Review: Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars

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I’m a big fan of the magical school trope. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was one of those life-defining books from high school through the end of college, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians books came right in after as I was starting my career as a college administrator and writer. Sarah Gailey’s debut novel Magic for Liars is like a third part of that transition, and I blew through the book in just about a day. 

The story introduces us to Ivy Gamble, a woman who works as a private investigator, and who has a bit of a secret: her estranged twin sister is a brilliant magician. She’s hired by the headmaster of the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages in California, where her sister works. The two haven’t spoken in years, and when a teacher at the school is found dead in the library, they’re unexpectedly reunited. 

Gailey is the author of the American Hippo novellas, and while I loved the concept, I felt that they were a bit weak, character-wise (one of the downsides to Tor.com’s novella line: sometimes, a story is too slimmed down, and could have been a bit longer.) That isn’t a problem here. Gailey brilliantly sets up these two sisters, and Ivy is a phenomenal, bitter character who is pretty much burned out on everything, stemming back to some deep-seated family history that drove her and her sister apart. 

This book succeeds in two ways. First, it’s a fantastic mystery, and Gamble, an outsider to this magical community, is the perfect person to solve it, because she can approach it from that unknowledgeable angle, but who knows how perfectly messed up people are, and what sorts of bad decisions they can make. Secondly, it’s a great magical school entry. Hogwarts is delightfully twee, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is realistically cynical, and the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages is… a typical high school. There’s plenty of details that show off that kids — even magical kids, will be immature, do stupid things, are egotistical, and crave attention. 

What really makes this book stand out is that it revolves around a couple of things that fantasy (and science fiction, for that matter), typically ignores: wOmEnS IsSuEs. I won’t spoil how this plays out, but it’s a mystery that comes down to teenage and family drama in ways that feels utterly realistic, and I’m guessing entirely relevant and relatable to any woman who picks up this book. Gailey also keeps the mystery entirely fresh throughout the entire read, throwing me off in a couple of places, and nailing the book with a fantastic (and frustratingly ambiguous) ending. She tells me that she’s not planning on a followup, which is also refreshing? There needs to be more standalone novels, although I would dearly love to see more of this particular world.  


The Magical Worlds of Christopher Plover

It's always cool to find previously unknown authors while doing research. Recently, I came across a relatively unknown fantasy author who had some close ties to some of the giants in fantasy: Christopher Plover. Famous for his Fillory and Further series, he's relatively unknown today. Recently, his works seem to have inspired one recent series of books, The Magicians trilogy, by Lev Grossman, who's latest book, The Magician's Land, came out earlier this week.

Go read The Magical Worlds of Christopher Plover over on io9.

Sources:

  • The Magicians, Lev Grossman. Grossman's trilogy contains some good details about the Fillory novels and their elusive author. There's a number of details about the nature of the story's creation, and a bit about Plover.
  • The Magician King, Lev Grossman. More about Plover is revealed in this novel, as well as some details about the Chatwins.
  • The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman. Rupert Chatwin's autobiography and relationship to Plover is revealed here.
  • Christopher Plover Official Website: This particular site is a good starting point for Plover scholars. There's some good descriptions of each of the novels, as well as some good biographical elements on the site.
  • The Magicians Wiki: fans of Plover have put together an article on the Fillory and Further novels.
  • The World in the Walls, Chapter 1. Those of you interested in reading a bit of the Fillory and Further series can pick up the first chapter here.

 

 

 

* Yes, this is a bit of a parody. The Magician's Land, however, isn't, and it's an extraordinary end to the series.

There and Back Again - The Hobbit

The Hobbit In the middle of November, I talked about Tolkien's WWI experiences and their impact into their writing. With the live action adaptation of The Hobbit released into theaters soon, it makes sense to look at how The Hobbit was written in the first place. It's an interesting story, with a bunch of twists and turns. Go read  There and Back Again: A Hobbit's Tale over on Kirkus Reviews.

Here are the sources that I used and would recommend:

The Annotated Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien and Douglas A. Anderson: This edition of The Hobbit has received the annotated treatment. I was a big fan of the Annotated Dracula, and this edition has some good insights into the creation of the book.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This massive volume was an invaluable resource in determining where Tolkien went during his time in combat. It’s detailed down to the day in most cases, with an overwhelming amount of information.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This second companion book was also great for background information on Tolkien’s friends and some of his influences.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter: This book was one that I came across years ago, and it still remains one of the definitive biographies of the author, with a comprehensive and readable detailing of his life and works.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey: This book provided some good background information on Tolkien and his influences in the War.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale: George MacDonald

With October's Horror duo over with, I decided that it was time to shift gears again in preparation for the really big fantasy event of the year: The Hobbit, and thus focus on some of the background on Fantasy literature, which I haven't really focused on thus far. Like Science Fiction, context for the development of Tolkien's works relies on an earlier look at what came before, and the notable author that I became interested in was George MacDonald, who really jump started the Fantasy genre by creating a number of modern fairy tales that inspired many fantasy authors that came before him. He's not a household name like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, but he was no less influential in his works, which went on to inspire authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Go read Some Kind of Fairy Tale over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources Used:

George MacDonald, Michael R. Phillips: This biography of MacDonald is an interesting one, taking on both the man and his works, in both historical and narrative style. It's a good read, with quite a bit of information about the author and some of his major influences.

An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald: This volume contains the collected letters of MacDonald, which proved to be marginally useful for this piece: some of his books are mentioned, but nothing other than mentions of his books, rather than process (at least that I could find).

Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Vol 3, Frank Magill: I've been talking a lot about Science Fiction recently, and as I've begun to look more closely at Fantasy literature, needed to pick up the companion to the Survey that I've been using. Also edited by Frank Magill, it covers a wide range of fantasy novels and authors. The entry for Phantastes is a great overview of MacDonald and his career, and was incredibly useful for this piece.

George MacDonald, William Raeper: This biography is another good insight into MacDonald and his life and really helped to support the other pieces that I referenced.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

Saladin Ahmed's debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon has been getting a lot of attention since its release earlier this year. It's a fantastic novel, right out of the gate, gripping and engaging, but it's also been getting quite a bit of attention for its location. Epic fantasy set in a recognizable Middle East - inspired world; it's a far cry from the pseudo-Middle-Ages-European settings that most worlds seem to inhabit.

For all of the hand-wringing lately about how little innovation there is in the fantasy world when it comes to actual world building, Ahmed's story is a nice change of pace; not because an author has bowed to public pressure and recognized that they can break out of the pack, but because he's been writing about this for a while now.

Throne of the Crescent Moon isn't all that notable within the fantasy genre because it's set somewhere besides Europe: it's notable because it's an incredibly strong, character-driven narrative. It’s the first fantasy novel that I’ve read in a while where all of the characters really work to own their destiny, and that *they*, not some long forgotten prophesy has guided their actions to make them realize who they really are. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

The line of storytelling that has been troubled me lately is the prophetic style of fantasy, and it's one reason why I tend to favor more science fiction-flavored stories in general, which tends to avoid it. Far too often, character lives have been pre-determined, with the central focus revolving around the character realizing their inherent importance or internal strengths. Far more interesting to me is when the characters move the plot forward on their own, with their own actions helping or hindering them. Thankfully, this is largely what I've found over the course of reading Throne of the Crescent Moon with its three central characters: Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, a ghul hundter of Dhamsawaat, Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla's assistant, and Zamia Badawi, the shapeshifting protector of her band. The trio is deeply and at times, broadly flawed, but as the novel progresses, there’s an increasing recognition of this, and growth to overcome it.

A murder triggers the opening of the novel, as a powerful dark presence rises around the city of Dhamswaat, draws in the elder Doctor and his young, naïve assistant, and the young protector together amidst the backdrop of political revolution and corruption in the city. Following the trail of the gruesome murders, the unlikely band comes across a much greater conspiracy that threatens their whole world.

The plot isn't terribly original, but Ahmed's richly textured world more than makes up for it. The streets of Dhamsawatt in particular are a delight to read. Vividly written, the city and characters are captured in their entirety. Defined by their flaws, each character essentially works to overcome some of their learned nature (or, it's clear that some of them already have), presenting a nice ensemble of characters that felt very real to me.

Ahmed’s writing is the last main pillar of the novel, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is a deftly written story that pulls the reader along effortlessly. His prose is crisp, detailed and allowed me to burn through the book in just a couple of sittings, something that feels like an ever-rarer joy to do. The book is a short read, but ultimately a satisfying novel, one that has left me awaiting more installments of Ahmed's fascinating world. He’s certainly an author worth checking out and watching for the future.

Can't Wake Up: Awake

The show opens with a calm moment, as lights pass over the grass on the edge of a road and just before a screech signals imminent disaster. It's this moment that sets up the entire premise of Awake, starring Jason Isaacs (whom most people will remember as Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter). At the wheel is Michael Britten, a homicide detective who's about to have the worst imaginable tragedy: he collectively loses his wife and son in the accident. He's a man between two worlds: in one, his wife is alive, but his son has perished. In the other, his wife has died, but his son still lives. Britten lives each day by alternating: going to sleep in one world means waking up in another.

The pilot episode for Awake is stunningly brilliant: it's beautifully shot, directed by David Slade, with a great eye towards the visual styles that separate out the two worlds. One is soaked in bright shades where Britten's son is alive, while the other is clad in darker, moody tones. To keep them apart, Britten wears a wristband that corresponds with the two worlds: red for his son's reality, green for his wife's.

The premise of Awake has an incredible amount of potential: In each world, Britten works with a psychologist in each world, trying to figure out why he's experiencing each reality, and trying to cope with the idea that each presents to him: the other world is most certainly the imaginary one, a construct in his mind designed to cope with the loss of one of his loved ones. There are a number of elements touched on here in the show: trying to remember which world he's working in, trying to move on from the accident, and above all, trying to continue on with his life. Britten comes to the determination that the only way to move forward is to accept the situation: where this is the type of problem that would be the first impediment in front of the character, Awake looks elsewhere for story ideas.

