Yay book review! First in a while for me. Guess I must be feeling a little better :)
Too bad though that I didn't much care for The Sirens of Titan. I like Vonnegut a lot. I'd even put Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle in my top 10 favorite novels. But unfortunately Sirens of Titan wouldn't even crack my top 100. It's an early novel for Vonnegut and it really shows.
There's a maddening amount of descriptive detail about trivial objects and people who have little or nothing to do with the story and don't add much to the atmosphere either. The characters aren't particularly compelling to begin with and even less so after they have their memories erased and for all intents and purposes become new characters mid-way through the novel (who does that?). The prose isn't terrible, but it's not great either, and while the ending is somewhat clever, it's not clever enough to be such a great punchline to save the story. And frankly, it's an emotionally frigid book, and it's this kind of writing that gives science fiction a bad name.
So it goes.
But that's ok. In fact, it's kind of interesting to read an author's catalog and see how their work changes over time. From that perspective, The Sirens of Titan was a fantastic read because you can see how clearly it functions as a prototype for Slaughterhouse-Five. Both novels feature characters who live in multiple times and places at once. The prismatic Tralfamadorians that appear in Slaughterhouse also show up in a slightly more pathetic form in Sirens. Even some of Vonnegut's interest in how religions are formed and why, which is so central to the plot of Cat's Cradle, appears in Sirens as well, if much more clumsily so.
But as a young novelist, Vonnegut clearly didn't yet have the technical or artistic experience to do these ideas justice - but he didn't dump them either. Basically, Sirens is a practice novel that clearly evolved into Slaughterhouse, which is easily one of the greatest American novels ever written (yes, even if it's science fiction).
And it isn't that a comforting thought? That just because you didn't manage to get your ideas quite right in your first novel, it doesn't mean you can't give them another go in your second?
It sure takes the pressure off anyway.
Sirens of Titan, did you read it? Did you like it? Or did you get the sense of an amateur on his way to greatness?
I had so many blog posts planned prior to the holidays, but in retrospect, I don't know how I thought I would have the time to write them. December just gets busy, but at least it's busy seeing people we love. This year my husband and I did what I like to call the "I-95" Christmas, which is a trek up to DC/MD, then CT, and back to DC/MD for a few days before returning home to NC again. Basically, we drove a total of 20+ hours on I-95, which is the major highway of the East Coast, running all the way from New England to Florida. It's about as exciting as you're probably imagining (in other words, not at all). But it's the only way to see all the family.
On top of that, we take the dog and cats with us, so it feels a bit like a traveling circus. One of these days, we're going to make enough money to hire a good pet-sitter, but as of now we tend to exchange pet-sitting favors with friends. That system works well until everyone leaves for the holidays...then it's a mad circular dash of "Can you watch my cat?"
Anyway, despite all the driving and celebrations with family and pets, I did manage to finish the book I was reading - Ringworld by Larry Niven. This is a classic science fiction story that I've seen floating around my parents' house since I was a little girl (for other recent reviews of classic sci-fiction novels, you should definitely check out the blog, Thank the Maker). I think my Dad periodically re-read Ringworld over the years, so I was familiar with the book's cover, but not the story itself. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I borrowed it from him over Thanksgiving.
Essentially, Ringworld is a story about a mixed group of humans and aliens that explore a strange artifact in space - the Ringworld - an enormous ring structure that circles a distant star at the scale of a planet's orbit. The interior of the ring that faces the sun contains an earth-like surface, but of much larger area. The main protagonist, the earthling Louis Wu, has a lot to say about just how hard it is to conceptualize the Ringworld's scale. When you're standing on it, there's no horizon since the ground essentially curves "up," resulting in the illusion that you are standing beneath an inconceivably large arch.
While exploring this strange artifact, the heroes end up crash-landing on the surface and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to leave again. What they find is a decayed civilization of strangely human people. Most of the story is trying to understand the mystery of who made the Ringworld, how it fell, and why.
This was one of those books I nearly gave up on several times, because I found the two human characters fairly annoying and undeveloped, but then each chapter would lure me in again with an interesting idea. Prismatic sunflowers. Floating castles. Artificial mountains. And I'm a total sucker for a story about ancient advanced civilizations. I also really enjoyed the two alien characters, Speaker to Animals and Nessus, because Niven did a great job of fleshing out their biology and inserting them into the context of a millennia-long galactic history. The world-building was pretty interesting, I guess is how I would sum up this book.
