Wednesday, May 28, 2003

I just finished a wonderfully restful week-and-a-piece of vacation. In its honor, instead of analyzing obscure facts about medieval religious women, I shall talk about fantasy and science fiction novels.

Much science fiction and fantasy is junk. There is nothing wrong with this. Junk is good. It relaxes a strained mind and provides material to make horrid fun of. Nevertheless, there are some sf/f novels that deserve recognition as Literature with a capital L, but are ignored by the mainstream critics who refuse to cross their own fairly artificial genre boundaries. There are other sf/f novels that are neither junk nor Literature, but are quite worth reading as moderately thoughtful entertainment (henceforth MTE).

A few of my recent reads that belong on the MTE or Literature lists: [Please note, my decisions on the quality of literature are completely arbitrary and based on my own opinion alone. Feel free to disagree.]

Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett, Point of Hopes and its sequel, Point of Dreams. MTE. The great majority of fantasy novels take place in some place that sort of resembles the British Isles, somewhere between the sixth and fourteenth centuries depending on the variety of armor. Scott and Barnett deserve kudos for placing these police procedural fantasies not in medieval England but in a city based on early modern city-states in the Netherlands. The city of Astreiant has guilds and printing presses, astronomers/astrologers and social class conflicts. I was quite pleased to see a major plot point in the second book turning on... the seventeenth century tulip craze in Holland! Hurrah for variety!

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials trilogy.
[Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass]
Definitely Literature, although it can be read on a pure plot level. Pullman builds on Milton, Dante, Blake, Keats, and even Ashbery to revisit the revolt in heaven. I don't have enough superlatives to describe the series accurately. Just read it already.

Nicola Griffith, Slow River. Literature. This Nebula-award winning novel is not particularly cheerful, handling issues of pollution, corporate malfeasance, and even rape in a near-future dystopia. Nevertheless, it and its questions take up residence in the brain, leaving me wondering for months what it is to be human. [Warning: not for the faint of heart. Sex is explicitly explicit.]

Lois Bujold, the Vorkosigan cycle. MTE. Bujold writes character-driven space opera. This turns out not to be an oxymoron. Our hero, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, is a disabled military genius from a planet where disability is scorned and military genius is valued. Characters of both genders are interesting and complex, and feminist questions often creep in. My personal favorites from the series are Mirror Dance and A Civil Campaign, but all are worth reading. Bujold's new fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion, is also highly recommended for character development and originality, although I admit to being slightly miffed when I realized that one of the heroines was an analogue of Isabella of Castile, as in the Spanish Inquisition.

More reviews later...

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