Speculative fiction has been undergoing significant changes lately, as significant and revolutionary in the genre as the New Wave or Cyberpunk. The genre has not remained stagnant since the 80s, but has matured and grown in subtle ways that have been difficult to track as they took place.

I refer to those two movements in SF because Alif the Unseen is very much a combination of them both.

Like the New Wave authors, Wilson's writing demonstrates a mastery of and love for language, human character, and other formerly "literary-only" concerns. Like Cyberpunk, Alif is about the changes wrought by technology and how the little people can use it more successfully against the establishment than huge monoliths, because it's so difficult to overcome the massive inertia of a large organization like a corporation, religion, or government. The people in the story are the "unseen" as much as are the jinn and other unseen beings, as is their habitat, their activities, and so forth. The people in Alif's world are as unseen and insignificant to the establishments around him as are the jinn... but when a police state or other authoritarian force reaches for total control and mistreats the unseen, the unseen can now fight back in non-violent ways using the digital infrastructure that now links our world. The book is multi-layered, which in meta-literary and metaphorical senses is brilliant in both concept (paralleling the book with the Alf Layla, Koran, and computer coding) and execution. I can see why it was marketed toward the literary crowd.

Like the Cyberpunks, Wilson sympathizes with underdogs and outcasts, criminals and others operating outside the law. The protagonist (Alif) is a programmer and website host for dissidents no matter what they espouse. Wilson's world is gritty, real, and thoroughly modern - despite being set in a poor, Middle-Eastern city. Alif's greatest ally is someone referred to as "Vikram the Vampire," an underworld character who has proven to be violent. When we soon learn he's a jinn, an ancient species documented in the Koran, the alien-ness in the book really takes off. There's even a moment when we witness the birth of an AI, though it doesn't survive long. If Cyberpunk is indeed "high tech and low life" as many describe it, combining science and technology with rebellion against the system, Alif very much fits into the genre while serving to point the direction for where it might go next. Like the Cyberpunk authors, Wilson paints a world in shades of gray rather than black-and-white, blurs the border between natural and unseen forces of old as well as the cybernetic powers of today, between the organic and machine, the real and virtual or dreamlike or otherwise unseen. Even if she didn't set out to write a post-Cyberpunk cyberpunk novel, that's exactly what she did... and I suspect this was her goal, as the marketing material cites Stephenson.

Finally, this novel demonstrates what we've been seeing more of over the last several years: Mainstream authors working with SFnal themes and modalities, or SF authors like Doctorow working in the here-and-now-plus-a-day. Works like this (I especially point to Mieville and Chabon) are growing the new movement in SF, helping mature the genre in a way that neither rejects its forebears nor the mainstream. SF has simply become the relevant literature of our time. Not just "the only realistic literature" per Clarke, but now the only relevant literature for people living in an ever-changing world. Most any story set in today or tomorrow that does not take into account the massive and ever-increasing rate of change in our daily lives feels instantly dated, like historic fiction. Sure, much SF that's set far into the future or on other worlds still feels like our familiar SF, and I hope we never lose that core of the genre. However, the literature that affects a wider diversity of people, more deeply, is that to which we can most closely relate, and that's more difficult the farther in time or space or alien-ness we venture.

Alif the Unseen is a work set in our world (though far from Western society, daily news images have made that part of the world familiar), in our time, among people who are far less alien to us than they were before the internet. Without the protagonist's programming and Web skills, the story would fall. I feel all this places it firmly in the SF camp. Most important, perhaps, is that this is as relevant a story for our changing times as we'll encounter: Based on publication date, Wilson must have been writing this in her Cairo home during the Arab Spring, the most-significant change to sweep across that part of the world since the Crusades and ensuing colonialism. Hackers, the internet, and individuals using the Web to share information, achieve freedom, and bring down the corrupt establishment have changed everything, and with the Arab Spring we're seeing Cyberpunk realized.

