Posts Tagged ‘john scalzi’

Today I am starting a series of posts called Courseware. This came about from a classic thought experiment from film school. “What movies would I use if I was teaching the class?” It’s actually something I would talk about with my buddies somewhat frequently for whatever reason. The thought train that brought me around to applying this to SF books started with the recent Tim Powers book.

See there actually is a Science Fiction as Literature class at the Community College of Rhode Island where my wife works. She took it when she was a student and enjoyed it even though her reading lists skews much more towards horror and supernatural. I know some other people who’ve taken it as well and everyone enjoys it. Unfortunately, it’s permanently in the 10am timeslot, effectively ruining it for anyone with a day job. The class as taught has a lot of short stories and one novel, The Anubis Gates by the aforementioned Tim Powers. I’ve read it. Good book.

So in thinking about how to structure a SF-F class, the first thing I realized is that the subject is way to broad to cram it all into one class. This is why I expect this to be a series. We did the same thing back in film school too and seperated Intro to Film Analysis from Intro to Film History. Let’s split it up here. Today is Intro to Sci Fi and later we’ll hit Intro to Fantasy. Let’s also assume it’s a once a week thing. Back when I was in college, my school was transitioning from a three credit system to a four. For a once a week class, it’s not that different, just an hour longer. Ideally, that gives the class maximum time to talk shop and read excerpts from the books being discussed.

The next ground rule is one book every two weeks for a six book total. When I was working nights, I’d polish off six to eight in two weeks but not everyone has that kind of time. Even now with the day job and the toddler, only doorstop size pagecounts take two weeks or more. This also gives ample time for discussions and such. A lot of the discussions would revolve around the background of the genre, the societal influences on the work and other works surrounding the ones chosen.

Specific to Intro to Sci Fi, the books I’ve chosen are going to skew modern. The reason for this is accessibility. I could go back to the very first sci fi book, Frankenstein but have you actually tried to read it? I have. Gah it’s not easy. The language is very dated and it’s not a very easy read because of it. Think of this as Sci Fi for newbies. We’re not trying to scare them off, we’re trying to rope them in. Things like the Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld are classics, but for a newbie could be like throwing them in the deep end without telling them which way is up.

I also want to showcase sci fi at it’s best. As a genre we’re concerned with the future of all people, not just the all too unfortunate demographic spread the old guard wants to cling on to for some reason. Only two of the six are written by white guys and four of the six have people of color and/or women as the protags. If we want to encourage the genre to be all encompassing going forward, one of the best ways to do it is by talking about the books that showcase it.

Without any further ramblings, the courseware for Intro to Science Fiction.

windupgirl The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a near future book that takes place in a world saddled by environmental collapse. Too much genetic engineering has killed off biodeversity and engineered plagues are a very real threat. One protag works for Big Agriculture skulking around Bangkok looking for hidden foodstuff. The other is a genetically created human. Oil and petrols are restricted to the government and the super rich. When I first read this book, I felt it was a touch creepy that I could see the world really going down this path. For an introduction to the genre, familiar real world problems and technologies only a step or two away from what exists now can ease new readers into it. There’s a lot of room to open up the discussion to how sci fi can talk about things in a different way than plain old literature can

arcticrisingArctic Rising by Tobias S Buckell

I debated making this the first book as it is another near future book. Arctic Rising doesn’t have such a bleak outlook on the future. I also thing it has a more international feel to it even though both books so far take place outside of the US. Again, global warming is screwing with the earth. The nations boarding the arctic circle find themselves a lot more powerful all of a sudden with new resources opening up. The last icebergs on earth have formed a new geopolitical entity part of no nation. Anika Duncan is a bad ass airship pilot working for the UN thrown into a big mess. There’s a lot of politicking and action rolling around in this. Discussion could veer towards sci fi and thriller tropes interacting together.

merchantersluckMerchanter’s Luck by CJ  Cherryh

I specifically wanted this book to follow Arctic Rising because Buckell has said how it hit home with him growing up in the Caribbean. Sometimes tradition in our genre isn’t a bad thing and can create fascinating stepping stones across different generations of writers. Bam. There’s a lot of discussion from this right there. The book itself stands alone but takes place in a larger universe created by Cherryh. I would definitely brush up on the other books in the world to tie it together. Sprawl is often a key part in sci fi.

