The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

Guardian Books Podcast – SF Edition

China Mieville, Mark Charan Newton and George R R Martin all get a mention in this SF edition of the Guardian Books Podcast.

– An interview with Mieville;
– Damien G Walter selects some ones to watch for 2010; and
– some discussion – particularly pertinent to this blog – about the overlap between genre and literary fiction.

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January 22, 2010 Posted by | Podcasts | Leave a comment

Podcast Update

Being the proud father of a beautiful three-month old daughter, while at the same time not being a man of independent means (which is to say: I have to work for a living), I haven’t had much time to read works of speculative fiction recently.  Never mind blog about them.

I do get time to listen to stuff though, when driving, shopping and generally making myself useful around the house.  So I’ve been experimenting with a few sci-fi / fantasy podcasts.  It’s taking me an age to read the Children’s Book so in the meantime here’s the first in an occasional series of podcast updates, just to show that I’m not slacking off entirely…

Clarkesworld – This is probably my favourite podcast right now and not just because of Kate Baker’s hypnotic voice.  Clarkesworld post a short-story every two weeks, generally more sci-fi than fantasy but with a good roster of regular contributors including Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne M Valente, Kij Johnson and Kat Rambo.  I’ve only been following for a few weeks but there hasn’t been a dud yet.  I particularly enjoyed The Things, by Peter Watts, which is an inversion of the classic 80’s horror film The Thing, this time told from the alien’s perspective (as an aside, I’ve often thought there should be more of this sort of thing – telling well-worn tales from a different character’s point of view).  Just high quality stories on a regular basis.

Starship Sofa – Tony C Smith’s monthly Aural Delights, a magazine style recording which can last up to a couple of hours, including at least one short story, along with various topical articles about speculative themes, upcoming releases and recommendations.  Quite a time-commitment this and I find myself skipping sections I’m not so interested in but generally a good mixed-bag for those of us who can’t get enough sci-fi and fantasy.  Again the emphasis is on Sci fi.

Sofanauts – Tony C Smith’s other monthly recording, recently cancelled to allow Tony to focus on Starship Sofa. This took the form of a panel show with regular contributors including Jeff Vandermeer, Damien G Walter, Amy H Sturgis and Jeremy Tolbert from Escape Pod (see below).  Tony hosted and introduced various topics of conversation for the panel.  It was always interesting to hear the panel’s views on a wide-range of genre related subjects but in some ways I can see why it’s fallen by the wayside, it did ramble on sometimes into areas which are perhaps of only passing interest to those of us not in the publishing trade (I’m thinking here for instance about the challenges facing the publishing industry and niche publishing particularly – interesting but you don’t want to hear too much of it on an SF podcast).

Science Fiction Book Review Podcast – Exactly what it says on the tin, as Luke Burrage releases a podcast review of every book he reads.  Luke is an engaging speaker and the discursive format enables him to explore and explain particular points much more fully than is generally possible in a written review.  As a budding reviewer myself I’m interest in both the similarities and differences between the written / verbal approach.  In many ways, this is the blueprint for the Jub Jub Bird: in-depth reviews about books I read, rather than a multitude of posts about news / activity on other blogs.

Podcastle and Escape Pod – I haven’t listened to these enough to have an opinion, though I’m quietly optimistic that Podcastle will fill the fantasy niche, where those listed above tend to focus on Sci-fi.

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Podcasts | Leave a comment

The Time Traveler’s Wife – By Audrey Niffenegger

I stayed away from this book for a long time, despite hearing good things about it.  In part I was put off by the title, which sounded too much like The Kitchen God’s Wife (a book I haven’t read but which, in turn, reminded me of The God of Small Things (a book I have read but didn’t enjoy)).  Both titles sound interesting to readers of a speculative nature but come over as a tad portentous, when the subject matters turn out to be fairly mundane.  The time-travel subject was the other reason I was put-off;  done well, and as a strand of a larger story, there’s still a place for time-travel of course, despite the fact that it’s been done to death already.  I just had my doubts that it was possible to make it the central theme of a book, while offering anything new.  I was wrong on both counts.