This is the crux of where Awake has turned from what could be an interesting genre television show, and into the potential for a great one: it takes on some very heady issues: what is the real reality, how do you come to terms with losing the people important to you, and how do you react to trauma? It's delivered with smart writing and fantastic acting, scenes that had me at the edge of my seat while watching it a couple of weeks ago.

The high quality of the show reminds me of some other high-concept shows: NBC's 2009 show Kings, and ABC's 2007 show Daybreak. Unfortunately, both shows had limited runs: they ran for less than a season before they were cancelled due to low audience numbers, and I worry that this same fate might befall Awake before it gets a running start. Hopefully, excellent reviews in the New York Times, NPR, LA Times and Hollywood Reporter will help give the show the critical legitimacy to push it up over the edge.

What I have enjoyed so far in the show is that there is no clear or easy answer for Britten that has been painted out by lazy writers: the characters here are ones that are well crafted, and it's painful to think of what might happen to them, much like George R.R. Martin has demonstrated with his own characters and their inability to remain alive. Awake has an excellent cast that makes me dread some of what might be coming up for them. This also isn't one of the numerous LOST clones, trying to shock the audience into sticking with the show: questions and possibilities arise throughout in ways not seen since that show, but here, it feels far more organic, rather than the product of a writer's room.

Regardless of the length of Awake, it's something that I hope remains around because of the fantastic writing and acting that we've seen, not just because I'm looking to get to the end of the story. This is television at its very best, and for that reason, it's something that you should check out tonight when it airs at 9pm.

Boskone 49 Recap

This past weekend was Boskone 49, a science fiction / fantasy literature convention down in South Boston. After great experiences at ReaderCon the past couple of years, I decided to head down and partake in the fun for the spring, hitting up a bunch of panels and getting to meet up with people that I've largely talked to online over the past couple of years.

Stepping in the door (after a typical Boston driving experience) on Friday afternoon, I saw one of my former college professors, F. Brett Cox, and Lightspeed publisher John Joseph Adams, which was nice, before heading off to the first of several panels: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in the Classroom, led by Brett, where they talked at length about the recent acceptance of the genres in the academic field. Since Cyberpunk has become a subgenre, it's become relevant, but with the addition of several literary heavyweights, such as Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood, it's become more acceptable.

Typically, short fiction seems to be one of the best ways to get the literary themes across, but novels and films are also well used. What everyone seemed to agree on was that students really took to the genre, regardless if they were fans: students seem to identify with it quite a bit more than other genres.

Someone on the panel had a great quote, one that applies to more than just learning, but also critical reviewing and thinking as well: "I get to look under the hood and see how this works."

The next panel was Occupy SF: Corporations in Science Fiction, which was a fascinating talk. Charles Stross opened with some interesting things to think about: what holds up value in an interstellar empire? Apparently, this is the topic of his next book, and it drove discussion a bit early on, with some discussions about the very nature of money and economics. In comparable situations, letters of credit have been used on Earth, but how does this work when distances across space can be hundreds, if not thousands of years? Stross also suggested that if we're going to use metals for currency, we should simply use plutonium: it literally burns a hole in our pockets, and if we have too much, we can simply blow it up.

Finally getting to the point of corporations, they were likened to that of a hive: individuals carry out instructions on the behalf of the corporate hive, for its own (and presumably theirs), betterment. This is fine, in theory, but when you have an unchecked capitalist model, it will simply consume itself, because people aren't good at looking and planning in the extreme long-term: corporations simply work to make money and continue their operations (good and bad).

Leadership followed this discussion, and the point to which we've gotten represents a major change in how corporations were led: a very good point was brought up about who leads these places and what governs them: corporate behavior rewards psychopaths, and interestingly, a set of objective rules are set up to govern success: the value of experience has been lessened, because the rise of the MBA degree essentially has made corporate leadership interchangeable. Top earners are promoted and valued, regardless of how they become those top earners. As someone in the audience commented, that undermines what the customers think of the corporation. Long-term, that matters, but not so much in the short term.

This was an enlightening talk, and it was one of a couple that were very, very thought provoking for me personally, and gave me some great, solid ideas for a couple of projects that I've got in the works.

Saturday morning, I started with SF As a Mirror on Society, which I came in for about half of. Fortunately, this time, I left my car in Cambridge and rode in on the T, which reminded me that I dearly miss public transportation. I wish that I could ride a bus, subway or train to work. As I entered, I came in on a discussion of the 'Other', and some discussion on how some of the neglected characters should be handled: essentially, not embellished.

Following that, it was off to lunch, with Theodore Quester and John Joseph Adams, the Lightspeed crew present at the convention. Good times.

Lunch went a bit long, and when I got back, I got into a panel a bit late: Robocop Futures. This was a fascinating panel. As I got in, there was some discussion on the the role of people in systems: increasingly, we're living in a world that's guided by policy, rather than human intervention. I was reminded of something that P.W. Singer talked about when talking about robotic systems: people in the loop. People are increasingly out of the loop, where they're able to defer responsibility.

This is connected to law policies: increasingly, there are mandatory sentences and policies. One of the panelists mentioned a case where a Briton was prevented from entering the US because of a tweet. In this instance, everybody involved knew that it wasn't a serious or credible threat: policy demanded that the airport report it to law enforcement, who was in turn forced to investigate it, despite knowing that it wasn't a serious or credible threat. In the same manner, mandatory minimums for certain crimes: people aren't able to use their judgment in the process.

This discussion ended up on automated systems, which parse our conversations online. Increasingly, we've found ourselves turning to automated systems that absolve us of responsibility. Fortunately, computers are pretty bad at making sense of human relations. At the same time, people in the system are the weaker links that can potentially be exploited.

After a short break, Table Top Games in the Digital Age was the next one, with Ethan Gilsdorf moderating. This one was really one of the bigger letdowns: I'd been hoping that there would be some discussion about how table-top gaming might make the jump into the digital age, but there was a lot of lamenting about how the day of face to face gaming seemed to be going by the wayside (from the audience as well). It felt very oppositional to me, rather than a group looking at what was both inevitable coming, but also how to work the social aspects into the gaming world. This was covered, but briefly.

The next panel was fascinating: War of the Worlds and Dracula, compared. Both novels are ones that I read a long time ago, back in college, and I've been meaning to revisit them at some point. Discussion started right off with a look at both novels as reactions to Britain's place in the world: essentially, they're both reverse colonization novels, with two different models that tapped into an undercurrent of fear from British society:

  1. Invade, and replace the inhabitants with your own people.
  2. Invade, and change the inhabitants into your own people.

As someone noted early on, the Martians did to the British what the British did to the Zulu: invade, use overwhelming force and wreck havoc. In addition to these two novels, there was an entire subgenre of invasion novels from around the 1870s, right around the same time that Germany had begun to gain power in Europe. Britain's place in the world had begun to fall, and that's expressed in these novels: it's not too unlike the Cold War between the USSR and US. Both novels feature bloodsuckers feeding on Englishmen.

Something that I realized shortly after that both novels relied on the inherent strengths within the British lifestyle and culture: The British prevailed because their very biology helped them in War of the Worlds, while Dracula was hunted down with modern technology, which again taps into the patriotic element of both books. It was a fantastic panel, one that I learned a lot from.

The panel on Cover Art was an interesting talk, and the last for the night, with representatives from Tor Books and Baen. Baen's was interesting, where they have a particular style to their covers, but it was interesting to see their rational behind the art. Tor had some great cover examples, and overall, it was fascinating to see everything that goes into the covers of a book, and how it's used as a marketing tool.

On Sunday, Joshua Bilmes (Agent), David G. Hartwell (Editor), Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Editor), John Scalzi (Writer) and Toni Weisskopfgot (Editor / Publisher) together for their Top Ten Tips for the Prospective Writer, which was a interesting talk for anyone who is looking to become a professional author. There were actually more than ten tips, but they were all good ones. In short form:

  • Be a good writer.
  • Get used to sucking. You're at the beginning of a journey through incompetence. Keep writing until you don't suck.
  • Divest yourself of attachment to writing times/locations: set aside a time, and write where ever. You'll have a new excuse everywhere you go to not write.
  • A writer can do anything, provide its not what he's supposed to be doing.
  • Write every day. Now is a good time to write.
  • Two things: you can be a writer, then you can be a published author.
  • Treat it like a job: be professional about it, and commit to it.
  • Write to entertain someone else, not you.
  • Know your audience.
  • Who's going to be your first audience? Your editor and publisher.
  • Give yourself space with no other intention other than to learn. Write so that you know how to put together a story.
  • Publishers want to see a manuscript that you care about: they don't want to see your nanowrimo novel.
  • Acknowledgments are a good roadmap.
  • Understanding the industry are extraordinarily important. You have a better chance sending things to the right people. However, it is a moving target: trends change quickly. Urban fantasy was big four years ago. Much smaller now. If something's hot, it's too late.
  • Write the book that you'd like to read.
  • Half of your money that you earn goes to taxes.
  • There will be people who are better than you and some who are worse. Publishing isn't fair.
  • Publishers will put money where they think they'll get a return.
  • Workshops are good, but make sure that you apply the advice that you get. Do some work shopping and then stop. The same workshop will ultimately give you the same advice over and over again.
  • Your submission manuscript that's accepted is your final one: you're in the pipeline, not your writing workshop. Don't make drastic changes.
  • Wheaton's law: don't be a dick.
  • Scifi has an unusual amount of flow between pro and fan. Be nice to others.
  • Esteem of your peers: nice to have it, but it's not essential.
  • Don't be distracted by non-paying things that don't help you.
  • If you enjoy it, you should do it. Don't do it if you don't like it.
  • Write the best that you can, understand that everyone else is writing the best that you can, and don't crap on people. Admire the good works of others.
  • Learn how to apologize and learn how to do it sincerely.

Good primer of advice there from some people who know that it works.

I got to wander around a little, before ending up at John Scalzi's reading, where he read from his upcoming novel Red Shirts and his non-fiction book, 24 Frames into the Future.