But although I enjoyed the broad scale of the story, I really struggled with how women were treated and described, which I think is just an unfortunate consequence of when the book was written (late sixties, published in 1970). There were only two women in the story and one of them is chosen to join the adventure because she's "lucky." That's literally her only quality - she's inhumanly lucky (although there's continuous debate about it). It's such a passive character trait, and it would manifest as her doing something stupid or ditzy, yet surviving anyhow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Then the remaining female character is quite literally a whore, and that's it. She has no other defining features or qualities.
So in the cast of Ringworld, you have a self-important man, two somewhat interesting aliens (one a dangerous tiger-like creature, and the other a cowardly, yet insane tripod "puppeteer"), a lucky ditz, and a bald whore. It's a good thing Niven's world-building is so strong, because he doesn't have much of a sense for character, which I think is a criticism you can apply to a lot of classic science fiction. It's definitely one of the main reasons I've often struggled to enjoy it.
Over the break, I found the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, at my parents' place and I very nearly picked it up, because after finishing the first book, I did sort of want to know more about who made the Ringworld. But I need characters I can "inhabit" to enjoy a story, and mysteries alone will only occupy my interest for so long (that's my main issue with the Harry Potter books). So I left the sequel on the shelf, though who knows, maybe I'll read it in the future.
In summary, Ringworld was good, but not great. I think it's worth reading if you're interested in science fiction as a genre and in its history, or if you want to try some "hard" science fiction that doesn't completely ignore characters, but be warned, they're nothing special.
Have you been reading any classic science fiction lately? I'd love to hear about it in the comments :)
Full disclosure: I'm a bit of a closet nerd.
Around middle school, I figured out real quick that it wasn't "cool" to like science fiction or comic books. And god help you if you publicly declared your love of anime.
Of course, I loved all of those things, but I kept a lid on it. I went to a small school with only about 30 kids in my entire grade, so I never felt comfortable alienating myself over my entertainment choices. I was able to alienate myself just fine by doing dumb shit like wearing turtle necks beneath my basketball uniform, stressing out over getting straight A's, and passionately arguing against the Bush administration within a primarily Republican student population. But I wasn't going to add my devotion to Toonami and the graphic novel section of the Barnes & Noble to the list of reasons why no one ever asked me out on a date.
So I was a lonely nerd. I had a few friends who were more open about their geek-interests, but I could barely bring myself to admit even to them that I liked Dragon Ball Z too. I don't know why, I guess I'm fairly conformist in public, though in private I'm all about my own thing. It probably has something to do with being an introvert.
Anyway, all of this is only to say that while I have a pretty extensive comic book collection (not as much as I would like - you know, money), particularly manga, and I'm a HUGE Miyazaki nerd, and I love Star Wars, and video games. and action figures - I've never been to a comic book or science fiction convention.
I've always wanted to! But I always find out about them too late, typically the week after (I'm terrible at finding fun things to do, it's one of the biggest things I wish I could change about myself).
Thankfully, my husband is just the opposite, and when he heard about the North Carolina Comicon, he made sure I knew about it straight away. I bought tickets like 10 minutes after he told me.
So this past weekend we went to NC Comicon and had such a blast. It was like, FINALLY, I get to hang out in public with my people! We didn't cosplay, but I had a really good time checking out everyone else's costumes. They were awesome. Especially the kids who got into it with their entire family. That's my idea of heaven. I didn't take any pictures because I was too in the moment.
NC Comicon takes place in downtown Durham at the Marriott convention center and Carolina Theatre, which is a great location. We got lunch at the ramen noodle shop, Dashi, a block or two away (always delicious), and then spent the rest of the day listening to panels, buying comic books and nerd gear, and catching a movie at the ComiQuest Film Festival. Check out our haul:
I'm really excited to read that history of manga book. I just finished Bitch Planet, and it was really, really good. I'm definitely going to get the next volume. I'd never heard about it before, but while I was looking around at one booth, a woman walked by me and pointed at Bitch Planet on the table. I took her recommendation and bought it. Such a good choice. It's set in a future where the patriarchy has ever legal right to send "non-compliant" women an off-world penal colony, i.e., Bitch Planet. Seriously, if you consider yourself a non-compliant woman, you should check this comic out.
Meanwhile, my husband went a little crazy with the Conan mags.
My favorite panels? Definitely the fanfiction and vintage 80's toy talks. I have to admit, if I had one criticism of NC Comicon, it's that they could have used moderators for a lot of their panels, which weren't super professional. But the fanfiction and vintage toy talks were really great. I used to be a big reader and writer of fanfiction, and kind of outgrew it, but it was interesting to hear how it's developed over the past few years and what kind of issues the writers deal with these days. I might devote a post to that topic next week. The vintage toy talk hosted by Zack Smith of Indy Week was just plain fun. Took me right back to the days of playing at my babysitter's house with her sons and their He-Man action figures.
