Back from San Francisco

It is a very pretty part of the world.


Street art in the Mission district

View from a cable car

Flowers in the Marin Headlands

San Francisco houses

The Golden Gate bridge

Curved escalators in Nordstroms

Sunset over the Pacific coast

Top-to-bottom: view of downtown from Bernal Heights; school mural in the Mission District; view from a cable car; flowers in the Marin headlands; houses, I don’t remember where; the Golden Gate, of course; curved escalators in Nordstroms; and sunset over the Pacific coast. Many more here. It was a good trip: caught up with some old friends, made some new ones, and, of course, bought some books:

Books bought

Again, top to bottom: Bitter Angels by CL Anderson, Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow, The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss, Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, Black & White by Lewis Shiner, Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman (a much-appreciated gift from Terry), and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (because my paperback copy is somewhat beaten up). I now have several books on the Nebula list that I haven’t read, and a couple from the Dick list, and who knows, I may even get around to reading them soonish. First, though, as I mentioned, a post about Stephen Baxter, and something I need to write for Strange Horizons, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. At least, that’s the plan.


Or, two bits of self-promotion. First, I have an article in the new issue of Journey Planet, the fanzine edited by the Bacon-Brialey-Garcia superteam:

The direct link to the (fairly hefty) pdf of the issue is here. It’s all themed around alternate history; my piece is about Stephen Baxter’s Voyage. I’m guessing this is probably also the only time I’ll share a table of contents with Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley and John Scalzi.

Second, I have a review of Justina Robson’s Chasing the Dragon, fourth in the slowly-improving Quantum Gravity series, at Strange Horizons, which is probably the only sf novel you’re likely to read in the near future to contain the phrase, “he was still surprised sometimes to look down and find that he was made of cloth.”

2009 Nebula Awards Ballot

It’s here; congratulations to all the nominees, even the ones I’m about to say I personally am not very excited about!

Now, category by category:

Best Short Story

  • Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Press, Jul09)
  • “I Remember the Future,” Michael A. Burstein (I Remember the Future, Apex Press, Nov08)
  • Non-Zero Probabilities,” N. K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld, Nov09)
  • Spar,” Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Oct09)
  • Going Deep,” James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jun09)
  • Bridesicle,” Will McIntosh (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan09; pdf link)

Oh joy, a Michael A Burstein story to read (assuming it gets made available online EDIT: doesn’t look like it will be). Other than that, strikes me as a solid list. “Bridesicle” is probably my favourite of McIntosh’s stories to date, and if “Non-Zero Probabilities” struck me as a little thin, it’s executed well enough. “Spar” is probably the best of the ones I’ve read, although I don’t love it as others do.

Best Novelette

A very crunchy selection, although has that slightly schizophrenic can’t-decide-what-year-it-is thing going on. “The Gambler” was probably my single favourite piece of Hugo-nominated fiction last year, so I’m rooting for that. Good to see Foster’s story, which is of course also on the BSFA Award ballot, and “Divining Light”, which we discussed here. I’d have quite strongly preferred to see “Eros, Philia, Agape” on the ballot in place of “A Memory of Wind”, but the latter is by no means a bad story. Haven’t read the Bishop or Bowes.

Best Novella

  • The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, Jun09)
  • Arkfall,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sep09)
  • Act One,” Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mar09; pdf link)
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, Feb09)
  • Sublimation Angels,” Jason Sanford (Interzone, Oct09)
  • The God Engines, John Scalzi ( Subterranean Press, Dec09)

Eh. I like “Sublimation Angels“, but am less than whelmed by either the Kress or Gilman stories, and am sceptical of the Morrow. I’m intrigued by The God Engines, however.

Best Novel
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade, Sep09)
The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

My heart says Bacigalupi, and damn the naysayers; my head thinks The City & The City is probably going to be a Hugo-and-Nebula-winner by the end of the year.

Bradbury Award for excellence in screenwriting

  • Star Trek, JJ Abrams (Paramount, May09)
  • District 9, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (Tri-Star, Aug09)
  • Avatar, James Cameron (Fox, Dec 09)
  • Moon, Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker (Sony, Jun09)
  • Up, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar, May09)
  • Coraline, Henry Selick (Laika/Focus Feb09)

If Abrams wins, I will cry. Actually, if pretty much anyone other than Jones/Parker wins, I will sulk, though Up would be acceptable.

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

  • Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)
  • Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)
  • Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)
  • Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)
  • Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)
  • When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)
  • Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

    Eight is pushing it for a shortlist, isn’t it? Stil, several books here I’d like to get around to reading, so I’m not complaining too much. I will say, though, that I feel a rash of tweets like this just before nominations closed, which may have been poorly worded but which as they stand look like they were just trying to drum up votes irrespective of whether the voter had read the book or not, devalue Baker’s nomination a bit. And that’s a shame.

    The Dream of Perpetual Links

    EDIT: Actually, finally finally: don’t forget the deadline for applications to this year’s SF Foundation Masterclass in SF criticism is creeping up. (I suddenly realised last night, and sent in my application so that I don’t have to worry about it while I’m away.)

    Sweets from a Stranger

    Sweets from a Stranger coverOverall: a good collection, I’d say, although perhaps not really representative of Fisk’s strengths and weaknesses at novel length — perhaps less representative than I expected, at any rate, given that his novels tend to be on the short side anyway. The stories are more about childhood situations, or situations that can be read as representative of childhood situations, and less about children themselves; and they tend more towards outright horror or comedy. In googling around for references to the stories in this volume I discovered that Fisk has actually published another collection, Living Fire and Other Stories, and that one of his stories was nominated for a Nebula in 1976. So I don’t think I’m quite done with Fisk’s short fiction yet.

    In the meantime, however, here are links to all the story posts. There’s some discussion on the “Sweets for a Stranger” post, if anyone hasn’t seen it.

    “Teddies Rule, OK?”

    Sweets from a Stranger coverThe final story in the collection, and the only one that seems particularly directed towards a grown-up reader. The narrator is a writer, one that we can take as a proxy for Fisk, and he relates a story about the family of his landlord, technocrat Lucius Kern.

    Kern’s daughter, Mandy (age 6), has a teddy bear, Tugsy, that she adores more than anything in the world — certainly more than her father, it seems. Tugsy is her Hobbes. In an attempt to win her affection, Kern has his engineers develop an AI that can be implanted in Tugsy, thinking (perhaps) that if he can bring the bear to life for real, Mandy will recognise his generosity and return his love. He sneaks into Mandy’s room one night to insert the computer into Tugsy.

    It is easy to imagine what happened in the morning.

    Mandy woke. She said, “Come on Tugsy, get up. Don’t be lazy.”

    And the bear spoke! “Good morning,” it said.

    She said, “What?” and the bear repeated “Good morning.”

    Perhaps Mandy’s eyes and mouth opened wide in amazement. If they did, they were very soon brought under control. As she always did, she washed and dressed herself, without help, and went down to breakfast. (149)

    It’s very noticeable that we’re never allowed into Mandy’s point of view in this story; everything the narrator is not present for is speculation, and not all of it is accurate. When things inevitably don’t unfold as Kern hoped, it’s a rebuke, or perhaps a note-to-self on Fisk’s part: your science fiction, the story says, can’t match up to a child’s imagination.

    “Cutie Pie”

    Sweets from a Stranger coverAnother one, it seems, that has been used for teaching: you can find the text here, some sample questions and answers here, and even a trailer for a student film, here. Cutie-Pie is an alien, captured and returned to Earth by prospecting astronauts, and named by the masses. Interestingly, in the context of “Swap-Shop” and “Nightmare’s Dream”, which now seem to represent a sort of progress towards the alien, almost the entire story is told from Cutie-Pie’s point of view. His real name is Ch-tsal, and he’s suffering terribly. Uncomprehending humans are keeping him in an enclosure whose environmental conditions match those of the place where he was found; unfortunately, that place was not Ch-tsal’s native habitat. Eventually he escapes and fines a human baby with whom, at night time, he can commune:

    [The baby] It did not talk of what it knew now (which was next to nothing) but of what it had always known; its race memories. Ch-tsal learned what it was like for a human to plunge through a great wave, green and icy; to hunt down animals in dark forests; to let fly an arrow and somehow know for certain, as it left the bow, that it would hit its mark. He learned of the glories of battle. the terrors of defeat, the chill wickedness of snakes, the smell of wood smoke.

    In his turn, Ch-tsal told the baby of the building of crystal cities, of creatures in caves, of the pioneer ships that opened up the galaxy, of the Venus invaders and how they were repulsed, of the five ways of knowing God, and of the taste of a certain food that grew only when his planet’s three moons were full.

    Much as I admire the story for refusing a human perspective almost entirely, I can’t help feeling it’s one of the lesser stories in Sweets for a Stranger; Ch-tsal just isn’t very satisfyingly alien. Perhaps the story’s teachability is that there’s an obvious comparison to be made with another work that first appeared in 1982. (The collection appeared in 1982, at least; the frustratingly incomplete copyright information indicates that some stories were also published in 1978, 1979, and 1980, but gives not indication as to which those might be.)

    “Nightmare’s Dream”

    Sweets from a Stranger coverAnother horror story, shorter and sharper than “Swap-Shop”, and between the title and the first paragraph the conceit is fairly clear from the off:

    There is a boy. Perhaps he is real. He lies in bed. Perhaps the bed is real. It is night and he wants to sleep. But the dream, the dream, the dream…! (124)

    That is: is the boy dreaming the alien slug monster, or is the alien slug monster dreaming the boy?

    A lot depends on execution, then. I think Fisk makes the right choice in, just for once, after that opening paragraph, plunging us into a first-person voice. The dream is creeping up on the narrator, “slack, slimy, cold […] It clamps my neck and my brain swells and wants to burst” (124). Overwhelmed, the narrator realises he is in his dream body, claustrophobically confined, harness-straps around his neck and middle. “Sometimes I bite the lock with my mouth, bite it for hours”, he reports. “Why do I do that? What is the point? My mouth is a wet blur, toothless, dripping, silent. Powerless” (125). It’s a pretty intense two pages.

    The narrator, who thinks he is the boy, dreams that he is discovered in his dream-body by his schoolfriends, and that they run screaming in terror at the sight of him. Then he wakes up, or so it seems; then he falls asleep again. The final section of the story steps back out into third-person, and we see a conversation between Helm and Thelma Singlass, who have captured a sluglike alien and brought it back to Earth. It seems clear this is the horror that send schoolchildren running in terror; what’s less clear, but raised as a possibility by the couples’ bathetic final exchange, is whether the boy dreaming he is the slug was ever real, or whether he is entirely a construct of the slug’s own dreams. I prefer the latter explanation.


    Sweets from a Stranger coverIt begins with the wind whistling through the wall. It’s not the noise itself that’s the problem, says Jo, it’s the feeling behind it. “It’s almost as if someone or something is saying things in the wall…” (103). Her brother Bogey (nee Alec) teases her about her fears, but together they reveal a hole in the wall, a hole that is “all wrong”, that is sometimes a normal hole, and sometimes “seemed to shift — to move, to swell and contract, almost to breathe” (105). Neither sibling is brave enough to venture into the hole, but Bogey throws in a old, cracked, china mug. It disappears. Two minutes later, a glass tumbler appears: thick, whole, beautiful green glass.