Redshirts sounds hilarious, and I'm glad that I've been watching Star Trek, because it's got a lot of inspiration from that particular franchise. It'll be interesting to see what Trek fans think once it's published. John's got a very fun style when it comes to panels, and this one was rapt with attention and a healthy dose of dry wit. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to stick around, due to a death in the family. I didn't get my copy of Fuzzy Nation signed, but that's okay: I got my copy of Rule 34 signed by Charles Stross, and The Warded Man by Peter Brett (which I'm going to read soon!), which was very cool.

With that, it was a good convention: I'm not sure I had as much fun as Readercon, but it was a good time, where I got to meet up with some very cool people: Myke Cole, F. Brett Cox, Peter Brett, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Ian Tregillis (who's book Bitter Seeds is now on my to-read list), John Joseph Adams, Genevieve Valentine, Theodora Goss, Irene Gallo, and a whole bunch of others that I'm forgetting. Already, I can't wait to go back next year.

2011 Reading Census

This year has been an interesting reading year for me, fluctuating between a bunch of really, really good books, and a couple that really sucked out any interest that I had in reading at that time, with a number of books in-between that I thought were fun reads. Here's what I got through in 2011:

1- Grey, Jon Armstrong (1-8) 2- The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (1-21) 3 - Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (1-23) 4 - Hunger Games, Suzanne Clarke (2-1) 5 - The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (2-4) 6 - At The Queen's Command, Michael A. Stackpole (2-19) 7 - Mossflower, Brian Jacques (2-20) 8 - Embedded, Dan Abnett (3-7) 9 - Kraken, China Mieville (3-9) 10 - Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (3-17) 11 - Little Fuzzy, H Beam Piper (3-28) 12 - Fahrenheit 451 Graphic Novel, Ray Bradbury (4-13) 13 - Yarn, Jon Armstrong (4-13) 14 - Welcome to the Greenhouse, Gordon Van Gelder (4-19) 15 - Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi (4-25) 16 - Spectyr, Philippa Ballentine (4-26) 17 - Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh (4-27) 18 - Blackout, Connie Willis (4-30) 19 - Locke & Key, Joe Hill (5-8) 20 - Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, (5-22) 21 - Deathless, Catherynne Valente (5-27) 22 - Embassytown, China Mieville (6-18) 23 - Hex, Allen M. Steele (7-2) 24 - The Gravity Pilot, MM Buckner (7-4) 25 - A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (7-15) 26 - The Big Roads, Earl Swift (7-19) 27 - Spellbound, Blake Charlton (8-2) 28 - The Magician King, Lev Grossman (8-4) 29 - Bright's Passage, Josh Ritter (8-5) 30 - Grave Peril, Jim Butcher (8-13) 31 - Spook Country, William Gibson (9-6) 32 - Machine Man, Max Barry (9-10) 33 - Crisis in Zefra, Karl Schroeder (9-15) 34 - Halo: The Fall Of Reach, Eric Nylund (10-1) 35 - Germline, TC McCarty (10-5) 36 - The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (10-16) Audio 37 - Halo: Glasslands, Karen Traviss (10-29) 38 - Red Herring, Archer Mayor (10-20) 39 - Ganymede, Cherie Priest (11-11) 40 - Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card (11-20) 41 - Ready Player One, Ernie Cline (11-26) 42 - Open Season, Archer Mayor (12-5) 43 - Seed, Rob Zeigler (12-11) 44 - Rule 34, Charles Stross (12-??)

In the pipeline: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, by Michael A. Stackpole, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl and The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education by Craig M. Mullaney. Rogue Squadron is something I'm going to finish up sometime this weekend, and All You Need is Kill is somewhere behind that. The other two are a bit denser, and while they're interesting, they're taxing to get through.

Interestingly, this was the first year where I really read books electronically. I've dabbled with it in the past, ever since I bought an iPad, but this year, I made the jump and read a small percentage digitally: 7 in all: Grey, Lifecycle of Software Objects, Embedded, Little Fuzzy, Crisis in Zephra, Ender's Game and Open Season. Add in Game of Thrones, with which I alternated between my paperback and ecopy, and that's 19%, or just under a fifth of my book pile existed on a hard drive somewhere, rather than a bookshelf.

An interesting thing about eBooks: there's really only a single novel that I read in which I felt really took advantage of the book’s digital nature: Crisis at Zephra. This novel, a short novella, really, was published by the Canadian Military, and incorporated a lot of data about new and upcoming technologies, and trends in said technology. I was limited in that I was reading on a wifi only iPad when I was away from the internet, which left me unable to click on the links scattered throughout the text, with explanations as to what the terms, technology and theory meant. This, I think, is where eBooks will eventually head: less reading experiences, and more immersive and interactive ones.

I've also been doing a bit more with book reviews, on a number of different sites: SF Signal, The Functional Nerds, Kirkus Reviews, and my own blog, with a total of 15 books (34%) read for a review. In this instance, I've written reviews for a number, but these are books that were given to me by either the website that I wrote the review for, or sent by an author or publicist for my own purposes, even if a review wasn't necessarily expected or promised. Just under a full third of my reading this year was subsidized by someone else, for review purposes. Of those books, I had a bit of fun, although my reviews weren't universally positive. The caveat to this, of course, is that a majority of my reading, (29 books in all - 65%) are for my own pleasure, and a minor attempt to whittle down my own to-read list. I've got a feeling that I'll never destroy the growing pile.

I've always described myself as a science fiction fan, rather than a fantasy one, and in years past, I've typically read more fantasy than science fiction. This year? I read 27 Science Fiction books (61%), 11 fantasy books (25%), 2 mystery novels (4.5%), 2 YA novels (4.5%), and 1 each of history and steampunk (2%). This year was certainly more science fictional than years past, which I'm happy about.

Interestingly, while I describe this year as being up and down, when looking over the list as a whole, there's only four books that I really didn't like. I thought just under half (20) were good, while just under a quarter (10%), were okay - decent, but nothing that really wowed me. 10 books in all really blew me away (22%). Of the books that I read this year, the more memorable were the really great ones, and of those, three really stood out for me: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh, and The Dervish House, by Ian MacDonald. (See my top 10 list for the full number of ones that impressed me this year.) These books are astonishing reads, and I really hope that we'll see The Magician King and Soft Apocalypse get the attention they deserve: Grossman has gained a considerable amount of acclaim, but McIntosh's first novel feels like it's under the radar a bit, the underdog of the year. If you haven't read it: I can't recommend it highly enough. The Dervish House was nominated for a Hugo, but somehow ended up at the bottom of the polls. Still, it's nice to see it nominated.

Of the really bad books, these all stand out as ones that I had the most trouble getting through: Seed, by Rob Zeigler, The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner, Deathless, by Catherynne Valente and Hex, by Allen M. Steele. I believe that the reason why they stand out so much is because they were all books that I had high hopes for: Seed was lauded as the successor to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, and utterly failed at that, The Gravity Pilot looked interesting, and didn't work, Deathless was wonderfully written, but was a book that I simply couldn't get into, and Hex was part of Steele's Coyote universe, which started off so well, and has fallen so far with this book. There were some others, like Jack Campbell's Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught, which was so abysmally written that I couldn't even get through the first chapter, and Sarah Hall's Daughters of the North that I had a lot of trouble getting into and didn't finish.

Everything else in the middle was entertaining, and some excellent novels: Susanne Collins' Hunger Games was an excellent read, although the sequel was a bit too much of the same for my liking. I haven't reached #3, Mockingjay, and I'm awaiting that one's release in paperback. China Mieville's Embassytown was interesting, a little flawed, but brilliant all the same, although I have to say that I liked Kraken quite a bit more. Leviathan Wakes was a lot of fun to read, and a promising start to a new series, while John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation was something I tore through in just a couple of hours on a plane. I finally got in on A Game of Thrones, and it lives up to the hype, somewhat. I even broke out of the SF/F genres, and picked up the fantastic The Big Roads, by Earl Swift, which was a fascinating look at the construction of roadways in the US. Karen Traviss's entry into the Halo universe was also a fantastic one, and it's dragged me in to that particular expanded world, as I picked up several other Halo novels, which will likely get read next time I'm on a Halo kick. I re-read Mossflower after Brian Jaqcues passed away, as well as Ender's Game, and found both books really lived up to my memories of them. Ernie Cline's Reader Player One was a fun, entertaining book, but it was lacking in other departments. Finally, I had a chance to go back and revisit Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which lives up to my first impressions wonderfully.

So, why quantify my enjoyment? I've generally been accused from people of taking things like this too seriously, in reviewing films or books that should be 'just for fun'. I've never subscribed to the ‘turn your brain off while you read/watch/listen’ train of thought, because I think that does a disservice to the author. Certainly, there's books or films that I've done that with, enjoying them because they were written to be enjoyed. But, distilling a year's worth of reading down into some easy statistics?

A couple of reasons: one, it helps me better understand my own interests by grounding them in reality. As mentioned, I firmly describe myself in the science fiction camp, but over the past couple of years, I've generally been surprised when I've read more fantasy than science fiction. My interests are all over the place, and I don't generally remember at a glance what I've read as a whole. I was a little surprised that I hadn't finished more than a single history book this year, despite the intense work that I did on various history projects: I've read portions of numerous historical texts, mainly about World War II and military history (including a couple that are still technically on the reading list), but never finished them, or needed to finish them. This might also be me forgetting to stick a book onto the 'Read' List.

Reading is an important part of what I do. I typically read at night, before I go to bed (increasingly, if I'm using my iPad, or at the beginning of the day, when I can get through 10-15 pages while I'm waiting for my computer to load up at work. Weekends usually mean a lot of time to blow through something, and when I was on public transportation for two trips earlier this year to Washington D.C. and Belgium, I read a lot: three books for each trip (for the DC trip, that was one book for the airplane, one for the second day on the train, and the third for the flight home, all in a couple of days.) Better understanding my own reading habits help me to read more, I think, and while it's not quantity over quality, I've got a massive backlog of books that I've bought. Looking over my list from this year, I had a total of 6 books - 13%! - came off of that list, which currently numbers around 100. These are all books that I've owned for more than a year, while a huge number of books that I picked up this year were released this year, and this also comes as a bit of a surprise.

