Friday, May 23, 2014

Fiction: Plainsong

by J. D. Popham
They kept Sister Clarine in the convent’s basement.  The door that led to the stairs from the kitchen was thick oak; a relic from a different age.  But the sisters were glad for it, and its old fashioned lock.  Sometimes Clarine spoke to them through the keyhole.  That was bearable.  However, mostly she sang, and that was not.

The sisters had abandoned the kitchen two days earlier as no one could listen to Clarine’s singing long enough to prepare a meal.  Beautiful singing in words they didn’t understand, but something in the words, coupled with the unearthly quality of Clarine’s newfound voice was deeply distressing to the nuns.  It seemed to resonate within their heads and within the heart and soul.  And for all its beauty, there was no pleasure or comfort to be found in it, but rather something cold, relentless and unforgiving.  It filled them with deep anxiety, made their heads ache and their noses bleed.

Mother Superior Mariella called the Chancery the day they locked Clarine in the basement.   A bemused Father Keener visited the next day, prepared for yet another convent’s claim of miracles and heavenly intervention on the part of their patron saint.  He was appalled to find the sisters had locked one of their own away in the dark without food or water.  He railed at them for “utterly medieval behavior” and demanded Clarine be brought up at once.  The sisters shrank back from him, fear in their eyes.  

Keener looked at the Mother Superior, who made no move to order them, but handed him the key instead.  Keener huffed in anger and stormed into the kitchen.  He made it as far as the second basement step before he turned and fled, dropping the heavy barrel key on the stones of the kitchen floor.  The sisters rushed to throw their weight against the door, in case Sister Clarine should try to escape.  They locked the door again and retreated to the chapel.

It was the Mother Superior herself who finally took matters in hand.  The Chancery was waiting for direction from Rome.  Sister Clarine had been four days locked in the basement without food or water.  When one of the novices said outright that she wished Clarine’s suffering would shut her up, Mariella scowled at her.

“That’s enough,” she said.  “Something has to be done.”

Some sisters followed her as far as the common room, but dared go no further.  As she approached the kitchen Mariella could hear Clarine singing.  Sweat began to bead on the Mother Superior’s forehead and trickle down the center of her back.  She took the key from her pocket and slid it into the lock as her nose and ears began to bleed.  She hauled back the heavy door, and the sound of Clarine’s voice struck Mariella like a hammer.  Her knees buckled and she clutched at the railing to keep herself from pitching down the steps. 

“Clarine,” she called into the dark. “Clarine, stop it!”

The voice fell silent.

Mariella stood, panting for a moment, wiped blood and sweat from her face.  She pulled the door closed behind her, locked it, and dropped the key back in her pocket.

“Clarine?” She spoke into the silence as she stepped quietly down the stairs. “Clarine?”

“Yes. Mariella,” The voice that came from the darkness was Clarine’s, but thin and raspy.  Exhausted.

Mariella fumbled for the light switch at the base of the stairs.  She found it, pushed it up, and the basement was flooded with light.

Sister Clarine lay back against the boiler on the basement’s dirt floor.  Her veil was pulled off revealing short red hair, shot with gray.  She was filthy, her cheeks hollow, her lips cracked and split.  In a circle around her were dozens of dead rats.  She gestured at them.

“They came to hear,” she said.

Mariella stepped off the stairs and moved closer.

“To hear what, Clarine?” she asked.

“The truth,” Clarine answered.  Her smile was beatific.

“Your singing?” Mariella asked.

Clarine nodded, weakly.  She opened her mouth and the singing began again.

Mariella felt herself beginning to black out.  “No, Clarine! You’re hurting me!”  She lurched forward, grabbed the nun by the shoulders and shook her.

Clarine stopped singing and peered at Mariella, trying to focus.

“Of course it hurts,” she said.  “We were never meant to hear it. But isn’t it beautiful?”

“What is it?” asked Mariella.  “We don’t understand.”

“No,” said Clarine, with a sigh.  “I told you.  You were never supposed to hear it.  It wasn’t made for us.”

“What wasn’t?”

“The divine,” she said.  “The infinite.  We were meant to search for God.  Not to find God.”  She began to whimper and put her hands over her face.

“Hush now. Hush,” Sister Mariella took a handkerchief from her sleeve and, pulling Clarine’s hands down, began to wipe the face of the younger nun.

