Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

A journalist recounts an encounter with an alien entity that appears throughout human history, a woman creates a creature from her own blood and spit in a can, and a man falls in love with an airship. These are just a couple of the tales to be found in Swedish author Karin Tidbeck‘s collection of short fiction, Jagannath. The collection has received considerable critical acclaim in the past couple of months, from Tor.com to NPR, and it’s easy to see that the attention is well deserved: it’s a brilliant book, full of stories that linger long after the words have been read, and the book replaced on the bookshelf.

Jagannath is by far one of the best books that I’ve picked up this year, a collection of short stories that left me utterly breathless and at the edge of my seat while reading it. More than once, I found myself at the end of a story, only to turn back and begin rereading it immediately. Each story in this short book is a gem, wonderfully crafted and constructed, each leaving me with a shiver of dread and thrill.

What impressed me the most is how utterly normal and natural a vast majority of the stories felt while reading them: normal people encountering something that’s just slightly off from what is typically natural. A woman comes out of the woods and marries into a family – supernatural elements may or may not be at play, while a suicidal friend in Rebecka may or may not be insane, or tormented by divine intervention. Other stories are more fantastic, but still utterly grounded, such as the strange call center in Who is Arvid Pekon?, the timeless fairy world in Augusta Prima or the historical encounters with some sort of creature in Pyret. Still others are way out there, such as in Aunts or the title story, Jagannath. In a lot of ways, she does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft ever did himself.

Location figures into this: I’ve come across several articles and interviews where Tidbeck highlights her home in Sweden, with its long winters as an inspiration for some of the strange occurrences that she’s written about. Coming from New England, with its dark geography and short summers, I can certainly relate to the dark atmosphere that has been injected into these stories.

Tidbeck’s stories are uniformly haunting, surreal and sublime, and the collection as a whole is a wonder to behold. There’s little surprise to see that the book is recommended by such authors as Ursula K. LeGuin and China Miéville, and Jagannath easily falls into the Weird subgenre, as easily as it can be classified into any genre. The stories are a bit odd, and should place Tidbeck on every reader’s must-read list from here on out. I for one, can’t wait to see what she has coming up next.

Brian Jacques & Redwall

According to the BBC, children’s author Brian Jacques, who is most famous for his Redwall books, has passed away at the age of 72. I’m very saddened by this, because Jacques’ books were one of the first introductions that I had to fantasy literature as a child, starting in late elementary school and lasting throughout my time in High School.

My high school library was well stocked by the time that I reached Harwood. The first book that I remember reading from the series was Mossflower, the second book published in the series, with Martin the Warrior fighting against the evil Tsarmina in the castle Kotir, where he frees Mossflower from tyrany. The stories were clearcut, easy to read and no matter how many times I revisited them, I was always entertained by their stories and characters.

There were a number of favorites in the series for me: Mariel of Redwall and The Bellmaker stand out, as well as Mattimeo, The Pearls of Lutra, The Long Patrol, Marlfox, and Lord Brocktree, not to mention the book that started it all: Redwall. But, of all of the stories, Mossflower has long remained a favorite read.

What impressed me the most in the series was the interconnected nature of Jacques’ world. The books were published outside of a timeline, and as new books came out, they typically visited different parts of the story’s overall chronology. Characters that I read about in one book had become myth or legend in the following, giving an impressive sense of scale for the series, which probably left the biggest impression on me as I began to read fantasy.

Redwall was a series that I eventually phased out of my reading as I got older and found new things to read. As new Redwall books came out, I began to realize that there really wasn’t anything new from book to book: the same formula, dialogue and largely – heroic characters – which came into conflict with other things that I was reading that allowed for more variety, and more ambiguity to the characters and plotlines.

I’ve never looked back on the series since High School, but I’ve never forgotten that had I not read Redwall as much as I did, I may never have gotten into other speculative fiction books: Harry PotterThe series came towards the end of the Redwall books. This was also at the same time that I started reading the classics of science fiction: Dune and Foundation, I, Robot and Starship Troopers,

The Redwall stories are pivotal novels, perfect for that age: full of adventure, heroic characters and rich worlds, they have an absolute moral compass, but exist outside of the normal conventions: religion doesn’t muddy the waters here, and the reliance isn’t on the magic or the instruments of the world (in most cases), but on the superb characters themselves that Jacques created.

With his death, the world is missing one excellent storyteller, and for that, I’m saddened, because the stories that he told were the ones that needed to be told: right verses wrong, and that even the meek can go on to become something great, even legendary.

China Miéville’s Tale of Two Cities: The City and The City

The City and The City is the first and only book that I’ve picked up that was authored by China Miéville, and it’s easily one of the best books that I’ve read all year. The story, from all accounts, is something that stands apart from Miéville’s other works as a minimal, stripped down affair. This book was well deserving of the latest round of Hugo Awards, tying with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for the best novel prize.

