Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

Ad Astra Was Awesome

This letter opener set was so shiny that I couldn't resist. Curse you, dealers' room!

This letter opener set was so shiny that I couldn’t resist. Curse you, dealers’ room!

What, you want me to go into more detail? Sure.

How about this: Ad Astra 2013 was the second con I ever attended (after starting out with World Fantasy last year), and it was just as good (even better!) than I hoped it would be. The panels were almost universally excellent, the food nearby was good, and the variety of books and other goodies on sale – like this lovely letter opener set that I got on the final day for only twenty-five bucks – was great.

But it was the people who made it the most fun. Case in point: a few hours after Rob and I arrived at the hotel, we were waiting for the elevator to take us to the lobby. As we waited, I noticed another woman standing there who looked strangely familiar, resulting in this:

Me: You look really familiar.

Her: You do too.

Me: Why do you look so familiar?

Man standing next to her (her fiance, it turned out): She used to work for Dragon Lady Comics.

Me: **pauses for a moment, then gasps** Kathryn?

Kathryn: Yeees?

Me: The Margaret Atwood lunch!

Both of us: Eeeeee!!! **we rush in for a hug**

Yes, you read that right. A year and a half after we first met, I randomly ran into one of the other winners of the Toronto Public Library contest who had lunch with Margaret Atwood, all because our hotel rooms were on the same floor. Rob and I spent the rest of the weekend in contact with her and her fiance, touching base and going to panels. We even had dinner together at a buffet restaurant I hadn’t been to since I was a kid. The meal was a lovely mixture of deja vu and giddiness.

Two days later, I had a similar meet-cute as I recognized that one of the people staffing the SFContario registration table was an employment counsellor of mine from five and a half years ago. Again, crazy stuff.

But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the people I met and connected with. There was an editor who said she might have a future copy editing gig for me. There was another writer who asked me if I was interested in reading submissions for her magazine. There were people who run blogs that I want to contribute book reviews to. And the authors. Oh goodness, all the lovely authors: I got to meet Julie Czerneda and Ben Bova and Guy Gavriel Kay and so many other writers that it boggles the mind.

One highlight in particular: I got to tell Gregory A. Wilson after his reading that the story (“Spar”, by Kij Johnson) that inspired Speculate, his SF podcast, was recently “remixed” into a more humorous version involving eating bacon. I then read the opening paragraphs of the bacon remix from the issue of Clarkesworld I had stored on my Kobo. Technology connects people and saves the day yet again!

One of the benefits of Ad Astra is that it represents a highly interconnected slice of the SF community. There were several people that I saw participating in multiple panels (Gregory A. Wilson, who I first saw speak at WFC 2012, was a particular delight across the 3 panels I saw him at), and several more that I saw and chatted with at the book launch parties. I felt like I was in the thick of things there – returning to the real world, with my bags much heavier and my wallet much lighter, was a real letdown.

Ad Astra, Hell Yeah!

Ad Astra conventionTomorrow is the start of Ad Astra, and I can’t wait. I originally thought about attending last year when the lovely Beverly Bambury encouraged me to do so, but I didn’t go since I felt it was going to be too last-minute for me – we had talked about it only the week before. Now, though, my fiance and I have everything planned out: weekend passes, hotel booking, and even the  books we’re bringing to sign (as well as planning to buy). There are so many people in Canadian SF/F that I want to meet and celebrate good times and good writing with.

Oh, and speaking of good writing, yes, I am working on the novel, but it’s going slower than I anticipated. I’m thinking I may have to purge the giddy thought of writing 2,500 words a day from my mind, and instead settle on the more practical number of 1,100. Ah well. However, I did find out the results of the Friends of the Merill contest; I was originally going to write about this on April 1st (not a joke!) but then the idea of grappling with sexism/gender bias in genre fiction was too satisfying to ignore. Ultimately, I did not make it into the top 3, but considering this was the first story I ever submitted to a contest, I’m pretty satisfied.

So, Ad Astra. Fuck yeah, I’ll be there. What about you?