“Something is wrong, Sister, and I don’t know what it is.  But I don’t think it’s to do with God.  Men find God every day without....”

“No!” Clarine barked.  She grabbed onto Mariella’s wrists with surprising strength.

“No, they don’t. They see shadows,” she said.  “Shadows of God.  A Reflection,”  She let go of Mariella’s wrists and slumped back against the water heater.

“But I did it,” she said.  “I searched and searched all these years. I prayed so hard Mariella, so hard.  And I finally did it.  Seen God, heard the songs of angels.  Seen how small and insignificant the human soul is.”

Her head lolled over and she looked Mariella in the eyes.

“It’s a terrible thing.  I never knew.”

Above, the nuns listened hopefully to the long silence.  Then the singing began again.  This time, a duet.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Then There Was One

by J. D. Popham

Regular readers will recall that on May ninth I pointed out only three works managed a nomination for all three of the major Science Fiction/Fantasy awards, the Nebula, the Hugo and the Locus.

All three were mid-length works. Two novellas, Wakulla Springs, by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages ( 10/2/13) and Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean) were nominated for all three awards in the Novella category.  Aliette de Bodard's  The Waiting Stars (from The Other Half of the Sky) was nominated for all three awards under Best Novelette.
As many of you will know, the Nebula's were announced last weekend.  The Weight of the Sunrise by Vylar Kaftan (Asimov’s 2/13) took the Nebula award for Best Novella, denying both Wakulla Springs and Six-Gun Snow White a chance at a sweep.  The Waiting Stars, on the other hand, took Nebula honors for Best Novelette and Aliette de Bodard is left as the last author standing with a chance at ending award season with the possibility of a Nebula, a Locus and a Hugo over her fireplace.  

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (Orbit US/Orbit UK), the only book nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, took the Nebula for best novel, blocking Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow; Headline Review) from picking up both the Nebula and Locus awards.  Meanwhile, Rachel Swirsky's If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love (Apex 3/13) and Sofia Samatar's Selkie Stories Are for Losers (Strange Horizons 1/7/13) were both up for the Nebula and the Hugo awards in the in the short story form.   Rachel Swirsky took the Nebula honors, and retains the hope of picking up two of Science Fiction's most prestigious awards.

The Locus Awards will be held in Seattle at the end of June. The Hugos are, of course, awarded at the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, hosted in London this year by Loncon 3 from August 14 - 18.   Should The Waiting Stars be blessed with a Locus in June, it will open the road toward a hat-trick in August.  Mind, if that occurs I don't expect London's eminently civilized con attendees will be waving brooms and chanting 'Sweep! Sweep!'; at least not for anything short of a novel.  

Such speculation might seem silly. This is Science Fiction and Fantasy writing, after all, and not a sporting event or music award season. However, this genre of ours is both broad and deep, producing a large body of works each year that are very diverse in terms of subject and style for a readership with equally diverse tastes and preferences.  Concurrence across this community as to the praise-worthiness of a given work is, I think, increasingly rare, and therefore noteworthy.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla

 by Michael Popham

You would think that a movie in which giant monsters duke it out in two major Pacific rim cities, causing epic destruction along the way, would be anything but dull.  But Gareth Edwards' Godzilla really is dull -- surprisingly and painfully so.  

It isn't the fault of the monsters, who are quite spectacular and who take part in at least one rousing battle in San Francisco.  The problem is that every time the movie starts to pick up steam, we're forced back into the company of the dreary human protagonists, whose presence weigh down and ultimately sink the movie. 

It all starts with engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) witnessing the death of his wife in a nuclear power plant accident in Japan.  Something destroyed the plant and the town that surrounds it; but the grieving Brody doesn't accept the official line that it's the result of an earthquake. He believes the Japanese authorities are hiding something big on the site of the disaster.  In the years since his wife's death he's become a nutty recluse, clipping out newspaper articles about unexplained disasters and festooning the walls of his apartment with them.

Brody's obsession drives his only son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) away from him, and the young man becomes a career military officer and starts a life of his own.  Almost immediately after arriving home from a tour of duty in Iraq, Brody Jr. must leave his adorable wife Ellie (Elizabeth Olsen) and adorable son Sam (Carson Bolde) and travel from their home in San Francisco to Japan to bail his dad out. The police had caught Brody pere trying to reach his old home in the abandoned Chernobyl-esque town.

Meanwhile, Japanese Dr. Serizawah (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne (Sally Hawkins) are introduced as researchers from an organization called Monarch, advising the military on the thing currently residing on the site of the ruined power station. Eventually they meet Ford and explain to him that his father, whom everyone had dismissed as a nut, was right after all; and that the nuclear accident was caused by a creature dubbed a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism). There are two known M.U.T.O.'s, and a third creature known as Godzilla, last seen in 1954. The military had tried to destroy it with an H-Bomb, but it had no effect, and the effort was buried under the cover story of a nuclear test.

Serizawa believes the two M.U.T.O.s are trying to reach one another, and he suggests that Godzilla be allowed to intercept them.  His theory is that Godzilla's role is to "restore the balance" to the world when things get out of whack, although there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support this assertion.  "Let them fight," he urges the military.

The Navy, however, decides to deploy a nuclear warhead with a yield so great it will make the Bikini H-Bomb of 1954 look like "a firecracker".  You'd think that dropping a 15-megaton bomb on Godzilla without doing any damage to him whatsoever would pretty much rule out any sort of nuclear option, but the film seems grimly determined to keep the Navy as an active agent throughout the movie.  So the warhead becomes a kind of MacGuffin, a device that the military first goes to great lengths to deploy, and later, when it winds up in San Francisco and a threat to millions of people, spends just as much time trying to defuse.

In fact, through most of its running time the movie that Godzilla most closely resembles is not 1954's Gojira but 2012's Battleship, as the Navy keeps elbowing the giant monsters out of the way (Godzilla himself, it should be pointed out, doesn't even appear until a good hour into the movie).  Like a lot of contemporary films the military is awarded an almost embarrassing amount of deference, as we are reminded repeatedly and emphatically that our heroes in uniform are brave, daring, competent and good-hearted people, and that there is no challenge they are unable to handle.  The problem with this is embedded pretty deeply in the Godzilla canon: the military isn't able to handle Godzilla.  The filmmakers try to get around this with constant displays of military prowess, and we see soldiers and sailors firing weapons and jumping out of airplanes and making hearty oo-rah speeches to one another (the Navy, in fact, gets far more screen time than the monsters). This ploy almost works; in fact, it's likely that a lot of audience members will walk out of the theater without it ever occurring to them that the military could have stayed home and the outcome would have been almost exactly the same. The only human character who has any impact on the story is Brody himself, and that is because of something done on his own initiative.

Brody's relationship with Ellie is clearly meant to be the emotional anchor of the movie, but it is perhaps the most dreary depiction of a military family ever put on film.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a blandly good-looking guy of the Taylor Kitsch variety, and Elizabeth Olsen suffers from a debilitating and apparently terminal case of cuteness.  Not cute is their pouting oaf of a son, who is kept around for the heartstring tugging scenes of daddy being reunited with his adoring family, scenes that carry the emotional weight of a MacDonald's commercial. 

You may hear that this version of Godzilla is better than Roland Emmerich's 1998 version, and it is.  But then, what movie isn't?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Death and E-Books

by J. D. Popham

A man who lived not far away died about two weeks ago, bludgeoned to death in his home.

He was in his sixties, a genial man and a part-time poet who lived in a modest house, in a quiet neighborhood.  He was welcoming and well liked, and in the habit of leaving his front door open; sometimes even at night.  Nothing was stolen from him or his home.  Someone, for reasons unknown, walked into his house, murdered him, and left.

The murder of kindly folk with no apparent enemies for no apparent reason is, sadly, not new.  It is the starting point of many mysteries. Detectives, both real and imagined, begin their investigations with the assumption that such an event is not random and not without motive, the converse being exceedingly rare and therefore unlikely.  Beginning with that assumption, and reconstructing the victim's last few days, they seek to uncover previously hidden events that might lead to suspects and motives.

However, this murder is turning out to be a particularly difficult case for the police to work.  The victim, it seems, was completely analog.  He did not have a Facebook or Twitter account. He did not participate in social media of any sort. He did not carry a smart phone, or even a flip-phone. He did not use email and did not own or use a computer, preferring to type his letters and poetry out on an old Smith Corona mechanical typewriter and send them manually via the US Postal Service.

As far as the digital world was concerned, he did not exist.

Faced with this completely analog victim, the police must resort to analog methods; literal legwork and shoe leather must be employed.  Law enforcement, it seems, has become increasingly dependent on their ability to reconstruct our pasts based on our digital histories.  Where did you go? With whom did you speak? With whom were you involved? Did you receive any death threats? Did you make any unusual financial transactions? Were there any recent changes in your normal routines? These are all questions easily answered by following our digital footprints.  Such trails rarely lie and do not change their stories.  Dead men tell no tales, but their online ghosts are positively loquacious. 

An online presence has become so ubiquitous that these days there's something a bit suspect about a person who doesn't have one.  'Googling' someone before a first date used to be considered a bit rude and creepy. Now it's considered creepy if an internet search on a prospective date doesn't return any hits.  Such a person, it's assumed, must be dull, deceptive or perhaps a bit psycho.  Even persons in their sixties are likely to maintain some sort of online presence, and the utter lack of such a presence can often trigger suspicions that one might be hiding something or hiding from someone.

Behaviors that were perfectly normal ten to twenty years ago have become anomalies.

All of which has made the simple act of buying a new e-reader a more thoughtful event than I'd originally planned, an occasion for looking over my shoulder at the digital ripples I leave in the online pool. 

Now, despite my love of physical books with actual pages I am quite fond of the e-reader.  It's a great invention.  As much as I love analog books, they take up a fair bit of physical space and my many shelves are packed with the likes of McCormick's Origins of the Euoropean Economy, Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman, and my first edition of C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen.  My e-readers allow me to purchase 'disposable' reading, i.e., books I only plan to read once, or technical tomes that are large, heavy and soon out of date, without having to (Sacrilege!) dispose of physical books.  Physical books are weighty things too, and an e-reader makes for much lighter and less bulky packing for vacations and business trips.  Then, of course, there's the pleasure of re-discovering titles long out of print, but now available as e-books.  It's a bit like meeting old friends I'd thought lost to me.

However, I can't help but be aware of the e-book's connectivity to its master; who, by the way, is not me.  When you look into the digital abyss, the abyss looks back.  Not only does the e-reader report back to its master the book searches I initiate and the e-books I buy, it reports what I actually read and how and when I read it.  If I look up words or make digital notes, it knows that too. It's rather like having someone always reading over my shoulder and taking notes.  As a person in the 'big data' and 'advanced data analytics' trade, I am very mindful that even the seemingly innocuous act of reading can create digital events that add substance to my online ghost.

Many of the technologies a younger generation takes for granted were the stuff of Science Fiction when I was a boy.  I am not surprised they have come to pass and am pleased to have seen the realization of what were once deemed flights of fancy.  However, it never occurred to me then that James T. Kirk's recreational reading might be being captured by the ship's computer and used to evaluate his fitness for command, or that C3P0 might be uploading Princess Leia's wardrobe preferences to an Imperial fashion conglomerate with close financial ties to Emperor Palpatine. I never imagined that information about the use and users of such amazing devices would become assets as valuable as the devices themselves; that we would become product as well as consumer.

We worry excessively over government access to our personal data and digital footprints.  At the same time, we expect the government to use other people's data to keep us safe; to anticipate threats and, failing that, catch the bad guys. We often assume the data that underpins our online ghosts belongs to us, forgetting that it is, in fact, a set of assets collected by and belonging to our service providers and then bought, sold, parsed and scrutinized in virtual back-rooms.  We assume for-profit corporations are somehow more benign than governments, forgetting that 'shareholder value' is the core around which a corporation's organizational DNA is wound, and the wellspring of its ethical make-up.  All this is was once the stuff of Science Fiction as well.

It is exceedingly strange to realize that people without an online presence are becoming oddities, outliers.  It's stranger still to consider they may, all too soon, become extinct.

An analog man transported to such a future would find himself the stuff of Science Fiction; a corporeal ghost moving about in a virtual society with no 'presence' of his own, whose passage through the world left only vague traces perceptible to the virtual-dwelling population.  What would he be to them? Curiosity?  Threat?  Horror?  Or perhaps nothing at all, if acknowledgement of existence were dependent upon residence in the digital universe.  Second Life or no life, as it were.  And if he died there, poor ghost, who would mark his passing?   Who would mourn him, and what rites speak?