My thoughts going into 2012 is that I’ll be whittling down the to-read list. There’s a lot of books that I do want to get to in the near future. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number that are edging up the list: George R.R. Martin's second entry in the Song of Ice and Fire, Clash of Kings is most certainly going to make it onto the list when the next season hits, the entire X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston will get re-read prior to the next novel in the series, Mercy Kill. I also want to revisit Timothy Zahn’s Icarus Hunt. I've also been wanting to begin David Louis Edelman's Infoquake, finish out William Gibson's Bigend trilogy with Zero History and get into Neal Stephenson, Iain M. Banks, and generally blow through a bunch of paperbacks and history books that I've had for a couple of years. Hopefully, I'll be able to get through a portion of that, and hopefully, I'll slow down the growth of my own library - we're running out of shelf space (again).

It’s been a fun year, with a lot of good stories all around. It looks like 2012 will be just as much fun.

The Best Books of 2011

2010 was a good year for reading, and this year, while it had some significant downs, also had its share of really great reads. I'll be posting a full list of the books read in 2011 in the next week or so, but in the meantime, here's the books that I most enjoyed this year:  

Soft Apocalypse

1 - Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh

My absolute favorite read of the year was Will McIntosh's debut novel, Soft Apocalypse. Already the recipient of a Hugo award, this book is one that I hope will follow suit. A bleak and outstanding look at what the future might hold, McIntosh weaves a tale that's outstanding in its character growth and understanding of how the world works on massive scales. It's tragic and heartbreaking on one hand, and unmistably beautiful on the other. (Review)

The Magician King

2 - The Magician King, Lev Grossman

I didn't think that Grossman would be able to top The Magicians, and I was wary of it earlier this year: Where the first one could be described as the anti-Harry Potter, I have a hard time seeing how this one could play out. It turns out, it played out very well: Grossman not only topped the first book, he created a story that was brilliant in all regards: further building up the characters from the last book, and making the stakes from this book much higher, darker and deeper than I thought possible. The story is simply stunning. (Review)

Leviathan Wakes

3 - Leviathan Wakes, James A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is a book that grabbed me at the cover and refused to let go. I've long had a soft spot for space opera, and this book really fits the bill, with an exceptional world within our solar system. There's a bit of everything in this story: military action, detective fiction, weird science and space Mormons. I already can't wait for the followup, Caliban's War, due out next June. (Review)

Rule 34

4 - Rule 34, Charles Stross

I'm currently in the middle of this book, but I'm confident of it's place here. I met Stross at ReaderCon in 2010, where he told me that his next book opens with a man getting murdered by a viagra enema. It's set in the same world as his prior novel, Halting State, and in a way, the book is a cross between the J.J. Connolly's Layer Cake and William Gibson. (Review to come at the Functional Nerds)

Embassytown

5 - Embassytown / Kraken, China Miéville

I loved Miéville's book, The City and The City, and the 2 books that I read from him this year both deserve a place on this (Kraken was a 2010 release). Both are wholly fantastic books: an alternative, weird London in one, and a totally alien world in the other. Miéville is a master at fully understanding the worlds, and both are fantastic examples of a brilliant story meshed with a perfectly conceived setting. (Review / Review)

Spellbound

6 - Spellbound, Blake Charlton

Charlton did a nice job with his first novel, Spellwright, and his second is a worthy followup that expands and builds upon his world in grand fashion. I loved his understanding of magic: this book is almost a science fiction novel, running on a bit of a slightly different frequency. It's a great addition that builds on the first novel, and I can't wait to see what happens next. (Review)

Halo: Glasslands

7 - Halo: Glasslands, Karen Traviss

I've long loved the Halo franchise, and I got into it hardcore: bought several other books, bought and played through Reach, Combat Evolved and got my wife hooked on the armored folks. This novel has a great story to it, which is sort of par for the course for Traviss, revolving around the end of the Human-Covenant War, continuing the storyline into new territory. I'm excited to see where she goes with it. (Review)

Fuzzy Nation

8 - Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

John Scalzi embarked on a bit of an experiment with Fuzzy Nation: it's a literary reboot of H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy. It's a fun read, with an pointed, relevant message. The book is a quick read, and it's got about the same level of substance to it, but it's a hilarious read, one that had me laughing out loud throughout the couple of hours that I read it. (Review)

Machine Man

9 - Machine Man, Max Barry

Max Barry's Jennifer Government was a book that showed me that great science fiction could be really funny and ridiculous at the same time. Max Barry returns with Machine Man, partially written online, and falls with much of the same level of humor that Jennifer Government held. It's ridiculous at one level, but then, when you look at our increasingly technology filled lives, it's not so far fetched. (Review

At the Queen's Command

10 - At Queen's Command, Michael A. Stackpole

I've long been a fan of Michael Stackpole's books, going back to the X-Wing Series and some of his other fantastic novels. He's now back, under the Nightshade Books banner with an alternate history novel that reimagines the early days of the British colonies in the Americas with magic, zombies, necromancers and dragons. It's a fun, vivid read. (Review)

Other Notables: A couple of additional books that I enjoyed were Ganymede by Cherie Priest, Germline by T.C. McCarty and Ready Player One by Ernie Cline.

2010 Reading List

This was a great year for reading. A lot of excellent fiction was released, and I felt like I got a lot of good out of my year from the books that I picked up. Here's what I read.

1- A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan (1-14) This was a fantastic history on the Cold War, one that I wish I'd come across while I was working on my project. I've revisited it a couple of times since the start of the year for other projects.

2 - The Forever War, Joe Halderman (1-28) This was a book that had come highly recommended for years, and I really enjoyed how it was more about people than guns and brawn.

3 - The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel (2-8) During the Second World War, a team of specialists were dispatched around Europe to save art from the effects of war, the focus of this book. It's a little uneven, but tells an astonishing story.

4 - We, John Dickinson (2-19) This was a crappy book. Amateurish and poorly written.

5 - Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2-24) I watched the movie around the same time, and I've long like Gaiman's works. This was an excellent YA novel.

6 - Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, John Scalzi (3-4) Scalzi's Whatever blog is always an entertaining read, and this collection takes some of the better entries into a book of short essays. Thought-provoking, interesting and well worth reading.

7 - Shadowline, Glenn Cook (3-6) With all of my complaints about military science fiction not being all that accurate or conceived of, Shadowline is one of the few books that have made me eat my words - there's some well conceived ideas here, and this reprint from Night Shade Books was a fun read.

8 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jeminsin (3-19) N.K. Jemisin's first novel came with a lot of buzz, and I really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It's a very different blend of fantasy than I've ever read.

9 - Spellwright, Blake Charlton (3-29) Spellwright was probably one of my favorite reads of the year - it was fast, entertaining and thoughtful - a good fantasy debut, and I'm already eager for the sequel.

10 - The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (4-21). Karin Lowachee's Warchild was a favorite book from my high school years, and I was delighted to see her back after a long absence. This steampunk novel is an unconventional one, and a good example for the rest of the genre to follow.

11 - The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams (5-17) David J. Williams contacted me after I wrote an article on military science fiction, and I went through his first book with vigor - it's a fast-paced, interesting take on military SF and a bit of Cyberpunk.

12 - Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu (5-28) Charles Yu distinguished himself as a talented writer with his short fiction, and his recently released collection shows off some great stories.

13 - Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (6-1) Bacigalupi goes to Young Adult fiction with Ship Breaker, an excellent read set in a post-oil world. He gets a lot of things right with this: the surroundings and trappings of the world aren't always important, but the characters and their struggles are timeless.

14 - Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (6-8) This much-hyped book was one that I avoided for a while, but I blew through it after I picked it up. It's a fun, exciting read in the quintessential steampunk world that Priest has put together. I love this alternate Seattle.

15 - To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck (7-15) Steinbeck's book is a dense one that took me a while to read through while I was reading several books at one. It's an interesting take on biblical themes and on faith itself.

16 - American Gods, Neil Gaiman (7-25) This was a book that was a pick for the 1b1t movement on twitter (something I hope returns), and I was happy for the excuse to re-read this fantastic novel. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and this time around, it was fantastic to have that reaffirmed.

17 - The Burning Skies, David J Williams (7-25) The followup to the Mirrored Heavens, this book took me a while to get through because it was dense and intense. A decent read, but it proved to be a bit of a chore to get through.

18 - How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (7-30) This was probably one of the best science fiction books that I've read in a long time. It's brilliant, well written, interesting and part of the story itself. It's an outstanding take on time travel as well.

19 - River Of Gods, Ian McDonald (9-2) I've long heard of Ian McDonald, but I hadn't picked up any of his stories before now. His take on a future India is a fantastic one, and can't wait for more of his stories. River of Gods broke the mold when it comes to western science fiction: the future will be for everyone.

20 - Clementine, Cherie Priest (9-3) This short novella was a bit too compact for the story that it contained, but it demonstrated that The Clockwork Century is something that can easily extend beyond Boneshaker.

21 - Pattern Recognition (9-11) William Gibson's book from a couple of years ago, taking science fiction to the present day in this thriller. It's a fun read, and I've already got the sequels waiting for me.

22 - New Model Army, Adam Roberts (9-22) This military science fiction book had an interesting premise: what happens when crowdsourcing and wikiculture comes to warfare. The book is a little blunt at points, but it's more thought provoking than I thought it would be.

23 - Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman (9-26) An excellent anthology of short stories from all over the speculative fiction genre. There's some real gems in there.

24 - Andvari's Ring, Arthur Peterson (9-26) A translation of norse epic poetry from the early 1900s, this book looks and feels like a book should, and is one of those bookstore discoveries that I love. This was a fun book that has roots for a number of other stories in it.

25 - The City and The City, China Miéville (9-30) One of my absolute favorite stories of the year came with this book, my first introduction to Mieville. This murder mystery set against a fantastic background has some great implications that go with the story.

26 - Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigaulupi (10-22) A paperback version of Bacigalupi's stories was released towards the end of the year, and I have to say, it's one of the more disturbing reads of the year, but also one of the most excellent.

27 - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (10-31) I did a little reading on Washington Irving and found an e-book of this while I was going through a bit of a fascination on the gothic / horror genre. This book does it well. Hopefully, I'll be able to do a bit more research on the author and his fiction this year.

