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Jo Walton

Fiction and Excerpts [13]
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Fiction and Excerpts [13]

Complicated Simplicity: Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

It’s not that I think A Fire Upon the Deep is perfect, it’s just that it’s got so much in it. There are lots of books that have fascinating universes, and there are lots of first contact novels, and there are lots of stories with alien civilizations and human civilizations and masses of history. The thing that makes A Fire Upon the Deep so great is that is has all these things and more, and it’s integrated into one thrilling story. It has the playful excitement and scope of pulp adventure together with the level of characterisation of a really good literary work, and lots of the best characters are aliens.

It really is the book that has everything. Galaxy spanning civilizations! Thousands of kinds of aliens! Low bandwidth speculation across lightyears! Low tech development of a medieval planet! Female point of view characters! A universe where computation and FTL travel are physically different in different places! An ancient evil from before the dawn of time and a quest to defeat it! A librarian, a hero, two intelligent pot plants, a brother and sister lost among aliens, and a curious mind split between four bodies. And the stakes keep going up and up.

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The Tremendous Continuity of Science Fiction in Conversation With Itself

Please enjoy this encore post on this year’s science fiction, originally published August 2016.

Reading Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please,” which just won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, I was reminded of both John Varley’s 1984 “Press Enter” and Isaac Asimov’s 1956 “The Last Question”, as well as its direct call out to Bruce Sterling’s 1998 “Maneki Neko”. The narrator of “Cat Pictures Please” is consciously aware of its predecessors and engaging directly with them. That’s not to say it isn’t saying anything original. It could have been written at no other time and place and by no other person: it’s an original story by a terrific writer. But it’s adding another voice to an existing dialog, laying another story on the tower of work that precedes it, and in a way that shows how aware Kritzer is of all that preceding work. We’ve had a lot of stories about secretly emergent AI, all written with the technology and expectations of their times. This is one written now, with our technology, a new angle, a wider perspective, and a definite consciousness of what it’s adding to.

There’s a tremendous continuity within science fiction, where the genre constantly feeds on itself, reinvents itself, and revisits old issues in new ways as times and tech change. It’s fascinating to consider how today’s new stories are all things that could never have been written at any earlier time and simultaneously deeply influenced by everything that has come before. The old work of the genre is the mulch out of which the new work grows. A great deal of science fiction is about the future—a future fleshed out in the present, and built on the bones of the past. Every present moment has a different imagination of the way the future might play out, and that gives us constant novelty. But because many of the issues and tropes of science fiction remain relevant, there is also a constant process of reexamination, a replacement of old answers with new answers to the same questions.

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Near Future and Far Future: Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin

Welcome to the Tor.com eBook Club! November’s pick is Spin, the first book in a sci-fi trilogy from Robert Charles Wilson.

What’s so brilliant about Spin is the way that it’s a terrific human story as well as a terrific gosh-wow new-ideas science fiction story. It’s so good at this that it’s hard to think of anything else that’s as good in quite the same way. It’s hard to play the “if you like x you’ll like y” game with it. It isn’t in a subgenre, unless cutting-edge science fiction is itself a subgenre.

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Next Year’s Words: Science Fiction, Innovation, and Continuity

Reading Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please” which just won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, I was reminded of both John Varley’s 1984 “Press Enter” and Isaac Asimov’s 1956 “The Last Question”, as well as its direct call out to Bruce Sterling’s 1998 “Maneki Neko”. The narrator of “Cat Pictures Please” is consciously aware of its predecessors and engaging directly with them. That’s not to say it isn’t saying anything original. It could have been written at no other time and place and by no other person: it’s an original story by a terrific writer. But it’s adding another voice to an existing dialog, laying another story on the tower of work that precedes it, and in a way that shows how aware Kritzer is of all that preceding work. We’ve had a lot of stories about secretly emergent AI, all written with the technology and expectations of their times. This is one written now, with our technology, a new angle, a wider perspective, and a definite consciousness of what it’s adding to.