Thoughts about “Life of Pi” and book-to-film adaptations

life_of_pi_coverI just saw Life of Pi in the theatres last night with my fiancé and loved it.

I loved the visuals – the colours were bright and lush without being cloying. The score (which I’m listening to as I write this) was absolutely delightful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the images on the screen; where those were grand and sweeping, the music was intimate and tender. I love movie scores, but the only one I can think of that so enhanced the in-theatre experience was the one for The Fountain – another movie that asks big questions and has trippy visuals.

I also appreciated how faithful it remained to the book. Unlike Les Mis, which was hampered by slavishly following the musical, or The Hobbit, which made the Tolkien purist in me cringe, Life of Pi preserved the integrity of its source material while still adhering to the rules of film narrative. The only divergence I found jarring was the addition of the Obligatory Love Interest to Pi’s life before he leaves India.

Instead, the biggest difference between the two versions is one of tone. The novel had a deep vein of playfulness and meta-humour. In many cases in the book, you could see author Yann Martel winking at the reader between the lines, like when Pi says he can tell his story in 100 chapters – precisely the number of chapters in the book.

In contrast, Ang Lee plays it straight. Gone are the playful pokes at choosing between reason (Satish Kumar the Communist science teacher) and faith (Satish Kumar the religious baker). In the movie, these two poles of belief are predictably but sincerely replaced by Pi’s parents.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that sincerity is the hallmark of Ang Lee’s directorial style. His movies contain a lot of artifice, but they don’t wink at you. They don’t try to make you think that he’s being clever by inserting references to other movies, or encourage you to engage with him in a mutual feeling of superiority over the film’s protagonists. Instead, his films say “this happened, take it or leave it.”

Life of Pi is a film I’ll gladly take.

Many others have commented about the cutesy nature of the ending, in which Pi gives another, more brutal explanation for what happened after the ship sunk, and asks his audience to state which version they prefer. Most dismiss it as a stereotypical attempt to validate the Power of Storytelling. However, this ending is native to the book.

More importantly, I think it’s necessary because of the nature of the book’s framing device: Pi is telling this story to the author, and has told it in the past to the representatives of the Japanese shipping company – of course they aren’t going to believe him! But if it were told completely straight, without these people acting as surrogates for us, something would be lost. It is because we see Pi as an adult, and see how well he has adjusted to the world despite the horrors he has faced, that we are willing to accept the whimsy of a tiger in a lifeboat.

I think my enjoyment of book-to-film adaptations depends on which version I encounter first. As I mentioned in my review of the first Hunger Games movie, I was disappointed by its shallow exploration of some of the book’s most important themes. In contrast, while I like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, I absolutely love the movie version, which I saw before I read the book.

As an interesting hybrid of seeing the movie before reading the book or vice versa, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theatres, and then read the entire trilogy before The Two Towers was released. That, in addition to watching all of the special features on the LoTR DVDs, makes me understand and respect the changes that Jackson & co. made on the way to the big screen. However, I read The Hobbit when I was 10, and the idea of the same group of people turning it into a goddamned trilogy horrifies me.

Does this mean I’m unimaginative? I don’t know. But I do think that the rules of narrative are different between book and screen. The Hobbit is very conventional and film-friendly in comparison to The Lord of The Rings, so it made sense to drastically alter the latter books to make them fit on screen. Life of Pi was already a very visual book with a clear throughline (I’m confused by the idea that so many people thought it unfilmable), so I’m happy with its transition from one medium to another.

What about you? What did or didn’t work about this movie? What book-to-film adaptations do you love or hate?

Thoughts After the 2012 World Fantasy Convention

The 2012 World Fantasy Convention is over, and I feel deflated. I met so many people, and bought (And got for free!) so many books when I was there that I now feel like Cinderella after the ball – kind of ragged, slightly in disbelief that there was so much fun to be had, and sad that it passed by so quickly.

I think a full accounting of all 4 days will be too long to write, but I do want to provide summaries of certain aspects of attending, so here we go.

