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Tuesday 21 January 2003

§ New York Times January 19, 2003
William Gibson's new novel Pattern Recognition (Putnam) gets a cover-feature review by Lisa Zeidner. (The book goes on sale in US stores on February 3, or February 5, or January 27, depending on which website you read.)

Critics of science fiction grouse that Gibson can't get far while steering the same old postmodern spacecraft, and dismiss his inventiveness as mere bells and whistles. But some die-hard fans lament that he's deserting the mother ship every time he tries something off the flight path of his first novel, ''Neuromancer'' (1984). All of which puts Gibson in the unenviable position of being able to displease many of the people much of the time.

If his elegant, entrancing seventh novel offers an answer to his detractors, it could be roughly translated as: so sue me. ''Pattern Recognition'' is almost nose-thumbingly conventional in design. Despite the requisite tech toys, it's set squarely in the present. But then the dates of Gibson-action have been creeping steadily backward. Predicting the future, Gibson has always maintained, is mostly a matter of managing not to blink as you witness the present.

The novel concerns Cayce, a freelance marketing consultant or "coolhunter" alert for cultural trends. Zeidner compares Gibson to his mythic hero, Thomas Pynchon.

''Pattern Recognition'' resembles not that Pynchonian bible, ''Gravity's Rainbow,'' but ''The Crying of Lot 49.'' In fact, it can almost be read as a tribute or, as Hollywood would say, a remake. After all, when Pynchon explored entropy, counterculture and the postal monopoly in 1966, there was no Internet.

But does our technology really produce a cataclysmic shift, or is human nature immutable? That has always been Gibson's über-issue. As Pynchon has taught us, the right answer isn't necessarily either/or. It may well be both/and.

§ Los Angeles Times January 15, 2003
Ray Bradbury's Let's All Kill Constance (Morrow) is reviewed by Paula Friedman. (Link expires soon.)

Ray Bradbury has written his third mystery novel, "Let's All Kill Constance." The young screenwriter narrator from "Death Is a Lonely Business" and "A Graveyard for Lunatics" returns, a little older and more experienced, and this time diverted from his work by a surprise visit from Constance Rattigan, an aging, but still irresistible, movie queen.


Bradbury sets his fantasy mysteries in the epitome of fantasy towns, and he does so with more bellyaching humor than nostalgia. His hilarious knack for literalizing the figurative shows itself at its finest when a character is killed by the fall of piles and piles of old movie reviews. The fruits of the imagination are indeed wondrous, Bradbury suggests in this wild and witty novel, but, he also slyly warns us, we should not get entirely carried away by them.

§ The Guardian Saturday January 18, 2003
M. John Harrison finds the stories in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Birthday of the World hard to take.

The only work Le Guin describes well is that of observation, the careful, almost tender anthropology practised by the Hainish. They rediscover the universe their forbears left them. They nurture. Daily they make their kind, courteous, deeply liberal and slightly patronising decisions about the lives of the cultures they find. One of the traps of science fiction is its open invitation to build sensible worlds, rather than to live in - and with - the real thing. It's easy to feel that Le Guin would prefer a universe in which she could correct for human behaviour the way a navigator corrects for magnetic variation.

Also, Jon Courtenay Grimwood rounds up space operas by Simon R. Green, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Douglas Adams, and Steve Cash.

§ Denver Post Sunday, January 19, 2003
Dorman T. Shindler assesses Dean Koontz's By the Light of the Moon (Bantam).

Okay, so maybe Koontz's novels are a guilty pleasure best enjoyed on the beach or around a pool - but you'd be hard-pressed to find a writer so tailor-made for the strange, paranoid, black-and-white century we've just entered.

§ Boston Globe 1/19/2003
This review by Anthony Doerr opens with references to Burroughs and Bradbury, but the Mars books it covers are nonfiction: Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World by Oliver Morton (Picador), and The Smithsonian Book of Mars by Joseph M. Boyce (Smithsonian Institution).

Friday 10 January 2003

§ New York Times January 5, 2003
Gerald Jonas reviews new books by Allen Steele, Liz Williams, Jack Dann, and Dan Simmons. Steele's Coyote (Ace) is

actually three books in one, each a bracing turn on a genre staple. […] Just when you think you understand what Steele is up to, everything changes. […] A much-foreshadowed ''surprise'' ending is by far the least of the surprises in Steele's bag of tricks. But each page of this novel bears evidence of fresh thought about the opportunities inherent in science fiction to take the familiar and make it new.

