The Novels of Geoff Ryman

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Joe Bernstein

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Oct 4, 2003, 5:37:20 PM10/4/03
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This post has turned way longer than I meant it to be, and has taken
so many hours to do that I daren't take the time to shrink it; nor
am I sure I want to. I will not be even slightly offended if someone
else chooses to snip it down to the titles and give terser comments.

Geoff Ryman is Canadian by birth and grew up there and in the US
before moving to London, where he's now lived for decades. He's
been publishing sf since the mid-1970s, and in the late 1980s he was
reasonably prominent in the field. I recently read what I thought
was his newest novel, and I was surprised to find very little mention
of it in Google's archives of this newsgroup, since (unlike his
previous two) it's unequivocally speculative fiction. So it seemed
like time to do this post.

Unfortunately, I'm not as well equipped to do it as I thought;
various websites tell me he's since had *two* books come out that
I've never seen.

Well, I'm baffled. Not everything I've read by Ryman is high on my
list of things to re-read, and he's not to everyone's taste, and all,
but he is a brilliant writer who has written several classic books,
and I'd have thought that would at least lead to *some* interest in
his "return to the field". Whatever.

One of Ryman's books was in fact a novella, and later appeared in
a collection of four novellas; another of these stories is worth
mentioning here as well. I gather one of the two books I haven't
seen is *also* a novella. I'm finding the bibliographies inconsistent,
but my intention, at least, is to mention all his longer works of
fiction in this post. (I know none of his dramas, so omit them.)
(For reference, I omit "Fan", the third-longest work in <Unconqured
Countries>, a book whose subtitle is <Four Novellas>.)

Ryman has a website, referred to below, but it hasn't been updated
in some time. There are some interesting things on the Web,
easily accessible via Google. Most of my bibliographical information
comes either from the books I'm looking at or from <The Locus Index to
Science Fiction>.


"A Fall of Angels, or On the Possibility of Live Under Extreme
Conditions"

Written in 1976; first published in <Unconquered Countries>, on
which see below.

This was the one story in <Unconquered Countries> that I didn't
remember from my first reading years ago, and I think this makes
sense; there's too much in it, and not enough holding it together.
Also, at one level it's just an ordinary 1970s story about How
Wicked People Can Be, sub-variety Ecologically Evil. But it offers
the only explanation I'm aware of for some terms Ryman uses in
several future works (in particular, the FTL "Charlie Slides" of
<The Unconquered Country> and <The Child Garden>, although this
story's history is utterly inconsistent with that of <The Child
Garden>). There are some worthwhile characters. And it's shot
through with Ryman's fundamental, so far unvarying, theme:
transcendence.

It's certainly worth reading, as simple science fiction.


<The Warrior Who Carried Life>

Published in 1985, though not until 1986 in the US.

Sorry, but I was not able to find a copy of this to look at before
writing this post, and I don't remember it very well from the one
time I've read it, in 1996 or so. There appear to be no detailed
discussions of the book known to Google for me to fall back on.
What I do remember is that it's a very strange fantasy quest story,
and that there's a fair amount of the kind of "squick"-worthy
biological stuff going on that is so prominent in Ryman's next books.
Various people also say it's based on Sumerian myth, specifically
<Gilgamesh>. Um. The form of <Gilgamesh> most people are familiar
with, and the form Ryman himself cites in an interview [1], is Akkadian,
not Sumerian. Separately, I have to admit that I missed any
connection myself, or else found it tedious; at any rate, I would
have remembered a really well-done fantastication of <Gilgamesh>,
and didn't remember this book as such. Your mileage may vary.


<The Unconquered Country>

Published in 1986, though not until 1987 in the US. Based on a
novella or novelette that appeared in <Interzone> in 1984. The
earlier version won the World Fantasy Award among other things; the
book version was nominated for a Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell
Memorial Award. The book-length version is illustrated, at least
in some printings. This version also appeared, without the
illustrations, in <Unconquered Countries>.

This is a life story of Third Child. Her country was invaded, not
long before her birth, by the Neighbors, who have been armed by the
Big Country; when she is six, the invaders reach her village, too
fast for the villagers' houses to flee. Third Child sees her elder
sister killed, and her house abandoned, crying in loneliness and
sorrow; she and her mother and sister flee to the capital, Saprang
Song, where the rest of the book takes place. Saprang Song is,
of course, Phnom Penh, and the Unconquered Country Cambodia. The
book ends shortly after the arrival of the Khmer Rouge.

The living houses, weapons, and advertisements combined with the
exoticism of the real-Cambodia elements to make something very
unlike the familiar sf setting. Ryman also dared to introduce
into this story of the origins of genocide his theme of transcendence,
of that which is beyond, behind, above, what we see and hear and do.
The story is powerful in its own right, but I find myself wondering
uneasily whether I would be outraged by it, were I Khmer.

Read it regardless.


"Love Sickness, or, Living in the Pit"

Appeared in <Interzone> in 1987; the second part of <The Child
Garden>. Ryman has referred to it as an "excerpt" from <The
Child Garden>; others have called <The Child Garden> an expansion
of this novella.

I have never seen the stand-alone version from <Interzone>, but
am assuming that I can rely on the second part of <The Child Garden>
as an indication of what it's like.