The Panels

I only attended about half a dozen panels in all. Some of them were unmemorable or downright frustrating, but the two panels I attended on Sunday, one about maps in fantasy fiction and the other about the intersection between the real and the fantastic, were fabulous.

In particular, I was surprised by how forceful and eloquent a speaker Jo Walton was, and I think that I may need to reassess my opinion of her book Among Others. I was also impressed by Gregory A. Wilson, who gave an extremely cogent explanation on the difference between fantasy fiction and magical realism. I wish I could quote him verbatim here but, in essence, he said magical realism takes the fantastic at such face value that no one feels awe or wonder when encountering it. Because the fantastic is so accepted, it becomes normal, then boring – and he finds that this eventual acceptance and contempt makes magical realism the most depressing genre in speculative fiction.

My biggest regret about the convention is that I didn’t attend the Friday afternoon session on e-publishing, as both Mark Leslie (who works for Kobo) and Michael J. Deluca (who helps run Weightless Books) were on the panel. However, it was on at the same time as a reading by Cat Rambo, which brings me to the next part of the convention experience…

The Readings

I attended half a dozen readings and they were almost uniformly excellent. It all started off on Thursday afternoon with Patrick Rothfuss reading a new (as-yet-unpublished) short story and a funny poem about Cyranos de Bergerac. Immediately after that was a reading by Aliette de Bodard.

Friday afternoon was Cat Rambo‘s reading, and when you consider that she made her audience collectively gasp at a key point in her story, you could say that she knocked it out of the park. The second one on Friday was by Gabrielle Harbowy of Dragon Moon Press – she and I had had a lovely conversation together earlier that day, so I was happy to support her as she read a story about a fortune teller, two lovers, and intricate tattoos.

Then, on Saturday afternoon there was a group reading between C.S.E. Cooney, Caitlyn Paxson, Amal El-Mohtar, and Patty Templeton that included music. Amal El-Mohtar played a miniature harp, which I watched with great interest. However, of the four authors, I think C.S.E. Cooney’s reading was the most memorable – indeed, it was the best one I saw in all 4 days. I wish I had the presence of mind to record her story; her voice flooded the room like a storm, so forceful was her reading.

The final one I attended was later on the same day, and the one that i looked forward to the most: Garth Nix. He entertained us all with a sneak peek of his upcoming book Clariel, the long-awaited prequel to the Old Kingdom trilogy. In fact, I have a funny story about that, which I’ll share in my next post.

The Books

Never mind the huge dealers’ room where publishers of all shapes and sizes set up shop. Those books you pay for, like any other. Instead, imagine a giant canvas bag nearly the size of a pillowcase stuffed to the brim with free books and other goodies.

That’s what I’m talking about. Every single person who showed up at WFC got one, and there was even a table set up where people could swap out books they got in their bag but didn’t want with books from other attendants that they actually did want. My fiance, who also attended, and I made off like bandits with a huge stash of free books.

Seriously, this is the pile of books that we managed to score from WFC. Even within that pile, I can still think of 1 or 2 books that are missing.

Of course, beyond that stash, we also bought a number of books from the dealers’ room. Never let it be said that I don’t support the publishing industry!

The Authors

One of the best things about WFC is how it concentrates the fantasy publishing world into one small place. In a space of days, I got to talk to luminaries like Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, and up-and-comers like Ian Rogers and Rio Youers.

My favourite author moment was a conversation I had on Saturday morning with author Karen Lord (the one behind my personal favourite Redemption in Indigo), famed illustrator Charles Vess, and Stonecoast MFA graduate Jennifer Brissett. We talked about the value that autographs bring to books, and how hard it is to write good characters. Not good as in successfully-drawn, but as in honest and decent. It’s hard to write someone who has integrity, but is well-rounded and not a boring cardboard cutout like Superman. That’s part of why I love Lord’s character Paama so much.

The Hotel

This was probably the most frustrating aspect of the convention, as the convention hotel technically wasn’t located in Toronto, but in Richmond Hill, one of its suburbs. I wanted to save money and stay at home during the convention, but this meant that I would have to commute an hour and a half each morning using public transit and rely on someone to pick me and my fiance up each evening.