Now a few words about cultural appropriation, as I'm sure some people will be concerned in regards to this work.

G. Willow Wilson is American-born, writing about Middle Eastern and Islamic topics. Alif is a book that provides the deepest insights into those cultures that I've read to date, and I think I understand why: It all comes down to fear of the Other. All animals have this fear, humans particularly - and it's particularly egregious in sentient beings, especially those who read purportedly enlightened work like SF. Even so, for a long time, female SF authors had to write under pseudonyms to be taken seriously, and even female protagonists were a hard sell. Same for black, gay, and non-Western-culture authors and characters: Mainstream audiences have always been a little leery of the Other, uncertain, unable to connect to their stories. This is why various minorities or people not from the dominant culture are so under-represented. We usually only hear their ideas, but substantially different ideas without a narrative are difficult to understand or accept.

When Western (or non-black, or non-female, or non-whatever) authors write stories set in the culture of the Other, they usually get it wrong. They "Orientalize" or otherwise imbue the work with wonder and strangeness... because it's all about entering the culture from outside. Interesting, but not representing the culture or characters where the work is set. However, every once in a while, someone who started off in our culture (whatever that may be for the POV of the audience) immerses him- or herself sufficiently into the Other culture to be able to serve as a bridge between the two.

This is what Wilson did: Though she grew up in the US, she converted to Islam in college and moved to Egypt. She doesn't get it wrong, because she works hard to understand the culture she writes about, with occasional nods to acknowledge her ultimate Otherness to those cultures. However, her stories tell the tales that are important to Middle-Easterners, especially Egyptians, not just what an outsider would find interesting or exotic.

All through Alif we see these stories, and through this book I've gotten a handle on those cultures, and why our two cultures face such challenges in trying to understand one another. Wilson serves as our bridge, opening our Western minds to this particular Other, which hopefully opens the path to more indigenous authors writing on these topics in their own ways. But at least now Western editors might start considering such works, because the audience will start considering them, because here we have a novel written from the Other POV but using sensibilities we can grasp.

Every single paragraph in this novel contains some note of brilliance. The story parallels the insights we see, as the main character grows in understanding as well - even the writing itself blossoming as the story progresses, so the entire work is not just what it appears to be but a metaphor as well, and sometimes several layers deep. In many ways it is the magical book it describes, and it displays masterful writing not just line-by-line but in scene construction and overall story and imagery and character development and setting and intellectual stimulation and so forth.

This is my favorite novel of the year so far, and possibly for several years. If you love reading, you'll love this book.
Finished reading Scalzi's Redshirts last night (one of the Gollancz and Tor nominations for this year's Campbell Award). It was an absolute blast and an extremely quick read: Even ill, I finished it in less than 24 hours, and I'm not a fast reader.

Yes, I am still enjoying the suffering that comes around every time this year for many. Another night of sweating the bed into a puddle, blowing my nose a billion times, and feeling like smeared poo. When I have a fever (yesterday's high was just short of 101°F), I get emotional, as evidenced by my weeping pretty much continually over poor Dean Winchester's suffering (we watched some Supernatural last night). What surprised me is that Scalzi's self-proclaimed "piss-take on televised science fiction" also set me to sobbing. (Okay, I get very emotional when feverish). By the end, though, the rational part of my mind came to the conclusion that this book really is far more than just a romp, and in fact has a lot to say about being human in our age. I promise that though it might make you sad at points, it'll mostly just elicit a single bold tear from most of y'all, plus if you're a fan of TV SF, it'll also elicit a lot of laughter. Every once in a while, Scalzi's micro-writing seems unfinished to me - he doesn't describe any of the characters, provides almost no set-dressing, and seldom appeals to any senses - but you don't read him for beautiful prose. You read this book for rompin' action, entertaining characters, and an interesting idea. If those attributes spin up your warp core, this book is highly recommended.

