Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year

Gung Hei Fat Choy to everyone out there at the beginning of the year of the Ox. My wife's Chinese, so we usually mark the new year with a nice supper centred around a few traditional dishes. But for my part, being an SF fan, the holiday's gotta be celebrated with some good storytelling too.

First and foremost in the tradition, is sitting down to watch John Carpenter's masterpiece: "Big Trouble in Little China". One of my all-time favourite movies. I've enthused about it here before, so I won't got into too many details, but it's a great combination of humour and action as we ride along with John-Wayne-talking (at least when his confidence is up) fish-out-of-water truck driver Jack Burton, perhaps one of the greatest movie sidekicks of all time. Bonus points to Carpenter for being dedicated enough to make sure the insults and threats the Chinese characters fire back and forth at each other in Cantonese actually make sense (I know because my wife often chuckles away when she watches and has translated some of them). And of course, the dialogue in the film is ripe with one-liners that stick in the memory for years. My favourite is from the villain, Lo-Pan: "You were not brought upon this world to 'get it', Mr. Burton!"

The laugh fest was followed-up by Ang Lee's melancholy fantasy "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". This too is movie that never gets stale. It's easy to get swept up in the golden-age tapestry of flying heroes wielding swords against foes to settle epic grudges. Each viewing unveils a new nuance in the acting or the characters' interactions with one-another, and the lush visuals are always a treat.

Of course, this year New Years eve fell on Robbie Burns night, so the turnip cake was followed up with a double-shot of scotch. Not the most obvious culinary combination in the world, but it worked, and as "Big Trouble in Little China" illustrated, more often than not, East and West work very well together.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I've been spending quite a few evenings lately crawling around the Apple iTunes store hunting for music that I don't already have on CD to load into the new iPhone I was given for Christmas. In addition to an assortment of rock, blues, jazz and classical pieces, I've been pleasantly surprised at how much in the way of SF-related stuff I've been able to find.

Tonight's geeky acquisition was a historical piece - Orson Welles Mercury Theatre radio play of "The War of the Worlds". That'll be a great one for a road trip sometime.

And yet, I would have been somewhat surprised if the site hadn't had that gem. The real shocker was some of the soundtracks that turned up, from movies that were either old or not well received by the general audience. I mean, I found the main theme for "Krull"! The movie was shit (mostly) but man did Horner write a big, ballsy piece of classically-inspired music. John Barry's score for "The Black Hole" is also there - another craptacular movie (which, I've admitted openly before is one of my guilty pleasures) that you wouldn't expect to find on a site like this ('cause Disney sure as hell doesn't seem to have any memory of it beyond the anniversary DVD that was released a few years ago). There are a couple of renditions of the "Tron" score available too, although with "Tron 2" (or however they're trying to funk-up the spelling now) in the works, it isn't surprising that this old chestnut would get dusted off for playlists. This led my to Journey's "Only Solutions" from the movie's end credits, which I've enjoyed for years but have had a tough time finding until now. Follow that up with a couple of John Carpenter pieces - Snake's Uniform from "Escape from LA" (a badass blues riff on the old "Escape from New York" theme) and The Porkchop Express from my favourite "Big Trouble in Little China" (and no piece of music could be more appropriate right now, what with me living hin the heart of Richmond - the new Little China - and the whole Lower Mainland being socked-in with fog as thick as wet wool that would make San Francisco envious) - and I'm a happy guy.

And bonus points for stocking comedian Sean Cullen's "Food of Choice" song. Not SF per se, but it's the kind of thing a mad scientist or wannabe Bond villain might hum under his breath while preparing to proceed with his nefarious and science-fictionally-inspired scheme, so it's worth mentioning here.

Say what you will about how loyal geeks are in buying up stuff related to their favourite cult classics, I hadn't expected to find this stuff because, let's face it, the site is about making money and you'd figure they wouldn't be devoting storage space to music that the largest percentage of the population wasn't clamouring for. Makes me wonder what the purchase stats are for some of this stuff - whether, in fact the geeks are logging-on in droves, or whether the site's geeky creators added this music as part of their own little sub-culture corner.

