Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: "Nova" by Samuel Delany

Samuel Delany is not a new name to Science Fiction, nor is "Nova" a recent book. It was first published in 1968, and Delany is associated with other SpecFic greats like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. He has won multiple awards, all well-deserved, for his creative and insightful depictions of humanity in the future. His works, "Nova" included, often address questions of race and sexuality that at the time were only just beginning to be overtly explored through texts like Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." As a self-identified African American gay man, Delany uses his personal experiences with minority status in multiple ways to create beautiful, imperfect characters and alien worlds that are all fraught with dangers, both obvious and hidden. 

"Nova" is no exception to this haunted beauty of Delany's, and focuses on character more than action as the plot progresses. This seemed odd to me, since the adventurous setup for the novel had me eating out of the author's hand from the second chapter or so. In this interplanetary saga space ship captain Lorq Von Ray, the only son of a wealthy family in the Pleiades, is convinced that he's found a way to break a rival family's choke hold on Illyrium, the scarce but powerful element that powers everything from space-age musical instruments to space ships. But to overthrow the Red family and end the feud that' been raging between them for generations, he'll have to find a crew that's brave - or desperate - enough to fly through a nova. That's right, Lorq believes Illyrion to be concentrated in the center of an actively collapsing star before it's exploded outwards to spread again across the galaxy. But who can survive the intensity of an imploding star? Lorq has clues, and he and his crew are on their way to finding out whether or not survival and success are both possible. 

Lorq is a fascinating character, the product of interracial marriage and his family's questionable rise to power in a star system far from Earth and the Draco system. He is haunted by childhood memories of Prince and Ruby Red, brother and sister from the highly esteemed and very influential Red family. Prince's bitterness and cruelty, which holds his sister Ruby in thrall, both repulses and fascinates Lorq, as indicated by the violent scar across his face. The result of a violent fight when they were young men, it serves as a reminder to Lorq. The fact that he never had it medically mended never ceased to trouble his mother. 

Others among the crew demonstrate queer quirks of character as well, particularly where identity is concerned. Chief among them are Mouse, the gypsy man who's wandered the earth and now travels the stars, picking up symbols and traits from every group to which he's ever belonged, carrying them on himself like a living record of identity; Katin, a well-educated but directionless young man who has an affinity for moons and a desperate desire to escape the sense of meainglessness that plagues his life; and Lynceos and Idas, two of three triplets from the Outer Colonies, one black as night and one albino, two sides of the same coin that reflect and complete one another. All of this beautiful rainbow of unique individuals reflect a search for something, and hint at their own reasons for following Lorq on what appears to be a hopeless mission from which they will not return, whether because of the nova itself or because of Prince Red's determination to stop them. 

I loved this book, was drawn so deeply into it that it never seemed odd to me that the plot wasn't moving forward very quickly. The characters, particularly how they move back and forth between their memories and their present, are so vivid and fascinating that the mission to find a nova could have failed entirely and I would not have felt cheated by this novel. The mission that Lorq sets them all on is the catalyst for their self-discovery, the crystallization of their identity and the things they learn from one another about themselves, so subtly orchestrated by Delany that the book never feels forced or obvious. 

One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the technology used to pilot the ship. Nearly everyone in the galaxy is outfitted with cybernetic implants that allow them to plug into machines, everything from vacuums to space ships. These connections that blur the line between human and machine are discussed at length so as to give the reader a brief history of how that particular revolution came about, I couldn't help but be reminded of smartphones, of the present-day cybernetic technology that's being developed, and of how drone technology is progressing. And remember, this book was published in 1968! It's a crazy backwards-facing time portal into what one extraordinary man imagined the future might hold for the human race, what it still might be one day. 

If you like classic Science Fiction and want an experience that blends technology with identity and a space-age Moby Dick-type story of obsession and destruction, then you can't beat the intergalactic rivalry and introspection of Samuel Delany's "Nova." It's still in print, and available from your favorite local, independent bookstore. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

An Interview With William Gibson

William Gibson in 2012. Photo by Gilly Youner.