And he admires Liz Williams's The Poison Master (Bantam), in which the author

strikes out in a new direction, less easy to categorize and in some ways more challenging.

Jonas thinks Dann, in the stories collected in Jubilee (Tor), doesn't work to his potential; for example:

For Dann at his most enraging, read ''Blind Shemmy,'' which takes a marvelous premise -- players at an ''organ-gambling'' casino must bare their thoughts and feelings to their partners or die -- and fails to develop it beyond a few linguistic fireworks.

Also this week, a short review (scroll down) of Roger Highfield's The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works (Viking).

§ USA Today 1/8/2003
Allen Steele's Coyote is also reviewed here, by Tim Friend.

Unlike many sci-fi writers, Steele has a no-nonsense style and an attention to his characters that make his books appealing to mainstream readers. Coyote is no exception. He takes information you might read in the pages of a newspaper science section and extrapolates with vivid realism to the near future.

§ San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, January 5, 2003
Sam Hurwitt briefly reviews Ray Bradbury's latest novel, Let's All Kill Constance (William Morrow), unimpressed.

It was a dark and stormy night." This inauspicious opener tells you all you need to know about sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury's latest mystery. In "Let's All Kill Constance," Bradbury takes a page from another literary Ray, Mr. Chandler, then blows his nose on it and hands it to the reader.

§ Chicago Tribune December 29, 2002
Loren Ghiglione reviews Charles Dickinson's forthcoming A Shortcut in Time (Forge); Dickinson is an assistant metro editor of the Chicago Tribune.

In a well-told story, richer in plot than in character development, Dickinson encourages us to consider, whatever our past and future, the choices of our present. What course changes in life do we make? How hard do we hold to family? Do we accept responsibility for our lives?

§ The Independent 23 December 2002
Kim Newman's take on Michael Crichton's Prey.

Often, as here, the real villain is not scientific hubris but capitalist cupidity. It might be that this attitude plays better, allowing for science-geek heroism while snarling at stock-option greed - though it should be remembered that Crichton is very rich. [...]

Stirred in are elements from Crichton's whiny-American-guy books (Disclosure). House-husband Jack first suspects that his wife is having an affair. Then he discovers that she is mainly responsible for the monsters.

§ New York Review of Books January 16, 2003
Daniel Mendelsohn attempts to understand, and undermine, the appeal of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, the widely acclaimed mainstream novel narrated from Heaven by a murdered 14-year-old girl.

And yet darkness, grief, and heartbreak is what The Lovely Bones scrupulously avoids. This is the real heart of its appeal. [...]

That Sebold's book does so little to show us a complex or textured portrait of the evil that sets its action in motion, or to suggest that the aftermath of horrible violence within families is, ultimately, anything but feel-good redemption, suggests that its huge popularity has very little, in fact, to do with the timeliness of its publication just months after a series of abductions and murders of girls had transfixed a nation already traumatized by the events of September 11. It is, rather, the latter catastrophe that surely accounts for the novel's gigantic appeal.

§ Rain Taxi Winter 2002/2003
Jonathan Carroll, and Ellen Datlow, are interviewed by Alan DeNiro and Kelly Everding.

Rain Taxi: You have lived in Austria for twenty eight years. How does being an expatriate affect your work? Does the different landscape or European sensibility inform your writing?

Jonathan Carroll: I don't like the word expatriate because it sounds like ex-something. Whether you're an ex-American, or ex-Whatever, I think home is where you're most comfortable and I've been comfortable in Vienna so I've stayed there. The one thing that is different is whenever I come to America, I listen to people talk-that's something I never do in Austria. I speak German but I turn it off, so I live a lot in my head, which I think is the most affecting thing of all. Not that I'm thinking great thoughts, but that I spend more time alone, whether it's on a bus or whatever. That has a profound effect on my work.

Ellen Datlow: I've read Jonathan's novels from the start, and they feel very European to me. I'm not sure why, exactly. But it's a different feel. It's the way he writes about places that make them feel different.

§ Los Angeles Times January 5, 2003
Ursula K. Le Guin responds to an earlier essay, "When Rules Are Made to Be Broken", in which

John Rechy attacks three "rules of writing" that, as he says, go virtually unchallenged in most fiction workshops and writing classes: Show, don't tell; write about what you know; always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.

