Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Illustration for Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy”

A friend recently directed me to this post, which is a survey of 19th and early 20th century science fiction that came out of a conference discussion of the same (it actually extends a bit before and Victoria and after Edward, but categorizing based on monarchs’ names sounds legit and scholarly or whatever).  As someone who has studied and taught the history of the genre, I was interested in what the list compilers/panelists included.  It’s a solid list, to be sure.  And, as expected and acknowledged by the authors/participants, the list is dominated by a few usual suspects with pretty homogeneous backgrounds.  Partial list below the cut (the author, David Malki, has linked to online texts where available):

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I had an awesome streak of reading excellent books and seeing pretty good films for a couple months.  Which is, in part, why the last few weeks have been pretty disappointing in these same departments.  Each of the following are things I had high hopes for but didn’t end up feeling very satisfied with, written up pretty briefly and without major plot spoilers.

Among Others – Jo Walton

This book has won or been nominated for a ton of major fantasy and science fiction awards, and I’ve seen a lot of glowing reviews online.  I went in pretty much blind, assuming by the hype that it would be, at least, something I’d feel I should have read.  After finishing it, however, I have to say I’m pretty unimpressed and found it mostly forgettable and mediocre.

Among Others is told from the first-person, diary-style point-of-view of Morwenna (Mor), a Welsh teenager who sees fairies and is convinced in the reality of magic.   Mor also happens to be disabled, which seems to be a thing in YA lit recently (I don’t have anything insightful to add on this, but I’m sure it is  worth thinking about).  The novel uses the frame of the boarding house story and focuses on typical teenage themes, albeit in the framework of a world with hidden magic going on (from the protagonist’s p.o.v. anyway).

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Michael Fassbender as David.  David’s not a real boy.

Thoughts on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (5 Days Later)

While I avoided reading any actual reviews of the film prior to seeing it, the general tenor of fan response seemed nearly unavoidable online.  People Science fiction fans seemed disappointed to one degree or another, and some were even calling the film terrible.  I tried not to let this affect me.  After all, the bulk of Scott’s work is solid; I trust him more than overzealous, nitpicky fanboys.  Alien and Blade Runner  both remain in my top 20 films (not genre films, films).   The trailer was one of the best I’ve ever seen, and the film’s general concept is awesome (more ancient alien astronaut progenitor movies, please!).  Yet, when I saw it Saturday, as the film closed, I felt a bit underwhelmed.  The ideas, acting, and visuals (3D was actually good?) were all great, but something was off about how I responded to it.  I ventured online to read what people wrote about it and found less indecisiveness there–Prometheus seems to be divisive for viewers, especially genre fans willing to post opinions, and people with strong opinions were sounding off in typical hyperbolic and embarrassing fashion (do note that the film is garnering largely positive, if not overly enthusiastic, reviews from  mainstream media/critics).  The tendency seems to be that one must take a pro or con side in a discussion of a film if the original poster has a strong opinion one way or the other; this usually leads to crappy, uninformative dialogue.

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Commissioned and ready long before he left us.

Shortly after hearing the news of Ray Bradbury’s death yesterday morning, I was asked if I would be interested in writing a tribute/obituary.  I passed on the opportunity.  This was partly because my schedule would not permit me to quickly write and publish anything that would do him justice, but it was also because I hadn’t fully thought through what Bradbury’s legacy means.

Despite thinking a bit about Bradbury’s work all day yesterday, I’m still not sure I have a grasp on this latter point.  I read a fair number of mainstream obits/tributes last night (I’ve so far avoided SF sites and fanpages) and none seem to get it right.  I do, however, know what they get wrong.  A number of writers, most memorably to me this writer at Slate who professes to be a “sci-fi nerd” (and has issues with how to use “however” properly), are falling over themselves trying to distance Bradbury from science fiction as a genre.  This is the same thing that happened when J.G. Ballard died–people thinking they are doing  a deceased writer a service by situating him as a serious writer of so-called “literary fiction” instead of that low-brow crap they call “genre fiction.”  In the wake of Ballard’s death, Ursula K. Le Guin rebuked this tendency in a manner I could never hope to replicate, so I’ll just point you toward her piece “Calling Utopia a Utopia.”  I’d love to see the same type of reply from her on the reception to Bradbury’s passing. (As a side note, Le Guin spoke on Bradbury here in Eugene at the public library not long ago as part of the NEA’s Big Read, which featured Fahrenheit 451 as the primary text.  She cares about that book and about talking straight about genre fiction.)

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Thoughts on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities and Julianna Baggott’s Pure

I picked up these  two books in close succession and read them back-to-back (actually, I didn’t exactly “pick up” Bacigalupi’s book; I preordered it because his work is probably the most exciting world building- and idea-wise of any current author I’ve read).  I was mid-way through Pure when The Drowned Cities arrived, and I plowed through both rather quickly. The two share enough similarities, despite huge differences in set-up and execution, that I thought it was worth looking at them side-by-side

My short take is that both are strong, mature entries in the currently booming young adult dystopia/post-apocalyptic genre (to be fair, Bacigalupi’s is better defined as “post-collapse”; and Baggott’s book doesn’t seem to be tagged by the publisher as YA even if the label really fits); I’d strongly recommend both to fans of the genre.  They are both plot-driven in typical YA fashion, but the ideas behind the worlds, and the development of dark, relevant to our world themes that reflect on our own situation, stand up well enough for honest, open-minded adult readers to not dismiss them. From a ranking point of view, Bacigalupi’s book is hands-down the superior work, partially due to the amount of work he has put into developing the world in which it takes place (the same world as his earlier YA novel Ship Breaker, which shares a main character, The Wind-up Girl, and at least two stories from his collection Pump Six and Other Stories).  I’d recommend The Drowned Cities to anyone, and everyone concerned about the future should be reading his books, but Pure, as good as I think it is, may be more of a genre fan novel (its rights have, however, already been picked up by Fox Studios, due undoubtedly to the genre’s popularity; I have no idea what the status of Bacigalupi’s YA books being adapted is, but they would work very well in the hands of a good director).

So both books are arguably “post-apocalyptic,” but what exactly does this mean?  As I mentioned, The Drowned Cities takes place in the same post-peak-oil, climate change and rising sea-levels, salvage-as-capital world as his prior novels (after “the accelerated age”), and this world is fully fleshed-out, thoughtfully considered, and a downright frightening view of where we may be in a matter of decades.  Pure is more of a throwback; the destruction of civilization (at least in the post-apocalyptic North America setting) is due to “the detonations,” a missile exchange more reminiscent of cold war-era science fiction than contemporary visions of the end of the world as we know it.  If this were the extent of Baggott’s world-building, it would be a mediocre read, but she adds in two factors that make the world far more interesting than another Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior rehash.

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At the prompting of a friend, I read this Slate review of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have yet to read the book, but in a brief note thanking my friend for the heads-up I couldn’t help but add:

“The Slate reviewer really should know better than to use “sci-fi” as a shorthand for “science fiction” if she wants people who read the genre to not dismiss her opinion offhand.”

Snarky? Nitpicky? Maybe. However, I doubt most regular readers of science fiction who have followed the genre for a while would not also notice the usage in the review, which implicates the  author as somewhat unaware of the genre’s history (and, as my response implies, therefore maybe not particularly qualified to review the book?).**   The term “sci-fi” is contentious for many people who write and read science fiction, and when they use it, it is often aimed at “low-brow,” space-opera stuff.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary of the history of the term in the article on Science Fiction:

As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech “B-movies” and with low-quality pulp science fiction.[39][40][41] By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction,[42] and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation “skiffy“. Peter Nicholls writes that “SF” (or “sf”) is “the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers”.[43]David Langford‘s monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section “As Others See Us” which offers numerous examples of “sci-fi” being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.[44] The abbreviation SF (or sf) is commonly used instead of “sci-fi”.

So, people within the science fiction “community” saw that “sci-fi” was being used in the mainstream to label and discuss the genre; simultaneously they noticed that the genre was seen as trashy, juvenile, escapist, et cetera by this same mainstream (at least in part because a bunch of it, like any other genre, actually was all of these things, which is not necessarily a bad thing). So the response to this, rather than anything more nuanced, was to distinguish between “science fiction” (or “SF”) and “Sci-Fi.”  The former is serious and important (or at least tries to be).  The latter looks something like this:

Note that one of the authors featured in this issue is also mentioned in the wikipedia entry cited above.

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