Dear readers, I have a confession to make: I am, in addition to being a SpecFic junkie, a TED junkie. At the gym, on a car trip, on the bus or sitting on my couch in a literary daze after an evening of studying, I have been known to pull up the latest TED talks on everything from writing to wind turbines and just soak in the ideas. Some of them stick, and others don't, but when I happened upon this interview with famous SpecFic author William Gibson, I came out of my literary coma to pay attention.

Famous for his place at the head of third-wave postmodern SciFi, Gibson is the person who coined the term "cyberspace" and jump started the idea of virtual realities with incredible works of science and imagination like "Neuromancer" and "Pattern Recognition." Read the interview to find out some interesting insights about his process and the ideas behind his work! And when you're done, go pick up a few (or all!) of his books at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Independent Bookstore Day 2016

My very favorite holiday is Halloween. The only other celebration that comes close to that in my heart is fast approaching this year: Independent Bookstore Day. Every year, indie bookstores across the country partner with publishers, authors, and other entities to bring their supporters exclusive book-related products and exciting events that can't be found anywhere else, but that's just the surface of what Independent Bookstore Day is about.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores survive in a digital age not just because of the products they sell, but because of the community that they provide. Independent bookstores are centers not just of literary thought, but of new ideas, connections to people and resources, and the proliferation of a livelong love of books. At independent bookstores you can talk to a real person, with a real love for and knowledge of books, to find exactly what you're looking for even before you necessarily know what that is. It's one of the things that made me want to be a bookseller in the first place, walking into my neighborhood bookstore and talking with someone for a few minutes, to be handed the exact volume that I needed in my heart. That's an experience that you can't get by browsing through "People who bought this...." lists online, or by limiting yourself to the carefully curated shelves of chain bookstores that have their selections so closely dictated by politics and popularity.

Independent bookstores area community treasures, meccas of learning and exploration, places for children to learn and grow and for everyone to find something that calls to their hearts and minds. And the spirit of that isn't just in the books on the shelves; it's in the people who work there and act as catalysts for that magical experience of finding *just the right book.* Independent Bookstore Day celebrates that and encourages us to stop by our favorite bookstores for exclusive products and opportunities for special books and gifts that are not available anywhere else. Innumerable authors, beginning with Sherman Alexie (who helped found Indies First), will be appearing at their favorite local bookstores for readings, signings, and to promote not just their own books but their favorite books from other authors.

No lie, I look forward to Independent Bookstore Day every year. It does my little bibliophile heart so much good to be reminded that books are not dying; they're flourishing, thanks to independent bookstores and the people who support them. Call or visit your favorite local independent bookstore to see if they're one of the over 400 brick-and-mortar shops nationwide that will be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day this year with fabulous book products and events. And if you love the event, let others know! Word of mouth is part of the wonder of the community that can only be found in independent bookstores.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Story Review: "Atmosphæra Incognita" by Neal Stephenson

In preparation for writing my Master's thesis, I'm getting the opportunity to read a lot of Sci-Fi and SpecFic masterworks. Part of the dilemma I'm running into as someone who wants to spend their academic career studying this area of literature is a lot of pushback claiming that "genre fiction" isn't really worth studying because its only real purpose is entertainment. I can't begin to tell you how much I disagree with that, and if you read either SpecFic or this blog on a regular basis, odds are that you take issue with that claim as well.

Well dear reader, thankfully we're not the only ones. Project Hieroglyph, headed by Arizona State University and Neal Stephenson, among others, is a group of writers and scientists intent on demonstrating to the world how science and science fiction depend on one another. Using cutting-edge science, writers craft stories of near-future events using the technology that we already have as a starting point. Many of these stories and the corresponding essay sources that helped to inspire and inform them are collected in a wonderful book that came out last year, entitled "Hieroglyph: Stories for a Better Future." All of them focus on the beneficial ways that science and science fiction help to support and inspire one another, and are part of the research that I'm doing in preparation for defending my thesis.

