Saturday, March 31, 2007

Ex Libris: February Books

Well, well,well... time passes and it's already March. Fortunately, I had better luck with February's reading material in that-- unlike January's batch-- I didn't pass over any book. (This will be a long post so apologies in advance, especially to Ryan.)

The first I heard about Ted Chiang was way back when his short-story collection, Story of your Life and Other Stories, came out and made a splash in the online community. Ironically, Chiang's book usually was mentioned in the same breath as Kelly's Link first collection and with the same high praise.

Is the hype justified? Oh yes... and a bit of no. When I first picked up my copy of Chiang's book, as my wont, I dipped into a couple of pages and was immediately blown away by the story, "The Tower of Babylon", wherein the Babylonian empire tries to raise a tower all the way to the heavens. Suffice to say, this (as someone had tagged) 'Babylonian-punk' story was fascinating all the way-- except at the end, which came too abruptly for my taste.

And that I think were the misses for me with Chiang's stories. Some of them, like "The Tower of Babylon", "Seventy-two Letters" and "Story of Your Life" were fantastic, a look on how high and far a writer can reach with speculative fiction. I love "Story of Your Life" in particular because it details how language literally affects how we perceive reality. "Seventy-two Letters", like "The Tower of Babylon", is also alternate-history story, this time with the kabalah a science during Victorian England. However, I felt that "Seventy-Two Letters" suffered the same fate with its ending. (I wasn't all that impressed with the much-discussed, "Hell is the Absence of God," the story of a non-devout man trying hard to love God in a world where angelic visitations are dangerous. I don't know why; I know Chiang wasn't proselytizing but maybe my anti-religious filters were set too high.)

And that I think was my main problem with Chiang's stories: he has great concepts which he translates well in his stories but his endings lack the punch that should carry the reader to the finish line. Moreover, unlike Link, Chiang's prose uses a more workman-like approach and thus the reader focuses more on the story. (Link, for all my praise, uses her prose to great effect such that even her weaker stories come across quite well.)

Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, together with John Scalzi's Old Man's War, are interesting in that both books were done by two popular bloggers. Fortunately, the books translate well both authors' personable style of writing. Priest's book is rather interesting in that parts of it appeared online where comic book maverick Warren Ellis saw it, read it and recommended it to fans. This recommendation by Ellis and a number of other authors eventually led her being published. On the other hand, Scalzi, whose writing output is quite impressive given that he also has his own online professional column, has a large fan base so it was easy for publishers to give him a shot with his own book.

Priest writes Southern Gothic horror with her protagonist, Eden Moore, able to see ghosts. Starting with Eden as a child, Priest writes with such pathos and done with a likeable narrator's voice that it's not hard to be quickly sucked into the story. And when the horror does come for the reader, it's a quiet kind of horror that evokes for me horror-meister Ramsey Campbell.

Scalzi takes a page from SF Grandmaster Robert Heinlein's book by writing about starship troopers, making his own mark on the trope. Scalzi writes with a light touch (with occasional flashes of humor) about geriatrics fleeing Earth for a longer life into-- unfortunately-- a hostile universe. But it's not all fun and games as Scalzi delivers such insights into war, immortality and alien other-ness.

Both books are well-written and were definite hard-to-put down reads. However, I did find Scalzi's authorial inclination to prod the story as off-putting while Priest's book left me with the impression that it was filling but nothing mind-blowing. Would I recommend these books to friends? Yes, but only as perfect books to bring on vacation, when one needs to relax the mind while lying on a beach this summer.

Unfortunately, it was too bad Lydia Morehouse's debut The Archangel Protocol didn't send waves through the genre community more, which is a shame. Morehouse adds some theological/religious spice to the stultified cyberpunk subgenre with her future of a religious American dystopia racked by the appearance of mysterious angels on the world internet called the LINK. Moreover, the romance-factor of the story didn't overwhelm the narrative, a problem I had with Justine Robson's Keeping it Real.

Despite being an intriguing read, I thought Morehouse failed at the end in not answering the theological questions she posed and this left an unsatisfied taste in my mouth. However, given that this was first of a series of books, I'd give her the benefit of the doubt that she'd push the envelope even further in her next books.

