Monday, December 15, 2008

Some new stories at Anthology Builder

I decided to add a few more of my reprints to Anthology Builder. My Nemonymous story, "Word Doctor," is now there, as is "City of Games" from the Sporty Spec anthology and "Hope Games" from The Sword Review (now MindFlights), making for six of my stories that you can add to personalized anthologies you may want to create.

The available fiction includes some pretty impressive names and stories, and when added to some of the plentiful cover art, you can get a nice, personalized Christmas present for those on your list...and introduce all your family and friends of the sheer whimsical genius of this humble writer... Something like that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Schismatrix, the novel

A bit later than planned on this, but...

The story of the book is really the story of Abelard Lindsay's life. It doesn't have a standard plot progression or arc but is almost more a picaresque, tagging along as Lindsay sundogs around the solar system. Smaller segments of his life have their own arcs, of course, such that it has a vaguely episodic feel to the book. While that's neither complaint nor recommendation, it does contribute to a sense of "Where is this leading?" as his life segues from one role to another, which might be a bit off-putting for some. Even when characters are prominent over more than one segment of his life (his childhood rival, his wife, etc.), their piece of his story is only fragmentary, ending abruptly or veering away without it forming a part of a typical climax or denouement.

On the other hand, it's quite possible that this is an intentional break from expectations--the lack of an overarching narrative ties in with what seemed to me to be the strength of the setting and stories: life changes. Life in space will only change more. Metanarratives are useful for a few decades, but what would have once been an entire generation is now only a brief time in these long lives.

Lindsay is a self-made success, repeatedly...and a runner, fleeing (or sundogging it, which is a great expression in the book) when situations change. Numerous times he comes into a location with little, but he's up for the challenge of establishing himself, and he's especially gifted (and lucky) in insuating himself into the power structure. But once established, he doesn't fight for that power when it gets threatened, but merely flees. This allows the story to move around vastly different parts of the solar system, as well as contributing to the episodic nature of the story.

One thing about that keeps niggling at me, and I think it's the way he's so often a part of the local powers. This adds to my sense that it doesn't fit what I think of as cyberpunk. Again the label itself isn't the issue--I'm not trying to define or limit the subgenre--but the image I have in my head for all the various -punk incarnations and what gets me excited about them is their focus on those outside of power. Is that a requirement? No, probably not. But it's what draws me to them. I mention this less as a complaint about Schismatrix itself and more as an encouragement to writers, whatever they're writing, to turn the focus at least in part on those powerless well as for readers to seek such works out (and perhaps recommend me places to find them). I guess it's somewhat related to my comments on steampunk a month or so ago.

Returning from that tangent, as the book progresses, by necessity a key theme is aging and generations. Technology allows the characters to rejuvenate their bodies, and the methods of both the Shapers and Mechanists extend lives even without that. But Sterling manages to balance this amazing advance with a recognition that long life and rejuvenation might make a person look young and even act young for years at a time, but there's still a difference between older generations and new. Early in the book Lindsay is part of the younger generation, rebelling against his home's mechanically preserved old ones. Later he's the old one, despite everything done to him to keep him physically young--experiences still age him. It's in the playing out of this theme (as well as the themes of constant change that I mentioned about the stories) that the book rises above being simply an exciting futuristic tale, though it remains that as well.

All in all an enjoyable book. It makes me curious to seek out other cyberpunk works--I read the manifesto several years ago, but I've not read Neuromancer or Snow Crash or probably most other works considered central to the movement. Other books it reminded me of at different times, both of which I enjoyed but neither that I've heard referred to as cyberpunk, are Justina Robson's Natural History (absolutely loved) and Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist.

Other participants:

OF Blog of the Fallen
Adventures in Reading
Post-Weird Thoughts

Monday, December 08, 2008

Schismatrix Plus

I wasn't able to get a hold of the book for the last Blogger Book Club (started at OF Blog of the Fallen), but I did manage to get this book in time, so I've decided to participate. I'm a bit torn what exact approach to take here--a formal review? an Amazon-style what-I-liked-and-what-sucked paragraph? drive-by, 5-word reviewing?--but I guess this will fall under reader response, more conversational (and unstructured) than I might for a formal review. Because of time and the fact that I'm not in the habit of reviewing novels here, that seems best.

