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Tag Archives: Asimov's Science Fiction

Surfing the End of the World: Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave

I haven’t written a book review in this blog for months. One reason, obviously, is that I haven’t read a book in months, but that’s not strictly true. I’ve read a few for professional reasons that I just don’t want to review. And I haven’t been able to work up the energy to review Rick Yancey’s YA alien invasion epic The 5th Wave.

The 5th Wave

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to work up the energy, because it was one of the two best books I’ve read this year. That may sound like faint praise, but when the other book was Gillian Flynn’s stunning Gone Girl, it’s actually something of a compliment. I think the real reason I don’t have the energy to review The 5th Wave is that I liked it so much that I deliberately stretched out my reading of it to the point that by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t remember all the great things I’d planned to say about it at the beginning. So if this review, which I’m finally writing several months after I finished the book, seems a bit sketchy, it’s because I’ve forgotten most of what I loved about it.

But not all. One thing I loved was that Yancey has a gift for writing poetic prose that doesn’t come across as the slightest bit poetic unless you’re looking very closely, which is a terrific gift for a writer of YA novels, where the audience might be suspicious of any book that sounds like it might someday be assigned in English classes. And it also makes for terrific reading if you’re the sort of person like me who is intensely interested in the prose mechanics of a novel. It took me a while to realize that Yancey’s prose had an almost song-like cadence to it, while still sounding like the kind of writing one would expect from a science fiction thriller. His sentences are perfectly constructed. His paragraphs are perfectly constructed. And his chapters end with beautifully thought out buttons that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. And all this will sneak up on you without you even noticing he’s done it.

He’s also gone out of his way to make the well-worn alien invasion tropes feel new again. It’s not that he does anything genuinely original here — I don’t think there’s a trick in this book that I haven’t seen in some other alien invasion novel — but he takes a whole bunch of tricks (the title tells you how many) and combines them into something unique. He gives away the book’s central surprise in the prologue, just to show that he doesn’t even have to surprise you with it to make it work. (It’s that the aliens arrive on earth by inserting their consciousnesses into the brains of unborn fetuses, where they will awaken in adolescence. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything that you won’t know by page 2.) And then a fresh mothership full of aliens starts hitting us with one nasty attack after another, but I’ll let you discover what those are about by reading the book.

What I loved about it most, though, was the moral ambiguity of it all. The aliens in the book aren’t entirely evil. Even the worst of them are simply looking for a new world to live on and want to get rid of the previous occupants. The best of them…well, let’s just say that they can be as heroic as any of the humans.

The book follows two viewpoint characters, Cassie (for Cassiopeia) and Zombie (whose real name escapes me at the moment). Cassie is a teenage girl who lives alone in the woods, armed for bear, afraid of other people because she doesn’t know which ones are aliens in disguise — and you can probably imagine the ugly places a situation like that can lead. The other is part of a children’s army being trained to fight back against the aliens, because children seem to have survived the early attack waves in greater numbers than adults have. (There’s a reason for this, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.)

Most of the suspense and fascination of Yancey’s novel comes from the internal struggles of these characters, but he can write a great action scene too. Yet my favorite moments were mostly internal monologues. Which is odd, because I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers and editors, including the late Elmore Leonard, saying that writers should avoid internal monologue because it bores readers, who are apparently frightened by long paragraphs without dialog. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with the fact that I love it. But Yancey’s book has been on bestseller lists already, so there must be other readers like me who don’t subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school of all-dialog narration. (In fairness to Leonard, most of Yancey’s book is first-person internal monologue, so you can think of it as dialog addressed to the reader.)

The 5th Wave is the first book of a trilogy, so don’t be disappointed if all your questions aren’t answered in the end and all the bad situations aren’t resolved. Some major plot arcs are tied up, so that should be enough to keep you happy until Book Two comes out. And if you’re like me, you’ll be lined up to download that book to your e-reader the moment it’s available.

