Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Another (Delayed) Monday Commentary: Reclaiming "Literary"

In my circles, the word "literary" is often thrown around as a pejorative -- and given the developments of the last century, it's really no wonder. Literary fiction, you see, has become tightly associated with a certain background and cast of mind that many of my associates do not share. It is now rooted in the humanities departments of academe, where Marxist dialectic reigns triumphant and cultural pessimism rules the day. When it is not overly obsessed with style and method - when, in other words, it has genuine substance - it is quotidian and parochial in its attitudes and sentiments. It is usually penned by graduates of literature, "studies", or fine arts programs and is judged by the same; consequently, it exists not to speak to the general public but to stroke the egos of the elite.

But this was not always so.

Consider William Shakespeare. On those occasions when a Western literary canon is acknowledged to exist (which is not always, mind), Shakespeare floats to the top of the list. Many still deem his plays masterworks for the ways in which they capture both the flaws and the virtues of our human nature. Was all of this writing bound up in literary magazines to be consumed by the Few? No! These plays were presented at the Globe in front of audiences that included everyone from the Queen to the illiterate commoner. And while Shakespeare definitely had some identifiable political and religious opinions, these thoughts did not completely dominate what he wrote. This, in fact, is what has allowed his plays to endure in the centuries since.

I would like to take back the term "literary" from the arrogant poseurs who've stolen and sullied it. "Literary" to me should involve grappling with the universals. It should reveal who we are in all of our glorious messiness. And no -- this does not mean focusing on everything that's awful and base in the world, as that is no more a true representation of humanity than is pat optimism. A genuinely "literary" fiction would show the courage as well as the cowardice, the virtue as well as the sin, and the love as well as the mindless hate. It wouldn't absorb itself with the fads and fashions of our narrowly-educated clerisy but would instead seek to reach the minds of all men.

And literary science fiction? Again, many on my side of the Social Justice Wars chafe at the very idea that science fiction should seek such a label, but if we take care to properly define our terms, no dichotomy need exist between the sense of wonder that was once the defining feature of our genre and the exploration of the human psyche that makes a story "literary." We could live in a both/and universe in which a science fiction that "comments upon society and civilization at a safe remove" is also a science fiction that is enjoyable to read.  We could live in a both/and universe in which a science fiction that is entertaining is also a science fiction that "makes us better people." Hasn't this been done before? Don't you feel that the stories you've read have actually shaped your worldview and led, in a subtle fashion, to your own improvement? I know I do!

So we shouldn't completely set aside the didactic function of Story simply because certain social justice warriors are abusing it. We should, instead, outperform them at their own game.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Brad Torgersen's The Chaplain's War

"My sleep schedule is completely messed up now. I woke up at midnight last night and didn't get back to sleep until four."

"Did you do any reading in the meantime?"


"Well, then at least the time wasn't wasted."

"As a matter of fact, I finished Brad Torgersen's book, The Chaplain's War."

"Did the chaplain win?"

It was here in the above conversation with my father that I paused -- for while the novel does end on a high note, I'm not sure said conclusion could be classified as a "win" in the way Dad intended it. Despite its title and its nods to the traditions of military science fiction, The Chaplain's War isn't that kind of story; it's more about fostering peace than about triumphing in combat.

For Analog readers - and for those of you who have read Brad's first anthology, Lights in the Deep
- some of the ground covered in The Chaplain's War will be very familiar, as the book includes (and then extends) the full texts of "The Chaplain's Assistant" and The Chaplain's Legacy (the latter of which I reviewed here in one of my 2014 Hugo posts).  The story follows Harrison Barlow, a military enlistee who, despite his agnosticism, has fallen into an assignment with the chaplain's corps because he doesn't really fit in anywhere else. Barlow is sent with a Fleet contingent to capture a world held by the mantes - an insectoid/cyborg race that has attacked several of Earth's outlying colonies - and is ultimately taken prisoner when Earth's badly outmatched forces are roundly defeated. In the valley where he and his fellow soldiers are contained by a deadly forcefield, Barlow constructs and maintains a small multi-denominational chapel in order to fulfill a promise to his chaplain and superior officer. There, he stumbles on an opportunity to stop the human/mantes war in its tracks.

