West Virginia Book Festival

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I can’t believe I forgot to put this in my earlier post about the just-completed West Virginia Book Festival. But I did, so here it is now:

Dan Chaon (left) and Ray Bradbury

Dan Chaon (author of “Stay Awake,” “Await Your Reply,” etc.) was talking about how he became a writer, and about his boyhood in a tiny town in western Nebraska. He wrote letters to several writers, and one of them wrote back — Ray Bradbury, one of the true giants of science fiction and the American short story in the 20th century.

Here’s video of Chaon in an interview with CBS, talking about Bradbury’s advice to him.

Bradbury, of course, died earlier this year at the age of 91. About a month after his death, “Shadow Show,” an anthology of stories inspired by him and written by a wide array of some terrific authors, was published. Chaon’s contribution is titled “Little America”; a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books called it one of the best stories in the collection and said:

Dan Chaon’s “Little America,” for example, is a grim tale of a boy apparently being abducted by a sinister adult in a brutal post-apocalyptic America — until we learn the boy’s true nature and the abductor’s true motives. There’s virtually no echo of Bradbury-style prose here, but there’s an acute understanding of the sensibility of a strange child in a strange and violent world

Besides Chaon, authors in the book include Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Dave Eggers and Harlan Ellison, as well as the man himself, Bradbury.

Also included is a story from Julia Keller, Huntington native and longtime Chicago Tribune writer, whose first novel came out earlier this year. Keller’s story, called “Hayleigh’s Dad,” was described in the LARB review as “a tale of childhood friendship that turns dark in the manner of some of Bradbury’s atmospheric early horror tales.”

“Among Others” wins the Hugo Award

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Over the weekend, while many of us looked forward to another school year or football season, the Hugo Awards — along with the Nebula Awards, the pre-eminent honors in science fiction and fantasy — looked back over the best of those genres for the past year.

The award for best novel went to “Among Others” by Jo Walton. Set in Great Britain, it’s about a teenage girl in Wales whose mother uses magic. After a traumatic event, the girl flees to boarding school in England, but her mother tracks her down. At the same time she’s discovering magic, the girl is discovering science fiction books, and her journal notes her progress there.

The mixture of magical coming-of-age tale and paean to science fiction had already prompted a host of accolades, including the Nebula Award, announced earlier this year. As Jim Higgins noted in his “Recommended Reading” blog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the previous winners of both the Hugo and Nebula include some of the classics of science fiction and fantasy, including “Dune” by Frank Herbert, “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin, “Neuromancer” by William Gibson and “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. Last year, Connie Willis’ two-volume epic “Blackout/All Clear” won both awards as well; Willis had previously pulled off the double win for her “Doomsday Book.”

Sadly, though, much on the online chatter after the awards wasn’t about the winners. Some science fiction and fantasy fans were watching the event live via the online streaming site Ustream. When it came time to present the awards for “best dramatic presentation, short form” — that’s TV episode to you and me — they showed clips of the nominees. This triggered Ustream’s automatic defenses against showing copyrighted material online, and it shut down the online broadcast, right in the middle of Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech (he won for an episode of “Doctor Who”).

The awards were presented at the 70th World Science Fiction Convection in Chicago (also known as Chicon 7). A full list of Hugo winners is on the awards’ website.

“A Princess of Mars”: The John Carter saga

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When I was a kid, right around 10 or 11, I would have loved “A Princess of Mars,” the first book in the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I didn’t know about the series; I didn’t even read any of Burroughs’ best-known series, the Tarzan books.

With the big film version, “John Carter,” coming out today, I thought I’d give the book a try. It’s the story of a man who, just after the Civil War, heads out west to prospect for gold and then is mysteriously transported to Mars. How? Who cares? (It actually reminded me of the plot catalyst in Stephen King’s latest, “11/22/63.” Big strange thing happens, and the protagonist just goes with it.) Because of the lighter gravity, Carter gains all sorts of powers, finds love and adventure, and transforms Martian society.

For a first novel that’s nearly 100 years old (Burroughs released it in novel form in 1917, but it was published as a serial a few years before), it’s a pretty good read, but it feels like Burroughs was trying out everything he could think of. Carter is, apparently, immortal. He also learns that all Martians are telepathic. Both of those could be, you know, significant factors in the story. But they’re mentioned in a matter-of-fact way and then hardly brought up again. It’s like the author decided he had enough going on with the whole super-powered alien story, and didn’t need any of the other stuff.

There are other issues with Burroughs, who possessed some pretty awful ideas about non-white, non-American peoples. In his review of the Burroughs biography from John Taliaferro, “Tarzan Forever,” Washington Post critic Michael Dirda writes of Burroughs’ “shoddy treatment” of Africans, Germans and Japanese, and his “enthusiasm for eugenics coupled with an undisguised horror of miscegenation.” There’s not a lot of that in “A Princess of Mars,” although Indians are called “red savages,” among other things. (It may not be chance that John Carter, Burroughs’ first hero, is a Confederate Army veteran.)

