (and Michael Swanwick) at Readercon, July 2011.

Babylon 5 in the Age of Streaming

Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.

It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.

But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.

That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.

Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.

Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?

I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.

The Tangled Lands

Book cover: The Tangled LandsThe Tangled Lands (Saga Press, February 2018) represents a return to a world co-created by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell that first appeared in audio form. In 2010, Audible released The Alchemist and the Executioness, a 5½-hour recording comprising two novellas, “The Alchemist” by Bacigalupi (which went on to be a Nebula nominee) and “The Executioness” by Buckell.1 Both are set in a world where magic works, but (as usual) at a terrible price. Where magic is used, the poisonous bramble plant grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. Magic is banned as a result, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming.

The idea that how something is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it is a killer metaphor for the tragedy of the commons, but neither Bacigalupi nor Buckell stop there. In “The Alchemist,” the eponymous alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, only to discover, to his horror, that the authorities have other uses for his invention: surveillance, social control and the consolidation of power. And in “The Executioness,” an executioner’s daughter, chasing after the raiders who stole her children, finds herself at the centre of a burgeoning legend; the raiders, for their part, claim as their motivation to attack the people whose magic use brought disaster down on everyone, and convert their children to their cause. The knock-on effects of magic use have knock-on effects of their own.2

I loved both stories—well enough to buy the limited editions from Subterranean Press when they came out the following year. Now they make up the first half of The Tangled Lands, which means that I now own three copies—audio, limited-edition hardcover, and digital—of those two novellas.

The second half is made up of two new novellas: “The Children of Khaim” by Bacigalupi and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Buckell, each of which returns to the city of Khaim (left behind by “The Executioness”) and focuses on the city’s more disadvantaged residents—the ones who do not benefit from the new alchemical defences against the bramble, the ones most likely to face exploitation and punishment and use by the privileged classes who continue to use magic freely. If the first half of The Tangled Lands is an parable of environmental disaster, the second half makes clear that it’s a parable of social injustice as well. The Tangled Lands is a fantasy manifestation of disaster capitalism—how the wealthy and the privileged exploit natural and unnatural disasters for their own benefit. Even a city-swallowing menace like bramble can be turned to someone’s advantage.

Much more could be said on this theme, and the harrowing world Bacigalupi and Buckell have created is an open canvas for more harrowing tales. In an afterword the authors say they hope to have more opportunities to return to this world. I hope they do.

Amazon | iBooks

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

Tonight, or if that doesn’t work out probably this weekend, I’ll be off to see the latest in a series of superhero movies, one that has been highly anticipated and relentlessly hyped for months. In a couple of weeks, the previous iteration of that series of superhero movies will be released on home video. Then, a little while after that, another superhero movie will be released in the theatres, one that isn’t part of the same series, but sort of related to another movie series that would have been part of the first series if the rights weren’t currently held by different movie studios.

You can probably figure out which movies I’m referring to. But I could have written the above paragraph a few months ago, or a few months from now, and I’m not sure I would have to change a word, because superhero movies are coming out all the time. (It’s not just movies: I’m leaving out all the different superhero TV series.) We’re in the midst of Peak Superhero, and it does not seem to be on the verge of exhausting itself any time soon.

Given this superhero-saturated environment, it’s difficult to take stock of a novel like James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, November 2017). A book that won me over with its title alone, before I knew anything about its contents. It’s a novel about four roommates at the University of Waterloo—one of my almæ matres: I got my M.A. there—who unexpectedly get superpowers and have to figure out what to do with them. It’s a tremendously enjoyable read: let’s get that out of the way first. But in the context of Peak Superhero, a fun novel playing with superhero tropes wouldn’t be enough to rise above the crowd. Comic books are already capable of producing their own meta-narratives, thank you very much.

Fortunately it does something rather more than that: it’s a book that addresses a major contradiction in the various comic book universes: the intersection of “science” (the scare quotes are necessary) and magic-based power systems.

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Three Twitter Threads on Negative Reviews

The issue of negative reviews in science fiction and fantasy is coming up again, as it does from time to time. It’s a subject I have talked about before, continue to have a lot of thoughts about, and will have more to say about in the future, but this time I’d like to highlight points made by others in threaded conversations on Twitter.

First, Rose Lemberg, who notes a disparity in who is expected to provide critical or negative reviews—and, notably, critical authority—and whose reviews are simply ignored. While reviewers from marginalized (e.g. non-cis) groups can and do write good works of criticism, those works are ignored, Rose says; whereas white male reviewers are criticized when they don’t assume the mantle of authority. (I suppose you might call it the Voice of Clute.)