At any rate, good on Apple for picking a nice bushell of geek tunes!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

BSG Resumes

Warning: Spoilers!
(spoilage factor: take a trip down to your local dump - any ol' day will do)

Frak me!

What a crushing way to open a new - and the last - season! (I've said it before and I'll say it again, as much as they want to call this 4.5, as far as I'm concerned, if it's kicking off a year after the season initially began, then this isn't just a hiatus and this isn't 4.5 - this is season 5, fellow toaster-lovers)

D's suicide was a shocking moment. But only for a moment. I then began to reflect on the fact that Dualla's survived the near total annihilation of her species, lived in a pretty much constant state of siege for several years, has seen her marriage crumble and then, when she finally arrives at Earth, humanity's last hope, it's a somewhat radioactive cemetery. Seen in that light, her depression and feelings of hopelessness are not surprising. Sure, she appeared to pick up at the end, but it's not uncommon for those who are suicidal to display an apparent change in outward attitude once they've made their decision to end their life - her last date with Apollo could be seen as putting her affairs in order and allowing herself to be happy knowing she would not be allowing her self to continue in a bleak tomorrow. A very sad end for a likable, and very human character.

And then there's the Earth issue. Yeah, they're calling it Earth, but is this 13th Colony really Earth? Our Earth? I suspect the answer is no. Bear with me here... At the close of the season last spring, when the Fleet finally arrived in orbit, there was a suspicious little part of my mind that doubted this planet was the real deal. Not just because that would be too fortunate for a group of people beset by every turn of ill luck imaginable short of alien anal-probing (unlike the old series - I mean, come on, what do you think was really going on in that glowing white ship in the "War of the Gods" episode?). No, part of me was doubting because the space scenes showed no shots of the moon, nor was there any sign of it in the ever-cloudy sky. Nor did we see any other pix of recognizable real estate from the home system.

Now, you might point out that the Fleet was in pretty close orbit, and the moon's kinda out there, so it wouldn't necessarily be visible in the space scenes. And you might note that because the jump drives bring the ships instantaneously to where they want to go (usually), of course we wouldn't see any shots of the Tharsis volcanoes rearing up from Mars, or Jupiter's great red spot, or Saturn's rings, because there would be no need for a leisurely tour through the solar system in a long sunward orbit, and no direct flights in, and no aerobraking maneuvers in the Oort Cloud or some gas giant's atmosphere. And you'd be right on both accounts.

And yet, if we don't see any of the other familiar land (er, space) marks of our solar system, how can we really know that this is Earth and not some other little blue wet rock zipping around a cheery little yellow star in any ol' corner of the galaxy? We can't.

Here's my theory, for what little it's worth: During the exodus in the wake of whatever mysterious disaster befell Kobol (now green and quiet and probably a perfect home if anyone thought of doing the unexpected and turning around and deking around Cavil and his cabal and making the long trek back towards where they started, but I digress), the last-cycle Cylons went west and set up the 13th Colony on "Earth". A millenium or two of relative peace and prosperity passes, then there's some trouble and some nukes and history repeats itself. Refugees leave the 13th Colony and head out some unknown distance across the stars where they find another reasonably hospitable little blue planet and set up shop. Fondly remembering the home they left behind, they probably named the new planet Earth or New Earth or something to that effect - just as the homesick colonials named their first attempt to settle down "New Caprica". In short, I don't think the ruined "Earth" we've just been shown is the real deal - the final stop, the actual Earth - our Earth, is probably a little way down the road and will likely be found and fought over in the coming episodes. This would allow for a nod towards the old series (as the writers like to do from time to time) where the real Earth would be ours as it is now - except, in the vein of the new series, we would be the descendants of the 13th Colony Cylons. And my theory can't be that out to lunch, because Adama suggests as much at the end of this first episode where he says the people of the 13th Colony would have set out to find a new home, just as the new-era Colonials have over the past five years. That's my two bits. Make of it what you will.