As for the “John Carter” movie, which hits theaters today, I’ve read a couple of reviews which essentially say, it’s a big dumb movie, but at least it’s fun, and the filmmakers seem to know that it’s a big dumb movie. The screenplay was written by, among others, author Michael Chabon, who’s no stranger to “genre” fiction. His works include the alternate history “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche “The Final Solution,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” chronicles the early days of the comic book industry. So it’s got that going for it, at least.

Back to the book: I’d be hard-pressed to recommend “A Princess of Mars” to anyone who wasn’t curious about its historic value — but that historic value is significant. As Dirda notes in his review, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the king of the storytellers for several decades in the early 20th century, and this is the book that started him on his way.

If you’d like to read “A Princess of Mars,” it will cost you exactly nothing; besides the usual option of your local library, the book is free (legally) all over the Internet.

Connie Willis, cats and unintended consequences

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Connie Willis, this year’s winner of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award, is best known for her series of novels and stories about time-traveling historians at Oxford University in the mid-21st century.

I was reminded of one of those books this week: “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a part-comedy, part-thriller about a couple of historians who fear they’ve changed Victorian history so badly that the Nazis will win World War II. But as it turns out, Willis inserted a relatively minor detail in her story that — if it ever happened — could be pretty devastating as well.

In “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” the characters are based in the year 2057, and cats — all cats — have been wiped out by disease. Sad? Undoubtedly. A disaster for humans? Not in the book. But it could be, if you believe the report from LiveScience.com this week. According to their speculation, the feline apocalypse would mean a significant increase in food eaten or destroyed by rodents:

A 1997 study in Great Britain found that the average house cat brought home more than 11 dead animals (including mice, birds, frogs and more) in the course of six months. That meant the 9 million cats of Britain were collectively killing close to 200 million wild specimens per year — not including all those they did not offer up to their owners. A study in New Zealand in 1979 found that, when cats were nearly eradicated from a small island, the local rat population quickly quadrupled.

And if the rodent population shot up, this would of course trigger a cascade of other ecological effects. On that same island in New Zealand, for instance, ecologists observed that, as rat numbers increased in the absence of cats, the population of seabirds whose eggs rats preyed upon declined. If the approximately 220 million domestic cats in the world all bit the dust, seabird populations would likely fall worldwide, while the populations of non-cat predators that prey on rats would be expected to increase.

Maybe that’s the next story in Willis’ time-travel series?

Eh, probably not.

“Serious” literature for Halloween? Why not?

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In 11th grade, our English teacher had each of us pick an American author and do a big project around him or her. One of my friends wanted to pick Stephen King, but the teacher wouldn’t let him. Stephen King, she said, was not “literature.”

Halloween seems a good time to note that that distinction has become more blurred over the past couple of decades, as “serious” writers churn out books and stories that would previously have been shunted off to genre sections like horror, science fiction and mystery. The latest example is Colson Whitehead, author of such well-received novels as “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days” and “Sag Harbor.” His zombie novel, “Zone One,” was released earlier this month to good reviews, and is on several best-seller lists.

Joe Fassler had a great piece in The Atlantic last week that looked at the phenomenon and some possible reasons behind it. In the story, Whitehead said part of the reason is modern-day novelists have a different set of cultural references:

Colson Whitehead told me that he thinks we’re seeing the first tremors in a seismic shift of influences. In his view, novelists and short-story writers working today are no longer afraid to embrace the pop cultural influences that excited them as kids. He remembers growing up when VCRs were a hot new thing, and renting horror movies on Friday nights was a part of his childhood education. For him, writing genre acknowledges influences that were always there—his love for comic books as well as literary books.

“I think that people of my generation are more comfortable making the foray into genre,” he said. “Because of macabre books, Stephen King, and probably cable. Culture changed in the ’70s and ’80s […] Look at the phenomenon of the blockbuster, whether it’s an adventure like Indiana Jones, or something like Star Wars and Star Trek. You’re exposed to that pretty early. And you’re supposed to walk away because you start reading Ernest Hemingway? It’s just one of many influences that makes you into the writer you are today.”

There have always been some genre books have transcended their limits to become classics; Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” come quickly to mind. But the trend has become more prevalent recently, as The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda noted back in 2007:

Over the past 25 years, literary fiction has increasingly disdained the strict tenets of social realism. Our finest writers are now producing what is essentially science fiction (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), alternate history (Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and absurdist fantasy (the short stories of George Saunders). A hot author such as Jonathan Lethem proudly introduces the work of Philip K. Dick for the Library of America. Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman series, has achieved rock-star status. We are living in an age when genre fiction — whether thrillers or graphic novels, children’s books or sf — seems far more exciting and relevant than well-wrought stories of adultery in Connecticut.

So when you’re adding to your personal list of favorite horror books, or maybe giving away a scary story to someone you love, you might also be reading some serious literature.

Hugo Awards announced

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The Hugo Awards, often regarded as the top science fiction/fantasy awards, were announced this weekend. The results make it official: Connie Willis’ two-volume time-travel World War II epic, “Blackout/All Clear,” is quite the book. Willis’ opus, which had already won several other top awards, was named the best novel. A full list of the Hugo Award winners is here.

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The results of National Public Radio’s vote for the top science fiction/fantasy books of all time are in, and the top 100 are listed here. No surprise at the top: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy took the No. 1 spot by a wide margin, followed by Douglas Adams’ cult favorite “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and Frank Herbert’s Dune series.

It gets a little strange after that. No. 5 is George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, and with all respect to Martin, I doubt anything close to that happens if the first season of the HBO TV version hadn’t just aired. And as NPR’s Glen Weldon says, it’s “inconTHIEVable” that William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” would have ranked as high as No. 11 if not for the movie version. In the same vein, I imagine that Max Brooks’ “World War Z” would rank a lot higher on a survey done after the Brad Pitt movie version comes out next year.

As for my top 10, three made the actual top 10: Tolkien, Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. One of mine didn’t make the top 100, George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (although two, Connie Willis’ “Doomsday Book” and China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station,” barely sneaked in at Nos. 97 and 98).

It’s not a perfect list — they never are — but it’s got some good suggestions if you want to catch up on some classic science fiction and fantasy you may have missed.

Vote for top sci-fi / fantasy books

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Several weeks ago, we told you about National Public Radio’s effort to name the top 100 science fiction and fantasy works. After thousands of suggestions, NPR has whittled the list down to a few hundred, and is asking voters for their top 10.

I hate lists like this. I mean, seriously … pick 10?

Are you going to vote for just the classics? Asimov, Orwell, Bradbury, Tolkien, Wells, Shelley, Heinlein, Dick, LeGuin, Verne — and you’re done.

No room for the sci-fi behemoths like Bester and Clarke and Wolfe. No room for newer names like China Mieville and Susanna Clarke, or modern giants like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman.  (I left Gaiman completely off my list, which I would not have predicted when I began the exercise.)

What about Diana Gabaldon, one of the stars of last year’s West Virginia Book Festival? Her “Outlander” series is on the list as a single entry (even if they did misspell her as Gabaldan).

And what about Mountain State solidarity? There’s Eric Flint, whose “1632” — the first in a series where a small West Virginia town is flung back into 17th-century Europe — is also on the list.

After much revision, this was my list, in no particular order:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien

“Perdido Street Station,” China Mieville

“A Scanner Darkly,” Philip K. Dick

The Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov

“Earth Abides,” George Stewart (an old childhood favorite)

“The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula LeGuin

“A Clockwork Orange,” Anthony Burgess

“Doomsday Book,” Connie Willis

“Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury

“Neuromancer,” William Gibson

Last cuts from the list: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams; the Gormenghast trilogy, Mervyn Peake; the Sandman series, Neil Gaiman; “The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells; “Solaris,” Stanislaw Lem.

Don’t like it? Go and vote yourself, then.

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Maybe, after coming up with your suggestions for the best science fiction and fantasy books ever, you wondered if there was anything recent that you ought to know about.

Fear not: The annual Locus Magazine Awards for the best sci-fi / fantasy works were announced last weekend. The winner of the Best Science Fiction Novel, Connie Willis’ two-volume time-travel behemoth, “Blackout / All Clear” (which we’ve already discussed here on the blog).

Speaking of behemoths, China Mieville’s “Kraken” (as in, “Release the … !”) won the Best Fantasy Award novel. That caused some consternation among Mieville aficionados, who believe that “Kraken” is not his best. The jury is still out on his latest, “Embassytown.” (I’m a dilettante, not an aficionado, but I loved his second novel, “Perdido Street Station.”)

Other science fiction and fantasy awards announced earlier this year include the Nebula Awards, and awards named after science fiction giants Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick.

What are the best sci-fi and fantasy books?

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Have some favorites science fiction or fantasy novels? Now’s your chance to tell others about them.

National Public Radio is soliciting opinions for their list of the top 100 science fiction or fantasy books of all time.

They’re being pretty narrow in their qualifications for this poll. Young adult novels are out (so Harry Potter doesn’t dominate the list), as is horror (much of Stephen King’s oeuvre is out) and “paranormal romance” (no “Twilight” or Sookie Stackhouse). That’s a good thing, I think; just about everyone knows about those books, but this might be a chance for them to learn about Gene Wolfe or Connie Willis or China Mieville.

Which is not to say there won’t be plenty of well-known authors on the list. I’m sure Asimov, Heinlein and Tolkien will be well represented (although NPR is inviting people to nominate a series as one entry, rather than as individual works, so that should allow for more variety).