26 May 2017

Jury-Rigged: My First Car

My first car was a 1990 Toyota Corolla. I bought it with my own money, I guess. (Like I know that money came out of an account in my name, but I'm not exactly sure how that money got in that account, because it predated me having a job or anything. A lifetime's worth of gifts, I think.) I paid $2,000 for it-- my dad arranged for it to be bought off a coworker, actually a year before I was even eligible for a learner's permit, and so it sat in the yard for a year. This would have been in about the year 2000.

I know the acquisition of one's first car is supposed to be an American milestone, especially for boys, but I can't get very worked up about cars. Plus, at the time, I was terrified of driving, and was perfectly happy for my parents to continue to chauffeur me around.  (They were not perfectly happy to do so. My mom wanted me to get my driver's license more than I did.) Still, being able to stay out until 2am at will is a pretty liberating experience for any teenager, even if your main use of the privilege is to watch Babylon 5 and/or play RPGs until late at night.

The car had a good run. Mostly my memories of it now concern all the things that went wrong with it over the years. And thus my memories of it mostly concern the weird ways my father would figure out to repair it on the cheap.

This is not my car. But it's close.

The car had a sun-roof, which was awesome. The sun-roof was very difficult to get to close in such a way that it would actually seal shut, which was less awesome. So basically I could never open the sun-roof for the entire time I owned the car; in fact, I think it only got opened when friends would just poke the button to find out what it did. For some reason the paint on the sun-roof started rusting faster than the paint on the rest of the car, and my dad gave me a spray can of light blue paint to touch it up. Well, the light blue spray paint was not very close to the light blue of the car, so it resulted in a patchy looking sun-roof still. We dealt with this by just painting the entire sun roof, so it was at least internally consistent, and I drove around with a sun-roof of a different color for the rest of the time I owned that car.

Once a friend and I went downtown to see the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. We parked on a bad side street, and foolishly left a bunch of stuff in the backseat. Someone smashed in one of the little triangle windows in the back. My father cut a piece of plexiglass on his bandsaw, and we fitted it into position. No one was smashing though that again. Despite there being a bunch of stuff in the back, the only thing they took was a bag of Funyuns.

Once a bracket on the bottom of the car that held the exhaust pipe in place rusted through, meaning now the pipe was rattling like crazy. My father didn't have a bracket, but he did have a spring. So he wrapped one end of the spring around the pipe and pulled it tight, latching the other end to a random bit of the undercarriage, the tension on the spring meaning the pipe didn't have room it needed to rattle any more.

Once I ran into a deer while driving at night, and the left headlight was pushed backwards into the car by two inches. Whatever had held it in place was now gone, so my dad cut a two-inch block of wood and wedged it in there to stop it from sliding around.

Once all my coolant leaked out and the engine overheated and all sorts of alarms went off and I drove it all the way home anyway. I was later told that this was not a thing I should have done.

I sold that thing in 2008 for $1000 when I got my first full-time job and thus enough money to afford a newer car. I always wondered what the next owner thought whenever he did repairs and saw what my father had made of it. I presume it's not out there in the world anymore, but who knows, it was made of stern stuff.

25 May 2017

Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

I was going to try to make some kind of link between Tess Durbeyfield and River Song, but being women is pretty much all they have in common. I guess they both die? Anyway, I have a review up of series two of The Diary of River Song.

Trade paperback, 518 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1891)

Previously read January and February 2010
Acquired June 2014

Reread October 2014
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

As I skim back through my old lesson plans to write up my most recent reread of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which took place in the context of teaching it, I'm impressed by the number of significant ideas and themes I took note of: evolution, history, women's roles, rape and sexual coercion, truth and selfhood, hidden psychology, and social forces are the ones I noted down-- of course there are many others, too. There's a lot going on in this novel, and you could write papers (or blog posts and blog posts; this is my third) and papers on it and only scratch the surface.