Charon, so far as I know, does not take bitcoin.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book Review: Broken Homes

Review by J. D. Popham

Broken Homes, the fourth in the Rivers of London (AKA Peter Grant) series by Ben Aaronovitch, has all the hallmarks of a ‘reset’ novel.  

If you haven’t noticed, the modern genre fiction market is obsessed with series.  It’s no longer enough to write a good Science Fiction or Fantasy novel. Part of the pitch to an agent or publisher has to be the novel’s potential as a series. 

A one-off success is nice, to be sure, but after its initial blush of financial success it will rapidly fade from a revenue standpoint. A series, on the other hand, is the gift that keeps on giving.  The audience that loved the first book will likely return to buy the second. And then the third, and so on. Readers who discover the series mid-run are likely to go back and buy the earlier installments, boosting sales of the author's back-list. So, the next installment of a successful series is much lower risk proposition for the publisher than a completely new story, and is a cheerfully reliable income stream for the author.  

Consequently, it’s not unusual to see a stand-alone first novel subtitled: ‘Book one in the [insert franchise name here] series’, and left with major plot threads dangling for the folow-on book in the series to take up. 
Happily, in Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US, as Rivers of London was apparently thought too gentle a title for adrenalin-addled American sensibilities), Ben Aaronovitch delivered a novel that stands easily on its own, managing to avoid the look and feel of a series set-up.  Rivers introduced us to newly minted Police Constable Peter Grant, and follows his first encounters with the ghosts, mystical creatures and Newtonian magics that exist just beyond the public's sight in contemporary London.  In London, of course, even things that go bump in the night are subject to the Queen’s peace, and the Metropolitan Police has the job of dealing with breaches of said peace; even when they involve malevolent spirits and river goddesses.  What follows is an excellent bash-up of Urban Fantasy and police procedural, populated by an engaging cast of well-drawn characters. 

Aaronovitch followed  Rivers of London with Moon over Soho, and  Whispers Under Gound, each of which was as witty as the first, deftly fleshing out and extending Aaronovitch's characters and the London they inhabit, while introducing the reader to London’s jazz vampires, ‘ethically challenged’ wizards, subterranean ‘quiet folk’, goblin markets, demon traps, and a pale lady with a …discomforting MO for murder. 

Broken Homes features the return of the Faceless Man, an evil (or ethically challenged, as Peter Grant would say) wizard introduced in Moon Over Soho. The Faceless Man is, at least for the moment, the series' primary antagonist, though his appearance in Soho is brief and he exists primarily as an undercurrent in Whispers. In Broken Homes he's back and hatching ethically challenged plans that, as the plot thickens, seem to center around Highgarden Estate.  Highgarden, an eccentric high-rise designed by an even more eccentric German architect, and possibly incorporating the principles of industrial scale magic, may be housing more than a colorful collection of aging protesters and low-income cranks.

Broken Homes lacks the easy charm of the first three books in the Rivers of London series.  It has a somewhat distracted quality, the story never quite able to get its footing and momentum until it builds toward its climax.  Each of the previous books has revolved around the revealing of a new facet of London's mystical underground; The genius loci of Rivers, the jazz vampires of Soho, and the quiet folk of Whispers.  In Broken Homes Aaronovitch stands pat with the status quo, allowing the search for the Faceless Man to be the focus of the story and otherwise occupying himself with re-arranging the exiting furniture and adding a few new pieces. 

Aaronovitch introduces us to a number of new characters who seem peripheral for Broken Homes, but I assume will play a larger role going forward. Peter Grant and his Sierra Leonean mother abruptly begin speaking Krio with each other, with no hint given as to why they've never done so in any of the previous books. A nurse from Whispers is promoted in Homes from a bland secondary character to a lead role as the dynamic and exceedingly dangerous Varvara Sidorovna, a Russian witch and magical assassin. The book's most significant change would amount to a spoiler and so cannot be mentioned here. Suffice it to say that we leave Broken Homes with the field of play very much changed and 'To Be Continued' writ large in the skies over Perter Grant's London.

I suspect this is due, at least in part, to the fourth book having to pull double duty.  Homes must attend to its own story while laying groundwork for future books and resetting certain aspects of the Rivers of London series back-story.  I would venture this is occurring for the happy reason that Aaronovitch didn't anticipate how successful the Peter Grant series would be.  With Rivers apparently settling in for a long run, Aaronovitch likely needed to make changes in order to avoid being boxed in by the series' first three books.  In such cases sooner is better than later and, with this housekeeping complete, I look forward to a return to form in Aaronovitch's next book.

This is not to say that Broken Homes isn't worth the readers time and money.  While it doesn't cohere as well as its predecessors it is an entertaining read. However, it is not a good introduction to Peter Grant and the denizens of his London.  It does not stand on its own as did its predecessors, and those unfamiliar with the series will want to introduce themselves through its earlier books. Which, as homework assignments go, is a very pleasant one. PC Grant and company are acquaintances well worth making.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Features: Ask Doctor Hasslein

Dr. Otto Hasslein has served as science adviser to two Presidents.  He is perhaps best-known for his theoretical work in time-dilation physics, and for exposing the sinister agenda of “ape-o-nauts”  Zira and Cornelius, thereby prevented a terrifying dystopian future.   

Now enjoying a well-earned retirement in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Dr. Hasslein has kindly consented to lend his considerable subject matter expertise to The Infinite Reach.  

Readers with questions for Dr. Hasslein may send them to The Infinite Reach via the Hyperspace Com Uplink referenced on our home page. 

Dear Dr. Hasslein,

I enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I found it odd that Steve Rogers was able to adjust so quickly to America in 2014.  I would think that being dropped into what is basically an alien society, with pretty much everyone he knows dead, would be really stressful and disorienting.  Instead, he just carries a little notebook and lists things he needs to catch up on.  Does that seem unrealistic to you?

  - AvengersAssemble

Your concern for realism seems rather situational, AvengersAssemble, seeing as you are willing to accept an augmented super-soldier who awakens after being frozen solid for seven decades.  

Nevertheless your point is well taken. It is important to bear in mind that we only see what Capt. Rogers allows us to see.  For example, he is outwardly friendly to Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon) on their first meeting, and he chatters happily about how American society is better than it was in the 1940s.  But for all we know he is a seething malcontent on the inside. One can imagine him returning to his apartment, granite jaw clenched, to ring up the National Parks Service and complain about the surfeit of non-white persons who are allowed to jog around the Reflecting Pool. He might then pull out the old Underwood manual and bang out a few missives to the local newspaper (which, he still imagines, offers the most effective platform for public discourse) to weigh in on the troubling issues of water fluoridation, two-piece bathing suits, and bossy women who wear trousers.  

Dear Dr. Hasslein,
Star Trek or Star Wars?

  - Trekker113

You ask this with the charming confidence of one who believes this question has merit, Trekker113 (and by your handle I believe I can discern where your loyalties lie).  In fact I do not care for either of these bloated movie franchises.  

The original Star Trek was a cautionary tale about an oversexed ship’s captain who couples with alien females and then warps out of orbit before the test strip changes color.  The programs’ later iterations were a curious mix of Great Society do-gooderism mixed with homo sapien-centric imperial wish-fulfillment. 

As to Star Wars, I have never been able to finish watching the first trilogy, despite numerous attempts, as I find Darth Vader’s incompetence to be utterly depressing.  In the first movie alone, Vader allows Princess Leia to escape with the stolen data tapes, fails to destroy her ship before it reaches Tatooine, allows her to launch an escape pod with the tapes and two droids aboard, burns down villages and tortures Jawas rather than actually finding the droids carrying the tapes, allows the Millenium Falcon to escape Mos Eisley spaceport despite the presence of an Imperial blockade.  He momentarily captures the Millenium Falcon and surrounds it with stormtroopers, but still allows its occupants to a) disembark and run wild; b) free Princess Leia from the detention section, c) deactivate the tractor beam; d) return to the Millenium Falcon; e) escape from the Death Star and reach their hidden base on Yavin; g) use the pilfered data tapes to find a weakness in the Death Star; and h) launch an assault which, because Mr. Vader forgot to turn the tractor beam back on, succeeds, costing quintillions of dollars worth of imperial currency and tens of thousands of lives.  

