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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.13.2014
Book from: Library

Mira Grant’s Parasite is one of the 2014 Hugo novel nominees, and is a competent but bland thriller set in a near-future where, in answer to the hygiene hypothesis, nearly everyone is implanted with a genetically engineered tapeworm. The implants confer systemic health benefits and exude all necessary medications – including, in a nice detail, birth control for women who can’t obtain it in typical form thanks to state regulations. Naturally, things don’t go as expected: the tapeworms start taking over, triggering the parasite-mediated equivalent of a zombie outbreak. The protagonist at the center of all of this is Sally Mitchell, a young woman who suffered total amnesia following her implant-enabled recovery from a near-fatal car accident. The emergence of the “sleepwalking” tapeworm-zombies, their strange awareness of her in particular, and the discovery of suppressed information about the true nature of the tapeworm, all force her to begin questioning whether her new personality might be more a product of the implant she received, than of the human self she used to be.

All of this happens in a surprisingly dull fashion. The characters, the speculative elements, the social commentary, were all just barely well-defined enough to keep me reading; even the action sequences felt rote and, figuratively, bloodless. I started skimming around the 200-page mark.

What I got from this novel is that 1) parasites are cool and 2) scientific hubris is bad. I’m a microbiologist, so 1) is a gimme, and 2) is… well. The boilerplate zombification scenario seems like a disappointing use of the timely and plausible-enough health-manipulation premise. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve heard, Nick Mamatas’ 2011 novel Sensation sounds like it could be a more sophisticated take on the intersection of parasitism and human agency and cognition, though without the medical angle.

With respect to the science, Parasite starts out vague enough to be plausible, but this goes pear-shaped around the middle of the novel, where talking-head exposition proliferates. Genetic engineering is discussed in a mystifyingly pre-Mendelian way, where genomes, rather than being modular structures with rather well-defined architecture, are fuzzy entities that must be “blended” properly lest they become “unstable,” like… radioactive smoothies??

It was frustrating to me that Grant obviously relishes the wiliness and tenacity of parasites, but doesn’t penetrate beyond a superficial and often confused understanding of biology. I’m not saying that a truly deep understanding is necessary – sf just has to sound right enough – but the representation of science in Parasite is both simplistic and inaccurate enough to undermine plausibility in really basic and distracting ways. For example, Grant’s scientists appear oblivious to the existence of high-school-biology-level vocabulary distinguishing different kinds of symbiotes, instead repeatedly referring to “bad” and “good” [engineered] parasites. Parasites are by definition bad, while commensal organisms are neutral or beneficial to their hosts, a distinction one would expect marketing-minded scientists to be eager to publicly reinforce.

I realize that I’m a tough audience for this novel, but these are all things I would have been willing to overlook had the novel had enough interesting character-based, sociological, or other elements working for it, which was not the case. All in all, I might recommend Parasite to readers who are strongly interested in zombie-style stories with unconventional underpinnings, with the caveat that even simply as a thriller it’s not terribly exciting.

Go to:
Mira Grant: bio and works reviewed
Emera’s 2014 Hugo short story ballot

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The four 2014 Hugo short story nominees are the following (click the titles to read):

I found this spread of stories disappointing, with the exception of Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” which will be receiving my vote this year. (It’ll be my and Kakaner’s first time voting for the Hugos!)

From most to least liked, here are my reactions to each of the four stories:

Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” is far and away the best-written of the four. (It’s also one of two stories this year with a queer protagonist, the other being Chu’s “The Water…”) Samatar presents a compelling voice and point-of-view, and, with a beautifully light hand, weaves folklore together with her characters’ family traumas into a taut yet elusive narrative. That playful elusiveness, and the room that it creates for narrative and interpretive possibility, reminded me of Kelly Link’s work, as did the wry distance that the narrator tries to maintain from her own pain.

I have read a lot of selkie stories; Samatar’s makes the familiar themes of loss, departure, and home-seeking feel cuttingly fresh, urgent, and necessary. I believed in her characters.

I’m now looking forward even more eagerly to reading her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a copy of which has been waiting on my bookshelf since December.