The City and The City opens with the murder of a woman, which Inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with investigating. What sets this murder apart is its location in the city state of Besźel. Here, two worlds intersect with one another, two conjoined cities that have long been separated, occupying the same place. The two cities set up a storyline that is highly relevant, as Borlú digs deeper into the crimes that have been committed in order to find the killer, uncovering a vast conspiracy that goes to the very heart of the split of the two cities, and the shadow organization, Breach, that enforces the boundary between the two locations.

The complicated element of The City and The City was this split between the two worlds, and what Miéville has done is nothing short of spectacular: create a profound world, one that touches on some of the most relevant topics in today’s society. The book also does what all good speculative fiction stories should do: take a speculative element, and use that to set a story. Science Fiction / Fantasy readers will find that this book utilizes a single speculative element: the split between worlds. A common enough story element, but there’s no strange devices, mad science or magic gone bad: visitors from one side to another must take their passport with them, and must learn to ‘Unsee’ the other side, or they will run up against the Breach, a shadowy organization that steps in when accidental, and intentional breaches occur.

With the backdrop of speculation, Miéville sets his story in motion, and the pursuit of the woman’s killer. As Borlú digs deeper into the woman’s background, he discovers that her area of study goes to the heart of the separation between the cities, a radical who enflamed nationalists and unificationists on both sides (political groups who sought to unite the two cities) and uncovers a spectacular conspiracy that holds ramifications for both cities.

An underlying strength to this story comes in the world building that Miéville puts together. The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma recall the nature of places such as Palestine and Israel, East and West Berlins, and Yugoslavia: distinct nations, ethnic groups and political organizations that share the same territory, borders and physical space, but the people’s hearts are elsewhere. Here, the separation is a reinforced one, where these societies have been split apart physically. Each city maintains its own culture, architecture, clothing, and languages, and between the two, Ul Qoma represents a modern world, with major foreign investors and trade, while groups in Besźel seek to change their surroundings.

This is where the book is at its strongest: this book is not one that retells the story of real life counterparts, but looks to them for inspiration, while a unique story is crafted around the inspiration that sets the world into motion. Miéville has put together a unique story that takes the bare minimum of speculative elements, while telling a story that is relatable to the modern reader. As such, the book sheds some insights into the mentality of some of the problems of the world: this accomplishes everything that science and fantasy fiction should be doing, and as such, The City and The City succeed wildly.

Miéville’s novel is one that slowly unfolds as the story progresses forward. What starts as what appears to be a fairly straight forward murder mystery (abet with strange surroundings) becomes larger as Borlú goes further and further with his case, travelling to Ul Qoma and eventually, committing an act of Breach in the course of his investigation.

The book is not without its flaws, and while the book lives up to much of what it intends to do, I found myself wishing that there was a bit more to some of the elements. Breach, an organization built to separate the two cities, doesn’t fully satisfy upon its reveal to the reader, and where there was much discussion about the nature of Breach, and an alternate, third city (Orciny), which never came together as expected, and the unexpected result isn’t quite as interesting.

The City and The City is a marvelous book, one that is both fast paced and immersive, a read that I found gripping, rich and easily the one of the best books that I’ve read all year.

Gothic October

While Science Fiction has long been the genre that I’ve been most passionate about, I’ve grown exceedingly fond of the Gothic blend of horror fiction that’s out there. When in college, I attended an upper level English course titled Gothic Tradition which reintroduced me to the likes of Washington Irving, Mary Shelly and Edgar Allen Poe, while introducing me to H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson and others. I’ve come to view this genre as one that’s largely atmospheric, with some astounding stories in it. Earlier this year, while attending ReaderCon, I went to a panel titled New England: At Home to the Unheimlich, which looked to the premise that there is something about New England in particular that has helped to foster some of the best gothic-related stories out there now. Getting out and about during the fall is a good way to see this come to life.

This panel had gotten me thinking about how New England would foster some of this. When I was younger, I remember visiting Boston with my mother, and we had walked through a cemetery, one that dated back to the earliest days of the country, and we saw patterns of dates, usually corresponding to illness and pandemics that occurred at the time. As a result, I’ve been fascinated by some of the older cemeteries that I often see here in Vermont, dotting the countryside.

The panel at ReaderCon discussed a couple of specific influences: the weather and harsh seasons were – and are – a big influence in the mentality of New England residents. Winters are long, with very short days, long nights, and with clearly defined seasons. The Fall in particular is a wonderful time of year, with a broad range of colors in the hills, leading to bare trees in just a couple of short weeks. Coupled with the geography of the region: mountainous, with numerous small valleys, hollows and forests, the region is one that can be very dark, chilly, prone to fog. Further coupled with a writer’s imagination, and the northeast is ripe for setting the fantastic.

Vermont in particular had a number of small cemeteries, and a very hard, rural life from the 18th and 19th centuries. Visiting one of these places, sometimes sparsely maintained, out of operation and crumbling, one will find grave sites that date back to the early days of the nation. In several, I found the resting places of soldiers who served in the American Revolution and Civil War.