Of course, the whole issue of mega disasters and refugee migrations across the stars makes me wonder about something... What's happening back on the 12 Colonies? We haven't seen anything of life there since Starbuck rescued Anders and the other survivors. At the time, the Cylons were definitely working hard to restore the Colonial worlds so they could live there themselves. Then we don't hear anything else from them except for the ones aboard the basestars chasing the Fleet across the galaxy and subsequently engaging in civil war. But all of the Cylons didn't just pack up and leave the Colonies to help with the extermination efforts, did they? There's gotta be some still behind on the Colonies continuing the home-renos, right? If so, would they have been embroiled in the civil war, or would that have only been their space-bound brethren? Would they spawn a human-like civilization on the 12 Colonies, now that the Resurrection Hub has been destroyed? (And how stupid would a machine mind have to be to think that it was safe putting all of its reincarnation eggs in one basket? Wouldn't there be other hubs? What about the Cylon homeworld that they used as their base of operations between the end of the last war and the attack on the Colonies? No spare parts or Ikea-style blueprints there?) Is the idea behind this series that there would ultimately be human and Cylon-as-close-to-human-as-makes-no-difference civilizations existing in isolation (but sometimes simultaneously) all over the galaxy - humanity and its children accidentally seeding the cosmos with life one disaster and war at a time? But if so, over time, it might get to be a crowded place if every disaster spawned an exodus as well as stay-at-homes (whether conquerors or survivors who never made it off-world and began to rebuild). Granted though, there's no evidence that the culture lasted on Kobol too long after the Colonials left thousands of years previous (unless they did something really cool and became post-human). But I digress...

The other big question this season-opener presents is who the frak is the final Cylon? For a big chunk of the episode, it sure looked to be Starbuck, especially with the discovery of the downed Viper and the blond-haired pilot's body with a wedding band and Kara Thrace dogtags. And yet, if nothing else, this series has repeatedly slapped audiences around with the hard lesson that appearances can be deceiving. So was it Starbuck, and is she the final Cylon? But things get complicated at the end where Tigh has his regressed vision/repressed memory, where his dead wife Helen is a part of his old life on the 13th Colony. Could she be the final member of the Final Five?

Last year, I was leaning towards Gaeta being most likely to be the last Cylon. But tonight's revelations throw that into question.

I now have a new theory: the final Cylon isn't a person/character per se, it's a artificially-designed, possibly quasi-intelligent piece of deliberately self-replicating genetic code. I'm thinking the final Cylon is an organic program of sorts, created who-knows-how-long-ago to periodically rebuild a group of the original Cylons. They're born, they live their lives, they have children and thus pass the code along, then die, and every so often, possibly every lifetime, somewhere among the population, this genetic program cobbles together a new copy of one of the original Cylons to resume the life cycle and continue to spread the genetic program throughout the gene pool so it can continue to replicate over time. Included in the program might be memories of the original (perhaps several of) former lives/incarnations/models that might be either time-released or dormant (possible for several generations/versions) until triggered by specific circumstances. In a sense, at some point in the deep past, the proto-Cylons/last-cycle Cylons figured out that they didn't need a huge Resurrection Hub ship in space that could be blown to pieces, if they just tricked biology into doing what they wanted they could still have immortality and without putting all their eggs in one basket. Sounds like a wacky idea, I know, but it would certainly explain why Saul Tigh (for example) has always been Saul Tigh, but doesn't remember living for 2,000 years, but suddenly dimly remembers a life with Helen (who might also have been from the Cylon gene pool and thus occasionally reprogrammed and relaunched every few generations) on the 13th Colony.

So what's your take on the big BSG questions? Is this Earth or will they find a true Earth elsewhere? What's your guess for the final Cylon? What's going on with Starbuck (the million dollar question of the entire series)? And are there any other mysteries that are nagging you?