    Further swaps ensue. They put hot chocolate in the glass, and get back a golden liquid that tastes of every fruit and none. They put in salted peanuts, and get back unsalted. A needle and thread, and get back two pieces of fabric joined by a small button containing a golden worm, that glows “like the filament of a torch bulb when the battery’s almost flat” (109), and slowly rotates. Other devices come back with other worm-buttons on. Bogey gets excited: this could be his fortune! These miraculous worm-buttons, which seem to be able to join and clean and power and much else. He tries to establish direct communications with the whatevers on the other side of the hole: his notes and photographs come back unchanged. He does the inevitable. This is what Jo finds in the morning:

    Motionless, but for the fluttering of the petal-like eyelids. Glimmering white, smooth, flawless, hairless. Him. Not him. His head seemed larger. Too large. His scarred lip was still healing — as she watched, the last of the scar faded and vanished leaving only rose and white perfection.

    He groaned and rolled from side to side; then completely over. She felt the burn of vomit in her throat when her eyes were trapped by the sight of the crystal buttons in which turned little golden worms, in his neck, his brow, his belly, his chest. His eyelids fluttered again. They opened: then she saw the spiralling golden worms in his eyes. (121)

    He can talk, but Jo sends the new Bogey into the hole, and the story ends without revealing what, if anything, comes back. It may seem odd for a writer who so clearly believes in science fiction (“stories about extraordinary things that could happen”, according to the author biography in the back of some editions of his books) to write a story that leans so heavily (if effectively) on the horror of technology. But it’s of a piece with a story like “The Thieves of Galac“: the problem with the worm-buttons is that they’re sealed, inscrutable, unknowable, remote from everyday experience. They’re scary because we don’t know how they work.


    Sweets from a Stranger coverThinking some more about the matter of Fisk’s voice, and how different it is to that of contemporary YA, perhaps we shouldn’t be focusing on the fact of the difference, but asking where it comes from. That is: rather than writing in an ironically distancing voice just because he likes it, it strikes me that the difference may be that these are stories designed to be told — to be read out loud — and that the sense of distance follows on from that fact.

    The first scene of “Oddiputs”, for instance, dips into the minds of three of the four significant characters in the story. We get a glimpse of put-upon robot Oddiputs’ resignation at the abuse and mockery he gets from his child-masters, and in particular Sally; we feel younger brother Bruno’s hesitation before joining in with the teasing, and older brother Dex’s shame at the whole situation. Later paragraphs contain asides like this:

    But it was a vast list of facts and figures that he repeated, longer than an Encyclopedia. So long that it took Oddiputs whole minutes to produce and digest, at lightning speed (for robots are fast, very fast) the information that proved Oddiputs’ existence to Oddiputs. (84)

    The narrator is a palpable presence: you can feel him confiding in you, drawing you into the story. A movement away from this sort of voice, and towards predominantly first and very close third person fiction can be seen as both a gain and a loss, I think. What is gained is obvious — directness, immediacy, a sense that the story is being told by an equal, not mediated by an adult. (Even in some of his first-person work Fisk is reluctant to give up that mediation: Grinny is clearly framed as the protagonist’s diaries as polished up by noted author Nicholas Fisk. Of course, this is also a strategy to increase the “authenticity” of the tale, and Fisk does have some fun with it in You Remember Me!) On the other hand, what is lost is the awareness that such directness and imediacy is in the end always an illusion. The story is still mediated by an adult — by an author — even if it pretends otherwise; and that’s not such a bad thing to be reminded of about fiction.

    You also, perhaps, make it harder to have unlikable protagonists. The duelling parties in “Oddiputs” — the defective robot, who develops an egomaniacal certainty of his superiority to “dirty” humans over the course of several laborious night-times of thinking; and brattish Sally, who torments to robot just to reinforce her power over every aspect of the world around her, and all the people in it — are both thoroughly unimpressive sentient beings. But because they’re at one remove, perhaps it’s easier to enjoy their duel; it’s hard to imagine the story being as successful if told from one perspective, or even simply alternating between the two perspectives. As it is, we can sit back and enjoy their wicked antics.