A difficult month for reading. First there was Worldcon. Travel—particularly book tours and conventions—cut into my reading time, since I can sleep on any airplane these days. The books I did read were mostly unsatisfying.
Some of what I’ve been reading has been research for a new project, so I’m not finishing the books, but dipping in and out of them, reading the pertinent sections.
And I’ve been reading an annoying book of essays. The author is a hell of a writer, which keeps me reading, but no one fact-checked the volume, so names are misspelled and information is off, leading me to mistrust the whole thing (For example: Joyce Carol Oates is called Joyce Carol Gates, not once but twice so far). So why do I continue to read? Because I’m learning more about myself in my reactions to this thing than I am from the book itself. It’ll probably spawn some essays of my own…and that’s a good thing.
As for what I did enjoy in August, a lot of it came from Asimov’s. The Short Story class was assigned to read this year’s magazines. I always read the magazine as well, but I had gotten behind, so I crammed a few issues into the month. (The workshop is in September, so I had to have them read.) They were very worthwhile. I’m enjoying the magazine more than I have in a long, long time.
So the month wasn’t an entire waste.
Asimov’s, July, 2008. One of the best issues of an sf magazine that I have read this year. I’ll make note of a special story or two below, but this entire issue is worth your while.
Baxter, Stephen, “The Ice War,” Asimov’s, September, 2008. At the Sidewise Awards ceremony at Worldcon, the nominees and the judges had a short, panel-like discussion about what a good alternate history needs to work. We concluded that a good alternate history needs an excellent story and historical rigor although, as Steven Silver, one of the judges and writer/publisher of a superb on-line fanzine, said, “It’s better to have an excellent story and poor history than it is to have excellent history and a poor story.”
The next day, I was walking to lunch with Sheila Williams, the Hugo-nominated editor of Asimov’s, and we were discussing the role of alternate history in her magazine. She said that she prefers the alternate history she publishes to have some science in it as well.
Steven Baxter’s “The Ice War” is a marvelous example of all of those points. It has a rousing story, rigourous history, and science—something I wasn’t going to believe possible when I started the story.
The story’s point of view character is Jack Hobbes, who appears to be the spiritual if not the actual descendant of Thomas Hobbes, Britain’s most famous philosopher. This Hobbes is a self-proclaimed coward and he’s a thorough scoundrel as well, but he’s an interesting—and cheeky—character. As he flees the ice monsters (in scenes deliberately reminescent of War of the Worlds), he encounters Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift (in our world, author of Gulliver’s Travels; alas, in this one he doesn’t live long enough to write it), and Sir Isaac Newton at the end of his life.
The three men are traveling to Edinburgh on the order of the King. Their mission is to save England, which, oddly enough, they do, but not without the help of Hobbes and the weather.
Baxter makes all of these historical characters live and breathe. He also throws in Newton’s theories and scientific thinking, and the differences between DeFoe and Swift. The story manages to be current in its examination of the little ice age that England was suffering through at the time—and the way that sudden climate change (in this case, in the form of invaders from the stars) will have an impact on everyone’s lives.
This is why I read alternate history, and why I read science fiction. Adventure, thoughtfulness, great characters, and a slam-bang story all rolled into one. One of the stories of the year.
Bishop, Michael, “Vinegar Peace, or the Used Adult Orphanage,” Asimov’s, July, 2008. First, this story has a nifty sfnal conceit—the idea of an orphanage for adults who’ve lost their children (and any relative who can take care of them in old age). But while the story itself explores this fascinating idea, the heart of it is about outliving your children. Extremely powerful and well done.
Brasheres, Ann, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Delacorte, 2003. I read the first book, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, before it became a phenomenon. I discovered it in a bookstore, read the opening chapter, was stunned at the author’s audacity (the book starts in first person plural, then goes to third person limited alternating points of view between the four main characters). The slight fantastic element—a single pair of jeans that can fit four very physically (and emotionally) different girls—is less of a plot device and more of a metaphor.
I loved the first book, but it broke my heart—and I didn’t expect it. Until that book, YA had replaced romance as my relaxation reading. But Sisterhood was one of the first edgy YA novels and its message as well as its sophistication made me realize that YA, like everything else, now had new agendas. I knew I would read the second book, but I also knew I had to be in the mood for something that challenged me and made me feel something more than casual enjoyment.