Anyway, I just wanted to say that this what I have been missing in my geekdom - community. I'm at an age (30!) where I just don't care what other people think of me anymore, or I care a lot less. The benefits of getting old, I guess.
I'd like to go to more conventions, probably more science fiction focused (just because I'm more into that genre than I'm into super heroes). And I'd like to keep going with my husband, because it was really fun to nerd out with him. We have different interests (he loves horror and weird tales, I'm into anime/manga and all kinds of science fiction), but there's enough of a crossover for us both to enjoy.
Have you ever been to a convention? Wasn't it amazing to get nerdy without feeling judged?
So it took me a week or so, but I finally found a TV show on the internet that I really enjoyed:
It's on Amazon Prime, and while it isn't perfect (there's a plot hole or two), it's still pretty damn good. It's set on a remote Norwegian island in the arctic in a small community of people who are rocked after a gory murder takes place, which I suppose makes this series Nordic Noir. But what starts off as a standard police procedural gets way weird and eventually crosses genres into horror, with a touch of science fiction.
Obviously, the setting is cool in it of itself (much of it was filmed in Iceland), and the mystery/horror element is also great, but the show really shines with its characters. I got particularly interested in the sheriff, who has so many different relationships with people on the island that we get a nice multi-faceted perspective of him (could that be used as a writing technique, maybe?). I really enjoyed how Richard Dormer played him. The investigator, DCI Morton, was also fun as a sort of Sherlock Holmes archetype, played by Stanley Tucci, who's always excellent.
Anyway, I thought I would recommend Fortitude because it's one of the better TV shows I've seen in a while. I finished it yesterday, and I can't stop thinking about it, which is usually a sign of good story. I hear there's a season 2 coming out next year, and I hope it's as good (though my expectations for season 2 of anything these days is fairly low).
Let me know if you have any Amazon Prime recommendations. I would love to hear them. I also enjoyed the show Fleabag, especially since it focuses on a female friendship, which you almost NEVER see on TV. But other than that, I haven't found a lot.
Of course, with NaNoWriMo upon us, any TV recommendations are going have to wait until December anyway. But when December rolls around and you have some more time (if you're participating in NaNoWriMo), you should definitely check out Fortitude. It's binge-able, but not compulsive. Just a really nicely balanced show.
Have you seen Stranger Things yet?
If you haven't, maybe you should click over to Netflix and get started on that. I'll wait.
Stranger Things is a Netflix original series, which is like a cross between classic Spielberg movies (e.g., E.T., Goonies, and Poltergeist), Resident Evil, and a dash of Stephen King (who also recommends it). It's the tv show/movie I've been wishing someone would make for the last 15 years.
It's set in the eighties and totally nails that vibe. Do you remember flying around on your bike, feeling like you were the king of your neighborhood? This show is basically built on that premise.
Mind you, It's not perfect, and if I had one criticism it's that it sometimes strayed from homage to outright ripoff, but it's not a huge issue and I wasn't put off by it. There's a fine line between acknowledging your influences and plagiarizing, and I think Stranger Things pulled it off.
So if you like sci-fi, and you enjoy old Spielberg movies, seriously, do yourself a favor and get started on Stranger Things.
I've been struggling to finish my latest Aubrey/Maturin book (it's been a total slog) and Stranger Things was such a good reminder that I should pick up a fun sci-fi novel next. I deserve it.
You're in luck kids! I've got three more short stories I'd like to recommend. All three are science fiction/fantasy and all three are really good. Two of the three I listened to via the excellent Fantasy Scroll podcast. If you're not listening to your short stories via podcasts, you may want to give it a try. It's a nice change-up from endless NPR in the car.
(How to listen to podcasts: download or stream them directly onto your phone using the Podcast app if you have an iphone, or the Stitcher app if you have an android phone. It's easier than it looks. Use the search function in the app to find the podcast and then either subscribe or select which episode you want to listen to. Just think of it as on-demand radio.)
Hand of God by Erika Satifka, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
Some years ago, a massive hand appeared over a small town. It hovers there, doing nothing, yet it blocks out most of the sunlight and isolates the citizens from everything. Sounds weird. It is, but I think it works because the premise is cleverly balanced with the hyper-familiar as well: families, school, bullies, bikes. What happens to this Mayberry-esque town under the hand of god? It involves mushrooms, drugs, survivalism, and monsters. Loved it. So, so weird, yet you don't question what's happening. You're just like, oooh, tell me more about the little girl's drugs.