One of the reviewers Rose mentions is Bogi Takács, who points to something I worry about but haven’t much experienced: writers who harass reviewers who give them a bad review. Then again, I’m a straight white cis male (and as such, selon Rose, am supposed to be critical); Bogi points out that reviewers from marginalized groups are much more likely to experience harassment from authors, because authors don’t go after reviewers they perceive as having power. As I see it, it’s textbook bullying behaviour—behaviour that, according to Bogi, chases reviewers out of their field, because no one has those reviewers’ back and the work is just not worth the grief.

Finally, Cecily Kane looks at the unintended consequence of framing negative or critical reviews as toxic or as “attacking authors”: you create a perverse incentive in which the only ones willing to do the necessary work of critical reviews are the toxic assholes who are fully on board for attacking authors. Because you’ve chased out everyone else who would otherwise be willing to do the work.

Or to put it another way: If writing a negative review is going to get the reviewer shat on, you’re going to incentivize the people who enjoy flinging poo.

I honestly think we protest too much: there are still plenty of good, critical reviews out there. It’s just that they’re drowned out by a much greater volume of uncritical squee, unapologetic logrolling and frankly mediocre reviewing work. It’s an extraordinarily incestuous field, and it’s hard to shitcan a bad book written by someone in your social circle. Necessary, but hard. It’s probably better we not leave that work to the sociopaths.

The Will to Battle

The Will to Battle (Tor, December 2017), the third volume in Ada Palmer’s complex and strange Terra Ignota series, is a murderously difficult book to review. Third books in a series generally are (a review can only speak to readers of the previous two volumes, and spoil those books for everyone else), but that goes double for this one, because, as I said, of how complex and strange the Terra Ignota series has been from the jump.

That series, which began in 2016 with Too Like the Lightning (which I review here) and continued last year with Seven Surrenders, introduced us to a 25th-century world organized into seven hives rather than nation-states, a world that professed itself a utopia but had long-repressed tensions running hot under the surface. A world where public discussion of religion is forbidden but bore witness to the miraculous child Bridger as well as the singular being J. E. D. D. Mason, a child of many parents who believes himself to be a god from another universe, the cynosure of a secret cult—and, at the end of Seven Surrenders, the beneficiary of a resurrection at the hands of the aforementioned Bridger after an assassination attempt aimed at preventing him from taking power.

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Le Guin’s Legacy

Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University. Creative Commons Licence.

I came late to Ursula K. Le Guin, who died yesterday at the age of 88.

I read the Earthsea books only a few years ago, as a fortysomething adult—too late, I think, to appreciate them properly. I read a lot of science fiction and a bit of fantasy growing up, but my reading was largely focused on the hoary classics and on hard sf, with an emphasis on Asimov and Niven (which did not help my development as a writer). I made up for lost time later; by the time I was in university I was in the midst of a serious contemporary sf reading binge. For a while, thanks to my father’s Asimov’s subscription, my own Locus subscription, and the surprisingly good sf holdings of the Winnipeg Public Library, I was as up to speed on the science fiction of the late 1980s and the 1990s as it was possible for anyone to be. (Then came graduate school, and it was no longer possible to keep up.)

But in the process I had missed out on a lot of stuff from the late 1960s and the 1970s. Tiptree I’d read, and Varley and Wolfe; but not Delany, or Zelazny—or Le Guin. What had happened was that I’d skipped over a generation, jumping from the Golden Age to the Postmoderns, from Asimov and Pohl to Kelly, Kress, Robinson, Swanwick and Willis. From the classic to the right now. There was a gap in my reading. Except for a few short stories, I’d missed out on Le Guin.

Or so I thought.

Some of my favourite science fiction novels from the 1990s were set on other worlds and had an anthropological bent. Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child.

You can see where this is going, can’t you.

Earlier this month I finally got around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s fourth novel and the one the won all the awards. It was a revelation. Not because of how powerfully good it is (though it is), not because, as a work of anthropological sf, this kind of thing was very much my bag (though it is), but because I immediately clued in to its influence.

All those anthropological sf books I’d enjoyed reading, decades ago? The line between them and The Left Hand of Darkness could not be more clear.

Those of you familiar with Le Guin will by now be saying, well, duh. This is not exactly unknown. But hear me out. I came to Le Guin late, and backwards; it’s an odd, uncanny thing to read the works that were inspired before the work that originally did the inspiring. I had managed to encounter The Left Hand of Darkness’s impact before I had read the book itself—to reverse-engineer the book’s importance from what had followed in her wake.

This is, of course, only a small part of Le Guin’s legacy. Others who knew her better or read her sooner will speak to other parts far better than I ever could. But it’s what I noticed when I belatedly finished one of her most important books, eight days before she died.

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.

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