The first story in this collection is entitled "Atmosphæra Incognita," by Neal Stephenson. It's the story of the world's first space elevator, from conception to construction to the First Bar in Space at the top. Using information about current engineering technology and creative ways of tackling some of the unknown dangers and complications that a real-life space elevator could create, Stephenson has crafted a story of human ingenuity, practical production and politics, and thoughts about the reality of undertaking such a project. The world in which it takes place is recognizable as our own, despite the incredible undertaking of building a space elevator: people still contract cancer, unknown forces present unresolved problems, and there are "unholy alliances" formed between politicians and corporations. But there are also hints at the "better future" that Project Hieroglyph hopes to inspire: the space elevator is indeed built, homosexual couples deal with everyday questions of location and jobs instead of being constantly terrified by the prospect of hate crimes, and a part of the space elevator itself is left open-ended for some kind of project or development that might be yet to come. The founder of the project doesn't even know what it might be used for somewhere in the future.

Stephenson's image of a space elevator and what it could mean for the founders, the builders, the architects, engineers, and other parties involved in the project seemed pretty accurate to me. It presented a genuine sense of excitement tempered by the enormous amount of risk involved in such a venture. But it preserved the idea that the value of taking such a big leap forward is greater than the value of staying "safe" with the status quo and not pushing our boundaries.

As I continue reading "Hieroglyph" I look forward to my introduction to more new ideas about the technology at our disposal right now, and where it could take us in the very near future. If we were to turn our minds and technology to something like Stephenson's imagined space elevator instead of funny cat videos and iphone games, what else could we accomplish? I'm excited to find out as I continue to work my way through this volume. "Hieroglyph" came out last year and is available now through your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Book Review: "Mink River" by Brian Doyle

Friends have been encouraging me to pick up anything by Brian Doyle literally for years. Having finally followed their excellent advice, I'm kicking myself for having waited so long.

It's no wonder that Brian Doyle's previous publications were poetry. That literary background shows itself clearly in the gorgeous, lyrical prose that takes on not only the glowingly rendered images but even the flow and feel of life on the Pacific coast. The seasons blend into one another, wet and dry and cold and not-so-cold, like the characters' lives. Everyone is connected, if not directly by close interpersonal relationships then at least by a few degrees of separation or simply by virtue of living in the same small town. That's the way things go with small-town living, and Doyle captures it perfectly in his fictional location along the Mink River.

While everyone in the book is connected, and Doyle treats us to all of their perspectives at least briefly (even down to the life of a miscarried fetus), Worried Man and Cedar are most closely identifiable as the novel's main protagonists. They are the center point around which the rest of the characters' lives revolve, and it's no wonder, considering that they make up the local Department of Public Works. According to them, Public Works means everything from keeping the city sewer unclogged to tracking down missing pets to recording stories about the town's history for future generations. Worried Man's personal passion is the concept of time. All of these, they argue as they eat salmonberries and split two beers for lunch, are in the public interest and therefore public works.

A child is injured, a marriage is troubled, a young man is beaten and a young girl rescued. An old man dies, a woman creates, a dream is found and journeys are taken. All of these things happen over the course of the story, but it's how they happen that contains and reveals the true magic behind Doyle's talent with words. The flow of characters' thoughts and observations blend with the way the world moves around them, with how they touch and impact other things and people. Doyle captures this through the use of different languages, forestalling traditional use of punctuation, and jumping into characters' heads to capture their emotions and perspectives firsthand. The resulting depiction of life in a small town is truly a work of art, and accurate in a way that perhaps only a poet can capture.