I finally came back to the second book this summer, thinking I had to read it before the movie. Turns out the movie is about the girls in college, and this book is not at all about college. It’s about the relationship between the girls and their mothers. It’s not as heartbreaking as the first book, although it is touching, and the insights are worthwhile. I don’t think it can stand alone—Tibby’s plotline depends on your knowledge of Bailey (my favorite character from the first book)—but I do think it’s worth reading. Now I have to buy the remaining books. Oh, sadness: an excuse to buy more books. Woe is me.
Burrough, Brian, “Bringing Down Bear Stearns,” Vanity Fair, August, 2008. If you’ve been following the troubles in the financial markets and still have questions about what happened at Bear Stearns, then this article is for you. Since it’s in a major mainstream publication, I have to assume it’s been fact-checked and vetted by lawyers. Which makes the information inside all the more startling. We were brought up to believe that financial markets were protected by the legislation written during the Progressive Era and the Roosevelt Administration. But these newer markets, like Bear Stearns, slipped through. The result is catastrophic. And this article, well written and well researched, reads like a good thriller. Check it out.
Creasey, Ian, “Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone,” Asimov’s, September, 2008. I’m not sure if I liked this story because it’s a hell of a story or because it speaks to me and the decisions I would have made in the same shoes as the protagonist. But it’s a thought-provoking piece on the finality of death, and certainly worth the read.
Dessen, Sarah, This Lullabye, Speak, 2004. I first encountered Sarah Dessen’s work through her wonderful book, Just Listen. This Lullabye isn’t quite as good—it feels a bit padded in the beginning—but the characters are strong and the situations interesting. This book, in the guise of a girl’s last summer home before college, is actually about the sacrifices we make (especially of ourselves) when we fall in love. She also manages an excellent portrayal of life with a writer. Recommended.
Kelly, James Patrick, “On the Net: Storming the Academy,” Asimov’s, August, 2008. Jim’s “On the Net” columns are always fun and informative. This one has more structure than usual (often he takes us through loosely connected websites. This time, however, he explores the uneasy connection between sf and academia. He gives a brief history of the relationship and takes us all the way to the present. Worth reading—and worth checking out the links.
Sellar, Gord, “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues,” Asimov’s, July, 2008. This novelette is a tour de force of voice, music, and storytelling. In an alternate timeline where jazz musicians are taken to the stars by an appreciative alien species, things aren’t exactly as they seem. Written like fine jazz itself, capturing the voices of musicians as well as the era, and managing to write well about music (I heard [or perhaps I should say reheard] a lot of the pieces in my head as I read), this story is extremely well done. The most memorable story I’ve read in the magazines this year.
Silverberg, Robert, “Reflections: Some Thoughts on the Short Story,” Asimov’s, August, 2008. When a Grand Master of Science Fiction writes an essay on writing, all wannabe writers and established writers should read it. Bob’s essay on the short story brings up a few points I hadn’t thought of. He also discusses how he moves between the long form (novels) and the short form (short stories). He’s done that throughout his career. A lot of writers give up short stories once they’ve published a novel, a mistake, I think, since the forms are so different. Each form is a challenge, and worth the writer’s time. Just like this essay.
Spinrad, Norman, “On Books: the Multiverse,” Asimov’s, April/May, 2008. Normally I wouldn’t recommend a book review column, but Norman’s column always reads like a good essay. This one, in particular, is very strong. It explains the scientific concept of multiverse, and explores how sf writers can/have/and should examine it in story form. A great piece of science fiction theory—and quite a challenge to sf writers all over the globe.
Van Doren, Charles, “All the Answers,” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008. I find stories of people who have recovered after a great and public failure fascinating. This is no exception. Charles Van Doren was at the heart of the Quiz Show Scandals in the 1950s (Ralph Fiennes played him in Quiz Show about a decade ago). He was a promising man from a famous family, and after that, he more or less disappeared.
But not really. It turns out he worked as a writer for the rest of his career—primarily at Encyclopedia Brittanica, which meant that, without knowing it, I had probably read his work.
This essay isn’t a mea culpa. More of a “this is what happened from my perspective.” If you, like me, are fascinated with second acts, here’s an interesting one—hidden in a well written essay.
Wolven, Nick, “An Art, Like Everything Else,” Asimov’s, April/May, 2008. A story about death in the future, this is Wolven’s first professional sale, and it’s a heck of a good way to start. Wolven manages to capture how it feels to lose a loved one within his sfnal premise. Excellent.