Henry De Tamble suffers from a very rare genetic disease which causes his internal time clock to reset itself unpredictably, generally during moments of high stress.  So Henry jumps backwards and forwards in time, usually to times or events which have had or will have a profound effect on his life.  Henry doesn’t know where he’s going, or how long he’ll be gone and his clothes don’t time-travel with him so wherever he ends up, he has to live off his wits to avoid getting into scrapes with the police.  This small but significant change to the everyday world as we know it, allows Niffenegger to have serious fun, as she shuffles the order of events throughout Henry’s life.  So for instance, Clare – the time traveler’s wife – meets her future husband when she’s still a child and knows for certain that she will marry Henry because he has come from the future (where they are already married) and tells her.  Meanwhile Henry doesn’t meet the older version of Clare until he’s in his late twenties; up to that point he has no idea that Clare exists, even though Clare has known for many years that Henry is out there somewhere.  There are also occasions when Henry’s present-day self meets a time travelling Henry and the two exchange important information, or help themselves out with particular problems.  This happens most memorably, when present-day Henry time-travels from stress on his wedding day and a future Henry finds himself in the right place at the right time to stand in for himself at the altar, albeit looking slightly older and more bedraggled.

Once you start to play with time in this way, there’s a multitude of set-pieces and clever plot twists to employ.  Niffenegger writes in an episodic way, which allows her to exploit these ideas to the full.  Events aren’t told in chronological order, or indeed any order, they are simply related in such a way as to first introduce us to Henry and his life-style and later, once we’ve got the hang of the mechanics, to relate how this life plays out.  Helpfully, we are told at the start of each episode, the date and the ages of Henry(s) and Clare, avoiding the need for drawn-out exposition during the narrative.

The overall approach reminds me of that used by Charlie Kaufman in Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two brilliant films which play out in a world exactly the same as our own, with the exception of one critical change to everyday physical laws (a portal into John Malkovich’s mind and the ability to wipe sections of your memory to forget a nasty relationship, respectively).  No serious attempt is made to explain how this can really happen scientifically but that’s not the point, it’s more of a thought experiment about how life would be different in such a world; the subtly altered reality is a given and the logic is pursued to interesting conclusions.  In this case Niffenegger tells an alternative love story; one where the conventional narratives of boy-meets-girl are fractured, spliced and turned on their head by the time travel element (more like man-meets-little-girl-who-grows-up-to-meet-younger-version-of-man-again).

There’s no denying the originality of this approach and the focus on the love story – the way Clare’s life is entirely contingent upon Henry’s condition (affecting as it does her past, her present and her future) – is the key to its popular appeal. It’s not an easy ride by any means, Niffenegger takes an unflinching approach to the random and impassive nature of life, especially when you know what’s going to happen but can’t do anything to stop it, because it already has.  The novel has a dark edginess to it, from the way Henry hones his petty burglary and pick-pocketing skills to survive on his travels, to the time spent watching punk bands in local dives (Henry has an impeccable taste in late 70’s / early 80’s guitar music), to Clare’s numerous and soul-destroying failed attempts to have a baby.  It’s a compelling and at times heart-breaking story, convincingly told, with time travel as the underlying plot device.  Something for everyone then.

And yet, and yet…. I found myself admiring this book more than loving it.  I’m struggling to pin-point exactly why but I think it’s mostly because of the focus on the relationship between Henry and Clare.  The time travel element is present throughout and crucial to the plot but leaving that to one side, each episode becomes just another contemporary tale about love and life in the late 20th century.  The protagonists, hang out in bars, socialise with a clique of friends, have relationship problems, try for a baby (in an interminably drawn-out section of the book) and have complicated family histories.  In short, while the concept is interesting, most of the actual pages are filled with the dull day-to-day stuff about life; precicely what I read speculative fiction to escape from. If it weren’t for the consistently dark tone, I’d almost describe it as high-end chic-lit.  This isn’t Niffenegger’s fault, she’s conceived and written a love story with an interesting twist and it’s been very successful.  For me though, all the really interesting things about time travel are the extra-ordinary possibilities – journeys to a remote past or to a far flung dystopian future – and these bases have all been covered before.  So I’m left with an unfulfilled feeling and the knowledge that this book was only ever likely to be of passing interest to me.

I wish someone had told me that before I read it.  If I could time travel, I would go back and save myself the bother; only that wouldn’t work because by then I’d have read it already!  I hope this review saves others like me, from the same temporally-challenged fate.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment