In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, the first volume of the Book of the New Sun quartet, published in 1980.
This is the first-person narrative of Severian, a lowly apprentice torturer blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, whose travels lead him through the marvels of far-future Urth, and who–as revealed near the beginning–eventually becomes his land’s sole ruler or Autarch. On the surface it’s a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. … For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling… The Book of the New Sun is almost heartbreakingly good, full of riches and subtleties that improve with each rereading. It is Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece. –David Langford
Despite reading this book in isolation from its series — which means that we are looking at all the set-up and none of the payoff — we find a lot to discuss and a lot to love in this classic novel.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: His home planet unexpectedly and suddenly destroyed, his culture and society nearly wiped out, a researcher teams up with a local biotechnician in helping the Sadiri rebuild their lives on a melting pot planet.
PROS:Interesting characters both major and minor, enthralling background and worldbuilding, convincing use of old tropes, deep and evocative themes.
CONS: Marketing of the book leads to false expectations that may annoy readers as to style and subject matter. The cover is deceptive.
BOTTOM LINE: Book your trip to the peoples and places of Cygnus Beta.
Redemption in Indigo (my SF Signal review here) was a brilliant, unique debut from the author, and a strain of literature underrepresented and mostly unseen in American genre: Carribean literature (with a strong African mythic component). Justly award-winning, where does an author go from there?
As it so happens, the author goes into spaaace.
In this episode we discuss Ghosts, a family drama set in the near future by Jamaican author Curdella Forbes. We talk about unreliable narrators, culture, symbolism, and snails.
This week the two Karens squee mightily about 1998’s The Sparrow–and then get down to the nitty gritty of characterization, structure, theology, colonialism and intricate detail. The Sparrow is a novel rich in detail, as evidenced by this being our longest podcast yet. But like the novel, it is packed with speculation and revelation.
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Last week I attended my son’s high school’s open house. In the English Literature class we were informed that the kids had started reading the Arthur Miller play The Crucible which the kids would enjoy because, in the teacher’s words, “It’s got witches and adultery.” Many SF/F stories have those elements (if not in the same form) but, of course, there is nary a SF/F book on the agenda for the year. And in any case, stories can be interesting to teenagers without either or both.
Here’s what they said…
My list is by no means extensive or complete, but I thought of stories that contained elements of North American–Mexican, Appalachian–folklore, or that discussed current events and issues–struggles with religion in everyday life, culture clashes and war, discrimination–in ways that weren’t preachy.
Elizabeth Moon: “Knight of Other Days” — one of my favorite stories by Moon. When I first read it, I got the sense of a subtle Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-type tale, grounded in the setting of a Texas border town. The blend of history, mystery, influence of Mexican culture, and legend of the Knights Templar combine to form a multi-layered tale.
Terry Pratchett: Small Gods, Jingo, Feet of Clay — religion, culture clash/war, discrimination, set in a world different enough from ours to qualify as fantasy yet similar enough to equate to everyday life, news headlines. One of Pratchett’s many writing gifts.
Manly Wade Wellman: John the Balladeer tales, esp “Vandy, Vandy” — the Southern/Appalachian folklore, and the sense of how events in history can take on a fantasy spin when some details are scrambled and others are associated with magical intervention. And in “Vandy, Vandy,” there’s a witch! Well, a warlock. And a King, of sorts.
This is THE Greg Egan podcast. In this episode we cover Egan’s stories “The Planck Dive,” “Glory,” “Singleton,” “Oracle,” and “Oceanic.” We talk about Egan’s approach to science and art, quantum mechanics, history, biography, religion, sexuality, and much else, putting these works into the context of all his other fiction and what little is known about his life experiences. In the process, Karen Burnham realizes that she will need to considerably re-write the introduction to the book on Egan’s work that she is currently finalizing.
Next episode we’ll be talking about the 1998 Clarke Award-winning novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
Check out the cover art and synopsis of the Karen Lord’s next novel The Best of All Possible Worlds.
Cover art shown here. Here’s the synopsis:
When Grace Delarua, civil servant of the government of Cygnus Beta, is assigned to work with Dllenahkh from the new Sadiri settlement, her routine job suddenly becomes very interesting. Formerly the galaxy’s ruling elite, Dllenahkh and his group of Sadiri refugees are the excess males of a decimated population, desperate in their search for stability, security … and wives. Some people would let the Ministry of Family Planning handle the matchmaking duties, but Dllenahkh, conscientious as ever, decides to track down the descendants of previous Sadiri settlers.