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Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” has fun stylistic aspirations, but Heuvelt’s prose isn’t precise enough to carry off the arch effervescence that the story aims for. I was mildly charmed and amused by its portrayal of Thai villagers busily scheming amid a wish-granting festival (somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hughart’s sly, manic style in the Master Li & Number Ten Ox series), but ultimately I felt stifled by sentiment and whimsy, and unconvinced that the story had any substantial convictions.

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I found John Chu’s “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” stilted and ungainly, but did feel that some of its emotional stakes came across authentically. In terms of narrative construction, I appreciate the little twist that the parents, typically the fulcrum of a coming-out story, are here rather a McGuffin. Sometimes our fear of how others will react is exactly that – a construction; sometimes we get to be beautifully surprised by the generosity of our families. As another queer Chinese-American, I have, in fact, been outrageously lucky in this way, and I feel acutely grateful to John Chu for exploring that hinge between fear and action, and fear and actuality, in a specifically Asian-American context.

That said, though some of the moments of anguish in the story feel piercingly real, from sentence to sentence I found it very difficult to take the story seriously, on account of the many lurches of adolescent language – “Watching him suffer is like being smashed to death with a hammer myself,” for example. But I very much look forward to seeing what John Chu writes in the future.

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Finally: Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” feels simply contrived. The story has to do the hard work of moving from its farcical title and playful opening towards a revelation intended to be devastating. My experience of it stalled in the vicinity of “farcical,” and ended at “mawkish.”

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Would love to hear others’ thoughts on the nominees this year, if anyone else has been doing Hugo reading!

– E

Go to:

Rachel Swirsky: bio and works reviewed
“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia,” by Rachel Swirsky (2012): review by Emera

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The 2012 Nebula Award shortlists are here!

As is increasingly typical for me, I’ve read and reviewed only one work on the list – Rachel Swirsky‘s Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia.” (I’m at peace with the less-than-cutting-edginess of my reading habits at this point, though.)

Congratulations to all the nominees!

– E

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Been behind on award etc. news, I know, but that’s just how we roll around here these days.

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Congratulations to the 2011 Nebula winners!!

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Maurice Sendak passed away on Tuesday, May 8, at the age of 83.

Kakaner has a very sweet story about the importance of Where the Wild Things Are in her childhood, but I’ll leave her to tell it if she likes. Outside Over There was my Sendak of choice, tapping as it did into my embryonic love for tales of uneasy melancholy and queer nocturnal goings-on, kickstarting my obsession with changeling stories before I knew what a changeling was, and giving me exactly the best kind of nightmares in the weeks after my kindergarten teacher first read it to us. (Only a little bit facetiously: It’s a shame that most obituaries don’t seem to mention the influence of Outside Over There on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, which launched its own wave of weird childhood hang-ups.)

Below, some extracts from the moving New York Times obituary, from which I learned for the first time about Sendak’s melancholy childhood – and the fact that he was gay, and was with his partner, psychotherapist Eugene Glynn, for 50 years prior to Glynn’s death.

“A largely self-taught illustrator, Mr. Sendak was at his finest a shtetl Blake, portraying a luminous world, at once lovely and dreadful, suspended between wakefulness and dreaming. In so doing, he was able to convey both the propulsive abandon and the pervasive melancholy of children’s interior lives.”

“As Mr. Sendak grew up — lower class, Jewish, gay — he felt permanently shunted to the margins of things. ‘All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,’ he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. ‘They never, never, never knew.'”

And if you have the chance, please, please, please lend your ears to Sendak’s extraordinary interview with Terry Gross on NPR last year, in which he speaks with heartbreaking honesty about children, his childhood, aging, and death. At some point while listening, I overfilled my tea mug, and when I looked back to see it dripping onto my desk, my first impulse was to assume that it was also crying. Yeah.

(I also felt for Terry Gross: you can feel her wishing that this was a true conversation, rather than an interview during which she must maintain her radio air of pleasantly neutral inquiry.)

See also this brief and wonderful comic on children and books drawn by Sendak and Art Spiegelman (via Neil Gaiman and Caitlin Kiernan’s memorial posts).

Maurice Sendak, R.I.P.

