Among Others: a fairy tale about science fiction

Book cover: Among Others Today was the official publication date of Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others. It’s a fantastic book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It’s about fairies, and magic — and growing up reading science fiction and fantasy. That sounds like a dissonant combination, but oh does it ever work.

I managed to lay hands on an advance bound manuscript because Jennifer and I actually met Jo Walton at SFContario last November. In the dealers’ room on day one of the convention, Jennifer managed to sing the praises of one of Walton’s earlier novels, Tooth and Claw (which is the kind of novel Anthony Trollope would have written, if Trollope wrote about dragons), without realizing that Jo herself was sitting right in front of her. (That’s got to be a satisfying thing to happen to an author.) By the end of the convention Jo was offering to sell us all her other books for a low price and to sign them all for Jen as well. That included the advance bound manuscript for Among Others. Looking at the cover blurb, I said, “This sounds really neat.”

I had no idea just how good it was going to be.

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The Alchemist and the Executioness

The Alchemist and The Executioness For our road trip to and from SFContario earlier this month (more on which anon), we listened to The Alchemist and The Executioness, a pair of linked novellas by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell, respectively. Both works are sufficiently full of awesome that I fully expect to see them battling one another on an award ballot at some point — and I’d be hard pressed to decide which one to vote for.

They’re both set in a world in which magic works — but, as usual, at a price. Where magic is used, a poisonous plant called bramble grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. The use of magic is, as a result, banned, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming. In The Alchemist, an alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, but discovers to his horror that the authorities have other, more sinister uses for his invention; in The Executioness, an executioner’s daughter, chasing after raiders who stole her children, finds herself, much to her surprise, taking on the role of a hero.

The bramble itself makes for a beautiful and (to use Tolkien’s preferred term) applicable theme: how something that is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it — that could be applied to everything from fossil fuels to file-sharing.

Jennifer and I have been arguing about which of the two stories we prefer. The Alchemist is the darker and more intense story, with the greater power: she found herself tearing up at several points. After that experience, The Executioness was downright cathartic: it sounded more triumphant notes, with enough ass-kicking to make us smile through much of it.

The reading were beautifully done — Katherine Kellgren’s performance of The Executioness was astonishing. It’s a reasonable $10 for a five and a half hour recording. If you’d rather read it than hear it, Subterranean Press is publishing each book in hardcover next month (announcements: The Alchemist, The Executioness). My advice: buy both!

The Alchemist and the Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell (audio)
The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (hardcover)
The Executioness by Tobias Buckell (hardcover)

Fall from Earth

Book cover: Fall from Earth In Matthew Johnson’s debut novel, Fall from Earth, convicts from the all-human Borderless Empire are deposited on an alien world. Very quickly things go wrong: the colony leader shows no willingness to lead; a problem with the supplies forces them to break the rules to survive; and the planet very quickly is shown to have alien life — something that the Empire, with its total control over its citizens (the colonists include theological and political prisoners), suppresses any knowledge of. And the colonists soon discover that they were sent there as more than just prisoners.

This is a fast-paced, ambitious novel with a rich background and some serious and effective world-building, along with a cast of vibrant characters. But it’s hampered by its length: it’s just not long enough to deal with its eight or nine viewpoint characters. The relationship between the main character, Shi Jin, and the two administrators, with their past history, could have been a novel in and of itself. Fall from Earth needed to be much longer, on the scale of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, to deal with all the characters’ implications and permutations, or much simpler, with fewer characters. Johnson told me via Twitter that he’d had to cut 15,000 words for commercial reasons; I suspect he could have added at least as many. (But first-time science fiction writers rarely get to write big books on their first outing because of printing costs: big books need to sell lots of copies because they cost more to print, and first novels don’t sell well enough for that.)

Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Johnson’s short fiction — in particular “The Coldest War,” “Heroic Measures” and the nasty little “Long Pig” — and from what I’ve seen here, I’ll have no hesitation picking up his next book. Watch this guy.

Update: Matt wants it known that while it’s possible Fall From Earth should have been longer, “I think Fall From Earth is a better book as a result of the cuts” — he doesn’t want anyone to think that his editor’s edits, and 15,000 words of cuts, harmed the book (1, 2, 3). In other words, if, as I argue above, more words needed to be added, they’re not necessarily the same words that were taken out in editing.

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