Apology; Ann Aguirre: Wanderlust

There’s been mess of foamy-mouthedness around the Science Fiction Writers of America association over the past couple weeks. I won’t link to the petition that jump-started it, but it basically asserts that for the the official bulletin of a professional organization to have editorial standards that avoid hostility to its constituency is an assault on Free Speech. It would be hard to make it through more than a paragraph of the thing without recognizing it for what it really is: another dreary attempt to post a “NO GIRLZ ALOWD” sign on the clubhouse.

So this seems like an opportune time to clarify my position, by way of an apology.

A few years back, I reviewed Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace. I was generally positive, but I was arguably also a bit condescending. I mentioned a “lack of extrapolative rigor” and unscientific “howlers” (I provided one purported example, and, although it’s unspoilery, it’s also not good: there’s no reason space stations shouldn’t adopt a convention that anti-spinward is West).

In the meantime, I’ve since followed @MsAnnAguiree on Twitter, and learned that she (very reasonably) hates it when people say her work isn’t “real” science fiction. And I feel like sniffing about the rigor of the science content is a difference of degree, not of kind. I never wanted to create the impression that the author’s gender influenced the content or tone of the review — but I can see how easy it would be to misconstrue my intent.

For better or worse, I’m a classifier: I can get worked up about the distinctions between tractors and riding mowers. But not all classifications are helpful. When I really thought about it, I realized the line I draw between “science fiction” and “not science fiction” is about the difficulty of maintaining my own personal willing suspension of disbelief. That demarcation is heavily influenced by how much I actually know about the specific discipline of science involved; it’s clearly not actually useful to anyone but me. And the more I’ve thought about it, the worse I’ve felt about that review.

The voice I hear in my head, that sneers “whatever that is, it AIN’T science fiction,” when I think about the importance (or lack thereof) of drawing that line is a real voice. It belongs to someone I worked with years ago. And when I later learned that this coworker had been the kind of a—–e most women wouldn’t voluntarily share an elevator with alone, I was saddened, angered — but I can’t say I was really shocked.

I would rather be on the side of the angels than the a—–es.

So, I apologize, Ann Aguirre, if you happened to see my review and felt patronized or condescended to. I apologize to anyone else who might’ve seen it and thought the author’s gender was in any way relevant to the review.

And here are some of the things I liked about Ann Aguirre’s Wanderlust, the sequel to Grimspace

  • In this series, interstellar travel is dependent on individuals with an ability to control faster-than-light travel, an ability which is exercised at great personal cost. It’s not a wholly original trope, but I feel like it has plenty of life left in it, and Aguirre’s version has some intriguing aspects.
  • The novel exploits a plot device I’m fond of: a decidedly undiplomatic individual forced into a role requiring diplomacy.
  • It also features two gripping sequences that evoke the claustrophobic terror the first Alien movies were so good at.
  • As in a great many stories, some of the romantic tension is the sort that could probably be resolved by people talking things through instead of making assumptions in the absence of clear communication — but Aguirre does an unusually good job of establishing why that clear communication would be so difficult for her characters. And Aguirre also explores how previous relationships relate to present ones in an unusually nuanced way.

I was a bit frustrated with the novel’s non-resolution of key plot elements — it’s definitely a middle act sort of book — but that’s really a complaint about the current publishing practice than about the book per se. And if some elements taxed my willing suspension of disbelief — well, that’s really neither here nor there, is it?

Tim Leong: Super Graphic – A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe

Imagine, if you well, a Venn diagram, with circles for people who:
* like mainstream comic books
* like indie/alternative comic books
* are interested in information design
* like infographics/”chart porn”
* have a sense of whimsy

If you’re in the intersection of all these, you want this book. I don’t think every graphic succeeds — although maybe the impenetrability of the mapping of Marvel superheroes to Marvel superhero teams is deliberate. But I learned quite a few things (mostly about the evolution of the business, there are great charts about acquisition chains and price-point changes). I and laughed a lot. And I literally didn’t put the book down until I’d plowed through the whole thing.

If there’s a sequel, or maybe even just a second edition, it needs a chart about XTC songs and comic book character references. Maybe Sgt. Rock can help.

Andrea Phillips: The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart (so far)

I wouldn’t normally write about a novel that’s half-complete, but I just tore through the available chapters of this serial novel-in-progress like a bag of movie popcorn, and this seems like a great jumping-on-point. I think the overall title does a fantastic job of setting expectations: Smokeheart sails in waters that remind me of Errol Flynn at his swashbucklingest (Captain Blood?), the abundant magic and gleeful camp of The Princess Bride (film version) with maybe a dash of Gideon Defoe’s pomo piratical zaniness.

There’s a real world treasure quest that parallels Smokeheart’s quest, which I’m not into, but which dictates that the chapters each more-or-less have to deliver a clue to the real-world treasure hunters (and hence to Smokeheart). So there’s a bit of repetition to the structure of the chapters, and anyone really allergic to puzzles might want to salt my recommendation. But with that very minor caveat, I’m finding this really delightful so far.

Mur Lafferty: The Shambling Guide to New York City

The Shambling Guide to New York City is an urban fantasy that starts out with an intriguing exploration into how the human world might interact with a Buffy-esque any-myth-system-is-fair-game secret supernatural world. I was aware that the major plot arc doesn’t really get cranking for quite a few chapters, but I didn’t mind, because Lafferty’s world-building had me completely entranced. Once it gets cranking, though, it goes everywhere at breakneck pace. Perhaps the thing that impresses me most is how many tonal shifts the book incorporates while still managing to feel cohesive: it starts out in a light/comic vein, gets substantially darker and more intense, makes an unexpected detour into rather adult territory and culminates with a protracted gonzo, over-the-top magical battle. All this and likable and/or interesting characters, most of whom deviate at least a bit from the standard protag/sidekick/villain molds. I thought it was hoot and a half, and I’m impatient for more.

Chuck Wendig: Blackbirds, Mockingbird

The first time Miriam Black touches you, she can see how/when/where you’re going to die. (The death scenes delivered to the reader usually have an ironic or morbidly slapstick component, kinda like the pre-credit sequences of Six Feet Under; seems Miriam rarely touches people who slip away uneventfully.) When we meet Miriam she’s given up trying to change the deaths she sees (after unsuccessful and traumatic attempts to buck fate) and she’s eking out a sort of living by recording death times and places in a book, and showing up to pick the pockets of the extremely recently deceased. The first novel gets cracking when she touches a guy who, in his death scene, looks over the shoulder of the death coming for him, and says Miriam’s name. And despite herself, Miriam finds herself trying to change the future one more time.

Wendig is tough on his characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, in a way that reminded me of how Charlie Huston is tough on his characters. I knew that there were multiple novels featuring Miriam Black, but I didn’t know that they weren’t prequels, or even novels featuring a posthumous/undead/whatever version of the character. There was definitely plenty of how/will she get out of this suspense.

The Big Bad of the first novel eventually resolved into something a little less interesting than I was hoping for but it didn’t stop me from reading them back-to-back, and the Big Bad of the second book was more satisfying than I expected at first. Now I’m eagerly looking forward to the imminent publication of the third.

Anyone who’s read Wendig’s Twitter or blog will know to expect rampant, exuberant swearing, and there’s also gore by the bucketful. But I wouldn’t call these novels splatterpunk: the vibe is of dark fantasy more than horror, and crucially, although Miriam is pretty nihilistic the novels themselves aren’t.

Mary Jo Pehl: Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals

This book was recommended to me as really uproarious, which I thought oversold it; It was a one-guffaw read for me. It’s a series of pseudo-autobiographical essays, recounted with some verve, but with not a lot to distinguish them from other amusing pseudo-autobiographical essays about mildly dysfunctional upbringings and somewhat stressful employment and dating experiences. I didn’t remember where I know Pehl’s name from until relatively late in the book, when MST3K enters the picture: she played Dr. Pearl Forrester. The skits were never my favorite part of MST3K (I’ve always suspected that they were present as much to bolster MST3K’s ability to use fair use as a defense against copyright infringement as for their intrinsic merit). If I’d made the MST3K connection upfront my expectations might have been exceeded — but then, I might have been disappointed that the show plays such a small role.