And yet, Mr. Vader is back for the next movie.  

Darth Vader is an outer-space version of Donald Rumsfeld. Had the decision been mine, he would spend the remainder of the franchise laboring in the Spice Mines of Kessel.

Dear Dr. Hasslein,

What in your view is the most scientifically accurate SF movie ever made?

  - ComiCon-Man

I believe, ComiCon-Man, that the most scientifically accurate SF film ever made  is unquestionably The Terminator, since the probability of a sentient machine species eventually conquering the human race is approximately 100%.  

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hugos and Nebulas and Locuses (Oh, my!) has begun flogging it's Hugo Award nominees on Twitter, which has reminded me that award season has come again to the Fantasy and Science Fiction community.

Merit, or course, goes a long way toward determining the nominees and eventual winners. However, as with any awards process where money is on the line, politics and promotion come into play. A work with well-organized backers and/or publishers advocating for it has a marginal edge over those that do not.  This doesn't mean that PR trumps quality. However, shaping expectations and keeping the spotlight on a particular work can cause it to stand out in the minds of the electors. 

Then there is the matter of the collective literary taste of the pool of electors.  The electors of the Hugo, for example, are the membership of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) tend to nominate works that appeal to the popular readership.  The Nebula, in the other hand, is awarded by the Science Fiction Writers of America, who tend to reward works that appeal to its smaller community of writers.

Consequently, while there is some degree of overlap in the award nominees, there is less continuity across award sites than one might expect.  However, I've found that continuity, when it does occurs, is often an indicator of stand-out quality and broad appeal across the F&SF community.  As a result, one of my favorite pass times when the nominees are announces is to look for commonality among the nominee lists.  My primary awards for this purpose are the Hugo and the Nebula, awarded respectively by the WSFS and SFWA membership. To that I add the Locus (almost as venerable as I am), awarded by that magazines readership.  

This year is interesting in that not a single novel appears on all three nomination lists.  Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK) is up for both the Locus and Hugo, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow; Headline Review) was nominated for the Locus and Nebula, and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (Orbit US/Orbit UK) is in play for both the Hugo and Nebula.

None of the Short Story nominees for the Locus appear on the nomination list for either the Hugo or the Nebula. However two stories in the category, Selkie Stories Are for Losers, by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13) and  If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13) appear on both the Hugo and Nebula lists.

Things get interesting, however, when we turn to the Best Novella and Best Novelette categories.  Among the novellas, Wakulla Springs, by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages ( 10/2/13) and Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean) appear as nominees for all three awards.  Likewise, Aliette de Bodard's novelette, The Waiting Stars (from The Other Half of the Sky) is up for all three awards under Best Novelette.  

I've noted in the last few years that these two shorter forms have been showing quite well. I'm also seeing a number of names in those categories that seem to specialize in middle-length forms. It seems that the digital shift to avenues for publishing and content distribution are making these forms more viable for authors and available to readers resulting in a higher profile for this form. It's interesting watching how the various publishing houses are responding to these changes. Tor, in particular, seems to be at the front of the pack when it comes to showcasing Novellas and Novelettes as stand-alone works.  

There are a number of works here I haven't read yet, so I'm pleased to have some new adds to my reading list. Enjoy the awards season.  Save me some champagne, and I'll see you at the after-parties.

-John Popham

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Urban Sprawl

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." 
      - Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass

How do you define Urban Fantasy? 

Now before you answer, a couple of ground rules: We are talking Urban Fantasy as a literary sub-genre, not Urban Fantasy as a marketing niche.  Also, be mindful that I do not regard Wikipedia as an authoritative source. 

At first glance it seems very straight-forward.  Urban.  Fantasy.  A work of Fantasy that takes place in an urban setting. We're done here. Right?

Alas, it appears not. 

At risk of being called an East coast snob, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Bon Temps, Louisiana is not an urban center.  In fact, I think it's fair to say the regulars down at Merlotte's Bar and Grill would take umbrage if I were to question their 'just folks' bayou bone-fides. What with Bon Temp being the setting for Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries, said umbrage would be exceedingly hazardous to my health.  So, with all due deference to the fans of Charlaine Harris, one could say that Southern Vampire Mysteries fails the most basic test of Urban Fantasy.

