Thursday, December 30, 2010

Catching up for 2010: Books

The second in my woeful catch-up posts. Still hoping for better in 2011.

The Great Science Fiction Stories 2 (1940)

Once again the collection of the best of a year runs against the stereotype of what constitutes speculative fiction. Beautiful women and fast spaceships need not apply, as this collection of authors use speculative fiction to explore (pardon the cliché) the human condition from unearthly points of view. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection, "It" by Theodore Sturgeon, leans more towards horror and appears to set up the tropes that later lesser horror works follow.I was also pleased to finally read the story that is the inspiration for perhaps my favorite SF film: "Farewell to the Master" is a poignantly different story from the one told in The Day the Earth Stood Still but is still very strong and readable today.

One of the things I find most interesting is the authors of whom I had never heard before picking up the collection—Willard Hawkins, Robert Arthur, Oscar Friend, and the author of "Master," Harry Bates. Some of these authors are so obscure that Asimov's generally obsequious commentaries are short as he recounts that he doesn't really have any memories of the author in question at all. Such lack of recollection is a pleasing divergence from his longer commentaries. And still, it would be lovely if those introductions, either by Asimov or co-editor Martin Greenberg, told us how the story being introduced made the cut, what makes them the best of that year.

One mystery is solved, left over from the first volume: Heinlein's stories are not included because "arrangements for their use could not be made." I really would like to find an account of this circumstance, since Greatest SF Stories follows this announcement by pointing the reader to Heinlein's own collection, The Past Through Tomorrow, published over a decade earlier. I can't help but feel that Asimov's commentary in the previous volume soured the opportunity to include Heinlein in future volumes.

By and large this is a very good read with no real clunkers. The stories may not have aged very well in some cases—the humor sometimes appears trite and a little sophomoric on occasion—but any reader really interested in the history of the genre should be fascinated by the collection of known and unknown.

The Best of Leigh Brackett

In the mid-70s, Ballantine published what they referred to as the Classic Library of Science Fiction, an assortment of nearly 20 collections of the best of various writers. Today we know very little about these authors beyond the current reprinting work being taken on by Planet Stories/Paizo Publishing. I felt if I was going to increase my knowledge with the best of various years, I could also look at the best of specific authors, including some whose names I know but about whose work I know very little. There's even one author collected, Raymond Z. Gallun, about whom I know absolutely nothing. The first volume of this series that I was able to find contains the best work of Leigh Brackett, introduced by her husband Edmond Hamilton )which seems only fair since Brackett introduces the volume about Hamilton).

I already had a feel for Brackett because of the aforementioned reprints from Planet Stories, and the stories in this volume are mostly the same kind of thing. I've had trouble in other blog entries explaining the odd feeling I get from most of Brackett's writing, but I discovered that she has done a good job of describing it herself in her own "The Jewel of Bas":

He wasn't a human, attached to a normal human world. He moved in a strange land of gods and demons, here everything was as mad as a drunkard's nightmare, and [his wife] was the only thing that held him at all to the memory of a life wherein men and women fought and laughed and loved.

I've speculated before that Brackett's work owes more than a little debt to the Weird Tales pulps, using settings and situations where the mortal characters can't begin to know the ancient and mysterious powers which they go up against. And that inability to know is reflected in the narration, whereby the reader doesn't really get to fully understand the events and characters all around him. Despite the difficulty that such not-knowing would present to the enjoyment of the stories, Brackett shows her craft extremely well. Her pieces are moody and atmospheric, sucking the reader in just as they do the protagonists, wrapping things up in auras of weird until the protagonist and reader feel lucky to survive at the end.

One of the more accessible stories, "The Woman from Altair" still reflects the awesome ignorance humans have about what is Out There. In this story, the scion of the leading spacefaring and industrialist family returns to Earth with a bride from a previously undiscovered planet, which shocks not only his family but all of Earth. Tragedy strikes his family again and again, and his overlooked brother tries to figure out what is happening, only to discover just how poorly humans actually try to understand. In this way, "The Woman from Altair" presages Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and the tragic consequences of mistakenly believing that one can understand an alien culture in the matter of a few days (or even years, in the case of Russell).

Of course there is also an Eric John Stark story, "Enchantress of Venus", which just more firmly places Stark in my mind as one of the great pulp heroes in the genre, which unfortunately no one remembers any more beyond Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

By and large there is not a single miscue in this collection, but while the stories are good and passionately told, it is still slow going because the very weirdness of them impedes moving fast. I would recommend this book to the reader with, again, an interest in the history of the genre and the time to appreciate that history as well as the changes in it as it has evolved over the last century.