Along with the history of gothic / supernatural horror fiction that existed throughout the United States, and with the seasons turning here in the state at the moment, it’s a good time to visit a number of these sites. Their existence, small cemeteries, abandoned houses and cold forests, all serve to supplement this feeling in the region.

Cemeteries in particular serve as interesting reminders. While Megan and I walked through one such site, she noted that there was far more emphasis on the reminders of mortality and the fragility of life, especially when compared to their modern counterparts. The careful artwork that is now vanishing from the weather and acid rain is highly symbolic, with doves, willow trees, lambs and crosses representing the end of life, while epitaphs go straight to the point. One such memorable entry that I saw on a grave in Northfield read to the tune of: Don’t forget about me. Death is a debt to life, and I have paid mine: it is coming for you.

Similarly, looking at the ages and years in which people had died is revealing. In each cemetery, there were several graves of for children, often from the same family, close in age, with their deaths at similar times – one such family lost six of their children in Barnard. Soldiers from war, and younger men and women had died, while a number of people likewise passed away in their eighties, with very little in between the extremes.

Over the past couple of weekends, and in the upcoming days of October, I’ve been working on visiting and taking some photographs from some of these cemeteries (and aging homes from the period, when I can find them) which really exemplify the gothic and horror feel of the state. You can see the gallery here.

Stories: All New Tales, Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio


“…and then what happened?”

This is the question that’s asked by Neil Gaiman in his introduction to Stories: All New Tales, which goes to the heart of what should happen with any story. In this collection of nearly thirty stories, the two have assembled an incredible roster of authors to tell some good stories, and ultimately fulfills the purpose of this anthology, to captivate the reader, and to have them continue to turn the pages.

Built on the premise of the notion that stories should be page turners, this anthology differs significantly from other anthologies that I’ve picked up over the years, and brings together an extremely wide range of tales from every genre. The result is a comparative library of short fiction, putting together a number of genres, themes and perspectives into a single volume. While it’s not the best anthology that I own (Robert Silverburg’s classic, Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, takes that title), Stories comes very close.

Short fiction seems to be on the rise, with a number of fantastic anthologies published recently: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, Wastelands/Federations/The Living Dead, by John Joseph Adams, the ever present Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois and The Best Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jonathan Strahan, not to mention the countless small press anthologies and digital magazines, such as Lightspeed Magazine, that have grown more popular. As a result, there seems to be a relative explosion of short fiction out there, and Stories is one of the better collections that I’ve seen. By structuring the anthology with a broader mission, it stands out because it doesn’t fall into any one genre.

Broadening the focus of the anthology also brings out a wide diversity in authors, from inside and outside the typical genre circles. Authors include Joyce Carol Oats, Neil Gaiman, Richard Adams, Jodi Picoult, Michael Swanwick, Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill, amongst others, which bring together a really neat roster of all-star writers, which goes to help with the quality of said stories. This isn’t to say that a themed anthology is lacking because of the intense focus and a more limited range of stories and authors, but what it does allow is for quite a bit more freedom to tell a number of good stories unrestricted of content. As a result, this is one of the few anthologies that I’ve read cover to cover, rather than reading through a couple of stories piecemeal. Where Stories is a collection that defies genre, it gains some of the best minds from a broad cross section of writers amongst many genres.

There were a number of stories that I really liked: “Fossil Figures”, by Joyce Carol Oats, “Blood”, by Roddy Doyle, “Wildfire in Manhattan” (which, as a couple of other reviewers have noted, would fix exceedingly well with Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods), “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Gaiman, “Juvenal Nyx”, by Walter Mosley, “Weights and Measures” by Jodi Picoult, “Goblin Lake” by Michael Swanwick, “A Life in Fictions” by Kat Howard, “The Therapist” by Jeffrey Deaver, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerephon” by Elizabeth Hand and Joe Hill’s “The Devil on the Staircase”. Michael Moorcock’s title story “Stories” is another that bears mentioning: it’s not one that I particularly liked, but it’s one of the tales that has remained with me since I read the book, and has caused a considerable amount of reflection after the fact.

The end result is a book that easily accomplishes what every storyteller should be doing: telling a good story, one that compels the reader to continue to turn the pages and to see what happens next. For a single author to do to this is a good thing: to get twenty-six excellent stories together that do the same thing is even better, and as a result, Stories is a worthy addition to any library of a speculative fiction fan, or reader in general.

Opposing Viewpoints

And by we, I mean book bloggers, science fiction aficionados and other assorted freelancer writer types. Earlier today, I had an interesting talk with fellow blogger and podcaster Patrick Hester, (@atmfb) where we had an interesting debate about the role that the book blogging community plays within our little world of speculative fiction, authors, conventions and publicists. This had been sparked by several comments on another blog that equated to: I disagree with Author X because of a) politics b) personal attitude or c) religion, etc, which I think is a somewhat ridiculous attitude to have. This tangentially connects to a couple of exchanges that I’ve had with people in the recent past about the entire purpose of blogging in general, which leads back to the question: why do we do this? And more importantly, how should we do this?

