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2003 - Year in SF&F: Reviews



THE WONDER TIMELINE: SF&F RETROSPECTIVE
Read other issues here

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Michael Chabon
"The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance"

© McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, No.10, 2003
--/ fourth place f story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

I will describe my experience of discovering fiction by Michael Chabon: at first bite it does not seem to be that intense, or delicious. You get into the story for a couple of pages, then you realize that the characters are too bizarre, the world-view does not fit, the plot does not compute, and even the words themselves that author uses are baroque, esoteric, obtuse... in other words, if you approach it lightly, Chabon's prose is not going to make much sense. But now you are too intrigued. You go back a couple of pages, read it again with more attention and respect - and BAM! you are hooked (or doomed) to read the whole story, with rewards piling up in every paragraph.

A Planetary Romance? Yes, but not in a conventional way. Subtle. Subdued. Emotional undercurrents require a careful appreciation of how characters speak, think and (rarely) behave. This is more of a meditative piece, and yet it's not lacking in adventure. If this is your first taste of Michael Chabon's fiction, I envy you. Now you will have to go and get more... more...

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Brian Evenson
"Last Days" (nv)

(based on "The Bortherhood of Mutilation")
© 2009, Underland Press
original novella: 2003, Earthling Publications


Brian Evenson can be effective in shorter form, and I suspect the original novella was more intense - but this exploration of dark religious waters is not the best of its kind (maybe because I was spoiled by reading Norman Spinrad's magnum opus "The Process" back in 1983)

"After losing a hand in a sting operation, Kline, a detective, finds himself unwillingly dragged into a secret amputation cult... a grim, darkly hilarious riff on blind obedience and pointless self-sacrifice". Brian Evenson's past involvement with Mormonism gives this creepy story an even creepier sense of becoming reality, and slaps a gut-wrenching indictment on cults of all sorts - but again, I found this effort a bit heavy-handed and lacking in subtlety.

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William Gibson
"Pattern Recognition" (nv)
© 2003, Putnam
--shortlist : 2004 Clarke
--novel : 2004 British SF

--/ third place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ idea award


London, Tokyo, Moscow (all present time), graphic design, branding (or the absence of branding), bits of geekology and tech-fetishes at every turn, introspective, splintered tone (emotions shattered by September 11 events, pulled together by cynicism, and fractured again by the inevitability of change)... the jumping, neurotic pace of the story and Gibson's trademark layered writing... All this makes it a complex candy, a book to chew on, a bit tiring at times. You would not want to swallow it in one sitting (which is a good thing, of course).

Subliminal angst diluted with brilliant observations, commentaries on symbolism, advertising, internet culture and shorter attention spans, viral ideas born and discarded with a stroke of a pen... streams of details that seem to curve onto themselves like Mandelbrot elements.... Economic and political doomsdays are sampled and considered, crazy commas and grammar are introduced, characters evolve only to fall back into their older selves. The book never really ends, but do you want it to, really?

And then there is the character of Hubertus Bigend - at first seen as the charismatic founder of the "viral advertising" agency Blue Ant, but then getting more sinister - even compared at one point to actor Tom Cruise "on a diet of virgins' blood and truffled chocolates". It is Hubertus Bigend that is so "larger than life, heaven and hell combined" (at least in his own eyes) that sticks in memory long after the book is finished. William Gibson brings him back in a sequel "Spook Country", and it's only proper that his character lives on, sort of like Heinlein's Lazarus Long, or Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius. We might see him again, in other novels, by other writers - a sort of "Deus ex machina" for various opinions and rants. Perhaps an improbable character, but as irresistible to watch as a train wreck.

In my mind, this book more easily classifies as hipster poetry and /or non-fiction essay than a cohesive thriller - in any way, it is a contemplation. A glue to piece together your fractured erratic self - which may fall apart again, but this is what sequels are for, aren't they?
Review by Avi Abrams

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Vernor Vinge
"The Cookie Monster"
© Analog, Oct 2003
--novella : 2004 Hugo Winner
--novella : 2004 Locus Winner
--novella : 2004 AnLab /3
--/ second place sf novella
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ awesome scale


Just like Jeff VanderMeer's "The Situation", this haunting novella contains images of corporate hell worthy of Dilbert's worst. It certainly puts a stop to dreams of a cozy desk job in sunny California, grazing around the campus of some hip computer corporation. Instead of perks, freedom and stability the employees here get something quite different... and you get a sinking feeling from the moment the first email arrives in the story.

This is a classic novella about the manipulation of reality; engaging, hilarious and deceptively simple: most of it happens inside a generic industrial park, with the main characters having a reckless adventure... by walking from one building to the other. Soon, however, the daily grind turns into a nightmare (and/or conspiracy) worthy of Kafka and Philip K. Dick. As our characters realize that they have become part of the biggest reality scam since "The Truman Show", they have nothing left to do but to shuffle around in a zombie-like fashion, hoping to "cool off" their thought processes, or trying to figure out the implications of the plot.

A few years back, Vinge popularized the "singularity" concept, in which he predicted that humanity will be left in the dust in the wake of self-evolving software. This writer knows how to handle the vastness of concept, how to tighten the plot with the velvet gloves of the reader's own fears and paranoias. It all starts with an email (just like the good old "Matrix" starts with a call on Neo's phone) ... but soon the workplace transforms into something else, and time itself is bending out of shape.

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"SF&F Reading Experience" is part of "Dark Roasted Blend / Thrilling Wonder" family of sites. We try to highlight the most entertaining and rewarding science fiction and fantasy, with emphasis on memorable reader experience, not necessarily general acceptance by the critics. Have fun, and delve into our extensive ratings and reviews!

Most reviews are written by Avi Abrams, unless otherwise noted. Reviews also appear on our unique historical retrospective page Wonder Timeline of Science Fiction. Feel free to submit your own review, if a particular story is not listed here.


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