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Monthly Archives: August 2015

“Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories” by China Mieville

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I’ve always enjoyed the particular brand of magical realism in which some aspects of the story are allowed to remain mysterious. Several of the stories in China Mieville’s new collection Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories fit this mold. In “Polynia,” icebergs appear floating in the skies over London. “The Dowager of Bees” features secret cards that mysteriously appear during games of chance and have strange effects. “The Design” revolves around a medical student who finds mysterious—and impossible—carvings on the bones of the cadaver he’s working with. None of these stories give a precise explanation for the origins of the phenomena they present. Because of this, the events described are made to seem truly wondrous—the world of Mieville’s stories is one that’s far stranger than most people living in it give it credit for.

One aspect of this collection that I found interesting is the integration of current events and trends into the stories. The title story, “The Rabbet,” and “Polynia” all incorporate the concept of urban exploration: people hiking through, climbing, and/or camping in structures such as abandoned buildings in a city environment. Similarly, “The Condition of New Death” references the (often tragic) attempts of African refugees to reach Europe in overcrowded, dubiously seaworthy boats.

I expected that some of the stories would make use of an experimental format, but I was surprised to see several trying out the same one. “Escapee,” “The Crawl,” and “Listen the Birds” are all written as transcripts of movie trailers. By necessity, these are minimalist in their prose style, and I found that it worked well. In particular, I could easily imagine “The Crawl” as a trailer for an actual movie.

Although this isn’t a horror collection per se, two of the best stories in it are horror pieces. I’ve been reading horror fiction since I was a kid (starting with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series), and “Sacken” is one of the most atmospherically creepy I’ve ever read. Meanwhile, “The Rabbet” puts a new twist on the old idea of a work of art with sinister implications.

The only complaint I had about Three Moments of an Explosion is that a few of the stories seemed to reach a climax and then…just stop there, rather than giving us a resolution. This was especially true for “Keep” and (although I loved the concept behind it) “The Dowager of Bees.”

Fans of Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels may be disappointed to find that there aren’t any stories in Three Moments set in that world, but the variants of our world created in the collection are just as strange and immersive.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, C. C. Finlay (editor), July/August 2015

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The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is one of the giants of the speculative fiction world, having published such seminal works as Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It’s been in publication since 1949 and is currently edited by C. C. Finlay.

The July/August issue includes a good mix of pieces, with one novella, three novelettes, six short stories, and seven nonfiction articles. The novella, Rachel Pollack’s “Johnny Rev,” is an urban fantasy story in the same general vein as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. The main character, Jack Shade, is a thaumaturge who earns a living by solving mysteries and resolving problems for other people who are involved with the world of magic. As a side effect of a tragedy in his past, this profession goes beyond choice—he’s magically compelled to accept a commission from anyone who presents him with his business card. This becomes a serious problem when a mysterious stranger hires him to defeat an unnamed enemy who turns out to be Jack himself.

The characters in the story were well-rounded and likeable, and I was kept interested as Jack searches for a way out of his dilemma. I did feel as though many different aspects (prominent people/organizations, magical mechanics, etc.) of a complex setting were thrown at the reader very quickly. This piece could benefit from expansion into a novel that covers more of Jack’s life (his training, the aforementioned tragedy, and so on). This would allow the reader to be introduced to details of the setting at a less breakneck pace and allow for fuller exploration of them.

Tamsyn Muir’s novelette “The Deepwater Bride” gives us an interesting juxtaposition of Lovecraftian horror and a coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Hester Blake is the latest in a line of seers who have an ancient pact with creatures similar to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. In exchange for documenting the omens and events of the Old Ones’ occasional incursions into the mortal world, they are protected from the madness and death that typically accompany such incursions. Despite her exceptional upbringing, Hester faces many of the typical experiences of a modern teenager—she feels that the adult members of her family don’t understand her, she doesn’t fit in with the other kids at her school—and these are skillfully interwoven with the more eldritch goings-on. The ending is unexpectedly poignant.

Van Aaron Hughes’s “The Body Pirate” presents us with a civilization in which an avian race has developed a symbiotic relationship with a humanoid one. Because the humanoids can’t process the full range of thoughts, emotions, and memories in the absence of the avian symbiont, the avians refer to themselves as “souls” and the humanoids as “bodies.” Because the souls can leave their bodies temporarily, some sections of the story feature pages that are divided down the middle, with the soul’s actions described on one side and the body’s on the other. In addition to this interesting format, the piece uses small details to add realism to the setting. For example, one character describes how some people think she’s been “coasting in [another character’s] slipstream”—an analogue to the expression “riding his/her coattails” that makes perfect sense for a flying species. Similarly, a tantrum-throwing child yells at a currently un-souled parent, “You’re not my real mother! You’re just a body…” At the time the story opens, a relatively recent technological advancement has allowed souls to switch between multiple bodies, and in the tradition of classic sci-fi, Hughes does an excellent job of exploring what effect this new technology has on society, interpersonal relationships, and fundamental questions of identity.

I often find that the speculative fiction I enjoy most is able to put realistic concerns front-and-center even if the story also includes spaceships, aliens, wizards, vampires, and so on. Richard Chwedyk’s short story “Dixon’s Road” possesses this quality. It also points out some of the disruptive effects that space travel could have on relationships between friends and family members.

Oliver Buckram’s “This Quintessence of Dust” was interesting to me because it turns the old sci-fi trope of robots rising up against humanity on its head. In this story, the robots are still loyal to humans—in fact, caring for us is their entire purpose in life. So what happens when a plague wipes out the human race?

Naomi Kritzer’s “The Silicon Curtain” is part of her ongoing Seastead series. The introductory blurb for the story suggests that it’s a good starting point for readers who are new to the series, but I found it hard to connect to the characters when I didn’t know much about their backstory. I also felt that the main character overcame the major challenges in the story too easily.

The regular “Books to Look For” column is written by Charles de Lint (whose urban fantasy collection Dreams Underfoot is excellent, by the way). In this particular installment, he reviews not only several books, but also a CD inspired by one of the books under review. This theme of a story being transformed into different media continues in Kathi Maio’s film review column, in which she discusses various adaptations of the Cinderella fairy tale.

After serving as editor for several special issues of the magazine, C. C. Finlay took over as permanent editor this year from Gordon Van Gelder, who had been the editor since 1997. With so many immersive, engaging stories in this issue, it’s clear he’s getting off to a strong start.

Introductory Post

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Hi there!

I decided to make this blog to talk about the books I’m reading.  Most of these will likely be speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) with the occasional historical fiction or nonfiction book thrown in.

The blog title is from a Mark Twain quote: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”