Grace gets swept along on a year of travel and discovery that changes her life completely and challenges the very idea of what it means to be Cygnian or Sadiri. The Best of All Possible Worlds is Grace’s journal, and a story about survival and identity on several levels – individual, familial, national, global, and human.
Book info as per Amazon US:
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Del Rey (February 12, 2013)
- ISBN-10: 0345534050
- ISBN-13: 978-0345534057
We’ll be discussing contemporary hard sf and Caribbean speculative fiction over the course of our new, twice-monthly podcast. We spend most of this first episode discussing “Exhalation” and the collection Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.
Other books we’ll be discussing in the future:
- My Bones and My Flute by Edgar Mittelholzer
- A selection of short stories by Greg Egan
- and The Rainmaker’s Mistake by Erna Broadber
- More titles to be announced when we’re sure we can actually lay our hands on them ourselves.
We look at these stories from our perspectives as readers, writers, critics, scientists, sociologists, women, etc.
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
In recent years, the ascension of several former Third World countries to a better economical and geopolitical standing (the best example of which are the like the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has been slowly but steadily bringing a change of paradigms in the way science fiction sees the world. Could it be that novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl and The Dervish House, to name just a few, are some of the harbingers of this change? Or, as their authors are Western in origin and haven’t lived in the countries they portrayed, would they still be focusing on the so-called exotic aspect of foreign countries and therefore failing to see the core of these cultures?
We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
A Western writer who wants to write a convincing story has so many opportunities at his or her fingertips. Thanks to globalization, we have access to the Internet, the chance to talk to people living in non-western countries via a plethora of tools and gosh, libraries. Accessing information now is so easy, so simple – many do not even have to step out of their rooms. At the same time, you can ask a friend who is from the said culture(s) you are writing about to vet it. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Research. Let it be an enriching experience. Worldbuilding does not emerge out of the ether nor do you pluck it out of thin air.
PROS: Rich, lyrical and beautiful language that is at turns funny, and touching.
CONS:The non-traditional nature of the narrative and story requires some mental adjustment to get used to. A few elements of the story are underdeveloped.
VERDICT: An intriguing and enchanting dip into fairy tale and myth that is new and fresh to most readers.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The tale of a woman caught up in djombi business.
PROS: A lovely, funny, different, and human story.
CONS: The prologue chapter probably doesn’t set the right tone for the story as a whole.
BOTTOM LINE: A fast and beautiful read.
The most important thing to remember about Redemption in Indigo is that first and foremost, this is a story. It is a story told by a storyteller, who knows how to make an audience laugh or draw in close to hear more. The storyteller has a voice, one of the strongest I’ve read in recent years. The narrator isn’t above some snark at the expense of her characters, but she also obviously sympathizes with them, even the silly ones. Although the cloth of the tale may be short (less than 200 pages), it is beautifully woven with lovely colors and texture.
In honor of the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp, we asked this week’s panelist for writing advice…
Here’s what they said…
I wasn’t trying to be a writer as a young adult so no one was giving me advice about how to do it back then. What I was doing was a ton of reading, which turned out to be the best thing I could have been doing anyway. What was particularly good about my reading was that I hadn’t learned to make a distinction between one kind of book and another; I hadn’t ever told myself I liked one kind of book, but not another. So I read widely — books for children and for adults, poetry by Emily Dickinson and Garcia Lorca, The Lord of the Rings and Don Quixote and The Hunting of the Snark. I read hundreds of YA’s whose titles I’ve forgotten, but whose stories I still remember about high school proms and football teams and how to be popular. I read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries, short story collections like Junior Miss and The Night the Bed Fell and collections of humor and horror. I read non-fiction like Men Against the Sea and Old Bones, the Wonder Horse, and historical biographies of all sorts. When I came to writing, many years later, I realized that I had unconsciously picked up techniques from all those sorts of books. And that I had no limiting vision of what I could or could do in any particular piece, although many tried to convince me otherwise. I had a good solid sense of there being no rules at all.
The best advice no one actually gave me was to read a lot of any and everything.
The thing I didn’t understand about the writing life was how public it can be. It looked very private when I imagined it — there you are, alone in your room, pulling images as fast as you can from that clown-car between your ears we call your brain. You need please no one, but yourself. I didn’t think at all about reviews and reader reactions and sales figures. I didn’t picture interviews and readings. The alone-in-your room part is still the part I like best.