The new material Brad has added to this novel includes a series of flashbacks covering Barlow's enlistment and early Fleet experiences and a denouement in which Barlow and the Queen Mother deal with the consequences of the events in The Chaplain's Legacy. And it's funny: Despite this book's piece-wise construction, old and new fit together extremely well. Just one example: In boot camp, a young Barlow encounters a bully who seems to determined to make his life hell. What Barlow does about this - and the lesson he learns along the way - only amplifies the theme of the original tale on which this novel is based. To put it another way: The additions are wholly organic and feel like they've always belonged in the story; they do not appear to be afterthoughts.

And the aforementioned theme, as I noted above, is peace - in particular, how it might be honorably achieved. In a way, I think it's appropriate to see The Chaplain's War as an extended reply to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. While the earlier work - at least in part - emphasized the sad necessity of violence, Brad invites us to consider a more optimistic alternative. Could we coexist? Could intercultural dialog actually foster understanding? I don't know -- but I think it's important that we don't completely dismiss the possibility. (By the way: The parallelism I see between The Chaplain's War and Starship Troopers is why I can't agree with the one Amazon reviewer who complained that the boot camp scenes in the former were "unoriginal." Brad's use of familiar military science fiction tropes in those scenes, I feel, is a deliberate call-back, not a creative failure -- and when you read said scenes in context, you realize that their purpose actually diverges from the standard.)

There are also several secondary themes that cannot be ignored. For instance, Brad has a great deal to say about God. He doesn't preach, mind you; his presentation is carefully ecumenical and respectful of divergent views. But the sense that there is Something Greater in charge of the universe is an integral feature of The Chaplain's War -- one that, I feel, qualifies the novel for the burgeoning "Superversive" Movement. (Indeed, I invite John C. Wright and his wife to read the scene in the observation dome between Barlow and the Queen Mother and see whether they agree.) Brad also evinces a skepticism in re: transhumanism that deserves to be taken just as seriously. True: These messages may turn off those with more militant atheistic viewpoints, but for me, they made the reading experience all the more enjoyable. Unlike some, I don't believe spirituality and science fiction should never mix -- or that religiosity and rational knowability are in radical conflict.

I could say more, but I'll finish with this: If the "Superversive" or "Human Wave" movements appeal to you, you need to read this book. If you've been following the historical conversation in the science fiction genre in re: "battling the bugs," you need to read this book. If you're just looking for a good, positive read, you need to read this book. Hell -- if you like traditional science fiction, you need to read this book. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Wednesday Short: Sci Phi Journal, Issue #1 (Part I - The Short Fiction Section)

I don't really listen to podcasts. I have been in a few because panels tend to be recorded for that purpose at Dragon Con, but sadly, I've never had the time to make any of these shows a regular habit. Consequently, until a few weeks ago, I never knew a podcast like Jason Rennie's existed. And it's a damn shame, really. Mr. Rennie, you see, is as interested in philosophy as he is in science fiction, and so he evidently thought: Why not meld the two? Well, why not indeed! Scrolling through the titles of recent broadcasts, I can see quite a few topics that may interest the rabble here. I for one plan on listening to the shows that bring St. Thomas Aquinas to a discussion of philosophical concepts on Babylon 5.

Meanwhile, via John C. Wright's inimitable blog, I've also learned that Rennie has started publishing a zine that covers the same ground as the Sci Phi Show. The first issue of said zine - entitled the Sci Phi Journal - has already been released, and while I was cycling in the gym yesterday, I got a chance to read the entire "short fiction" section. My thoughts? The stories were pretty uneven; a few worked as science fiction literature and a few did not.

To be sure, all four selections achieved one of the cardinal goals of our genre: They played with ideas that were genuinely interesting and even awe inspiring. When Eric S. Raymond wrote a while back that science fiction must bring the reader to a moment of "conceptual breakthrough," he was largely right. If the "Wow!" factor is not present, then what you have is -- the kind of crap that is peddled as "award-winning sci-fi" today, which somehow manages to be pseudo-literary and pseudo-speculative simultaneously.

In my view, however, stories usually cannot thrive on the high concept alone; most of the time, you need, at the very least, recognizably human (or human-like) characters to respond in sympathetic ways to your fantastic premise. This is where the stories "Cosmic Foam" and "Falling to Eternity" fail. In "Falling to Eternity" in particular, the protagonist is basically a non-entity -- and the antagonist is so cartoonish that I half expected him to start cackling madly and twirling his mustache.

"Domo" and "Abandoned River, Dry Water," on the other hand, were much more effective. The latter, actually, was one of the best short stories I've read all year. The tale it implies - of a misplaced Catholic missionary attempting to minister to an alien race he was not prepared to encounter - is both haunting and poignant -- reason enough to look for some of Jane Lebak's other work.

So -- despite the flaws of the fiction Rennie has included, have I gotten enough out of this zine so far to push forward? Yes! I'm especially excited to read the article on the Prime Directive. After all, Matt and I have our own thoughts about that -- many, many thoughts! And next week, I intend to review John C. Wright's novelette "The Ideal Machine" for the Wednesday Short. The upshot? There is still much to discuss -- so go ahead and pick up a copy so you can jump in!

Final Verdict: Recommended... though there are a few bugs here and there.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In Lieu of the Monday Commentary: A Tuesday Link

I'm still running a little behind on my blogging duties, so while you wait, I recommend you read the following thought-provoking essay:

"H. Smiggy McStudge" may be talking about modern art, jazz, and literary fiction, but the tendencies he describes - for example, the refusal to actually engage the common man - are also emerging in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom as certain folks scramble to prove their highbrow bona fides. This passage in particular seems especially relevant to our interests:
We encouraged painters to become more and more interested in the weave of the canvas, the weight of the brush-strokes, the plasticity of the paint; less and less interested in what the painting was about. The ideal picture was not a window on reality, but a sculpture a quarter of an inch thick; and for the most part, I am happy to report, the new art was as shallow as its medium. Painters stopped talking to their audience through imagery; now they only talked to one another about texture and impasto. We killed that art in a generation, and despite valiant efforts to revive it, it has remained safely in the grave. You can tell this is so, because whenever a painter dares to produce a vivid representation of a real or imagined scene, all the critics hiss and sneer and call him an illustrator: the worst insult in their vocabulary. The fear of ostracism (and of losing grants and gallery space) keeps the artists in their place; and their place is as far away from the viewing public as we can put them. 
Beginning about 1940, we played the same trick on the jazz musicians, with great success; it took us just twenty years to kill jazz, as a creative medium accessible to the people, stone dead. The game was the same: make the artist so interested in technique that he forgets all about his audience. 

And so far, such a game has been diabolically effective wherever it's been played.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Brad Torgersen's Racers of the Night

If there's one thing that Brad Torgersen's latest anthology reveals, it's Brad's versatility. You know those "working actors" who take what roles they can get and don't put on airs about their ahhhht? Brad is that kind of author; if you challenge him - and, of course, offer to pay him for the effort - he seems to be up for almost anything. Consequently, the stories in Racers of the Night run the gamut from traditional space opera to Lovecraftian sci-fi horror and feature self-aware sexbots, futuristic furries, time travel, sub-light interstellar space craft, and many other concepts in between.

If there's another thing Racers of the Night reveals, it's the absolute folly of pinning Brad to one particular ideological "team" -- and then dismissing him because that team is not yours. On the one hand, "The Hideki Line" expresses a firm distrust of social engineers and nudgers seeking to manipulate their neighbors for their own so-called noble purposes. On the other hand, "The Flamingo Girl" evinces a genuine sympathy for sexual minority groups, and "The Curse of Sally Tincakes" accepts as admirable its protagonist's desire to shatter a gender-based glass ceiling. Brad may be on record favoring a more traditional and less faux-literary style in science fiction - i.e., a style focused on entertaining the audience first - but that doesn't mean the content of his stories is rigidly traditional. The open-minded of all stripes will find much to like here -- if they dare to look.

Of course, in my opinion, the true highlight of this volume is the concluding novella, Life Flight. As I remarked in an earlier review:
In Life Flight, Torgersen takes a page from Daniel Keyes' book and records his point-of-view character's thoughts and feelings in journal form -- and in my judgment, I think he does a masterful job. Like Keyes, it seems Torgersen knows exactly how to adjust his style and tone to reflect his main character's gradual evolution. The early journal entries are simple and perfectly convey the concerns of a pre-teen child; the later entries grow steadily more mature and reflective. And it all works
Throughout, the main character's emotional arc is profoundly interesting -- and, thankfully, morally grounded.
Life Flight, I feel, is a real contender for my 2015 Hugo nomination ballot -- but, of course, it's not the only strong selection in the bunch (even if it is by far the best). I also enjoyed the stories I mentioned above -- even if I didn't find them quite as striking. And Reardon's Law? Yes -- that needs to be expanded into Brad's next novel for Baen!

I was a little disappointed that Racers of the Night didn't feature any of Brad's commentary on the current state of science fiction; I rather liked the essays that were included in Lights in the Deep and was hoping to see a few more. But regardless of that particular glaring omission, this book is still a "must-have" for any Brad Torgersen fan -- and for any seekers of up-and-coming talent in the field.

Final Verdict: Recommended.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The (Late) Wednesday Short: K.D. Julicher's The Golden Knight

"What we want to see: Adventure fantasy with heroes you want to root for. Warriors either modern or medieval, who solve problems with their wits or with their sword--and we have nothing against dragons, elves, dwarves, castles under siege, urban fantasy, damsels in distress, or damsels who can’t be bothered to be distressed. What we don't want to see: Political drama with no action, angst-ridden teens pining over vampire lovers, religious allegory, novel segments, your gaming adventure transcript, anything set in any universe not your own, “it was all a dream” endings, or screenplays."
When these content guidelines for Baen's first Fantasy Adventure Award were announced, the usual suspects sneered. After all, Larry Correia was named as a judge, and as the International Lord of Hate, Larry is just as evil as they come. How could anything of "quality" seize the prize?

Well. Far be it for me to contradict my social betters in the SFF universe, but the recently-announced grand prize winner - "The Golden Knight" - is actually pretty damned great. Indeed, I hope this will not be last we see from "K.D. Julicher," which, I understand, is a pen name for a husband-and-wife writing team. If this, their first professional publication, spurs them to continue churning out stories in the fantasy genre, I predict we'll see great things from them.

The protagonist of "The Golden Knight" is a man in hiding. The only survivor of a disastrous shipwreck, he has allowed his guilt over the loss of his men to overwhelm his identity as a warrior and a king. But then a kid - a self-declared "squire" who hasn't even outgrown his peach fuzz - arrives, declaring that he's looking for his master, and what ensues is the story of a mentor-pupil relationship that ultimately brings a lost soul back from the brink.

As anyone familiar with my past fannish history probably knows, I love, love, love platonic elder-younger pairings in which the younger's boundless loyalty and innocence in some way redeem the elder. Such stories, I feel, speak to the more profound spiritual reason why most of us become parents (and why I, in the absence of a spouse, have elected to work as a teacher). Biological imperatives to reproduce aside, there is also an instinctual recognition that caring for our children is a salvific enterprise -- and the fact that many succumb to the pop culture's distorted and idolatrous visions of parenting does not in any way negate the nobility of the animating impulse.

To put it another way: Unlike many of the short stories that have recently attracted the plaudits of the fandom's clerisy, "The Golden Knight" actually achieves one of literature's primary functions: It taps into our authentic humanity. For that reason alone, it is well worth a read.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Fortunes of the Imperium (View from the Imperium, Book 2)

For our last big review, we tackled a story that involved high-stakes intergalactic politics and an exploration of the human condition that was both well-written and genuinely insightful. As I noted then, such books are the true bread-and-butter of "literary" science fiction and the principle reason why the genre exists. Still -- don't you feel like turning your brain off every once in a while? I know I do -- and that's why I'm glad that Jody Lynn Nye's View from the Imperium and its recently published sequel, Fortunes of the Imperium, exist. Sometimes, I just want to read something totally ridiculous without having to worry too much about "meaning" or "logic" -- and books that are explicitly sold under the tagline "Jeeves and Wooster... IN SPAAAAAAACE" definitely fit that bill.

As revealed by the Amazon reviews, this series is very polarizing: People either like it or they hate it. I happen to fall in the "like" column, but I can definitely see the detractors' points. Yes -- the climax of Fortunes is over-the-top. Yes -- even I was rolling my eyes over how much time was spent describing everyone's outfits. But I tend to accept those features as intentional. Lord Thomas is essentially a science-fictional version of a Hollywood trust-fund baby; he is going to pay inordinate attention to other characters' sartorial choices because that's the world he knows.

The good news, though, is that Thomas is an intelligent fop. In Fortunes, he is preoccupied with tarot cards, crystals, and other trappings of the occult not because he actually believes in their power but because he's curious about the belief of others. He is also self-aware enough to admit when something goes beyond his limited areas of expertise -- and amiable enough to desire friendship with people outside his social class. Conceited? Actually, no -- and that's why I'm willing to roll with Thomas' silly fancies even though I couldn't care less about their real-world analogs.  

Final Verdict: Recommended... but Your Mileage May Vary.