28 - The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman (11-8) The television show was an interesting one, and I finally was able to catch up on the comic that started it. They're very close to start, but that changes after a couple of episodes. Some of the characters were spot on.

29 - Baltimore, or,The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. (11-8) This was a fun read: Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden both have some great storytelling abilities when it comes to horror fiction, and their take on vampires is an excellent one.

30 - Dreadnought, Cherie Priest (11-10) Cherie Priest had a really good thing with Boneshaker, but Dreadnought was a bit of a disappointment. It didn't have the same flair or feeling that the first book did, but it did do some things that I'd wanted to see in Boneshaker. It's an interesting series, and I'll be interested to see what happens next.

31 - Lost States, Michael Trinklein (11-13) This was a fun book that I came across in a local store on states that didn't make it. It's a fun, quick read with a number of fun stories.

32 - The Jedi Path, Daniel Wallace (11-14) While I thought this book wasn't worth the $100 for all the frills and packaging, this is a really cool read for Star Wars fans, going into some of the history and methods of the Jedi Order.

33 - Horns, Joe Hill (11-22) This was the other absolutely fantastic book that I read this year (reading it as an ebook and then from the regular book) from localish author Joe Hill. The story of a man who sprouts horns and a small, emotional story about his life. It's an astonishing read, and one that will hopefully be up for a couple of awards.

34 - Doom Came to Gotham, Mike Mignola (11-24) This was a fun, alternate take on the Batman stories in a steampunk world. Batman + Mignola's art = awesome.

35 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling (11-28) 36 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (11-29) 37 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (12-1) 38 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (12-3) 39 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (12-12) 40 - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (12-15) 41 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling (12-18) I'm not going to talk about each Potter novel in turn, but as a single, continuous story, Rowling has put together a hell of a story here. Outstanding characters and storylines, and the works as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.

42 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (12-27)

The logical book to read after the Harry Potter series was Lev Grossman's novel that can be described as an anti-Harry Potter. It's a fun novel the second time through, and good preparation for his followup this year.

43 - Brave New Worlds, John Joseph Adams (12-31)

The review for this book is coming shortly, but I have to say, it's one of the best anthologies that I've ever read.

On to 2011!

Revisiting Harry Potter

In 2007, I worked at the Berlin Mall Waldenbooks branch as a bookseller. In July of that year, we were able to take part in what was probably one of the biggest literary launches to date: the release of the final volume of Harry Potter, The Deathly Hollows, a highly anticipated book that had people lining up down the mall, and which saw an arrival of hundreds of sturdy white and red boxes with special tape to prevent theft or tampering. In my short time as a bookseller, I've never seen the same fervor or attention placed on a novel's release. My sister, dressed up as Luna Lovegood for the line, purchased our family's copy just after midnight, and returned home to start it. The next couple of days saw us stealing the book from one another, reading it chapter by chapter while we pretended to be ready to release spoilers for the parts that each other had yet to read. We both finished the book, and moved on to other things.

In fact, I only owned a UK edition of The Order of the Phoenix, really only as a curiosity because of its fantastic cover, rather than with plans to read through it any time soon. I fostered my memories of the books, slightly disappointed with the ending, and planned in the back of my mind to eventually buy all the books and re-read them at some point in the future. While browsing through a bookstore in Montpelier earlier this fall, I came across a cheap, used hardcover in excellent condition, and bought it. I kept my eyes out on my frequent bookstore visits, and soon, I had all of the books in hand (All hardcover, in good condition, like I had as a kid.)

With all of the books in hand, and needing to read something I didn't have to pay as much attention to, I reread the entire series in twenty days, or 3853 pages at just under 200 pages a day. It's a pace that I haven't read at for a long time, as the books that I pick up have changed and my education has brought my reading speed down. It was refreshing, exhilarating and fun and a good opportunity to pull in the entire Harry Potter story within a small amount of time.

The Harry Potter books were something that I had picked up early in High School. Around 2001, the books had become incredibly popular, I found myself borrowing out the first two the day before a snow storm. With a snow day right after, I was angry: I'd read through both books, and had to wait for a full day to borrow out the latest book, the Prisoner of Azkaban, still one of my favorites. The fourth book came while I was working at Camp, and the fifth was snatched up by my sister while I went on a graduation trip with my classmates in 2003. Books Six and Seven came out while I was in college, and for the most part, were completely unmemorable.

As I blew through the first four books in the series, I was reminded of why I loved these books so much as a high school student. Despite the drawbacks when it comes to the writing style (there's a reason why I can blow through each book quickly) and some of the more less-nuanced parts of the stories, Rowling has put together an incredible series, one that certainly appealed to my high school imagination, and its grown up counterpart.

What struck me, on this read through, was at how well each piece fits together at the end. While the first three books really function as their own separate pieces, book four introduces some of the major plot elements that stretch through to the end. Pieces of the first book return to impact and flesh out the events of the last. It's a clever bit of retrocontinuity, or some incredible planning on Rowling's part, or a bit of both, but after taking a break from the books for the better part of three years, returning felt like putting a pair of fresh eyes on the story as one continuous unit, rather than taken in piecemeal over the seven or so years that I read the books as they came out.

Where I was disappointed with The Deathly Hollows before, I was blown away by it this time around. While the book has its problems - the first half feels like filler, while the last half feels like an information dump - it accomplishes what some books have a very hard time doing: saying goodbye to a longstanding story and tying it up in a satisfactory way. The ending is happy, perfect, while major themes on good vs. evil, destiny vs. self-determination and friendship vs. enemies all play out around this. Young adult fiction has been a growing market for both youths and adults, and after reading through the seven books here, it's easy to see why: it's a perfect balance between entertainment and morals. While they seem to shuck some of the subtlety that I appreciate in some of the upper echelons of genre literature, these offer much the same end result.

Dreadnought, Cherie Priest

It’s hard to mention the term Steampunk without also mentioning Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, an alternate history of the United States, featuring all of the bells and whistles that comes with the territory. The first novel, Boneshaker, was well received, as was the short novella, Clementine, set shortly after the events of the first book, while the latest entry in the series (there are two more planned), Dreadnought, picks up the story across the country and helps to flesh out Priest’s strange alternate world. An interesting follow-up to Boneshaker, Dreadnought never quite reaches the same heights that its predecessor reached, nor does it quite feel as unique. As such, Priest brings out new elements to the Civil War only hinted at in the previous books, and tells a fun story, one that is sure to be popular with the steampunk crowd.

Following Mercy Lynch, a nurse stationed in a confederate war hospital in Virginia, Dreadnought is set in the heart of the lengthened American Civil War. Lynch is summoned away by her father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, (careful readers will remember the name from Boneshaker). What happens next is a journey for Lynch that she could never have expected. An alternate title for this book could easily have been Airships, Barges and Locomotives, for her journey across the country covers not only ground, but the staples of the steampunk movement. Along the way, a number of storylines begin to form and collide as the war effort goes forward. A Texas Ranger is on the hunt for a missing Mexican army, while a Union scientist harbors a hidden and deadly cargo onboard the Dreadnought, a Union train bound for the west on a mysterious mission. As Lynch finds herself at the center of the conflict, we’re treated to a spectacle of action and movement as she makes her way across the continent to her dying father.

At points, Dreadnought is very good, particularly once things get moving west, when the titular Dreadnought becomes the main setting and as story elements begin to collide. Each storyline has their own main elements running forward and Priest has constructed a fascinating tale of the war without being set in the war, further telling the story of two sides that fail to quit fighting.

At the same time, however, Dreadnought proved to be a frustrating read as exposition took over in the beginning and end, and as the story seemed to merely drift along the rail road tracks to each major scene, with a host of forgettable characters to fill in the blanks. Where Boneshaker left me unable to put the book down, Dreadnought seems to be the sophomore slump (being the second full novel in the series, not the author’s second novel or story within The Clockwork Century) in the series.

Part of this might stem from the very nature of the book, spread out over a vast continent, with almost too much to look at: there’s a short, tantalizing section on the actions of the Civil War, then onto the fragmented nature of the country, then the native Americans, mad scientists, Texas Rangers and zombies. As a result, the main action takes its time to gather momentum. But, when it does, the book (forgive me) picks up steam and becomes an engrossing read that lives up to the best elements of its predecessors before ending quietly with a quick link to Boneshaker that serves well as an epilogue.

Steampunk has hit some major counter arguments lately from a couple of authors, making some pointed arguments that The Clockwork Century, nor Dreadnought are able to adequately answer. The main point that kept running through my mind during all of the stories was how the Civil War would be approached, and after reading through Dreadnought, it seems that there’s a certain level of the Southern inevitable cause that seems to have survived since the 1870s when it first originated: the South was destined to lose, but it fought the better fight. Thrust into the heat of the Civil War, the book goes in this direction, and as a historian, it’s a little frustrating to see such a revisionist vision come out. (This isn’t to say that Mrs. Priest is a diehard revisionist: just that her book seems to go in that direction)

Whatever the historical feelings are when it comes to this story, Charles Stross brings up a very good point with his own rant about Steampunk: namely that the genre seems far too rosy and nostalgic for the staples of Steampunk: the corsets, the goggles, brass and strange trappings that characterize the movement. Here, the south seems to have largely given up an element of bloody racism, lone women are free to run around the country largely without incident, and there’s really no feeling of the absolute brutality and dark nature that characterized this era of history. While Stross’s arguments miss elements of how history played out in the United States, there are still some relevant points. I would rather have this rather fantastic, romanticized past rather than the actual one, but when compared to our true past, this version feels somewhat hollow.

Keeping in mind that this is an element of historical fiction, aimed towards entertainment, these arguments are somewhat petty in and of themselves: there is no expectation of historical accuracy, especially when there is talk of a zombie army running around Utah, eating the Mormons who have settled there, but it feels like there is an incredible opportunity missed by not setting a story that looks to something besides a romantic version of the past. The reasons for not doing so are pretty clear: when marketing a product that you want to sell, you don’t really want to highlight all of the nasty or dirty elements, much as Apple doesn’t want to highlight the group of Foxxconn workers who committed suicide while building the ever popular iProducts that have become so common play. However, by ignoring these elements, Priest’s vision of steampunk is far more polished and perfect, which calls attention to itself.  But, that’s okay.

