Friday, March 22, 2019

Book Reviews: Masquerading as Science Fiction?

Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock (2017, 47North); and The Rift, by Nina Allan (2017, Titan).

Spoiler Alert...

What makes science fiction a genre? Is it the bells and whistles, the FTL space ships, the futuristic technology? Is it the ability to travel in time or across vast regions of space? Does it involve interactions with alien species, either for the first time or as a matter of course? Or is it simply because the author or the publisher says so? I will not dignify the argument put forth by “litr’ary” types that science fiction is an inherently inferior form of literature. Clearly, they haven’t been reading the superbly imaginative, elegantly crafted work of the last couple of

Following the principle of showing instead of telling, I refer you to the discussions surrounding The Time Traveler’s Wife (by Audrey Niffenegger, Harcourt, 2003). With due respect to my colleagues who might disagree, I thought the only people who considered this novel science fiction were those outside the genre. Yes, the man of the romantic pair bops about from one time period to another (losing his clothing along the way), but that did not make it science fiction in my eyes. I could accept it as romance. The focus, as in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, is the (romantic) relationship between two people. (Although Outlander involves time travel, very few readers I know would classify it as science fiction rather than fantasy or romance.) For me, the aspect that put The Time Traveler’s Wife firmly outside science fiction was the failure to develop the implications of time travel for society. How has this one man’s ability changed the world? What are the moral and political consequences of his actions? Why isn’t he found out and his abilities exploited? How can the “fabric” of time continue linearly with such repeated “tears”?

In other words, science fiction doesn’t just present nifty ideas in a vacuum – it focuses on how those ideas and gadgets and twists of fate have larger effects on the natural and human world. Perhaps back in the age of pulp magazines, a fun gimmick was sufficient to sustain a story with flimsy plotting, cardboard characters, and mediocre prose, but that hasn’t been true for a long time now.

This, too, is why I believe Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely in the science fiction genre. Atwood herself refused to consider her dystopian world as science fiction, calling it instead “speculative fiction.” I think that’s a distinction without a difference. One critic (readily identifiable as ignorant of the field by his use of “sci-fi”) wrote, “Sci-fi sells us fantasies. Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is all about the danger of fantasy.” To those of us who are actually conversant with science fiction, the reverse is true, and is a powerful argument for The Handmaid’s Tale belonging on the same shelf as other brilliantly written feminist dystopian science fiction.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book View Cafe Book Blast

To show our appreciation for all the readers who have stuck with us through our move to a new server, we at Book View Cafe are holding the BVC Book Blast. This week, and this week only, every book in the bookstore is 20 percent off.
You don’t have to do anything to get the discount; it will happen automatically at checkout. So use this time to browse through the authors on the bookstore page and try something new. Or pick up one of our anthologies and read work by a bunch of BVC writers.
This sale won’t last long, so take advantage and fill up your e-readers
Here's my Author Page with my books... and also check out the anthologies I've edited...

Monday, March 18, 2019

Citadels of Darkover Author Interviews: Jane M. H. Bigelow

Coming in May 2019
Strongholds of rock . . . fortresses of the spirit . . . a planet set apart . . .

Citadels can be psychic, emotional, and cultural as well as military, and the wonderfully imaginative contributors to this volume have taken the basic idea and spun out stories in different and often unexpected directions. 

I asked contributor  Jane M. H. Bigelow about her story:

Deborah J. Ross: What inspired your story in Citadels of Darkover?

Jane M. H. Bigelow: One of the essential conflicts in Darkover's long history is between the power and the dangers of laran. But what if not using your gift is as dangerous as using it? 

"Fire Storm" was one of several ideas that I considered writing for Citadels of Darkover. As our own fire season here in the western U.S. filled the sky with smoke most days, I found that it was the one that really drew me. 

It also let me explore a part of Darkovan history that I'd never written in before: the Ages of Chaos. I've always enjoyed reading about those turbulent times, but somehow not found a story of my own for them. As stories often do, it turned out differently than I had originally planned.

Not much has changed in my bio. After having a rather medical year, we are both well. I have still not finished my paranormal suspense novel, The Body Under the Bed, and have resorted to going around telling everybody that I will have a complete and coherent draft by the end of the year.  This may work almost as well as having an anthology deadline for getting me to finish the work! I can't let my crit group down. The cats are fine and furry, and the garden's doing well.

