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Jon Evans

The Consciousness Glitch: Peter Watts’s Blindsight

Let me tell you a secret:

…this book is hilarious.

This is probably not the most common reaction to a book which is, beneath its rampant-awesome surface story of a misfit Magnificent Seven exploring a gargantuan alien artifact, ultimately about the failure of humanity and the futility of consciousness. I admit that it’s replete with man’s inhumanity to man, man’s inhumanity to inhumanity, and inhumanity’s inhumanity to man. I grant that its ultimate effect is a bit like a sucker punch to the gut. But it’s still really funny, in a fuligin-dark way. Like having the stuffing beaten out of you by Buster Keaton.

[Read more…]

On Evil, or, The Mores of the Future

Don’t be evil, says Google’s famous motto. But what is evil?

We tend to look to fiction for examples to help answer questions like that. (Mine own most-hated fictional villain: Mrs. Coulter in His Dark Materials.) But many people, including Maisonneuve’s Rebecca Rosenblum, argue that in the real world, villains don’t exist. An illustrative quote from her article: “I don’t think people, even assholes, generally perceive themselves to be assholes. I mean, some people just *are* but I don’t think *they* think they are.”

This has always struck me as pure failure of imagination, akin to those who argued after the World Trade Center fell that its attackers must have had good reason, because they literally couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing without good reason.

Well, I can. I’ve corresponded with evil. Evil, to me, is perfect handwriting.

[Oh, that isn]

Fantasy vs. science fiction: James Cameron’s Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar: the most immersive and visually compelling SF movie ever made, but after its stunning first act, little more than a hackneyed remake of Dances With Wolves. (And like DWW, simultaneously anti-colonialist and a classic eye-rolling example of what James Nicoll calls the What These People Need Is A Honky subgenre.) That at least seems to be the evolving conventional wisdom.

I’m not saying that wisdom is wrong, exactly. When I walked out I had the same reaction that I did to Titanic: while Cameron may well be the greatest director alive, somewhere along the way his writing chops went walkabout. I stand by that. But I also hereby suggest that there is more going on on Pandora than meets the 3-D glasses, and that Avatar is not the movie that most people seem to think it is.

[Mild allusive spoilers follow, although one of my complaints about the movie is that there really isn]

My aversion to versions

I am in the midst of rewriting my epic squirrel fantasy novel Beasts of New York for next year’s onpaper publication, and I have decidedly mixed emotions about the process.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not because I have cut 15,000 hard-written words, and added 5,000 more, and given our squirrel protagonist more of a character arc, and explained the story-behind-the-story that I had previously left implicit. That’s what my editor told me to do, and I long ago swore, after seeing too many writers I admired laid low late in their careers by an excess of you-can’t-edit-me! hubris, that I would do my best to faithfully follow my editors’ advice.

No, what makes me feel uneasy is that there will now be two disparate versions of this book out in the wild. It’s been available online for some time. Even if I wanted to unrelease the online version, which I don’t, I can’t: it’s out there under an irrevocable Creative Commons license, and has already been downloaded some 10,000 times. But after the paper version is published—and I’m looking forward to it, it’s gonna be great—when people think or talk or write about the book, which version will they be talking about? Will they even know that there is more than one?

[What we have here, Billy, is a fundamental existential problem…]

Fury, Absurdity, Sorcery: Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

It is hard to read about the fictional African country in which Wizard of the Crow is set, Aburĩria, and its larger-than-life tyrant known only as “the Ruler,” without being reminded of the author’s own story. In 1977, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was first imprisoned in a Kenyan jail, and then exiled, for writing a satirical play that then-dictator Daniel arap Moi did not find funny. Eighteen years later, having achieved success and acclaim in America, wa Thiong’o was finally allowed back into his homeland for a visit—during which thugs broke into his hotel room and brutalized him and his wife. Maybe it was random violence; Kenya’s capital Nairobi is not known as Nairobbery for nothing. Or maybe tyrants can hold grudges for a long, long time.

But while Aburĩria is not unlike Kenya, and its Ruler not unlike some unholy cross between Moi and the (alleged) child-eater Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Wizard of the Crow is no roman à clef. For one thing, I doubt Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s life was ever this much fun.

[Of sorcerors, and dictators, and mirrors…]

A Hallowe’en Gift: Sarah Langan’s The Keeper available free for a month

Here’s an offer you oughta grab with both hands while you can: Sarah Langan’s debut novel The Keeper is available until the end of the month as a free e-book download from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony. (edited to add: there was a slight administrative snafu, but it is now free at B&N again.)