It also meant that I couldn’t attend any of the cool after-hours impromptu happenings, like Charles de Lint’s jam session with other authors on the top floor. My fellow WCDR member Jenny Madore stayed at the hotel and got to see this happen, the lucky duck.

While I understand why they chose to have the convention in Richmond Hill – Toronto isn’t exactly cheap – getting there was a pain. It would have made a lot more sense, I think, to host it in downtown Toronto, especially considering the WFC website and official program pamphlet talked about all of the wonderful world-class restaurants that the downtown core had.

What I Learned

Those I spoke to at the event told me that the way the World Fantasy Convention handles things is unusual. For example, it’s a con focused on the professionals within the industry, so there was a higher proportion of editors, agents, and publishing houses than normal – this also meant that there were absolutely no people in costume. However, WFC sets itself apart from other cons in a few more ways:

  • Almost no other con gives out the humongous bag of free books to its attendants that WFC does.
  • WFC’s massive autograph session is also unusual – most other cons have authors signing at different times in different locations, instead of the single huge free-for-all in the same room that WFC does.
  • WFC also offers free meals to attendants, though the quantities are limited. The quality and variety of the food was quite good, though, and word of mouth spread through the hotel about it within a day.

Future Plans

Several people I spoke to at the convention talked about how wonderful Ad Astra (an annual fantasy convention hosted in Toronto) is. Because of this, I’m pretty sure that I’ll register for it and attend next April. The World Fantasy committee also announced which cities will be hosting the event in 2014 and 2015: 2014 will be in Washington DC and 2015 will be in Saratoga Springs, New York. I’m about 90% sure I will attend one or both of those events, though time will tell about my availability.

So, there we go! I said I wouldn’t write an exhaustive account of WFC 2012, but I did anyway!

Publishing links roundup #1

The publishing world is always full of new and interesting announcements. Here are some articles that have caught my eye recently:

Update, 11:30 AM: The CBC has just announced its longlist for this year’s Canada Reads competition.

This year the gimmick is a “turf war” between the various regions of Canada – what are the best books originating from each of 5 regions (BC & the Yukon, the Prairies & North, Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic), and which region’s book will be the ultimate winner?

Here are a few thing’s I’ve noticed about this year’s selection:

  • Although the Quebec longlist contains The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (a crime/detective novel), I don’t any other genre books in the running – just staid, “serious” books from the CanLit monolith. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.
  • The Ontario longlist incudes books by Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Michael Ondaatje, 2 of which I had to read in high school. How adventurous!
  • The Quebec longlist contains only 3 novels originally published in French. Fittingly, one of the English novels on Quebec’s longlist is Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes.
So, what are your thoughts on this year’s crop of Canada Reads selections?

Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print (hardcover)

I’ve decided to ditch the “Reading challenge” portion of my book review titles. This was the 12th book that I read this year, and dear Lord, was it a doozy.

About the book: It is 1847. The two boats from the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage – the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror – have been locked within the pack ice of the Arctic for well over a year. However, the steady depletion of coal, food, and supplies is not the only hardship that both crews have to face, for the arrival of a mute Inuit woman has coincided with the predations of a terrible supernatural creature with a craving for human flesh. Now Captain Frances Crozier, the highest-ranking officer still alive on this cursed expedition, has to determine how reach safety while evading both the monster stalking them and the mutinous thoughts growing within his crew.

What I liked: The opening of the book was planned out with care, as Simmons switched between different characters and different points of view. He painstakingly set up the environment and stakes of the story – the ships being frozen on the ice, the crew having the startlingly incompetent Sir John Franklin as commander, and there being barely enough coal to keep warm. I could sense that Simmons was building a strong house, and that he was laying down the planks and foundation with precision. Every chapter, every new development, every switch from one character to another, screamed one word: Deliberation.

