Friday, July 30, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29, 2010 Links and Plugs

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27, 2010 Links and Plugs

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Vera's latest collection:
After the Sundial by Vera Nazarian

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26, 2010 Links and Plugs

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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20, 2010 Links and Plugs

For the record, I've been unproductive lately because this is the 2nd week wherein I'm half-blind, due to my right eye tearing up every five minutes.

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Dark and Story Knights edited by P.N. Elrod

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 19, 2010 Links and Plugs

Angela Slatter interviews me over at her blog.

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Some Pyr books:
The Office of Shadow by Matthew Sturges

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July 13, 2010 Links and Plugs

In local news, the Call for Submissions for Philippine Speculative Fiction 6 is out. Note that it's going online.

Also, help Terri Windling out. A family member needs money so she's selling her art for half price. (If you just want to make a donation, you can just email her for account details.)

Oh, and have some bacon junk food.

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Beware the giant carrot.
Rare Unsigned Copy by Simon Petrie

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: The Next Continent by Issui Ogawa Translated by Jim Hubbert

There is a sub-genre of science fiction in which the conflict revolves around overcoming a technological limitation, such as building a space station or finding the solution to an unsolvable math problem. While it’s not as action-packed as, say, space opera, if done right, the narrative can be just as engrossing. I’d classify The Next Continent as one such book as it deals with the engineering, economic, and political problems of building a wedding palace on the moon.

The first hurdle of such a book is establishing a way for the reader to be invested in the story. This isn’t a treatise nor a dissertation for example so Issui Ogawa cannot simply barrage us with exposition. He accomplishes this task by giving us a character we can relate to, in this case engineer Aomine. For the most part, it’s his perspective that pervades most of the novel. And yet, to a certain extent, it’s not about him more than it is about another pivotal character in the book, Tae, whose dream it is to build a wedding palace on the moon. But because a lot of the scenes with Tae is filtered through the eyes of Aomine and other minor characters, it makes the reader’s impression of her all that more effective. One qualm I have is that for the first half of the book, Tae’s characterization is mostly that of a Mary Sue: she’s brilliant for her age and has the wealth to back up her ambitions. Even the premise that she’ll inevitably hook up with Aomine feels initially contrived but thankfully, Ogawa eventually adds depth to her. For the most part, however, the reader relates more with Aomine because right from the outset, he feels more authentic and well-rounded.

The second problem is establishing the conflict. In this case, it’s the engineering problems of building a habitable place on the moon: what materials needs to be used? How will it be transported? How will it be built? In addition, this needs to be placed in the context of the hard science fiction genre. Too much super science and the feat feels unimpressive. Remaining too faithful to reality, on the other hand, begs the question why we haven’t done it yet. For the most part, The Next Continent has a firm ground on hard science fiction. Most of its proposed solutions sound reasonable, although it has its fair-share of hand-waving. Thankfully many of what I consider ridiculous hand-waving appears early in the book: one of the established facts for example is that the countries involved in the ownership of the Spratly islands peacefully settle their differences, which is a stark contrast to this reader’s reality (I don’t think our government would easily give up its bid for the Spratly islands). Other, more integral hand-waving such as the development of new rocket technology is not without its own risk, so fits the conventions of this hard sf novel.

Since this is a novel originally published in Japan and written by a Japanese author, it’s to be expected that one of the conceits of the book is that the Japanese would be the first to establish a wedding palace on the moon. Having said that, Ogawa doesn’t ignore the other countries who have a space program. China and the US are given the limelight in the book as well, and the author strikes a balance in showcasing both their strengths and flaws.

Writing-wise, Ogawa has a good sense of pacing. The first chapter for example immediately puts Aomine in a situation of conflict, quickly establishing what he is capable of without boring the reader with exposition. The exposition itself appears in the second chapter but by then, the reader is eager for answers.

The progression of the conflict is also in line with this. At first, the establishment of the moon palace is simply a problem of engineering. Soon, problems like marketing and politics become a deciding factor, and even the sub-plot of Tae’s relationship with her father become relevant to the novel.

Jetse de Vries edited the Shine Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction as he was looking for stories that featured optimistic science fiction stories and after reading The Next Continent, the book is easily one of the books I’d recommend to him. It harkens to conventions of a certain genre of science fiction and yet is nonetheless infused with Japanese optimism and culture.

Book/Magazine Review: Loups-Garous by Natsuhiko Kyogoku Translated by Anne Ishii

It’s interesting how Haikasoru is positioning itself as a brand. I can easily see many conventional marketers baffled at Haikasoru’s strategy, especially considering how they’re loose with their genres when it comes to the books they publish. Last year, for example, they released Zoo which is more along the lines of horror, and contrast this with All You Need is Kill which feels like a modern Heinleinian military SF. I bring this up because by the time I read the ending of Loups-Garous, I don’t think I’ve ever read a genre mash-up that’s as ambitious as this novel, and yet it’s apt that Haikasoru is publishing this kind of material.