The Keeper is a ghost story set in a small town in Maine. I can’t really review it with a clear conscience, because I’m hopelessly partial—Sarah and I have been friends since we were teenagers, and I first read The Keeper seven years before HarperCollins finally saw the light and published it—so I’ll just mention that it’s won praise and rave reviews from a throng that includes Peter Straub and Kelly Link, and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a Bram Stoker nominee. (Its followup The Missing won the Stoker for Best Novel last year, as did her short story “The Lost” this year.) I still remember reading The Keeper in manuscript form on a long bus ride ten years ago, and shivering with adrenalin as the hours vanished away. Download it for free while you can.

It’s been made available to promote her new book Audrey’s Door, as has this creepy trailer:

[I]

Kerouac wgah’nagl fhtagn: Nick Mamatas’s Move Under Ground

On Saturday at Worldcon in Montréal, while wandering through the dealer room, I noted a whole boxful of Nick Mamatas’s debut novel Move Under Ground available for the taking, so I grabbed one and read it. That same day. Granted, at 160 pages it’s not exactly War and Peace, but still, for a book that initially seemed like little more than a 60,000-word gimmick, it was unexpectedly gripping.

It helped, of course, that I’m a big fan of both the Beats and HP Lovecraft, and to be honest, if you’re not, then this may not be the book for you. But if you know your Neal Cassady from your Abdul Alhazred, then you have a treat in store: a tale told in first-person by Jack Kerouac himself, whose early 1960s attempt to drink himself to death near Big Sur is interrupted by the rising of R’lyeh just offshore, and the resultant lemming-like slaughter of all the nearby squares.

[The only nameless horrors for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…]

Xenophobia for Dummies: A District 9 Primer

District 9 opened this weekend, and wow, is it terrific: both gripping and totally thrilling, a thoughtful and intelligent movie chock-full of death rays, mecha battles, and mother ships. It’s also a rare wide-release movie set in a cultural context wildly different from America or Europe. So, as the tor.com blogger with (I believe) the most direct experience of South Africa, I thought I’d explain a few of the cultural references that might be mysterious to you:

District Six. A famous ghetto in Cape Town, always South Africa’s most liberal city, in which people of all races coexisted harmoniously even during the apartheid years. In the 1970s, more than 60,000 people were forcibly removed from the district and resettled elsewhere, on the grounds that interracial interaction bred conflict. Cape Town’s District Six Museum maintains a memorial to that shattered community, and the title of District 9 is almost certainly a nod to District Six.

[Johannesburg, muti, Nigerians, prawns, race, townships, violence]

Mediating the Immediate: William Gibson’s Spook Country

I once spent several years accidentally stalking William Gibson. I would wander into a bookstore, and that hauntingly familiar nasal drawl would fill my ears once again: him reading, live and in person, on tour with a new book. Virtual Light in the House of Speculative Fiction in Ottawa; Idoru in Cody’s Books in Berkeley; All Tomorrow’s Parties in the Union Square B&N in New York. I managed to escape the Pattern Recognition tour only by the extreme expedient of moving to a new country every few months in 2003/04.

But me ‘n’ Bill, we go even further back. In 1987, at the tender age of 14, I was exiled from Canada to France for a month, sans my family. I wound up with only five minutes to buy a book for the flight, so I grabbed one with a weirdly pixellated blue-and-white cover and a blurb that proclaimed it, “The book of the year! Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards!” I still have that paperback copy of Neuromancer, and every time I see it, I am reminded, on some faint atavistic level, of just how thoroughly it blew my mind.

[Read more…]

The Buffet Effect

Y’all know Sturgeon’s Law, right? 90% of everything is crud. But what doesn’t get as much attention is Sturgeon’s Corollary: 10% of everything is not crud. And you know what? That can get to be a bit of a problem.

This is the golden age of entertainment, and it’s getting goldener every day. Today’s SF readers have their pick of half a century of backlist classics, and I’m not just talking Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Le Guin: between ebooks and the Espresso Book Machine, the whole notion of “out of print” is out of date, and even the most obscure of golden oldies will soon be only a button-push away. Meanwhile, so many new SF books are published every year that even the mighty James Nicoll, who reads almost one a day, wonders if he can call himself well informed within the field.

We’re drowning in a deluge of distractions, so many that even when you filter out Sturgeon’s Law’s 90%, there is still far too much good stuff out there for anyone to read and watch. Books compete with DVDs of Lost and Heroes and BSG, and with William Shatner singing Rocket Man on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the death-grip that gatekeepers like publishers and Hollywood studios once held is slipping. A straight-to-video release was once the kiss of death: nowadays, movies like JT Petty’s terrific horror-western The Burrowers are discovered by devoted audiences via Netflix—or BitTorrent—rather than the multiplex. Self-published books like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Scott Stigler’s Infected have gone on to be bestsellers, and are certainly better than many books anointed by a major publisher’s imprimatur.

[So how do you decide how to spend your attention, when there’s so much out there?]