Sarah Rees Breenan: The Demon’s Covenant

This didn’t have a surprise to compare with the plot twist in The Demon’s Lexicon, but I thought it was much stronger overall: more satisfying character development, better prose, a plot that’s less reliant on coincidence. Brennan is particularly adept at depicting the emotional messiness of adolescence and burgeoning sexual awareness.

Rachel Lynn Brody (ed.): Hot Mess – Speculative Fiction About Climate Change

The handful of stories in Brody’s collection clearly have an agenda of raising consciousness of and concern about the implications of climate change. Socially or politically motivated art is tricky: it can succeed in communicating its objectives without necessarily exhibiting the general hallmarks of literary merit. In literary terms, I found Hot Mess a mixed bag. These stores don’t always succeed for me even at the propaganda level: a world in which exposure to the sun literally brings instant death is so exaggerated that it almost seems to undercut the urgency of dealing with the real-world problem. The stories that worked best for me generally had a much narrower focus. Eric Sipple’s “She Says Goodbye Tomorrow” looks specifically at what climate change could mean for wine growers, and uses that as a lens to look at the difficulties of nurturing romantic relationships. Although I found its chronology a bit confusing, I thought it was generally successful. RJ Astruc’s “The World Gets Smaller, and Things Get Left Behind,” ponders the fate of Venice’s canals and art; it’s a bit heavy-handed, but I thought it was effective. The editor’s own “Haute Mess” is short and pointed satire about the point at which climate change could threaten our ability to remain a high-tech culture, and her “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom” examines a troubled child coping with repressed grief with the dubious aid of an artificial intelligence against a background of radical climate change. Both were among the strongest entries.

Robin Sloan: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Overall I really liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Precisely observed details of the sort of tech culture I’m well-qualified to comment on the realism of are juxtaposed with a surreal shadow conspiracy, a dash of derring-do, and a hefty, but not overbearing, dose of the metaphysical. The novel explicitly acknowledges the influence of the likes of Murakami by including their works in the titular store, which I thought was a very appropriate touch. The novel sets up a situation that I thought would be difficult to satisfactorily resolve — a sort of is it/isn’t it puzzle where either answer seemed fraught with the risk of cliché, but I thought Sloan really pulled it off.

I do have a few picayune quibbles with the representation of Google. I see several Google employees on a regular basis, enough to know that its portrayal of the company is in important respects less accurate than in the (pretty dreadful) Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson vehicle The Internship. Being “unGoogly” is one of the harshest criticisms Google employees level at one another, and taking food home from the free cafeterias, as one of Sloan’s characters does, is almost a canonical example of “unGoogliness.” It, and a few similarly off notes, really jarred me, although it’s probably of little importance to anyone who doesn’t work there or know people who do.

Also worth mentioning: even beyond the gimmicky but fun use of phosphorescent ink, the book jacket design of the hardcover edition is astoundingly appropriate.

S. S. Taylor: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

I wanted to love this book, and perhaps I didn’t because my expectations were too high. It’s published by an arm of McSweeney’s, and it features steampunk trappings, secret societies, cloak and dagger intrigue, a wide subversive streak, strong female characters, and subtle, but deliberate, I think, allusions to Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Becky, and the fantastic lost worlds of Verne, Burroughs, Doyle, et al — superficially, it sounds like it could have been tailor made for me. I did love Katherine Roy’s precise and evocative illustrations. Some of my dissatisfaction with the book probably accrues to middle grade targeting: I found the treatment of burgeoning romantic tensions decidedly hamfisted, for instance, but maybe it’s an appropriate amount of repetition for the intended audience. I also had suspension of disbelief issues with the world-building. But my biggest problem with it runs deeper: in the children’s books that I loved (and love) best — those by Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis and others — characters ultimately triumph over adversity because of who they fundamentally are. The Expeditioners relies too much for my taste on a school of overcoming obstacles that I also find unsatisfying in adventure games, a Chekhovian sort of problem solving: If a character finds a box with a button on it, there will be a situation requiring the button to be pressed.