Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Starship Sofa March 2010

Episode #123: C.M. Kornbluth vs. Mercurio Rivera
Guest Editorial by Jason Sanford: A Change
How the Nebula ballot has improved with the recent change of rules, change is good, vote Starship Sofa!
Explained in 60 Seconds with Megan Argo
Black holes, gravity, and escape velocities. Still nothing we don't all already know. Even simpler than the last one.
Intro to Snatch Me Another by Mercurio Rivera
Publishing history, Associate Editor at Sybil's Garage Magazine, his writing group, and how the story was an expansion of his earlier Dear Annabehls from Electric Velocipede #17/18.
Fiction: Snatch Me Another by Mercurio Rivera 4.5/5
Looking Back at SF History with Amy H. Sturgis
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1623-1673, poet, natural philosopher, and correspondent with many members of the Royal Society. She wrote poetry about astronomy, long before it was cool, some of the better examples are read by Amy here. She also wrote a very early science fiction novel, with bear-people on another planet, criticism of chauvinism, and a level of metafiction you don't expect to see until much later. I'm inclined to read both the novel, and a bunch of this poetry some day, and many thanks to Amy H. Sturgis. Rating: A+
Intro to The Adventurer by Lawrence Santoro
Larry reminisces about reading Kornbluth as a kid, particularly his humor and plotting and overall skill. Discusses his tragic early death. Larry says Kornbluth>Asimov>Heinlein>Everybody Else at the time.
Fiction: The Adventurer by C.M. Kornbluth (Classic) 4/5

Episode #124: Will McIntosh
Guest Editorial by Mur Lafferty: Fanzines
Mur makes fun of and points out the irony of science fiction fans and writers being opposed to new technology and internet fiction sources winning awards. She just reads her blog post linked above, but her voice emphasizes her humor and righteous anger. Worthwhile.
Interogation: Gene Wolfe
Wolfe gives a great interview and can talk forever with very little prompting. He talks about his desire to bury other SF writers in his basement, replace them, and claim their work, and about how now that he has been writing for a long time, he is now capable of sitting down and writing about bees if someone is writing a bee-themed anthology. Wolfe addresses how writing works, his process, and learning Ancient Greek. Everything he says seems to be both well-thought-out and humorous. I could listen to Gene Wolfe for hours, and, although I haven't yet, I'd consider donating to Starship Sofa just for the extended interviews for a few more like Wolfe. Rating: A
Fiction: Bridesicle by Will McIntosh 4/5
Observation Deck with Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan reports from the Library Bar at P-Con (Phoenix Convention). Nick Harkaway is the guest of honor. A summary of what conventions she was on and what sort of breakfast the hotel served. Definitely not worth the 15 minutes. Rating: F

Episode #125: James Morrow
Editorial by Tony C. Smith: Thank You
Science News with J.J. Campanella
Promo: Galactic Suburbia
Fiction: Lady Witherspoon's Solution by James Morrow

Episode #126: Karen Joy Fowler
Editorial by Tony C. Smith: The Interviews
Film Talk with Rod Barnett
Fiction: Always by Karen Joy Fowler

Episode #127: Tanith Lee
Editorial by Tony C. Smith: What Happened to Me This Week
Flash Fiction: iThink by Ken MacLeod
StarshipSofa Stories Vol. 2 Update by Dee Cunniffe
Fiction: The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald by Tanith Lee

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

by Tanith Lee
Read for Starship Sofa by J.J. Campanella


Flash Fiction by Ken MacLeod
Read for Starship Sofa by Geoff Michelli


by Karen Joy Fowler
Read for Starship Sofa by Amy H. Sturgis

Lady Witherspoon's Solution

by James Morrow
Read for Starship Sofa by Peter Seaton-Clarke & Nicola Seaton Clarke

The Adventurer

Short Story by C.M. Kornbluth
Free from Project Gutenberg
Read for Starship Sofa by Lawrence Santoro

I wasn't quite as impressed with this story as I felt I should have been. It may be the reek of the 50s, but I find it in my heart to love Asimov and Bradbury, you'd think I would love Kornbluth more. The concept is good and there is a nice layer of satire in the story:

America is a few hundred years into the future, still engaged in a cold war with the Soviet Union. The people are stupid and disinterested, and, more importantly, the president is stupid and disinterested and has become a hereditary position with all the name-only trappings of democracy you'd expect from us. It's really a dictatorship where cabinet members get executed as traitors on a whim, everyone spies on everyone else, and the people are kept in line through a mix of mind-control, terrorism, random executions, and press censorship.

Like some of Bradbury's work, Kornbluth is hating on anti-intellectualism before it was common, although it isn't the center of this story as it is in some of his others. Basically, the cabinet members want to overthrow their idiot-king but are certain they'll fail if they try any of the traditional means. Meanwhile, we read about the seemingly unrelated life of a young cadet.

