March 4, 2016

February Reading Recap

I spent more of February reading than I really intended, because there was too much good stuff to read! I enthusiastically recommend all of these, which include two of the books I've been anticipating and two by authors who will be honored at FOGcon, coming up March 11-13.

→ Ted Chiang has famously published just 15 stories during his 25-year career, but his work has earned about the same number of major speculative fiction awards. STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS collects his first eight stories, and they're all incredible. Each has a fascinating, unexpected premise unlike anything else in the collection, and that premise develops through fascinating, unexpected plot turns and careful prose. The varied subjects imagined by Chiang include the Tower of Babel, superhuman intelligence, golems, mathematical abstractions, and beauty.

One concept he returns to several times -- and it's a great one -- is the idea of taking some historical scientific or religious theory and constructing a logical world in which it's true. (I'm linking to online versions of the stories, but all have wonky formatting, so you should really get the collection.) In "Tower of Babylon", the tower to the vault of heaven is a reality, and after generations of construction, that barrier in the sky has been reached. The story details all the nearly plausible logistics of building a tower with technology available in ancient times, and every development in the story is a delightful surprise. "Seventy-Two Letters" establishes a version of Victorian England in which two beliefs from the past are scientific realities. These intriguing pieces of worldbuilding seem initially unconnected, but by the end of the story, they combine into a brilliant conclusion.

A couple of other standouts from the collection involve relationships affected by shocking discoveries. In "Division by Zero", a marriage falls apart after a mathematical breakthrough. "Story of Your Life" is a heartbreaking family drama revolving around alien linguistics and another concept I can't reveal that makes it even more relevant to my reading interests. This last story is currently being made into a movie. To echo Chiang himself, I hope it's good!

Ted Chiang will be an honored guest at FOGcon, and I can't wait to hear him discuss his stories and ideas.

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY by Matt Ruff: Atticus is an avid science fiction reader who's recently back from serving in Korea. After several unpleasant months working in the Jim Crow South, he's eager to return home to Chicago, where his beloved uncle, a fellow genre reader, runs an agency for black travelers and publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Atticus has a more strained relationship with his father, but when his dad mysteriously vanishes, Atticus sets out to find him. Accompanied by his uncle and a childhood friend with a lot more survival skills than the men expect of her, Atticus journeys to an isolated Massachusetts town in a dangerous sundown county. There they discover a shady group of white men, practitioners of an ancient form of magic, who aim to enlist Atticus for nefarious purposes.

The book is structured as a series of thrilling tales, with a perfect pulp cover to match. Each section focuses on a different member of the story's two central families as they grapple with an obstacle, like the new homeowner fighting off attacks from both white neighbors and a poltergeist. At first the connections between the problems are unclear, but the threads cleverly come together to reveal the vast conspiracy threatening Atticus. I enjoyed how this structure provided a chance to spend time with each character as they followed their passions and wrestled personal demons, and I loved seeing how each new piece of the puzzle fell into place.

This novel is full of horrors. Some take a supernatural form, running the gamut from possessed doll to tentacled monster. Others manifest as segregation, discriminatory laws, and other forms of racism. Ruff deftly combines the two types in a way that never seems clunky or preachy, with each abomination an essential part of the plot. Detailed research into the 1950s and earlier eras enriches the story, as do a delightful cast, imaginative plot developments, and characteristic Ruffian wit. LOVECRAFT COUNTRY delivered everything I was hoping for from one of my favorite authors!

THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee: Lilliet Berne, a celebrated soprano in 1882 Paris, is approached by a writer who hopes she'll originate a role in his new opera. The offer is thrilling, yet bewildering, because the story he's written is based upon details of Lilliet's own life, long-kept secrets that only a few people know. As she sets out to uncover the mystery of who betrayed her, the reader learns of her remarkable past and the many times she remade herself.

This is a dense historical novel with a suspenseful and intricate plot. Lilliet's story involves scandal, assumed identity, heartbreak, and a breathtaking array of other misfortunes. She is used and manipulated by many in the course of her life, and she becomes a skilled manipulator herself, surviving by her wits and effective deployment of her womanly charms. I was always rooting for Lilliet, but she's a flawed and frustrating character at times, which grounds the novel in reality even during the most operatic plot twists.

Chee clearly did an immense amount of research for this book, and the story benefits from a lot of detail, including descriptions of the many dresses that play an important role. I was fascinated by the opportunity to go deep inside the worlds of opera singers, circus troupes, prostitutes, and royalty, in a time period I knew nothing about. A number of real historical figures appear in the novel -- even more than I realized until the author's note at the end. The scope and complexity of this story is truly impressive, and it's an amazing read.

→ In the preface to BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES, Octavia Butler states, "The truth is, I hate short story writing." While Butler considered herself primarily a novelist, this excellent collection demonstrates her skill at imagining story-sized premises and crafting them into surprising and satisfying brief tales.

Two of the stories that affected me most involve difficult symbiotic relationships between humans and aliens. In "Bloodchild", humans have traveled to another planet, where the insect-like inhabitants discover they're a useful source of heat and other life-sustaining properties, leading to the development of a new relationship system. The even more alien extraterrestrials in "Amnesty" have colonized earth, and the story focuses on the novel form of language they use to communicate with humans. Both stories offer a tense, gradual reveal of the unusual situations the protagonists and their societies live with, and they're both fascinating. So is "Speech Sounds", the brutal story of a world where people have lost the ability to speak.

The collection also contains two inspiring essays about writing. "Positive Obsession" charts Butler's journey as a writer, from scribbling stories in notebooks as a child to collecting rejection slips to publishing and finding success as the only black woman in science fiction at the time. "Furor Scribendi" is advice for those hoping to write for publication, most importantly: "Persist."

I'm glad I persisted with Butler and tried another one of her works, since I liked this much better than PARABLE OF THE SOWER. It will be great to talk about her work at FOGcon, where her career will be celebrated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At io9, Charlie Jane Anders ponders What It Means To Be a Science Fiction Writer in the Early 21st Century: "People desperately want upbeat future scenarios that feel real and not pie-in-the-sky. The more connected to reality, and the more plausible, the better. But just being willing to believe in a decent future is a massively important act in the early 21st century."

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