Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday Review, 8/5/2011

Two books this week, and most of a third, but that will have to wait until next week.

Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, eds, Welcome to Bordertown

Short short review - this is very very good. All of you who have been putting off reading this, waiting for some sort of sign that it would be ok to do so - stop waiting. Go, read it now.

Longer review - This has been a very good year for anthologies, hasn't it? Zombies v. Unicorns, Teeth, I'm sure there are others that I haven't read. So, this is a very good anthology - lots of good writing, some poems, even a short graphic novel/comic book. Bordertown books have always been good at bringing together established authors and elements of the newer generation, and this collection is no different in that regard.  You'll find old friends here - Ellen Kushner (who edited the work with Holly Black, but also contributed a piece), Jane Yolen, Steven Brust, Terri Windling (as herself, not as Bellamy Bach), Will Shetterly, Charles DeLint, Emma Bull - they're all here, and just as good as you would expect. There's new stuff from Cory Doctorow, Cassandra Clare, Neil Gaiman, and Catharynne Valente (none of whom can really claim to be new to the writing world, of course), plus Amal El Mohtar (of The Honey Month), Annette Curtis Clause, and Sara Ryan, all relatively new to the wonder of publication. Plus a number of other folks - the full list is here. Everyone one of the authors has turned in a brilliant piece of prose or poetry or graphic art, and that's fantastic.

But Bordertown books have also always been more than anthologies - they're shared world collections. That means that the stories collected in a Bordertown book should twine around each other, should contain sly references to earlier works, and nods to the stories shared in the current work. Initially, I wasn't sure that was happening in this book. Clearly, this collection is designed to do two things (in addition to the things that Bordertown books have done in the past, ie, showcase established and emerging authors, and tell some great stories) - welcome a new generation of readers to Bordertown while re-assuring older readers that their chosen destination has not changed too much. Hence the effort to include as many of the "original" crew as possible, clearly - even when, as with Mr. Brust, the author has moved on since contributing to earlier works. (Brust's poem seems a little out of place - defiantly in The World, spitting about motorcycles which run on gas, not magic - and he has, elsewhere, mentioned that he doesn't think it's a good idea to romanticize runaways, which this series does, a little. So, fair - Brust clearly needed to be included, but he wasn't going to write something he didn't feel anymore.) Through the first half of the book, I was concerned that these two new tasks (welcoming and re-welcoming) were taking precedence over the shared world concept. About a third of the way through the book, however, Catherynne Valente's story and Amal El Mohtar's poem played off against each other very nicely - either through planning on their part, or through sheer happy luck combined with good editorial chops, I could not say - and, later, there was a clear connection between Jane Yolen's translation of Tam Lin into a rap and the short story which followed, which referenced Yolen's rap. From there, it was clear that at least some of the spirit of the earlier collections was alive, and the little references, nods, shout-outs and winks were there, if you wanted to look for them (and knew what to look for).

Some highlights - an explanation of what happened. Thirteen years have passed for us in The World (since the last Bordertown collection), but only thirteen days have passed in Bordertown itself - they barely noticed we weren't there anymore; only the fact that coffee was getting scarce alerted them to the lack of our presence. Several stories played very very nicely with that idea. Cory Doctorow's story about how the internet came to Bordertown is brilliant, and the various stories with clear references to Worldly folks with no real understanding of how Bordertown works - those were nice too. Nalo Hopkins introduces us to the Caribbean section of Bordertown (which I didn't know existed) in a carnival tinged love story. Janni Lee Simner ponders what happens when the Twilight generation hit Bordertown - what if your idea of a perfect love is not an elf/faerie (soooo 1980s!), but a vampire, or a werewolf? Yup, Bordertown has those too. Holly Black and Cassandra Clare offer a lovely adventure story about drugs and swashbuckling gentlemen in masks. And Charles DeLint closes out the collection with a really heart breakingly beautiful story, which almost doesn't have Bordertown in it at all. (But it does have the Baltimore Fairy Festival - those are my people, sort of!)

Here's hoping we don't have to wait another thirteen years for a Bordertown collection. Maybe the next one will have a strong narrative thread tying everything together - or maybe it will just be a brilliant anthology, with lots of winks and nudges. And that, I think, would be ok.

I'd like to note that I picked Bordertown up last week after A Game of Thrones because I wanted something light after the unrelenting grey of Martin's opus. I was half way through the book when I realized that my "light" was a book about teen runaways living in a sometimes colourful, but often bleak, anarchic world, where what you are running away from is not necessarily guaranteed to be worse than what you are running towards. Perhaps that says something about me as a reader?

Steven Gould - 7th Sigma

The first year my wife and I ran our convention, we invited Steven Gould. We both loved Jumper and Wild Side. Standing Waves had just been released, and neither of us had read Helm, but we knew we liked what Gould wrote, so we invited him. He was a good guest. He enjoyed the food we offered him, he gave an impromptu Aikido demonstration, and he didn't get into a fight over politics with our artist guest (unlike the other author guest, who has since died, so I won't tell you his name). Anyway, Gould is one of those authors who, when I see he has a new book, I try to get a copy of that new book, because I'm pretty sure it's going to be good. So, when I saw Gould promoting 7th Sigma in John Scalzi's Big Idea, I placed an order at my local library. I was not disappointed.

So. When you go into a Steven Gould book, you're pretty much guaranteed a couple of things. The main character will be a young man with daddy issues. There's a decent chance that he'll be hyper-kinetic in someway - perhaps he will do Aikido (as in this book), or capable of teleportation (Jumper). He'll probably be the Smartest Guy in the Room (tm), at least part of the time. And the story will be an adventure of some sort, with fairly clear good guys and bad guys. This book has all of that. It also has some interesting complications, and some potential for a) a sequel and b) some thought on what, exactly, it means to be human.

7th Sigma, Gould tells us in the frontispiece, is a scientific term indicating something which is vanishingly unlikely to occur. In this book, that thing is the arrival (at some point in the near future) of a swarm of metal bugs. They come out of New Mexico, and eat all the metal in the Southwestern United States - New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, a little way up into Utah - and then they stop advancing, and stay where they are. (All the metal, by the way, includes mine tailings, the rebar in concrete [bridges and buildings collapse], and the metal in artificial hips, pacemakers, fillings - all metal. Humans are just slightly thicker air to them - if there's a human between them and metal, the bugs go through.) The Southwest has become a wasteland - an orderly evacuation occurred sometime after the initial swarm, and, fifty years later, people have slowly been trickling back into the Territories, settling in small communities, and building without metal - lots of plastic and ceramics, traditional muscle based farming and transportation, it's all very bucolic.

The bugs are a plot device, they aren't the story. The story is the people, who, good and bad, are going about their lives, trying as hard as possible to ignore the bugs. The bad guys here are corrupt cops running drugs (meth) into the Territory. The good guys stop them.

The principle character is a guy named Kimble. He does Aikido. He works with the federales too - doing spy stuff. He's fairly clearly (and Gould makes no secret of this) a direct reference to Rudyard Kipling's Kim (which I now have to go back and read).

The bugs aren't the story - but they are A story. There are hints throughout the book that the bugs are trying to communicate with the people - that humans aren't just "thicker air" to them - that humans are either a threat or a potential ally - it's hard to say. I think Gould has set himself up to write a sequel (although, rest assured, this book ends satisfyingly, and doesn't NEED a sequel), and I think the question of what the bugs are and what they want (beyond our sweet sweet metal) will be the story in that future work.And, when it comes out, I will pick it up. Because Steven Gould is a fairly solid pick, every time.