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Best of BSG So Far

Just hours away from the resumption of "Battlestar Galactica" and the beginning of the series' end.

All this anticipation got my faithful sidekick harrysaxon and I in a bit of a reflective mood, so over at Not A Planet Anymore we cooked-up a Top 10 List of the Best BSG Episodes so far.

Must get some sleep now so I'll be able to fully appreciate the new episode tomorrow after a full day of work.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Countdown to BSG - Boob Tube Groove

Only a few days left until season 4 (let's call a spade a spade: after this humongous delay, it's really season 5!) of Battlestar Galactica resumes.

To get everyone in the mood, here's the recent Fandom Forum from Space (Canada's science fiction specialty channel). Unlike most home-grown programming on Space, this show was actually pretty good. Lots of interesting speculation around how the series will end and who the 5th Cylon is.

Bonus: It was extremely cool to see comic and author Sean Cullen (the dementedly funny genius behind the song "Food of Choice") is a BSG fan and was on the panel.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The 365 Short Stories Challenge - An Update

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a heaping spoonful of stuffing taken out of an undercooked Christmas turkey)

So far, things have been going well with the Challenge. Starting out with the Fall 2008 issue of On Spec as my primary reading material was a good way to rack-up a bunch of short stories quickly.

Fall 2008 (which I received in the mail in December) was On Spec's special Youth theme. The editors focussed entirely on getting stories from young authors in two categories: ages 15-18 and 19-23. For some, the lack of maturity, learning and experience was evident. Others, however displayed some fine talent and will be a treat for fans of good SF to read if they keep up with their writing. Here are the highlights:

"Too Long to Forgive" by Brittany McCartney
This could have been an interesting development on the Merlin legend, if not for the fact that it was far too deliberately vague, to the point where I didn't much care about what happened by the end.

"Lifeshop" by Susannah Ripley
Not a bad little description of the location for a possible turnaround after death, just not much of a story to it.

"A Cat Named Wellington" by Seanah Roper
Not a bad story. The Beatles' "Elinor Rigby" kept running through my head as I was reading it.

"Mad Science" by S. R. Kriger
Disturbing yet cute. Kriger has the makings of a good, solid writer.

"'No Entry' Signs and Other Cosmic Mysteries" by Stephanie Gray
Now this was a cracking good yarn. A typical young person in an uninteresting job pushes the boundaries in a banal kind of way and winds up, briefly, in a tunnel (feelings of the old "Zork" text-only computer game here) which she follows into a horrific scene, and upon escaping comes across an old guy at a coffee shop who shares some secrets of the universe. The importance of the "no entry" signs reminded me of the explanation for roadside attractions in Gaiman's "American Gods". Loved the little details in this story - having Odin wearing a Zepplin T-shirt was awesome - from that point on I had Robert Plant wailing "The Immigrant Song" in my head as I read the story. Gray's got some real talent.

"The Finale" by Yuri Fabrikantov
A solid, melancholy story.

"Blank" by Leah MacLean-Evans
Not really an SF story. Not an especially wowing piece of writing either.

"Paddywhackers Come Home" by Don Norum
Another good one. Not great, mind you, but a good story about an encounter with the other side.

"With Love" by Ashlin McCartney
This one read more like an installment from the middle of a novel the author's been working on, rather than a short story. Didn't feel terribly original either.

"Emily's House" by Andrew Campana
This one didn't feel terribly original either - I've come across a few stories over the years about kids in their creepy houses. That being said, this story was well done, especially in giving the sense that the girl in question was more-or-less at home in the place without herself being creepy. I'd look forward to reading more from Campana as he developes his talent.

"Charlotte's Eyes" by Priscilla McGreer
Another good, solid story worthy of this collection. McGreer knows how to write believable characters.

"Burning Feathers" by B. L. Trogen
Not bad. Not good. Kind of meh. The whole robot rights in court thing has been done before - a lot - and this twist on it wasn't especially gripping.