Le Guin mostly agrees, but takes exception to Rechy's attack on the third; that is:

Where I wanted to argue a bit with Rechy was over the sympathetic character rule. It's silly only if you define sympathetic as warm-and-fuzzy. [...] Sympathy doesn't mean liking. It means feeling with, suffering with. Most of us prefer Milton's Satan to Milton's God, because God is invulnerable, but Satan hurts -- like us.

(If above link is expired, try this one.)

§ The Guardian Saturday December 28, 2002
Philip Pullman essays on the responsibilities of storytellers (originally given as a lecture in April 2002), among them, to language.

There's fast-food language, and there's caviar language; one of the things adults need to do for children is to introduce them to the pleasures of the subtle and the complex. A good way to do that, of course, is to let them see us enjoying it, and then forbid them to touch it, on the grounds that their minds aren't ready to cope with it, it's too strong, it'll drive them mad with strange and uncontrollable desires. If that doesn't make them want to try it, nothing will.

§ Sydney Morning Herald January 11 2003
Sally Weale profiles Terry Pratchett.

The usual take on him by interviewers is that he is a slightly touchy character who, despite his massive fan base, his millions in the bank, and his bestseller success, feels aggrieved that - apart from the Carnegie - he has not won a major award, and that he is largely overlooked by a snobbish literary establishment that sneers at the fantasy genre in which he works.

"You can make yourself quite a lot of enemies by appearing to be quite happy and selling loads and loads of books and making quite a lot of money out of them, and not really caring very much," Pratchett says tartly.

§ The Guardian Sunday December 29, 2002
Among the "best and brightest 2003" is Vernor Vinge, profiled by John Hind.

The question is whether technology will become sentient, because if the singularity is possible Vinge doubts it can be prevented. He has already imagined in his head the speech he would present in a few decades if it hasn't ('the problem of software complexity... The levelling-off of progress') and some of his stories are set in futures without computer sentience, to the chagrin of singularist fans, to whom he is almost apologetic.

'Science-fiction writers used to have it easy,' he says. 'Now it's very hard to keep up.'

§ Dr. Dobb's Journal January 2003
Editor-in-chief Jonathan Erickson on "living legend" Julius Schwartz.

No, if you want to meet a living legend, you have to go where real living legends hang out—bars, bus stations, and comic book conventions. As luck would have it, I was wandering around the latter when one appeared smack dab in front of me. Hey, I knew at once that Julius Schwartz was a "Living Legend"—it said so on his cap. But seriously, I didn't need his hat to tell me that "Julie" is a living legend—you can't be a science-fiction or comic-book fan and not know about Julie Schwartz.

§ Los Angeles Times January 6, 2003
Another article about Mr. Sci-fi, Forrest J Ackerman.

During a chat with a visitor Ackerman suddenly leans forward. In a mishmash of what sounds like French, Spanish and Italian that is somehow comprehensible to any liberal arts graduate, he tells a visitor her eyes are beautiful, her height striking. He is speaking Esperanto. "In the 20s and 30s, some science fiction stories of the future mentioned that everyone would one day speak Esperanto," he says. "For me it was like time travel. It was like going 100 years into the future. And if I could bring back a bottle of something, I would be thrilled. At least I could bring back the language everyone would be speaking."

Something about Ackerman's snippet of Esperanto seems to capture the soul of science fiction, and of Ackerman himself. It speaks to a utopian vision cherished by people who fantasize about a world where Martians and Klingons and humans can all speak the same language and get along. It is the view of an optimist, the view of a man whose slogan is "Save humanity with science and sanity."

§ Los Angeles Times January 2, 2003
Clear thinking about cloning, from Michael Shermer, who proposes The Three Laws of Cloning:

* A human clone is a human being no less unique in his or her personhood than an identical twin.

* A human clone is a human being with all the rights and privileges that accompany this legal and moral status.

* A human clone is a human being to be accorded the dignity and respect due any member of our species.

§ Slate Wednesday, January 8, 2003
James Surowiecki explains The Two Towers' "wishful technophobia".

Without digital technology, there's no way a visually convincing film version of The Lord of the Rings-like the one we now have-could ever have been made. The irony is that J.R.R. Tolkien was a pure Luddite, a man deeply skeptical of modernity, horrified by "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic," and nostalgic for the English countryside before it had been scarred by the railroad and the car. The sight of the digitized figure of Gollum in The Two Towers would undoubtedly have appalled him.

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