Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jumping That Bandwagon

So, I got a Kindle.

Some history: when I first heard about e-readers, I thought they were the stupidest thing ever. What, exactly, is the problem with a book? E-readers seemed to be a solution to a problem that didn't exist, which is the worst kind of technology. I also felt like the technology was kind of crappy; in particular it took a really long time for pages to flip. Either the technology has improved or my patience has (not likely), but that doesn't bother me anymore. I got the least expensive, most stripped-down Kindle, both because I am cheap and also because back-lighting hurts my eyes.

A lot of people get Kindles so they don't have to carry around doorstoppers. But I don't read doorstoppers (well, occasionally I do... Infinite Jest was the best book I read in 2010 and I don't care if that makes me sound pretentious), I'm a short story person. And I read a lot of short stories. Between online magazines and collections, short fiction comprises approximately 75% of what I read. I'm told this is unusual for a reader of this generation? I could go into reasons why short stories are a superior art form to novels but honestly, I mostly read them because I have the attention span of a mayfly.

So the breaking point for me was discovering Kindle Singles, and realizing that many of my favorite authors have short stories on Kindle that I can't get elsewhere, except in long out-of-print magazines. There's also free classics, which I'll probably take advantage of at some point, but honestly I'm still hung up on Kindle Singles like whoa.

The very first thing I downloaded was a collection of two short novels by the power team of Jonathan Lethem (who in my opinion is one of the top ten writers working today, and a real inspiration for my own fiction writing), John Kessel (who I've never read), and James Patrick Kelly (who I know mostly through his work as an editor). Both of these stories were published around a decade ago in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and don't appear in either of Lethem's short fiction collections.

The first story, "Ninety Percent of Everything," has a lot of Lethemesque touches, which you'll either love or think is too twee, depending on your tastes. You all know how my tastes run. Short recap: blue space dogs come to Earth to build massive shit piles that sprout diamonds. It does make sense in the end, and while the explanation might be a little too neat for some tastes, I was just thrilled to have a "new" Lethem novella. It's probably most similar to As She Climbed Across the Table in tone, and shares its delightfully screwy science.

The real gem, though, is the second story. "The True History of the End of the World" takes place in a world that seems too good to be true, a world brought to Utopia by that favorite bogeyman of SF writers, cryptically-referred-to-but-sinister-sounding brain surgery. Citizens who undergo the Carcopino-Koster treatment seem smarter and less prone to emotional outbursts, but to the non-treated, they're lobotomized zombies (a conclusion not borne out by the C-K people we see). The story follows a former President who plans to take down the C-K society with the rest of the inmates at his "accommodation farm," but finds out (through a series of character interactions that I won't go into here) that in fact, the "boost" is actually wholly beneficial, and the President and the rest of the inmates are the deluded ones for staring Utopia right in the face and not seeing it for what it is. This story does an inversion I've just never seen before, and is that rarest of finds: a fairly original idea.

Unlike reading on a computer screen, the immersion into whatever I'm reading is truly seamless. The fact that my Kindle doesn't have a touch screen makes it so I don't feel like throwing it across the room every time I use it (hi there, smartphone). I had a little bit of confusion with the directional buttons because I'm basically the least tech-oriented person ever but now I get it.

Will a Kindle make sense for you? I don't really know. To be honest I thought there might be a chance I would hate it and not ever use it, but I haven't picked up a "real" book since I got it. (Then again, I've only had it for a week.) I have a nice backlog of short stories to read now (including the digital version of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is only 99 cents a month and has all the content of the print edition) and I think my readership of online magazines will probably suffer because of the Kindle, because I hate back-lighting so very much. The thing is, stripped-down Kindles are currently so cheap that even if you think you'll only use it a little, you should probably just buy one anyway. (Or a Nook. I'm not a brand snob. Although I do strongly prefer my Kindle to Rob's Nook, either because it doesn't have a touchscreen or because it's a slightly different shape, I don't know.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sometimes You Should Stop at the First Book: My Review of "Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

Recently Requires Only That You Hate, one of the best book blogs that I read (okay, so it's the only book blog that I read), put up a post about why she's done with YA. I may have recently reached my limit with YA science fiction as well, after spending my morning finishing Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, a book that was so disappointing it made me downrate the rest of the series in retrospect, much like the third season of Star Trek to some extent invalidates the previous two seasons. A book that made me have so many strong emotions (most of them negative) that I'm breaking my ban on book blogging to write this! This is really more of a review of the series as a whole, although most of the hate falls to the third book because that's where things really fell apart. So yes, SPOILERS AHOY, although only dweebs care about spoilers.

I picked up the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, because it won the Tiptree Award and I'm trying to read through the Tiptree Award winners because, why not? There's too much on both the Hugo and Nebula winners' list that I know I'm going to hate, so I'm never going to do a systematic read-through of either of those awards. Anyway, TKONLG centers around a religious community that colonizes a planet. When they get there, they discover two surprises: there's a native species on the planet, and they can hear the thoughts of everything in the world... except human women. We never learn why women are exempted from this involuntary telepathy (although I was desperately hoping to learn it at some point), but the effects of this exemption are more important. Men's distrust of women leads to gender segregation in some areas, all-out war in others, and in the main character's community, to gendercide, of the women by the men, although one would think that the tactical advantage of silence would give ladies the upper hand. Not so!

So the book opens with the main character, Todd, who has never seen a woman and is basically waiting to die on this crapsack world with maybe a hundred or so angry men on it. Soon, though, he learns that there's more to the world than just his town, and he meets a girl, Viola, who he believes is less than human because of her lack of Noise, yet somehow feels drawn to help her anyway. We all learn something about sexism, and there's a lot of chase and actions scenes because well, this is YA. The most interesting part of the first book for me was learning about how the other towns on New World "dealt with their women," and I bet it was these glimpses at an extreme (if invisible) sexual dimorphism through the eyes of an innocent person that won this book the Tiptree. It probably deserved it, although I don't know what else was nominated that year.

In the second book things... kinda fall apart, although not completely. The focus shifts toward two groups, the male, town-based Army of the Ask led by the mustache-twirling Mayor Prentiss, and the mostly female, woods-based Answer, who are portrayed as terrorists, although it's a justifiable terrorism. I mean, man, when a megalomaniac takes over your town for no reason other than bein' crazy, and pretty much starts right away with the business of oppressing women, who wouldn't be a terrorist? One of the things that annoyed me about the second book was that the Ask and the Answer are seen as being two sides of the same coin when, no, that's not true at all. AFAICT, the women in the largest town (Haven) were pretty much just chilling, not really being oppressed at all, when crazy old Mayor Prentiss rides in and turns their world upside down. It's hinted that it's only because of the tacit approval of the men of Haven that he's able to accomplish this takeover, but I think again, it doesn't go far enough, whether because Ness didn't want to alienate male readers or because he himself is male.

Third book, though, hoo boy. We've totally abandoned the interesting gender speculation of the first and part of the second book, and it's all about WAR WAR WAR. We also have a new first-person viewpoint character in the person of 1017, one of the Spackle, the humanoid (blah) native species of the planet who, again, have such a strong tactical and population advantage over the Earthicans that in reality this book should have been like five pages long. "There's tens of millions of Spackle to 1000 Earth beings. The end." But because the Spackle aren't a ruthless species (like human men... dunno if this was meant to be the point but that's what I took away from it), there's instead 600 pages of drawn-out battle scenes handled even more awkwardly than the battle scenes in Mockingjay (and that's saying a lot... Suzanne Collins your books are enjoyable in many ways but that city warfare is terrible!). Adding the VP of the Spackle does almost nothing for the book except reinforce that writing non-human characters is extremely difficult and something that almost nobody should try, because 99% of the time it comes off as hokey. That's no different here. Bonus points for the Spackle not being an alien stand-in for Native Americans but they don't appear to have much culture at all. It makes sense that they're monocultural, because a telepathic, quasi-hivemind species wouldn't have developed different religions or languages or rituals (it's also stated that the leader has control over the world-mind), but they don't have much of a culture, period, other than being humanoids who walk like us, ride animals around like us, fire gun-like weapons like us, etc. Writing intelligent aliens who aren't just humans in costume is really fucking hard which is why I don't do it. But hey, at least they're not Native Americans!

So anyway, both the Mayor and the leader of the Answer become pretty cartoonishly evil over the course of this book, and nobody plugs either of them, under the belief that doing so would make them (especially Todd, who is already on the road to evil due to his maleness) as bad as the adults. Uh, what? Dude, at some point, the refusal to kill isn't a virtue, it's a sickness. Anyway, there's a showdown between Todd, Viola, and the Mayor, which involves Todd and Viola flinging each others' names at him in succession, making me think of another character from a series that declined in quality as it went along:


But then came the part of Monsters of Men that I thought was inexcusable, the reason I'm writing this review. 1017 comes upon Todd and Viola on the beach after the Mayor's suicide (spoilers!) and thinks Todd is the Mayor, so shoots him. Todd is established as being dead. 1017 is shown to be devastated over this even though Todd is a member of the species who enslaved him and killed thousands of his people. (But the colonists will be good THIS time! Pinky swear!) Meanwhile, Todd comes back from the dead, and at the end of the book is in a vegetative state that we're led to believe is temporary. So basically, Ness led us down a path where the plot seemed to dictate that Todd HAD to die, he had to die to leave us with the knowledge that war can be so devastating that it can up and kill one of your main viewpoint characters, and then totally ruined that ending. What a freakin' copout, and I daresay it wouldn't have happened in a book not marketed as YA.