There’s a tremendous continuity within science fiction, where the genre constantly feeds on itself, reinvents itself, and revisits old issues in new ways as times and tech change. It’s fascinating to consider how today’s new stories are all things that could never have been written at any earlier time and simultaneously deeply influenced by everything that has come before. The old work of the genre is the mulch out of which the new work grows. A great deal of science fiction is about the future—a future fleshed out in the present, and built on the bones of the past. Every present moment has a different imagination of the way the future might play out, and that gives us constant novelty. But because many of the issues and tropes of science fiction remain relevant, there is also a constant process of reexamination, a replacement of old answers with new answers to the same questions.

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Thessaly: The Baroque Inspiration

Welcome back to the Tor.com eBook Club! August’s pick is The Just City, the first book in Jo Walton‘s Thessaly trilogy. Join in below, as Jo discusses one of the inspirations behind her characterization of Apollo.

One of the points of view of all three Thessaly books is Apollo. Writing a god’s point of view is literally hubris, though the Greeks did it all the time in poetry and drama. Apollo is the only narrator who stays with us through the trilogy, the one who ties it all together. His voice, his sly snarky voice, and his experience of being a god taking on mortal life for the duration of the experiment, are one of the things that made this project really interesting for me. This part of the books had a much more direct inspiration than most of my ideas. It came from a baroque statue.

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Thessaly: The Platonic Inspiration

Welcome back to the Tor.com eBook Club! August’s pick is The Just City, the first book in Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy. Join in below, as Jo discusses how she built the titular city—and its inhabitants–around Plato’s philosophy.

The thing that makes Plato so interesting to me is that he makes me go from “Yes, yes, yes” to “You cannot be serious” so fast it gives me whiplash. He’s so great on some things, and so wrong on others, so crazy, and simultaneously so thoughtful, that I can get a lot of power out of these kinds of contradictions.

People have asked if The Just City is a utopia or a dystopia, and the answer is no, it isn’t. It’s a mix of odd things, much like the real world is, some of them are better and some of them worse than what we have in our society. By the third book, Necessity, where you have a third generation who have grown up with nothing but people trying to implement Plato in different ways, you have people who take it all for granted. And then it’s a lot more like a… no, still neither a utopia nor a dystopia. A place to live. A different place. And that’s a lot more interesting to me than either absolutely perfect or absolutely awful.

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Thessaly: The Original Inspiration

The Just City was the first idea I ever had.

I remember having the idea too. I was reading Plato’s Republic, and I got to the bit where he said that the way to do it would be to take over a city and get rid of everyone over ten, and I had two simultaneous thoughts. One was that I’d have loved it when I was ten. The other was that Plato didn’t know much about ten year olds if he thought they were blank slates where he could start from scratch. I knew a lot more about them. After all, I was still only fifteen. And I thought what a wonderful story it would make, time travellers setting up Plato’s Republic, and what it would be like being that ten year old. I wanted to write it.

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Necessity

More than sixty-five years ago, Pallas Athena founded the Just City on an island in the eastern Mediterranean, placing it centuries before the Trojan War, populating it with teachers and children from throughout human history, and committing it to building a society based on the principles of Plato’s Republic. Among the City’s children was Pytheas, secretly the god Apollo in human form.

Sixty years ago, the Just City schismed into five cities, each devoted to a different version of the original vision. Forty years ago, the five cities managed to bring their squabbles to a close. But in consequence of their struggle, their existence finally came to the attention of Zeus, who couldn’t allow them to remain in deep antiquity, changing the course of human history. Convinced by Apollo to spare the Cities, Zeus instead moved everything on the island to the planet Plato, circling its own distant sun.

Now, more than a generation has passed. The Cities are flourishing on Plato, and even trading with multiple alien species. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Pytheas dies as a human, returning immediately as Apollo in his full glory. And there’s suddenly a human ship in orbit around Plato—a ship from Earth.

Jo Walton’s Necessitythe sequel to The Just City and The Philosopher Kings—is available July 12th from Tor Books!

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A Future Worth Having: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning comes out on May 10th, and I’ve read it four times already.