What always impresses about Hardy is his ability to link the cultural to the psychological. (I guess this is really what naturalism is all about, and he was probably its foremost British practitioner.) We perfectly understand the sometimes poor choices that Tess makes, both on the level of the cultural forces operating on her (Victorian society of course had a lot of expectations for the way women should act, which didn't always accord with what they encountered in the real world), and on the level of individual psychology (Tess always has a perfectly good reason to do what she does-- and somehow so does Angel and even Alec!). My students and I came up with the idea of "active passivity" to sum up Tess: she seems to never do anything... but not doing something often requires enormous force of will on her part. She puts so much work into not reacting so that she can fulfill what society expects of her. She's a victim of herself and her circumstances, in a way that really only a Victorian novel can depict.

24 May 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part XI: Blue Beetle: Reach for the Stars

Comic trade paperback, 166 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2017
Blue Beetle: Reach for the Stars

Writers: John Rogers, J. Torres, Keith Giffen
Pencillers: Rafael Albuquerque, David Baldeon, Freddie Williams II
Inkers: Rafael Albuquerque, Steve Bird, Dan Davis
Colorist: Guy Major 
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Pat Brosseau

Yesssss. Blue Beetle is still the quintessential teen superhero book, as John Rogers shows all lesser writers how to balance character, humor, superheroics, and teen angst. Road Trip ended on a cliffhanger, with Blue Beetle making first contact with the alien Reach, responsible for the creation of his mysterious scarab; Reach for the Stars follows that up with a series of standalone one-issue stories, as Jaime tries to convince others that the Reach isn't what it seems. I wish more writers followed Rogers's approach: his done-in-ones are perfect at balancing individual story and character beats with the ongoing plots and narratives of the series, meaning that this slim volume feels like it does more than many fatter comic collections.

The book features a lot of tie-ins to the larger DC universe, with appearances by Guy Gardner and Ultra-Humanite, Superman and Livewire, Traci 13 (the Architects did keep their promise in Architecture & Mortality and fold her into the post-52 universe), Bruce Wayne/Batman, Lobo and the Teen Titans, and Giganta (not sure how her operating as a mercenary here fits with her being a professor at Ivy University in The All New Atom, but maybe I'll find out). These are well-done crowd-pleasers: who doesn't like Paco and Brenda quibbling over the belly shirts all the female members of the Titans wear?

Batman might knock Guy out in one punch, but Jaime's mother doesn't even need one.
from Blue Beetle vol. 8 #14 (script by John Rogers, art by Rafael Albuquerque)

But where John Rogers and his collaborators always excel are the moments of character. A real highlight is a story where Jaime must stop a storm-creating supervillain from devastating a coastal Mexican community. His suit lets him know how many life-signs are active in the community, leading to this devastating page:

23 May 2017

Hugos 2017 [Prelude]: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Quick cross-link: my review of the Doctor Who spin-off The New Counter Measures: Series One was posted to USF today.

Trade paperback, 498 pages
Published 2015

Acquired and read May 2017
The Broken Earth, Book One: The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin

Like last week's Saga, Book One, I'm reading this not because it's nominated for the 2017 Hugos (in fact, it won the 2016 Hugo for Best Novel), but because a follow-up volume in the same series is nominated. A lot of this year's Hugo nominees are later volumes in series, which leaves me with a lot to read!

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn coins a corollary to Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction" (62). The Broken Earth is definitely an embodiment of that idea. Taking place on a world with a dangerously active geology (volcanic eruptions potent enough to cause a "fifth season," i.e., a winter of more than six months, occur every couple centuries, meaning no civilization lasts very long) and where orogenes (think earthbenders from Avatar) are both feared and needed for their power to manipulate Father Earth, Jemisin takes these seemingly fantastic premises and follows them through to their logical conclusions. The worldbuilding is the real strength of this novel-- from language to culture, the Stillness (the ironic name of the continent) feels like a real place, with a politics and history and racial dynamics all its own. There's so much packed in here, so many cool but also dark ideas about how orogenes would be perceived, and how society would evolve to protect itself from the threat of fifth seasons.

It's beautifully told, too, an elevated style that sometimes gets oddly casual, but Jemisin pulls it off. The book follows three parallel narratives, the journeys of three different orogenes, each reacting to titanic events. Jemisin's handling of language is her handling of character, and also her handling of cruelty: in many ways, the apocalyptic world of The Fifth Season is just our own, in all the worse ways. Sometimes, though I got a little lost in the style, having to reread significant passages for comprehension a little too much, and I was a little frustrated that The Fifth Season doesn't stand alone in any sense. The Broken Earth is definitely not multiple stories in a series, but one big story; the end of the book doesn't resolve anything, but introduces more complications. Still, I am excited to read book two, The Obelisk Gate, in a few weeks, and the end portends much.

