Saturday, November 24, 2012

Busy Writing Jury Reports This Weekend

Got twenty-six to write and I'd like to do at least ten of them this weekend. Otherwise I'll never make the deadline. I have read all of them by now and it's an interesting mix ranging from absolute beginner to publishable with some minor tweaking.

I was expecting more classic fantasy, since that is all that can be found in the F&SF sections of most book stores here. Most of them are contemporary though. Some leaning towards the surreal, some more urban fantasy-like. I think publishers would be wise to rethink what they choose to publish/translate if I see this selection. Not many 2012 end of the Maya calendar apocalypse tales either. I was more or less expecting that. My view might a bit skewed though. I'm reading twenty-six stories in this first round, out of ninety-one submissions.

Anyway, the point of this post is to tell you not to expect a new review this weekend, I'm otherwise engaged ;)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

De Eerste God - Adrian Stone

My attention for Dutch language has been sorely lacking this year. The last time I reviewed one is a year ago, almost to the day. I am reading lots of short storied for the Fantastels contest at the moment but a full novel was a while ago. De Eerste God, final book in the Rune duology by Adrian Stone came out in September fortunately. I hate to leave series unfinished so this one was on my to read list. De Eerste God (literally: The First God) is his fifth novel, all set in the same universe. It is not necessary to have read Stone's trilogy centred around the monk Marak, but without having read De Achtste Rune, the novel makes no sense. It is a direct sequel. In fact, I think it could have been written as a single (admittedly pretty large) novel. This concluding volume is definitely lighter on social issues, I got the impression Stone had quite a bit of trouble tying up all the story lines he started in the first novel.

In Kadish, the God-Emperor Danobe has acquired the eighth rune, making him more powerful than any of his predecessors since the cataclysm that rocked the continent ages ago. This power has a price however. Danobe hears voices that drive him slowly insane. The only thing that can hold them at bay is the healing magic of Serina, enslaved priestess of Viguru. Danobe needs to stay focussed. He has a rival eighth after all. Ghelan has survived the trap set for him and has come out as powerful as the God-Emperor himself. These two men are the only ones who can stop the looming disaster created by the pair of them in the previous book. The dimension of the gods is still leaking into the world though the rift created by Ghelan. It must be stopped before it overwhelms the world. Only the eighths can do it, if they don't destroy each other first.

Stone spend much of the first novel laying out the stresses on Kadish society and showing the reader the nation was on the brink of collapse. In this novel, the inevitable happens and things come crashing down. It doesn't quite happen in the way the previous novel seemed to suggest though. Stone used his characters to show the various cracks and stresses in society in the first novel. This book is much more focussed on their personal challenges. The novel leaves very little space for what is going on outside the line of sight of the main characters. I thought this was pretty strange given all the rebellious talk, clashing interests and general discontent displayed in the first novel.

During his tyrannical rule Danobe is not concerned with the wellbeing of his subjects. His reign is one of unpredictability and ruthless action, the consequences of which can be felt far outside Kadish' borders. Stone captures the chaos and terror among his subjects very well. Even characters used to being in his presence fear his unpredictable temper. As a seventh rune magician he was already the most powerful magician in the nation. Now the eight rune distances him even more from ordinary mortals. The mad king is a figure that shows up in fantasy quite often, it is perhaps not the most original element in this novel but Danobe made me nervous so I guess it works to an extend.

His fellow eighth and adversary Ghelan faces the same challenge but deals with it in a different way. You could say Ghelan is a bit of an anti-hero. Where Danobe sought the power of the eighth rune, Ghelan had it trust upon him. It doesn't make a difference to the encroaching madness but where Danobe denies the connection and revels in the power it gives him, Ghelan would do anything to get rid of the rune altogether. He is haunted by guilt over his part in Danobe's rise and the rift between dimension he created. It makes him easily the most annoying character in the book. He is indecisive, stubborn and at times wallowing in self pity. For most of the novel I thought what he needed was a good kick in the backside to get him moving. When he finally does make a major decision, it is mostly driven by his own needs rather than the clean up the mess he got himself in.

The character the story revolved about in the first book, the priestess Serina is less prominent here. She is still being held but the God-Emperor in a strange mixture of enslavement and affection for her captor. Given the level of force being used and the mistreatment Serina is subjected to, this part of the story remains problematic. Her feelings towards the God-Emperor are hopelessly and unrealistically mixed. She does become a bit more calculating though, making sure that the child she carries will be the only one Danobe will ever have. In the novel, Serina's story line explored sexism and racism in Kadish. Something that moves to the background considerably in this book. Her healing skills are met with a kind of grudging respect but what more freedom might do for the nation is no longer of any concern to the other characters. In fact, the finale of the novel hints at a continuation of the suppression of women. I consider Serina's story line something of a missed opportunity.

In the end, the story  left we with mixed feelings. Stone delivers another competently written fantasy novel with De Eerste God but I don't think it lives up the the promise of De Achtste Rune. I got the impression he was struggling tying up all the loose ends and lost track of the implications of of what he showed the reader in the first novel. The Rune duology hides the bones of a larger, more complex tale than Stone ends up delivering. There is plenty to enjoy, De Eerste God is a decent, fast-paced read but I think it could have been more.