Surface Detail

I think it may be generally said that Iain Banks's science fiction novels are filled with big ideas, playing around with the tropes and expectations of space opera. The sticking point is that often those big ideas are just tossed out for inspection and never really developed beyond the epiphanic "that's cool" stage. Banks's earlier novels made up for this lack of development with fascinating characters and settings and skilled storytelling, especially when it comes to narration. Over time, either Banks has begun to rely too much on the "gee whiz" factor or my palate has begun desensitized to what he does, perhaps because other writers have begun to borrow from him. Surface Detail falls neatly into this description: the general idea is just cooler than cool, but the story that is told around it seems somewhat underdeveloped, leaving the feeling that something is lacking, especially in comparison to other Banks works.

Banks's Culture novels, the series of which Surface Detail is the latest entry, already posits the Singularity having occurred, and AIs being given as much power and responsibility as people. The human body is infinitely adaptable and we have relations with several other galactic civilizations. Banks merrily pokes fun at the monolith of galactic culture—the touchstone of early space opera was that galactic empires were serious and deadly stuff, something awesome to aspire to, Banks however posits that such cultures would have foibles and idiosyncrasies, just more of them and probably to a greater scale than what exists in national politics today. Fortunately, Banks remains somewhat human-centric, since our own Culture's primary foible seems to be the inability to take itself (or anything for that matter) very seriously, and thus is both the object of both admiration and scorn of other galactic powers.

Within this setting, Surface Detail ponders the now-accepted Singularity trope of uploading the entire personality and memory of individuals into massive simulations. The technology of Banks's future is so advanced that such downloading (and also the uploading of personalities into new bodies) is de rigeur, and those societies that believe in hell now have the ability to create electronic simulations of it to torment the immortal reproductions of its citizens. The more liberal-minded societies find such a practice utterly immoral and a galactic war breaks out over the practice and belief in hell. Fortunately, the parties involved are advanced enough to not have a Real war, and instead have a Virtual one, using the same personality download technology to use soldiers to fight over and over in battles with ultimate victory determining the continued existence of these hells.

It being Banks, there are side-stories, filled with bizarre personalities but with mostly tangential ties to the idea of a war for hell. Unfortunately those stories have more development than the central war story. Those side stories further define and explicate the galactic milieu and the societies within it, and upon recollection, I realize that Surface Detail and indeed a lot of Banks's later SF, can be read as a travelogue to his future rather than wrestling with the ideas he constantly throws out to his readers.

Nonetheless, Surface Detail is fun and has some hysterically black comic moments, as well as more "gee whiz" moments than most authors create in a lifetime. It is for those big ideas that I've come to read Banks, as well as the characters that do get most fully fleshed out. Banks is also a master of the small scene: interaction between individuals is usually handled quite craftily and enjoyably. You just can't come to Banks and expect a straight line to anywhere.

Best Served Cold

I've written in the past about Joe Abercrombie's genre-bending in his First Law trilogy. Best Served Cold is a standalone novel set in the same world as the First Law, and the genre-bending continues. The expectations most readers have for epic fantasy are torn to shreds by Best Served Cold, as Abercrombie inserts real people into a story usually told about archetypes of high moral character.

Monzcarro Murcatto has risen from a lowly farmer to the leadership of the best mercenary army in her world, the Thousand Swords. Most of her service has been to Duke Orso as he tries to unite separate countries into a single empire, but eventually Orso realizes that Monza is a greater hero to his people than he ever will be. So he attempts to assassinate her by throwing her, with her brother, over the side of a mountain. While her brother dies, Monza survives and, of course desire revenge upon the Duke and those who helped him.

What follows is a story that sets up the expectations of the epic revenge story, with duels and precise killings of the co-conspirators, but ends up being a bloody free-for-all that changes the history of that part of Abercrombie's world. None of the people that Monza hires are particularly trustworthy and none of them are so perfect at their tasks that they are automatically danger-free. And lots of people dies, lots and lots. Like his earlier First Law story, most of the characters in Best Served Cold are not very likable, though they are fully realized and utterly believable. In fact, the most likable, trustworthy character—ironically named Friendly—is a mass murderer who would prefer to be back in prison, where the world is orderly, rather than the chaos of the outside world.

The story is so readable exactly because we want to see how the dysfunctional band works to enact their revenge, despite growing tensions between them all. And Abercrombie's plot gives them opportunity after opportunity to practice their various crafts as well as prove they can be functional. Abercrombie also offers plot twists galore as new characters are introduced who influence the decisions and plots of Monza's band of killers. And did I mention that lots of people die, in horrific realistic fashion? Eventually battles are fought, and Monza uses them to work out her revenge fantasies. The action is breakneck and relentless and just a whole lot of fun.

Best Served Cold is one of my favorite books of this past year. I look forward to the new series Abercrombie is starting. I cannot recommend this book enough, though you may hate me for it while you just gape at the events that Abercrombie relates.

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