When the Dead are Indexed by Gary Emmette Chandler, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
This story is about a guy who goes to a museum exhibit. It's set in a future where there's a superior race of people, called the "SHI," which stands for "super high intelligence," and it's the SHI who have put on this exhibit. The narrator is not an SHI. He's just a normal guy, very humble, but excited to see the show. Unfortunately, he finds it completely disappointing. It's a little hard to explain this story because it depends almost completely on the narrator's arc: how his perspective of the SHI and himself changes after experiencing the exhibit. It's a great example of using narrative voice. I also liked the ending.
Broken-Winged Love by Naru Dames Sundar, Strange Horizons
A mother dragon hatches an egg and finds that her baby has a birth defect. Although she cares for the child, protects it from harm and harassment, she seems herself disgusted by the thing, repeatedly saying,"I didn't love my baby." This mantra keeps the story from getting soft or sentimental and provides instead a character study of a mother doing everything right even as she apparently feels no love for her offspring. Is she lying? Is she telling us the truth? Her offspring seems to feel love; clearly reciprocates that love. But maybe, she was only doing what he needed, regardless of what she felt. A sad, sweet story about the complexity of being a mother.
Hope you enjoy these!
I was listening to This American Life (one of my favorite radio shows/podcasts) on the car ride into work this morning, and in it they briefly interviewed a forensics expert about some evidence related to the assassination of the Israeli prime minister, Rabin. It was a very interesting story about conspiracy theories, but one thing that struck me was the description of the forensic expert's home lab. He was a ballistics specialist and so had his own microscope, trace analysis tests, firing range, tissue simulant - the works, all in the comfort of his own home in Arizona. Sounds like he's quite in demand for his expertise, so with that comes some money that I'm sure helped him to build his own lab and work independently.
In the phenomenal book, A Wrinkle in Time, you may remember that Meg's mother, Mrs. Murry also had a lab in their home. It was located in an old stone dairy that was connected to their house, if I recall. I believe she was a molecular biologist? If I were at home I would be able to check my copy. Anyway, the joke was that Mrs. Murry would cook for her family (mostly stews) using a Bunsen burner in her lab, I guess so she could work at the same time. Of course, that's a huge safety no-no (food and labs do not mix), but that's ok. It's just science fiction.
Until I started working in science, I'd never thought twice about Mrs. Murry's home lab, but now, oh man, that would be the dream, particularly as a woman. To do science at home and be able to take care of your family? That would be nice.
I thought Mrs. Murry's lab was just fiction. You have no idea how expensive it is to do research. The equipment usually costs at least $50,000. Often exceeding $100,000, say for a particularly nice microscope. The supplies cost several thousand dollars a month, as well. But I guess it's not total fiction if that forensics expert had a home lab too.
Anyway, just a fantasy of mine. A lab in a farm house, out in the country with lots of space for my dogs or maybe kids to play. Lovely.
Another week in the books! Unfortunately, my husband is going out of town for a week to attend a conference so I'll be all by my lonesome this weekend. Guess I'll use the time to clean up my garden for Fall and work on my chemistry book (which is coming along nicely).
Hope you all have a great weekend planned with as little cleaning and as much fun and creative time as possible. Meanwhile, here are some reading links to get you through the rest of today. Enjoy!
Frodo, most meh character ever? (Tor)
This November, it's all about NaNoWriMo. But did you know there's a summer version as well? I didn't. (Fantasy Faction)
This is what Haruki Murakami's desk and office look like. Here's mine. I am desperately wanting a better chair. The one I have is"ergonomic," (it's not, it hurts my shins), from the 80's, and used to belong to my parents. What's your writing desk like? I hope you at least have a good chair. (The Guardian)
The science fiction and fantasy books that converted these writers to the genre. I think it's interesting how many people cited the Song of the Lioness Quartet and McCaffrey's Pern novels. Also, how many of these writers attributed their love of science fiction and fantasy to their parents' library, which was definitely the case for me. (SF Signal)
"What [characters] choose to do is going to create the plot. Why they choose to do it will create the stakes." Good point. (Janice Hardy)
Have you heard about this unusual star which has a mass of unidentified objects orbiting it? There could be plenty of natural explanations (comets, debris from a massive impact)...or maybe its evidence of an alien civilization? Ehhhh, doubtful. (The Atlantic)
What was Bill Gates's first job? Gates is one of those people whom we made fun of a lot when I was a kid (for creating the horrible Windows OS), but now I sort of love him in the way I love Bill Clinton. Both of them represent an era to me that is deeply evocative of my childhood in the 90's. So excuse me if I irrationally fangirl. (The Atlantic)
Add "paleo-sleeping" to the list of pseudoscience? I think maybe we should stop assuming that all paleo-cultures and lifestyles were uniformly alike, and therefore we should stop making health recommendations based on questionably sourced information. (The Atlantic)
A quick post.