This is the story of Milena Shibush at sixteen, halfway through
her life's span, in a world where the cure for cancer turned out
also to be the cure for old age, and the resulting shorter life
expectancies brought on the Revolution. She suffers from Bad
Grammar, which is to say, she's lesbian. She finds, for the first
time, another woman she thinks is so; and this woman, Rolfa Patel,
is all that she is not: rich, confident, outgoing, and vibrant.
And a composer, a maker of new music in a world that makes nothing new.

So this is a story of first love. Alas, it is not only a star-
crossed love, but indeed a love that dare not speak its name.
But this is not a hopeless story; it is also a story of how a
young woman comes out of the shell in which she might have spent
her whole life, and of the spring that breaks out around her.

Alas, the spring does end.

But the story ends in music.


<The Child Garden, or, A Low Comedy>

Published in 1989, though in the US not until 1990. Incorporates
"Love Sickness" as Book One, following a largely expository
introduction and followed by a much longer Book Two ("For Milena Who
Makes the Flowers, or, A Change of Climate"). The book as a whole won
both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

"Love Sickness" is a story, as described above. <The Child
Garden> is in no simple way a story.

In its world, the Consensus is a collection of memories, all those
of the living plus selected ones kept longer. Normally, one is Read
for the Consensus at ten years old, and virally cured of any
disapproved tendencies then; but Milena Shibush, resistant to viruses,
had been ill at ten, and never Read. Book Two depicts her Reading at
twenty-one.

It intermingles passages from her search for Rolfa Patel, from her
production of Rolfa's score for the <Divine Comedy>, from her
desperate affair with a bitter and self-hating woman and from her
marriage to a quiet, self-effacing man, all of these, with the
progress of her cancer; for it turns out that Milena Shibush,
resistant to viruses, is also resistant to the cure, and so is able
to bring both cancer and old age back into the world. If "Love
Sickness" is the story of the spring that turns her from repressed,
hostile, and passive, to a living woman, then "For Milena Who Makes
the Flowers" is the hologram or mosaic of the summer in which her life
grows to encompass the lives of many around her, and bears the fruit
that changes the world.

Along the way there are numerous images wonderful (the <Commedia>
performed against the backdrop of the night sky) and strange
(the many forms human beings come to take in this future), and
characters drawn with love and care. And, of course, repeatedly,
there is transcendence, perhaps here in all of Ryman's work most
clearly benign and innocently worthwhile.

<The Child Garden> is a great novel.


<Was: a novel>

Published in 1992 in both the UK and the US. The title as rendered
above is from the first American edition; the first UK edition was
earlier, and is represented as having been titled <'Was...'>. I
haven't seen that edition and don't know if there was more to that
title. In any event, the book was nominated for the World Fantasy Award.

This is an extremely complex book about an extremely simple set of
subjects: ruined lives, Oz, and whether Oz can heal ruin.

Although there are several settings and surprisingly many point of
view characters, it's possible, recklessly and negligently, to boil
the book down to three basic stories. There's the story of Dorothy
Gael, who comes to live with her aunt and uncle, Emma and Henry Gulch,
in 1875, and who by 1883 has been destroyed by them. There's the
story of Frances Gumm, who played a character based on Dorothy Gael
in a film, and of the destructions that attend her. And there's the
story of Jonathan [2], who is fascinated by both of them, and is
dying of AIDS, so goes to Kansas looking for what he can find. All
three are fascinated by what allows them escape, and Dorothy and
Jonathan, the main two, are shown escaping, transcending their pain
into madness and death.

I find it difficult to talk accurately about this book, because
before I ever read it, I saw it done as a play. Ryman speaks in
the interview mentioned above about this production, and about
his unhappiness with it, but I was awed. At the time I was working
on the <Encyclopedia of Fantasy>, and after about a month of
thinking about it, I wrote to John Clute that I thought it must
have been like seeing the plays of Aeschylus when they were new,
though without music: the same fierce focus on myth, and on
its salvific power, or lack of power.

Books without obvious speculative elements are sometimes called
"associational". I've never figured out whether this means "It's
about sf without being sf" (<Bimbos of the Death Sun>, say) or
"It's by someone who normally writes sf without being sf" (which
I think is a thread rasfw needs to have). Anyway, I also wrote
to Clute that I found this an utterly inadequate description for
a play whose central focus is precisely on fantasy and what it
can and cannot do for us.

He didn't reply. I don't think he'd seen the play. And I don't
have any confidence that this reaction would hold as well for the
book. The book does have an afterword ("Reality Check" [3]) in which
Ryman says "I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism" and
similar things that don't clarify the issue. I don't know that
it matters.


<Unconquered Countries: Four Novellas>

Published in 1994, though not in the UK (!) until 2000 (!!??!).
Contains "A Fall of Angels", <The Unconquered Country>, "Fan",
and "O Happy Day!".


<Two Five Three, or tube theatre: a novel for the Internet about
London Underground in seven cars and a crash>

Published online sometime in 1996 or 1997 (sources differ). The
above title is as of October 4, 2003, and could be rendered
differently. Base URL: <http://www.ryman-novel.com/>. It is
sometimes claimed (for example, in the end-matter to <Lust>) that
this was the "first internet novel"; on this I have no information.