So yeah, the plot was disappointing, but so were a lot of other elements. While I don't like to be "that person" who whinges about improper science in my science fiction books, the question about why women don't have Noise gnawed at me and the fact that it wasn't answered was like breaking Rule #1 of creating your science fiction world. It can be a bullshit explanation (and what SF explanations aren't?), but it has to be there, or at least be commented upon. At the end, it's assumed that the men and Earth animals will join with the Spackle in some hippy-dippy communal voice that will create a peaceful paradise lasting for all time... but when Viola asks "hey, what about the ladies?" it's merely hinted that they'll, like, learn how to use Noise. Stop bothering us with your stupid questions, girlie!

Also totally missing from the book is any mention of religion, except that their religion is what caused the colonists to take the oh-so-convenient step of destroying links to Old Earth. It's gotta be Christianity due to the colonists being almost all white and the houses of worship being called "churches," but no link is made between the original religious motivation for colonization and the consequent falling apart of society due to the gendercide and resultant fallout. You know what might have been interesting? Using the church as an explanation as to why it was so easy for the men to overpower the women despite their silent advantage, because paternalistic Christianity taught them to obey men. But that would have unsettled some Christian readers, I imagine, and been too "heavy" for a YA book.

One bright spot is the fact that there are several same-sex couples in this book handled without fanfare, both human and Spackle, although I really wondered how this fits in with the fact that the colonists are supposed to be religious fundamentalists. Perhaps New World was founded by fanatic Universal Unitarians? It's cancelled out, however, by the gender essentialism: my "looking for scientific answers in a YA book" mind originally assumed that all the native species on the planet were one-sex, which would have simplified the mechanics surrounding Noise, but instead the way Noise is handled made it seem like XX human beings were some kind of freaks. I think it speaks to a lack of imagination that the Spackle race has two sexes (although they don't appear to have gender). There are apparently no trans* humans on New World so I don't know how Ness would have dealt with their Noise.

So while I could have recommended the first book gladly, I can't really recommend the series, and unfortunately TKONLG ends with a major cliffhanger. I don't think this book will put me off YA entirely, but I think that this pattern of "excellent first book, okay second book, terrible third book" is something I've seen a LOT in the YA series I've read over the past few years: the aforementioned Hunger Games, the Uglies series. The underrated City of Ember remained at a high point throughout, but it's the only example I can think of right now. So maybe the rule for YA should be, read the first, make up your own ending? That sits a little too close to fanfiction for this extremely infrequent book reviewer.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Another Fiction Publication, and a Distro Update

First update in two months! I am a terrible blogger, especially since this update is mostly to promote my new story "The Hand of God", published by the fine people at On the Premises. A sample:

From the roof of his house, Andrew can see everything in the town of Pandora. Right below is his yard of wispy yellow grass that breaks at the touch. A little ways down is the dead creek, a stinking, mucky place. And above him, always, is the hand of God. Briefly, he trains his flashlight on the underside of the hand, studying the lined, grayish flesh. 

Check it out! And thanks again to my writing group for helping me with edits, I couldn't have done it without you guys.

I have another update, concerning zine business. Starting around a month ago, I have decided to stop picking up new zines or other items for my distro Black Light Diner and sell off what I currently have. What with my own (fiction) writing taking up a lot of my time now, plus working at a near-full-time job, I don't have a lot of energy left for scoping out new zines, writing descriptions, updating a website (you see how well attempting to keep up a website works for me by how often I update here), and staying current on zine culture. I still read zines and I will probably always make them; they fill a writing itch that isn't scratched by either fiction writing or blogging. But I just have way too many projects going right now and have to let something go. So right now would be an awesome time to pick up a stack of zines, especially if you run a distro yourself, since I have wholesale "packs" (bundles of three zines) listed on the site and domestic shipping is free on all orders over $20! Thanks to everyone who ordered something from the distro in its four years of existence. I'm still debating about what to do with the site; it may become a mini-distro for just zines by me, my husband, and very close friends. (And I will probably still be selling off zines months from now.)

As for this blog, if you're a current reader (who doesn't know me in real life), what would you like to read here? I'm not much for book reviews, I don't feel qualified to give writing advice (since my own "methods" are so erratic and non-reproducible), and my non-writing life is pretty boring actually. I'm better at updating my bicycle blog Speeding Pedalcycle because at least that has a theme. So, basically, if there's anything you want me to blog about, or any burning questions you want to ask, ask them? Otherwise, I guess you'll see me the next time I want to promote something!