Saturday, February 01, 2014

Book Reviews: A New Century, a New Light

The Brick Tower Press logo shows a brick water tower built in 1898 on the Long Island estate of the railroad tycoon and yachtsman J. Rogers Maxwell. iBooks was founded by the late Byron Preiss, an innovator in book packaging and publishing.

The Brick Tower Press logo features a brick water tower built in 1898 on the Long Island estate of the railroad executive and yachtsman J. Rogers Maxwell. iBooks was founded by the late Byron Preiss, an innovator in book packaging and publishing for the digital era.

After Byron Preiss died in a traffic accident in 2005, hundreds of works he’d packaged for others or published under his own imprints, including iBooks, went on auction. John T. Colby, Jr., the founder and publisher of Brick Tower Press, acquired the assets in 2006, including several stories and novels I’d written for Byron, a longtime friend.

One of them was the novel Core, which John has recently reissued in a revised ebook version, giving me the chance to fix one of those asleep-at-the-keyboard goofs in the original Morrow hardcover (repeated in the AvoNova mass market paperpack). No, there are no hummingbirds in the Middle East. Not in this edition, anyway.

The original reviews were mixed. The New York Times’s Gerald Jonas found “a savvy, hard-science techno-thriller about the hardest science of all,” which Kirkus seconded with “a fascinating scientific-technical spectacle,” but Publisher’s Weekly felt the narrative fell flat, “defeated by tediously detailed scientific and technical explanations” – although it conceded “the tantalizing premise and some brisk, exciting passages.”

The human element took a beating, though: “cliché-ridden family history, digressive character development” (PW), and “tepid romancing, humdrum father-son clashes” (Kirkus). With those potshots in mind, when I reread the novel to put it in shape for the digital version, I braced for the worst.

Writers are used to letting their finished manuscripts cool for a couple of weeks, then checking them again before sending them off to agents or publishers, for good reason: they read differently. On this late rereading, Core had cooled enough for the whole world to change.

The same novels are different in the 21st century because their readers are different. These days I doubt even hard-core science fiction critics would worry, as Tom Easton did in his positive Analog review, whether Core is “a bit too contemporary to qualify (in some minds) as SF.” The contemporary world we live in is the sf world of the late 20th century.

We can see the people we’re talking to on the phone. We carry powerful computers around in our hands. The computers themselves talk back to us. And in this century, the firewall between literary fiction and science fiction has all but crumbled (though Margaret Atwood hasn’t gotten the word yet).

Among the many works by literary writers who aren’t shy about science fiction, a couple that come to mind are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, short-listed for the Booker Prize, which moves from the past to the far future and back again with near-Shakespearian mastery, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of the Pulitzer among other prizes, a deft and (eventually) moving tale which, incidentally, shows uncanny foresight into the near future of social media. As does Dave Eggers’s eerie The Circle, his latest.

Core doesn’t compare with these – it’s an adventure, although one meant to engage the mind, and it moves around a lot, from the High Atlas to the Tonga Trench to the deserts of Nevada, West Texas, and the Middle East. But fathers and sons and some of the ways things can go seriously awry between them, and between lovers, are a substantial part of the story.

These are common human problems. Does that make them clichés? If treated mechanically, yes, but that’s not what I found when I reread Core. Instead I found complicated characters written with truth and feeling and humor. Many of those passages are among the strongest and most personal I’ve put into words.

Core has its quirks, and of all the reviews, Gary K. Wolfe’s in Locus best expressed what I may not have admitted then, but do now:

… we’re back in the early 1940s at the University of Nevada, where Cyrus Hudder – Leidy’s father – suffers a series of misfortunes…. The narrative begins jumping among several time frames, paralleling Cyrus’ career with Leidy’s and exploring with unusual insight the ways the lives of scientists determine their attitudes toward science and its institutions. The novel is at its strongest as it brings a whole half-century of scientific history to bear on its immediate crisis.

But then it gets weird. What promised to be an exceptional novel of character and science begins to turn into a James Bond thriller…. On a scene-by-scene basis, everything in Core works vividly and convincingly, but it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, in the end, a truly excellent novel of science got ambushed [by a suspense thriller].

I hope readers who are interested in these questions of both content and style will take the opportunity to judge for themselves. When written fiction works better than movies it’s because the words on the page are what create the images and dialogue and special effects and, yes, the music in the reader’s head: everybody’s movie is different. In this new century, Core is a new book even for its author. (For one thing, it’s now an alternate-world historical!)

On the Brick Tower Press website John Colby has also made available the complete six-volume set of trade paperback editions of Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime. More on that next time.

PS – Because a number of people have asked about the similarities between aspects of Core and the dismal 2003 movie The Core, my first two posts on this blog discuss some of the more glaring of those, uh, coincidences.

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