Tor.com content by

Jo Walton

Fiction and Excerpts [13]
All

Fiction and Excerpts [13]

The Merry World of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle-earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.

If you are fortunate enough to share a house with a bright six year old, or a seven or eight year old who still likes bedtime stories, I strongly recommend reading them a chapter of The Hobbit aloud every night before bed. It reads aloud brilliantly, and when you do this it’s quite clear that Tolkien intended it that way. I’ve read not only The Hobbit but The Lord of the Rings aloud twice, and had it read to me once. The sentences form the rhythms of speech, the pauses are in the right place, they fall well on the ear. This isn’t the case with a lot of books, even books I like. Many books were made to be read silently and fast. The other advantage of reading it aloud is that it allows you to read it even after you have it memorised and normal reading is difficult. It will also have the advantage that the child will encounter this early, so they won’t get the pap first and think that’s normal.

[Read more]

A Moment in a Life: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution”

I have always loved “The Day Before the Revolution,” now online to celebrate the Library of America two volume edition of Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories.

I first read it in the British collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters Volume 2, in 1979, where it is the concluding story and the best of a very very good set of stories. I had already read The Dispossessed and was thrilled to find this story set in the same world. But that’s not why I loved it.

[Read more]

Why is Genre Fiction Obsessed with Belisarius?

I once wrote jokingly here that there are only three plots, and they are Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, and Belisarius, because those are the ones everyone keeps on reusing.

There is a conference in Uppsala in Sweden the weekend before the Helsinki Worldcon called “Reception Histories of the Future” which is about the use of Byzantium in science fiction. The moment I heard of it, I immediately started thinking about our obsessive reuse of the story of Belisarius. (I’m going. Lots of other writers are going. If you’re heading to Helsinki, it’s on your way, and you should come too!)

It’s strange that science fiction and fantasy are obsessed with retelling the story of Belisarius, when the mainstream world isn’t particularly interested. Robert Graves wrote a historical novel about him in 1938, Count Belisarius, and there’s Gillian Bradshaw’s The Bearkeeper’s Daughter (1987), but not much else. Whereas in genre, we’ve had the story of Belisarius retold by Guy Gavriel Kay, David Drake (twice) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and used by L. Sprague de Camp, John M. Ford, Jerry Pournelle, Robert Silverberg, and Isaac Asimov. So what is it about this bit of history that makes everyone from Asimov to Yarbro use it? And how is it that the only place you’re likely to have come across it is SF?

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

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!

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]