Steampunk is a genre that I’ve sought to avoid as much as possible, but Priest’s alternative vision in Dreadnought, no matter how polished, is a fun and exciting story that stands up well within her series, and it gives me no small amount of hope that even with a flood of material, there are still some authors who strive to tell a good story, rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck off of an audience who’s looking the right way at the right time. Dreadnought is a good book – not a great one – that holds no pretense as to what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t overstep its bounds. For that reason alone, it’s worth picking up and reading. Steampunk itself might be a flawed creation, but so long as Priest stands at the front, I have an amount of faith that there will still be some good stories to be told within it.

Stories: All New Tales, Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

"...and then what happened?"

This is the question that's asked by Neil Gaiman in his introduction to Stories: All New Tales, which goes to the heart of what should happen with any story. In this collection of nearly thirty stories, the two have assembled an incredible roster of authors to tell some good stories, and ultimately fulfills the purpose of this anthology, to captivate the reader, and to have them continue to turn the pages.

Built on the premise of the notion that stories should be page turners, this anthology differs significantly from other anthologies that I've picked up over the years, and brings together an extremely wide range of tales from every genre. The result is a comparative library of short fiction, putting together a number of genres, themes and perspectives into a single volume. While it's not the best anthology that I own (Robert Silverburg's classic, Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, takes that title), Stories comes very close.

Short fiction seems to be on the rise, with a number of fantastic anthologies published recently: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, Wastelands/Federations/The Living Dead, by John Joseph Adams, the ever present Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois and The Best Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jonathan Strahan, not to mention the countless small press anthologies and digital magazines, such as Lightspeed Magazine, that have grown more popular. As a result, there seems to be a relative explosion of short fiction out there, and Stories is one of the better collections that I've seen. By structuring the anthology with a broader mission, it stands out because it doesn't fall into any one genre.

Broadening the focus of the anthology also brings out a wide diversity in authors, from inside and outside the typical genre circles. Authors include Joyce Carol Oats, Neil Gaiman, Richard Adams, Jodi Picoult, Michael Swanwick, Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill, amongst others, which bring together a really neat roster of all-star writers, which goes to help with the quality of said stories. This isn't to say that a themed anthology is lacking because of the intense focus and a more limited range of stories and authors, but what it does allow is for quite a bit more freedom to tell a number of good stories unrestricted of content. As a result, this is one of the few anthologies that I've read cover to cover, rather than reading through a couple of stories piecemeal. Where Stories is a collection that defies genre, it gains some of the best minds from a broad cross section of writers amongst many genres.

There were a number of stories that I really liked: “Fossil Figures”, by Joyce Carol Oats, “Blood”, by Roddy Doyle, “Wildfire in Manhattan” (which, as a couple of other reviewers have noted, would fix exceedingly well with Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods), “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Gaiman, “Juvenal Nyx”, by Walter Mosley, “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult, “Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick, “A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard, “The Therapist” by Jeffrey Deaver, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerephon” by Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill’s “The Devil on the Staircase”. Michael Moorcock’s title story “Stories” is another that bears mentioning: it’s not one that I particularly liked, but it’s one of the tales that has remained with me since I read the book, and has caused a considerable amount of reflection after the fact.

The end result is a book that easily accomplishes what every storyteller should be doing: telling a good story, one that compels the reader to continue to turn the pages and to see what happens next. For a single author to do to this is a good thing: to get twenty-six excellent stories together that do the same thing is even better, and as a result, Stories is a worthy addition to any library of a speculative fiction fan, or reader in general.

The Sky Isn’t Falling: Science Fiction as a Genre

Lately, it seems like there have been numerous article and opinion pieces on the state of the science fiction genre, as opposed to the fantasy and horror genres, with science fiction losing out to both and declining as a field. More women make up the total readership, and tend to read more towards the fantasy genre, while commercial ready fiction such as True Blood, The Dresden Files and Twilight have pushed their respective genres towards audiences that are highly receptive towards what they have to offer. Speculative fiction as a genre is not going away: rather, it seems to be growing stronger, with more ties towards the literary fields and with a growing readership. Science fiction is not a genre to be counted out, but it is a style of fiction that will need to undergo much thematic change in the future in order to remain relevant to readers.

Science Fiction as a whole is one that covers a wide range when it comes to themes and topics, and simply stating that the genre as a whole is failing is a rather meaningless, if somewhat dramatic statement. To say that people will stop writing about the speculative future is to say that people will stop imagining what will happen next: that is simply not going to happen. Rather, it is more realistic to assume that some of the more traditional stories might go away as our understanding of the world around us changes: this is a natural expectation.

Science Fiction is a genre that acts as a mirror for the present. It acts as a rare opportunity for creators to examine commonplace issues in a way that it relates to the present; viewing current events out of context as a way of examining them from afar. This is something that I don't believe is new or revelatory when it comes to analyzing the genre, but it is something that bears reminding as people attempt to predict the future of the genre as a whole.

The future of science fiction isn't limited to literature.

Amongst other articles that I've heard reiterated most often is the decline in the fiction that is presented in book (or soon, in virtual book) form. While that might be the case, especially compared to the rise of competing genres, science fiction is not limited to the printed page. As technology progresses, new avenues have presented themselves as methods for the genre to thrive. Content-wise, science fiction is a genre that fits very well with any number of video game systems, and the rise of games with larger story arches, such as Mass Effect, Halo, Gears of War and others demonstrate that science fiction has moved forward with interactive stories that have appealed to a very large audience. I don't believe that I've seen a comparable success with the any sort of video game that follows 'high-browed' literature style to tell a dramatic story.

Similarly, while the same isn't true with films, it's very clear that while they don't win awards as consistently as dramatic films, they can still do very, very well when it comes to earning money for their creators and generating a wide following. One doesn't have to look far beyond Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Avatar in recent years to realize that people do like science fiction and fantasy in large numbers. Even looking at the critical reception of films such as Inception, Moon, District 9, and Pan's Labyrinth to see that the genres are capable of being far more than 'just' crowd pleasers, but can also act as an introspective on the problems and conflicts that surround us in everyday life, addressing themes on identity and culture, morals and ethics, just to name a scant few.

Speculative fiction hawks have to get away from academic acceptance.

Listening to a piece on NPR the other day, I listened to Margaret Atwood note that it paid to be somewhat cautious when labeling works of fiction. She herself was caught up in a bit of drama when she characterized her works as being speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, characterizing her work as speculative fiction, creating a distinction between the genres, which rubbed numerous science fiction fans the wrong way, prompting a lot of speculation as to the nature of the genre. Reading over numerous book blogs and talking with fellow readers, it's clear that there is a large rift amongst people as to how to accept science fiction.

Science fiction seems to largely be unclaimed by the literary academic fields, dismissed from major awards on numerous grounds. I noted the bitterness in an acquaintance's words that a literary award was left devoid of science fiction and fantasy works, and I have had to wonder there is such attention paid to the status of the genre in these fields as other books have gained considerable attention in the mass media, such as Cormic McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road to Lev Grossman's The Magicians, both of which seemed to fall under a more mainstream section of the genre, while enjoying what appears to have been quite a lot of critical and commercial success. At the same time, other books, such as Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, and Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora seem to have done very well within their speculative genres, if the outcry of fans over the delays in the third book of Lynch's stories and the quick sellout of Priest's sequel novella are anything to go on.

Obviously, labels matter to an extent, but only when it comes to the marketing of said fictions, which makes the complaints about the literary discrimination seem only stranger to me, from both sides of the spectrum. While Atwood's remarks seemed remarkably short sighted for an established storyteller, numerous science fiction novels that line my shelves are ones that I can point to as superior works of literature, groundbreaking even outside of their own genres. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials was a series that provided some profound philosophical and religious points for me as a high school student, while Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 provided an understanding and appreciation for knowledge that remains with me to this point. The fantastic fiction that is out there provides argument and understanding on par with numerous works of literature, and I heartedly believe that genre snobbery is something that is largely baseless and short sighted.

Despite the labels that are out there, books like The Road and The Year of the Flood demonstrate that there is a leaking out of the genre to other genres, and one doesn't necessarily have to go to the science fiction section of the bookstore to find books that could largely fall within the genre. The label on the back of the book matters very little, and readers should be more aware of what else is out in print, especially as regular fiction catches up to the present. Given that we are increasingly living in a world that is science fictional, it stands to reason that some of that will bleed into our entertainment.

That all being said, the genre has survived for going on a century at this point, often as a crowd-pleasing genre, and one that certainly wouldn’t attract any academic or critical interest at various points in its history.

Fans need to understand that Speculative Fiction is about change... and it is changing.

If there is any one lesson that Science Fiction as its own, self-contained sub genre can impart, it is that the future is going to present a changed reality for all of those who inhabit it. The stories tend to follow how the protagonists can change their world for the better, usually based upon their actions. (This is a broad assumption, but one that I feel is valid) As such, it needs to be understood that the environment that fostered the genre in its earlier, formative days has given way to a world that has been drastically changed by economic, environmental and political events that leaves the current generation of readers with a vastly different understanding of the world as opposed to those who grew up during the Cold War.

Science fiction of the recent past was heavily influenced by world events: a book such as A Canticle for Lebowitz is one that likely could not have been written in the present day, ground breaking as it is. Fiction generally relates to its surrounding cultural contexts: It comes as no surprise that a film such as District 9 would succeed commercially and critically in today's present environment, whereas a film such as Star Wars did the same in the 1970s.

As such, the works within the genre should be expected to change with times, as our understanding of the present (as well as our understanding of technology and the things that surround us) changes. Works of epic space opera such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and some of the minor space arcs such as Timothy Zahn's Conqueror's Trilogy or Ender's Game fit within their own contexts.