In particular, I liked the slow buildup and unfurling of two crucial scenes: The disastrous Grand Carnivale out on the ice, and Crozier’s agony soon afterwards as he gave up drinking cold turkey and went through an agonizing detoxification process, complete with hallucinations and delirium tremens.

Astute readers will note that the Grand Carnivale sequence is an extended reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I am not so astute, as I haven’t read Poe, but I do read Wikipedia, so I understood the basics of the reference. It impresses and pleases me when an author pays such attention to pacing, structure, and literary allusions. It tells me that the author cares. It also tells me that they take their readers seriously, and expect the same level of care and attention in return.

What I disliked: Despite the respect I felt Simmons was paying his readers, this book was far too long. Reading it was a protracted affair, full of doubt – rather like the Franklin Expedition described within. I don’t know if the book’s length was deliberate in order to exhaust readers, but I suspect that Simmons would not find such a meta-effect unwelcome. However, I also felt a perverse sense of pride as I complained about The Terror book to my friends and coworkers – it felt oddly satisfying to heft this brick up into the air and declare that it was too long to be enjoyable. Ultimately, I finished it by giving myself a goal of reading at least 50 pages during every commute to and from work, effectively making it feel like a school assignment. I’m unsure why it was so difficult to read The Terror, as I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage (which was approximately the same length) last summer and finished it in less than a week.

Another problem was the lack of both a glossary and a character list in the book. There were over 100 men on both ships and the majority of them were referred to by name throughout the text; it would have been invaluable to have a list of all of the crew members, and a glossary explaining all of the naval terms, in order to help me understand who they were and what they were doing. In particular, one early conversation between the various officers of both ships included two participants who were both named John, and the only way to distinguish between the two was that one was referred to as “Sir John” and the other “Captain Sir John.” Trying to keep all of the names straight in this and other instances made me dizzy.

Finally, the closing chapters of the book were a dramatic, abrupt shift. After hundreds of pages of slogging through ice, starvation, scurvy, mutiny, and cannibalism, we move instead into a discourse on Inuit mythology and the origins of the snow-monster. I understand why this was included – you can’t just introduce a crazy man-eating monster in the Arctic larger and more cunning than a polar bear and not expect people to wonder where it came from – but the move away from the Franklin Expedition crew members came out of left field. It also disturbed me that in all of the pages devoted to the viewpoints of the crew members there was no chapter similarly devoted to Lady Silence’s viewpoint. She is an important character, and vital to the survival of Crozier, yet we never experience her thoughts.

The verdict: Simmons has skill – the effort which he takes to establish location and weave together the various viewpoints of the story are obvious – but The Terror was such a slog that my appreciation of it is muted. I spent so much time reading it that to give up on it would have felt like a waste, and would have seriously set back my book review efforts here. This is the first book I read in 2012 that left me sitting on the fence.

Next up: The Steel Seraglio, by Mike Carey, Louise Carey, and Linda Carey.

2012 Reading challenge, book 11: Mort

Title: Mort (Discworld Book #4)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of the grand old ladies of fantasy fiction at this point. Pratchett’s prolific output and consistent hilarity have earned him scads of readers. However, until this year, I had never read any Discworld books, and the only book of his I had read was Good Omens, which was co-written with Neil Gaiman. I decided to read this book first out of the entire series based on the Gateway to Geekery recommendation made by The AV Club, one of my favourite culture/media sites.

About the book: Death, the Reaper of Souls, needs an apprentice and decides on Mort, a gangly, naive teenager from the hinterlands of the Disc. Wearying of living without truly understanding life, Death goes on an extended holiday and leaves Mort in charge. Mort, of course, has had only the most rudimentary of training, and unleashes a potentially catastrophic chain of events when he decides to thwart fate and prevent the assassination of a comely princess. As is so often the case with Pratchett, hilarity ensues…

What I liked: Pratchett’s known for his humour, and this book did not disappoint. It introduced me to Discworld with little discomfort, and I felt comfortable amidst the snarky footnotes, anthropomorphic personifications, and judicious small caps. The writing flowed easily, and although the lack of chapter breaks was jarring, I adjusted to it quickly. Also, Death is a wonderful character – it’s amazing how he’s imbued with so much personality despite his nature as a cold, implacable reality that we all must face. The asides and worldbuilding interspersed throughout the novel were deftly done, and certain scenes, like Mort’s solo attempt to fulfill Death’s duties with an understanding witch, were surprisingly poignant.

