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review 2015-11-25 19:54
Ilium - Dan Simmons

I love the idea of a throwback, an author who takes cues from classics and puts a new spin on them. Mieville took rollicking pulp and updated it, Susanna Clarke made fairy tales and the Gothic novel sing for a modern audience--but if you're going to write in the style of a bygone great, take only the best, and leave the dross.

By all means, copy Howard's verve and brooding, but skip the sexist titillation. Copy Lovecraft's cosmic horror, but skip the racist epithets. Dan Simmon's Ilium feels like a 50's sci fi story for all the wrong reasons--it isn't as much a throwback as a relic.

We're given several intertwining stories, all of which feature slight variations on the standard science hero, that idealized version of the author that we all roll our eyes at: the adventurer who is a bit dorky, a bit out of place, more at home studying Shakespeare or Ancient Greece in the safety of a library somewhere, but who has found himself stuck on Mars, or launched into space, or trapped in a dystopian conspiracy (respectively), and now must get through it by his smarts and good character.

As any sci fi reader has come to expect from such stories, the plotting is convenient--instead of being motivated by their own internal desires, the plot is just imposed upon the characters. They are vessels through which we experience a story instead of thinking, feeling creatures with their own desires.

The main plots roughly parallel a number of other classic sci fi texts. Like Riverworld , we have these powerful, advanced beings recreating humans and playing games with them, taking on the role of gods as they rebirth our species on another world. The next plot combines elements of Brave New World, and Dancers at the End of Time , where we follow a man on a dying, post-scarcity Earth as he tries to uncover who's really behind it all.

This latter story also has a more interesting antecedent in Nabokov's Ada --as several characters, images, and relationships are drawn from that work, yet it is not an expansion upon Nabokov's sci fi foray, but a regression of his themes back into titillating pulp. The main character just keeps going on and on about how hot his cousin is, and how he wants to sleep with her--however, since he is rebuffed and mocked at every turn, we have to assume that this is meant to be a satire of that style. Yet, we’re still getting those descriptions, we’re still getting that primary point of view, so I’m not sure Simmons is doing quite enough to differentiate the attempted satire from the object of ridicule. Likewise, it’s so overstated and repetitious that it becomes rather tiring.

The Nabokovian turn is a curious one, as it would seem to promise more depth and thought have gone into this work than the average genre adventure. One character lives in a Nabokov story, the next one has constant discourses on the meaning of Shakespeare's Sonnets and the philosophy of Proust, and the last is constantly remarking on literary interpretations of Homer. Simmons is aiming high, he's deliberately drawing comparison with the literary greats, trying to borrow depth and complexity from them--but it's not enough to simply invoke their names, to place their thoughts into the mouths of this or that character, if you fail to integrate these ideas fully into your structure and prose.

Simmons' languages is disappointing--overly explanatory, nitpicking in that familiar sci fi way, where everything is straightforward and reductive. The inner lives of the characters, their motivations, the finer points of the plot, all are stated outright, then rehashed and restated. The reader is told what to think, how to react, and what it all means, and it all becomes rather overbearing. Much of the bulk of this book (and it is bulky) comes from the fact that the author is not willing to leave anything well enough alone. At one point he mentions Hector’s son’s nickname and what it means twice in as many pages--at which point it started to feel like no one actually bothered to edit this thing in the first place.

A grand and strange idea needs grand and strange prose to propel it, trying to narrow it down and simplify it for the crowd just isn't going to do it justice. If you’ve decided to write an odd and complex book, with various story threads drawing on both classic sci fi and great literature, at a certain point you’re going to have to have faith that it will come together, in the end. Otherwise, the anxious urge to control every aspect and get it just right is going to strangle the life out of the thing, overproducing it until there is no room left for mystery or strangeness.

In bad fantasy, it often feels like the author has set themselves the masochistic limitation of constructing a book solely using words and phrases cut from an antiques catalogue--which would explain why, by the end, the swords, chairs, and cloaks have far more developed personalities than the romantic leads. Likewise, in bad sci fi, it feels like the authors were forced to do the same thing with an issue of Popular Mechanics--filling out the text with neat little gadgets and a blurb on the latest half-baked FTL propulsion theory.