A common argument that has been talked about is that the futures presented in the past tended to be optimistic, with people believing that the future held a brighter future for humanity, which in turn translated into works of science fiction. Today, the opposite seems to be true, and as such, the fiction that tends to look backwards towards better days - fantasy - seems to be on the rise. At the same time, the science fiction that seems to be garnering more attention is the dystopia stories: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl and assorted stories, Cormic McCarthy's The Road, and the multitudes of zombie novels that predict our demise in the rise of undead and lone libertarians seeking to preserve the American way of life out on their own. In a way, the most successful form of science fiction to come is likely Steampunk, which presents a darker form of science fiction, set in the past, where readers can feel comforted that their current world of advanced technology (or at least medical science) leaves us much better off than in the Victorian world.

Science fiction isn't dying, dead or going anywhere.

I don't believe that this is the case, at all: science fiction is a genre that has been seen to present some utterly fantastic and relevant stories for readers, addressing concerns of the present day in a twisted context. Looking beyond the artificial walls that genre terms provide, it's likely that the stories that we grew up with are likely going to change a bit: the random adventure in a space ship with strange aliens and laser guns might not be quite as common in the wider genre world, but they're likely to be replaced by stories that offer far different visions and interpretations of the future, by simple virtue of being written and created in the present day. 'Real life' is rapidly becoming something out of a science fiction novel, with hand-held computers, global positioning sensors and advances in all sorts of other technologies.

While some of the subject matter is changing, so to is the mediums that we can see the genre, and by this virtue alone, science fiction and fantasy is a genre that is here to stay, simply because it is a resilient genre that can fill numerous forms. Life itself spreads and survives on numbers, so to does the speculative fiction genres, where massive franchises of video games, movies and tie-in fiction enthralled millions of fans each day, generating excitement at the box office, blogs and conventions, where people look to the next really cool thing that they can take in. In its popularity, it is already bleeding into the mainstream consciousness through any number of forms. At this point, do mainstream literary awards matter for the genre as a whole, or signal some form of mainstream acceptance of the genre? I doubt it.

Defining Geek History

Before looking at exactly what 'geek history' is, the term must be defined, to give the term relevance, but also the content that should be looked at. With those elements in mind, an examination of the history behind the Geekdom becomes much easier, but also allows for someone to look at the greater significance for how exactly Geek History is in any way important.

A couple of years ago, Ben Nugent published a book titled American Nerd: The Story Of My People, a short book that was part biography, part history and part examination of culture. While I wasn't particularly impressed with the book as a whole, there were a number of very good ideas there, particularly in how he defined a geek or a nerd-type person. It boiled down to a fairly simple concept: a geek/nerd (minus the social connotations) is someone who is extremely passionate about any given subject, learning all that they can about it. They tend to be readers, and because of this attention, there's a tendency to miss out on some social elements that most people take for granted. The subject itself doesn't necessarily matter, and I've generally assumed that geeks/nerds tend to gravitate towards the science fiction / fantasy realms because the content is more appealing.

By this definition, education, literacy and an attention to detail are paramount, defining elements in how geeks and nerds are defined. In a country where education seems to be a point against an individual, it's even more important to understand the role that such things play with the public, and to recognize the importance of individuals in the past, and how their actions and knowledge has helped to define the present that we now know today.

In a large way, looking at geekdom in history is akin to looking at major historical figures who have the largest impact because of their contributions to events through conception, rather than just actions. These are people who help to develop ideas in a number of different stages, either formulating designs, concepts of plans, or helping to see some major thing through. With the Geek definition in mind, people such as this also tend to be very hands on with a lot of their work, being directly involved with their projects, or singlehandedly putting something together that changes how people think about the world afterwards. In some cases, this is a simple person to pick out: an author of a notable book, or a director of a film. Other instances, where science and industry are involved, this would be slightly more difficult, given the collaborative nature of some of these projects.

Looking at Geek History, then, is looking at the people who change the future because of their ideas, rather than predominantly implementing these changes themselves. These creators were instrumental in putting items in place that likewise changed how people interact with the world, and in addition to examining the people behind the advances, it's also important to look at how their works, whether they're inventions, novels, films or even events, helped to transform the world into a much different place.

Geek History largely comes down to the history of knowledge and ideas. Given the general rise in popularity in geek things, I tend to think of this style of history as one that looks to the past hundred to hundred and fifty years, simply because of the general proximity of the modern day, and more highly relevant to the modern sort of geek movement. However, there's elements of this line of thinking that extend far more into the past, mixing science and social histories that can likely go back to the beginning of the examination of thought itself.

The study and appreciation of the modern geek movement should look at the roots and elements that make up the modern geek, from the tools that are used to the entertainment that we soak up to the way that we think and approach the world. It's far more than the stereotypes, it's in everything that makes up those stereotypes.

The Upcoming Film Slate

Inception was amongst my most anticipated film of 2010 for this summer, and having seen that film in theaters (although I would very much like to see it once or twice more, soon), focus inevitably moves towards the next big thing to watch. With San Diego Comic Con over, and with it, a large rush of new trailers and films announced, or at least expounded upon. Looking at what's coming up, there are a couple of films that have caught my eye, which will be released in the next year or so. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1

When it comes to Harry Potter, I've enjoyed the books, but I've really disliked the movies. The first and second films were simply abysmal, childish and completely didn't mesh with my vision of what the books were, while The Prisoner of Azkaban was marvelous, film-wise, but lacking in terms of adaptation. I haven't seen the movies that follow, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix and the Half Blood Prince, and I've heard varying degrees of quality from the lot of them. Still, the films look like they are getting better, and hopefully, I'll catch up with the films in order to see the first of the last Harry Potter film in theaters. Overall, I've really liked what I've seen from the trailers, in terms of film quality and the story, and if anything, it'll hopefully be fun to watch.

Tron: Legacy

I first watched the original Tron earlier this year, and I was absolutely blown away by it. The graphics are certainly outdated, but that hardly matters. Now, the original cast is back, aged in real time, and along with it, a stunning new version of the computerized universe, which, from all appearances by the trailers and VFX reels, looks simply stunning. This film has me left with some extremely high hopes, and I'm interested to see where they can go with the story, twenty or so years later. With the release of the first film, there was a certain understanding as to how computers and cyberspace was used. Now, in the age where computers are a major part of entertainment and work, that understanding has changed, substantially. Hopefully, the film will change with that change in understanding.

Battle: Los Angeles

This film is one that has seen the occasional news, but with Comic Con, there were several major announcements, and a trailer released, which has gotten me very interested in what this one will be about. The basic premise is that the film will mesh Independence Day and Black Hawk Down, as the Marines confront an alien invasion in Los Angeles. My guess is that this film will be approached much like we did District 9, with an original story, marketed with an interesting viral marketing campaign, similar film styles and so forth. The basic premise, marines vs. aliens, is already a fun one. What's gotten me more interested is that this film is being approached as if it were a war film. The aliens will be organized, logical, and aren't going to be destroying things like monuments. Plus, there will be combat. It should be a fun ride. No trailer yet, but that should be coming soon.

Sucker Punch

The trailer for this new Zach Snyder film looked just plain awesome. I have very little to go on: a trailer that combines dragons, Samurai, rockets, Nazis, alien planets, and a bunch of girls, and a description of 'Alice in Wonderland plus machine guns.'. The film doesn't look like it's going to be anything that's going to be thought provoking or anything like that. This looks to be the film that will be balls to the wall action, coupled with Snyder's fantastic visual style that he's worked on in 300 and Watchmen.

Thor

The trailer for this film leaked this morning, and honestly? It looks much better than I thought it might. Thor was a film that I wasn't all that interested in watching, but it looks like it could be quite a bit of fun, especially as Marvel dips further and further into the Avengers arc that will be tying all of their films together. There is enough action and familiar characters to make this film appear to feel very much at home with the universe that's being created, and it's just one further step in a bigger plan that Marvel has going.

Monsters

Titled Mexico's District 9, this film has also been on my radar, with a couple of short teasers and photos. The premise follows a NASA satellite that had been searching for life crashes south of the United States border, bringing with it something, which blankets all of Mexico in a quarantine zone. A journalist has to bring someone across the area to the U.S., and they'll be coming across these aliens. It looks like there'll be a bit of a pointed message with it, and that worked well with District 9. Plus, it's an original/independent film, which has me even more interested, getting some fresh voices to the genre.

Source Code

The last film on the list is Duncan Jone's Source Code, which has wrapped filming in Montreal, and according to Jones, should be out early in 2011. Jones created the fantastic film Moon, which has become one of my all time favorites, and is putting together a story of a soldier who has to go into the minds of the victims of a train bombing in order to discover who the perpetrator was. Jones is going to be someone to watch with the genre, and I have a feeling that this film will be a very interesting one to watch.

The To Read List

 

With a couple of books finished and out of the way, it’s time to move along with the next book on the reading list. Currently, I’m reading a couple of books for online assignments, and after that, there’s a couple of more, which I haven’t started yet.

Now that I have a very portable computer, I decided to walk around the apartment and see exactly how long my To-Read list really is. And it’s pretty long…

Currently Reading:

How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

The Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon

At Bat:

Ambassadors from Earth, Jay Gallentine

Footprints In The Dust, Various

Whirlwind, Barrett Tillman

Stories, Neil Gaiman, ed.

Infoquake, David Louis Edelman

Kraken, China Mieville

River Of Gods, Ian McDonald

Masked, Lou Anders

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

Nights of Villjamur, Mark Charan Newton

The City and the City, China Meville

Next Up:

Shadowbridge, Gregory Frost

The Dervish House, Ian McDonald

Johannes Cabal: Necromancer, Jonathan Howard

Woken Furies, Richard K Morgan

Avandari's Ring, Arthur Peterson

The Shariff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, JRR Tolkien

The Machinery of Light, David J. Williams

I’ll get to these… Sometime.