It’s quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter. I’ve talked about this a lot, both in posts here and also fictionally in Among Others, it’s one of the fundamental experiences of the SF reading kid. It’s a much less common experience when you’re grown up. I read books now and I think “Oh I like this! This is a really great example of that thing”. I may get immersed in a book and hyperventilate but I won’t finish a book and think “Wait, who am I? Why is the world like this? Do I even have a head?” This did that to me, it gave me that experience of reading SF when SF was new to me, the feeling that I am a different and better person because I read this, and not only that but a better and more ambitious writer.

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The Philosopher Kings

Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of.

The god Apollo, living (by his own choice) a human life as “Pythias” in the City, his true identity known only to a few, is now married and the father of several children. But a tragic loss causes him to become consumed with the desire for revenge. Being Apollo, he goes handling it in a seemingly rational and systematic way, but it’s evident, particularly to his precocious daughter Arete, that he is unhinged with grief.

Along with Arete and several of his sons, plus a boatload of other volunteers—including the now fantastically aged Marsilio Ficino, the great humanist of Renaissance Florence—Pythias/Apollo goes sailing into the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean of pre-antiquity to see what they can find—possibly the man who may have caused his great grief, possibly communities of the earliest people to call themselves “Greek.” What Apollo, his daughter, and the rest of the expedition will discover…will change everything.

From acclaimed, award-winning author Jo Walton comes The Philosopher Kings, a tale of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another. The Philosopher Kings is available June 30th from Tor Books.

[Read an excerpt]

Alike in Dignity: Feuding Houses in Romeo and Juliet

 People always talk about Romeo and Juliet as if it’s a romance, as if it’s a great passionate play, the greatest love story of all time. Seen that way, I’ve always found it a little disappointing. There’s certainly a romance in it, but it’s actually much more a play about a feud between families. What’s most interesting to me is the way that the whole thing is set up like a comedy, where you can safely expect a happy ending, the lovers reunited and their families reconciled, only to see Shakespeare pull the rug from under you. Only King Lear does more of a switch, where it looks as if even the terrible events can be patched up, and then surprises us with worse.

Romeo and Juliet is truly a tragedy, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy where everyone is undone by their tragic flaw. And we’re informed of this at the beginning, so we know what we are headed for, and still, as the story goes on we want it to end differently. I like Romeo and Juliet for the narrative dissonance, and of course as always with Shakespeare, the beautiful language.

[In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…]

Series: Shakespeare on Tor.com

Shakespeare’s King: Some Thoughts on Henry V, Part 2

On the one hand Prince Hal, who became King Henry V, is undoubtedly England’s greatest king, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he’s the only person Shakespeare used as a protagonist in four plays. On the other hand, would anybody remember him today if Shakespeare hadn’t immortalised him? Hal’s empire lasted a mere four hundred years. Shakespeare’s work is going with us to the stars.

It wasn’t the greatness that drew Shakespeare to Hal. If it had been, he wouldn’t have written two plays set before Hal even achieved the throne. It was his complexity, the combination of his greatness and his tricks—he’s drawn to Falstaff and his foolery, and when he becomes king and turns his back on that he continues to play tricks on his lords and ministers and on his enemies. The first play (Henry IV, Part 1) ends with Hal having done what his father wanted and conquered Hotspur, the first of his victories. The second play (Henry IV, Part 2) ends with his father’s death and Hal turning his back on Falstaff. (And that’s an amazing scene. “I do not know you, old man.”) The third play (Henry V, Part 1) ends after the triumph of Agincourt with Hal winning the daughter of the king of France and being made heir to France, at the cusp of his real achievement. If it had been his glory that drew Shakespeare he’d have gone on to make his “cockpit” show the rest of Europe and the Middle East and all Hal’s conquests there. Instead, he begins again with Hal an old man himself at eighty-five, king of all he surveys, but with nobody to love, both his sons dead, tricked to the last, and his grandson and heir afraid of him.

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Series: Shakespeare on Tor.com