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Jean Craighead George passed away on Tuesday, May 15, at the age of 92. The only rival to the number of fantasy books and fairy tales I consumed when I was little was the number of nature and wildlife books; I was particularly passionate about Julie of the Wolves and re-read it and its sequels heaps of times. (I remember getting caught re-reading Julie… under my desk during fifth grade once – which was I think the same year that I first read My Side of the Mountain, from which I notably learned about Walden and Thoreau, whose name I was convinced had to be pronounced “Thor-yew”…) George’s works and characters embody meticulous observation and a luminous sense of wonder, speaking to a lifetime of loving study of the natural world and its inhabitants (humans included). Thanks, Ms. George, from this now-biologist, for sharing your passion with us. R.I.P.

– E

Go to:
“The Golden Key,” by George MacDonald, illus. by Maurice Sendak (1867): review by Emera

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Date read: 6.11.11
Read from: Subterranean Press Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

Assorted thoughts on K. J. Bishop’s “The Heart of a Mouse,” which recently won the Aurealis Award for Best SF Short Story. All the other reviews I’ve linked below offer good summaries of the story, if you’d like more situational context.

First thought: This isn’t (just) post-apocalyptic, it’s a dystopia. The government just happens to be invisible, unless maybe one considers an amoral universe – strange, brutal, incomprehensible from the individual perspective – to be a “governing body”… But there’s an inflexible class system/food chain:

“Deros and trogs and dogs live in towns, cats roam. Dogs and cats hunt everything except angels and bactyls. Volk hunt big game, raid towns and hold rallies. Pigs eat anything dead except angels, and bactyls eat anything dead and anything alive that doesn’t move fast enough to get away. Dreams hunt everything, eat anything. Angels don’t eat, but they kill, which comes to the same thing for you and me. And that’s all. It isn’t so much to keep in your head.”

and the economy likewise boasts all the flexibility and diversity of the shop system in a low-budget first-person shooter (more on this later). (Also, irony alert re: the role of the “dreams” in the food web.) The system – “mom and pop” shops, pig farms that provide wages and canned pork – keeps running stably enough to keep alive the inhabitants who don’t get themselves eaten by something else, and we’re given no reason to believe it won’t keep working that way. The end of the story sees one of the last few wrinkles in the system being ironed out, in a brief, carefully affectless paragraph of description that I found one of the most moving in the story. Against the backdrop of mouse-dad’s macho sentimentality, it’s the mostly uncommentated incidents that stand out, cleanly foregrounding the story’s surreal horror/beauty. The last image in the story is unforgettable, especially since I’m always a sucker for the kind of monstrousness embodied in Bishop’s many-faced, many-eyed angels and dreams. What is it about nephilim, seraphim, the angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion, that is so uniquely sublime and unnerving?

Second thought: This is what life would be like in a video game, but one without even the comfort of an objective, let alone a glowing textbox at the end to tell you you can progress to the next stage. Just enough rules exist to make it clear how terrifyingly arbitrary it is that any rules exist at all – who’s setting and enforcing them? Weapons and supplies and what amount to NPCs “punch in” at apparently predetermined intervals, and again there’s that disturbingly cartoonish food chain, that reads much like a game manual’s bestiary…

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2010 Shirley Jackson award nominees are out – which I’m selfishly extra-excited to see this year because Kakaner and I have scheduled a week this summer to go gallivanting off to Readercon, where the awards are presented. Awwww yeah. (This will be my first-ever con, for the record.)

Dribs and drabs of thought –

  • More title synchronicity (“A / Dark Matter”) – as with “Palimpsest” for the 2010 Hugo noms.
  • Joey Comeau!! Did not expect to see him there. (He’s better known as the word-provider for A Softer World, though Kakaner and I have been sorta following his standalone prose since he started with Lockpick Pornography back around… 2005?)
  • Clearly I really need to pick up Haunted Legends, though I’ve kind of spiralled out of my horror anthology phase.
  • I also need to look into Karen Joy Fowler at some point. See her name everywhere, know nothing about her work.

– E

Go to:

Shirley Jackson

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Neil Gaiman will be writing the script for an English-language film adaptation of Journey to the West. This sounds like it should be very fun, indeed. There might also be some Guillermo del Toro in the mix, hurrah.