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Several Items of Interest

Book #37 (October 19, 2010): Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #38 (October 23, 2010): Analog Science Fiction and Fact (November 2010)
Book #39 (October 30, 2010): Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #40 (November 13, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (October-November 2010)

Although it’s hard to believe now, there was a time when there was a very large market for short stories, including both genre stories — science fiction, mystery, horror — and mainstream, even literary, stories. This market was primarily in the cheaply produced pulp magazines, where writers churned out stories rapidly for rates of one cent a word or less, but it was also in slick magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Redbook, which paid higher rates and attracted a more thoughtful breed of writer. Circa 1952, the pulp magazine market collapsed, having lost most of its readers to television. Around the same time, the slick magazines went into decline as a market for fiction. Those few pure fiction magazines that remained moved into the digest-sized market, which survives (albeit tenuously) to this day. Digest-sized magazines are smaller than pulps were and are printed on better paper. Few newsstands carry digest-sized fiction magazines any more, though30 years ago you could find them in most drug stores.

Starting roughly in the 1970s, the most enthusiastic publisher of these digest-sized short story magazines was a company called Davis Publications, which quickly amassed a line of the most popular genre fiction magazines, some of which had started at other publishers: Analog Science Fiction and FactAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineAsimov’s Science Fiction and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. (About the only major short story magazine that Davis never acquired was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is now published by Spilogate, Inc.) At some point while I wasn’t watching, the Davis line of magazines seems to have been subsumed in turn by Penny Publications, a company best known for publishing crossword puzzle magazines. A couple of months ago I discovered that I could purchase these magazines via the Nook for $2.99 a copy, so I set out to read the November issues of all four. (If it seems like cheating to count these as part of my 52 books for this year, remember that these are closer to anthologies of short stories than to what is generally regarded these days as a magazine.)

I was originally planning to write about the stories, but to catalog them all would take too long and I’ve already forgotten most of them. So I’ll talk about the magazines: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has been around as long as I can recall and the fact that the cover of the latest issue (two issues after this one) reads “Our 70th Year” suggests that it’s been around considerably longer than that. Analog Science Fiction and Fact was born in 1930 as the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Starting about 1937, under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Astounding revolutionized the science fiction field by, well, paying more for SF stories than other magazines did. Campbell brought a stable of new writers into the field that included Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In fact, of major science fiction writers in the period 1937 to 1948, the only one who didn’t write for Astounding was Ray Bradbury. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine has been around since 1956. Like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I’ve seen it on the newsstands since I was a teenager, but have rarely bought an issue and even more rarely read one. I remember when the first issue of Asimov’s SF was published, in 1977. It was a relatively high paying magazine and so it was disappointing that early issues weren’t terribly good. But after a change of editors the quality of the stories went up substantially and it published some of the best science fiction of the 1980s.

If I were to sum up most of the short stories in these magazines in a phrase, it would be “competent but uninspired.” The best story by far, and one of the few that rises above this level, is Rick Wilber’s “Several Items of Interest.” Not surprisingly, it’s inAsimov’s SF. It’s about a near future earth where humanity is being smothered with love by seemingly benevolent alien invaders. Wilber makes a lot of good choices in telling the story. The first person narrator relates events out of chronological sequence, leaving the reader to piece the story together from fragments. Perhaps the cleverest stroke is that the narrator’s estranged brother promises to tell him what’s “really happening,” but the obligatory scene where he does so never happens and the true horror of the situation is left to the reader’s imagination, which gives the story a haunting resonance that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. I would expect to see this nominated for awards next year or at least reprinted in one of the few remaining Best SF of the Year anthologies.

The second best story is also in Asimov’s, Will McIntosh’s “Frankenstein, Frankenstein,” a horror story for the magazine’s Halloween issue. It’s about a pair of benevolent conmen who encounter one another in the midwest either in the 1930s or the 1890s. (The only hint as to the time period is that there’s a Chicago World’s Fair going on, but I’m not sure which one it is.) Both specialize in passing themselves off to credulous yokels as the original model for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. They team up, only to encounter…well, I’ll just say that the ending is genuinely disturbing and more than a little moving. The latter, at least, is unusual in a horror story.

