Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is a blue-collar astronaut employee of Lunar Industries, sent to the moon to man a helium-3 harvesting station. He’s in the final weeks of his three-year stint as the harvester’s solo human supervisor, with only his overly attentive robotic companion GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. Sam whiles away the hours running on his treadmill, watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns, and watering his plant collection. His satellite connection to earth has failed, meaning he can only send and receive prerecorded messages; he watches a video from his wife and child, telling him how eager they are to see him again. After three years alone in space, he’s not in the greatest shape emotionally or physically. One day, he dodges GERTY and heads out to the mine, only to find another mangled astronaut in a wrecked tractor—an astronaut who looks exactly like him.
Under Heaven, out today in paperback, is Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel. It’s an epic work of genre-bending, neither quite fantasy nor quite historical fiction. The book is set in Kitai, a kind of alternate-universe Tang Dynasty-era China. Shen Tai, the second son of the recently deceased General Shen Gao, has elected to spend the duration of his mourning period in the wasteland of Kuala Nor. One by one, he’s burying the dead left to rot in the aftermath of a war fought between the Kitai and their neighbors, the Tagurans: a Sisyphean task he has no illusions he’ll ever complete.
At the end of the two-year mourning period, he’s unexpectedly rewarded for his labors. A messenger brings him the tidings that Cheng-wan, the White Jade Princess of neighboring kingdom Tagur, has bestowed upon him the priceless gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. The horses are as much a burden as a reward; suddenly, Shen Tai is a very wealthy man, with the power to influence events across the empire—whether he wants it or not. And, as he finds out when an assassin shows up hot on the heels of the messenger, not everyone is happy about his sudden rise to glory.
Sheri S. Tepper is one of those science fiction writers whom people either adore or despise. Her work, at its least successful, is frustratingly didactic and even at her best she’s not much of one for subtlety. In many ways her writing epitomizes the problems of the second-wave feminist movement, a movement that was largely defined by and for middle-class white women and notoriously failed to deal with the complex intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality that women outside that narrow bracket negotiate daily.
Series: Dystopia Week
Sixteen-year-old Jill is a competitive fencer trying to make it to the Olympics. When she loses a crucial bout against a fighter she should have been able to beat, she’s beset by doubts about her capabilities. A few months after the disastrous tournament, she’s on vacation with her family in the Bahamas when she discovers a rusty and battered piece of metal on a deserted beach. She instantly recognizes her find as part of a real-life rapier, and pockets it as a souvenir.
What she doesn’t know is that the steel shard is from the eighteenth century—and it wants to go home. Jill’s dragged back in time to the golden age of piracy, where she is taken prisoner aboard the Diana—an honest-to-goodness pirate ship captained by Marjory Cooper, an honest-to-goodness lady pirate. Terrified and alone, Jill is forced to throw her lot in with Diana’s crew, even as she desperately searches for a way home.
A friend of mine reviews plays for theasy.com, and he took me on Tuesday to see Manhattan Theatresource’s production of Things at the Doorstep. The double-bill show is a set of one-man plays; the first piece, “The Hound,” is an adaptation of the Lovecraft story written and performed by Greg Oliver Bodine, and the second piece, “I Am Providence,” is from playwright Nat Cassidy.
One knows, straight off the bat, that even if one is a Lovecraft fan (which I am, with reservations), two back-to-back one-man shows based on Lovecraft stories are either going to be truly amazing or staggeringly awful. There is not much room for the middling in such an endeavor. Luckily for me, they verged on magical.
I’ve been watching the previews for Battle: Los Angeles with what I can only describe as “gleeful anticipation.” Explosions? Check. Aerial shots of missiles detonating in the atmosphere? Check. Aliens? Check. It’s an embarrassing problem, for someone with delusions of grandeur and intellectual pretensions that rival any bespectacled Brooklyn-born gentleman author: I love, passionately and without reservation, truly terrible space movies. In the same way I’ve finally worked up to being able to unashamedly haul Dragonlance books on the L train (sometimes you just have to reread them, no matter the social situation) I can at last admit it openly.
Armageddon makes me cry. Every time. (“Daddy, no!”) Independence Day I have seen so many times I know whole sections of it off by heart. (“Yes, yes, yes, without the oops!”) I didn’t just watch the Keanu Reeves remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still; I enjoyed it. Ditto Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds butchery (a.k.a. “The Movie that Everyone Else Forgot.”) I’m not totally without dignity: I skipped Skyline, after all. But I made up for that exercise of good taste by voluntarily watching 2012 (apocalypse can sub in for aliens in a pinch). More than once. In the theater. And come on, Signs isn’t THAT bad.
Lately, it seems, one can hardly chuck a grimoire without hitting an academic who’s taken up penning thrilling supernatural novels to supplement a professorial career. Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches is the latest offering in this pantheon of wild tales of ancient manuscripts, dark secrets, and magic.
Diana Bishop is a scholar of alchemy. She’s researching ancient texts at Oxford University’s Bodleian library when she requests a long-lost manuscript called Ashmole 782. In addition to being an academic, Diana’s also the sole descendant of a long line of witches, but she’s spent her life refusing to have anything to do with sorcery and dedicating herself to more earthly scholarship. What she doesn’t know is that Ashmole 782 has been lost for centuries (apparently other sorcerous creatures haven’t yet figured out how to use the card catalog), and a whole host of witches, vampires, and daemons have been itching to get their hands on it since its mysterious disappearance.
Diana’s unwitting discovery of the manuscript sets the entire fantastical underworld astir, and she’s soon pursued by a whole battalion of sinister persons—including uber-foxy wine connoisseur, Yogi (really), and fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire-about-town Matthew Clairmont, who’s as interested in Diana as he is in the long-lost manuscript.
I’ve loved Clare Bell’s Ratha series since I was a kid. Her extraordinarily detailed Paleolithic world is peopled with a species of intelligent cats negotiating very human questions of community, identity, and the divine. Ratha’s Creature (first published in 1983) and its sequels have had a bumpy journey in and out of print, but their legacy has endured thanks in no small part to a devoted community of fans. Rereading the books as an adult, I fell in love with Ratha all over again. Impetuous, arrogant, and exuberant, she’s a character that will stay with you.
Clare Bell was kind enough to answer some questions about the books; you can read more about the series at the Ratha and the Named Series website.
Set in 1870s Brussel on the eve of war, Under the Poppy (out now from Small Beer Press) is the story of an eccentric cast of characters who come together under the roof of the titular brothel. Run by Decca and Rupert, Under the Poppy specializes in unique—to say the least—entertainments for a discriminating clientele. When Decca’s brother Istvan, a master puppeteer, rolls into town with his troupe of louche puppets in tow, he sets off a hot mess of unforeseen consequences.
Protagonist Charles Yu (not to be confused with Author Charles Yu, who lives in Los Angeles) is a time-travel machine repairman living in Minor Universe 31, a “smallish universe… Not big enough for space opera and anyway not zoned for it.”
Protagonist Yu spends his days patching up the damage caused by time-travel machine owners hoping to alter the circumstances of their pasts. In his off hours, he visits his mom, who inhabits “the sci-fi version of assisted living”: a closed-loop time machine in which the same hour of her life (Sunday night dinner) repeats itself on an endless cycle. P. Yu is accompanied by Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, and TAMMY, his inept and self-conscious operating system.
[More about the book and an interview with Charles Yu below]
Author Yu’s future is a melancholy one, where corporate titans buy out universes and make them into theme parks, and human beings lead isolated, empty existences, trapped in time loops of their own making.
Happily, his universes lend themselves to witty turns of phrase and snappy pokes at the real-life present (Protagonist Yu’s boss Phil “is an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0” who talks like a high-school PE teacher and thinks he’s a real person). How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Knopf Doubleday) is a funny, funny book, and it’s a good thing, too; because at its heart it’s a book about loneliness, regret, and the all-too-human desire to change the past. The time travelers of Author Charles Yu’s universes don’t want to check out the dinosaurs or the pyramids. Instead, they want to revisit every mistake they’ve ever made and try to alter the outcome.
As the novel’s story-within-stories unfolds, we learn that Protagonist Yu has a difficult relationship with his own past: a father who’s disappeared, a self who’s already moved through time to try and find him, and a missive from the Protagonist Yu of the future which Protagonist Yu of the present must finish writing. Oh, and some well-timed gunshots to the stomach.
Author Charles Yu was kind enough to answer a few questions about HTLSIASFU via email. He’s currently on tour supporting the book; you can check out his schedule here. Don’t be late. Har, har.
The Rejectionist: There’s a subtle but well-drawn contrast in HTLSIASFU between the “traditional” sci-fi universe, where kids grow up all wanting to play Han Solo, and the science-fictional universe of being an immigrant in a new country where the rules are arcane, you don’t speak the language, and people treat you like an alien. Can you talk a little about that? Did you set out to talk about the immigrant experience, or did it work its way into protagonist-Charles’s story?
Charles Yu: I did want to touch on aspects of the immigrant experience in the story, but I initially couldn’t find a way to do it without feeling like it was forced and out of place. In hindsight, it seems somewhat obvious to me, to explore cultural foreignness through the idea of genre foreignness, of being in the wrong kind of universe, but at the time, the two ideas sitting side by side just felt weird to me, like they were incommensurate in some fundamental way.
When I came up with the idea of Minor Universe 31, I had an inkling that it might be a way into the subject of feeling alien and marginalized, but it wasn’t until I was deep into the writing that the metaphor started to line up in a way that felt natural. It’s still a bit tentative, the way it’s handled, these ideas of mixed-genre neighborhoods and socio-economic border regions. I wish I’d had the courage to dive into that a bit more.
TR: Charles Yu the protagonist didn’t grow up wanting to be a time-machine repair guy. Did you grow up wanting to be Charles Yu the writer? How do you balance your multiple full-time universes of Charles Yu the dad/lawyer/writer/promoter of first novel?
CY: I did dream of it, although it was mostly just that, dreaming. I didn’t start writing fiction until after I graduated law school, in 2001 (I wrote poetry in college). I was supposed to be studying for the bar, but all I wanted to do with all of that free time was read fiction. I did manage to pass the bar, and once I started working, I found myself wanting to write, so I started writing here and there, on legal pads, on the backs of envelopes and business cards, late at night, early in the morning, when I was supposed to be eating lunch, little bits of time here and there. When I was writing the stories that made up my first book, Third Class Superhero, I had no kids yet, so all I had to balance was work and writing, and hanging out with my then-girlfriend (now wife). Now it’s much more difficult to balance it all, with work and two little ones at home. I think in a way that’s why I’m so preoccupied with the subject of time, because I don’t have any.
TR: Your vision of time travel is pretty bleak, though it’s cushioned with humor. If you had the option of conveying messages to Charles Yu past or future, would you?
CY: Is it bleak? I guess I’m realizing it is, based on what I’m hearing from you and others. I’m sorry I’m such a bummer! I’m glad you do think there’s some humor to balance it out, though. If I could talk to my past or future self, I think I’d just say this: whatever you do, just remember that, at some point in your life, you’re going to look back at yourself now and be embarrassed.
TR: Some books you’ve read lately and loved?
CY: I really liked Tom Bissell’s book, Extra Lives, about video games. I also read the graphic novel Revolver, by Matt Kindt, and thought it was such an expertly constructed story, an idea where all the sub-ideas fit into each other just right. I got to the last page and realized, wow, he had this all mapped out so well.
TR: Special bonus optional sci-fi dork question: What was it like to meet SAMUEL DELANY!?!!??
CY: It was unreal. There’s a picture of Mr. Delany and me, side-by-side, on the panel at Comic-Con, and even though I know it actually happened, looking at it I still feel a bit like Forrest Gump, as if someone Photoshopped me into that image. I just look like an interloper, sitting there next to the legend.
The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.
Arwen Curry is a filmmaker and writer. She is an associate producer of the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and co-produced and directed the 2006 documentary Stuffed. She coordinated the magazine Maximum Rocknroll from 1998 to 2004 and publishes the zine Ration. She talked to me about her current project, a documentary on Ursula K. Le Guin.
Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the children’s and YA books Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker (a Tiptree Honor book), Long Juju Man, and Sunny. Her newest book is the mind-blowing novel for adults, Who Fears Death, set in post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa. She has received the Hurston/Wright literary award, the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, the Parallax Award, and the Andre Norton Award, among other honors. Her short stories have been anthologized in Dark Matter II, Strange Horizons, and Writers of the Future.
Elizabeth Hand is the author of eight science fiction novels, three short story collections, a YA novel, and the genre-bending thriller Generation Loss. She has won multiple Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, the Mythopoeic Society Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and multiple International Horror Guild Awards.
I’m a compulsive reader with pretty Catholic tastes, and I write about everything from shamelessly cheesy Young Adult romance to shamelessly highbrow literary fiction for my blog. But I recently decided to dedicate a week to talking about speculative fiction exclusively, and the enthusiastic reception affirmed the special place science fiction in particular has always held in my heart.
Why science fiction? Here’s a story for you: I grew up in a very small and unpleasant town, with parents whom I adore, don’t get me wrong, but whose politics are very different from mine (i.e. they watch Fox News religiously, I have an FBI file from getting arrested at anti-globalization protests). As a very young person, I was solidly on my way to a content middle-class life of fluorescent-lit day jobs, picket fences, and voting Republican (my mom recently unearthed a fan letter I wrote to Ronald Reagan at a tender age). Somewhere between then and now, however, I took a hard left on the road less traveled. What happened, you may well ask? I wonder that myself sometimes, and the best I can come up with is: science fiction. No, seriously. Bear with me.
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