By the same token, Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer resides in Sunnydale, a small town on the California coast. While Sunnydale does sit atop a supernatural nexus that gives it a surprisingly high creature to human ratio, it's decidedly non-urban. Now, it would be fair to point out that the movie of the same name was set in Los Angeles. However, true Buffyphiles hold that the movie is non canonical and not part of the Buffyverse, having been disavowed by Joss Wheadon for the many departures it took from his original story and the framing of his characters.  While I am as brave as any man, I don't mess with the Buffyphiles, and must disallow Buffy the movie as an argument for Buffy's urban fantasy credentials.

However, despite their lack of what would seem to be a requisite urban setting, both Southern Vampire Mysteries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are cited as examples of Urban Fantasy.

Buffy and Sookey are only the more prominent examples of what I regard as an unfortunate bloat in the sub-genre's definition.  Largely for marketing reasons, Urban Fantasy has become a catch-all category. Almost anything that is not categorized as 'High' or 'Epic' fantasy appears to have been stuffed into the Urban Fantasy box.

As a result, 'What is Urban Fantasy?' is becoming a question with no wrong answer.

Over at The Creative Penn, British author Joanna Penn defends this excessively broad definition:
"Urban fantasy has been defined by the places in which the fantasy (magic and or strange creatures, usually) is set – i.e. the urban environment. It gives flexibility in terms of the time period; the city could be in the Victorian, Tudor, post-American civil war – whenever.  As long as the fantasy is rooted in the city, it’s urban fantasy.

Whilst I can see the sense of this, I don’t like to chain what I consider to be urban fantasy to being set in densely populated cities."
Now, while I respect Ms. Penn's desire for creative latitude, this is little more than Humpty Dumpty reasoning.  It's rather like saying one doesn't like to chain what one considers to be vegetarian cook-books to collections of recipes that don't include meats.  

Ms. Penn goes on to provide her more inclusive definition of Urban Fantasy as:
 [M]agic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm.
I like this definition. It has elegance. It is spare, clear and concise. Unfortunately, it is the precise definition of Low Fantasy ('Low' not denoting of quality, but of the sub-genre's contrasting relationship with 'High' Fantasy which occurs in worlds such as Earthsea or Middle Earth where magic and 'weird stuff' are the norm) and not that of Urban Fantasy.

While Urban Fantasy fits within the broader definition of Low Fantasy, the relationship does not flow both ways. Much of Low Fantasy is not urban. The same is true of Contemporary Fantasy if we restrict our definition to Fantasy works set in the here and now.  While the majority of Urban Fantasy works are contemporary in their setting, a work of Contemporary Fantasy in which the urban environs play no part cannot reasonably be called Urban Fantasy.

Why then such unreason?  Why have seemingly rational people like Ms. Penn, who no doubt expect their ham and cheese omelets to contain both ham and cheese, their Bordeaux wine to come from Bordeaux, and their romantic comedies to at least take a stab at both romance and comedy suddenly gone fifty shades of Humpty Dumpty on us when it comes to Urban Fantasy?

I suspect it comes down to money and street cred.

Urban Fantasy has the benefit of sounding kind of cool. When asked what one writes, answering 'Urban Fantasy' has a sort of gritty elan to it.  It's as though you get to snap up the collar of your trench coat and draw down the brim of your fedora as you say in a low and mysterious voice, "Me? I write Urban Fantasy,".  Contemporary Fantasy, on the other hand, sounds somewhat less dramatic; more like a line of sofas at Crate and Barrel than a happening literary niche. 

And of course, that whole 'cool' vibe is just cat-nip for marketing weasels, which is why you see publishing houses pushing as Urban Fantasy scores of titles that aren't vaguely urban, and are all too often Paranormal Romances attempting to cash in on Urban Fantasy's cache'.  If that means the Urban Fantasy moniker is diluted to the point of meaninglessness, it's no never-mind to the hucksters as long as the cash registers keep ringing.  When they stop ringing, after all, the hucksters can simply move on and never mind the mess they've left behind.

If there is no wrong answer when someone asks what Urban Fantasy is, then there is no right answer either.  However convenient and inclusive it may be in the short term, a sub-genre without boundaries has no future.

At the end of the day, words that mean whatever we choose them to mean have no meaning at all.  

- J. D. Popham