The last lines are actually very surprising. I'd foreseen the main development, as I'm sure most readers will, but not only are some of the root causes different than we'd have thought, but the ultimate future of the nation doesn't go where I was expecting either. Kornbluth sets us up for one thing, especially given the hopefulness of the era, and then gives us a rather sobering, but probably more likely conclusion. And, again, it was all there earlier in the descriptions and the explanation of the title. I'll be left thinking about the stealth-moral of this story for years, I think. What is the true difference between the conquering hero and the villain?

Still, there is something about Kornbluth's prose that doesn't really strike me here, although Larry's narration is great as always, and this story, at least, isn't quite brilliant or subtle enough to be a favorite. 3.5 Soviet Jovian moons out of 5.

First Published in Space Science Fiction, May 1953

Snatch Me Another

Short Story by Mercurio Rivera
Published free online in Abyss & Apex #25, 2008
Read for Starship Sofa by Liz Mierzejewski

A very dark tale of two parents mourning the loss of a child. One turns to drugs and despair and withdraws from everything, the other goes fairly crazy, and remains happy. Both of these reactions play out to tragic extremes by the end. To complicate matters, this takes place in a near future where we've developed the technology to bring things over from other universes.

Both main characters are well characterized and empathetic in their madness. It's easy to imagine either reaction being your own, although you'd hope to be stronger, or at least more stable. There is a spinning, terrifying, sickening, vertigo feel to some of the description that's much more effective than the bland description so common in stories with this sort of technology. It seems perfectly real, but horribly so. Everything from the clouds to the minister to the drug inhalers at the beginning foreshadows the end and builds on some of the themes.

That said, I'm glad I went back and read this as text. The audio didn't work for me nearly as well here. I might not have given it a second chance if it weren't for the impression of brilliance behind the narration.

I have to say I'm not a fan of Mierzejewski's voice. She does do different voices for the characters, but the two main ones run together at times, I don't really like her voice in the narration, and there is something in her cadence that just sort of bothers me. The speed changes make things a little harder to follow than they could be. She does capture a lot more emotion toward the end though, but there's a singsong quality to the beginning that feels out of place in such a dark tale. It's so rare to be disappointed in a Starship Sofa narration that I'm still a bit surprised.

So, not something for a light mood, but dark and thoughtful and terrible, in the best possible way. Snatch me another story from Mercurio Rivera. 4.5 out of 5.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Starship Sofa Episodes 111, 112, and 113

Episode #111
Brief Intro by Tony, and a brief outro by Larry Santoro discussing his writing process, his inspiration for the story, and his love of throwing in puns, anachronisms, and subtle pop culture references. Actually this is pretty interesting.
But the bulk of the episode is just Part 1 of Lord Dickens's Declaration.

Episode #112
Poem: Safe in Their Cryogenic Chambers by Lyn C.A. Gardner
An SF take on Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers by Emily Dickinson, the resurrection they are waiting for here is to wake from cold sleep on arriving at the destination of their presumably slower-than-light spaceship. It's only okay in a vacuum, but the correlation with the Dickinson poem definitely adds something, at least for me. If you are going to listen to this episode, and haven't already, I'd read the poem linked above, and think about it for a bit before listening to Gardner' s version. You'll definitely appreciate it more that way. It wasn't written to stand alone, and it's frankly better when Dickinson is there to supplement, but this is a good tribute.
The Sofanaut Awards by Mark Bormann
Announcing the shortlist for the 2009 awards, and a bit about the voting process.
Looking Back At SF History by Amy H. Sturgis - Captain Nemo
A long look at one of the first proto-steampunk protagonists, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo is "A classic Byronic hero ... mad, bad, and dangerous to know... an early emo-boy, action hero, and scientific genius." Perhaps too much time is given to a list of all the actors who've portrayed him, movies, TV episodes, and musical tributes, but this is an enthusiastic, loving tribute to Captain Nemo and a pretty good analysis of his character. It was interesting to learn that He was changed (for the better, in my opinion) after the first draft so as to sell more books in Russia, a funny motivation for a good decision, and a nice bit of trivia. I'd urge everyone to read (for free) the two books in which he appears: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Mysterious Island.
Recap of Part I by Lawrence Santoro
Thank Larry for this recap, I missed about half of this on my listenthrough of last episode.
Lord Dickens's Declaration Part II
Update by Spider Robinson
An update on the health of his wife Jeannie and their financial status. Sad but thankful.
Fact Article IPv4 by Simon Hildebrandt
A fascinating article about how we assign our current 32-bit IP addresses, which we're expected to run out of in the next few years. IPv4, our current plan, can only have 6 billion addresses, while IPv6 could assign 10 to every single molecule on the face of the planet. We currently just keep going using a bunch of tricks and stopgap measures, but it will not be enough. We have the technology to fix the problem right now, and most software and hardware is set up to deal with the changes we'll need to make, but countries and large companies are too slow and unlikely to address the issue until serious problems have already happened. The solution is IPv6, and it's something we'll all need to adopt in the next few years. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and router manufacturers know this, as do the Internet protocol guys, but countries aren't getting the hint yet. Hildebrandt gives us a look at the way the system works, the changes that will have to be made, the need to encourage early adoption, and the fact that it probably won't happen fast enough. Great stuff. Rating: A
Film Talk by Rod Barnett - The Box
Barnett opens with a discussion of Richard Kelly's first two films, before he directed The Box. Kelly made a name for himself with Donnie Darko, a film I loved, and Barnett felt he should have loved, but just didn't. Many years later, he followed up with Southland Tales, an unholy abomination of a movie. Which puts the pressure on him for The Box, his third film: does it indicate a comeback from a sophomore slump, or another failure in a likely one-hit wonder career?