Speaking of Scalzi, have you noticed that he placed NUMERO UNO on Locus' All-Centuries Poll for Best 21st Century SF Novel for his book, Old Man's War? That gave me pause. I very much enjoyed it then, so perhaps I ought to give it a re-read to analyze why.

I was very pleased to see both Stephenson's Anathem (2nd) and Wilson's Spin (4th) make the top novels list for this century. Both are FANTASTIC books, my favorites of their respective years. I wasn't surprised by much on the 20th Century lists, but is Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy really the 3rd-best book of the last century? Hm. I loved it as a 1980s kid, but pulled it from the required reading list for my SF novels course after getting too many complaints about its crap writing. His The Caves of Steel - a much better novel in every way - is still on my readings list (and placed 56th on the Locus poll).

Another interesting detail: Very little from the last two years made the list in any of the 21st Century categories. I wonder if we should attribute this to our simply needing some time to catch up with reading. If you're like me, you seldom read current work, mostly relying on awards and nominations for such. Too bad for the writers staying in the business of earning money from writing, though. Unless... hm, perhaps this is why we're seeing an up-surge in ebook sales: People discover work well after it's already pulled from physical bookstore shelves, so end up buying used or ebook. Hm.

On the plus side of being feverish, this slightly altered state helped me come up with a new story idea, 1001 words of which I wrote today. Hooray, new story!

Okay, time for a nap, methinks. Hope you're doing well and enjoying 2013.

In case you missed my book-research poll last week, here are the results.

Interesting and useful information for writers, though not entirely surprising. Looks like most people (from my LJ-friends survey pool) still much prefer print books, and recommendations from friends (and others, per Amazon's method) are still how we usually find new books and authors.

The most interesting observation I made (to be borne out by experiment, of course) is that giving away books with a means to get donations from downloaders might well bring in more revenue than selling ebooks. Ponder that for a bit.

Thanks to all who contributed!

[livejournal.com profile] jaylake recently asked people to respond to a post asking about favorite books and stories. I didn't respond to this at first, because I'm always leery of "favorites" - I might feel entirely different later in the day!

Then I thought, "Hmmm, perhaps I could list the first 10 books (that I can remember) to influence me as a young reader." That's every bit as informative about people's likes and dislikes, methinks, and could be very revealing about who we are - if you accept the notion that what we read forms who we are.

So without further ado, here are the first 10 books that I read as a kid (I define that as pre-college) and that have stuck with me through the years:
  1. Dinosaurs! No particular book, but lots of 'em! One of the first I ever wrote a book report about, in Fourth Grade, was a 500-page tome all about dinos. The teacher called my parents in to consult because she thought I lied; no little kid would read 500 pages of nonfiction. Bafangu to her!
  1. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle

  2. The Grand Tour, Miller and Hartmann (SF art and astronomy - what's not to love?)

  3. Rocketship Galileo, Robert Heinlein

  4. Dune, Frank Herbert

  5. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

  6. DAW Year's Best Anthologies, ed. Donald A. Wollheim (borrowed 'em all from the library)

  7. Survive the Coming Nuclear War, Ronald Cruit (Cold-War era nonfiction)

  8. 1984, George Orwell

  9. The Road to Science Fiction #3, ed. James Gunn

  10. Watership Down, Richard Adams
What are yours? Feel free to meme this!

(from Ruth, again):

NEWS FLASH: The Lawrence Public Library will also be holding its big book sale that day! A huge tent full o' books, right behind the library. Saturday, Sept. 30.
click for details )If you need the easy directions to find the first store (where the Lawrence folks will be awaiting), email Ruth for directions.

mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (books)
( Sep. 6th, 2006 01:47 pm)
Golly, it's been a while since I did a meme, but this is one I like (thanks for the tag, [livejournal.com profile] amjhawk, and sorry for the delay). So many book memes are about favorites, which is impossible with so many great books out there.