onbasiliskstationOn Basilisk Station by David Weber

Want to talk sprawl? Honorverse time. On Basilisk Station is the first of the (currently) thirteen book series tracking naval officer Honor Harrington from her first posting out of the academy. I’m horribly out of date on my Honor books, but the last I read she was an Admiral in two different nations. I first read this when I was maybe twelve and was my first non-Star Trek foray into space opera. Even though this was first published in 1992, there is a Cold War feel to the start of this series. Discussion could start off with the historical analogues of the cold war and the Manticore-Peep war in the making and space opera tropes here as compared to well known space operas on television and film (ie Trek and Babylon 5)

fuzzynationFuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

I couldn’t run an intro level science fiction anything without including Scalzi. He purposely writes science fiction that is accessible without needing a huge background in the genre. Old Man’s War may be more well known and what propelled him onto the scene, but Fuzzy Nation has the ethics of human-alien interaction. The OMW series has a lot of alien interaction but is mainly concerned with curbstomping them until book three. Which makes sense in the context of that series. Fuzzy is wholly concerned with the ethics of alien and sentience. Kind of self explanatory where the discussion would be going with that.

livesoftao The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

This is the most recent of all the books I’ve chosen, not even a year old. The premise here is a reverse of what Scalzi was doing in Fuzzy Nation. In Tao, humanity is the “lesser” species while the Prophus and Genjix, two factions of an ancient species, are the advanced race shepherding us along. It turns out the aliens crashed on earth before evolution even gave us fish. They piggyback on humans and animals, sharing the same bodies. It turns out all of human history has been influences by their war. Roen, an out of shape IT guy, gets a secret agent in his head by accident and is part of the war all of a sudden. I think it’s important to look at the trope of “advanced civilization interacting with a lesser” from the other direction.

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So thanks to twitter again today, I’ve noticed a phenomenon in SFF publishing. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed it, but it happened again today and hey look! For once I have the time to do something about it.

So what the hell is it? [Insert Monty Python and the Holy Grail yelling GET ON WITH IT!]

Short answer, international cover art is way cooler.

humandivEhumandivjapanesexample A…. John Scalzi‘s Human Division dropped in Japan with this pile of kick ass on the right. Now… don’t get me wrong, the US version looks pretty damn spiffy but it also looks somewhat traditional. I don’t need to be a marketing genius or some sort of cultural expert to see that the manga looking cover is going to have a lot more attraction in Japan than the traditional space station.

Now actually, as far as traditional SF covers go, I think the Human Division cover is pretty damn spiffy. It’s got a nice color palate instead of black starscapes. But, I am partial to covers that show characters and while the Japanese cover doesn’t show an actual scene from the book, people are always more interesting than tech alone. I also agree with what Scalzi said himself that it’s great they show Ambassador Abumwe and not just the shooters.

So both good, but Japan wins. Like woah.

lockelamora-uslockelamora-ukExample B…. Scott Lynch‘s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Full disclosure, Lies is one of my all time favorites. But I totally did not pick it up off the shelf because of the cover. I actually picked up it’s sequel off the shelf first because of it’s cover. Again with the US cover, kind of traditional. I dunno what the hell Locke is supposed to be thinking sitting there. He’s certainly not being a very good thief sitting out in the open like that. It would bother me a lot less if that was something that happened in the book, but he never stares off at Camorr’s towers looking all pensive, wry and slightly emo.

UK over on the right still has Locke perched in odd places for some reason, but that captures the feel of the city and the book so much more. Locke’s version of Camorr is the dirty slums where you’re more likely to get shanked and dumped into the canal.

UK absolutely wins here and I’m pretty sure they stayed with the same artist for all the covers going forward, US and UK.

breachzone-usbreachzone-ukExample C…. Myke Cole‘s upcoming (and greatly anticipated) Shadow Ops Breach Zone, or in the UK, just plain Breach Zone. Now, again here, I don’t think the American cover is bad, I just think that the UK one is a whole lot better. Over on the left, Harlequin looks pretty damn impressive. Scylla looking pretty cool down in the corner but it’s totally Harlequin’s show and he could be a poster child for a recruitment poster there. Which is the point. We know this because we’ve met Harlequin before and I think the cover captures him pretty well.

But poor Harlequin can’t hold a damn candle to Scylla over in the UK on the right. She is fucking Bad Ass. Capitol letters and all. Seriously. Like Betty White, Scylla is sick of your shit. It captures the character more perfectly than any cover I’ve seen in a while. I want to find some British pounds to get my hands on that one.