The first few chapters already hints at this interstitiality. On one hand, you have a seemingly utopian setting, with prejudice and bias seemingly eliminated, and people are educated via computers rather than personal interaction. It screams science fiction to me, and Natsuhiko Kyogoku explores the implications of living in such a world, and becomes a sub-plot of the book. On the other hand, there are mysterious murders taking place, and while it could have taken the route of science fiction mysteries that Asimov used to write, the book has a more suspenseful atmosphere to it, with the thriller genre label being more appropriate.

Digging deeper into Loups-Garous however, there is the enigma of the book’s title. Could this possibly be dark fantasy or outright horror? Complicating things are the other elements that Kyogoku throws in when we come to the ending. At this point, I can’t discuss the book without some spoilers, so readers are warned. Mostly, it feels like the author is juggling too many balls, and ends up dropping some of them. For example, in the climax, there’s an anime-ish mecha that makes an appearance. I wouldn’t say it’s not foreshadowed, as it’s hinted earlier in the novel, but there’s a lack of synergy between its presence and the serious tone (or failing that, hard SF) that the narrative previously established. There is also the surprise reveal as to the identity of one of the killers, and while this element is foreshadowed near the end, it would have been helpful had it been seeded much earlier.

Characterization is also partly to blame with the lack of synergy between the genre mash-ups. One of the characters for example is Chinese and she quickly falls into the role of the martial artist of the group. While Kyogoku must be credited for choosing to depict the action scenes in the background, this element nonetheless contributes to the less-than-perfect execution of what would have been the ultimate interstitial novel.

That’s not to say Loups-Garous doesn’t work. For most of the book, it’s an engrossing narrative that sustains the reader’s attention and makes you feel frightened at the right moments. Kyogoku makes the reader question the dystopic elements of the setting; the characters feel mortal and just when you’ve left your guard down, a twist in the plot keeps you unsettled. Even the science fiction aspect becomes more developed and fleshed out as the narrative progresses. Perhaps the best description for Loups-Garous is that it’s a flawed novel--and these weaknesses are evident--but the pros more than outweighs the cons.

Another element worth noting is the ensemble all-female cast of the novel. All of the points of view for example are from the perspective of the female characters. The protagonists are all female, save for one, and each one is given distinct mannerisms and roles. In fact, this is almost a war of the sexes as majority of the males in the book are presented as either incompetent or villainous.

Worth praising is the juxtaposition that Kyogoku uses. Readers follow two perspectives, the triumvirate of eccentric youths, and that of their mutual counselor who is more directly involved with the investigations. Each perspective has a different tone to it, although it’s clear to readers that the two are somehow linked.

In the end, Loups-Garous is an interesting read, and the author must be applauded for his attempt at combining various genres, even if not all of it is seamless.

Book/Magazine Review: Slum Online by Hiroshi Sakurazaka Translated by Joseph Reeder

For the past few weeks, I’ve been indulging my video game addiction (Starcraft II and DotA for those who care curious) so reading Slum Online felt appropriate. In a certain way, this is one of Haikasoru’s most accessible novels, not only because of its brevity (even considering the bonus story at the end), but due to the flow of the plot and subject matter. I wouldn’t call this a cutting-edge or revolutionary science fiction novel, but as long as you’re looking for something entertaining, you’ll do fine.

The strength--and weakness--of Slum Online is its premise: the protagonist aspires to be the best fighter in the fictional MMO Versus Town, a game that feels like a hybrid between Street Fighter and World of Warcraft. Complications in the novel include a mysterious character who ambushes the top players, as well as the protagonist’s real life relationships. A bit simplistic to be honest, and astute readers won’t find the plot twists or reveals surprising, but this is one of those books where it’s the journey that’s appealing rather than the ending itself. Slum Online excels in conveying the virtue of humble accomplishment, of proving to yourself that you’re the best, even if the public isn’t necessarily aware of it. The novel also caters to the video gaming crowd, a casual look at a gamer’s mentality as opposed to weighty science fictional concepts.

There are two points that I’d like to highlight when it comes to Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s writing. The first is how he manages to capture the authenticity of the gamer mentality. It’s not simply the telling details of the video game that he fabricates, but also how his protagonist behaves in the real world: his paradigm is that of a strategist, always looking for exploits and understanding the rules of the situation he finds himself in.

Related to the first point is how Sakurazaka explains to the reader the jargon of Versus Town. Credit in my opinion goes to the translator as he makes such explanations accessible and comprehensible to an English reader. Because Slum Online takes place in a fighting game, a different set of tools is needed to describe the action scenes, especially without being too repetitive. Terms like combos and blocks are staples of the fighting game genre, but advance techniques such as reverse-counters can be found in current games like Street Fighter IV and aptly fits the narrative.

The heart of Slum Online however is its focus on character. The science fiction aspect is mostly in the background (and could easily take place today) and what keeps the reader hooked is the drama unfolding for the protagonist. Again, this particular element isn’t groundbreaking, and is actually quite predictable, but that should set the reader’s expectations.