Makers, Cory Doctorow

Stardust, Neil Gaiman

World War Z, Max Brooks

Use of Weapons, Ian Banks

The Player of Games, Ian Banks

Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes

The Gun Seller, Hugh Laurie

Miles from Nowhere, Nami Mun

The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson

The Battle for Spain, Antony Beevor

D Day, Antony Beevorr

War Made New, Max Boot

Fatal Decision, Carlo D'Este

The Big Burn, Timothy Egan

Race of the Century, Julie Fenster

The Sling and the Stone, Thomas Hamms

1959, Fred Kaplan

The Power Makers, Maury Klein

The Echo of Battle, Brian Linn

Paris 1919, Margaret Macmillan

Triumph Forsaken, Mark Moyar

Combat Jump, Ed Ruggero

The People's Tycoon, Steven Watts

Grave Peril, Jim Butcher

Summer Knight, Jim Butcher

Death Masks, Jim Butcher

Blood Rites, Jim Butcher

Dead Beat, Jim Butcher

Small Favor, Jim Butcher

The Amber Wizard, David Forbes

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

The White Mountains, John Christopher

Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris

Inherit the Stars, James Hogan

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin

A Fest For Crows, George R.R. Martin

A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin

Trading in Danger, Elizabeth Moon

Command Decision, Elizabeth Moon

Marque and Reprisal, Elizabeth Moon

His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik

Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds

Redemption Ark, Alastair Reynolds

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi

The Last Colony, John Scalzi

Zoe's Tale, John Scalzi

Atonement, Ian McEwan

The Book on the Bookshelf, Henry Petroski

How to Build Your Own Spaceship, Piers Bizony

Vampire Taxonomy, Meredith Woerner

Edison's Eve, Gaby Wood

Dry Storeroom No.1, Richard Fortey

Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman

The Purpose of the Past, Gordon Wood

#1b1t

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine tried out something using twitter, #1b1t (1 Book, 1 Twitter), based off of a Chicago literary program called 1 Book, 1 Chicago. The first book chosen by vote was Neil Gaiman's American Gods, published in 2001, and which has since gone on to receive wide acclaim. It was a book that I had picked up while I was in high school, and had read, over the course of several years, picking it up and putting it away as other distractions came up. Ever since, I've been looking for a good excuse to pick the book back up and re-read the entire thing (especially now that I pay far better attention to what I'm reading), and this seemed to be as good an opportunity as any.

American Gods is an absolutely stunning novel, and one that I've grown to like over the past couple of years as I've gone back to remember what it was about. Re-reading the book this time around proved to be an enlightening experience. My opinions about the book have not changed, and indeed, having now fully understood the story, and with more of a head for storytelling, characters, writing and everything else that goes into a novel, I was impressed once again with the rich story that Gaiman had put together.

The book is the story of America, reaching deep into the roots of the country and providing one of the best examples of Americana that I can think of. Gaiman examines the spiritual core (or lack thereof) in America, spinning a story that pits new gods against old, with Shadow, an ex-con fascinated by coin tricks, at the center of it all. Interludes go back into the past and present of various gods incarnated, walking amongst the people, struggling to reclaim their former glory. Norse, Egyptian, Slavic and others populate the story, as Shadow, and his handler, Wednesday, go to gain support for the older gods, who run the risk at being pushed aside by Modern society and all that it brings. While doing so, Gaiman layers on an intense story that carries multiple facets, with smaller storylines ultimately supporting the larger ones, in a very rewarding fashion. The book is a rich literary soup, and is one to be savored. I have no doubts that I'll return in the future for more.

The crowdsourcing efforts that had been put together was an incredibly interesting one to me. While I doubt that everyone on Twitter was reading the book (maybe a fraction?), it was interesting to watch the updates fly past as people around the world read the same thing that I did, at the same time (or roughly the same time - I suspect that there are still people finishing up the book). What I liked the most about it though, was that this didn't come across as a major viral marketing scheme, publicity stunt or some other event that was designed to sell books to readers. This is the value of the internet at its heart, allowing people to gather, discuss and connect across the world over common subjects. It's a little wishy-washy, (and I'm sure that Gaiman and his publishers are quite thrilled at this), and I believe that it served as a good avenue for discussion, that's user-borne, rather than organization borne.

American Gods, I thought, was a surprising choice for such a project. The book had been out for just under a decade, and in the speculative fiction genre, but, about America, a place that is just one of many that twitter extends to. Reading over the book, however, I can see that this was probably one of the best books to have started such a project with. While taking place in America, the book is about other places, all brought together in a void in the world: America, where Gods did not exist naturally, and where they cannot stay. Despite what a lot of people think about the country, it is still a melting pot, and I suspect that even overseas readers found a bit of their home transplanted with their long distant relatives who have come across to the country.

At the same time, I finished this book right after I finished another classic author of Americana: John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown, of which this book is an almost perfect companion to, looking at the nature of faith and of higher power, and my feelings on American Gods were undoubtedly helped along by reading that book.

If you haven't read it, Gaiman's book is easily one of the best that I've ever read, and easily an early classic in the genre, one that I cannot wait to return to. If you have, you should read it again. The story of faith, living gods and folklore make this a superb, thought-provoking read.

Splitting the Genres

The Borders Blog for Science Fiction and Fantasy had a post up around wanting to split up Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. It's an interesting discussion, but it misses a lot on the mark about the types of stories that are around in the genre, while also completely missing the entire point about genres in the first place (which makes this really funny for a major bookstore blog), which is to say that genres are purely a marketing tool that are designed to put a certain product into a clearly defined audience: the speculative fiction fan.

Books in a bookstore are marketed based on the elements of the story, and are essentially grouped together based on what the characters experience, rather than the story type. Thus, bookstores are all predicable marketed as Mystery, Speculative Fiction (which is a horrible term that pretty much encompasses... everything in fiction, but really stands for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror novels), Romance, Literature (upper tier fiction / classics), sometimes Christian Fiction, sometimes poetry (although that's sometimes lumped into classics), sometimes Westerns, and then all the various nonfiction categories, which are arrayed by topic. Beyond the marketing element, genres are essentially meaningless constructions that should have no impact on the reading of the book.

There is not a whole lot that separates the two genres from one another, which makes this argument somewhat confusing. Splitting Science Fiction and Fantasy apart simply because there's a perceived, and false, notion that science fiction authors hate fantasy, is a ridiculous notion, because it's overly simplistic and not something that I think has any bearing on the actual books in the respective genres. From every author that I've ever read, spoken to, or listened to, there is an understanding that fiction is primarily about storytelling and the characters within said stories. Very few authors, I think, will set out specifically to write a book because it will fall within the science fiction genre. They might have a good story that falls specifically within the science fiction or fantasy genre, however, and the distinction is that the stories and the genres themselves aren't uniform blocks of good and bad. It's a pretty shortsighted statement to say that you hate a genre as a whole, simply because it has magic or other fantastic elements in it, or for any other reason. Looking at other genres, it's highly unlikely that you'll find a unified block of writers that like or dislike any other genre within the general fiction heading, and undoubtedly, you will find various groups of authors and fans that dislike certain subgenres within the larger genres.

This past weekend, I attended ReaderCon, and attended a panel around interstitial fiction, which primarily defines the stories that fall within the genres. It was an interesting talk, and largely boiled down to: there are simply some stories that are indefinable, because the stories have elements that move between both genres. There are major, general trends within science fiction and fantasy, especially concerning their outlook on the world, but these are not universal, and ultimately, the definition simply defines where the book is placed in a bookstore. One panel member at the con, Peter Dube, noted: “If there is no pleasure in the text, I won’t read it.”

At the end of the day, it is those two things that define the genre: the buyer, and the bookseller. In general science fiction, fantasy, weird fiction, horror and gothic fiction and all of the others generally appeals to a similar audience, and thus, everything is marketed together, which helps both the buyer and the bookseller get what they want: a good read, and a sale.

ReaderCon 21

Readercon

This past weekend was consumed with a convention called ReaderCon, which was hosted down in Burlington, MA. As a member of the 501st, I've attended several different types of conventions before, but out of all of them, I think that this convention was one of the best ones that I've ever gone to, and already am looking around for comparable ones to attend. Far from the costuming and media cons that I've visited in the past, ReaderCon lives up to its namesake: it's all about speculative fiction literature.

Never was this more apparent when I arrived on Friday morning and picked up my badge. Patrons in the lobby were engrossed in books, reading away, waiting for the first day's events to start. There was quite a few panels and discussions throughout the weekend, and I was particularly interested in a select number of these, for the content of the panel, but also because of some of the people that were attending: Blake Charlton, Paolo Bacigalupi, Allen M. Steele, Samuel Delany, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Hand, Brett Cox (My Gothic Lit professor) and Nora Jeminsin, just to name a couple. The entire participants list numbered over two hundred people, but those names were ones that I had particular interest in meeting, as I've read all of their books.

Over the course of the weekend, I attended a number of panels: New England: At Home to the Unheimlich, about the propensity of horror writers to be influenced by the region, Influence as Contagion, about films and expectations, Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe, Global Warming and Science Fiction, about new directions for the genre to take, New And Improved Future of Magazines, Folklore and its Discontents, Science for Tomorrow's Fiction, How I Wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and How to Write for a Living, to speak nothing of the hours that I spent in the bookstore looking over what was for sale, and carting away my own, large, expensive pile of books.

The highlight though, was getting to meet a couple of authors whom I've befriended or talked to as I've worked for SF Signal and io9 over the past year or so, Blake Charlton, Paolo Bacigalupi and Nora Jeminsin. These three authors were ones who have just delivered their first novels, recieving quite a bit of acclaim (Bacigalupi has already received the Nebula award, the Compton Crook and Locus awards for Best First Novel, and apparently, is on the short list for the John Campbell Award for his book The Windup Girl) Meeting these guys was just amazing, because not only did they sign my books, I got to talk to them extensively about their books and science fiction, and generally have a good time. Along the way, I also met SF/F author David Forbes, whose book I picked up at the conference, as well as geek musician John Anealio, whom I've talked to online (I was on his podcast at one point) and who's music I really like.

This convention seemed to be much in line with what the science fiction scene seemed to be back in the 1970s when there wasn't much beyond the literature scene for science fiction and fantasy materials. That's largely changed with the introduction of blockbusters, with major Comic Cons springing up all over the place, which get a little tiring beyond the autographs and vendor tables. ReaderCon offered a stimulating experience for me, with a number of panels and opportunities that really got me thinking and interacting with a lot of other fans of the genre.