Next Week: The most rational of futures discovers a miracle in Too Like the Lightning!

22 May 2017

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Trade paperback, 302 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2010)

Acquired January 2017
Read March 2017
Among Others by Jo Walton

I've been telling everyone about this book since I started reading it, and I don't normally promote books like that. But if you like genre fiction and if you had a childhood love of reading and if you ever felt like an outsider, I think you will love this book, a fantasy novel about a science fiction lover set in 1979-80. A really truthful book about loss, the pains of growing up, love, the Welsh countryside, and reading-- with fairies thrown in! Walton's conception of magic is really compelling, and the narrative voice is excellent. A lot packed into this: I'd love to teach it someday, actually!

19 May 2017

Russell T Davies: Still Television's Greatest Writer (Cucumber and Banana)

Obviously everyone can have different opinions about things, and I respect that. I think Thor 2 is the cinematic triumph of the age and you do not; you think Blake's 7 is well written, and I do not. So what? Tastes differ. One opinion I can never understand, though, is that Russell T Davies is not a great writer, nor even a good writer. His five-year run on Doctor Who (2005-10) is probably unparalleled for quality in the show's history, and that is a fact.

I will always be thankful for Doctor Who for introducing me to him as a writer. I went from Doctor Who to Davies's two television programmes featuring future Doctor Whos: Christopher Eccleston in The Second Coming (2003) and David Tennant in Casanova (2005), and then from there to his trailblazing LGBT work in Queer as Folk (1999-2000) and Bob & Rose (2001). I actually haven't gone further back than that, but someday I'm sure I'll watch The Grand (1997-98), Revelations (1994-95), Century Falls (1993), and Dark Season (1991). What I love about Davies is his ability to write characters, the way he writes people who feel completely and totally like they are real people, people who you love not despite their faults, nor even for their faults, but for the complete and total package of which their faults are an inseparable component. I know a lot of people didn't come around on Rose's mom Jackie until late in series 2 of Doctor Who with "Love & Monsters," but I enjoyed her from the very beginning of her first appearance in "Rose" when she demands Rose go to the council for compensation because she both felt very real to me and was very funny.

Bob & Rose is probably my favorite thing he's written. It's about a gay man who falls in love with a woman, and two things stick out at me about it-- one that is that I always tear up at the end of episode 4, when Penelope Wilton chains herself to a bus along with an entire crowd of demonstrators, and the other is that there's a character who makes a series of inarguably morally wrong decisions, and yet you completely understand her and even sympathize with her, like when a friend of yours does something boneheaded yet you love him anything.

Cucumber and Banana (both 2015) were Davies's return to mimetic television (i.e., not sci-fi/fantasy) following his runs on Doctor Who and its various spin-offs. If Queer as Folk, written when Davies was a young gay man, was about the experience of being young and gay, then Cucumber, written when Davies was a middle-aged gay man, is about the experience of being middle-aged and gay. Cucumber starts with a couple, Henry and Lance, who end up separating after an argument, and both wondering if they've wasted their lives with each other. Henry moves in with a bunch of twenty-somethings, pursuing something he will never let himself have, while Lance ends up going after a co-worker who insists he's straight, but keeps giving signals that he's interested in something more.

It's a weird show, to be honest, and it might be my least favorite thing that Davies has written. Which is not to say it's not well-written: it's as chockful of Davies's trademark attention to characterization and moments of humor as ever, and it actually has some genuinely great montages. But there are times it feels very aimless, and Henry is hard guy to like. I understood him, but I wasn't always rooting for him. Or rather, the things I was rooting for him to do were things I had no interest in him doing. The end of the show brought things into perspective, though, and I'd be curious to see how the revelations of the last conversation Henry has would impact my rewatching of the show-- while at the same time it feels like the Davies show I'm least likely to actually want to rewatch.

But still, some parts of it are so impressive: Henry's inadvertent creation of a "porn empire" that he both loves and despises, especially because of his discomfort about how the newest generation does not experience discomfort over being gay; or the part where Henry gets out of sex by inadvertently pretending he's just delaying sex to make the other guy want it more; or the sixth episode which is almost impossible to discuss if you're trying to be vaguely spoiler free (and I am); or a bit in episode 7 where three of the main characters drive around trying to triangulate the location of a Welshman based on distances given on Grindr, but end up trapped in a car in the middle of a rainstorm and sharing deeper parts of themselves for the first time ever (well, except for Dean, because there is no deepness to Dean).

Cucumber was accompanied by Banana an eight-episode anthology series whose episodes alternate with those of Cucumber (i.e., you watch Cucumber episode 1, then Banana episode 1, then Cucumber 2, then Banana 2, and so on). The main character of each episode of Banana is a side character of some varying level of importance in Cucumber. The main character of episode 1, for example is a main character in all of Cucumber, while the main character of episode 5 appears in only a single scene of Cucumber, and the main character of episode 4 hasn't even appeared in Cucumber at the time you see her in Banana. Davies himself writes episodes 1, 2, and 8, while the other ones are all by new, young, queer writers.

Like any anthology, Banana is highly variable, but when it's good, it's good. Davies's writing, for obvious reasons, tends to focus on white gay men, but Banana runs the whole gamut-- anything that involves queer relationships is essentially fair game. So we have stories about lesbians living with a romantic partner for the first time, and about a trans woman who has a well-meaning family she can't quite connect with post-transition, and about a gay guy who goes to the big city for university and disapproves of his best friend from back home's impending wedding, and about a woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder who can't have anything nice because she always fantasizes about things going wrong.

My favorites were 2, 4, and 6, but they're all good, and they're greater than the sum of their parts. Like one of the best things about Banana is that even though each episode of it stands alone (episode 4, the one about the trans woman, is well worth watching, for example), its diversity as a whole is one of its strengths. There is no single relationship narrative, or even queer romance narrative, and Banana captures so many different facets of human existence in eight 25-minute chunks. Watching it in alternation with Cucumber is fun, because when background characters have had an episode of Banana to themselves, their reappearances in Cucumber carry hidden depths. The fact that Davies used his current cachet to promote new queer voices seems amazingly admirable, too: I was particularly impressed with the work of Charlie Covell, who wrote episodes 4 and 6 and starred in episode 6. Hopefully she goes far as a writer and an actor, because she deserves too.

Oh, and the ending of episode 8 is just delightfully, darkly humorous. My wife and I were like, "Did they really???" And they did.

Cucumber was good, but it's definitely over-- when you get to the end, you know it's said everything it wanted to say. Banana, though... there deserves to be more Banana in the world, and hopefully some way is found to make it happen.

Bonus Link Section
I found the following particularly insightful when watching the show / writing this:
Each AV Club review has spoilers for the episode in question, and the Radio Times interview has big spoilers for the first five episodes specifically, so read cautiously if you're going to watch the shows. The overall reviews are pretty safe.

18 May 2017

Review: Bombing the People by Thomas Hippler

Hardcover, 285 pages
Published 2013
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939
by Thomas Hippler

I came to this book looking for a discussion of bombing civilian populations during air war and the ethics thereof. As its subtitle indicates, Bombing the People is really about the thinking of one particular air-power strategist, the Italian general Giulio Douhet. Douhet was an advocate for total war, and Hippler provides a comprehensive intellectual history of his thought-- if I recall correctly, many of the works Hippler examines had previously not been translated into English, leading to misrepresenation of Douhet's actual belief. Douhet's intellectual evolution is actually kind of fascinating and worth recounting in full.

Hippler argues that early on, Douhet actually considered the bombing of civilians unconscionable;  during World War I, he advocated for a World State that would abolish war. As someone who reads a lot of science fiction from 1880-1915, I find this a very familiar dream: H. G. Wells wanted this to happen, but so did many other proto-sf writers, like George Griffith and Louis Tracy, and Hippler reports that Douhet actually cites Wells. But Douhet went from seeing military forces as the only legitimate targets of aerial bombing in 1911 to call for strategic bombing of urban centers in 1915. How did this happen?