I have not read this form of this text except for a quick look-see
today.

Oh, darn, I see that by using the title in this form I've gone and
given away the ending. Naughty me.


<253: the print remix>

Published in 1998 in both the US and the UK. The above title is from
the title page, the bibliographically correct way to do things, but
there are two titles I think apter elsewhere in the book I'm looking
at: on the front cover, <253: The journey of 253 lifetimes>, and at
the head of the introduction, <253 (or Tube Theatre)>. Won the
Philip K. Dick Award.

I had not read this book before last month.

This is a virtuoso feat, and a book worth reading, but probably
not a book I will ever love. It would be easy to dismiss this
book as "all form and no substance", for form it has in abundance,
but in fact it also has abundant substance; what it lacks, I
suppose, is an integration of the two.

Formally. What this book contains is a depiction of a brief
subway ride in London, as seen by each of those aboard and by
a narrator, who also contributes occasional footnotes; in addition,
it contains a whole *lot* of fore-, end-, and in-between-matter.
The core contents are 253 usually one-page sections giving a
person's name, "Outward appearance", "Inside information", and
"What he is doing or thinking", in each case using (so the book
claims) 253 words exactly. Sometimes there are footnotes,
either expanding on a reference in the text, ranting about
something, making a joke, or two or more of the above. (One
footnote tells us that <The Child Garden> is set 120 years in
this book's future, but another footnote tells us that some
footnotes are deliberately false.) The other stuff includes an
introduction explaining how the book works and an advertisement
for the book up front, along with ordinary stuff like blurbs and
copyright page; a rather difficult-to-describe set of pages at the
back (including an index of connections amongst the characters);
and for each car of the subway (seven in all), a map showing who
sits or stands where, and an "advertisement".

Substantively. There is a very odd contrast here. The forematter
leads to the expectation that this will be a jokey, arch book;
once one reads the page devoted to the first character, the
driver, and knows how the book will end, this creates a rather
sick juxtaposition. Throughout the non-character material, the
language of modern ad-speak is used to distance us from the
narrative voice, which is also ironic and cool in the footnotes,
by and large. Yet the character pages are tenderly imagined (I
hesitate to say "lovingly" because each is so brief). Ryman
shows each party in an affair without taking sides, four different
parties in an event that means something different to each...
He shows amazing generosity of spirit in this book, with so many
characters, so consistently individual and sympathetic. And because
the ending is harsh, each incident that leads a character to
disembark before that ending becomes a blessing to read. Which, um,

brings us to incidents.

Ryman promises in the introduction that "every one of those people
reached an important point in their lives". He immediately makes
one exception; he notes in the interview cited above that of course
there were others; he batted a little above .500, far as I could tell.
But. Um. Maybe London is different, but I know if there were a
train ride like this one in Chicago, it would be utterly extraordinary;
and I don't think London is *that* different. I once wrote a poem
on the el, largely about the deadness of my life. I trace my
subsequent changes to that poem, so I can see that lives *can*
change on a train. But 200 or more at once? Were that likely, my
life wouldn't have been dead in the first place.

I read the book mostly sequentially, from the driver to the last
passenger in the last car. In doing so, I found that the first
cars were relatively ordinary, people largely staying within their
big-city hermetically sealed personal spaces, though not entirely;
life-changing happening as much by thought as by action. But the
last few cars contrast considerably; in at least two, incidents
take place that result in a significant number of people disembarking
early, and so remaining alive.

Well, I'm giving away gobs of what plot this book has; why? Partly
because I'm not actually telling you anything *specific*; you won't
know from what I say who actually lives and who dies. But partly
because Geoff Ryman really is, even in this his least fantastic
book, a fantasy writer. It's not just that he shows a Margaret
Thatcher, whose husband is named Dennis, and who is not the Prime
Minister; or William Blake in a footnote; or another character long
dead, who cannot die - that he has explicit, easily understood,
fantasy elements. It's that even the author of <Was> ultimately
can't allow his vision to be as merciless as he sets out to make it;
ultimately, even he finds that he needs to intervene, to save.

Whether for this reason or for some other, there is also a section
about the dead, car by car, and for each car, the description ends
with someone achieving transcendence.


<Lust, or No Harm Done>

Published in 2001, though not in the US until 2003.

I had not read this book before last month.

In sharp contrast to his last three novels, here Ryman does something
extremely simple. He has a simple plot - as Heinlein once described
it, The Man Who Learns Better - and he uses a simple fantasy device
to drive it.

Inevitably, the book burgeons anyway.

But maybe I should begin by describing the setup, and the fantasy
device. Michael Blasco is thirty-eight years old. He's a neurologist
without a specific appointment, but he's just begun the research
project that's going to make him director of a research centre.
He's gay, and unhappily married for thirteen years to an artist.
And on his way home that night, he discovers that he can both summon
and control a man he desires.

Through experimentation and analysis, he learns that in fact he can
summon, and more or less control, *replicas* (he comes to call them
Angels) of anyone he can both imagine and desire. Neither reality
nor death nor sexuality are barriers; one of the more memorable
scenes is actually his interlude with a very lightly disguised
Jessica Rabbit.

