It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The rain in Spain falls mainly on the Moon

Next month sees the publication in Spain of the second volume in the Nova Fantástica series of anthologies edited by Mariano Villarreal. This volume is titled A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias y otros relatos, and the linguistically talented among you will have spotted that the title translates as Adrift on the Sea of Rains and Other Stories. My novella, translated by Diego de los Santos, is only one among several award winners and nominees in a star-studded table of contents. Just looking at it makes me come over all unnecessary:

1 ‘La señora astronauta de Marte’ (The Lady Astronaut of Mars), Mary Robinette Kowal
2 ‘Algoritmos para el amor’ (The Algorithms for Love), Ken Liu
3 ‘Frigonovia’ (Bridesicle), Will McIntosh
4 ‘Regreso a casa’ (The Homecoming), Mike Resnick
5 ‘La verdad de los hechos, la verdad del corazón’ (The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling), Ted Chiang
6 ‘Si fueras un dinosario, amor mío’ (If You Were a Dinosaur, my love), Rachel Swirsky
7 ‘La Amaryllis’ (Amaryllis), Carrie Vaughn
8 ‘A la deriva en el mar de las Lluvias’ (Adrift on the Sea of Rains), Ian Sales

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More details (in Spanish) can be found here, and the anthology can be pre-ordered on Amazon (Spain here and US here). Of course, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still available in English – as are the other three books of the Apollo Quartet: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows (the titles link to Amazon, but you can also buy them from the Whippleshield Books website here).

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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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Doing the Hugos 1

I did this last year, so why not again this year? Once again, I’m not a member of the Worldcon, so I didn’t nominate any of the works which appear on the various shortlists, nor will I be able to vote on them. But the shortlists are public, many of the novellas, novelettes and short stories are available online to read, and I have opinions which I am happy to share.

First up, the short stories. These are stories of less than 7,500 words, previously published in the US or online in the preceding year. The 2010 shortlist looks like this (click on the titles to read each story):

‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (PDF), Mike Resnick (Asimov’s December 2009)
Nope. I don’t get it. After John Kessel’s clever Austen / Frankenstein pastiche, ‘Pride and Prometheus’, appeared on last year’s Hugo novelette shortlist, this year we have another entry riffing on Frankenstein. But this time it’s a simplistic short story by Mike Resnick. The narrator is married to Victor Frankenstein, but it is not a loving marriage. But, with the help of the monster, Frankenstein’s wife undergoes a change of heart. It’s hard to know when the story’s set – the narrator is married to Victor Frankenstein, but complains the castle has no electricity. So not the early 1800s, then. It’s implied that Gone with the Wind has just been published, so the story could be set in the late 1930s. Except the narrator uses the term “family unit”. ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ works as a lightweight throwaway piece – and it’s a little better than last year’s dreadfully old-fashioned ‘Article of Faith’ – but are we seriously supposed to believe it’s one of the two best stories published in Asimov’s during 2009, and one of the five best stories published anywhere in 2009? I refuse to believe that science fiction is so moribund.

‘Bridesicle’ (PDF), Will McIntosh (Asimov’s January 2009)
In the future of this story, those who have died and been frozen are revived by lonely people looking for love. Which could be considered a neat commentary on immigrant brides. But McIntosh adds more. He makes his eponymous Mira gay, so even if a man does fall in love with her and pay for her to be brought back to life, she’s never going to return his sentiments. And, in this future, the personalities of dead people can be uploaded into living people’s minds – these are known as “hitchers”. Mira is woken at intervals over a couple of centuries, makes friends with a man who later admits he could never afford to revive her, and also learns that her lover is a corpsicle in the same facility. I wanted to like this story more than I did. It’s well-written – although one or two phrases were a tad too much: “her jaw squealed like a sea bird’s cry”, for example – and Mira is a well-drawn protagonist. But it feels too busy. Either the “bridesicle” idea or “hitchers” alone would be enough. Having both seems to me to weaken the story, and so it turns into a future romance. ‘Bridesicle’ is not an embarrassing choice for the shortlist, but it doesn’t feel strong enough to win a Hugo.

‘The Moment’, Lawrence M Schoen (Footprints, Hadley Rille Books)
I’ll admit to being surprised at seeing this on the shortlist. But only because it appeared in a themed anthology from a small press. I wouldn’t have thought such a book would have received a wide enough readership to generate enough nominations for one of its stories to be shortlisted. But it did. And the story is… Well, it’s not bad. It’s a series of linked vignettes, showing the history of the galaxy through visitors to a human footprint on the Moon. Given the last line of the story, I don’t think the footprint is meant to be Neil Armstrong’s (and, of course, the famous photograph was taken by Aldrin of his own bootprint), or indeed made by any of the Apollo astronauts. The story is a bit of smeerp overdose, full of silly made-up words. It’s also somewhat over-written. Having now read it, I’m still surprised to see it on the shortlist. I don’t actually think it’s good enough for an award.

‘Non-Zero Probabilities’, NK Jemisin (Clarkesworld September 2009)
This story is so much better than the preceding three that it feels like a much better story than I initially thought it was. In fact, prior to the Hugo nominations being announced last month, this and the Johnson story from Clarkesworld were the only two of the shortlist I’d actually read. Adele lives in a New York in which wildly improbably events – disasters, mostly – happen regularly. It’s a slice-of-life sort of story, with some lovely writing and a clever central conceit. It’s not the sort of genre fiction I normally choose to read, or enjoy all that much, so I wouldn’t have nominated it myself. But yes, it’s good enough to be on the shortlist.

‘Spar’, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld October 2009)
And you’d think this story would be the sort of genre fiction I would read since it has aliens and spaceships in it. But. It’s a mood piece. It has no rigour. It feels like a writing exercise, not a story. I didn’t like it when I first read it, I don’t like it on rereading it. And I can’t understand why it was nominated, never mind received enough nominations to make it onto the shortlist. Johnson, of course, was on the Hugo short story shortlist last year – for ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’ – so she clearly has her fans. I’m not one of them. Nor am I fan of the type of genre fiction she writes.

I thought last year’s Hugo shortlist for short stories was poor, and I’d hoped this year’s would be better. It isn’t. Two authors are back again – Resnick and Johnson – which only shows how incestuous the Hugo Awards are. I mean, there are a huge number of people writing genre short fiction, so I find it really sad that the same old names keep on appearing. This year, I think the Jemisin should win, with the McIntosh as runner-up. I expect the Johnson will win.

My take on the novelette shortlist will follow soon. It at least looks better than the above shortlist. Um, the same was true last year. Perhaps the best sf now being written is at novelette-length…