Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why I hate Chapters

I went to Canada's big box bookstore chain on Wednesday, in search of The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling's first new novel in years, and arguably his first proper SF novel in more than a decade.

Couldn't find it. Not on the shelf. Not on the ludicrously misnamed New and Hot in Science Fiction table. Not in non-genre fiction. 

I ask a clerk. Bruce Sterling? Never heard of him (of course). We look it up on the computer. 

Ah, they do have it in store. Three whole copies. Have I looked on the shelf? Yes. Have I looked on the New and Hot in Science Fiction table? Yes. 

Two clerks later, we determine it is actually still in the back of the store. Judging by the lack of a big fat hole on the S shelf of the SF section, it has never actually been shelved. Because Bruce Sterling is not on the A list.

Sterling is one of the fathers of cyberpunk. He has been producing genre defining, award winning, best selling and well reviewed SF since the late 1970s. None of this matters to non-SF fans, and I don't expect it to. Sterling isn't in the public consciousness the way William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, or even Philip K. Dick are. For mass market purposes, he's a B lister. One of the top of the B listers, one with a devoted fan base all his own, stoked by his work as a futurist, WIRED blogger and general weirdo. But none of this matters to a big box book store. If he's not going to shift an entire crate of product in his first week, if he's not Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling or Stephenson, who cares? The books will get on the shelf when they get there. I imagine fans of any genre author, or even some good non-genre authors, have had similar frustrations trying to get a new book in their hands.

This is why Chapters will die. The only thing they can do better than Amazon is get books out there as physical objects, where you can see them and grab them up on impulse. And they can't even do that right.

Chapters, and its American big box bookstore cousins, are based on volume. I remember when I first went to a big box bookstore as a teenager. Not just a few shelves of SF books, but shelf after shelf after shelf. Books I'd only ever heard of on Prisoners of Gravity. It was nerdvana. (And who were they competing with? It was not, in my neck of the woods, with small mom and pop bookstores, or even with specialty stores, because the wastelands of suburbia contain neither of these things. It was with chains of shopping mall bookstores. Like Black Bond. So one chain out competes another. Who cares, if we get more book selection?)

Chapters has been beaten at its own game by Amazon. Everyone knows this already, of course, but the "where's my Bruce Sterling book" incident shows why. Obviously, Amazon has more books, and it's almost never out of stock of anything. This is not because Amazon is more virtuous or has a deeper respect for books or authors or readers than Chapters. Amazon does not care about my desires, any more than Chapters does. It's just set up to fulfil my desires anyway. It might not have one person on staff who gives a crap about SF either, but it's happy little filing system will let me locate the book, read the reviews, give me recommendations for other books, and even ship it to me for free if I buy a large enough volume of stuff. 

The Chapters in my home town was still plenty busy around Christmas and during the Boxing Day sales. But it's basically dead walking. I wonder what we'll do with all the parking lots and the giant shells of bookstores when the last person without an internet connection dies?

New twists, old themes

Spoilers, if you're taping Dollhouse.

So, I enjoyed the Feb. 27 episode of Dollhouse, but I'm wondering if we're going to get an old plot served up for every show.

Protecting the starlet from the obsessed fan is not exactly new. Even the fan who wants to die at the hands of said fan has been done before – the one that comes to mind is in John Varley's excellent novel Steel Beach.

That said, there was a return of snappy dialogue, a couple of nice mini-twists, and the growing sense, verbalized this time by the Dollhouse masters, that Echo is developing a personality. And that personal growth is what led to serial slasher Alpha. 

In other Dollhouse news, the frenzy of worship for the show and the backlash against are both reaching insane fanboy levels normally only possible when discussing  who's more badass, Boba Fett or Wolverine?

Check out this interview question to Stephen DeKnight from io9, following the broadcast of the second episode.
Are you stoked that everybody's singling out your episode as one of the series' best, with the bow-hunting and the most dangerous gaming?

On the other hand, there's this little commentary from the Penny Arcade guys. I admit, the cartoon was pretty funny, but keep in mind that this was also written after seeing two episodes of the show. If that. 

