Monthly Archives: September 2006

Longing for the space age, part 1: Anousheh Ansari

When I was little, back in the 1960s, I believed that people would be colonizing the moon and Mars by the time 2000 rolled around. I believed in the promise, believed in the dream. But nowadays, I am disappointed—no, I am bitter about the fact that we’ve turned our attentions and energy to war rather than to space exploration. Belief is hard to come by.

But every so often, something happens to revive my hopes. Yesterday, I was watching videos on YouTube, and I ran across the clip of Anousheh Ansari being welcomed aboard the International Space Station. My old feelings of excitement returned. Sure, cynics may say that Ansari’s just deadweight, someone who bought her way to space. But she’s there. And if other tourists like her are willing to pay for the trip, then people who want to make money will find a way to keep the dream alive.


I just had the pleasure of answering a couple of questions for the good people at Memetherapy. The first question asked about ethical dilemmas in contemporary science fiction, so I scraped up something serious to serve as an answer. But I had fun with the second question, which let me write a pretend review for a pretend science fiction novel—and TRASH that novel. (Imagine my hands rubbing together in glee.)

In each of its “Brain Parades,” Memetherapy poses a single question to a certain number of authors, editors, and other science fiction folk, then posts the answers on their site. The questions and answers make interesting reading (far more entertaining and intriguing than my own answers). You might enjoy checking them out.

Battlestar Galactica

No, I’m not talking about that cheesy series from the late 1970s (although I loved it at that time). I’m talking about the critically acclaimed version of Battlestar Galactica about to begin its third season on the SciFi channel.

Battlestar Galactica has everything (except for Joss Whedon) that I look for in a science fiction show: believable, engaging, and complex characters; thoughtful character development; entertaining, unexpected, and ongoing plot arcs; social and political commentary; suspense and drama; humor and romance—and lots and lots of spaceships. As my dear friend Jennifer Carson says, it’s a truly literary show.

And Battlestar Galactica has the most fan-centric official website I’ve ever seen, full of goodies, including videos, podcasts, blogs, and interviews by cast and crew. Right now, the site is offering new two-minute “webisodes” that lead up to the October 6 start of the third season. (I’m watching these and chewing my nails.) Podcasts offer the show runner’s commentary on each episode, or let you listen to a writers’ meeting as they create the compelling episode titled “Scar”. (The podcasts are full of interesting writerly tips and insight into what makes the TV series so compelling. ) Blogs let you read or watch other entertaining and intriguing information. And there’s a bulletin board with an active community.

A show that takes such good care of its fans is rare.

If you haven’t yet watched Battlestar Galactica, you might give it a try. Watch two episodes in succession, to get an idea of the show’s range: sometimes it focuses on action, sometimes it focuses on drama, and sometimes it’s all about the laughs.

Reading YA novels as an adult

Someone asked whether adults read YA novels, and if so, whether that’s strange. My answers: yes, and who are you calling strange?

I was in the YA section of a local bookstore recently, buying a spiffy facsimile edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and I didn’t feel a bit strange browsing the other shelves for the latest book in the Artemis Fowl series, muttering imprecations about a bowdlerized version of The Secret Garden, and raising my eyebrows at a scene I’d forgotten in Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Sure, I’m fifty years old, but a good book is a good book, no matter what age it’s marketed to.

When I was young, a childless couple across the street let me read all the wonderful YA and kids’ books they’d collected over the years, so I grew up thinking there was nothing strange in adults enjoying YA novels. Nowadays, being grown up (OK, well past grown up: sliding into decrepitude), I still read YA fiction along with all the “grownup” fiction.

I don’t have children, but I make a point to buy good YA novels to stock my shelves so that when my niece and nephew come over, they’ll find something interesting to read. After all, for three semesters I assigned M.T. Anderson’s YA science fiction novel Feed as reading to college students in a composition course. They loved it.

And so did I.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness


The Left Hand of Darkness is my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novel, and quite possibly my favorite of all SF novels.

I’ve read the novel many times, delighting in Le Guin’s prose and admiring how she unapologetically immerses her readers in the world, minus expository cliffnotes, so that our experience is akin to Genly Ai’s first contact—everything at once, swamped with alien mystery, so that from the very first we have to puzzle our way along, piecing together the layers of significance and meaning.

And when we shift to Estraven’s native point of view, and see Estraven puzzling over Genly, and then shift to the Gethenian folklore, and layers build on layers of meaning, and the two characters come together, struggling to connect—oh, I’m swept away.

That’s what I love about the best science fiction: it takes me there.

K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City versus Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

After reading glowing reviews of K.J. Bishop’s first fantasy novel, The Etched City, and having a friend recommend the book to me, I bought a copy and settled down to read it. Now that I’ve (finally) finished, I must say I’m disappointed.

The prose is beautiful, and Bishop knows how to use her large vocabulary. But the book is a slog: unpleasant characters, soggy plot, imprecise theological maundering. The novel is ambitious, which I admire, and it flashes with occasional brilliance that lights up the page. But I kept waiting for something to pull the disparate clever flashes and promising elements together to make the reading worthwhile. That something never materialized—at least, not for me.

I can’t help comparing The Etched City to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which does a more effective job of handling theological reflection and encounters with the strange. Damnation, redemption, and salvation are fully fleshed in Russell’s characters and plot, rather than being nattered over primarily at mealtime, as in Bishop’s book. And the alien culture in The Sparrow is a more compellingly complex counterpoint to human expectations (religious and otherwise) than Bishop’s rose-and-blood infused city.

It’s not just my preference for science fiction that makes Russell’s the better book.

Science fiction characters I would like to be

Time to embarrass myself. I’ve a list of science fiction characters I’d like to be.

I’d want to be Sara in Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree: rescue (and marry) a hero after being mysteriously plucked from Earth by aliens in a traumatizing experience that everyone I care about would admire me for overcoming. Plus I’d get a new nose. What’s not to like?

Somewhat more ambitiously, I’d get a kick out of blowing everyone away as Aeryn Sun in Farscape. I wouldn’t want to have a baby like she does, although doing the will-we-won’t-we ballet with drool-worthy John Crichton would be delicious.

If I switched genders, I’d want to be Rustum “Bat” Battachariya in Charles Sheffield’s Dark as Day and Cold as Ice: a food-loving, extremely antisocial, relic-collecting hacker-genius.

Or Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels: a physically challenged and psychologically damaged yet pedigreed person who comes into his own.

Most of these are tortured characters who have physical or mental problems that I wouldn’t want to have in real life, but I relate to their angst, and I respect the way they succeed despite their problems. I don’t have it in me to do as they do; I’d just curl up in a corner and whine, or stand around with my hands on my hips and complain.

So, one more for the list, someone less angst-ridden. Let me be Kaylee in Firefly: good with engines, always cheerful, surrounded by a loving group of capable and loyal friends, and possessed of (ahem) healthy appetites.

Writing is . . .

Writing is purpose.

Writing is balance.

Writing is health.

Writing is meaning.

Writing is life.