It's no secret that I had a great time at FOGcon this year (as well as in 2013, 2012, and 2011), but Secrets were the theme of this year's convention. I attended a bunch of cool panels, many of them related to this theme, including discussions of secret fantasy worlds, books with lying or unreliable narration, and secrets in science. (The karaoke also seemed to be something of a secret this time, with fewer participants than usual, but it was still a highlight for me.)
In preparation for the con, I did a bunch of reading, so I'm going to round up my relevant book reviews here:
→ This year's honored ghost was James Tiptree, Jr., a perfect choice for the Secrets theme, because Tiptree was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon who hid her identity for years at the same time that she was garnering fame in the world of science fiction. I recently raved about one of her collections, WARM WORLDS AND OTHERWISE, and I once again encourage everyone to read these fascinating stories. During the con, I attended an excellent panel discussing Tiptree's life and work.
→ Seanan McGuire was one of the honored guests, and it was cool to experience her in person after frequently encountering her online presence. A few years ago, I read McGuire's Newsflesh trilogy, published under the name Mira Grant, and I had mixed feelings about it. The premise is a lot of fun, the world is well-developed, and the writing isn't very good. I found the books compelling enough that I read all three (though the last one was weaker than the first two), and I wouldn't steer anyone away as long as you set expectations accordingly.
→ The other honored guest was Tim Powers, who I wasn't familiar with before. He's known for writing secret histories, which imagine the fantastical explanations that hide behind history as we know it. I read one of these, THE ANUBIS GATES, and enjoyed some aspects of it, but not all:
Brendan Doyle is an expert on the English Romantic poets who gets the opportunity to travel back in time and meet one of his literary idols. It's supposed to be a brief temporal excursion, but Doyle gets stranded in 1810. As if being stuck in the wrong century, penniless, weren't bad enough, Doyle is pursued by several mysterious enemies who have magic on their side. He has to stay alive, figure out what's going on, and understand whether he can ever return to his own time or if he should get used to life in the 1800s.
There's a lot more to the plot than that: It's a pretty complex story with several different magical elements that tie together eventually but seem unrelated at the start. I liked the cleverness of how things connected, but I wasn't wild about how the story was told. The pacing was too slow, especially at the beginning, and the protagonist wasn't that compelling a character. Because of these problems, I didn't find much reason to care about certain of the plotlines until late in the book. With a different telling, this story could have made for a great novel, but instead it was only okay.
Aside from honored guest reading, I moderated a book club panel that involved a couple of great books I would recommend:
→ THE STARS CHANGE by Mary Anne Mohanraj takes place during a single night on a university planet inhabited by a diverse group of humans and aliens. A missile has been fired at the section of the city where most of the aliens live, and there's the threat of more attacks and even a full-scale war waged by an intolerant faction of humans. The characters we follow come from a range of backgrounds, situations, and species, and they're all thrown together by the looming violence.
Each character gets a turn or two in the spotlight with chapters from their point of view, and these explore not only how the individual reacts to the events of the night but also the basics of their family, love, and sex lives. There's wonderful variety to the lifestyles, with characters in all sorts of relationship configurations, and I would happily have spent many more pages learning more about everybody. This is quite a short novel, but clearly a well-developed universe, and I hope Mohanraj will be writing in this world again.
The author is known as a writer of erotica, and there are numerous sex scenes in this book, though most are fairly brief and not especially explicit. Mohanraj has explained that her original idea for the book was to concentrate on characters jumping into bed upon receiving the news of war, but as she wrote, the story shifted, and sex became less of a focus. I think the final balance is great: This is a sexy book, but it's not a book about sex, it's about people coming together for even more important reasons.
→ SAGA, VOLUME 1 collects the first six issues of the comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I've been wanting to read this for a while and was glad to have an excuse, because while I like comics and graphic novels in theory, I don't tend to make them part of my reading habits.
SAGA opens with a woman giving birth in a garage, assisted only by her husband. She has wings, he has horns, and their skin is different colors. We soon learn that they were soldiers on opposite sides of a galactic war who fell in love and deserted. Now with their newborn daughter, they're on the run from several different factions who are trying to hunt them down and kill them.
As you might imagine with that premise, this is an exciting and action-packed story. It's also touching, funny, and strange. The world of SAGA is full of both science fictional technology and ancient magic. It's populated with a wide range of beings, and there's much oddness that is presented with no explanation, which I enjoyed. I especially liked how the story combines the completely unfamiliar with recognizable, mundane realities such as diapering babies.
The gorgeously drawn, colorful art brings this world to life, and I will definitely be spending more time there. The third volume will be released next week, so this is a good time to get into the series and have plenty available to read.
Next year's FOGcon theme and guests have been announced, and I'm especially looking forward to meeting Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy, which I adore but seem to have never written a comprehensive post about. I'll have to remedy that while eagerly anticipating another wonderful con!
Good Stuff Out There:
→ At Salon, Laura Miller considers the tricky question of what makes a book a classic: "The cliché people most often cite when defining a classic is 'the test of time.' 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (1844) is a lot older than 'Rebecca' (1938), but my completely unempirical gut feeling is that they're of about the same literary quality. Why should the years between their publication dates be the defining factor?"