I’d sum up the rest but — damn — I’ve already forgotten them.

Science Fiction Isn’t Dead…Yet

Book #14 (March 18, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (February 2010)

The science fiction genre is slowly imploding. Fewer and fewer science fiction books are being published and the flood of new novelists into the field has turned into a trickle. However, the genre still seems to be thriving, at least to the extent it ever has, in short story form. By my count, there are still five major magazines regularly publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories on a monthly (or slightly less often) basis: Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Realms of Fantasy, and Jim Baen’s Universe. (There are some smaller magazines too, but I doubt that any of them would be considered more than semi-professional publications.) Two of these magazines, F&SF and Analog, have been around longer than I’ve been alive.

It’s been many years since I last read an issue of a science fiction magazine. For a change of pace, I decided to read an issue of Asimov’s SF as this week’s book of the week. Lest you think this is cheating, consider that this issue contains at least 60,000 words, which qualifies it as novel length. (For most purposes, novels are considered to be 40,000 words in length and up.) If it helps, think of it as an anthology of short stories.

The science fiction magazines have always been the gatekeepers of the field, the point at which short works enter the literature prior to subsequent anthologization and awards. (There are other sources of short sf, but these magazines are the major ones.) As such, the stories in them only occasionally turn out to be classics and are often no more than serviceable as either literature or entertainment (and, believe it or not, science fiction can serve as either of those things). In the 1980s, Asimov’s SF was the top of the rank in terms of quality and probably produced more award-winning stories than any other magazine in the field, though the lower paying F&SF sometimes ran a close second. Things change, though, and I notice that F&SF now seems to pay slightly more than Asimov’s, so these days it may be publishing fiction that’s at least as good.

Everything in this particular issue was good, none of it was extraordinary. The standout, to the extent that there is one, is Bruce McAllister’s short ghost story (yes, there’s fantasy here too) “The Woman Who Waited Forever.” As a ghost story it’s only mediocre and suffers from an overly convoluted explanation at the end, but in the first half of the story McAllister paints a vivid picture of class distinctions in the armed services circa 1960 that would seem to be informed by his own childhood as a military brat. The characters are well realized and make up for the story’s flaws.

The story that dominates the issue is Stephen Baxter’s novella “The Ice Line” — in fact, almost a third of the issue is devoted to it. Baxter is one of those sf writers that a friend of mine would call “science-y” (not all sf writers are science-y), but he’s in his alternate universe mode here. The story is set in an early 19th century England beset on one side by invading aliens not unlike the ones in H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds and on the other side by Napoleon, who in this universe beat Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. (Napoleon is simultaneously invading the U.S.) The story is fun and not terribly serious. It falls into the science fiction genre known as steampunk, which postulates relatively advanced technology — in this case, spaceships and submarines — built using pre-20th century tools. This isn’t immortal prose, but Baxter captures a certain style of 19th century storytelling reminiscent of Verne and Wells.

There are two novelettes written by women authors, Caroline M. Yoachim and Aliette de Bodard, that are remarkably similar. Each is set in a vaguely dystopian society that may be in the future, the past or even on another planet, with technology that seems more mystical than concrete. (In the Yoachim story, the technology is left over from a distant and mostly forgotten past.) Both stories are good, but the Yoachim story comes across like a highly compressed novel and probably would have worked better if it had been given the entire 60,000 words all to itself. I suspect in the current market this isn’t likely to happen, so it wound up in novelette form instead.

There’s a bizarre and funny story about a squid who invents a reverse bathysphere to explore the surface world, as told by a drunken redneck in an alternate post-Civil War history where…well, never mind. It’s clever and it’s slight. There are also book reviews and an interesting essay by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Robert Silverberg, reflecting on the work of the late Arthur C. Clarke. Although I think he’s a bit harsh on Clarke, I always find Silverberg worth reading.

I’ll probably read some more of these magazines soon. However, there’s something oddly exhausting about reading science fiction short stories — I think it’s the sheer quantity of exposition I have to absorb in a relatively brief time span — and I think I’ll move on to something else for my next book. It may even be an actual book.