New rule: if a respected creator of one of your favourite shows (Deadwood, Veronica Mars, The Wire, Buffy) has a new program out, you give it five episodes. You don't praise it unduly before that, you don't dismiss it as garbage. Individual episodes may be bad or good, but you give it a chance. It's the Five Ep Rule. Respect it.

Seriously, go back and watch the actual pilot of Buffy. Watch it and try to imagine you've never seen another episode. High concept, but how high a rating would you give it out of ten? (Me, I'm thinking seven. Six is possible, for having a happy ending after Xander just staked his alleged friend Jesse.) Television is a serial medium. You don't rate a show based on any one episode, or even two or three.

Also note that this is probably a moot discussion. Fox's decision to tie Dollhouse to the anthill that is the Friday night time slot means we're probably just previewing the show to see if we'll want to buy Dollhouse: The Complete Series next Christmas.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Slap your editor, Harry

I came home from the library the other day with two books featuring mammoths on the cover. One was The Breath of God by Harry Turtledove. (This is the other one, in case you were wondering.) Obviously, everthing goes better with extinct megafauna. I tore through most of my non-fiction selection, then got down to reading Turtledove's work.

Now, I didn't have a lot of preconceptions about Turtledove. I've never read any of his Guns of the South books, because... well, I just don't give a crap about the subject matter. I was born and raised and still live in Canada. So I don't have that American gene that makes people obsessed with the (US) Civil War. When I read some 19th Century alternate history, I'm more likely to go for something with Mounties in it (disclaimer: by a friend of mine).

But this looked like something more in my line. I'm sick of fantasy novels that just use Generic Medieval Europe + Magic + Elves. Anything with an Ice Age setting gets my attention.

Unfortunately, The Breath of God contains a few glaringly ugly sentences right up front. Check out page eight.
"Life is full of surprises," Ulrik Skakki said, which would have been funny if only it were funny.
They not only herded wooly mammoths, as the Bizogots had for centuries uncounted, but rode them to war, with lancers and men with long, long lances on the beasts' shaggy backs.
Seriously? If lancers aren't men with lances, then what are they?

I read another ten pages from that point, far enough to determine that those weird, awkward phrasings on page eight seem to be anomalies. But Turtledove and his editor ought to have taken a harder look at that section. Ouch.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dark symmetries

An interesting article on Clarkesworld this month about a piece of SF that isn't often published or read as such. Robert N. Lee tells us about "The Most Important Genre Novel You'll Never Read." 

He's right. I'm not going out of my way to read The Turner Diaries, by William Luther Pierce, anytime soon. Ever since it was raised to true notoriety along with Timothy McVeigh and his madness, I've seen it mentioned off-handedly as a novel about a future race war.

It's far worse than that, as Lee tells us. It's the diary of a member of a far-right white supremacist organization which launches the ethnic cleansing of the United States, and then the world. Along the way, they slaughter every white woman who's ever slept with a man of another colour, and start a nuclear war. It sounds like something written from a perspective of self-devouring hate, the kind that leaves something hollow and vile, at the far end of human. Lee does nothing to dissuade readers from this view
I recommend Turner because it's poisonous. I don't envy anyone who reads it without building up tolerance to the darker ends of genre fiction and to work written by people who hate you personally and want you dead. This book should hurt going down — if it doesn't, you shouldn't read it. It's worth the pain, though, and more to the point, provides an opportunity that should hit us all hard in the center of our eternal eleven-year-olds: saving the world from evil, no shit.

This book is the Necronomicon. The Turner Diaries is bound in human skin, written in blood and contains demons — real ones, not Biblical bogeys. We've all witnessed the power of these monsters. This is the real deal from all those horror stories: the book of secret dark knowledge, access restricted to its devoted worshippers yet hidden in plain sight, awaiting the one who can best harness or defeat its pure evil.
What struck me was that the framing structure of the story seemed familiar.

It's the diary of a member of a "persecuted minority" in the near future, with the document itself supposedly having been discovered and published in the farther future.

That's identical to the framing structure of The Handmaid's Tale.

Notably, they're both dystopian novels (although readers of The Turner Diaries might not consider it dystopian to slaughter 95 per cent of the world's population), they both concern a resistance to the established order, and they both end with the main character taken off the stage. Turner himself dies a suicide nuclear bomber (of course) destroying Washington D.C. (of course) whereas Offred simply takes a chance at escape and vanishes from her own narrative. Given the world she's escaping through, her end is not likely a happy one. Lastly, many people wouldn't consider either book to be proper SF, whatever that is. Atwood has been famously defending herself against the charge of writing SF ever since Handmaid's Tale was published.

I don't mean to say here that there are any similarities in philosophy, ideology, or quality between the two books. Indeed, you'd have to wander far and wide to find two books generated from such opposite ends of those spectra. Atwood's work is genuinely art, and my only complaint about the text is that sometimes it feels like Atwood-the-poet overrides Atwood-the-novelist. The book is, in fact, sometimes too well written, and the finely crafted metaphors can kick you right out of the grim reality of Gilead.

My hypothesis is that the structural similarities are a matter of parallel literary evolution. Both Pierce and Atwood needed to tell a particular kind of tale, and they found the discovered diary, which is one of the oldest frame stories for fantastic tales, to be the best format. Because it goes back as far as Gulliver's Travels, it has a certain respectability lacking to the full immersion approach that SF has championed for its readers. The frame story offers a way for non-SF readers - the target market for both books - to be eased into a strange world.  All political fiction is propaganda, and none more so than dystopian and utopian novels. Artful or wretchedly written, vile or virtuous, the propagandist has to connect with their audience. 

I just hope more copies of The Handmaid's Tale are selling this year than The Turner Diaries.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Science fiction, meet elves

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear is an odd hybrid of a book. I first heard of it on Scalzi's blog, and I'm halfway through it now.

It's good, at least so far. It's the tale of Muire, last of the valkyries (or, by the text's tongue-mangling spelling, the waelcyrge) aka the Children of Light. In the opening chapters, the world ends, as the Children of Light face off against evil wolf things and their own wayward kin, in something that's near enough to Ragnarok. Only Muire, a steed called Kasimir, and one traitor and evildoer, the Grey Wolf, are left alive. 

Then the story jumps 2,300 years in the future. The world's ending again.

That's a hell of a hook for any story. The story is most notable so far for mixing pulp SF, Lovecraft, Wagnerian pseudo-Norse mythology, and steampunk into a thick gumbo of weirdness. 

Here's a sample, from a flashback as Muire begins to understand that the humans who have inherited the world from the gods are headed for their own apocalypse:
The tears that choked her breathing weren't from the wasp's futile venom. They came because she could no longer deny what she knew. Cascading catastrophe, the system in failure. It was not Muire's first apocalypse. But then, her kind had always been better at retribution than prevention.
And she knew as if it had been blazoned on a banner, with desperation would come war.
Black sorcery, radiation weapons, nanites, railguns, orbital assault, biotoxins and all the ills the flesh is heir to: Valdygard had died its first death in ice. The second was in flames. Mountains were heaved up and pounded flat. Oceans steamed and cities died in silence, suffocated under falling dust.
Eiledon... was spared.
This is some weird stuff. Kasimir, the valkyrie's mount, is a two headed deer-like winged creature. Horribly wounded, at the start of the story he is restored into a magical steampunk cyborg by one of the last miracles of the Children of Light.

So we've got ancient demigods, future technology, animal-human hybrids, cyborgs, killer cyborg flying reindeer/antelopes... it reminds me of Rifts.

Ah, Rifts, uber-nerdy game of my early teenage years. And some of my later teenage years. But hardly any of my twenties, I swear to god! Rifts, for those who decline to link, is the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pen and paper RPG. Created in the 1990s, it it set on a future earth wracked by both nuclear and magical holocausts, it includes cyborgs, giant robots, monsters, demons, elves, dwarves (and the whole Tolkeinian pantheon of near-humans) dragons, psychics, evil empires, Cthulhu critters, Atlantis, dinosaurs, vampires... I could just keep listing elements for line after line here. 

Rifts, however, and the entire Palladium Games line, are mostly notable for being of fairly mediocre quality. The game system is antiquated by modern standards, the rules are cumbersome, character generation takes forever, and the books themselves are often marred by writing that's clumsy to downright bad. Throw in at least one or two proofreading errors in every book and you've got yourself a bargain basement games line, that survives on the sheer balls to the wall fun of its concept. Yes, you can be an elven commando who fights vampires with his cyborg dwarf buddy! Or you can be an Atlantean with magic tattoos, or a talking mutant dog with psychic powers!