Now that this issue of On Spec out of the way, I've slowed down a bit. I'm currently focussing most of my attention on reading Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", but I'm adding to the short story tally every now and again by keeping a back-issue of On Spec - the Fall 2003 edition - on hand for when I go out for something like a haircut where I know I'll be waiting a little while and can get a short story or two under my belt. I'd missed Fall 2003 when it initially came out (I was buying off the shelf at the bookstore - which stocked the mag pretty irregularly - at the time, whereas now I have a subscription) but I was lucky enough to find it in the back-issues pile at the On Spec table in the Dealers' Room at VCon a couple of years ago. Having this in the back of the car to pick up now and then when I'm out and about will be a good way of making sure I don't fall behind.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Christmas in Who-Ville

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: the same as the leftover meat sack once the Cybermen have converted someone)

I finally had a chance to watch the new Christmas episode of "Doctor Who" the other day (thanks to a co-worker of mine who's also an SF fan and, being a Brit, can't miss episodes of the new Doctor and was kind enough to pass this one along when he was done with it). A good installment in the series, if not great.

It was appropriate for the Cybermen to be behind the invasion of Victorian London. With that era focussing on bigger and better machines, the advancement of science and the ever-present question of man's place amidst the adaptations (with people frequently being dehumanized into little more than flesh machines in the factories), the Cybermen, with their goal of conversion and mechanized progress, were a good fit.

That being said, I have to admit I'm getting a little bored with the constant apparent extinctions of the Cybermen (and the Daleks too), followed by their reappearances. Yes, yes, they're among the favourite badguys of the series, but it's more than a little contrived to see them brought back time and again after banishments and wipeouts just because the writers need some super bad-asses (or, in the case of the Cybermen, hard-asses) to perpetrate terrifying acts of brutality as part of some larger scheme. As neat as they have been to watch, let's just be done with them, shall we?

And there was something about the plot that didn't make sense... So they snagged kids from the workhouses to use as labour. Fine. Makes sense for the time period. But why wouldn't they convert them into more Cybermen? Even mini-Cybermen? Isn't that the Borg-ish thing that Cybermen are supposed to do?

And what was with thsoe weird, brass-face-plated Cyber-ape things?

However, I did think the TARDIS balloon created by the other trauma-induced-amnesiac "Doctor" was pretty funny.

And the steampunk mech that the Cybermen were driving in the end simply rocked! Ya gotta love a hundred foot tall steam-powered, gear-driven Cyberman/mobile factory. Steampunk + giant robots + Doctor Who = extreme coolness.

And now the waiting begins. Not too many more appearances left for Tennant before he hands the reins over to the 11th Doctor - that really young guy I've never heard of (my coworker says he's apparently a stage actor). I'll miss Tennant's frenetic energy, and part of me thinks they should have swung the pendalum back a bit and cast someone older than Tennant, but I'm willing to give the kid a chance - after all, the producers have been spot-on with their casting so far.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Blizzard of Book Reviews

For a long time now, I've been meaning to catch up on writing book reviews. The last time I actually sat down and put down some thoughts about a book I'd just finished was probably May, and since then, the "finished pile" beside my desk has been growing larger and larger, increasing the risk of avalanche, and causing no end of clutter. Since most of Canada was hammered by snowstorms this holiday season (yes, yes, I know... we always get hammered by snowstorms during the winter, but this year was worse than most in the last decade or two), I thought it fitting to unleash my own blizzard and get all of these book reviews (some for relatively new books released in 2007 & 2008, others for older fare that I've just gotten around to for the first time) out of the way in one shot. Grab your shovel and Sorrel boots, you're about to be hip-deep in SF goodness.

Warning: spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as any given fruit taken off a wild apple tree in the middle of a field or on a farm that's been abandoned for a hundred years - some might have no spoilage at all, others, well, worms are extra protein, aren't they?)