We can go back as far as Wells and Verne and see the split between social sci fi and gadget sci fi: Wells realized that it was enough to simply have the time machine or airplane to explore as story devices, as things that might change society, and people. Sometimes, he would go on his preachy tangents, but they were always about the effects of technology, not particulars dredged from an engine repair manual.

Verne, on the other hand, liked to put in the numbers, to speculate and theorize about the specifics of the technology--and yet here we are, still waiting for the development of the kind of battery banks he describes as powering the Nautilus. Going into these intense particulars simply isn't necessary, not in a work of fiction.

A communicator or phaser or transporter is just as inspiring and fascinating on Star Trek without bothering with vague pseudoscience for how the thing is supposed to work. In the end, focus on the story itself, on the characters and the world, and leave out the chaff. The Nautilus is no more (or less!) interesting for a few paragraphs about its engine room, so as in all editing, if nothing would be lost by the omission, best to cut it.

It’s odd to still be getting this in the post-speculative age, where Dick, Ellison, and Gibson have already paved the way for the odd, literary, sci fi story--and whose works ended up being far more predictive of the future than any collection of number-crunching gadget-loving writers. Gibson didn’t even own a computer at the time he wrote Neuromancer , and certainly didn’t go into great detail about the technical aspect of ‘decks’ or ‘cyberspace’, but that didn’t prevent him from being remarkably prescient about how those technologies would change our world. It just seems so odd that now, thirty and forty years after the Speculative Fiction revolution, we should end up praising a regression like this.

Bizarre how much a modern sci fi novel ends up feeling like Tom Swift, with the character constantly mentioning his ‘shotgun-microphone baton’, ‘levitation harness’, and ‘QT medallion’--going into long theoretical digressions about how precisely his ‘morphing bracelet’ might possibly work, on the quantum level, allowing him to look like any person he has scanned--as if we care. And then, of course, he just gives up on it and says he doesn't understand it, after all--so then, what is the point of the digression?

You know you’re reading bad sci fi when the author takes a basic concept that we already understand and have a term for--like teleportation--and then invents his own, new term (or better yet, phrase) to describe the same thing. Sci fi authors can’t seem to get enough of that sort of pointless convolution, an extra layer of complexity that doesn’t actually add anything to the story.

Or they’ll have some other technology, and every time they mention a character using it, they feel the need to describe and explain it all over again. Sci fi is about tech, so of course you want that in there, but once a piece of technology has been established in a scene, you don’t need to reintroduce it every time--we’ll take for granted that the dude still has it and that it works in the same way.

If you want to write a book about robots reading Proust, that’s fine--but don’t then turn around and treat the audience like a bunch of mouth breathing idiots who need to be reminded what X gadget does even though it’s the fifth time we’ve seen it.

Beyond that, the technology in the world makes no sense--they have advanced in huge steps in things like teleportation and energy conversion, and seem to be able to create whole new people and races from thin air, and yet their ability to heal injuries is extremely limited, slow, and cumbrous. It makes it difficult to believe that this book was published as recently as 2003.

Then came that fateful phrase upon which so many a sci fi and fantasy review has turned:

And then there's the depiction of sexuality. It feels quite adolescent--physical instead of emotional, women described at length and men not at all--and not just in the Ada section, where it makes a certain sense as an homage, but throughout the book.

Strip it down to the bare facts of the description, and it becomes the sort of erotica Beavis and Butthead would come up with:

Beavis: So this chick is like, in the bath, and she’s totally of touching her boobs.

Butthead: Yeah, and she’s super hot. And then she stands up, and she’s naked.

Beavis: Whoa, that’s cool!

Butthead: And then she puts on a robe, but you can totally see through it.

Beavis: Heh heh, that’s good, Butthead. And then, she like, rubs her boobs on a pole.

Butthead: Huhuhuh, and then she rubs her thigh on the pole.

Beavis: Like, her inner thigh …

Butthead: Yeah. And then she goes over to this dude, and she takes off the robe, and she’s, like, totally naked!

Is this list of body parts supposed to be arousing? If you were an alien learning the ways of human culture through sci fi novels--firstly, I’m sorry--and secondly, you could be forgiven for assuming that a 'woman' was like any other human being, except that all her limbs had been replaced by breasts, and all her locomotion was achieved by squishing them together and pressing them against things. Is this what passes for seduction? Just 'here’s my naked body, have a go'?

A few chapters later, the same characters are forced to undress together (because 'reasons'), and so we get this long, loving description of what the ladies look like, what the young man is thinking while looking at them, how naughty and exciting it is--and yet, despite the omniscient third-person narrator, no description of the men undressing, nothing about what the women might be thinking, what their point of view might be. One of these women is probably the closest we have in this book to a strong female character, and yet we only experience her through the eyes of a chubby, ignorant dude who keeps trying to sleep with her.

Later on, we get a scene that is ostensibly about her desire, about someone she desires to sleep with--and yet, once again, the whole thing is painted in terms of what she looks like, of her body, of how a desirous man might see her--even though we’re not actually invited into his head to hear his thoughts, how he feels about her. It’s such a blatant contradiction of point of view: the focus on female physical attractiveness is so pervasive that female characters cannot have sexual thoughts or desires unless they are presented in terms of what their own physical beauty looks like.

Since we don’t end up getting an insight into his desires, and neither are we allowed to understand her attraction, or what draws her to him, and yet the description keeps turning back to her breasts and skin and hair, the consummation ends up feeling less like carnal fulfillment and more like smacking two dolls together--except the child has only bothered to undress Barbie.

Then we get to the scene that convinced me to give up on this book entirely.

So, our mooky, bookish hero has been led around by the nose for a few hundred pages, thrown into the plot without any choice in the matter and maneuvered from one scene to the next--until finally, he starts to see that unless he changes his current course, it’s not going to end well for him. At last, he starts to exercise some free will, to play the role of active agent in this book instead of just a passive observer. So, what’s the first thing he decides to do? That’s right, rape a woman. That’s the first decision he makes, the first thing he does that he wasn’t directly made to do by some greater power.

But hey, at least it’s not a violent rape--no, he’s too mild-mannered for that. Instead, he just uses his super science gizmo to make himself look like her husband and then orders her into bed--though he’s so nervous he can barely get the words out, because he’s one of those shy, bashful rapists--you know the type.

He also talks about how many times over the years he spent hanging out in disguise outside her window, just watching her and thinking about her--and then makes a joke about ‘the boobs that launched a thousand ships’, because there’s no better time for humor than when you’re about to sexually violate a stranger. Of course, he remonstrates himself for being a ‘jerk’ for thinking something so inappropriate and crass, because he’s so mild-mannered and sweet--though this momentary self-awareness in no way slows down his rape plans.

And it’s not like up to this point, he’s been some intriguing, fraught, conflicted character who the author has built up to be morally questionable, someone the reader has to think about and whose actions we must come to terms with. No, so far he has been the most generic reader stand-in, a pure observer of the action (that’s literally the character’s job), just a standard nerdy sci fi protagonist who barely has a personality.

To switch immediately from such a flat character to such a fraught moral situation just doesn’t work. I’m not saying authors shouldn’t explore sexual assault, or the type of person who commits it, but in order to actually deal with that idea, you have to first build up the characters to the point where they have sufficient depth to actually delve into that theme in a meaningful way. Otherwise, why include it at all?

There’s no reason I can see that this scene couldn’t have just been a normal sexual encounter. The assault doesn’t add anything to the book, and as soon as it’s over, the author seems happy to just whitewash it and ignore it. Indeed, the victim realizes what’s happening and doesn’t care in the least, then immediately starts questioning her rapist about other things--and after that, happily has sex with him a couple more times.

Is this supposed to excuse it, somehow? Like, if a guy fires off a gun into a house that he suspects is full of children, and then we later find out that it was empty, is that supposed to make him somehow less reprehensible? 'Oh, no one got hurt, so everything's okay--move along.'

If it doesn’t provide new understanding of the main character (or of the victim), and the author is happy to ignore the fact that it happened at all, and just move on with the plot, then what was the point? Why include it at all? Perhaps it’s just exploitation, just pure titillation--which is a hallmark of cheap, thoughtless sci fi. And yet, here’s an author who spends large sections of chapters having characters discuss Shakespeare’s concept of love, or Proust’s--so clearly, Simmons is attempting to present himself as thoughtful and deliberate.