At first when I read the news I also thought that this might be the project that Gaiman’s been alluding to during his extended travels in China these past couple years, but I suspect that there’s still something else (or maybe several somethings else) to come out of that.

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The Gneil has also revealed that a film adaptation of American Gods is underway, helmed by a director with “many, many Oscars.” I must admit that the idea of an American Gods movie seems to me only slightly less disastrous than a Sandman movie, but I’ll keep mum till more details are out.

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The winner of the 2010 Tiptree Award, for sff that explores and challenges ideas of gender, has been announced! I also recognize lots of titles on the short- and longlists as books that I Really Should Be Reading…

– E

Go to:

Neil Gaiman

http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/news/a311009/neil-gaiman-confirms-american-gods-film.html

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Click to see the list

And I have read… exactly none of the things on the list, sigh, though there are familiar names and familiar “I want to read this! when I have time! in my next life!” titles a-plenty.

Kakaner and I have both been mostly swamped with work these days, if it’s not evident from our spotty activity. Hope all is well out there.

– E

[inserts self] I will go give my self a well-deserved stab in the eye for not having read any of these either… how dare I call me a SFF fan!

-K

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gone-with-the-wind-tara-cake-book-margaret-mitchell-partial

View Recipe: Gone With the Wind Tara Cake

I envisioned nothing less than a grand, massive tiered cake for Margaret Mitchell‘s sweeping 1936 romantic epic, Gone With the Wind.  This famous and controversial novel has all the good bits– war, betrayal, unrequited love, mis-timed requited love– and a spoiled southern belle forced to experience the worst of humanity who then seizes her life back though hard work, womanly charms, and sheer force of will. This recipe is meant to capture the full range of history, time and emotion in the novel, as well as convey an atmosphere of grandness throughout.

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Date Read: 08.28.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A massive 50 km-long metal cylinder (later named Rama) is hurtling towards earth at an awesome speed. The discovery stirs the world into motion, culminating in the launch of a select few for an exploration mission. The chosen members immediately leave Earth to begin their assignment, finding their way into the cylinder with relative ease and explore the object, trying to understand it’s function and characteristics…

Review

…and as far as the summary is concerned, that’s about it! It’s Clarke, and although I’m no expert– having only read Childhood’s End before– I get the sense that he dives into telling a story by making a beeline for a particular concept or vision but really doesn’t take the time to look elsewhere. There was a solid, but rather pat, exposition (granted it was the 22nd century, but is it *really* that easy to pull together a space exploration team with so little international bickering??) followed by the introduction of a few uninteresting members of the team, and then it was onward with the science! This was pretty hard sci-fi, especially for 1972– if you’re looking for intergalactic cross-species love affairs and all the politics of a space epic, this is not the book for you. It read like a very self-indulgent exploration of a fantasy world/sci-fi concept that Clarke was just dying to bring to life.

So yes, the novel’s sole focus was the exploration, description, and documentation of Rama. And Rama was beautiful. I’d first compare my reading experience to that of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey— serene, epic, silent, intensely futuristic, a sense of overwhelming vastness, and very reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth with respect to the concept of an enclosed yet self-sufficient world. What strikes you as you wander through Rama is the almost sinister quiet of the place, and how it instills within you this fear that each new discovery is going to be the unveiling of some awesome Truth, or at least some mighty power that would set you at ease with simply knowing. Every part of the world was full of implication (Why were there houses with no doors, and objects frozen inside? Why were there fearsomely fast and lethal robots that roamed like animals? Why was there a synthetically generated electric thunderstorm? Why was there a world in this cylinder in the first place?) and scientific content that I was so mentally tired every couple of pages… I literally had to stop and take breaks to gather my thoughts and to work on visualizing a new part of Rama. The foreignness of it all was terribly uncomfortable yet incredibly exciting.

I could go into more detail about Rama, such as giving dimensions, painting a map, or describing each location, but Rendezvous with Rama was more of a powerful visionary experience for me (and that’s what Wikipedia is for!) This book was an immediate winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards upon it’s publication, and rightly so.

Go To:

Arthur C. Clarke: bio and works reviewed

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