Science fiction and its related genres are akin to commercial art. As such, they tend to be incredibly complicated works that draw upon numerous influences and elements, hopefully in a nice, commercially friendly package that will sell in numerous units to a willing public and make the publisher just a bit wealthier. Over the course of the discussion that Patrick and I had today, we looked at the ways in which people approached books.

One example here was that reader X didn’t like Orson Scott Card, because of an opposing political viewpoint that Card has that vilifies homosexuality and equates global warming to a sort of conspiracy. I vehemently disagree with Card on a lot of political issues, but I’m generally curious as to how people associate a writer and their own personal politics with what they write. In some cases, there’s quite a bit of clear influence amongst a writer’s works. Heinlein looked towards libertarian viewpoints, for example, and so forth (I’ve just written about this recently, for other examples). While clearly, there are elements of personal belief within every book that any such author writes. However, the privilege of having an opposing viewpoint does not equate condemning the book or an author simply because of someone’s personal politics, especially if someone is acting as a reviewer or interviewer for said author. Books should be judged on their merits, not on the author’s personal habits.

In the course of our conversation, how then does one avoid reviewing a book without any sort of outside influence? Should a book be able to stand on its own, completely free from its author’s beliefs, offensive as they might be to the reviewer? There’s a considerable amount of grey area here, and I suspect that there is no good answer to this problem. As a historian, dislike the idea of judgment of past actions, simply because said ideas don’t match up completely with my own. (The same goes for music reviewing. Some bands sound amazing on concert, and recorded, but what happens when you find that in reality, they are some of the most annoying, pedantic, irritating people in the world who don’t give two seconds thought to their fans or those who care about those who essentially worship them as minor deities? Or the actor/artist/writer who does the same? Certainly, there is an amount of fanboy disappointment when one’s idols don’t meet up to one’s expectations – I’ve had that happen a lot.)

The duties of a reviewer, interviewer, and critical thinker are to examine said works. I myself tend to be a curious person, and I find myself wishing for more information about the book. What influenced this novel, or sparked this author’s imagination to set these words down on paper? This sort of process is not something that happens completely independent of any sort of outside influence, especially in the science fiction genre. It is this sort of core understanding that I believe is essential to the arts: the drive for understanding, not only of the book itself, or merely for entertainment, but because we relish stories. The earliest stories were incredible teaching tools, ones that undertook the task of teaching ethics, demonstrating to others a slightly easier path in the race to the finish. The better stories are the ones that get away with the teaching before you realized something was up, whereas the bad ones simply expound upon their morals until you throw the book away.

Interviews are another topic all together, and it was suggested that during an interview, the conventional topics such as religion and politics should be completely avoided during an interview.  I disagree with that assessment, because such things are often a major influence on a person, especially in the case of speculative fiction. What are the responsibilities of a book blogger, beyond the usual business of product placement? I firmly maintain that any form of information dissemination is a style of journalism, and as such, has the ability to influence opinion, and has a number of responsibilities therein. As Stan Lee said through Peter Parker: “With great power comes responsibility”, and as such, reviewers, interviewers and critics have the responsibility to weed out the bad and point out the notable. They should examine the influences upon the works that they look at, ask questions and consider any and all possibilities. This obviously happens to a varying level of completion and attention, but reviewers should at least consider how their actions benefit a greater audience.

Thus, I believe that ignoring the influences upon a book, no matter what the underlying values are, does a grave disservice to the author and potential readers that follow. This is not to say that there are numerous books out there that are not worth reading, but that evaluating a book based on a few, selected criteria is not an honest look at said book and story. While I disagree with the opinions of Dan Simmons or Orson Scott Card, that doesn’t mean that completely ignoring or disregarding will do much better. Reading and attempting to understand such viewpoints is far better, and does not mean that one advocates such positions.

Beyond that, books, like people, have a complicated genesis, and evaluating a book on a single issue or merit belies the complexity and background that any sort of reviewer should be judging a book on. This, I believe is the beauty of our intellect and abilities to communicate. No single person has a monopoly on what is right, and what is wrong. In the grander picture, we really know very little at all, and denying the chance to learn more or to understand is a poor action indeed.

The Sky Isn’t Falling: Science Fiction as a Genre

Lately, it seems like there have been numerous article and opinion pieces on the state of the science fiction genre, as opposed to the fantasy and horror genres, with science fiction losing out to both and declining as a field. More women make up the total readership, and tend to read more towards the fantasy genre, while commercial ready fiction such as True Blood, The Dresden Files and Twilight have pushed their respective genres towards audiences that are highly receptive towards what they have to offer. Speculative fiction as a genre is not going away: rather, it seems to be growing stronger, with more ties towards the literary fields and with a growing readership. Science fiction is not a genre to be counted out, but it is a style of fiction that will need to undergo much thematic change in the future in order to remain relevant to readers.