The problem is, if you don’t actually bother to explore those themes through your characters, their personalities and actions, then it simply doesn’t matter how often you have them lecture the reader on the subject--because all you’ve managed to do is write a book that tells us one thing, but then have the actual character actions contradict what we’ve been told. It’s like having a protagonist who the supporting cast constantly praises for being smart and clever, but then every decision he makes ends up being short-sighted and thoughtless.

Maybe it’s supposed to be some kind of cosmic frat bro slut-shaming logic. In the preceding scene, the victim gives this whole long speech about what a whore she is, how the current conflict is all her fault, and how she’s been sleeping with these different dudes because she just can’t help herself, and then she seems to be trying to seduce her husband's brother. So perhaps we’re supposed to sit here and think ‘well, this is all her fault, and she’s just been whoring around for years, causing all this trouble, so really she’s asking for it’

And yet, as any genre fan knows, that's clearly not the worst you can expect--indeed, while Simmons' portrayal of sexuality is one-sided, it's not deliberately so, like so many writers--he's not lecturing us on the inferiority of women--it's just blandly and thoughtlessly sexist. Beyond that, the reader can see that Simmons is trying very hard to do something here, and between that and the passably interesting turns of the plot, it was almost enough to keep me reading. The concept itself should make a fascinating book--this hyper-tech recreation of the Trojan War on Mars, interconnected with Nabokov's 'Antiterra'.

All Simmons' overt connections with literature are meant to establish a place in the canon--just as his genre has been trying to do for a century--perhaps that's why this book was shortlisted for awards, and has been widely praised, because of its obvious attempt to connect to Great Works. And yet, it makes the same mistake as any bad writing: trying to force through repetition and overstatement instead of doing all the difficult work of integrating those ideas into the book. Simmons just isn't doing enough, it's lip service, and the approach is just too rudimentary, flawed, and old-fashioned.

This isn't a forward-looking book, as sci fi should be, its a weirdly nostalgic attempt to redeem the past of sci fi, despite how goofy, exclusionary, and horribly Gernsbackian it was. Certainly, we should take lessons from the past, but good sci fi is always searching out the new thought or experience, exploring what it is to be human, and what it might be like in the future--the scree of gadgets are just a distraction, the same urge some shallow folk have to get the newest iphone, the day it comes out. That isn't a mind seeking the future, it's one trapped in the ever-consumptive obsession over the present, the self, the now.

And I get it, because running on that treadmill feels like moving (especially when you buy a new, cooler treadmill every year) but all that lurching and twitching and shivering is nothing but an ague, and it'll drain you in the end.

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review 2015-10-16 19:06
An Alien Heat - Michael Moorcock

As a writer, it's hard for me to imagine how people can just keep writing the same thing, over and over--just providing slight variations on the same plot, characters, and setting, where the only thing that changes are the names. At that point, it's less a creative endeavor than the symptom of a neurosis: an obsessive need to recreate the same familiar pattern, over and over, in hopes that it will free you--and truthfully, I can think of few better ways to murder creativity than to write in this way.

Of course, we writers have certain interests and concerns that are going to crop up again and again, our favored themes, whether it's PKD's paranoid uncertainty of self or Le Guin's mutual cultural incomprehensibility, but as long as we keep finding different angles of approach, different ways to explore these themes, then we're not just treading water.

Of course, I know that many writers do it to get paid, and that in any field, after years of working your way up with fresh ideas and hard work, it can be tempting to sit on your laurels and stop really trying, just letting the paycheques come in--hell, plenty of folks end up at that point without ever having had a fresh idea in their lives. I mean, I've written ten thousand words in a day before, so if I wanted to pump out a generic fantasy novel every week, I'm certainly physically capable of doing so--it's the mental aspect that prevents me.

Not just the fact that I can't stand the idea of filling the world with more generic crap (which I can't), but the need to completely turn off my brain and not care at all about what I've made--and that's part of what makes Moorcock interesting, is that he is clearly capable of not being critical of himself. He has a reputation in the field of being able to turn out a short story faster than anyone else, and I have sometimes gotten the impression from various works of his that his pen was outstripping his thoughts--because he has produced works like Corum, which is more or less a rewrite of Elric with slightly duller characters and slightly weirder cosmology--but then he comes along and writes something like Gloriana, or An Alien Heat.