Also, there’s a new blurb on the UK cover. The Peter Brett blurb on the left is a good one, (though nothing beats “I do not wish Sam Sykes dead” in Tome of the Undergates) but it’s the same one through all three books.

I’m getting into the rhetorical territory here now but I’m wondering why the covers are so different. The Japanese cover isn’t too hard to figure out but do the marketing departments in London and New York really so divergent? I was clicking around on goodreads and some people have wild variants around the world with their covers. Peter Brett, China Miéville and the afore mentioned Sam Sykes all have completely different covers out in EuropeIf you call up Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, one of my favorite covers, it’s the same across the world. I’m not sitting around in the publishing house or anything but I think it would be very interesting to be a fly on the wall to get some insight into the why’s of these decisions.

Fuzzy Nation

Posted: May 5, 2012 in Reading
Tags: ,

John Scalzi has been one of my favorite authors since I read Old Man’s War a few years back. I’m sure he’s been on most people’s favorite list after reading that. It’s one all sorts of awards and I’ve devoured up the rest of the books in that series, including getting my hands on one of the Subterranean Press copies of The Sagan Diary. I am planning on jumping all over the hardcover Redshirts when that comes out next month, but my penchant for mass market sized books compelled me to wait for the paperback with Fuzzy Nation.

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. One hundred seventy-eight light-years from ZaraCorp’s head office on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor on the planet Zarathustra, prospecting and surveying at his own pace.

Then, in the wake of a cliff collapse he accidentally caused, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginable valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp cancels their contract with him. Briefly in the catbird seat, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle. ZaraCorp’s entire legal right to exploit Zarathustra is based on being able to certify that the planet is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped — trusting, appealing and ridiculously cute — shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by it’s family. As it dawns on Jack that these aren’t winsome petlike creatures but ratherpeople, he beings to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to the planet’s wealth is flimsy indeed … and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

So I got a bit lazy again there and typed out the back of the book blerb. Keeps me from blabbing too much, those are written by professionals and all. So anyways, for all that I waited for my preferred size publication, the genesis of this book fascinated the b’jebus out of me. With Fuzzy Nation, Scalzi took a book from the 60s he really loved and gave it a reboot with permission from the author’s family. I enjoy reading stories written from different points of view so this instantly intrigued me. Now, I haven’t read the original, in fact, H. Beam Piper wasn’t an author I was familiar with either so I was coming into this cold. Piper’s original, is in the public domain now and available over here via Project Gutenberg. I prefer my books on paper so haven’t had at it yet, but the summary shows that some of the characters have been mixed around but the principals and the general story arc are the same.

There are a couple things that the back of the book blerb is lacking. First off, Jack Holloway is an ex-lawyer. I don’t want to get into the whys and hows he went from lawyer to ex-lawyer, it plays some important parts of the plot. Being an ex-lawyer says something about a character to me more than just ‘surveyor.’ It paints a very different picture of Jack rather than just being a roughneck miner.

Since it’s been so long since the last Scalzi book I’ve read, the other thing not on the back of the book slipped my mind even though it never should have since I read his blog, Whatever. Fuzzy Nation is laugh out loud funny.Frequently. Seriously, if the people I work with hadn’t stopped paying attention to my weirdness long ago, I would have gotten a lot of strange looks. Jack is a delightful smart ass who enjoys pwning face with logic. He gives people their comeuppance but uses misdirection and some surprises to make that happen.

So much of the book follows a group of the Fuzzys moving in with Jack’s jungle compound and his growing fascination with the smart little buggers. He shows them to his ex-girlfriend Isabel who he named a mountain after and just happens to be ZaraCorp’s resident biologist. She starts things down the path to getting the fuzzys declared sentient which poses problems for ZaraCorp and Jack. Problems in the billions of dollars range because of the rare gemstones Jack finds.

Fuzzy Nation is definitely a throwback kind of book, which is fully intended I imagine, being a reboot of an older book. This doesn’t bother me at all and it successfully walks the line between being that old school book and having the styles that modern readers want. This is the kind of trend I can get behind having read almost as much old sci fi as I have current stuff. It’s taking the best of both worlds.

So as expected, I enjoyed the hell out of this book and laughed a long time with Fuzzy Nation.

Next up, The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown