As usual, I’m getting recommendations for Christmas shopping out a bit late–but you know, there is still time to run out to a bookstore and pick up a few otherworldly tomes for your loved ones. Been a bit short on the “book review” side of this blog in general, the last good while. I’ll try to remedy that. See my last post for ways you can support myself and this website, as well as links to my Xmas recommendations from last year. What follows here is a list of books which I either am still working through, or have finished, but in both cases feel comfortable recommending. Strictly sci-fi/fantasy/related material this time around. Click the book-cover pics for links to the books on Amazon.
Theory and Literary History in the Spec-Fic Ghetto
Been meaning to write for a while about The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, and was waiting for ages (it seemed) for the parallel Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature to come out. I have both now, have read most of the former, around 1/3 of the latter. I’m feeling like the quality varies a bit more wildly with the Fantasy volume, at the moment–also a bit of variety in the tone of each chapter, as some seem a bit more accessible to those outside the academy, while others seem to demand a good amount of theoretical literacy. Overall I’m quite happy with these, however, and I recommend them for anyone interested in a more academic perspective on these genres, whether or not you are an academic yourself. The references to previous scholarship are quite helpful, giving some chapters a bit of a “state of the field” feel, although they are not particularly bibliographic. I’m trying to decide whether I can use some of these chapters in my course on Other Worlds in Scandinavian Literature for the Spring–but the “speculative fiction ghetto” is a pretty Anglophone phenomenon, and these volumes are very much oriented towards “genre fiction.” I may have to look elsewhere for theoretical angles on fantastical/science fictional elements in “mainstream” fiction. Speaking of which…
The Fantastic/Science Fictional in Scandinavian Deckare
One genre which is so big in Scandinavia that it is basically “mainstream” is the crime novel, or deckare– remember the conference we had at Gustavus earlier? Actually, one of our guests, Lene Kaaberbøl, is, in addition to her crime writing, one of the few Scandinavian fantasy authors I know of. I haven’t had time yet to read her young adult fantasies, but check out her page on Amazon for more info. My two recommendations from Danish author Peter Høeg fit, for the most part, squarely into the deckare category, but both also have elements which diverge dramatically from the usual aversion in detective fiction for otherwordly solutions. The otherworldly element becomes much more prominent at the very end, which can feel a bit weird, I admit–but generally I had a very positive experience with both of these. Smilla’s Sense of Snow has been around for a while (was even made into a movie), and even apart from the gradual discovery of the “otherworldly” element is very enjoyable, with a fascinating protagonist in Smilla and plenty of twists and turns throughout. I was not pulled through the book as directly as I was by The Quiet Girl, but in some ways I think I enjoyed it more. I’d heard people complain that Smilla does not have much closure, but I had a much greater sense of closure at the end of Smilla than I had at the end of Quiet Girl. That said– The Quiet Girl definitely makes it to my list of recommendations this year. Gosh, I couldn’t put this book down. I admit, I felt a bit weirded out with the end, but the otherworldly element is much more prominent from the start, hovering on the border between the scientifically explainable and the supernatural. Both of these books give us protagonists with some special sensory power that feels nearly supernatural at times–well, in the case of Quiet Girl, it feels much more supernatural right from the start, and very much so by the end, although I’m still a bit inclined to categorize it as borderline science fiction, rather than borderline fantasy (but then again, one of the beauties of this book is the way in which it escapes the genres I am used to). The (adult male) protagonist in Quiet Girl is so compelling that I keep mistyping the title The Quiet Man–no John Wayne in this book though. Very engaging, very action oriented, and very unique. I wish I were teaching this book next semester–but I’m also very happy to be teaching Smilla for my Other Worlds course in the Spring, a subject which Smilla is more clearly appropriate for.
Let me also mention John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, which I discuss a bit more thoroughly here. Almost done with it–just have been too busy to finish it (and have too many books going at once, as usual). If you don’t have time for a book, watch his movie Let the Right One In. Available on Netflix, last I checked.
Humanity in Translation: “Anthropological” sci-fi, xenolinguistics, and the posthuman
Sorry, this is a bulky category–but it does sum up some of the more interesting books I’ve been reading or have recently read. I’ve always been interested in science fiction that is a bit more “anthropologically” informed (although the “anthropo-” bit is really only applicable to half of the xenolinguistic equation)–the second of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” series (Speaker for the Dead) would certainly fit, dealing with the problems of communication between radically different forms of life, despite surface similarities. This has become even more interesting to me as I’ve learned about the importance of not just culture and metaphor, but simple embodiment in our language(s). If we can have such insane variation between human cultures, what variety might exist between ourselves and creatures with radically different bodies? Is communication even possible? What about “ourselves” as we will be in 1000, 2000, 10,000 years? In what ways might we diverge, and how might our descendants end up as “aliens” to each other? I’m a bit short on time to thoroughly review these, but will hopefully return to each of them in later posts.
I read CJ Cherryh’s Chanur series a few years back. Space Opera, pure and simple, but much more interesting than your usual plain-vanilla SO in the highlighting of issues of communication and in the description of FTL, which, for once, is not just a magical “boom, we’re there!” toy, but a “real” technological issue, driving portions of the plot and providing a legitimate obstacle. Really fun, and much more interesting than your usual “to infinity… and beyond!” sci-fi. The picture links to the first omnibus.
I have been a bit remiss in my attention to the next book, but it is possibly the most interesting of all of these: China Mieville’s Embassytown. Also some interesting imagining of interstellar travel going on here, and some very sophisticated fictional treatment of the problem and nature of language. Also gets into the post-human, but doesn’t feel like just any old singularity, post-human, AI romp. Really look forward to finding some time to just finish this–not sure why, but it seems like it’s my favorite books that I have trouble getting through the first time. What can I say, I guess you have to work for the books that are the most quality–transformational readings have a more lasting effect than escapist, but they also take a lot more out of you.
I read some of Sheila Finch’s “lingster” books over a decade ago when I first discovered the short-fiction market, both in and out of the sci-fi ghetto. “Linguistic” sci-fi felt like such an innovation to me at the time, although I now realize the phenomenon was cropping up in a few places during the 80s (including the Chanur series mentioned above and the work of Suzette Elgin, mentioned below). Finch’s work also taps quite a bit into the dolphin-human interaction of David Brin’s Uplift series (I don’t know whose work came first, but I suspect it was Brin’s). She also brings psychotropic drugs into her stories as a (sometimes–I wasn’t always convinced) plausible way to facilitate communication between radically different species. A year or two ago I was excited to discover a collection of her short stories (The Guild of Xenolinguistics), as well as a novelization of her award winning story “Reading the Bones” in my favorite spec-fic bookstore, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, CA. Nothing as mind-bending as Embassytown or some of the more ambitions “New Space Opera,” but a solid set of stories centered around the problem of xenolinguistics.
Some further links on xenolinguistics that I’ve run across: the syllabus for this course (though sadly many of the links seem to be defunct now), the work of Suzette Elgin (found through that same course syllabus, though again, many of these links have not been maintained), and this blog (recently ended as the author has moved to another site), which I have only picked at occasionally and would like to return to in detail one day. The problem of xenolinguistics may never become concrete in the way we imagine in science fiction, but I think it can be an exercise with very concrete benefits as a thought experiment. We might think of it as an extension of the project of speculative fiction, using our imagination to explore (however inadequately) the possibilities of Otherness in order to gain a better view of the world which we are embedded in–to understand our own world as potentially other, as historically, culturally contingent. I love the idea–have ever since I read Tolkien, long before I’d heard of the term “xenolinguistics.” One thing that really bothers me though–the “xeno” comes from Greek, and the “linguistics” from Latin. Kind of a problem there, isn’t there? Or is it just referencing the constructedness of these “xeno” languages, so many of which in science fiction and fantasy have actually just been a hodge-podge of pseudo-learned bits and pieces? Not to put down Rowling or others–Tolkien borrowed from “real world” languages pretty directly as well with his use of Old English with the runes in the Hobbit and some of the Hobbit and Human names (I’m looking at you, Rohan)–though he acknowledges this by arguing it was done for reasons of translation, replacing archaic language and names with our own archaic heritage (but hey, the whole thing is pseudo-medieval fantasy just like everything else out there…)
OK, back to sci-fi. Speaking of the Singularity (as I did with Embassytown), the posthuman, and AI, I had a chance last year to read Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep. Great aliens–my goodness, lots of variety, but the main aliens are really quite fascinating, and highlight the relevance of embodiment in cross-species understanding. Don’t want to give it away though.
Half the book takes place on a planet in the “slow zone” (a fictional, but very interesting part of what may be the primary “novum” of the book–the idea that though can move at different speeds depending on distance from the galactic core), where we get the “anthropological” side of things. The rest is a high-speed chase through the galaxy. Something for everyone. Seriously, this is great, thoughtful, engaging, entertaining New Space Opera. I highly recommend it. If I get a chance to reread it any time soon, I’ll try to find something more critical to say about it…
Finally, let me mention a book I am only half-way through, but which, happily, falls into my field as a professor of Nordic literature as well as an enthusiast in science fiction–the Finnish mathematician Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. Was just sent this by a Finnish friend, and am enjoying it thoroughly. Again, let’s call this New Space Opera (I can also recommend a few of the recent collections of New Space Opera short fiction–but OK, haven’t actually had time to read too much of those…). I’m not a scientist and cannot give any thoughts on the technological speculation involved, but it seems beautifully done to me. No plain old nuts’n’bolts tech here (well, it doesn’t take center stage, at least). While there is plenty of space’n’chase going on, the book also sets the stage with and dramatizes the integration of technology with human biology and cognition, and portions of the plot hinge on encounters and attempted relationships between (post)humans who have diverged in very different directions. It is a mystery of sorts, but the post-human element allows the very motivation of mystery novels (the allure of the crime as puzzle to be solved) to be highlighted as a defining human characteristic in contrast to the less/more/other than human characters who appear alongside the lead. Well, maybe that edges a little bit towards the usual “Vulcan” or “HAL” trope, juxtaposing the cold, bloodless inhuman with the warm, human viewpoint character, but this is at least a nice reinvention of that opposition. At times humorous, and constantly surprising and original, I’m really enjoying this, and look forward to the rest of the series.
OK, that’s what I got for now. Hoping I can throw something else together soon, but feeling doubtful about that. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, God Jul, etc!