It's as if you took a writer as flat (though intriguingly madcap) as E.R. Burroughs and told me that he'd tried his hand at something in the style of Conrad and Ford's The Inheritors--it's such a complete change in voice and approach. Indeed, Moorcock's book has much in common with that tale of profound intelligences lost in the stream of time, the past and future colonizing and changing one another in unpredictable, unexpected ways.

As with Gloriana, Moorcock is working in a completely different voice here, a different tone and pacing. While in Corum, the romance may be central, it is perfunctory, accomplished in a moment, without bothering to delve introspectively to shore up its foundations--no real depth of feeling is ever produced. Yet here, the romance is the plot, is the conflict, drawn out over the length of the series, the back and forth of it, the inner turmoil of it all are more Darcy of Pemberly than Carter of Mars.

Instead of revolving around a series of cosmic villains, as in Elric, it is a story built upon the decisions and feelings of its characters, built from the inside out instead of imposing some artificial external conflict upon the characters to motivate them--and the former method is always going to seem more personal, more vital, and more perilous to the reader, even when the stakes of the conflict are much lower.

Indeed, in terms of sci fi tropes with farce, Moorcock seems to be laying out a prototype for one of my favorite series: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Indeed, in the third book, when Moorcock's characters are trapped in the beginning of Earth's history, the parallels are almost too remarkable to be coincidence.

However, Moorcock does not quite have the precision necessary for a well-turned farce, as Wodehouse so often demonstrated, where the timing and rhythm of the scenes must be constructed with great care in order for them to work like the well-oiled machines they are. As such, in his pointed satire Adams ends up perfecting the form that Moorcock laid out--as is so often the case with his grand and intriguing but somewhat rough ideas.

However, An Alien Heat does share some shortcomings with works like Corum--quite literally, in that the exceedingly strange and imaginative world that he sets up for us is populated with characters who are all too mundane. In a world that is not only post-scarcity, but in which people have an ability to reshape the world to their liking beyond the wildest dreams of virtual reality, it seems odd that the characters would stick so closely to modern conceptions of identity.

For example, if a person can change their gender at will, or negate it entirely, or invent a new one, you aren't going to see the same old gender roles continue on as if nothing has changed. In a world where physical identity and appearance are completely fluid, you would expect peoples views of themselves to be similarly mutable.

Likewise, in a world where people can create anything with a thought, things like gold and gems would no longer retain the status rarity affords them currently--indeed, Moorcock often touches upon the fact that really, the only thing that produces value in his world is novelty, and yet he does not always succeed in demonstrating this effectively in his actual descriptions.

There are certainly good touches--that once we have all we want, things like depression or moroseness become interesting as poses, as markers of difference for their own sake, even when they aren't necessary--precisely because they aren't--but he might have done much more.

Indeed, one can also see the effect the work has had on another great writer who took the ideas and ran with them: Moorcock's protege M. John Harrison, who in his Viriconium series does begin to explore what a world of such profound difference might look like, where things like reality and identity begin to lose their meaning, and cohesion in the face of an ever-shifting world in which very little can be taken for granted. Once again, in the third book, when Moorcock gives us his hallucinatory cities, intelligent entities dying and going mad out in the wilderness, where most folks are happy to leave them alone, though some are drawn in by curiosity, we see a blueprint for the world that Harrison will later present us.

I do think that this book ends a chapter too late--that the conclusion Moorcock gives us originally produces an intriguing tale along the lines of Kafka, almost an inversion of Bierce's classic Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. As it is, Moorcock gives us a denouement which is altogether too tidy and easy, wrapping everything up and explaining it away, which I think would have made a much better opening to the next book.

Then again, perhaps his mainstream sci fi publishers were not ready for that sort of book--just as they weren't ready for Harrison, and put a Burroughs cover on his Kafka story. In any case, while the next book in the series is a bit of a lull, giving us much of the same, over again, the third book does much more with the setting and characters--even if the conclusion is a bit tacked-on.