Time Travel Times Two: Jack Finney’s Time and Again

While book-shopping Buenos Aires last week, in a hole-in-the-wall bookshop on Avenida Estados Unidos, I happened upon a battered and ancient copy of Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a book I hadn’t read but had heard of. Famously—or so I thought—Finney was 80 years old when he wrote this debut novel about time traveling back to nineteenth century New York, and had subsequently even written a sequel…

…except that that turns out not to be the case. The “Also By Jack Finney” page included a dozen other titles, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He did write a sequel to Time and Again at age 80—was that what I was thinking of? Did I have a different author entirely half in mind? Or had I perhaps slipped without knowing it into a different timestream with subtly different time-travel books?

As pleasingly meta as that might be, I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation as I regarded the book. But when it failed to vanish and be replaced by a slip of paper labeled Book (time-travel), I decided to my deep relief that I at least was not living in a Philip K. Dick novel, and bought the book, and read it. And boy, is it ever a weird and wonderful and deeply problematic piece of work.

[Ruminations on cozy catastrophes, time travelogues, illustrated novels, self-imposed exile and thorny questions of morality follow. You have been warned.]

Sitting Shiva For Sitka: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This is a great book.

My first encounter with Michael Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I read (and adored) shortly before it won the Pulitzer. I grabbed his next book Summerland on sight, excited that he’d written an out-and-out genre novel1—and was sorely disappointed; it’s a rote, mediocre fantasy novel, a bit like a stale and warmed-over The Talisman. So I approached The Yiddish Policemen’s Union with a certain trepidation, despite its acclaim and fistful of awards.

I needn’t have worried. Chabon tackles not just one but damn near every genre here—alternate history, police procedural, noir thriller, fantasy—and succeeds spectacularly at them all. He even manages to breathe new life into the cliched corpse of the alcoholic, divorced, embittered homicide cop: our protagonist, Meyer Landsman, who is drawn into a spiralling maelstrom of trouble when a junkie neighbour at the down-at-heel hotel he calls home is found with a bullet hole in the back of his skull and an unfinished chess game on his chair, only two months before Reversion.

Reversion, you ask? Well. In this alternate history, a (real-world2) 1940 proposal to turn part of Alaska into a new home for the Jews became law, and the state of Israel foundered before it was founded, so millions of Jews instead fled from Europe to the boomerang-shaped island of Sitka, off the coast of Alaska, and there built a new, Yiddish-speaking city. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union takes place in 2007, when Sitka is due to revert to Native American control, as Hong Kong reverted to China. No one is quite sure what will result, but the expulsion of at least half of Sitka’s residents is expected. “Strange times to be a Jew,” everyone agrees. And they get even stranger when Landsman discovers that the corpse he just discovered is of a man believed by many…

[Some spoilers ahead, but none for the second half of the book…]

Neil Gaiman: I Don’t Get It

I suspect we all have a little list of writers who others worship but we hate. I can’t stand Faulkner, even though Gabriel García Márquez cites him as a great inspiration. I find The Great Gatsby almost unbearably whiny and tedious, even though Haruki Murakami calls it his favourite book. García Márquez and Murakami rank very highly in my personal literary pantheon, though, so I’m willing to grudgingly concede that there must be something to both Faulkner and Fitzgerald, even if that something is fingernails-on-the-blackboard to me.

But weirdly I find it easier to understand wild praise for authors I despise than those who I mildly like. I’m thinking in particular of Neil Gaiman.

[And here’s why…]

Build A Better World, And The World Will Come To Your Door

The latest issue of Maisonneuve magazine features an article by yours truly (Can A Video Game Make You Cry?) about storytelling and emotion in video games. It was initially supposed to be about games-as-art, but that notion fell apart during the inevitable dispute over the definition of art—which was triggered by my contention that worldbuilding should be considered an art form in and of itself.

I’m happy with how the piece turned out, but I kinda regret that the worldbuilding bit got cut, and I maintain that it’s an art form all its own. I think the dispute happened because the editor in question isn’t much of an SF fan, and worldbuilding, almost by definition, doesn’t happen outside of SF. (Historical fiction recreates worlds; not the same.) Exploring a whole new imaginary world, discovering its treasures and seeing how it works, is a joy unique to SF stories, films, RPGs and video games. Especially video games, since they’re so immersive: three-dimensional, multimedia, and you can actually navigate through them. Also, they’re often untrammeled by much in the way of story and character distractions … although they do tend to be populated by aliens or monsters that need a whole lot of killin’.

Curiously, though, fantasy gameworlds are far more prevalent than science-fiction. I remember spending way too much of my wayward adolescence playing Elite, a space-merchant video game (not to be confused with The Space Merchants.) But it was fantasy that ultimately conquered the PC and console, from Myst to Oblivion to World of Warcraft. Why is that?

[…Or have I just been misunderinformed?…]