"Valley of Day-Glo" by Nick DiChario
This quirky take on the post-apocalyptic journey follows a young man (the last member of his First Nation) named Broadway Danny Rose across parts of the eastern US that have been turned to wasteland seeking to find the mythical Valley of Day-Glo. Along the way, he has to avoid other hostile natives (bearing equally odd monickers) who fight for legitimate resources as well as absurd relics like marketing textbooks and Igloo water coolers. It's a real page-turner that has the reader constantly asking not only what will happen next, but also what new weirdness will BDR encounter. I didn't enjoy this book as thoroughly as DiChario's debut work of genius "A Small and Remarkable Life", but it's certainly worth a read.

"Identity Theft and other stories" by Robert J. Sawyer
Sawyer always does a solid job of writing entertaining hard SF, so it was a no-brainer when I saw his new collection on the shelf at the book store one day. The title was taken from one of the 17 stories within. "Identity Theft" and its companion piece "Biding Time" are film-noire style detective yarns that had me picturing the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in some of the character roles (if Bogart and Greenstreet had been doing gumshoe flicks on Mars, that is). The collection also includes "Shed Skin", which Sawyer would later revisit and adapt into his successful novel "Mindscan". My favourites though were "Mikeys" about astronauts finding the remains of an alien observatory on the Martian moon Deimos (which reminded me of an old sci-fi novel that I read in my childhood where a plucky young adventurer discovers Phobos and Deimos are both alien starships - can't remember the title for the life of me) and "On the Surface", where Sawyer picks up the tale of the Morlocks of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" after the human inventor has fled back into the past.

On Spec - Spring 2008 issue
Why they chose cover art reminiscent of a giant testicle is beyond me, but aside from the pictures, this was a reasonably good issue. The highlights were Marissa K. Lingen's "Carter Hall Sweeps a Path" (another entertaining installment in the ice arena misadventures of the title character), Leah Bobet's poem "The Pack Rat's Manifesto". "Trickster", by Steve Stanton, about some really ambitious graffitti, was also worth the read.

"The Difference Engine" by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
A great piece of steampunk from the early 90's revolving around the machinations to possess stolen computer punch cards. Gibson & Sterling to a top-notch job of creating the look and feel of Victorian England - the descriptions of London could have been from Dickens and they've nailed the Victorian mindset of the characters. The fragmented final section was perhaps a little too jarring for me, but ultimately it's a book I'd read again.

"Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson
It's taken me far too long to get around to reading this. You have to fully concentrate when you're reading Stephenson's masterpiece of cyberpunk (masterpiece may not be a good enough term... along with Gibson's "Neuromancer", "Snow Crash" is one of the twin gods of the cyberpunk sub-genre) to pick up on all the ideas he's firing around. It's worth every minute to explore a world where pizza delivery guys work for the mob when they're not spending time in cyber bars or crossing paths with glass-spear-wielding hitmen or trying to avoid getting their brains hacked by ancient Sumerian memes. It's not the kind of book where you just hang on and enjoy the ride -it's one that you'll be thinking about long after the ride is over.

"Rainbows End" by Vernor Vinge
I'm a bit conflicted about this singularity story. On one hand, I think Vinge has done a successful job at creating a story where the primary character is, for the most part, unlikeable, but where we feel for him as he tries to adjust to what is essentially an alien world and re-invent himself. "Rainbow's End" also at times felt like a bit of an eerie techno homage to "The Wizard of Oz" as much as "Alice in Wonderland". And yet, it failed to "wow" me. I'm not sure why, either. I may have to re-read it in a year or two to try to answer the question. It certainly wasn't a bad book, it just wasn't great, in my opinion, either.