Overall, the vision Moorcock gives us here is a testament to his creativity--he does not stick to just one story, or just one kind of world, even when his worlds are all interconnected, he still manages to give each one its own tone and voice, and second only to his masterwork, Gloriana, the End of Time series is one of his most intriguing.

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review 2015-07-21 20:15
M. john Harrison's 'The Pastel City'
The Pastel City - M. John Harrison

Fantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use the strangeness of magic to tap into the more remote corners of the soul, and then obscure their transgressions behind the fantastical facade. Like Moorcock, Leiber, and Vance, Harrison is playful, he is rebellious.

Indeed, in his swift, pulpy approach, Harrison very much resembles those authors, but his voice sets him apart. There is a scintillation, a sophistication, a turn of phrase which shows a practiced hand, and unlike many fantasy authors, Harrison's voice is very consistent. He is aware of what he is doing, the effect he means to produce, and he generally succeeds.

Moorcock was fond of saying that he was a 'bad writer with big ideas', and the same can be said of many genre writers, from R.E. Howard on, but Harrison is not a bad writer, and it's enjoyable to see someone of his skill take up the torch--leaving no doubt why he was so successful in inspiring New Weird authors like Mieville and VanderMeer to tear into genre (with varying degrees of success).

He had already made a name for himself as an editor and ruthless critic working at Moorcock's New Worlds, often lamenting the shallow predictability of genre fiction (his critical work has been collected in Parietal Games ), and this is clearly a stab at trying to break out of that monotony--to practice what he had been preaching. It is rather less wild and experimental than his later works, but there is something very effective in the straightforward simplicity displayed here.

The most obviously groundbreaking aspect of the work is his setting (not, as Harrison would insist, his 'world'). He combines science fiction and fantasy tropes quite freely, but with much greater success than Leiber's clunky attempts, and much more overtly than Moorcock's nods to quantum physics in Elric. It acts as a reminder that despite all the purists trying to drive a definitive wedge between the genres, they are really doing the same thing: creating physical symbols through which to explore ideas (it's Clarke's Third Law again).

An easy example is Star Wars, a fantasy story about wizards, prophecy, spells, magic swords, funny animals, good vs. evil, and the monomyth which adopts science fiction only as an aesthetic, a 'look'. It isn't forward-looking, it's mythical, which is why the laser beams only shoot at a fixed point in front of the ship, like World War I biplanes. Nowadays, the concept of mixing fantasy and sci fi has trickled down into the public consciousness, showing up in cartoons like Adventure Time--and to a large part, we have Harrison to thank for that, because his version (complete with laser swords) came years before Star Wars, and also presents a much more nuanced view of the world.

On the surface, Harrison's rusted-out future world resembles Vance's, but it's much closer to fellow New Wave Britisher J.G. Ballard (or Le Guin): a fantastical headspace of extremes, when everything is dying and collapsing around you, and yet life goes on--dwindling, certainly, but fundamentally not very different from how it has always been. It’s a portrait of existential dread, our fear of being alone, our foolish habit of nostalgia, of seeing the past not as it was, but as a sort of promised land, a missed opportunity for our neurotic brain to cling to.

The dying world is the legacy of poets (at least, of the Victorians, who have the most influence on our modern notions of the poetic self), from Byron’s Darkness to Shelley’s The Last Man and the mythology of Blake--and of course arch-pilferer Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, in this post-modern world, it’s become almost trite to riff on The Waste Land and it’s world built around the sad, intellectual man who regrets that all meaning has been stripped away, and he’s left to figure it out on his own.

However, fantasy has long been lagging behind, particularly highly-visible epic fantasy, like Tolkien’s, which behaves as if existentialism and skepticism never happened, instead inundating the reader in a top-down, authoritative voice full of message and allegory and obvious symbolism--though Tolkien himself often denied that this was the case, as a believer, to him the real world was a symbolic allegory.

The 'dying Earth' is the same old trick of fantasy, to take a state of mind and literalize it, to produce a setting that reflects it, and through which the author can explore it. It's like how in a Gothic novel, it rains when people are said, and lightning strikes as the villain observes the results of his cruelty.

