Monthly Archives: May 2008

Notes on Four Novels by Women

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia is very nice, a wise narrative by a young girl witnessing a war going on in part over her ownership. The time and setting are that of Vergil’s Aeneid, and the book is fantasy only to the extent that Vergil himself appears to young Lavinia in dreams, and Lavinia and other family members experience visions or prophecies, though there are no explicit appearances by any Greek (or Roman) gods or goddesses. The narrative is informed by rueful meditations on the ways of men and of women, as the conflicts that erupt seem the result of the male tendency to look for reasons to fight — to prove their worth, to validate their virtue. A paragraph that struck me as key is “Without war there are no heroes. What harm would that be? Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is.”

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is an interesting counterpoint to Le Guin’s novel; the book won the Tiptree Award presumably for its consideration of potential for violence, when necessary, by women. The book is strongly-written both in the psychological portraits of its characters, especially the narrator, a woman who flees her husband and an oppressive post-global warming authoritarian British government (which forces women to be fitted with countraceptive devices) for a rumored Carhullan farm run by women, and the charismatic leader of that farm, Jackie Nixon; and for the vivid descriptions of rural Lake District countryside — I started keeping a list of terms I only vaguely recognized or had no idea what they meant: bield, brant, swale, withers, spelk, foss. I’ll look them up. There’s no strong speculative element to the book; the most striking aspect of the novel is the way it doesn’t fulfill the implications and payoff of its title until virtually the last page.

I was unimpressed by Jeannette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, even without being familiar with the author’s apparently contentious regard for genre SF. The opening of the book depicts a near future in which the planet’s ecology is about the collapse and people are preoccupied with various kinds of genetic enhancements. There are intelligent robots, automated dress shops, and pollution alarms — a whole compendium of scifi cliches. And people react to the discovery of Planet Blue — which, the first line of the book informs us, weighs a ‘yatto-gram’ — a promising new world except for its occupation by dinosaurs. Perhaps I was put off when I Googled ‘yatto-gram’ and the first result was a discussion of how Winterson apparently misspells the word yottagram (and it happens more than once); similarly, the book strikes me as that of a mainstream writer employing the gimmickry of SF without taking it the least bit seriously — except as allegory, in the manner of those old Twilight Zone scripts that didn’t bother to justify how asteroids had atmospheres or astronauts could be back on Earth without realizing it. More to the point…. The Stone Gods does move on, with a section set on Easter Island as the island’s last tree is cut down, and the book’s overly obvious moral is that humankind is doomed to destroy its environment. Oh, and Planet Blue is actually Orbus is actually Planet White, or something, though whether there’s a time loop involved, or cyclic history, or mere allegory, I didn’t pay close enough attention to figure out.

Finally Karen Joy Fowler’s Wit’s End is very pleasant, though I wasn’t as tickled, by the promised metafictional mix of authors and characters and how fans take the latter over from the former, as I’d expected to be. Two-thirds of the way through the book, the narrator wonder if there isn’t a mystery here that she should solve– but, er, which one? Several unanswered questions have arisen, about a strange woman on the beach, about the relationship of the narrator’s godmother, the mystery writer Addison Early, to the narrator’s father, and so on; none is compelling, though all are mildly interesting. The book is fascinating and comfy, in a low-key way.

Next time — I had a chance to view a DVD screener of the upcoming documentary about Harlan Ellison, and was prompted to read the limited edition of his The City on the Edge of Forever, with the complete script and a couple outlines and Harlan’s lengthy defense of the historical record. I’ll comment on that, though Gary Westfahl will be doing the formal review of the Ellison documentary. And beyond that: I’ll be reviewing, in more ways than one, the DVD release of ’60s TV series The Invaders.

Still Sorting

Still sorting my extraneous books, that is. I have fewer ‘junk’ books than I thought — self-published tomes of dubious literary merit. I like the suggestion from C.E. Petit about books for soldiers, and will send some that-a-way.

Some quick takes on recent reading (see thumbnails at right): John Scalzi’s books are fun, easy reads, very much what I’ve been thinking of as basic ‘meat and potatoes’ SF, the kind of books that readers not versed in the genre can pick up and enjoy. Not serious attempts to imagine a far future; there are plot points in the latest book that key off wireless devices and version tracking, very 2008ish.

I similarly enjoy Jack McDevitt, but cringed more than once at Cauldron, apparently the concluding volume in his sequence about the Academy, a future in which humankind is losing interest in interstellar space travel, despite various mysteries. Half the book is spent inventing a better space drive, since the one established in earlier books doesn’t allow the plot the reach the galactic center; once acquired, the better space drive allows voyagers to tie up, more or less, loose ends from previous books involving chindis and omega clouds; but their adventures key off, no kidding, a giant snake and an eyeball in a cloud. Mm, OK, I guess.

Thumbs up along with everyone else to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which I don’t need to describe. I will note that, re posts I’ve seen about finding the book in stores, that I did in fact *look* for the book in YA sections of Barnes & Noble and Borders, 3 times in the week after its publication date of April 29th, and still couldn’t find it; I did finally see it in stores this week, 2 or 3 copies spine-out, rather than face-out, in the YA section (not in the SF section). Given the buzz — and the fact that it is a very good, and timely, book, I’d expected more — big stacks on the front table at Borders, like.

More on Le Guin and Winterson next time. Reading next: Sarah Hall, Karen Joy Fowler.

What to do with Extraneous Books?

It’s been a busy couple weeks, so busy I haven’t had a chance to mention that I flew to Huntsville AL for three days this past week (to train newbee software engineers in the right and proper processes for doing their jobs). I’ve been to Huntsville probably a dozen times over the past 20 years, though this latest trip was my first visit there since 2000, I think.

Meanwhile at home I’ve been consolidating the past year’s new books into the general collection on my library shelves, and trying to think what to do with the now several hundred review copies of books that I don’t care to keep that have accumulated in a couple closets over the past 5 years. Suggestions welcome. I’m sure my problem is dwarfed by that of actual book reviewers; as editor of the website I get only a smattering of books for review each month, but the rule of thumb is that such freebies that come in the mail are rarely books I’d otherwise pay for, or actually want to read. Many are proofs or ARCs (advance reading copies), which I would replace with actual published editions in the event I did want to read and keep them. Many are self-published, in some sense or another.

The duplicates and paperback reprints of books I otherwise already own I can deal with: I have friends I can pass them on to. The books from reputable publishers (Tor, DAW, Del Rey, et al) that I’m just not interested in myself I can similarly offer to such friends without endorsements. More problematic are those self-published and obscure small press items that I would have to be stuck on a desert island with before I’d be inclined to try to read. I can’t bring myself to simply *throw them away*. But I can’t in any honesty pass them on to friends as worth their time, either. So what, then? Anyone reading have this problem? Or a solution?

– Update Monday evening:
Thanks for the suggestions, but my quandary is those self-published books I’m not sure I would wish on anyone, not soldiers, not prisoners. Some are books I’ve dutifully listed on the site; a bunch are books sent to me when I was a judge for a certain SF award a couple years ago, and those I did read portions of, and many are really just awful. Land fill? Insulation?