The difficulty here is that Michael Blasco is usually impotent.

The book is a very odd combination of fantasy (the premise, for
starters) and science fiction (Blasco's scientific analysis of
how the premise works, as well as his work). It is, obviously,
a natural for this newsgroup. But it has barely been mentioned
here, and I suspect that this is because of its surfeit of fairly
thoroughly described sex, not especially titillating, and mostly
male-homosexual.

I won't say this is for every reader, which it certainly isn't;
I very much doubt I could comfortably have read it ten years ago.
But it is, at root, a story of how a man comes to terms with life,
and is healed; there is joy to be found in it, and much compassion.
There are echoes of Ryman's previous books everywhere - the vast
array of characters briefly sketched, a la <253>; stunted American
lives and tenderly described childhood out of <Was>; the steady
expansion of one person's world as in <The Child Garden>; and
everywhere one least expects it, transcendence too.

It is worth reading, for those who are up to it.


<V.A.O.>

Published in 2002 in the UK, according to multiple sources. If
there's been a US publication, I don't know of it.

I haven't read it nor seen it. <Locus> says it's about a future
"protected by Victim Activated Ordinance", and indicates that it's
rather a rare book. Previous Usenet references say that it's
about the residents of a home for elderly hackers, and that it's
profoundly bleak. Apparently it's a novella.


<Air>

Some sites I've looked at today indicate that it's forthcoming;
the ISFDB claims that it was published in 2002, with the same ISBN
and the same price as a 2003 publication. I find this improbable.
Perhaps it will be or has been published first in the US.

I know nothing about this book's contents, unless it's the next
book that Ryman promises in the aforementioned interview is bona
fide sf.


In general, throughout this I've referred to Geoff Ryman as a
fantasy writer, while describing books that have been categorised,
with one exception, as science fiction or mainstream instead.

Obviously this isn't *just* from the ambiguous way he describes
himself at the end of <Was>.

I have several reasons for seeing him this way. First of all, the
theme that appears in all of these works and that is central to
several, the theme I describe as transcendence, is fundamentally
a fantasy theme, for all that it's sometimes given a more or less
scientific-sounding explanation. Well, to be fair, no, it isn't
really a fantasy theme either; it's a mystical one. Ryman's writing
returns again and again to that state of mind in which all
possibilities are seen and embraced, in which all is loved, in
which all that can be is, was, and forever will be. It is pervaded
by the eternal in this form. I find this mysticism far easier to
accommodate within the concept of myth than within the sort of
neurology Ryman sometimes drapes over it.

Second, to be perfectly honest, his McGuffins repeatedly trip my
suspension of disbelief if I try to fit them into a science fictional
world. In the case of <The Unconquered Country>, I can *just barely*
accommodate the problem through a combination of repeated coincidences
and cultural differences, but frankly, that diminishes the book. For
<The Child Garden>, even granting the entire setting, am I really
supposed to believe that one person getting cancer will suddenly
remove the bar to the entire human race? That is a metaphor of
salvation drawn from the Gospels and familiar to any reader of
Tolkien; it is not a scientifically plausible outcome. And in the
case of <Lust>, um, last I heard, no matter how scientifically it's
studied, "Wishing makes it so" is not a scientific phenomenon.

Third, I can make sense of Geoff Ryman as a fantasy writer. I would
need more than one of him to make sense of him as a writer who
worked in definably separate genres, or as a science fiction or
mainstream writer. So I'd rather not try.

To be fair. I first learnt of him from Michael Swanwick's "In the
Tradition..." Hence I began by thinking him a fantasist, even
though that essay cited <The Unconquered Country>, his least
fantastic major work. (Um, OK, anyway other than "A Fall of Angels",
or if one wants to go to shorter items, "O Happy Day!") At any
rate, I can concur in Swanwick's judgement that Ryman is a profoundly
original voice in fantasy, and when I say he's a fantasy writer, it's
not out of a desire to constrain what he writes, but with a sense
that he honours the field within which he works.

Joe Bernstein


[1] <http://www.avnet.co.uk/home/amaranth/Critic/ivryman.htm>
if you must know. There's also a <Salon> piece, though it isn't
one of the great ones, at
<http://archive.salon.com/march97/21st/london970320.html>; it's
devoted mainly to <253>, while the interview, apparently done
not too long after <Lust> appeared, is much wider-ranging. I'm
sure there's more out there. Ryman's own website is, of course,
the site <253> is most of.

[2] As best I can tell without re-reading in full and carefully,
we are never told Jonathan's last name. We are, however, told
that it is in the Domesday Book, and means Dweller by Low Water.
I would not be even slightly surprised if it turned out that
"Ryman" meets these criteria, but I don't have time to find out.

[3] One of the sites I found via Google insists that this section is
really the final chapter of the novel, and *not* an afterword.
This in turn shows that the book is really postmodern, with the
author one of his own characters (on which see also [2]). Well.
Perhaps the UK editions look different, but in the US editions, at
any rate, the chapters all have a sort of logo at their head,
followed by a place, a date, and a quotation. They are also all
embraced within one of three parts, "The Winter Kitchen", "The Summer
Kitchen", and "Oz Circle". "Reality Check" lacks all of these
traits, and therefore is not, I think, a chapter. YMMV.