Sure, it's also what a comics writer does when he puts the fate of the world at stake to increase the tension--but I won't say it's a bad trick, or a dirty one--it all depends on the magician who is using it. Are the a con artist, trying to win us over and sell us something, or are they a trickster like Houdini or James Randi, forcing us to confront the fact that we can so easily be fooled--indeed, that we may want to be fooled.

I find Harrison to be a trickster, an invoker of our better nature, if only because he realizes that the mind can be unsure--it can change--so, what happens to a world founded upon a changing mind? It's a question Harrison only touches on here, before diving in headlong in the next book, and finally getting a grasp on it in the third and fourth.

Unfortunately, one area where Harrison fails to meaningfully improve upon earlier genre outings is the portrayal of women. They are rarely present, and when they are, they tend to the weak and distant. We don't get inside their heads as we do the male characters, and so they do not really feel like complete characters, but objects of focus and motivators for the men around them. I mean, it's not like we're getting a trite Madonna/Whore love triangle, like Tolkien's, but moving from 'bad' to 'neutral' isn't much of an improvement, especially for a book written in the seventies--and the portrayals don't get much deeper in the later books.

I've often complained that many genre authors (like fellow dying-earther Gene Wolfe) give you two hundred pages of plot buried in four hundred pages of explanation, description, exposition, repetition, and redundancy--but I'm glad to say that in Harrison's case, he's happy to give us the two hundred and leave off the rest.

My List of Suggested Readings in Fantasy

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review 2015-07-08 06:12
The Dying Earth
The Dying Earth - Jack Vance

I must admit going into this with the mistaken belief that The Dying Earth was a novel. In fact, it is a series of fantasy short stories that are loosely tied together through character and setting. As with most works of this type, I found the contents hit and miss. Some of the early stories struck the right balance of plot elements and character necessary to left the work beyond the page and into the reader's imagination; other stories toward the end of the collection overcrowded the plot with twists and devices reminiscent of pulp fantasy magazines of the 40s and 50s. Vance uses a stilted, formal language so often employed by fantasy writers. It works well here, demonstrating that the author has a knack for its use. I liked The Dying Earth, though I think that my reading Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness at the same time did this collection no favors. It simply highlighted for me what a literary master Le Guin truly is, and my estimation of her went up as a comparative measure. 

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review 2014-11-19 06:33
Songs of the Dying Earth
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance - Tanith Lee,Dan Simmons,Phyllis Eisenstein,Mike Resnick,Robert Silverberg,Tom Kidd,Tad Williams,Walter Jon Williams,Elizabeth Moon,Gardner R. Dozois,Howard Waldrop,Glen Cook,Jack Vance,Terry Dowling,Kage Baker,Liz Williams,Elizabeth Hand,John C. Wright,Pau
The Dying Earth - Jack Vance

Jack Vance has been one of my favorite writers ever since I first read his short story "Nopalgarth." I immediate read my way through everything of his I could find, and when I finally encountered The Dying Earth, my mind was blown. The merger of science and magic and the idea of an Earth so old nobody remembers it's history opened me up to a bunch of new fiction and established my taste in reading and writing.


On a recent plane trip I realized I'd forgotten to pack any books, but the airport book shop had Songs of the Dying Earth, an anthology or original short stories from mega names like Neil Gaiman, and edited by George R.R. Martin. I bought the book despite that (I'm the only guy I know that doesn't really like either of those writers, but my mixed feelings about Martin's bibliography is another post) because I figured the big names of sci-fi and fantasy wouldn't just phone it in, and for the most part, that's true. The stories do a great job of evoking Vance, although none quite captures the almost foreign feeling you get from the original stories. Story telling has changed a lot since then, so I chalk it up to different sensibilities for modern writers.


Of the wide variety of stories in the anthology, "An Incident in Uksvesk" by Elizabeth Moon was my hands down favorite. This particular story felt the least like something Vance would write, while at the same time doing an outstanding job of feeling like it belonged in his world. I won't spoil the fun by telling you more.


Some other writers you might recognize that also contributed to the anthology include Silverberg, Tad Williams, Tanith Lee (her stories have always felt Vance-like to me) and Terry Dowling.

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