The book contains a novel (Schismatrix) as well as a handful of stories that take place in the same future setting. I read the stories first, which matched how Sterling wrote them. So first a few words on the setting, since that's the one thing that connects them all. They take place primarily within our solar system, where humans have expanded to populate moons, asteroids, and constructed habitats. The main factions are split by how they want to advance the human race: Mechanists go for mechanical upgrades while Shapers prefer genetic manipulation and mental training. Earth itself is quarantined (which was the one thing about the backdrop that felt a bit contrived).

What Sterling does well with this is to create a believable sense of how fluid and transitory all these things are. Political alliances dominate, seem poised to control everything for a long time...and then crumble, often very quickly. Even the arrival of the aliens, which is undeniably a deus ex machina in the novel, doesn't change the underlying uncertainty and sudden reversals, though the characters seem to think it does for awhile. The nature of aging and rejuvenation is a big part of this milieu as well, but really as a theme of the novel itself, so I'll get to that in a bit.

The stories

(I ought to note that I had to return the book to the library already, so I don't have character names and such handy as I write)

"Swarm" brings a human Shaper to an alien world, basically a swarm of mindless aliens from many races that have each evolved to fulfill a particular role within the hive-like subterranean world (a large meteor, I believe). The Shapers had sent a field scientist earlier, and the new arrival joins her in this truly alien environment. That environment is a big strength of the story--complex, allusive, and truly strange. One complaint I'd have is that while the female is clearly the stronger character, better able to adapt and understand the situation, the way they interact felt decidedly old-fashioned (perhaps a factor of it being written in the early 80s?). Other than that, though, it's a fascinating story, especially in its final argument that intelligence and curiosity are an evolutionary blip, one that survival of the species will eventually remove from us as it has so many other species.

The other stories didn't affect me quite as deeply, though I didn't find any of them uninteresting. They form a diverse picture of a complex and interesting space future. "Cicada Queen," I suspect, is the one most likely to appeal to die-hard SF fans, full of momentous developments and frontloaded with lots of jargon. I did enjoy the grounded-in-character view of terraforming in "Sunken Gardens" as well. I remember wondering as I finished it, though, in what way are these stories cyberpunk? I don't really care too much about labels, but it does make me curious--I haven't read a lot of cyberpunk, so likely the image in my head of what defines the genre is inaccurate. Whatever they're called, though, I found them to be enjoyable stories. Taken as a whole, their greatest strength is evoking that sense of constant change, of social structures and political constructs constantly evolving. It's an excellent antitode to what I've complained about before in big fat fantasies where empires last thousands of years and both alliances and rivalries maintain unbelievable continuity for nearly as long.

I'm afraid this could get too long, and it's getting late, so I'll post this much tonight and return for the novel itself tomorrow. So far I haven't seen any other participants for this... (echo, echo) I'll add links when they go up. The organizing blog for this time around is Post-Weird Thoughts, so for now, keep an eye there.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Running With the Eagle"

This poem, the first of three that will be appearing at Every Day Poets, is up today! This is an older poem, one I wrote for a poetry class in college--I believe we had a choice between an academic research paper and writing a dozen or so of our own poems. Hmmm, wonder how long I weighed those options...

At one level, this is very much a literal memory of the first time I saw a bald eagle in the wild, canoeing down the Little Muskegon River when I was a camp counselor. Early in the 3- or 4-hour trip, I saw a large bird fly around the bend, wondered if it was an eagle, but then dismissed the possibility. Much later, as we neared the backwater of the Croton Dam, I came around a corner and finally realized that this really was an eagle. It flew downriver from us a pair of times, but the third time it simply perched on a high branch and ignored us as we floated underneath. In the meantime, it had frightened a great blue heron, and the rest of the trip to the backwater, the heron took off, screaming at us, each time we rounded a corner. I've never, before or since, heard a heron make any such vocalization.

I set myself up a bit by dedicating this to Hopkins. I mean, where do I get off mentioning his name alongside my poem? The poem itself doesn't feel like a Hopkins poem, and so I just want to say that it isn't meant to. In certain places, I made conscious word choices to create a brief feel of his poetry, but otherwise it is not meant as a pastiche or imitation at all. The opening line, though, is meant to be a response to his "Windhover," which begins, "I caught this morning morning's minion..." and is also about a bird of prey (sort of). And that's all I'll say about that.