I slush read for a science fiction and fantasy magazine (I'm not going to say which) and I've been noticing some reoccurring patterns in the short stories I read that tend to get rejected. I wanted to share a few of those problematic themes I keep seeing. Maybe this will help you get published? I figure it can't hurt.
So here they are, things I think you should avoid in your stories so you can avoid getting rejected:
1) Your protagonist dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by suicide.
2) Everyone dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by mass-suicide or mass-murder.
3) Your characters have hard made-up names (i.e. Hyiliawpha, or Wjusta), particularly if there are a lot of characters. I don't think it's a coincidence that the characters in Game of Thrones tend to have modern derived names (i.e. Joffrey vs Jeffrey/Geoffrey, Margaery vs Margery, Jon vs Jon). It helps the reader keep track of so many people.
4) The Apocalypse has happened and there's no hope for the protagonist. I think we amateur writers (myself very much included) tend to confuse emotional depth with despair. To be honest, despair is really not that much fun to read. I mean, where do you go with it? I'm not saying there's never been a great story about the end of the world, but I feel like the good ones rarely start at the end (Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the only example I can think of that contradicts this "rule.")
5) The speculative elements of the story are marginal. This rule really only applies to genre submissions. Here's an example: if your story is about a family in some kind of conflict, and the family happens to have a magic broom that sweeps the house while they fight, but the broom has basically nothing to do with the characters or the story, then I'd say there's not enough speculative elements to warrant publication in a science fiction or fantasy magazine. This comes up a lot in the stories I read for the magazine.
Anyway, I hope these are of some help to you. I'm not going to say these are hard and fast rules; a lot of it depends on execution. But I've yet to read a story I liked where the character committed suicide (you'd be surprised how often that comes up in these submissions).
One of the unfortunate parts of short stories is that it's harder to remember the author's name afterwards. When you've been reading a book for a few weeks, you've had more time to commit the author to memory. But when you finish a short story in less than an hour, it's natural to instantly forget who wrote it - even if you happened to love the work. That's kind of hard on talented short story writers who've put in the effort and written something brilliant...only to be forgotten? How can they build on that success if we can't find ways to even remember their names?
I've been listening to some great short stories lately on various science fiction and fantasy podcasts, and I wanted to share them with you so we can spread the word about these talented writers (and to help me to remember their names so I can keep an eye out for their next publications). In no particular order, here are three recent short stories that I really enjoyed and links to the podcast and written versions at their respective magazines.
Werewolf Loves Mermaid by Heather Lindsley (Lightspeed Magazine)
I loved the simplicity of this story. What happens when a werewolf and a mermaid fall in love? It sounds silly, but these non-human characters seemed so familiar and natural. These could be your friends, just falling in love, becoming a serious item, living out their years together - they just happen to be supernatural creatures. I think it was the strength of the writing that made this story work. In lesser hands, it would have been goofy, but Lindsley's got the touch and even pulls off some humor.
The Adjunct by Patricia S. Browne (Fantasy Scroll Magazine)
Maybe it's my academic background, but I could very much identify with this story in which an underemployed adjunct professor takes a job teaching an anatomy course to the demons in hell. Again, sounds silly, but you read it and you believe it. It's also a really good example of how to use specific, concrete detail (in this case, parts of the body), without getting bogged down in purple prose. Loved the ending too.
The Algebra of Events by Elizabeth Bourne (Clarkesworld Magazine)
This one is from the perspective of an alien aboard a colony ship that crash lands on a strange planet that is unfortunately inhospitable to the aliens' fluid body forms. It was the line, "I am 7.8% solid with grief," that sold me on the story. I liked the idea that different life forms might experience emotions in physically very different ways from us, even if it's more or less the same set of feelings. Very novel. Check it out, it really is quite compelling and sad. One note though, I don't love the production values on the Clarkesworld podcast. They use this weird audio filter to make it sound more futuristic, but it only makes it harder to understand the narrator, especially if there are other interfering noises, like the car engine or rain on the windshield. Maybe read the text version instead.
I hope you'll check these stories out and enjoy. Funny how they all turned out to be from women writers, totally random choice on my part :)