Posted March 17, 2008on:
Readers who keep up with any part of the science fiction online community are probably aware of Tor’s ebook giveaway — a superior version of HarperCollins tentative lame duck. I’m not a big SF reader but I am a years long subscriber to John Scalzi’s Whatever so when I read that his Old Man’s War was among the freebies I signed up for the newsletter — the only condition Tor lays on participants. I registered in time for his, couldn’t sum up the energy to unsubscribe, and ended up downloading Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin the next week. (I passed on last week’s Lackey co-authored text. I know that she’s supposed to be great, at least in that one Arthurian novel, but the interchangeable winsome cover maidens with piercing stares who gaze from cliffs/behind veils/from luxurious beds in boudoirs turn me off.)
I tried Scalzi’s and changed from relieved interest — hate to think that I like the blog writings but not the fiction — to annoyance at clumsy phrasing all within the first page. I really, really want to like the book so even though I closed the window one minute after my negative reaction — I have less patience for fiction on screen than on paper — I had already decided to try again at some future date.
Wilson got me on board from the first sentence. His is the first honest-to-goodness full-length SF novel I’ve ever been enthused about (or likely to read to the end, for that matter). Yes, Sarah Hall’s latest is “dystopian” and it is set in a future world but the dystopian setting worked as mere trappings, presented and dispensed with for most of the novel. Most of the technology Hall uses for her story is decidedly retro: centuries old farming techniques and tools. It’s easily the sort of novel persons uninclined to SF could enjoy without feeling any curiosity about the rest of the genre because none of the novel’s offered pleasures rests in any significant way on the dystopian elements. Not really. This is not a mark against Hall just the way it fits into my limited ideas about SF.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t count for me either, perhaps more inexplicably. The cloning plot line played a central role so I cannot convincingly persuade myself that he only used it as a launching pad. But, again, he focuses on the effects of the cloning and little (or nothing?) on the science behind it. I need it to be obvious. Give me labs and aliens! The fantastical fabrications! Global warming and cloning is so now — spice it up a bit, damn it. (Maybe this is because of my fantasy background.) Anyway, I liked the novel as I read it but it left nothing behind but a blank white mental space.
There was The Chrysalids in boarding school but all I remember is something about kids and a spaceship.
Wilson writes about the stars disappearing, the earth suddenly covered in a protective shield put in place by some unknown intelligence to protect the earth’s inhabitants from a “temporal velocity” that’s occurring beyond its barrier. The beings, so speculation goes, slowed down earth’s time relative to time beyond its sphere; millions of years transpire in what for earth is only a decade (for example). Without the shield sun light would reach the earth’s atmosphere at speeds beyond the filtering capacity of ozone layer and we’d all fry. Conversely, without a sun we’d freeze so the (probably) aliens put up a fake sun and moon.
Here’s the science that was rumoured to exist in the genre. Being a SF there has to be, I suppose, some smug pronouncements on most people’s “pre-Newtonian” understanding of astrophysics — the smugness does fit in with the character’s personality — and, of course, the only reason our narrator has a clue what his genius pal is discussing is because he reads SF novels. I forgive the earnestness since everything is going well, so far.
Finding a Girl in America, the story collection by Andre Dubus is proving to be a mixed offering. Or not mixed so much as not the transcendent experience I expected but author’s must find it difficult to produce uniformly magnificent fiction with each new publication. One or two stories have weak spots but a less-than-awesome Dubus is still an excellent affair, more rewarding than what most authors could manage.
The familiar subjects are here. Couples or families are disrupted by death or divorce. Military men and their families or loved ones deal with the occupational stresses. Dubus never writes of them in battle, at least I’ve never come across it, it’s always the before and after. Baseball. I get the impression that Dubus is a huuuuge baseball fan. 🙂 I’m not one but he makes it compelling. If any writer is North American, specifically of the United States, who crafts stories that embody the people and the landscape, who captures the text, taste, rhythm and essence of their life, it’s Dubus. That’s one of the things that always struck me about his writing and what I find attractive about it.
I’m fascinated by war stories too, specifically the actions and reactions of the soldiers’ and their family, even of their home community. Nations gung ho about their military are, I think, at the core pretty ambivalent about it (how can they not be?) and I’ve always been curious about how soldiers function when they know that combat guarantees psychological damage of some sort. And we require it of them. Or just the problems of distance, months and months away from the spouse, fiancé, girlfriend. Sometimes it’s about the widows or the children left behind. Sometimes it’s not particularly about the man’s military life (always a man, never woman). Dubus’ soldiers tend to have fought in the Korean or Vietnam war.