"Victory of Eagles" by Naomi Novik
Typical of Novik's Temeraire books, VoE is a quick, fun read - a nice summer book. It's always great to see what new spin she's put on the Napoleonic wars and what kind of strategies the military minds of that era would have cooked up for dragon aerial corps. Novik takes us in a darker direction with this installment, as Temeraire and Laurence are seperated for much of it as they deal with different kinds of imprisonment as punishment for bringing Napoleon the cure for the dragons' illness at the end of the previous book. Even when the two are reunited after Temeraire forms his own vigilante dragon militia, it's still not a happy time as Laurence feels his honour slipping further and further away under orders from the Admiralty to wage a guerilla war against the French with no mercy for the enemy's men or dragons. I'm looking forward to the next book where Novik will again be giving us a glimpse of what life is like with dragons in other parts of the world.

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury
Normally, I'm a huge Bradbury fan. For some reason though, this classic didn't really do anything for me. Yes, he does do an excellent job of painting the old travelling carnival as a potential source of terror, but overall, I think he's written other stories like "The City" that were more frightening, and done a better job with many others that take us on strange adventures, or portray small town life, or shine a light on the compromises that adults make in life and how they bear up under them, or the explosion of life within youth. It was good to get this book under my belt as part of my familiarity with Bradbury's body of work, but it's not one of my favourites.

On Spec - Summer 2008 issue
A creepy cover on this one - little plastic babies crawling around what looks to be a bee hive. Daniel LeMoal's "Beach Head" was a very tense piece of work and well worth reading, and Kevin Cockle's "The Devil's in the Details" was unsettling too.

"Futures from nature" edited by Henry Gee
In an anthology of about a billion (okay, maybe not a billion, but there are a whole lot of them crammed into this book) really short stories, each no more than 3 pages long, you're bound to get a lot of misses. Quite a few of the stories contained here were way too heavy on the jargon (some authors, I think, putting more weight on speaking the highly-specialized languages of some of the scientific journal's readers than with simply writing good stories) and lacking in story. That being said, when you're dealing with a three-pager, the story itself is going to be fairly simple with little characterization in most cases. That being said, there were some gems that made this book worth reading. Warren Ellis' "At the Zoo" was a real hoot, and, though not the smartest, the one that sticks out in my memory. I also enjoyed "Speak, Geek" by Eileen Gunn and Ken Macleod's vampire-tech tale "Undead Again" and a few others.

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami
There's a bildungsroman wrapped in a lot of deeply weird goings-on in this book. A teenager decides to run away from home and ends up finding himself after finding a woman who could be his mother who he takes as his lover, and along the way he steps into another dimension for a while. And did I mention the old codger who talks to cats and goes on an adventure across Japan with a young trucker looking for a stone that will re-align reality? This is a book that has to be experienced rather than encountered in a review.

"Song of Kali" by Dan Simmons
I'm a huge Simmons fan, but it's taken me forever to get around to reading his debut novel. It's highly unsettling, but I'm glad I did. Not a lot in the way of the fantastic in this book - despite the encounter with an undead poet and a scene where the protagonist is chased around a dark room by the Hindu destroyer goddess herself, the real horror in this book is in the evil that people inflict on one another. This is a theme that Simmons seems to have kept with throughout his novels - the exterior stuff really isn't as bad as the monsters that can lurk within the human heart. That being said, redemption and hope also come from within oneself and from other people in Simmons' worlds, and not from magic or super-scientific trinkets. A must read.

"Dreamsongs - volume I" by George R. R. Martin
Seeing Martin's writing style evolve from the boy imitating what he saw in the comics to the man who explores new territory in his own voice is what makes this collection worth while. Martin's essays on various periods in his life and what influenced him are entertaining in and of themselves, but it was good to revisit some of his short stories like "Sandkings". Worth buying for Martin fans.

"The Android's Dream" by John Scalzi
A crisis in interstellar relations, a film-noire style chase story that would have worked well with the cast of "Blade Runner", secret societies founded on the ramblings of a drunk, an AI based on the mind template of the protagonist's dead friend, the hope for humanity being related to a sheep, and fart jokes - this book has it all. Scalzi's cooked up one heck of a read.

"Very Hard Choices" by Spider Robinson
This short but powerful book is memorable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s inhabited by well-rounded characters who stay true to themselves, but who are still capable of change. It also examines the emotional consquences of making very hard choices, and how people deal with them. Robinson has written one of the most deeply unsettling portrayals of what it’s like to die that I’ve ever come across. But amidst the pessimistic backdrop of global threats and the exercise of staggering powers, this is ultimately an optimistic book showing that the connections between human beings are things of the highest and most enduring importance. I'd initially seen this book on the shelves at the bookstore and thought, "I'll get around to it at some point" but then I heard Robinson read an excerpt at VCon in October and thought, "Must read now!" Good thing too. "Very Hard Choices" is easily one of the best novels of 2008 and I'll sure as hell be recommending it for an Aurora this year.

"Tesseracts Twelve" edited by Claude Lalumiere
This installment of the annual anthology of Canadian SF focusses on novellas, which is refreshing. I love the usual collections of short stories, but I'm always left wondering what good stuff was left out because it might have been too long. This time around, it's the long stuff that rules. And, unlike some of the recent editions in the Tesseracts series, Twelve, under Lalumiere's hand, had a good, strong line-up. The two bracketing stories, Derryl Murphy’s gold rush-neanderthal collision “Ancients of the Earth” and David Nickle's “Wylde’s Kingdom” where a washed-up reality show adventurer lives amidst the grim reality that there’s a new species on the extinction list, were the ones that stand out most in my memory. That being said, "Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang" by Gord Sellar was a fun ride too. An anthology that's definitely worth reading.

"The Savage Humanists" edited by Fiona Kelleghan
A collection of stories using SF as a foil for biting social commentary. Gregory Frost’s “Madonna of the Maquiladora” was perhaps the most memorable for its brutal look at the means used to keep people down to make them easy to exploit, and how they accept it. I enjoyed this anthology overall, but could have done without Kelleghan's gigantic and frequently repetitive essay at the beginning. While I don't disagree with what she's saying, I think she could have made her point far more concisely - a full academic essay belongs in a collection of essays, rather than a fiction anthology where the stories can illustrate the point from a variety of perspectives. Still, it's a book worth reading.

"Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes" by Peter Watts
Watts has assembled a group of violent stories. This is not to say that physical violence takes place within the each of the stories in the form of monster attacks or space battles or other usual SF means, but violence is there in some form, present or past, physical, psychological, sexual or other, in each of these tales to some degree, exerting its influence on characters and events. These stories occupy a Hobbesian state of nature, where things are brutish, nasty and lives, or, at least lives before they're altered forever by some form of violence, are short. A brooding, dark collection, but certainly worth while.

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss
This is another book I'd noticed at the store but had mentally filed away under "eventually" until I heard Rothfuss speak at a couple of sessions at VCon back in October. Good thing I did too, because "The Name of the Wind" is a smart and refreshing addition to the fantasy genre at a time where a lot of the stuff on the shelves looks stale. A renowned adventurer now living quietly under an alias begins to tell the story of his life in this book, but it's not the usual increasing steps of glory. No, the protagonist sometimes scratches some forward progress for himself, but always at a price and not without a lot of tough, scarring lessons along the way. It's not about a young man's adventures so much as it is about how a boy becomes a man as he tries to survive and what he learns along the way. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next book in this series.

And that catches things up for the book reviews.

What have you been reading lately? What should the rest of us be picking up?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Aurora Award Nominations Now Open

It's time to get all judgemental and make some nominations for the best in Canadian SF - the nomination process is now open for the annual Aurora Awards.

Visit the Aurora website for the online nomination form and elegibility information.

You can find a partial list of elegible novels, short stories, anthologies, etc on the Canadian SF Works Database site (which has lists of works in English and in French). However, the site doesn't list info that would be relevant to the 3 fan awards.

I'll be doing some thinking over the next couple of days and going back over a few items from 2008 on my bookshelves. I'll post a recap of my choices here once I've filled-out the online nomination form.

Good luck to all!