The element of magical realism at work in this novel recalls the Native American traditions that both the author and characters frequently reference. Not only are nature, animal and ancestral spirits present (sometimes physically, as with a female bear and the various spirit guides who make appearances) but one even becomes a central character. Moses the crow, taught to speak by an elderly nun after he fell from his nest too early, was by far my favorite character. His unique blend of mischief and dedication to those he loves, his blend of defiance, humor, and acceptance made him a completely lovable archetype of the Native American legends of Raven. Of all the characters whom I came to love over the course of the book, which includes pretty much the entire cast in some way or another, Moses is the one I loved the best.

If you're a homesick expat from the Pacific Northwest, or a curious soul from elsewhere, read "Mink River" by Brian Doyle. It's as close to home-on-a-page as I've ever come, and I'm a lifelong resident of the Washington/Oregon coast. You will not regret picking up this book. Currently Brian Doyle has two other novels, "The Plover" (named for the fishing boat in "Mink River") and "Martin Marten", to his name and other books of poetry as well. You can find all of them, which you should do, at your favorite local independent bookstore.

Monday, February 8, 2016

So be it! See to it!

Octavia Butler is one of Speculative Fiction's writers best known for bending, stretching and folding ideas of sex and gender. Works like "Octavia's Brood," "Kindred," and "Fledgling" continue to not only have an impact on academic papers on SpecFic, but to also inspire new collections of stories heavily influenced by her works.

Bitch Media recently publicized this image of the back of one of Butler's notebooks, where we see in its raw passion her commitment to success not only in writing, but in changing the world around her through that work. She was determined to be a great author, but to also pave the way for others who would follow in her footsteps. And indeed, she is not only remembered in literary and cultural circles as one of the best SpecFic writers in living memory but also among the disadvantaged youth of color whom her memorial scholarship helps to attend Clarion writing workshops.

When you hit a wall in your writing, get another rejection notice, or start to wonder how the heck you ever thought you could be someone who makes a difference in the literary world, take page out of Butler's book (no pun intended) and reaffirm your passions on paper. Sometimes even that simple act of seeing your goals in ink can help you hang on for another day, another submissions deadline. And when you're a successful writer, you can share it with others who are still struggling to find their footing in the writing world. So be it! See to it!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reading Challenge

Before this year, I have never had to consciously set reading goals for myself. It was always something that I did for both education and pleasure, what I was drawn to in my spare time or, I'll admit it, sometimes as necessary escapism. Let's face it, a paperback is much cheaper than therapy, especially if it comes from your local library!

Now that I've returned to school, I am finding to my horror that I don't have time or energy to read for pleasure like I used to. Even as an undergraduate, I was always able to get some recreational reading done after my homework and as a bookseller, reading was literally my life. But when I spend the majority of your day having to sit and really focus on what I'm reading or writing, and when that material is generally of an academic nature, the last thing my body and mind want to do is sit and focus some more in whatever down time I have!

That being the case, this year I decided to participate for the first time in a group reading challenge. A few friends from across the US have teamed up with me, and we're all committed to reading the list that I posted above. Having a group to encourage my reading is really motivating me to keep broadening my literary horizons, and it reminds me that even when I'm exhausted, reading really is fun! Consciously choosing books that are (mostly) new to me, and seeing what others have selected, has gotten me excited for my 2016 reading in a way that my overworked grad student brain thought might be impossible.

If you want some extra motivation for reading this year, consider doing a reading challenge like this one. If the list I'm using doesn't suit you, consider this one from Book Riot or this one from Better World Books. See bits and pieces that you like from each? Create your own reading list! And do get a group of friends together to take on the reading challenge with you. You'll be surprised at how many of them also want to read more but don't feel they have time or motivation. Your arrangement doesn't have to be formal; you can get together every week for a book club sort of check-in while all reading the same book at once, or you can set up a group online to informally share what you've read, what you thought of it, and what's next on your list whenever you happen to check something off your list. A little bit of reading encouragement goes a long way, and the internet is a great resource for that even when your friends aren't all within book club distance. Make 2016 the year that you re-commit to reading!