PS: Can you tell my cable is off? (I mostly wrote this last night.) Ahem. On with the memage:

1. One book that changed your life:
This is really hard, selecting only one. So many have. Let's see, here is one each from several genres:
. Anthology: An early "Best of" collection (anyone remember which one contained the alien-world story, "Grandpa"?), where I read my first SF and realized that this is the genre for me.
. Novel: A Wrinkle in Time, because it was my first novel and opened up the realm of novel-reading.
. Nonfiction: Probably my first full book-read was one about dinosaurs. Big, cool aliens on Earth.
. Essay collection: Inside Science Fiction by James Gunn.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
I don't re-read novels very often, but I re-read More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon right after finishing it.

3. EDIT: Right, I missed 3. What should it be?

4. One book that made you laugh:
Most good books have parts that make me laugh. Recently? Let's see... I recall laughing aloud during The Narrows by Alexander Irvine.

5. One book that made you cry:
Again, most recently: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. One of the best books I've ever read.

6. One book that you wish had been written:
Oh, this happens a lot. Hmm, just one? How about Dune: A wonderful best-seller that launched its own genre.
EDIT: This is funny; I read this as "you wish you had written.

7. One book that you wish had never been written:
How about all of the competing religious tomes. What if all major religions used the same book, instead?

8. One book you’re currently reading:
Superhuman: The Awesome Power Within, a BBC book that documents an array of cutting-edge human transformation.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Too many to list! I'll get to 10% of them one day, but only 10, because new ones are always being printed!

Now I'm supposed to tag three others to keep the meme alive. I find tagging to be irritating, so if this is interesting to you, you're tagged! Let me know here if you're doing this so I remember to check (I read LJ only in fits and bursts lately).

This is cool! Now I remember what's good about being part of a writing community: It gets you writing!

Went to hear a couple of English Department creative-writing types read tonight at Henry's (upstairs where you can get booze). Good stuff! Also, the organizer announced that the next reading will be on Sunday, March 5, also at the same place, and that she needed a couple more people to read.

Well, heck, I thought. I have something that's almost ready to read! So I volunteered to read and am scheduled for that day.
Read more... )
So, I'll be reading this new thing in about three weeks. Wanna hear me read? It'll be the first time in a long while, and I'd love to see you there!

Hope y'all're well,
mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Lincoln Tri-Power)
( Jul. 29th, 2005 01:47 pm)
Had to share this, Dan McKay's winning entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

"As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual."

It gets no better than this for the gearhead boy. Ah, yes, Chapter Seven... *g*

Just discovered this:

Cool. Though I see no one has started discussing books yet >g< Of course, that means it's still open to voting what gets read first, eh?

Book recommendation:

Sister Alice by Robert Reed

I just finished Robert Reed's Sister Alice, and I am very much impressed. (Note that both Orbit, in paperback, and Tor, in hardcover, submitted this book for the Campbell Award.) Here is a novel that stimulates thought and conversation -- I found myself discussing it with Kij, thinking it through out loud even though she hadn't read it. It inspires one to pondering the Big Questions.

In many ways, this could have been written as fantasy rather than SF, but it would have lost a lot of its threat and realism, if you can call it that. This is a story about gods and about humanity, and what it means when a simple, though good-hearted, human child (well, a child in terms of immortals) is prematurely granted god-like powers in order to save the universe (no, really). These powers (called "talents") are never really explained, nor is the mechanism for just about anything in the book, which is why it feels like fantasy. But of course such millions-of-years advanced technology would appear as magic. How could we understand its workings? So I never felt cheated.

An important line is this: "We are nothing but talents, really. We are genius and power and focus and skills beyond number [...] In every consequential way, [our bodies] are nothing... nothing but clothes donned for the narrowest of occasions..." Is this not also true of us primitive humans? If you strip away the things we do and how we think and our innate talents, who are we? But is a creature who is almost entirely comprised of add-on talents still a human? A creature who can off-handedly destroy inhabited worlds and create universes -- is that still human?