It's actually a pretty compelling chain of logic. Relationships between nations are essentially anarchic; if you want there to be civilization between states, not just within them, you need international police and international courts. Only such an organization could successfully ban war. Thus, a nation that carries out war anyway is not an enemy nation, but a criminal nation, and we believe that criminals must be punished for their misdeeds, partly to discourage other criminals from carrying out misdeeds. So if war is unjust, and we want to stop war, we actually need aerial bombing as a punitive measure, because there's no other way to effectively punish a state for its misdeeds. If the leadership is responsible, the people will eventually rise up and change the leadership, ending the war, and thus leaders will be discouraged from starting wars. If you attack the enemy's population center from their air and break their will, there will actually be fewer casualties than in a long, drawn-out war. It's an amazing argument, I think, and one that recognizes that all civilization is fundamentally based on violence; the last bit even presages ways that President Truman allegedly rationalized using the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. But that makes sense, if you keep in mind that in the 1910s, all-out air war was perceived as being as apocalyptic as nuclear war would be in the 1950s.

Douehet actually wrote his own future-war novel in 1919, Come finì la grande Guerra, where he got to put some of his ideas into practice. I must seek it out. Thanks to Hippler for covering in detail this important strategic thinker, tangling with in reality the same ideas I see pored over in fiction from the same era.

17 May 2017

Faster than a DC Bullet: All-New All-Different DC, Part X: The All New Atom: Future/Past

Comic trade paperback, 127 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2007)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2017
The All New Atom: Future/Past

Writer: Gail Simone
Pencils: Mike Norton, Eddy Barrows
Inks: Andy Owens, Trevor Scott
Letters: Pat Brosseau, Travis Lanham
Colors: Alex Bleyaert

Like the previous volume, Future/Past doesn't deliver on the potential that I see in the "all new" Atom, Ryan Choi. What makes him interesting is his academic background (okay, maybe as a college instructor I'm a little biased there) and the setting of Ivy Town, a place where so much mad science has been practiced that "normal" is a meaningless term. And I liked the cast of characters Gail Simone and John Byrne set up in volume one, Ryan's eccentric fellow professors who all play poker together.

This guy's research credentials had better be amazing, given how awful a teacher he is. Here I am slaving away in adjunct-land, and this awful guy has a tenure-track position at an Ivy!
from The All New Atom #7 (art by Mike Norton & Andy Owens)

The first story collected here, "The Man Who Swallowed Eternity," promises time-travel shenanigans, but is really depressingly straightforward. Ryan is told by a Linear Man* to turn in a guy if he asks Ryan for help, the guy appears and Ryan doesn't turn him in, the Linear Man comes back and Ryan persuades him to not kill the guy anyway. That's it, but somehow it takes two issues to play out. The fact that the Linear Man sends cowboys after Ryan, or that Ryan and the fugitive end up in a dystopian future Ivy Town, are just irrelevant side-shows. Neat ideas in this story, but nothing neat is done with them.

That said, Mike Norton does good, slick, action-filled artwork. Wish he was the primary artist for the series...
from The All New Atom #7 (art by Mike Norton & Andy Owens)

The second story, "Jia," feels like a misstep for the book at this stage: a girl Ryan loved from afar asks him to come back to Hong Kong to help deal with an abusive husband, who used to bully Ryan... only she neglected to mention that the husband is already dead but still angry! Ryan's bullied-nerd background is dull and stereotypical, and Jia's portrayal as a woman being fought over by two men is pretty surprising coming from the writer who coined the term "Women in Refrigerators," especially given the last twist in the story. The three-issue detour back to Hong Kong is mistimed for a book that's barely done much with its actual setting thus far. Let's see more of Ivy Town! Most of the book's recurring cast doesn't even appear in this volume, unfortunately. Establish your world, then take a break from it.

...as opposed to Eddy Barrows, who is terrible at drawing Asian faces. (Or maybe just faces.)
from The All New Atom #10 (art by Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott)

So far The All New Atom isn't really delivering on its potential. Hopefully this happens in the third volume... because we're running out of volumes, as it only lasted four!

Next Week: Blue Beetle has to Reach for the Stars!

* Since when are the Linear Men murderous jerks, anyway?

