Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Books read in February

The rest of Air, Geoff Ryman
A multiple-award-winning and wonderful novel about a huge technological advance - the Internet delivered telepathically right into your head! - and its affect on a mountainside community in a small developing country. The book's strengths lie in examining the clash between a non-Western worldview and technology that's geared entirely towards a Western worldview - and that's then rolled out globally, whether you want it or not, whether you can relate to it or not - and in the rounded characters. There's also the occasional spot of magic realism, which is a bit of an odd fit with the generally down-to-earth tone of the book, but not unwelcome. Four awards well won, I think.

It's all been short stories after that. Short stories for a short month.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Stephen King
Of King's novels, I've only read a few but have somehow managed to span the range from good (The Shining) to laughable (Cujo et al). However, I'd completely neglected his short stories until now. These, too, cover the full range of quality, but are generally short enough that you don't feel you've wasted your time getting to the next good one. (I say "generally", because what King considers to be typical short story length is what I think most people would consider to be novella length. Enough said about the length of his novels.) I feel I can now give his longer work another try.

Zima Blue and other stories, Alastair Reynolds
If you want an anthology of the short stories that are set in the same universe as Reynolds' Revelation Space series of novels, you can easily pick it up in your nearest bookshop; but if you want this anthology of his stand-alone short stories, you have to mail order it from a small press (until next year, anyway). I understand this is because of the promise Reynolds had made to the small press owner some years previously, but to the casual observer it might seem a strange state of affairs. Heigh-ho. I haven't read the other anthology so can't compare, but this is a collection of sturdy, well-written space opera pieces. And Reynolds can do horror too - one of the stories leaves you with the image of Elton John as the last human being... brr...

The Empire of Ice Cream, Jeffrey Ford
Mmm, ice cream. I certainly do love Ford's novels, but didn't entirely get on with his previous anthology, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant. This one, so to speak, is a different story, with several stand-out pieces. Magic realism and embroidered childhood reminiscences are the order of the day. The longest piece in the book bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot synopsis of his latest novel, but until I get my hands on that I can't know for sure if it's the same story extended. I wouldn't mind if it is. "The Weight of Words" deserves a special mention, and now ranks among my favourite short stories.

Species of Spaces and other pieces, Georges Perec (trans John Sturrock)
Yes, in English. Wordplay is one of the hardest things to convey in translation, but at least with Perec it seems that people are prepared to try, and succeed. And my ability and patience with reading French aren't what they once were. These are essays rather than short stories (although there are a few fictional items as well), covering Perec's thoughts on such topics as why we should pay more attention to the everyday details of the world around us, the nature of memory, how fashion could be made more interesting, and why he feels Robert Antelme's Holocaust memoir is better than any other (bringing us back to the beginning, it's largely because it focuses on the everyday details that other memoirs neglected in favour of the big shocks). Some very nice pieces in here.
Edit: I forgot to mention one glaring oversight, the failure to include "Experimental demonstration of the tomatotopic organization in the Soprano", a mock scientific paper on the "yelling reaction" produced by pelting opera singers with tomatoes. But thankfully this one's online, so no one need miss out.

All but one story in The Birthday of the World, Ursula le Guin
And by the time you read this I should have finished off that last one as well. My literary diet doesn't include a lot of what people like to call feminist SF. This isn't a conscious choice on my part, it's just kind of happened that way. I just pick up the books that look interesting to me. Now at last I've read something by le Guin, and intend to read more. The stories in this book are all fascinating, well worked-out studies of hypothetical societies in which (perhaps only slight) differences in social circumstances from the ones we're used to lead to profound differences in sexuality, and vice versa. Something of a contrast with, say, Larry Niven's space opera concept of "rithshathra", in which anyone with a set of genitals will pretty much try it on with anyone else of any other species with a set of genitals until they find a combination that occasions an amusing cartoon.

Next month, novels again.

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