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In most of my spare time last week I was rereading and working on a review of River of Gods, for Foundation. During this period I was, well ... 'tediously obsessed' would not be too strong a way of putting it. However, I thought the following conversation with [ profile] immortalradical might be of interest to those who've read the book, as a little light (!) bank holiday reading, and he agreed, so here it is. It started with me quoting a particular passage:
How Thomas Lull knows he is un-American: he hates cars but loves trains, Indian trains, big trains like a nation on the move. He is content with the contradiction that they are at once hierarchical and democratic, a temporary community brought together for a time; vital while it lasts, burning away like early mist when the terminus is reached. All journey is pilgrimage and India is a pilgrim nation. Rivers, grand trunk roads, trains; these are sacred things across all India's many nations. For thousands of years people have been flowing over this vast diamond of land. All is riverrun, meeting, a brief journey together, then dissolution.

Western thought rebels against this. Western thought is car thought. Freedom of movement. Self-direction. Individual choice and expression and sex on the back seat. The great car society. Throughout literature and music, trains have been engines of fate, drawing the individual blindly, inexorably towards death. Trains ran through the double gates of Auschwitz, right up to the shower sheds. India has no such understanding of trains. It is not where the unseen engine is taking you; it is what you see from the window, what you say to your fellow travellers for you all go together. Death is a vast, crowded terminus of half-heard announcements and onward connections on new lines, new journeys. Changing trains. (p200)

NH: I think that, right there, is the aesthetic of this novel. Indian vs. Western; community vs. individual; interaction and experience and change as emergent properties of the world.

DH: This was actually one of my mild problems with the novel: that distinction (Indian as community, Western as individual) seems to me horribly simplistic and even facile. It works OK, but can never quite escape the fact that it doesn't quite convince. Fortunately, the other good things in the book mitigate this slightly artificial opposition.

NH: Well, it works for me because it's never stated that baldly in the novel proper. And I think I stated it the wrong way around; really it's 'community vs individual' and then umpteen variations on that theme, only one of which is Indian vs. Western.

DH: Perhaps. 'Indian versus Western' as a variation on 'community versus individual' is still a little simplistic, though. What I like about the rest of the novel is the way in which it defies such reductive distinctions. It may even be that you're imposing that opposition on the text, whereas in fact what's there is a much more complex debate about a much more nebulous concept--identity.

oh, there's more. With spoilers. )

He's a smart man, that Mr Hartland, and will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that I've ordered A Passage to India from Amazon. His original review (from which it seems I inadvertently stole an entire phrase) is here. I should also say that many of my thoughts on the book were shaped by [ profile] greengolux' review at The Alien Online.
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Making Book is a collection of highly entertaining essays by editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden (whose blog is very good, but frustratingly lacks a full-text RSS feed). They date from the eighties and early nineties. Most are autobiographical anecdotes (e.g. 'God and I', in which Our Heroine is excommunicated by the Mormons), but there are also a couple of bits of parodic fiction, a justifiably vitriolic review of American Psycho--and also a wonderful piece called 'On Copyediting'. You'd think that a style document intended for copyeditors working for Tor might be dry reading, but no! For instance, this recollection on When Copyeditors Attack SF:
I have faith that none of Tor's copyeditors would take the interesting approach once used by a freelancer working on an SF novel for another house. He decided that all the scenes involving time travel were metaphorical, and accordingly went through and recast them all in the subjunctive.

Far better the approach of one production editor who noticed that, in a future New York City, a character went in an impossible direction while crossing into Brooklyn via a bridge that exists today. Since he hadn't read the entire novel, he phoned the editor to ask whether, in that future, Brooklyn had moved. It hadn't; the author had made a simple directional error. But that production editor had Right Attitude.

I have had the idea in my head for a while of reading as many of the Very Short Introduction series as possible, since many people have said good things about them. I started with Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction by Ian J Deary, which is excellent. Each chapter of the book deals with one of the Big Questions about intelligence--the relative influence of genes and the environment, for example, or how intelligence varies with age--by focusing on one or two 'key datasets' in the area. Deary explains scientific findings as clearly as any writer I've ever read, offering just the right balance of explanation and interpretation. Next up, the VSI: Lit Crit, I think. Suggestions for which one I should try after that are welcomed.

When I started reading Adam Roberts' story collection Swiftly, I had bold ideas about reviewing each of the stories individually for [ profile] shortform; sadly, real life got in the way, so you get this summary instead. Roberts is not known for his short fiction, but I thought the collection was a good mix, if perhaps more interesting than successful. Many the stories feel curiously traditional and curiously modern at the same time: traditional in the way they take a classic SF idea such as time travel or contact with aliens--you can see Roberts working through his list of subgenres--but modern in the way the story is framed--take 'Blindness and Invisibility', for instance, in which the existence of a technology to make people invisible is less important than the impact it has had on one retired veteran.

The best stories are the longest. 'Swiftly' and 'Eleanor' form a pair, both set in a world in which Gulliver's travles were real; of course, the Liliputians have become slaves, and the Brobdingnagians are conscripted to fight on the battlefields of Europe. 'Swiftly' is the bigger, bolder story, while 'Eleanor' is the more thoughtful. Indeed, in 'Eleanor' the Liliputians are very much in the background. The story is of young Eleanor's (unhappy) marriage to a wealthy industrialist; that said industrialist traffics in Liliputians (or more accurately, Bleufuscans) is, for much of its length, almost incidental. I also liked 'Stationary Acceleration', which is primarily a portrait of a (probably) self-deluding scientist--one of those stories where the sf element could just be all in someone else's head--but ends up all the more effective for it.

Two other observations. One, most of these stories are obvious, and are eager to tell you at some point What They Mean. This can be irritating in the shortest stories (I liked 'Tour de Lune' right up until its final paragraph), though in the best pieces, such as 'Jupiter Magnified' (even in the chopped-down version presented here) it's a mistake to take any explanations at face value. Indeed, in 'Jupiter Magnified' the answer is almost beside the point; it's the thinking that makes it matter. Two, it's not really hard sf (and a couple of the stories are out and out fantasy) but it is logical sf. Accept the premise, and what follows is elegantly inevitable.

Now, this is a real oddity: Kling Klang Klatch, a graphic novel scripted by Ian McDonald and illustrated by David Lyttleton. It's completely loony, in the best possible way.

In Toytown, a panda has been murdered. The killing seems to be racially motivated. Inspector McBear is on the case. The writing is none-more-noir--
Pandatown. Twenty years on these streets I still can't pronounce. It's a whole different universe down there. In Pandatown, the time is always half past a nightmare. The bones are rolling. The rats are running. The chips are down, and a tenor sax is blowing in an empty doorway. And the neon is still the exact colour of hysteria.

--but the illustrations are brightly-coloured, and the characters look for all the world like mean-spirited teddy bears. So what's going on? Is it a posthuman playground? Is it a child's fantasy? A bit of both, actually, and more: it's a riotous mix of metaphor and Tom Waits lyrics and just plain ol' weird shit. Needless to say, I'll be lending it to everyone I know. Most intriguingly, it was part of a series of graphic novels by sf authors. I'd love to see what M John Harrison's is like.
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Change, some say, is a defining subject of sf. Changes in the world; changes in people. Geoff Ryman's short story 'Have Not Have', published in 2001, begins with a change, like this:
Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that, everyone else went on Air.

more on 'have not have' )

general near-future-sf musings )

river of gods by ian mcdonald )

air by geoff ryman )

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