-spoiler alert-
spoiler alert )
Book recommendation:

Chindi by Jack McDevitt

I had to post this after posting about Omega:

Chindi is a novel about the kinds of people who explore the unknown, who push the boundaries of the human world. The true believers and fanatics fund and design their missions, and other brave souls go along for various reasons: It's a job, one of their best friends or loved ones are going, or they just think it'll be an adventure. George and Nick are the fanatics, and without them, humanity never would have discovered the interestellar, alien communications network, the various rising and fallen civilizations, the retreat, the chindi, or their own lost vessel. So heroics arise naturally, because if someone needs saving and A) it's your job, or B) it's someone you care about, you just do it.

So it's also a novel about what people will do for one another, even those they've just met but with whom they have gone through adventures.

Again, this feel like the script for a movie Hollywood should make. McDevitt's novels are always full of great dialogue, daring rescues, and awe-inspiring settings. But this feels like more of a novel than the last one. In fact, after having read this, I saw some things I missed last time around: How the humans involved in the dramatic rescue operation were a metaphor for how Hawk race rescued many of the Deepsix natives.

Another thing that McDevitt always does so well is give us insight into what it means to be human; perhaps more specifically, how humans treat one another, how we become better people through our interactions with worthy others. And I always end up marking a few passages that seem to really stand out, such as these:

"[talking in hyperspace] had taught Hutch a long time back about the vagaries of human conversation, the things that really mattered, which were not at all the words, or even the tones, but rather the moment-to-moment reactions people had to one another, the sudden glitter of understanding in the eyes, the raised hand that accompanied a request for additional explanation, the signal of approval or dismay or affection that a given phrase might induce."

"Embrace your life, find what it is you love, and pursue it with all your soul. For if you do not, when you come to die, you will find that you have not lived."

Good stuff.

Finally, any book that makes me spend the wee hours of the morning after having finished it writing story notes and ideas has got to be good! I finished this novel at 3:30am (it's a page-turner) and couldn't get to bed until after four because I was full of revision ideas (for my own work) inspired by this book.

Definitely worth reading!

Book recommendation:

Omega by Jack McDevitt

I love McDevitt's work and have ever since The Engines of God. Omega is the latest in a series of novels that follow our heroine, Priscilla Hutchins, following (in order) The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi. In this book, the adventure is a new one and the stakes keep rising -- we finally get to see the horrific omega clouds in action, and see intelligence battling the untimate form of anti-intelligence, or anti-life.

McDevitt's characters are some of the most human you'll find, and his books always feel like they should be next year's Hollywood blockbusters. The fact that they aren't only goes to show that Hollywood just doesn't get SF. These are wonderful books and I highly recommend you read 'em all, start to finish!

Book recommendation:

Charles Stross's Singularity Sky

This novel is an inventive, thoughtful adventure. It's dressed up like space opera, but is really an anarcho-political-evolution comedy about human colonization and the threats we might face -- the greatest being ourselves. This would be a laugh riot if made into a movie, but it is less so in the written word; still, it's a great pleasure and exciting romp. It has a bit of clumsy pacing and writing (for example, I noticed one passage switched perspective without changing scenes, Stross's usual narrative tactic), but it's a pleasure and a breath of fresh air. Good stuff!

Book recommendation:

Natural History by Justina Robson

Robson's Natural History is an intriguing look into one possible future for our species. Though the title might be ironic, I think it contains multiple layers: Intelligence becomes its own force for evolution, transforming out of the natural world into something new but different... but doesn't intelligence arise from natural beings? I recommend this book with only minor hesitation, I think because it feels a bit cold or distant. Perhaps that's the best tone, though. Filled with memorable characters that develop the touching story.