Science Fiction as a whole is one that covers a wide range when it comes to themes and topics, and simply stating that the genre as a whole is failing is a rather meaningless, if somewhat dramatic statement. To say that people will stop writing about the speculative future is to say that people will stop imagining what will happen next: that is simply not going to happen. Rather, it is more realistic to assume that some of the more traditional stories might go away as our understanding of the world around us changes: this is a natural expectation.

Science Fiction is a genre that acts as a mirror for the present. It acts as a rare opportunity for creators to examine commonplace issues in a way that it relates to the present; viewing current events out of context as a way of examining them from afar. This is something that I don’t believe is new or revelatory when it comes to analyzing the genre, but it is something that bears reminding as people attempt to predict the future of the genre as a whole.

The future of science fiction isn’t limited to literature.

Amongst other articles that I’ve heard reiterated most often is the decline in the fiction that is presented in book (or soon, in virtual book) form. While that might be the case, especially compared to the rise of competing genres, science fiction is not limited to the printed page. As technology progresses, new avenues have presented themselves as methods for the genre to thrive. Content-wise, science fiction is a genre that fits very well with any number of video game systems, and the rise of games with larger story arches, such as Mass Effect, Halo, Gears of War and others demonstrate that science fiction has moved forward with interactive stories that have appealed to a very large audience. I don’t believe that I’ve seen a comparable success with the any sort of video game that follows ‘high-browed’ literature style to tell a dramatic story.

Similarly, while the same isn’t true with films, it’s very clear that while they don’t win awards as consistently as dramatic films, they can still do very, very well when it comes to earning money for their creators and generating a wide following. One doesn’t have to look far beyond Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Avatar in recent years to realize that people do like science fiction and fantasy in large numbers. Even looking at the critical reception of films such as Inception, Moon, District 9, and Pan’s Labyrinth to see that the genres are capable of being far more than ‘just’ crowd pleasers, but can also act as an introspective on the problems and conflicts that surround us in everyday life, addressing themes on identity and culture, morals and ethics, just to name a scant few.

Speculative fiction hawks have to get away from academic acceptance.

Listening to a piece on NPR the other day, I listened to Margaret Atwood note that it paid to be somewhat cautious when labeling works of fiction. She herself was caught up in a bit of drama when she characterized her works as being speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, characterizing her work as speculative fiction, creating a distinction between the genres, which rubbed numerous science fiction fans the wrong way, prompting a lot of speculation as to the nature of the genre. Reading over numerous book blogs and talking with fellow readers, it’s clear that there is a large rift amongst people as to how to accept science fiction.

Science fiction seems to largely be unclaimed by the literary academic fields, dismissed from major awards on numerous grounds. I noted the bitterness in an acquaintance’s words that a literary award was left devoid of science fiction and fantasy works, and I have had to wonder there is such attention paid to the status of the genre in these fields as other books have gained considerable attention in the mass media, such as Cormic McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, both of which seemed to fall under a more mainstream section of the genre, while enjoying what appears to have been quite a lot of critical and commercial success. At the same time, other books, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, and Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora seem to have done very well within their speculative genres, if the outcry of fans over the delays in the third book of Lynch’s stories and the quick sellout of Priest’s sequel novella are anything to go on.

Obviously, labels matter to an extent, but only when it comes to the marketing of said fictions, which makes the complaints about the literary discrimination seem only stranger to me, from both sides of the spectrum. While Atwood’s remarks seemed remarkably short sighted for an established storyteller, numerous science fiction novels that line my shelves are ones that I can point to as superior works of literature, groundbreaking even outside of their own genres. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was a series that provided some profound philosophical and religious points for me as a high school student, while Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 provided an understanding and appreciation for knowledge that remains with me to this point. The fantastic fiction that is out there provides argument and understanding on par with numerous works of literature, and I heartedly believe that genre snobbery is something that is largely baseless and short sighted.

Despite the labels that are out there, books like The Road and The Year of the Flood demonstrate that there is a leaking out of the genre to other genres, and one doesn’t necessarily have to go to the science fiction section of the bookstore to find books that could largely fall within the genre. The label on the back of the book matters very little, and readers should be more aware of what else is out in print, especially as regular fiction catches up to the present. Given that we are increasingly living in a world that is science fictional, it stands to reason that some of that will bleed into our entertainment.

That all being said, the genre has survived for going on a century at this point, often as a crowd-pleasing genre, and one that certainly wouldn’t attract any academic or critical interest at various points in its history.

Fans need to understand that Speculative Fiction is about change… and it is changing.

If there is any one lesson that Science Fiction as its own, self-contained sub genre can impart, it is that the future is going to present a changed reality for all of those who inhabit it. The stories tend to follow how the protagonists can change their world for the better, usually based upon their actions. (This is a broad assumption, but one that I feel is valid) As such, it needs to be understood that the environment that fostered the genre in its earlier, formative days has given way to a world that has been drastically changed by economic, environmental and political events that leaves the current generation of readers with a vastly different understanding of the world as opposed to those who grew up during the Cold War.

Science fiction of the recent past was heavily influenced by world events: a book such as A Canticle for Lebowitz is one that likely could not have been written in the present day, ground breaking as it is. Fiction generally relates to its surrounding cultural contexts: It comes as no surprise that a film such as District 9 would succeed commercially and critically in today’s present environment, whereas a film such as Star Wars did the same in the 1970s.

As such, the works within the genre should be expected to change with times, as our understanding of the present (as well as our understanding of technology and the things that surround us) changes. Works of epic space opera such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and some of the minor space arcs such as Timothy Zahn’s Conqueror’s Trilogy or Ender’s Game fit within their own contexts.

A common argument that has been talked about is that the futures presented in the past tended to be optimistic, with people believing that the future held a brighter future for humanity, which in turn translated into works of science fiction. Today, the opposite seems to be true, and as such, the fiction that tends to look backwards towards better days – fantasy – seems to be on the rise. At the same time, the science fiction that seems to be garnering more attention is the dystopia stories: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and assorted stories, Cormic McCarthy’s The Road, and the multitudes of zombie novels that predict our demise in the rise of undead and lone libertarians seeking to preserve the American way of life out on their own. In a way, the most successful form of science fiction to come is likely Steampunk, which presents a darker form of science fiction, set in the past, where readers can feel comforted that their current world of advanced technology (or at least medical science) leaves us much better off than in the Victorian world.

Science fiction isn’t dying, dead or going anywhere.

I don’t believe that this is the case, at all: science fiction is a genre that has been seen to present some utterly fantastic and relevant stories for readers, addressing concerns of the present day in a twisted context. Looking beyond the artificial walls that genre terms provide, it’s likely that the stories that we grew up with are likely going to change a bit: the random adventure in a space ship with strange aliens and laser guns might not be quite as common in the wider genre world, but they’re likely to be replaced by stories that offer far different visions and interpretations of the future, by simple virtue of being written and created in the present day. ‘Real life’ is rapidly becoming something out of a science fiction novel, with hand-held computers, global positioning sensors and advances in all sorts of other technologies.

While some of the subject matter is changing, so to is the mediums that we can see the genre, and by this virtue alone, science fiction and fantasy is a genre that is here to stay, simply because it is a resilient genre that can fill numerous forms. Life itself spreads and survives on numbers, so to does the speculative fiction genres, where massive franchises of video games, movies and tie-in fiction enthralled millions of fans each day, generating excitement at the box office, blogs and conventions, where people look to the next really cool thing that they can take in. In its popularity, it is already bleeding into the mainstream consciousness through any number of forms. At this point, do mainstream literary awards matter for the genre as a whole, or signal some form of mainstream acceptance of the genre? I doubt it.

Kirby Krackle and Nerd Rock

There is a growing music scene that I’ve been hearing more from lately, Nerd Rock. There’s been several artists that I’ve really liked: ‘Weird’ Al Yankovich, They Might Be Giants, Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm, John Anealio, The Decemberists, amongst others. A new find of mine, Seattle-based duo Kirby Krackle, joins this genre with their two albums, their self-titled debut disc (Kirby Krackle, 2009) and their latest release, E for Everyone (2010).

E for Everyone is possibly one of the best examples of Nerd Rock, with a great alternative – rock sound that sounds incredibly polished and energetic, with songs about superheroes, comic books, video games and geek life. Within minutes of finding the band’s name on twitter, I was able to listen to a couple of their songs off of their website, and within minutes, I had both of their albums off of iTunes. Of all of the bands that I’ve listened to, they’re one of the more exciting, with a great sound and some fantastic lyrics.

The album starts off with Vault 101, about the video game Fallout 3, with a good kick, but the really good start comes with On and On, a song about Wolverine from X-Men, and his own struggle with immortality, thanks to his rapid healing. The rest of the album is a fairly diverse grouping of songs that is much better than their first album. Secret Identity is as it sounds (about a guy with a secret identity – it’s not specific to any one superhero), Roll Over feels like a party song that references just about every 1980s cartoon that I can think of, while Henchman follows a character trying to be a henchman for a super villain – asking some good questions: what are their hours, and what can they offer for health insurance? – Ring Capacity opens with a bright sound and looks to Green Lantern for inspiration. Can I Watch You? Is a funky song about Uatu and Take it from Me is about Mega Man. The last three songs on the album, Great Lakes Avengers, Dusty Cartridges and Long Boxes and Going Home are some of the best songs on the album, if not Nerd Rock in general. Great Lakes Avengers is plain fun: a character tries to join the X-Men, Justice League, Fantastic Four, Green Lantern Corps, (amongst others), while trying to avoid the eye of the Great Lakes Avengers, who are apparently a disaster, being some of the worst superheroes of all time. The album turns from lighthearted fun to more serious fair with the light ballad Dusty Cartridges and Long Boxes, a sweet story of a geek in love with a geeky girl. Going Home ends E for Everyone on a great note about the joy of attending a convention, describing it in the best way that I’ve heard: “We’re on the road, we’re going home/To the place where wild nerds roam/With pretty girls and dudes in capes/Going to cons is our escape.” The sound is chalk-full of energy and feels perfect for blasting over the speakers as one drives over to any given convention. For all of those thinking of attending the upcoming Celebration V or Dragon*Con, this will be a good one to start off with.

Nerd Rock is something that I’ve been looking for, and as I’ve looked, there’s a good variety of material out there. The internet is a good medium for aspiring artists, and in a number of cases, there’s a lot of material that wouldn’t normally work its way through the music industry: as people are able to make music on their own, there seems to be a greater variety of music, which bodes well for the larger geek-community. Artists such as John Anealio and Jonathan Coulton both have had success with their own music, self-released, about various subjects in the speculative fiction genres. Kirby Krackle doesn’t seem to have the same exposure to the fan community, but has gone with their own route, essentially self-publishing their music and selling it through iTunes and their own website, gaining fame in their own circles.

The album succeeds on its own because it’s not a gimmick. Singer-songwriters in general are at their best when they’ve put together a song that they and their audience can get behind and relate to: that’s exactly what Kirby Krackle seems to have done with their two releases, and E for Everyone feels like a refinement over their first album. They’ve found exactly what they want to sing about, and people who will listen to, and they’ve taken off from there. This album exudes confidence, skill and some very good songwriting behind the sound.  The duo, Kyle Stevens and Jim Demonakos, have some serious geek credit with them: Demonakos founded Emerald City ComicCon and has penned a graphic novel and founded a chain of comic book shops in Washington, while Stevens has released six albums with other groups. More importantly though, it sounds like they’re having a good time on stage.

This sub-genre of Nerd Rock is a positive thing for fandom: music is a fantastic venue for telling stories on its own (and Kirby Krackle does this with a couple of songs: Henchmen, Great Lakes Avengers, Dusty Cartridges and Long Boxes and Going Home) but is also a good venue for humor, reflection, and something in the music world for fandom to relate to. The inclusion of science fiction and fantasy elements in songs isn’t a new thing: just look at some of Iron Maiden’s songs for music about Dune, Lord of the Rings, D-Day and quite a bit more, but new artists bring fresh air to fans. I’ve gotten a kick out of a number of songs about some of my favorite things, and a new venue for speculative fiction is a very good thing, because music tells stories differently than prose or video.

The bottom line is: Kirby Krackle is on a roll with E for Everyone, and they’re a band that I hope to hear a lot more from in the coming years. In the meantime, they’ve left me with a fantastic album to listen to over and over.

To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck

 

Cover Image

One of the latest books that I’ve read recently is John Steinbeck’s To A God Unknown, his second novel, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The story, which looks to the Bible, ancient myths, paganism and several other influences, weaves together a story about belief and faith, mixing reality and fantasy in what I would really call a speculative fiction novel.

Set in the 1800s, the book follows the story of the Joseph Wayne, a Vermonter, who yearns to go out west, and receiving the blessing from his father, he does so, only to learn that his father has passed away shortly after he settles in California. At that moment, Wayne believes that his father’s spirit and soul has become imbued with the giant oak tree next to the house, and in his own way, be worships the tree. His three brothers move out west to his farm, and for a time, the valley is teeming with life. The brothers come across a rock in a glade, with a stream coming out of it, and discover that it is a sacred place to the Indios. Soon thereafter, Benjy, their youngest, alcoholic brother, is killed in a scuffle by Juanito, one of the farmhands, who vanishes.

One brother, Burton, is a devout Christian, and becomes angry with his brother for his interactions with the oak tree, believing it to be of darker powers at work, which go against his own beliefs. He leaves the farm, but not before killing the tree. This has dire consequences for the valley, which begins to dry up as a drought sets in, which begins to kill the land. More accidents come. Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, falls to her death at the rock, and Joseph and Thomas decide to leave the farm, bringing their cattle to greener pastures. Joseph stays, and is rejoined by Juanito, who convinces Joseph to visit the local priest. When Joseph tries to get the priest to pray for the land, he refuses, and tells Joseph that he is sick, and offers his own help. Joseph returns to the glade to find that the stream coming out of the rock has dried up. When he decides to leave, he gets cut. Inspired, he climbs on top of the rock, cuts his wrists open, sacrificing himself, and soon after, it begins to rain.

I have long been a fan of John Steinbeck, ever since I first read his short novella, Of Mice and Men in Mrs. Page’s English class at Harwood Union High School, and I moved on to a number of his other books – Cannery Row, Travels With Charley, The Pearl, The Red Pony, and The Grapes of Wrath – I’ve long loved the Americana element of his writing, and for me, he is one of the quintessential American writers, one who touches deeply on themes of the country. Recently, I’ve become interested in reading more of his books, and while browsing through the bookstore, I came across this book, and was interested because at a first glance, it fell squarely within the speculative fiction range, retelling elements of the Bible, older religions and myths to bring about an interesting story. There are a number of pure fantastic elements as well, right down to the last actions of the book, when Joseph dies, and his spirit renews the land from his soul and belief.

I’ve long believed that stories aren’t really defined by their physical story elements – the characters, locations and items that they use – but by the ways in which the characters perceive their environment around them, and use the actions of the story to learn. To A God Unknown is about belief and faith of the strongest type: the intangible, the unknowable, and the impossible. Throughout the story, Joseph is a character that believes strongly in the land and its well being, and perceives of some higher power in ways that are not, to say the least, traditional, and raising the ire of his family and community members. Yet, while reading, Joseph’s actions demonstrate that he has the most honest and raw form of belief: he believes in the land, and sees his actions rewarded in any number of ways, and punished in others. For me personally, this was an interesting book because I’m not sold on the concept of God, as proscribed by any number of religious institutions. My beliefs lie somewhere with Josephs: God, or any higher power that escapes definition, is something that is unknowable, intangible and mysterious.

The last pages of the book were by far one of the most important that I read, in almost anything, when Joseph goes to a priest, looking to help save the land. The priest refuses, saying that his job is to ensure the salvation of the human soul, not that of the land, setting up a major divide between the anarchical views that Joseph takes, as opposed to a major institution such as the Catholic Church. In a way, Joseph believes in the entirety of the universe, which felt far more basic and universal than the Church, which looks simply to one of God’s (If there is one who created everything) creations for their own benefit. This has never, and still doesn’t, sit well with me, and I prefer Joseph’s more universal, general view on how the world runs. This falls with a number of other world views, and it’s interesting to see this all presented in a novel such as it was. Steinbeck has created a wonderful, fantastic novel with To A God Unknown, and one that has left me thinking far more than I thought it would have.

Splitting the Genres

The Borders Blog for Science Fiction and Fantasy had a post up around wanting to split up Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. It’s an interesting discussion, but it misses a lot on the mark about the types of stories that are around in the genre, while also completely missing the entire point about genres in the first place (which makes this really funny for a major bookstore blog), which is to say that genres are purely a marketing tool that are designed to put a certain product into a clearly defined audience: the speculative fiction fan.

Books in a bookstore are marketed based on the elements of the story, and are essentially grouped together based on what the characters experience, rather than the story type. Thus, bookstores are all predicable marketed as Mystery, Speculative Fiction (which is a horrible term that pretty much encompasses… everything in fiction, but really stands for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror novels), Romance, Literature (upper tier fiction / classics), sometimes Christian Fiction, sometimes poetry (although that’s sometimes lumped into classics), sometimes Westerns, and then all the various nonfiction categories, which are arrayed by topic. Beyond the marketing element, genres are essentially meaningless constructions that should have no impact on the reading of the book.

There is not a whole lot that separates the two genres from one another, which makes this argument somewhat confusing. Splitting Science Fiction and Fantasy apart simply because there’s a perceived, and false, notion that science fiction authors hate fantasy, is a ridiculous notion, because it’s overly simplistic and not something that I think has any bearing on the actual books in the respective genres. From every author that I’ve ever read, spoken to, or listened to, there is an understanding that fiction is primarily about storytelling and the characters within said stories. Very few authors, I think, will set out specifically to write a book because it will fall within the science fiction genre. They might have a good story that falls specifically within the science fiction or fantasy genre, however, and the distinction is that the stories and the genres themselves aren’t uniform blocks of good and bad. It’s a pretty shortsighted statement to say that you hate a genre as a whole, simply because it has magic or other fantastic elements in it, or for any other reason. Looking at other genres, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a unified block of writers that like or dislike any other genre within the general fiction heading, and undoubtedly, you will find various groups of authors and fans that dislike certain subgenres within the larger genres.

This past weekend, I attended ReaderCon, and attended a panel around interstitial fiction, which primarily defines the stories that fall within the genres. It was an interesting talk, and largely boiled down to: there are simply some stories that are indefinable, because the stories have elements that move between both genres. There are major, general trends within science fiction and fantasy, especially concerning their outlook on the world, but these are not universal, and ultimately, the definition simply defines where the book is placed in a bookstore. One panel member at the con, Peter Dube, noted: “If there is no pleasure in the text, I won’t read it.”

At the end of the day, it is those two things that define the genre: the buyer, and the bookseller. In general science fiction, fantasy, weird fiction, horror and gothic fiction and all of the others generally appeals to a similar audience, and thus, everything is marketed together, which helps both the buyer and the bookseller get what they want: a good read, and a sale.