All the Windwracked Stars succeeds (so far) because of the fine writing. So when you're not simply geeking out over the weirdness of the premise (a scandal when a main battle shoggoth crushed a student demonstration...) you're carried along by the melancholy tone that's set on the very first page. Muire is in mourning for one world that's died, and for another about to perish. The kind of subtle prose on display here is far from the rule-filled pages of an RPG intended for teenaged boys.

A lot of folks are doubtless going to label the book part of the New Weird movement, but I can't help but wonder if this mashup of fantasy and SF is just going to become mainstream in the future. To understand either All the Windwracked Stars or Rifts, you have to be immersed in SF and fantasy. It makes no sense outside a cultural context that includes Tolkein and Wagner and H.P. Lovecraft and Star Wars. That sphere, the nerdsphere if you will, has been expanding like a young universe for the last thirty years. Everyone has a passing acquaintance with it, many of us are deeply immersed. So Bear's book offers us, as the Norse would have it, kennings. Like barbarians around a campfire, she has but to mention a shoggoth, or an animal-human hybrid moreaux, and we know this to be an offhand reference to another tale, another saga for nerdkind. And we nod our heads in appreciation. Truly, this bard knows the old tales well.

Bear, like the makers of Rifts, has all the pieces to play with. What she does with it is what will distinguish her from the others who try this sort of hybridization. So far, I'm enjoying it immensely.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The most dangerous, er, passtime? Hobby?

Normally "most dangerous game" episodes leave a bad taste in my mouth. They remind me of Bloodlust, which was made into an MST3K episode, or about bad episodes of bad syndicated action shows. Usually there are Rube Goldberg man-traps in the woods that are improbably fashioned out of half a dozen coconuts and some conveniently-placed vines. They're just silly.

So after the initial rush of last night's tautly paced Dollhouse ep was over, I thought to myself, did I really like this? Could I like a plot that's essentially been a cliché since 1937?

The answer is yes. I mostly liked the pilot ep of Dollhouse, but I found the main kidnapping plot to be a little stale. I didn't figure Joss would try to sell his fourth TV show by having a 12-year-old girl murdered by a pedophile, so she was pretty safe. It was just a matter of how they would get from A to B, and what little character moments would crop up along the way. Focusing most of those moments on the father of the girl, who I suspect we'll never see again, dissipated some of their force. It was good (compare it to any episode of any cop procedural with a similar plot) but it wasn't great.

This week's episode had constant turnabout. I really didn't see the manhunt thing coming, which may or may not be mostly because I'm a little slow to see plot twists, especially when I'm enjoying a show. We got some damn good dialogue, which suggested that this was not the first time the hunter has done this, not by a long shot. That he's a serial killer who found the Dollhouse perfect for his needs adds another layer of creepy to the show.

This week's episode also focused its character moments on our core cast. Echo is waking up, thanks to the hallucinogenic drink, likely supplied for that purpose by Alpha. Her handler, Boyd, moves from cynical indifference to seeing Echo as a person. Topher and the doctor are traumatized by Alpha's attack. And Alpha is... well, what is he?

My current speculation, utterly free of spoilers, is that he knows Echo/Caroline - or one of the pieces of his mind does. Just as Echo's composite kidnapping negotiator personality was shocked when it ran into someone it remembered, Alpha knows her. Now he wants to wake her up, too. How does he know her? From her early, cheerful college days or her later desperate stage? From her childhood? Were those her parents he killed at the end of the pilot? All questions that will be answered later.

Much like this question: how many people in the Dollhouse are permanent actives? Seriously, is Boyd really a cop, or is he an active with one set of programming instructions? He's pretty tough, skilled and knowledgeable. When you have that level of technology, why not use it to create your personnel? 

How about Topher? Dr. Saunders? Adelle DeWitt? Lawrence Dominic? That girl across the hall from Agent Ballard?

Well, she's definitely an active. They might as well have written it above her head in big flashing letters. Not so subtle, Stephen DeKnight.

Man, I'm going to look stupid if that's a red herring.