Book Details
Title: De Eerste God
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 363
Year: 2012
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-5120-0
First published: 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Listeners - James Gunn

I haven't been very adventurous in my reading for the Damon Knight Grand Master reading challenge. Seven of the ten books I've read so far have been by authors I have read other works of, while two others were acknowledged science fiction classics. For the eleventh read I decided to pick a book by someone I knew very little of. James Gunn doesn't have as long a bibliography as some of his contemporaries and quite a lot is short fiction. He made quite an impact on the genre nevertheless. Besides writing, Gunn is a noted critic and teacher as well as the director of the Center for Study of Science Fiction. The Listeners (1972) is a fix-up novel, various parts of it appeared in Galaxy Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1968 and 1972. It is probably its best known novel, but apparently not one instantly recognized as a masterwork. Gunn missed out on all awards and nominations save one for the Campbell award in 1973. There have been a whole bunch of editions of this book with different forewords, introductions and afterwords. The copy I've read is a 2004  edition which features an introduction by H. Paul Shuch, an American physicist heavily involved with SETI, a foreword by Thomas Pierson, founder of the SETI institute, and and afterword by the late Freeman J. Dyson, British-American mathematician and physicist. I guess this book is still well loved in scientific circles.

In 2028, the SETI's search for extraterrestrial life is still ongoing without ever having picked up a single signal that indicates intelligent life. Director Robert McDonald, a staunch believer in the project, is facing ever more difficulties keeping SETI funded. McDonald himself is beginning to wonder if the project is worth the personal sacrifices he has to make. Then, a signal is received that is unmistakably of alien origin. A broadcast is received from a the direction of the star Capella, 45 light years distant. It changes everything. The project, the world, our place in the universe. Humanity is about to enter into a conversation with a ninety year time lag.

I like science fiction a lot but in my mind at least, it doesn't tend to get really interesting until the late 1960s. A time when writers started to incorporate more social sciences into their works, pay greater attention to their characters and move towards more literary forms of writing. The Listeners is a novel that tries to do some of these things. It is in essence a first contact story, which are a dime a dozen in the genre. With a lot of attention dedicated to radio telescopes, it is also firmly rooted in hard sciences. I've been to an installation in Westerbork, the Netherlands many years ago and it is an impressive sight. It is also not the exciting kind of science one might expect in a science fiction novel. It is painstakingly clearing up and deciphering signals, it passive, it is what the title suggest, listening. When you think about it, it isn't an obvious choice of subject for a science fiction novel.

Because of the fairly slow pace of events, Gunn as a lot of time to delve into the psyche of his characters. The story is very introspective. McDonald in particular thinks a lot about what he is doing and why it is worthwhile, but also if it isn't taking too much of a toll on his family. Other characters reflect at length about the changes in society over the course of the novel which spans almost a century. As the novel progressed and society gained more and more utopian characteristics, I kept wondering if Gunn thinks that contact with extraterrestrials will change our look at the universe in such a way that the world's problems become fixable or that it would have happened anyway. Fear would have seemed an equally likely reaction to me, even if realistically the aliens were too far away to be a threat.

Limited but the power of With radio waves taking ninety years for a round trip, it is essential to pack as much information as possible into one broadcast. The message received is deceptively simple, even if it takes the best minds and an enormous amount of computer power quite a while to decipher it. The process of understanding it, the debates and speculation, the attempts at suppressing the find, efforts to fit it into existing religious frameworks and of course the question how to respond all make for fascinating reading. It is not as flashy as an alien invasion but a lot more realistic description of how first contact might happen.

Structurally it is an interesting novel as well. Gunn litters the McDonald sections in particular with quotes from literary greats, usually in the original Spanish, Italian, German, Latin and French. Quite unusual for an English Language novel. The Listeners is divided in five sections, four of which are followed but what Gunn calls a computer run. These are snippets of all manner of news sources, quotes from scientists (Carl Sagan and Frank D. Drake and Guiseppe Cocconi to name a few), philosophers and science fiction writers. They add a lot of detail to the reader's understanding of the SETI project although it appears to have expanded and changed beyond what Gunn envisioned in 1972. One might say his selection is a bit one sided. Quite a lot of it is very supportive of the project and its goals. There has been quite a bit of criticism of the project for as long as it has existed. Ranging from people who consider it dangerous to alert aliens to our presence, to those who SETI is unscientific to begin with. Most of the characters have links with the organization, Gunn might have used the computer runs to balance it a bit.

In the end I thought The Listeners featured a little bit too much promotional material for the SETI project but it is a fascinating read nonetheless. Gunn picked a subject that isn't particularly sexy and yields very little in the way of visible or easy to understand results and turned it into a good story anyway. It is a bit melancholic at times, some readers will not particularly care for the characters. I guess I can see why it didn't sweep the awards or turns up in lists of must read classics. After having read it, I think it does deserve more recognition than it has received. This novel is definitely one of the pleasant surprises encountered in my Grand Master Reading Challenge reading. I may have to check out some of Gunn's short fiction in the future.

Book Details
Title: The Listeners
Author: James Gunn
Publisher: BebBella Books
Pages: 195
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-932100-12-9
First published: 1972

Monday, November 5, 2012

You May Have Noticed...

...that I didn't post a new review this weekend. I had hoped to write two, but unfortunately I seem to have developed bronchitis, which left me in a zombie-like state for most of the weekend. I have a lot of others stuff to do this week, looking for a new apartment for instance, and there is always work of course, so I very much doubt I'll be able to catch up before the weekend.

To make matters even more interesting the first batch of stories I have to read for the Fantastels 2012 short story competition. Twenty-six in total. I just had a look at the first one, which pushes the 12,000 word limit. I figure this is going to keep me busy for a while. In other words, November is going to be quiet on Random Comments. Maybe I should get an intern, or a house elf.