16 May 2017

Hugos 2017 [Prelude]: Saga, Book One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Comic hardcover, 504 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 2012-14)

Acquired December 2014
Read April 2017
Saga, Book One

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Lettering+Design: Fonografiks

For years now I've been claiming I was going to vote in the Hugos, the fan award for the best in science fiction and fantasy. I'm almost never up-to-date in the field, and the Hugos seem like a fun way to find out what's at the top these days. Plus, you get to make lists! Ever year I find some kind of excuse: too busy, too many racists in the finalists, and so on. But this year, I resolved I would finally do it. I'll be chronicling my Hugo journey here on this blog, as I try to read all the finalists for Best Novel, Best Graphic Story, Best Related Work, Best Short Story, Best Novella, and Best Novelette prior to the July 15th deadline.

Saga, Book One isn't a finalist for the Hugos this year, but Volume 6 is, which gives me the impetus to finally read Book One, which collects Volumes 1-3, and which I've had for a few years now. I've heard Saga compared to an adult version of Star Wars, and it really is in a way that few space operas are. Like, you could call Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse "adult" versions of Star Wars, but they're not really-- they're too "grounded." Star Wars isn't really science fiction (in some senses of sf, anyway), it's space fantasy: it's got ghosts and magic and bizarre, implausible aliens. Saga has these in spades: its aliens are humans with animal parts, or maybe even just animals, and its robots look like humans with tvs for heads, and one of the main characters is a ghost, and there's a cat who says "LYING" whenever it hears someone lie. But it's adult: there's swearing and viscera and sex and all the gory details of pregnancy and prostitution.

Yet it's not the immature kind of "adult": the sex and violence and so one give the story weight and heft, and elevate it into something fully itself. Saga may remind you of Star Wars or Romeo and Juliet or Battlestar Galactica in some ways, but it's not trying to be any of them. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have created something really unique, with star-crossed romance (the main characters are from the opposite sides of a deadly war), pathos (there's a bit with Lying Cat that was just heart-wrenching), and the right amount of kookiness (the main characters bond over a cheap paperback romance novel that turns out to have a deeper meaning).

Despite the darkness of it, it's beautiful: Fiona Staples I don't think had done much before Saga, but as in Y: The Last Man, Brian Vaughan has found the perfect artistic collaborator for the story he's telling. Horrifying creatures, human emotion, forbidding vistas, beautiful emptiness, all are rendered perfectly by Staples. A lot of depth comes from the narration, which hits the balance between corniness and insight, and is hand-written by Staples herself, the perfect finishing touch. Everything about the book is beautifully done, down to the page and font design by Fonografiks. (The deluxe hardcover has a very in-depth making-of feature, which I really enjoyed. Both Vaughan and Staples have fascinating processes.)

The sprawling story (seriously, there's not just our main characters, and their daughter, but also the parents of one of them, and a ghost, and the bounty hunter chasing them and his companions, and a robot prince, and a pair of investigative journalists, and probably others I'm forgetting) moves in genuinely inventive and surprising ways across in first eighteen issues, and I finished it eager to see where it would go next.

Next Week: Visiting a Broken Earth, in N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season!

15 May 2017

Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Before we begin, I want to point out that my last-ever review of The Avengers: The Lost Episodes has gone up at Unreality SF. I've really enjoyed this series, and I will miss it. A beautifully written, performed, and produced slice of the 1960s here in the 2010s. Like I said in this review, it captured everything I enjoyed about the old black-and-white 30-minute Danger Mans back in the day.

Hardcover, 990 pages
Published 1994 (contents: 1841-1994)

Acquired March 2008
Read March 2017
The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF
edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

A thousand-page anthology devoted to a subgenre feels like an argument to me. A shorter book would claim to be nothing more than a sampling, while even a thousand-page book devoted to whole genre of science fiction couldn't rightly claim comprehensiveness. But with one thousand pages and over sixty stories from a single subgenre, The Ascent of Wonder can claim to be defining that subgenre's entire form and purpose. Unfortunately, it gets off to a rough start: I found the introductions (there are three!) by Gregory Benford and Kathryn Cramer more befuddling than illuminating, but I keyed in on a passage from David Hartwell's introduction: "Hard sf is about the beauty of truth. It is a metaphorical or symbolic representation of the wonder at the perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery" (30). I don't know that I entirely agree, but it's an intriguing formulation that explains why Hartwell and Cramer picked the stories they did for this anthology.

