I have a series of tough months ahead for my leisure reading. In September, I taught a workshop and read a lot of manuscripts, which took time from my leisure reading. I’ll be doing a longer workshop in October, and another in November. So any leisure reading I can do, I’ll be happy about.
One novel that I did read, which I did not list, was a terrible disappointment. The novel was 318 pages long—and I loved it to page 317. Then I realized that there was no way in 1 page that the author could deliver on everything she promised at the front of the novel. She skipped the climax and the ending, and just tacked one page onto the final section.
I’m hoping that this is the first book of a series and her publisher forgot to market it that way. But I have a hunch it isn’t. The novel so peeved me that I might write an essay soon on reader expectations and the writer’s obligations. But I have to figure out how to do so without referencing the book. I don’t like bashing my colleagues—it does no one any good.
Which is why I only list the things I enjoyed each month. Those stories and novels are ones I love to share. Here’s September’s….
Asher, Neil, “Alien Archeology,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2008. This was a cover story for Asimov’s, but I got behind in my reading last year and didn’t get to the issue. Still, as I was reading this story, the cover came immediately to mind. Gardner, in his introduction, calls it a space opera tale of cross and double-cross, but it’s more than that. It also creates several fascinating societies, some interesting characters, and some nifty sfnal ideas. The gabbleduck alone—which shows up in a later story published in Asimov’s this year—is worth the price of entry. But this story kept me reading long into the night when I should have gone to bed—which I see as one of the best recommendations of all.
Baxter, Stephen, “Fate and the Fire-Lance,” Sideways in Crime: An Alternate History Mystery Anthology edited by Lou Anders, 2008. Every story in this book has to have a mystery and an alternate timeline. Stephen Baxter choses to set his story in London in a world where Napoleon never sold the Louisiana Purchase to raise funds and the Roman Empire still exists. Only this story happens in 1914—at what was, in our world, the cusp of World War I.
Baxter plays with that, as well as several other historical tropes. He posits a murder, that if it went unsolved, would have been as devastating as the murder in Sarajevo, which was the spark that set off what was then known as the Great Cataclysm.
You can read this story without that knowledge, of course, but it’s more fun to see the riffs he plays on WWI. He has a spunky British heroine and a Roman prefect who becomes the stolid hero. Nicely done, with a neat very British cozy twist to the mystery as well. And, in the spirit of all good alternate history, it is the changed history that leads to the reveal in the mystery. So beautifully done that as a writer of alternate history, I’m envious.
Bear, Elizabeth, “Tideline,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2008. When the final Hugo ballot came out last spring, I promised myself I would read everything on it. I, of course, failed. I am only now getting to some of the stories, and that’s because I’m reading Gardner’s Years Best, as I do every year.
“Tideline” is a lovely science fiction story. Well written, full of heart, it is exactly what science fiction should be.
Chiang, Ted, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2008. As I mentioned above, I missed reading the Hugo stories this year. I finally got to “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” It is only nominally science fiction. It does have a device for time travel—and a man with an understanding of the way that device works. But the story is set sometime in the past in what we now call the Middle East.
It’s a tour de force—stories inside of stories inside of stories, clearly inspired by A Thousand And One Nights. Most writers who attempt this kind of story don’t realize that the stories inside the overall story must have some kind of link, and the overall story needs an emotional punch as well.
Chang does all of this and gives us a nice meditation on time, the past, and change. Clearly one of the best stories of the year.
Clark, Rod, Voice Over, Rosebud, Summer, 2008. Rod Clark’s editorials for Rosebud are always interesting. I read them the day the magazine arrives. This one, about writing methods, is particularly strong.
Dessen, Sarah, The Truth About Forever, Speak, 2004. I went on a bit of a Sarah Dessen binge after reading This Lullabye in August. The Truth About Forever is my favorite of the three Dessen books I read this month. The characters—always her strong suit—are particularly strong here, particularly the catering crew that brings much-needed chaos into the life of our heroine Macy. I find myself thinking about this book at the oddest times. There are so many nuggets of wisdom here as well as moments of characterization that seem so real, it’s as if I’ve lived them myself. Recommended.
Di Filippo, Paul, “Murder in Geektopia,” Sideways in Crime: An Alternate History Mystery Anthology edited by Lou Anders, 2008. My favorite story of the month—one I’m recommending to every geek I know. In a world where geeks rule (and everyone knows [and loves] every single geeky reference), a private detective (actually a man with his Nick Carter license [gotta love it]) discovers a scheme to create ubergeeks. But, like a good Raymond Chandler story, the plot here is secondary. We have the blonde walking into the office, we have the big schemes, we have the snappy language—and even better, we have a world so large and interesting that I hope Paul writes more stories set here.
Loved it. Loved it. Go get a copy of the book and read it. Now.
Kress, Nancy, “The Erdmann Nexus,” Asimov’s, October/November, 2008. Nancy Kress’s novellas are always interesting, but this one is one of my favorites. Something odd is happening at a retirement center. People are fainting, losing consciousness, and having strange experiences—mental experiences. Not that unusual in a place that caters to the very old, except these experiences happen at the same time, to a very large group of people. Something is going on, and our heroes—many of them elderly—strive to figure out what.
Not just a story of science and cognition, but also a tale of the way that we treat those with more experience and more wisdom than ourselves. A suspenseful and heartfelt piece of fiction.
Kress, Nancy, “Laws of Survival,” The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martins Press, 2008. A wrenching story set in a brutal world. At times, I read Nancy’s “Laws of Survival” with one eye closed and my face half turned away. Yet she never went to the darkest places she could go. She correctly touched on them and then pulled back.
This story is memorable and heartwarming in its own dark way. Excellent.
Malzberg, Barry N., “Tripping with the Alchemist,” Breakfast in the Ruins, Baen, 2007. Breakfast in the Ruins is an expansion of Barry’s classic Engines of the Night. I’d read most of the essays twenty years ago. I’ve changed a lot since then, although, of course, the essays haven’t. “Tripping with the Alchemist” is the best of the lot, a personal essay about the Scott Meredith Literary Agency and Scott Meredith himself.
When I came into the field, Scott Meredith was a looming presence, the agent, and his agency was an object of derision and envy. Part of that was the two-part agency: he charged fees to have manuscripts read, and almost no clients came from those piles. However, a lot of clients came from the ranks of the paid readers, and Barry was one.
You’ll be surprised at who got their start in that piece-work sweatshop. I was, and I thought I’d known every famous writer who worked there. Barry was there on and off until the agency’s implosion after Meredith’s demise in the early 1990s.
This essay is a nifty bit of sf (and mystery) history.