Last but not least, Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the more exciting reads I've had for this year, a door-stopper and yet a non-epic fantasy novel. Chock-full of pulp-action goodness, Lynch's story about the con artist Locke Lamora, the 'infamous' Thorn of the fantastic city of Camorr, has intrigue and humor set to 'high' with the body count that keeps rising as the pages keep turning. Moreover, Lynch juggles the storylines quite deftly despite the fast-pace of the story although the back-story arrangement sometimes almost derails everything.

Two things come to my mind when speaking of Lynch's book: one is Locke and the other is the fantastical city of Camorr. Both are well-realized despite the pulpish design of the story. Like a fantasy-version of Dennis the Menace that has grown-up, Locke is just a pipsqueak but his overactive mischievous mind is bigger than him. On the other hand, Camorr's heritage of half-human, half-alien ('alien' in the truest sense of the word) is mystifying and Lynch is quite the magician as he shows only enough of the city to whet the reader's appetite (well, mine anyway).

I suppose one could say that Lynch's book is a veritable popcorn movie; however, that would be doing it a disservice since this is one entertaining book that's worth the money in your wallet.


JP said...

I think comparison between Chiang and Link needs to be qualified a bit - both writers are doing very different things and have very different approaches. Link is a genius stylisy using a broadly fantastic format to look into the emotional hearts of things. Chiang is very much an SF writer in the classic sense, taking a nifty idea or two and writing a story that follows from that idea fairly rigorously. However, his concerns are not with engineering or cosmological questions, even he enters into these. Ultimately his focus seems to be as much psychological but in a broader sense, trying to discern general patterns rather than idiosyncratic motivations.

Having said that, intention and genre being different doesn't exempt anyone from being judged on the strength of their stories, and I wouldn't rate Stories Of Your Life And Others as strong a collection as Stranger Things Happen, but it is pretty rewarding as it is. I've got to agree about those endings - Chiang seems a bit loth to take things to a really climatic conclusion, but this may be a matter of choice for all I know.

banzai cat said...

And that's why I love you JP-- in a manly blogger way, of course. ;-)

Seriously, you've put into words what I couldn't even describe how I felt about Chiang and Link. Thanks for clarifying that for me, especially the idea that Link looks into the emotional side while Chiang studies the psychology of certain ideas. Funny enough, I do think some of his stories, including "Understand' and "Story of Your Life" were quite literary in approach because of this.

Still, I do think that Link's stories are better style-wise but maybe it's because I rate prose quite high in my judgement. On the other hand, maybe there's something to be said about Chiang's endings, given how both of us picked that up? :-)

Anyway, lemme finish my post in the meantime...

JP said...

Heh, I'm glad I managed to convey what I was trying to.

I need to re-read Chiang's collection. Link's too. Interestingly, I left one story unread in both so that I wouldn't feel like I'd completely 'closed the book' on either.

JP said...

If I may mutualise the admiration, I think your bit about the 'psychology of certain ideas' plumbs to the core of what seems to make Chiang stand out.

skinnyblackcladdink said...


i seem to have walked into a den of 'manly blogger love'. all this to the backdrop of Link's focus on the 'emotional heart of things' and Justina Robson's disinheriting (for BC) romanticism...are those violins i hear?

that's sooo sweet. will leave you two to it then.

wink wink.

er, right. back to work.

JP said...

But we like you too. :D

banzai cat said...

jp: Ah, but the psych thing my way of clumsily expressing your idea.

Btw, which story did you skip?

skinny: Heh you know you want to join in. The Dark Side is calling you.

P.S. Check out Chiang. I think you might like him.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

haha. oh, you guys. and here i am, all alone in a strange place, aching for some affection...

er, to be honest, at the moment i think i've got my back turned, if not quite on, then very definitely in the more or less general direction, of 'spec fic'...

though, admittedly, 'genre' and 'nongenre' (defined here as contemporary/classical/modern lit) fic seem like flip sides of the same disaffecting coin to me at the moment...which leaves me with...what?

banzai cat said...

Well, I figure trying to always wish for a certain type of fiction will mean I'll never open a book again, yanno. :-)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

well, if that's true of my case, then it's worse coz i don't even know *what* am wishing for grumble grumble which leads me to my idea of a superpower...