Judging by the stories included here, Hartwell and Cramer's definition of hard sf is a lot more capacious than my own. I love Cordwainer Smith, and "No, No, Not Rogov!" is indeed about the "perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery," but the inclusion of stories like this make me think that definition isn't specific enough-- I don't think Smith cares about science except as a source of beautiful imagery and fantastic ideas, and if sf is to be "hard" I feel like it needs something more than that. It's not that Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" or Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" or Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" are bad stories, or even stories uninterested in science, but it's that they're not invested in following the implications of actual science in a way that, say, Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" is-- a story that despite its flaws (or maybe because of them) epitomized the hard sf ethos of logic over all else. There are times I found myself wishing Hartwell and Cramer had included some kind of counterpoint story: if "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin (a story that has clones in it, but no science behind them) or "The Very Slow Time Machine" by Ian Watson (which has a neat concept at its heart, but not as far as I can tell, one from actual science) or "The Longest Science Fiction Story Ever Told" by Arthur C. Clarke (which is an unfunny joke about unfunny jokes) are all hard sf, then what isn't? Show me the other side of the subgenre so I can see its edges more clearly.

That said, with over 150 years of stories to pick from, Cramer and Hartwell assembled an excellent collection of stories, and despite some dubious enclosures, I do feel I understand the parameters and possibilities of hard sf more than I did before reading. Some were by authors I knew and loved already: James Blish's "Beep" has a clever and interesting conceit that would make Steven Moffat's head spin. Donald Kingsbury's "To Bring in the Steel" was a surprising tale of a Paris Hilton-esque media floozy discovering a new side of herself on an asteroid mine; after enjoying Psychohistorical Crisis so much, I ought to seek out more of his work. "Waterclap" was an interesting Isaac Asimov story I hadn't read before, but let down by the fact that Asimov can imagine a moon colony and an underwater colony, but can't imagine a woman having any role in either outside of childbearing... in 1970! Le Guin's "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" wasn't a story, but had neat enough ideas (about ant language!) to succeed regardless. And I'm always happy to reread James Blish's "Surface Tension," which is in my sci-fi top five. David Brin's "What Continues, What Fails..." shows science fiction at its best as well, combining future reproduction with black hole physics to deliver a testimony for the human need to reproduce and leave a mark on the universe. (I did appreciate that unlike most anthologists, they included the contextual material with Rudyard Kipling's "With the Night Mail," though I wish they hadn't dumped it all at the end, after the actual story.)

There was the occasional outright bad one: Rudy Rucker's "Message Found in a Copy of Flatland" was sort of a non-story, not doing anything that Flatland didn't do itself; I got the feeling that it was in the book because being a novel, Flatland itself couldn't be. And James P. Hogan's "Making Light" is an unfunny joke stretched out way too long with dubious claims to be science fiction, much less hard sf. I think it's only in here because Hogan didn't write much short fiction, so Cramer and Hartwell had limited options (his novel Inherit the Stars is probably one of the best examples of the subgenre).

I was kind of a sucker for stories involving academia, I guess for obvious reasons. "Davy Jones' Ambassador" by Raymond Z. Gallun was surprisingly interesting, a tale of a professor (who's married to a dean) chasing a giant leviathan. I particularly loved Katherine Maclean's "The Snowball Effect," a rare sociological hard sf tale about a sociology department head defending his program against budget cuts by an overeager administrator by accidentally transforming a local knitting club into a global power. Michael F. Flynn's "Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum" was surprisingly moving tale of a physics professor hunting ghosts as he destroys his academic career.

This review just scratches the surface of the good stuff contained within. (I want to read more Bob Shaw and Gordon R. Dickson now, for example, and I was very glad to see H. G. Wells's "The Land Ironclads" in this context.) Presumably no anthology is perfect, but I suspect this one comes closer than most: it's probably a better sf anthology than any I've read outside of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame series. I discovered a lot of new stories, developed a new appreciation for a subgenre I've thought little about, and have some new authors to look up.