The Box is based on Button Button by Richard Matheson, but of course, being a big Hollywood movie, completely screws it up. It's the classic idea of "If you press this button, you'll get a million dollars, but someone you don't know will die." It isn't hard to find negative reviews of "The Box", but I think most of them miss some of the points Barnett gets, possibly due to his awareness of SF tropes and literature. The problem isn't in the initial idea, it is that, in order to stretch it out long enough, Kelly comes up with a bunch of surreal bullshit that isn't in any way relevant. He doesn't add any depth to the plot or the themes or the central moral dilemma, he just throws a bunch of random, unconnected things at the wall in an attempt to give an illusion of depth. I find too many reviewers are unwilling to call people out on this sort of thing, and just attribute their hatred of the movie to other things besides it not making any sense. Barnett's ability to call out this bullshit endears him to me, this is a good review. Although I'm disappointed he can't get behind my Donnie Darko apologetics, I rather have Rod Barnett than Roger Ebert.
Recap of Parts I & II by Lawrence Santoro
Wrap Up by Lawrence Santoro

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lord Dickens's Declaration

Novella by Lawrence Santoro

Broken up over three episodes of Starship Sofa, podcast for free as always, and brilliantly read by the author himself. It must be pointed out that Larry Santoro is one of the greatest story narrators of all time. If listening to this doesn't convince you, check out his other voice work.

On first listen, the first third is nearly incomprehensible in parts. At least to the ability to understand what the hell is going on. Maybe I was just tired though.

Santoro's introduction to Part II explains the first part much more clearly than it came across actually listening to it, so I'd advise not skipping it even if you are listening back-to-back-to-back, there is a decent chance you missed something important. That said, it is also worthwhile to actually listen to the first third, it isn't that bad.

The introduction to Part III is less vital, but still nice. Finally, the wrap up bit by Santoro is really fun and interesting to listen to, about how he came up with the ideas of the story and went about building it up.

Now, on with the actual story review.
This is an alternate history, steampunk time travel story. Set in a 1902 without religion, where war is something long forgotten, Jesus was a politician, as were Poe and Dickens. Literary historians are at the top of the academic food chain, with math and science at the bottom, filtering up through the softer and softer humanities. Philby is one such time-traveling literary historian, and this is largely the love story between him and his constant rival: Master Mary Mariah. The interaction between the two of them is pure gold. They fight and betray each other and call each other names, and from the very first segment, where my overall comprehension was lowest, I knew they secretly loved each other. That effect is throughout the story the finest bit of writing by Mr. Santoro.

So Philby gets in trouble for traveling back in time without proper protection, as part of his research into Lord Charles Dickens's declaration of love and proposal of marriage to Queen Elizabeth. He thinks it was not true love, just a ploy to get out of a publishing contract. This opening sends us off on an exceptionally weird, fun, confusing, and at times hilarious alternate history adventure. The ending is oddly sexy, and then oddly philosophical, I like the concluding segment quite a bit.

I don't want to give too much away in plot summary, so I'll just wrap this up with the comment that Santoro's ending and opening segments around the story are a pretty good description. There are a lot of little puns and fun anachronisms throughout. The dialogue is snappy even when it is written in Middle English (William of Occam is a favorite character). The steampunk setting is neat, although even more implausible than steampunk usually is (i.e. very). And the overall themes about love, religion, and human nature are neat, but not as well thought out as they could have been.

This is actually something Santoro mentions in his last segment: It's facile fun with ideas, which is unusual for SF which tends to be overly thought out, while Santoro is a horror writer, and they tend to be more concerned with the moments. He also comments that the story seems rough and unrevised, unpolished. I'd agree with the author on all these counts, he basically points out every problem I might have with the story. And yet I quite like it. SF often isn't as well thought out as people would like to think, and humor certainly has it's place.

I regard this story as primarily humorous, with some deeper thoughts lurking unexplored around the edges. It is good, light fun. The first third is confusing and overly complex and the segment most in need of revision. The second third was the most funny and worked the best overall I thought. The third third is a little more serious and deep, while still being lighthearted, although it could use some trimming here and there. But it is a good story, especially for what it aims to do.

I don't think I'm cutting Santoro any slack for writing on a deadline when I recommend this novella with 3.5 disaccommodated, illusory timelines out of 5.

Oddly, the biggest thing I take away from his explanation at the end, is how hard it is to swear and cuss people out without Gods or the concept of eternal damnation. I would suggest he could use vulgarity though.

Best Quotes:
  • "Few heeded Darwin anyway."
  • "Oh lovely twin-backed beasts."
  • "I am persuaded that Elizabeth, among her many virtues, was not a virgin."
  • "Nothing seems to improve a thing like making it larger."