July 12, 2010 Links and Plugs

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Monday, July 05, 2010

Book/Magazine Review: Baggage edited by Gillian Polack

I applaud Australia’s independent press (in this case Eneit Press) because they tend to publish books that are daring and different from what larger presses (thus presumably having larger resources) are producing. In the case of Baggage, the theme of this anthology is cultural baggage, and the contributors interpret them in different ways.

I won’t lie. This isn’t one of those rare anthologies where majority of the stories/poems piqued my interest. There are pieces which I felt are weak, such as “Kunmanara--Somebody Somebody” by Yaritji Green, which is great when it comes to setting and atmosphere but stumbles when it comes to the resolution of the conflict as I felt it was resolved easily.

Thankfully, this is a compact book (thirteen stories/poems all in all), and there’s enough material here that I find striking and worth recommending:

The opening story is “Vision Splendid” by K.J. Bishop and while it did not immediately catch my eye, a comprehensive rereading revealed the subtle delights of this story. There’s a lot to be praised here, from the nuances in dialogue to the recurring theme of ambiguity. As far as the theme is concerned, this one impressed me because Bishop attacks from several directions, and whether the reader realizes one of them or all of them, it’s still well-crafted story. In many ways, I find this apt to be the opening piece, partially because of its ambition, and partially because of the author’s technique.

“Macreadie v The Love Machine” by Jennifer Fallon is another memorable piece in the anthology. Let me be frank about it: I never thought I’d enjoy a “talking-heads” or expository story as much as this. Just goes to show that you can get away with breaking prescribed “rules of fiction” as long as you can pull it off convincingly. In this case, Fallon presents the reader with a science fiction concept but does so in a way that’s rooted in popular culture, sneaking in wit and humor when the opportunity arises. And just when you thought that’s all Fallon is trying to accomplish, the ending still gives you additional food for thought.

Another story I want to highlight is “Acception” by Tessa Kum. Now I’m aware of the author’s struggles with identity and “Acception” is a good example of how one should adapt their personal experiences into fiction. Kum fabricates an Orwellian society where racial distinction is the pinnacle of this utopia-dystopia and coming from a mixed-heritage background myself, I did enjoy the implications of the story. That’s not to say the piece is perfect. The earlier section of the story flows smoother than the latter part, especially when the dialogue feels more natural and honest. The ending feels like there’s too much exposition, but for the most part, it nonetheless works.

At the end of Baggage is an afterword by the authors, explaining the influences of their respective stories. I have mixed feelings about this (and thankfully it’s at the end of the book rather than preceding the said stories) as I feel that stories should stand on their own. On the other hand, it gives readers (and reviewers like me) a gauge as to whether the authors succeeded in what they were aiming for.

Book/Magazine Review: Horn by Peter M. Ball

At first glance, Horn seems like a generic urban fantasy novella sprinkled with the noir genre. Digging deeper into the book, however, there’s a couple of subtle element that makes Peter M. Ball’s writing stand out.

First is Ball’s technique. While not quite in medias res, the reader immediately gets a sense that the main character has baggage, and it’s baggage that’s relevant to the current conflict. In the span of a few pages, Ball tackles two parallel dilemmas, the past and the present, and neatly resolves them by the end of the book. In this sense, there’s a compactness to the writing, accomplishing in a novella what might take other writers a novel or two (and this compression is reminiscent of another book Twelfth Planet Press published, Siren’s Beat).

The second element I want to point out is Ball’s presentation of the fey. Fitting with the noir atmosphere of the book, the fey in Horn are deceitful. What’s commendable is how the main character roots out this deceitfulness, satisfying both the reader’s knowledge of the mythical fey and remaining faithful to the tropes of noir.

The last element is the theme of subversion throughout the novella. There is, for example, our protagonist who is a female private investigator. While that’s not unheard of in fiction, it departs from convention in the fact that she’s lesbian. This detail is not arbitrary as this affects the relationships she has with others in the book, especially the fey. There is also the question of what it is to be a virgin, and this ties back into the gender of our main character as well as the patriarchal paradigm she lives in, and how she rebels against it. Third is the conceit of the book, at how unicorns aren’t romanticized creatures but feral and in this case, quite depraved.

Which isn’t to say that Horn is perfect. One significant complaint I have is the depiction of the rape scene which happens later in the book. For me, it’s not as potent as I imagined it could be, considering the build up to it. Contrast this to an earlier autopsy scene in the book which is simultaneously beautiful and gruesome, a better representation of the same tragedy.

Horn for me is impressive as it shows what innovations can be accomplished with the commercialized urban fantasy genre, and this is one of the books where it’s both guiltily entertaining and sophisticated in terms of technique.

July 5, 2010 Links and Plugs

Last week was movie week over at the World SF News Blog.

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Plug:

Friday, July 02, 2010

July 2, 2010 Links and Plugs

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Plug for the publisher and the editor!

Clockwork Phoenix 3 edited by Mike Allen