Monday, April 26, 2010

My favorite contemporary science fiction novels

Not what I should be doing with my Monday morning. At all. But I'm about to make a list of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers for a friend, and thought I'd put it somewhere publicly accessible. Using "contemporary" a little loosely and mixing some steampunk and new weird in with hard sci-fi.

Octavia Butler, Lillith's Brood
Humanity is sexually absorbed into an alien race. Somewhat unwillingly. Might be my favorite trilogy of all time. Takes place on primordial, post-apocalypse earth and on the alien generations ship. (Please overlook the terrible cover they slapped on there because a woman wrote the book.)

Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon, (& the other Kovacs novels, but not the rest of his work)
Awesome cyberpunk ex-cop thrillers on a galactic scale, working off the premise that human consciousness can be downloaded into different "sleeves" (bodies). Sex, drugs and the possibility of being tortured to death—over and over again.

Alastair Reynolds, Chasm City, Revelation Space, Absolution Gap
An actual European Space Agency rocket scientist who spent 20 years in the Netherlands peering through telescopes and writing these brilliant, nerdy, violent, cerebral hard-space odysseys. Oddly enough, I discovered Reynolds through an Art Forum "best of the year" list.

Iain Banks, Excession, Look to Windward, The Player of Games, any & all of the Culture novels
Elaborate adventures in a high-tech, far-futuristic and somewhat alien culture known as the Culture, a society devoted to enjoyment. Banks is a wonderful writer on the sentence level and nasty and apt about our own society in all sorts of unexpected ways. Depending on the book, these can be spectacularly violent. I also like Inversions, the Banks treatment in a semi-medieval world.

M. John Harrison, The Luck in the Head
I'm sorry, but you have to buy Jeff & Ann VanDerMeer's New Weird anthology purely for M. John Harrison's short story, The Luck in the Head, which is the most perfect piece of steampunk ever written. In its weirdness and beauty and gore, a new and disturbing format born. Go. Buy it. Now. Please.

Geoff Ryman, Air
Speculative fiction about the time when we go online straight from our brains, set in a tiny village on the apron between China and the 'stans. Female protagonist. Fairly real, quite literary.

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
The best work by a steampunk pioneer. Set in the disturbing and fantastical city of New Crobuzon. Raunchy sex with an insect-headed mistress. A de-winged bird man. A work of casual brutality and stunning imagination.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars
For the enthusiast, the exhaustive story of how humanity colonizes Mars. An amazing work of science and speculation. When you finish the first 900 page opus and discover that it's a trilogy, you might cry, though.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Museums in St. Petersburg, Russia

Yet another of my beautiful, partial, plot-damaged novel fragments is set in a futuristic St. Petersburg, an ill-conceived work inspired by cold and euphoria while wandering alone for a day in the city center, approached only by scammers and charltans, drunk on cold silver vistas and wet leaves and ghosts. It was a mood, more than a novel, but I remember that day every time I think about St. Petersburg, city of the aristocrats and the damned, such a mad, gray, sinister, ornate, spectral, rotted, impossible place. I hope this isn't making it sound bad. To me, it's one of the most different, exotic, particular destinations there is, the place you go if you want your mind blown, or if you want to go back in time or into an alternate reality. The failed novel fragment was science-fiction, only appropriate for St. Petersburg, though it's actually a pretty low-tech place.

This post, however, is about the art. But before I start talking about it, I will make one more note of a practical nature: Check the forecast before you go. Bring warmer clothes than you think you're going to need. Plan seriously on footwear that will keep you dry.

Regarding the art, visiting St. Petersburg is like going to Florence or Venice in terms of density of museums and landmarks, but, in my opinion, the rightful fame and importance of the Hermitage obscures the position of the equally worthy Russian Museum. Here's the thing: The Hermitage is an impressive, massive European-style palace, former home to the tsars, turned into a rambling and quirkily organized museum full of treasures of international art. There's a Leonardo Da Vinci, a haunting Rembrandt room, a sweeping collection of Matisses and French Impressionists, and my favorite Titian—of Zeus impregnating Danae disguised as a cloud of golden coins. This is all wonderful stuff, but it's not necessarily Russian, and it doesn't occupy that sweet spot of early 20th Century Russian art when the Maleviches and Mashkovs and Filonovs were redefining painting. This is the era of painting that the Russian Museum specializes in—big, powerful, vibrant, beautiful canvases that are possible to "like" and even understand without knowing anything about art history. I don't say they're as crowd-pleasing as the Monets, but they might be close, and you will never see art by any of these painters outside of Russia.

Perhaps I am more naieve than most, but I can't tell you how many times I've gone to the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow, sort of hoping to see some Kandinskys (the Tretyakov collection ends at Kandinsky; for the modernists, you need the New Tretyakov). I spent three days in the Hermitage in 2007 with an art-loving friend who has since become an art historian, and we felt we'd done St. Petersburg justice. We didn't even know about the Russian Museum. Well, now I do. And since there seem to be very limited options about it in English online, next post will be some notes on the floorplan.