--
Joe Bernstein, writer j...@sfbooks.com
<http://these-survive.postilion.org/> At this address,
personal e-mail is welcome, though unsolicited bulk e-mail is unwelcome.

Christopher Pound

unread,
Oct 4, 2003, 9:51:38 PM10/4/03
to
In article <blneig$elt$1...@reader2.panix.com>,

Joe Bernstein <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:
><V.A.O.>
>
>Published in 2002 in the UK, according to multiple sources. If
>there's been a US publication, I don't know of it.
>
>I haven't read it nor seen it. <Locus> says it's about a future
>"protected by Victim Activated Ordinance", and indicates that it's
>rather a rare book. Previous Usenet references say that it's
>about the residents of a home for elderly hackers, and that it's
>profoundly bleak. Apparently it's a novella.

Ryman's "V.A.O." is collected in Dozois, _The Year's Best SF_, volume 20.
I wouldn't call it profoundly bleak. The world is dystopically
packed with security devices and unfortunate senior citizens.
Terrible things happen to good people. Some people feel helpless
and not-so-helpless rage. But the narrator has a cynical joie de
vivre, and he manages to solve some problems--I won't say which ones.

I enjoyed it. Here are the other stories I liked in that volume,
which had a lot of serious weak points IMHO.

Finlay, "The Political Officer": a solid Tom Clancy in space kind of story
Stross, "Halo": an SF whirl through transnationally disorganized capitalism/law
Sterling, "In Paradise": a very funny near future love story
Wadholm, "At the Money": sequel to "Green Tea"; SF about a commodities market
Reynolds, "Turquoise Days": alien artifact story slowly builds in action/imagery

Richard Horton

unread,
Oct 4, 2003, 10:47:53 PM10/4/03
to
On Sat, 4 Oct 2003 21:37:20 +0000 (UTC), Joe Bernstein
<j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:

><V.A.O.>
>
>Published in 2002 in the UK, according to multiple sources. If
>there's been a US publication, I don't know of it.
>
>I haven't read it nor seen it. <Locus> says it's about a future
>"protected by Victim Activated Ordinance", and indicates that it's
>rather a rare book. Previous Usenet references say that it's
>about the residents of a home for elderly hackers, and that it's
>profoundly bleak. Apparently it's a novella.

Novelette, actually, about 15,500 words.

It has been published in the US, as part of Gardner Dozois's latest
"Year's Best SF" anthology. (As I recall, anyway.)

I would not describe as "profoundly bleak". Indeed, relative to your
average Geoff Ryman story, it's downright ecstatic. Which isn't to
deny that it portrays a fairly negative future.

--
Rich Horton | Stable Email: mailto://richard...@sff.net
Home Page: http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton
Also visit SF Site (http://www.sfsite.com) and Tangent Online (http://www.tangentonline.com)

Andrew Wheeler

unread,
Oct 4, 2003, 11:03:02 PM10/4/03
to
Joe Bernstein wrote:
>
> <Air>
>
> Some sites I've looked at today indicate that it's forthcoming;
> the ISFDB claims that it was published in 2002, with the same ISBN
> and the same price as a 2003 publication. I find this improbable.
> Perhaps it will be or has been published first in the US.
>
> I know nothing about this book's contents, unless it's the next
> book that Ryman promises in the aforementioned interview is bona
> fide sf.

I have a (US) bound galley of this, which says that it will be
published, in trade paperback, in the US and Canada in December of this
year (by St. Martin's Press). It also seems to be an expansion/companion
piece/something-or-other of his story "Have Not Have."

Haven't read it yet, though, so I can't say more than that.

--
Andrew Wheeler
--
There are two groups of people: those who divide people into two groups
and those who don't.
-Robert Benchley

Richard Horton

unread,
Oct 4, 2003, 11:09:12 PM10/4/03
to
On Sun, 05 Oct 2003 03:03:02 GMT, Andrew Wheeler
<acwh...@optonline.com> wrote:

>Joe Bernstein wrote:
>>
>> <Air>
>>
>> Some sites I've looked at today indicate that it's forthcoming;
>> the ISFDB claims that it was published in 2002, with the same ISBN
>> and the same price as a 2003 publication. I find this improbable.
>> Perhaps it will be or has been published first in the US.
>>
>> I know nothing about this book's contents, unless it's the next
>> book that Ryman promises in the aforementioned interview is bona
>> fide sf.
>
>I have a (US) bound galley of this, which says that it will be
>published, in trade paperback, in the US and Canada in December of this
>year (by St. Martin's Press). It also seems to be an expansion/companion
>piece/something-or-other of his story "Have Not Have."
>
>Haven't read it yet, though, so I can't say more than that.

"Have Not Have" is both a very good story and definitely SF, I will
say.