Book recommendation:

Red Thunder by John Varley

I absolutely loved Varley's Red Thunder, and told Kij that it is one of my favorite books I've read in a long time. I knew while reading it that some people might not feel it is as award-worthy as other, perhaps more-literary, novels, but I can't help but believe books such as this are vital to the health of SF.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Four 18-21 year-olds, a down-on-his-luck ex-astronaut, and his brain-damaged but genius cousin need to build a spaceship and fly to Mars in 60 days so the USA can be there first and they can rescue a doomed NASA mission. The physics is fun but never really described: something about creating bubbles in multiple dimensions to create a near-limitless power source. But after those quibbles, everything else is sheer pleasure. The characters are all slightly criminal but completely moral and likeable, and each is broken in a unique way (a couple are truly heartbreaking), so Varley makes the reader really root for them. The plot is fast-paced and fun, and even though you're pretty sure nothing will really go wrong for our heroes, those pages keep turning. This feels like a Heinlein juvenile for a new generation, just the sort of thing that would have sent me into the garage to build my next rocket as a kid. Yet there are adult situations aplenty, so I suspect Ace was afraid to market it as young-adult. The marketing of this book boggles me. Why the Cold-War thriller cover art and font? It's not really a YA novel -- though the family issues should speak to young people -- but neither is it a Cold-War thriller.

I think this book's value lies in its human-ness, humor, and honesty. I was moved by the family love shared by a few of the characters, I laughed during just about every page, and got teary on a number of occasions. I also admire Varley for writing something so brazenly dream-fulfilling to everyone who grew up believing our future is among the stars, yet have seen us step farther and farther from that future. Books like this are why readers like me got started reading SF. Though conservative parents might be aghast at their teens reading this book, every young person should read it. In a genre becoming less and less accessible to new readers, Varley delivers a wonderful novel any new reader, age 14 to 144 can love, and long-time SF readers can read with great pleasure and even nostalgia, though it is a thorougly modern book in theme, setting, and character.

I hope you read this book. Remember how you felt when you first read SF, when anything seemed possible and regular folk could build a rocketship in their garage. I believe Red Thunder can deliver that same joy to a new generation.


Book recommendation:

Clade by Mark Budz

This book lives in the same, refreshing new sub-genre as Syne Mitchell's The Changeling Plague, which (in my opinion) is the natural evolution of cyberpunk. Both of these novels envision a future where biologicals determine who we are and what we become in the way that cyberpunk postulated integrated circuits and weblife, or that the Heinlein-Asimov future postulated rocketships and other hard-engineering feats. Those biologicals might be benign or downright terrifying, designed to heal or murder, but they will change how we live and even who we are.

This is both interesting and important, I think, to where SF is going, because this is where science is headed, as well. Both novels view the world from the perspective of regular people, or even antisocials, which is where "cyberpunk" got its "punk." In fact, the back cover of Clade has a quote from Kevin J. Anderson, who suggests this new genre be called "biopunk." I feel it's important to recognize such new directions, if indeed this is a new movement in the genre.

On the other hand -- perhaps I'm just not longer a young 'un -- I was less interested in the punks of Clade than the DNA hackers of The Changeling Plague. In particular, I got a bit irritated with Budz (as narrator) using curse words; I expect his characters to do so, but it distracted me when the non-character narrator did. I also felt he used a bit too much exposition as dialogue, but it was interesting. I love the (scary) idea of social engineering via pheremone-emitting plants which create the title's "clades," locales which make their inhabitants happy with life and unable to move up or even move laterally in class. Fascinating stuff.

I would be interested to hear what others think of this book, or these two books, or this movement in SF. You can see my response to The Changeling Plague here:


Oh, I forgot to mention one thing: If Varley's cover was bad, ohmigod is Budz's cover a travesty. It shows an aircar flying over a city of steel and glass. Mind you, the world of Clade is full of plants. Bio-engineered plants everywhere, affecting everything, not a sterile world as depicted by the cover.


P.S. -- Lawrence SF Interest Group folks: How about getting together to discuss some of these books I'm recommending? I intend to start posting my reviews of all the books I recommend that I've been reading for the Campbell Award (more about the Award here: http://www.ku.edu/~sfcenter/campbell.htm ).



mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Default)


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