What I disliked: The lead-up to the ending of the book was rushed and didn’t match the tone of the text that preceded it. Throughout the book, Pratchett clearly explained how Mort’s actions violated the natural order, but the sword-and-scythe fight seemed like a really tacked-on way to resolve this dispute. No other sequence in the book has a similar level of physical action in it, and it seemed out of character for both Death and Mort to take part. In addition, the final revelation that Mort and Ysabell got hitched – and got a new duchy in Sto Helit in the bargain – seemed awfully neat and tidy.

The verdict: Mort was fun, and I look forward to reading other books in the Discworld series to get a sense of how the various puzzle pieces fit together. My fiancé is a big fan of the Night Watch books, and has at least a few ready to borrow. However, I am worried that the other books in the series will have the same ending/denouement problems that this one did. I remain cautiously optimistic about the series so far.

Up next: The Terror, by Dan Simmons

2012 Reading Challenge, book 6: Dead Men Don’t Cry

Title: Dead Men Don’t Cry
Author: Nancy Fulda
Publisher: CreateSpace/Independent
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

I first heard about Nancy Fulda’s work through Escape Pod‘s recording of her short story “Movement.” It was a haunting, sad piece with such an expressive reading that I was awestruck. It appears that others agree since the story was recently nominated for a Nebula award.

Dead Men Don’t Cry is an anthology of her short stories. Instead of following the “like/dislike” format of earlier book reviews, I’ll discuss each story individually and then provide an overview.

Pastry Run: I’m a sucker for funny stories, so this was a pleasant opener to the collection. Space travel is normally treated with such solemnity in science fiction that it’s nice to see Fulda popping the balloon and showing us the more mundane possibilities it offers. Like, say, a daily run delivering fresh pastries to the moon. The space travel technology described is fairly standard, but the absurdity of it all is polished to a high sheen when you add elements like traffic jams and impatient old French ladies.

Dead Men Don’t Cry: Political intrigue abounds between extra-terrestrial colonies and Earth, now an aggressive home world. An assassination attempt has been made on an ambassador from Earth on the eve of a controversial peace treaty. However, the would-be assassin’s protege, a high-ranking bureaucrat, believes in his now-dead mentor’s innocence and has been tasked with uncovering the truth. It’s not a bad story, but I felt like I was being introduced to too many characters and too much information too quickly.

Blue Ink: Jason is a 6-year-old boy nervous about being cloned. Is the procedure painful? Will people forget about him in the cloning chamber? Most importantly, will his clone be happy doing all of the menial tasks that he won’t have to do himself? All Jason wants is to meet his clone and talk to him. But when Jason wakes up from the cloning procedure, things aren’t quite as he expected… This is a good short story with a realistic-sounding main character, interesting technology, and more than a smidgen of class commentary.

Backlash: Is changing the events of the past ever justified? In this story, the main character is (unsuccessfully) hijacked by his older self from 40 years in the future to prevent a terrorist attack and the eventual collapse of the United States. This story was the weakest of the collection – it contained too much technobabble about the technology that would make this type of time travel possible and too much action for me to feel fully immersed in it. It might have worked better if it had been given room to breathe in novella form.

Monument: A very short but evocative piece about how the human race destroyed its first – and so far only – chance of contact with an alien species. This story displays a great depth of emotion despite its length.

Tammi’s Garden: Tamela is a young girl in a lush garden. Tammi is a young girl in a warren of subterranean caverns. Tamela lives in an intellectual world without deprivation or emotion. Tammi lives in a world where the walls are crumbling and poisonous gas is leaking in, but at least she has her mother’s love. Tammi/Tamela has to choose which world she ultimately wants to live in. An interesting story, but I’m still not quite sure whether the memories Tammi/Tamela experiences are of other worlds, the future vs the past, alternate timelines, or wishes from the subconscious, which I think was Fulda’s intent.