Nancy Lebovitz

unread,
Oct 5, 2003, 12:10:56 AM10/5/03
to
In article <tDLfb.6287$934....@newssvr16.news.prodigy.com>,

Richard Horton <rrho...@prodigy.net> wrote:
>On Sat, 4 Oct 2003 21:37:20 +0000 (UTC), Joe Bernstein
><j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:
>
>><V.A.O.>
>>
>>Published in 2002 in the UK, according to multiple sources. If
>>there's been a US publication, I don't know of it.
>>
>>I haven't read it nor seen it. <Locus> says it's about a future
>>"protected by Victim Activated Ordinance", and indicates that it's
>>rather a rare book. Previous Usenet references say that it's
>>about the residents of a home for elderly hackers, and that it's
>>profoundly bleak. Apparently it's a novella.
>
>Novelette, actually, about 15,500 words.
>
>It has been published in the US, as part of Gardner Dozois's latest
>"Year's Best SF" anthology. (As I recall, anyway.)

There's also the Gollanz collection _Cities_--it's got "A Year in the
Linear City" by di Filippo (a charming story about the rise of Campbellian
sf in a rather pulpish environment), "The Tain" by Mieville (I'm bogged
down in the middle due to intensity overload followed by excessive
weirdness that I've lost track of), and "Firing the Cathedral" by
Moorcock (not yet read), as well as "V.A.O".
--
Nancy Lebovitz na...@netaxs.com www.nancybuttons.com
Now, with bumper stickers

Using your turn signal is not "giving information to the enemy"

anxious triffid

unread,
Oct 5, 2003, 11:50:33 AM10/5/03
to
Joe Bernstein <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote in
news:blneig$elt$1...@reader2.panix.com:


> <253: the print remix>


>
>
> Ryman promises in the introduction that "every one of those people
> reached an important point in their lives". He immediately makes
> one exception; he notes in the interview cited above that of course
> there were others; he batted a little above .500, far as I could tell.
> But. Um. Maybe London is different, but I know if there were a
> train ride like this one in Chicago, it would be utterly extraordinary;
> and I don't think London is *that* different. I once wrote a poem
> on the el, largely about the deadness of my life. I trace my
> subsequent changes to that poem, so I can see that lives *can*
> change on a train. But 200 or more at once? Were that likely, my
> life wouldn't have been dead in the first place.
>

S

P

O

I

L

E

R

S

P

A

C

E

Although, it probably isn't necessary - the traincrash is pretty much a
given as soon as you start the book.

All the characters on board the train can be seen to have "reached an
important point in their lives" by the time the crash takes place. Either
they die (pretty important), or they get off early and realise how close
they were (ditto) or survive (I recall that one or two did survive the
crash)(ditto)...

Scott Beeler

unread,
Oct 8, 2003, 7:10:04 PM10/8/03
to
Joe Bernstein <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:

Nice post, Joe. I don't have many specific comments, but wanted to
add my approval of that massive chunk of work!

I've been meaning to read _Was _ and _The Child Garden_ forever.
I really liked _253_. Very clever stuff beyond just the gimmick.
(Darn, now I want to reread that too, and I still haven't read his
others.)

And _Unconquered Countries_ is very good as well. I found "Fan" a
fabulous story in particular in its look at celebrity and hero-worship
with a SFnal slant.

I do agree with you that I'd call Ryman a fantasy writer in general,
despite the science fictional trappings of much of his work. His
stories feel largely mythical, fables and such where the hardware
doesn't really matter but the characters' actions are the important
things. _The Unconquered Country_ being an obvious example.

> <253: the print remix>

> I read the book mostly sequentially, from the driver to the last
> passenger in the last car. In doing so, I found that the first
> cars were relatively ordinary, people largely staying within their
> big-city hermetically sealed personal spaces, though not entirely;
> life-changing happening as much by thought as by action. But the
> last few cars contrast considerably; in at least two, incidents
> take place that result in a significant number of people disembarking
> early, and so remaining alive.

Yeah, I read it that way too, straight through the book. I thought
the pacing, the way the connected people were distributed, was well
organized. It might be interesting on my reread though to read it
jumping around following the references and plot-connections, which
would seem equally valid.

--
Scott C. Beeler scott...@home.com

John M. Gamble

unread,
Oct 11, 2003, 2:29:44 AM10/11/03
to
In article <blneig$elt$1...@reader2.panix.com>,
Joe Bernstein <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:
>This post has turned way longer than I meant it to be, and has taken
>so many hours to do that I daren't take the time to shrink it; nor
>am I sure I want to. I will not be even slightly offended if someone
>else chooses to snip it down to the titles and give terser comments.
>
>Geoff Ryman is Canadian by birth and grew up there and in the US
>before moving to London, where he's now lived for decades. He's
>been publishing sf since the mid-1970s, and in the late 1980s he was
>reasonably prominent in the field. I recently read what I thought
>was his newest novel, and I was surprised to find very little mention
>of it in Google's archives of this newsgroup, since (unlike his
>previous two) it's unequivocally speculative fiction. So it seemed
>like time to do this post.
>

[snip down to Was]

