James Braid

Softcore Science Fiction

Review: Pierce Brown, ‘Morning Star’

Pierce BrownScience fiction shares with pornography the distinction of being a genre that can be described as either “soft” or “hard.” Hard science fiction is rigorously technological. Its ideal practitioner is an astrophysicist who has momentarily torn himself away his work at the Hadron Supercollider to popularize the cosmic mysteries he investigates day-to-day. Soft science fiction is probably what most readers are familiar with, as it encompasses both Star Trek and Star Wars and focuses on character and plot without sweating the scientific detail.

A Disappointing Ode to Stephen King

Review: George Beahm, ‘A Stephen King Companion’

The relatively new proximity of geek culture to the mainstream puts the old guard of nerd-dom in a difficult position. Do they continue to cling to the false idea that their interests get no mainstream respect, or do they reorient themselves to the fact that sometime around the release of Episode I their revenge was utterly, utterly complete? The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm is written as if most of the past 20 years of pop culture didn’t happen.

A Marxist’s Amazing Fantasy

Review: China Miéville, 'Three Moments of an Explosion'

China MiévilleChina Miéville is the densest, smartest, and weirdest writer of fantasy working today. His prose, lyric and flexible, will send even the most educated readers to the Oxford English Dictionary, because Webster’s is often insufficient. He made his reputation with the World Fantasy Award-winning New Crobuzon trilogy, three novels that use the machinations of a fantastic industrial-capitalist city-state as the axis for their plots. Miéville’s latest is Three Moments of an Explosion, a brilliant and unnerving collection of short stories.

A Fantasy Richard Nixon

Review: Austin Grossman, ‘Crooked’

Richard M. NixonCommercial fiction is, above all, plot driven, so it’s ironic that the great pleasure of a secret history is knowing the ultimate conclusion of the story. In this case, the reader’s interest is truly the journey, not the destination. The genre is seen most commonly in fantasy stories, where the occult serves as propulsive force behind known historical events, in place of the more quotidian factors of culture, economics, sociology, and power politics. Crooked by Austin Grossman takes the reader inside the career of a corrosively transformational historical figure: Richard Milhous Nixon, and reimagines his rise and fall as a byproduct of a Cold War-era magic battle between semi-good (the United States) and clear evil (the Soviet Union).

Sci-Fi on the Mall

Review: Fantastic Worlds, Science and Fiction 1780-1910 at the National Museum of American History in Washington through February 2017

The National Museum of American History, located in a brutalist bunker writ large, has a reputation for exhibits that are either incomprehensible or boring.

Till We Have Faces

Review: Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Persona’

At the core of every science fiction novel is a coherent theory, an implied, but boldfaced assertion of The Way We Will Live Someday. These dynamics make writing books set in the near future particularly difficult, even for the best authors. Predictions being what they are, which is to say nearly always wrong, near-future science fiction must navigate a narrow passage between two fatal hazards. Get too specific, and in a few years your book will take on the characteristic irrelevancy of an old newspaper article. Too broad, and things start to feel generic. Persona, Genevieve Valentine’s third novel, smashes squarely into the latter extreme, and fails as a result.

Stephen King in Winter

Review: Stephen King, ‘Finders Keepers’

The bestseller, like its much more expensive cousin, the blockbuster movie, is a poorly understood phenomenon. Publishers have been trying and failing to consistently produce them ever since shortly after Gutenberg went all in on the Word of God. An editor may be certain he detects a bestsellerish je ne sais quoi in an author to whom he extends a six-figure advance, but confirmation of his hunch is available only after the fact.

The Day the Moon Exploded

Book Review: Neal Stephenson, ‘Seveneves’

Neal StephensonThe typical science fiction writer will take a concept he finds interesting—say, nanotechnology—explore and build an architecture of plot around the theme and if it all goes well something entertaining will be the end product. Not so with Neal Stephenson. Everything he has written is a heady mix of half a dozen complex ideas: cryptography, currency, philosophy, the history of science, memetics, computer viruses, and so on. (Stephenson brought our present meaning for the word “avatar” into common usage.) If he weren’t often seen in public, it would be possible to argue that Stephenson was some sort of composite, a synthesis of assorted futurists, historians, philosophers, and fiction writers, all writing as a team.

The Men Who Started the Hugo Awards Controversy

Review: The Work of Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen

A prominent editor of speculative fiction (a term that encompasses both science fiction and fantasy) pinpointed 2012 as the year that the genre “moved away from the white male Anglo Saxon Mayberry of its youth and towards a more mature, diverse, and inclusive future.” His words were an encapsulation of trendy opinion among certain sorts of spec-fic fans. They were also flat-out wrong. If early science fiction and fantasy had an ideology (a doubtful proposition at best) it was techno-cultural utopianism—the opposite of the conservatism of The Andy Griffith Show. The giants of the field wrote in explicit support of civil rights, sexual liberation, and women’s equality. But ideologues must exaggerate past evils to justify their present excesses, and so down the memory hole go Heinlein’s 1961 A Stranger in Strange Land and LeGuin’s 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness.

Hear Me Roar

Review: Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Half the World’

Joe AbercrombieOnce in a while, a writer’s desire to realize a gender-bending female protagonist can lead him astray. Rather than a rounded human being with agency, their hero becomes a fictional embodiment of the masculine stereotype—emotionless (save anger), violent, and unsubtle. In the fantasy genre, where preindustrial, patriarchal societies are the norm and women characters frequently battle against the prevailing culture, this issue is particularly common. Exactly why writers of speculative novels habitually jettison the lessons of their training and experience when writing women is a mystery, although presumably the promotion of a contemporary political point of view is at least partly responsible. Joe Abercrombie pins the hopes of his second novel, Half the World, on just such a character and the result is uninspiring.