All Praise to the Dreamer: Earth has been invaded by the Zollners, a sentient species with the ability to detect psychic echoes and a painful aversion to the psychic residue caused by death. They offer stability and security in exchange for the souls of children destined for greatness – such children are taken from their families and given to the Dreamer so that the Dreamer may shape the future. Sharon is one of the people who first acquiesced to the Zollners upon their arrival, but now that they have come for her child, she finds she must make the ultimate sacrifice to protect him. This story is short and sharp, with an ending that makes sense in context, but is shocking nonetheless.

The Breath of Heaven: The Three Laws of Robotics are turned on their head in this story of a group of robots that kill a human settlement not because of flaws in their programming, but flaws in the directives which they’ve been given – flaws which now manifest in their quest for an ideal human operator. The protagonist robot, Sacia, now has to reconcile her newfound sense of awareness and self-preservation with her search for an ideal operator. Think of HAL 9000, but with an appreciation of beauty, movement, and the subtleties of reincarnation. This is one of, if not the, strongest stories in the collection, and presages Fulda’s growing skill – reading this story, it is not surprising to see the connections between its strong and elegant prose style and that of “Movement.”

Ghost Chimes: In Alicia’s world, death is not an impediment towards getting involved in the affairs of others – especially if they are those of your orphaned but now adult daughter. Alicia’s mother, a devout Catholic, gave up her chance on the Afterlife by undergoing a neural procedure that would allow her to remain on this earthly plane after she died. When she was 10, Alicia needed her mother’s care, but now that she’s all grown up, she resents her mother’s constant intrusions, and has to figure out how to gain her independence. This story has an interesting concept, but it rang hollow to me – I lost my own dad when I was young, and I’d leap even now, as an adult, at the chance to see and talk to him. This story mines a very strange vein of humour that I felt was at odds with the character’s circumstances.

The Man Who Murdered Himself: This story examines the central element of “Blue Ink” – human replication – but inverts one of the circumstances of the first story. In “Blue Ink,” clones were imperfect replicas of a perfectly normal person. But here, the person being replicated is already imperfect – a man with a painful infliction who is hoping to use cutting-edge technology to reform his misshapen body. Based on the title, though, I’m sure you can guess the ending. This one is just as sad as “Blue Ink,” but for entirely different reasons.

A New Kind of Sunrise: Fulda takes us to a planet with dramatically lengthened day and night cycles – it rotates so slowly that the land bakes to a crisp in the sun, and is deathly cold at nighttime. The only habitable portion of the planet is the thin band of clouds that rotates across it as twilight approaches, bringing rainfall and rejuvenation.

Mikaena is a nomad travelling with her tribe underneath the planet’s rotating band of cloud cover when she finds a young man near death on her tribe’s caravan route. He claims to be from the northern polar region of the planet, where a great Brotherhood protects the ancient scientific secrets of its original colonizers. However, this Brotherhood has forsaken its duty of helping all of the planet’s inhabitants, and it is the young man’s goal to make a new settlement – to Colonize the Day – and spread the Brotherhood’s knowledge far and wide. Mikaena finds herself drawn to the young man and his new ideas, but accepting them means moving beyond the practices of her tribe and facing her father’s disapproval.

This is the longest story in the collection, and one that is ripe for a full-length novel treatment. The characters themselves are a tad too familiar – the young man who disrupts the status quo, the young woman torn between love and tradition, the stern and unaccepting father, the wise healer woman – but the physical characteristics of the world itself are so fascinating that I want to hear more.

Overview: Now that I think about it, one of the themes that plays throughout the stories – most evident in “All Praise to the Dreamer” but also visible in almost every other story – is the conflict between freedom and security.

Throughout, these stories ask us what price we’re willing to pay for our safety. That alien ship may be full of unknown biological threats, but is it really worth it to destroy our only chance of interacting with another form of sentient life? What risks do we entertain when we try to change the events of the past? Should we sacrifice the souls of a small number of our children to ensure the stability of the future? Is it worth it to live in a world of intellectual pursuit when you can’t feel love or fear?

This is a great story collection full of clear yet thoughtful prose. The stories within range from humorous to poignant to macabre, with side stops to analytical and hopeful in between. While this collection rarely reaches the heights of emotion offered by “Movement,” these stories bring up a host of meaningful questions and ideas.

Next up: Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

2012 Reading challenge, book 4: On Writing

Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (10th Anniversary Edition)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

The name “Stephen King” has by now become a byword for “successful author.” He’s one of those authors, along with J.K. Rowling, that are always cited as the exception to the rule that most writers won’t be able to live solely off the fruits of their writing. He’s ubiquitous. In light of both this and my interest in fantasy and sci-fi, which often encroaches upon the borders of horror fiction, it might surprise you to learn that I didn’t read my first Stephen King book until nearly 4 years ago – that book was Insomnia and even he admits it was a muddled novel. So, what do I think of a book about writing, written by one of the titans of the industry? Let’s find out.

About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King’s career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing – arguably the biggest draw – are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King’s childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.

What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King’s been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, “OK, it’s time to put the book down now.” And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.

Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn’t fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It’s a hole that I’m only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.

A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child – one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.

In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a “writers’ toolbox” and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace – know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc – but they’re relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a “before and after” sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.

Besides all that, look at the cover. It’s got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.

What I disliked: The length – it’s too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie,  his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it’s not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.

The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?

Next up: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Book statistics, genre love, and genre hate

Last week I started an additional side project related to my reading efforts. Spurred on by an article in Salon talking about gender bias in book reviews, I have decided to keep a spreadsheet of my own reading efforts with the intention to derive some nice statistics at the end of the year. Will I end up giving print books higher ratings, on average, than eBooks? What about female authors versus male ones? There are so many questions to ask and answers to seek, and so many ways from which to view this information, that this project is impossible to resist.

Regardless of this, one thing has become obvious despite the small pool of books I’ve read so far this year: I really don’t like crime/detective fiction.

My chief complaints about both Zoo City and Empire State (oddly enough, both published by Angry Robot Books) had to do with their attempts to blend sci-fi/fantasy story elements with crime/detective story elements. The combination didn’t work for me, and in Empire State in particular, I found that the author’s application of sci-fi elements was used to wallpaper over some glaring inconsistencies.

This raises an interesting question, then: do I dislike the crime genre as a whole, the mixing of genres, or just the way those two books handled said mixing? Well, now that I’ve got my handy-dandy spreadsheet, the question will be a little easier to answer come December 2012, won’t it? Assuming, that is, that we don’t blow up in some Mayan calendrical apocalypse.

Anyways.

I read Old City Hall near the end of 2010 and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that when I went to Word on the Street in September 2011 and told the author, Robert Rotenberg, how much – oh my god, can I tell you what an intriguing character Albert Fernandez is? – he gave me an autographed copy of the book for free.

OCH is about a crime, and one of the main characters is a police detective. Does the book fall, then, under the rubric of crime fiction? Or rather, since many of its most important events take place in a courtroom, should it be classified as a legal thriller? Where does one draw the line dividing genres? In this case, is there even a line to be drawn? I have no idea. All I know is that I found the book’s analysis of coutroom behaviour fascinating, and wanted even more of it.

On top of that, I also enjoyed the movie Children of Men when I saw it, and that was based on a book by noted detective fiction writer P.D. James. Would I like her Adam Dalgleish books just as much if  I tried one? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t want to read mysteries because my knowledge of the genre is so poor that it will feel like work – the literary equivalent  of eating broccoli (make sure to read at least 5-8 servings per year!). However, another part of me knows that I’m missing out on some amazing fiction because of my own wariness.

This is another issue that I hope tracking my reading on a spreadsheet will be able to rectify: If I can analyze my reading habits and figure out what patterns and holes there are in said habits, I’ll be closer to improving them and to becoming an even better editor.