><Was: a novel>
>
>Published in 1992 in both the UK and the US. The title as rendered
>above is from the first American edition; the first UK edition was
>earlier, and is represented as having been titled <'Was...'>. I
>haven't seen that edition and don't know if there was more to that
>title. In any event, the book was nominated for the World Fantasy Award.
>
>This is an extremely complex book about an extremely simple set of
>subjects: ruined lives, Oz, and whether Oz can heal ruin.
>
>Although there are several settings and surprisingly many point of
>view characters, it's possible, recklessly and negligently, to boil
>the book down to three basic stories. There's the story of Dorothy
>Gael, who comes to live with her aunt and uncle, Emma and Henry Gulch,
>in 1875, and who by 1883 has been destroyed by them. There's the
>story of Frances Gumm, who played a character based on Dorothy Gael
>in a film, and of the destructions that attend her. And there's the
>story of Jonathan [2], who is fascinated by both of them, and is
>dying of AIDS, so goes to Kansas looking for what he can find. All
>three are fascinated by what allows them escape, and Dorothy and
>Jonathan, the main two, are shown escaping, transcending their pain
>into madness and death.

And, in all three stories, the outside observers who pass on,
accurately or not, the details of their lives. They are equally
important to the novel as a whole, both as their representation
as us the readers, and in their success or failure (depending
upon the story) to help the people involved.

>
>I find it difficult to talk accurately about this book, because
>before I ever read it, I saw it done as a play. Ryman speaks in
>the interview mentioned above about this production, and about
>his unhappiness with it, but I was awed. At the time I was working
>on the <Encyclopedia of Fantasy>, and after about a month of
>thinking about it, I wrote to John Clute that I thought it must
>have been like seeing the plays of Aeschylus when they were new,
>though without music: the same fierce focus on myth, and on
>its salvific power, or lack of power.

I probably saw the same play (are you based in Chicago?) and was
half-impressed. The theater company had written some powerful
scenes (which were as faithful as could be expected to the book
scenes), but they had also taken a smarmy, we're-so-superior-to
-these-hicks attitude in the Kansas scenes that i was put off
of it. I should add that this wasn't unique to this play, it
happened in a couple of their other productions, at which point
i caught on and never went to their adaptations again.

>
>Books without obvious speculative elements are sometimes called
>"associational". I've never figured out whether this means "It's
>about sf without being sf" (<Bimbos of the Death Sun>, say) or
>"It's by someone who normally writes sf without being sf" (which
>I think is a thread rasfw needs to have). Anyway, I also wrote
>to Clute that I found this an utterly inadequate description for
>a play whose central focus is precisely on fantasy and what it
>can and cannot do for us.
>
>He didn't reply. I don't think he'd seen the play. And I don't
>have any confidence that this reaction would hold as well for the
>book. The book does have an afterword ("Reality Check" [3]) in which
>Ryman says "I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism" and
>similar things that don't clarify the issue. I don't know that
>it matters.
>
>


--
-john

February 28 1997: Last day libraries could order catalogue cards
from the Library of Congress.

Joe Bernstein

unread,
Oct 22, 2003, 9:28:01 PM10/22/03
to
In article <bm880o$sfp$1...@e250.ripco.com>, John M. Gamble
<jga...@ripco.com> wrote:

> In article <blneig$elt$1...@reader2.panix.com>, Joe Bernstein
> <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:

> ><Was: a novel>

> >This is an extremely complex book about an extremely simple set of
> >subjects: ruined lives, Oz, and whether Oz can heal ruin.
> >
> >Although there are several settings and surprisingly many point of
> >view characters, it's possible, recklessly and negligently, to boil
> >the book down to three basic stories.

> >All three are fascinated by what allows them escape, and Dorothy and


> >Jonathan, the main two, are shown escaping, transcending their pain
> >into madness and death.
>
> And, in all three stories, the outside observers who pass on,
> accurately or not, the details of their lives. They are equally
> important to the novel as a whole, both as their representation
> as us the readers, and in their success or failure (depending
> upon the story) to help the people involved.

I'm not sure I have a grasp of "the novel as a whole" in this case.
But for me, that novel as mediated by my memory of the play speaks
*primarily* through Dorothy and Jonathan. I was actually taken aback
when preparing this post, by two things:

1) How incredibly many point of view characters there are. Almost no
two chapters have the same POV, except the Dorothy ones. (And even
there, there are passages from her aunt's POV, improbably enough.)

2) How much more prominent the Frances Gumm storyline is than I'd
remembered.

So I wrote with those two considerations in mind.

I don't know whether your description of the role of the other POV
characters is correct, or anyway whether I buy it, but it's far
more coherent than anything I could've said about them. At some
level, my take on the variety of POVs in that book is that Ryman
was pointing towards "Everybody hurts", to quote REM. He shows
two people in intense pain who deal with that hurt via myth - and
he shows any number of others in intense pain who don't. I think
your analysis is more elegant than mine, and I hope I remember to
look it up before re-reading the book in full, if I ever do.

> >I find it difficult to talk accurately about this book, because
> >before I ever read it, I saw it done as a play.

> I probably saw the same play (are you based in Chicago?) and was
> half-impressed.

I lived in Chicago from 1988 to 1998, so I'm pretty sure it's the
same play. I didn't notice the flaw you describe, and it's pretty
hopeless to try to reconcile our views now...

Joe Bernstein

This URL may go away at any time; I will post the new one when I have it.

Joe Bernstein

unread,
Oct 22, 2003, 9:34:25 PM10/22/03
to
In article <Xns9269AB5B5DA18an...@195.92.193.157>,
anxious triffid <anxiousINFEAROFSPAM@anxioustriffid@fserve.co.uk>
wrote:

> Joe Bernstein <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote in
> news:blneig$elt$1...@reader2.panix.com:

> > <253: the print remix>

> > Ryman promises in the introduction that "every one of those people
> > reached an important point in their lives". He immediately makes
> > one exception; he notes in the interview cited above that of course
> > there were others; he batted a little above .500, far as I could tell.
> > But. Um. Maybe London is different, but I know if there were a
> > train ride like this one in Chicago, it would be utterly extraordinary;
> > and I don't think London is *that* different. I once wrote a poem
> > on the el, largely about the deadness of my life. I trace my
> > subsequent changes to that poem, so I can see that lives *can*
> > change on a train. But 200 or more at once? Were that likely, my
> > life wouldn't have been dead in the first place.

[spoiler space removed]

> Although, it probably isn't necessary - the traincrash is pretty much a
> given as soon as you start the book.

Um, yeah. The website has it on the first page, as I noted in the post.
In the book, it is, I think, theoretically possible to read in such a
way as to *not* assume a crash at the end, but in a book that so
invites hopping around and such, you'd have to be made of stone to
actually read it that way.

(Stops to hope that such an offensive statement elicits angry comments,
and an actual discussion results.)



> All the characters on board the train can be seen to have "reached an
> important point in their lives" by the time the crash takes place. Either
> they die (pretty important), or they get off early and realise how close
> they were (ditto) or survive (I recall that one or two did survive the
> crash)(ditto)...

This strikes me as cheating, though. I mean, I'm not firmly
convinced that those who got off before the crash will all have
realised that it was *their* train that crashed. I don't know if
maybe the London tube is very different; I can't imagine people
being able to identify their particular el trip, in Chicago.

Secondarily, I don't think that's what Ryman was getting at. He
obviously works hard to make the ride an epiphany for many, many
characters. Seems to me the argument that it's an epiphany for
everyone because they didn't die, or did, is sorta like inviting
him not to work so hard, to cheat instead. And he could reasonably
reply: "Well then, no doubt every minute of every day, in which
you don't die, is also an epiphany, right?"

So I suppose your view is a sort of fallback for him, but it doesn't
really work for me.

Joe Bernstein

Joe Bernstein

unread,
Oct 22, 2003, 9:41:52 PM10/22/03
to
In article <tDLfb.6287$934....@newssvr16.news.prodigy.com>,
Richard Horton <rrho...@prodigy.net> wrote (somewhat rearranged):

> On Sat, 4 Oct 2003 21:37:20 +0000 (UTC), Joe Bernstein
> <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote:

> ><V.A.O.>

> >Published in 2002 in the UK, according to multiple sources. If
> >there's been a US publication, I don't know of it.

> It has been published in the US, as part of Gardner Dozois's latest


> "Year's Best SF" anthology. (As I recall, anyway.)

Yep, and thanks. So I have now read it.

> >I haven't read it nor seen it. <Locus> says it's about a future
> >"protected by Victim Activated Ordinance", and indicates that it's
> >rather a rare book. Previous Usenet references say that it's
> >about the residents of a home for elderly hackers, and that it's
> >profoundly bleak. Apparently it's a novella.
>
> Novelette, actually, about 15,500 words.

Definitely not above the length minimum I was using for the post.
Ah well.



> I would not describe as "profoundly bleak". Indeed, relative to your
> average Geoff Ryman story, it's downright ecstatic. Which isn't to
> deny that it portrays a fairly negative future.

Hmmm.

It's certainly a lot more *cheerful*, in the telling, than his
average story. I'm not sure there *is* an average for his endings,
though; I mean, seems to me <The Child Garden> has an unabashedly
happy ending, as does <Lust>, while <253> goes out of its way to
minimise its unhappy ending and so (very differently) does <The
Unconquered Country>. But ask me tomorrow and I might give you a
totally different answer.

Anyway, I thought "profoundly bleak" had come straight out of
someone else's post about it, but Google tells me that It Is
Not So. Sorry.

Joe Bernstein

--
Joe Bernstein, writer j...@sfbooks.com

anxious triffid

unread,
Oct 23, 2003, 1:27:45 PM10/23/03
to
Joe Bernstein <j...@sfbooks.com> wrote in
news:bn7b71$gi2$1...@reader1.panix.com:

I'm not convinced by my own argument either. I think that most of the
travellers would be able to work out that it was their train that crashed,
but even so, I mainly made the argument for the sake of trying to stimulate
some response.

What is interesting is the fact that each character is only given 253 words
each, and so it is possible that an epiphany has happened, but not made it
into the text. Perverse? Yes. Implausible? Yes, but not a million miles
away from what Balalrd was doing with his condensed novels in the late
60s/early 70s.

Personally I view Ryman as very much belonging to the heritage of the
British New Wave (despite his Canadian origins), and see works like 253
as informed by other textual experimenters like Perec and the other members
of OULIPO. Here the artificial limitations placed on the text preclude a
full explanation of character motivation.

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