Thursday, January 29, 2015

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Note to people recommending books to me: all you really have to do is say that the book deals with the shifting nature of reality. I will snap up that book like other people snap up sasquatch porn or cat-themed mysteries. Granted, I will be horribly disappointed if the book in fact is not about the shifting nature of reality, but Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett totally is! This experimental SFnal book, published by Aqueduct Press, is a book in the grand weird tradition of The Lathe of Heaven (my favorite book of all time) and everything PKD ever wrote, though with an Afrofuturistic and queer bent that places it firmly in the modern era.

(Note to readers: this review is chock full of SPOILERS although I was spoiled before I read the book and I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Elysium is really not a book that you read for the plot.)

Central character Adrianne/Adrian is ostensibly a human being who shifts through genders, ages, and scenarios. The only thread which is consistent in each of these scenarios (none of which last for more than a chapter or two) is her/his relationship with Antoine/Antoinette. Sometimes it's a parental relationship, with the two trading off roles. In others they are spouses or lovers. Other characters are also constants in the book, likewise swapping genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds, etc. As the story unfolds, Brissett slowly paints a picture of the true reality: an Earth overtaken by aliens, where the scant population of remnant humans lives underground, slowly dying off and being replaced by projections. Surprise! Adrian(/ne) is not a human at all, but a piece of AI tasked with uploading the human history of Earth onto a massive datanet. The coda states that the relationship of A. and A. is inspired by the relationship of the Roman emperor Hadrian and the Greek boy Antonius, and I really appreciated the book all the more when I read up on them afterwards.

The scenarios are interesting enough in and of themselves, but the main "plot" here is the AI's fractured psyche and above all its devotion to its mate/counterpart. Even though the relationship between the two is constantly changing (** BREAK **), it's also the thread that binds this crazy-quilt of a novel into a mostly cohesive whole. Though it would never be classified as such, Elysium is at its heart a love story and an examination of both parental and romantic relationships. It's also worth noting that Brissett accomplishes all this in only 199 pages in a time when most writers think they need three to seven books to tell a complete story. And best of all, Elysium is a debut novel, so we should have many more of her novels and stories to read over the years to come.

Elysium is nominated for this year's Philip K. Dick Award, and while I haven't read any of the other nominees yet, if it wins it's an honor well deserved. This is really not a novel for everyone. If you like your prose told plainly and your plots straightforward you probably won't like this. But this book is parked right in my own personal wheelhouse of strangeness and unreality. So read it if you're me is what I'm trying to say here, I guess.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Last Days to Sign Up for My Writing Class!

With only two weeks to go, my science fiction/fantasy writing class at Portland Community College is filling up fast! Here's the link, if you are so inclined. This is a four-week, eight-hour class devoted to writing speculative fiction, mostly of the flash variety. Extra details:

Title: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy
Dates: January 24 through February 14, 2015 (Saturday)
Time: 10:00 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Cascade Campus in North Portland, 705 N. Killingsworth St.
Cost: $55

The class is going to be repeated, so if you can't make it this time, check back for new class dates in the next few weeks!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Best Books I Read in 2014

Yeah, we're well into 2015 and I'm just now making my list of my favorite books from last year. Well, what do you expect, this is free content. Suckers.

Anyway, I read a lot of books last year, but very few of them were actually released last year. But that won't stop me from making a list! No rereads, because otherwise The Lathe of Heaven would be on my list every other year. Oh, and it's an alphabetical list, but the first entry is probably my #1 anyway.

On to the list!

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory (2014): Long review here. Oh come on, of course this was going to be on my list. This book follows a former scientist who accidentally created a "God drug," and now has an angel tagging her every move. The research team (who have all overdosed on the drug, and have their own personal gods) decides never to release the drug, but it gets out anyhow, and the thrillerish plot involves Lyda's quest to reach the drug's source and wipe it out. There's also fun stuff like a gentle rancher of miniature bison who takes a drug to become a contract killer, frat boys who take pills to turn "gay for a day," and a CIA operative who overdoses on a drug to promote mental clarity and now sees people as amorphous blobs when not jacked up. There are a LOT of drugs in this book, okay? And a lot of examinations of the nature of faith, mental illness, addiction, etc. It's like the author took everything I like to read about and put it in a blender. I'm hella nominating it for the Nebula and Hugo, and not only because it was the only SF novel I read that was released last year (though I should have the Southern Reach books soonish).

Emissaries from the Dead/The Third Claw of God by Adam-Troy Castro (2008/2009): Yes, this is two books, but it's a series, so whatever. These are mysteries set in an SFnal world that Castro has visited in several of his stories. What I liked about these books were how good they were as mysteries. Often in books that blend speculative tropes with other genres, the other genre takes a back seat. Whereas here, while Castro's universe is well-sketched and immersive, they are at heart more mystery than SF and the books are written like traditional mysteries: interrogations, logical deduction, a final reveal scene, and kooky sidekicks. Claw is in fact a locked-room mystery, and his sleuth (a six-year-old war criminal all grown up) uses brains more than tech to get to the truth. I absolutely love Castro's short fiction ("During the Pause" is one of the most perfect stories I've ever read, and "The Thing About Shapes to Come" is a recent favorite... you know, just go read all his stories right now), and his style holds up just as well in a longer form. I wish there were more of these books. I wish I could read a new Andrea Cort book every year, and you all know I am not a fan of series books by and large. But these exist, anyway, and you should read them.

Empty Space by M. John Harrison (2012): Seeing as how I've reread the other Light books several times over the years, I should have read this when it first came out, but somehow it slipped through the cracks. It follows the adventures of humans living near the cosmic event known as the Kefahuchi Tract, except for the strand that follows serial killer/astrophysicist's Michael Kearney's ex-wife. There's weird shit happening on every single page, from data infecting human flesh to people turned into spaceships to a rain of baby shoes on an alien beach to a summerhouse that burns intermittently but is never consumed. Anyway, if you're already a fan of the Lightverse you'll like this. If you're looking for a more traditional space opera, go elsewhere.

Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will (2013): Long review here. Graphic novel, not genre. A fictionalized autobiography (according to the author) of a teenager with bipolar disorder, drawn in a multitude of styles to portray the protagonist's spiral into madness and the struggle out of it. Jeremy (the protagonist) is an artist, and while that should annoy me in the way I won't read books where the characters are writers, it works here as Will expertly shows Jeremy's fear of losing his creative capacity with treatment. I've sort of fallen away from reading comics, because a lot of what I was reading wasn't really inspiring me. One weird quirk I have is that for as much as I love SF prose, I pretty much only like "mundane" comics. Maybe that's because so many SF comics are about superheroes, which I find kind of boring and insular for people who aren't in the know. And while I read very few graphic novels this year, I'm so glad I read this.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988): Somehow I managed to avoid reading the Culture series until last year, despite the fact that it's about a far-future anarcho-socialist utopia. How the hell did that happen?! Jernau Gurgeh, a "man of the Culture," is invited to an alien world to play an extremely complicated game which forms the foundation of the backwards capitalistic Azadian Empire. The plot is really just an excuse to explore aspects of the Culture and compare them to a society based on our own, but I totally don't mind that when the ideas are so interesting. I also loved the fact that the Culture is an unabashed utopia, so refreshing in these days where you have your pick of outwardly dreary dystopia or a bright happy future that's a dystopia in disguise (and my own work isn't helping matters). I can tell there will be many visits to the Culture in my future.

(NOTE: All but one of these books are from the 21st century and most of them are series novels. Either my reading tastes are changing or I've just run out of all the good books from the last century.)