Jane M. H. Bigelow had her first professional publication in Free Amazons of Darkover. Since then, she has published a fantasy novel, Talisman, as well as short stories and short nonfiction on such topics as gardening in Ancient Egypt. Her short story, "The Golden Ruse" appeared in Luxor: Gods, Grit and Glory. She is currently on a mystery set in 17th century France. Jane is a retired reference librarian, a job which encouraged her to go on being curious about everything and exposed her to a rich variety of people. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two spoiled cats.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Teddy Roosevelt's Secret Agency in World War I

Black Chamber, by S. M. Stirling (Ace)

S. M. Stirling has been writing alternate history for a long time now, and he handles the genre with ease and panache. This book is no exception; he’s created a perfectly believable world in which Theodore Roosevelt regains the presidency and is in office on the brink of World War I. Roosevelt’s enthusiasms have already shaped much of American culture and institutions, including a flowering of invention and his top-secret spy-and-assassin agency, the Black Chamber. Posing as an agent of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (the resistance movement bent on freeing Mexico from American domination) Agent Luz O'Malley Aróstegui goes undercover in Europe to infiltrate the mobilizing German forces. The contrafactual history and subsequent changes are perhaps the most interesting aspects of the story, yet all this is but a background for what is essentially a spy thriller featuring a female James Bond. There’s sex (with and without romance), tension, and page upon page upon page of exciting action.

This raises my central concern about The Black Chamber. Is it a story set in an alternate Europe, as Germany is gearing up for war with chemical weapons? Does it focus on the unfolding differences that arose from Theodore Roosevelt’s re-election? Or is it essentially a spy thriller – and one in which a woman perpetuates the roles of male spy characters in literature – that could just as easily have taken place in the real world?

The writing is strong and the action scenes and step-by-step, tension-laden revelations are skillfully handled. My reservations are two-fold, as above. I had difficulty with those aspects of Luz that mirrored the most offensively sexist characteristics in male-dominated spy thrillers. Her internal monologues felt immature and insecure as well as insensitive. She didn’t seem to have any genuine relationships until Irish revolutionary and love interest Ciara Whelan came onstage.

Secondly, I found the long, detailed descriptions of action (such as page after page, step-by-agonizing-step portrayal of Luz climbing a wall) quickly went from interesting to tedious. Action often came to a screeching halt for long expository passages of technology, history, or geography. But the biggest problem was that I didn’t find the story hefty enough for its length. It felt to me like a novella stretched out to a fairly long novel. This is obviously a personal taste issue, and fans of Stirling (of which there are many!) will likely see this as a strength and The Black Chamber as a worthy addition to his bibliography.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it. Although chocolates might be nice.

Short Book Reviews: A Brilliantly Inventive Fantasy Based on Industrial Magic

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Crown)

I just loved this fantasy adventure, with its compelling heroine and system of “industrialized magic.” The world is an oppressive portrayal of social inequality of the Industrial Revolution. Great families wall themselves up in “campos” and live lives of luxury while the rest of the city suffers pollution and dire poverty. Myths from the past provide tantalizing, terrifying hints of how the entire system of magic came into being.

Young Sancia managed to escape the slave plantations to eke out a living as a thief in the less savory neighborhoods of a great city. She’s able to “listen” to physical materials: “The wall spoke to her. The wall told her of foundry smoke, of hot rains, of creeping moss, of the tiny footfalls of the thousands of ants…” Sancia’s magic aids her in her marginal living, but is dwarfed by the real magic of the city: sigils that are “instructions written upon mindless objects that convinced them to disobey reality in select ways,” such as altering their gravity or adhesion to other objects.

Then Sancia opens a box she has been sent to steal and discovers a sentient key, “Clef,” who can persuade any lock to open, and her world changes forever. She’s not the only one after Clef – her employer will stop at nothing to gain control over the key. But who is her employer and what is that person’s greater plan? Mystery piles on action and personal growth, not only of Sancia herself but other characters. The world and its people are in precarious flux, inwardly and outwardly.

This is not a world in which I would like to live, yet almost from the beginning, I cared about Sancia and the people she encounters, especially Clef, who realizes that he more he uses his power to help his only friend, Sancia, the less of his personality survives. The story built as stakes were raised higher and higher. The magic was an intrinsic part of the world-building, with its own logically consistent rules and its own cost. Highly recommended.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it. Although chocolates might be nice.