Friday, May 30, 2008

In Which it Turns Out I Don't Like Reading About Jerks

Generally speaking, I start every story with the intention of finishing it. That's the default setting that most authors want to encourage. Unfortunately, in the opening novella in May's Analog ("Test Signals" by David Bartell), I felt like I was running into repeated stumbling blocks thrown into my path, telling me to go no further.

The first bit seemed promising: a gigantic computer runs genetic simulations over an astronomical number of combinations. When it finds a viable organism, it turns it over to some underpaid staffers to pick out the potentially useful or salable ones. So far, so good. One of these staffers is our protagonist.

He gets a call from one of his co-workers Tina, identified as "the company whore," (bad sign #1) who has recently been promoted. He had once considered going out with her, but a deformity on her neck made him queasy, then he found out about her reputation. He identifies himself as an asshole around this time as well. (Bad sign #2)

Anyway, he goes up to Tina's office to see what she's found. One of the simulated organisms that she's found has four arms, just like our protagonist turns out to have. This disturbs them both greatly, for no reason I was able to discern (#3). They're so concerned that they go have a talk with a senior analyst who's crazy about trees (??). The senior guy suggests that Tina has arranged it just to get our hero to go out with her (#4), leading to this gem of a quote:

"Her face was getting red, so I decided to change the subject. Not that I don't like seeing people squirm, but in her case, I'd rather see it in private."

(#5) Basically, this guy is just the kind of jerk I really dislike in real life. I'm already not looking forward to spending more time with him, but I forge on!

They're still freaked out about the 4-armed humanoid, so they go out together across town for lunch (#6), where they proceed to not talk about work at all (#7). Instead they insult each other about their deformities (#8), which apparently makes them like each other even more (#9).

So what we have here are two dislikable people. The author has established that the boy doesn't like the girl, so of course they end up going out. They're both worried about this work thing, but instead of talking about it at work they go out, despite the aforementioned dislike. They insult each other, which leads to attraction somehow. And the actual topic that they thought was so important (although we're still not sure why) gets completely dropped while this version of "flirting" goes on.

Count me out.

May F&SF, in a Nutshell

"Reunion" by Robert Reed (ss, good)
"Rebecca's Locket" by S. L. Gilbow (ss, OK)
"Immortal Snake" by Rachel Pollack (nt, meh)
"Firooz and His Brother" by Alex Jeffers (ss, meh)
"Thrilling Wonder Stories" by Albert E. Cowdrey (ss, good)
"Traitor" by M. Rickert (ss, good)
"Circle" by George Tucker (nt, good)

F&SF in May provides us with a heck of a variety, and not one of them is poorly written. We've got aliens, killers, and Native American ghosts. Classic "what-if" sf, fables, and horror. I've got quibbles with some of them, but a few are really thought provoking. Good stuff (and actually reviewed in May!)

Next up is May's Analog, but we'll be into June titles before the first week in June is over, it looks like.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Darkest Before the End

F&SF has never been afraid to go dark when the situation calls for it, and "Thrilling Wonder Stories" is a chilling attack on nostalgia by Albert E. Cowdrey. The very title evokes a strong sense of nostalgia in sf fans: Thrilling Wonder Stories was published by Hugo Gernsback after he was kicked off of the seminal sf magazine, Amazing Stories. Thrilling ran between 1930 and 1936. It wasn't even a product of the "Golden Age," this was pure pulp.

Reading that sort of thing, it's no wonder that a young boy in the South, listening to his parents yelling at each other, decides that his father must be a Martian. It's easier than imagining that his cuckold of a father is really his dad. However, that's not the least of this kid's psychoses. He's also got the pre-pubescent beginnings of a very unhealthy Oedipal complex. As his parent's relationship deteriorates further, resulting in his mother briefly abandoning the boy and her husband for the boy's biological father, he also shows signs of schizophrenia. When she comes back, having been thoroughly shamed and kicked out by her former lover, the boy devolves all the way into psychopathic violence. (All the psych terms are mine, of course. They didn't necessarily have all those labels back then, at least not for this kid's social class.)

Whew, yeah, those were the Good Old Days. People may yearn for a "simpler time" when everyone had "family values," but there were costs to pay. When a married man can't acknowledge a bastard, and a single, pregnant woman has to find a husband pronto, the resulting child is unlikely to grow up in a healthy environment. Maybe the lucky ones could simply escape into pulp fiction before escaping into a "normal" life, but for the unlucky, unstable ones, life might end up a much, much darker place.

As seen in "The Overseer," Cowdrey has an unflinching ability to get into some dark places in the human psyche. His stories are mighty unsettling, but also potent examinations of the roots of human evil.

Another story with a dark edge involving children is "Traitor" by M. Rickert. In this story, a young girl is being brought up in unusual circumstances. She seems very patriotic, but her mother has a secret room that seems to be dedicated to some sort of resistance movement. The bed time story involves the mother surviving when many other people were killed, and her dedication to staying alive. Terrorism of some nature is implied to be involved, and this little girl may not be the first child her "mother" has raised. There's a lot here that is obliquely implied instead of described. Rickert leaves hints and clues and lets the reader fill in the back story. The core of the story is the emotional relationship between the mother and daughter, and like "Thrilling," it's not a healthy one. This story is less specifically horrorific than Cowdrey's, but the ending is dark and intense.

Finally we wind up the issue on lighter ground. "Circle" by George Tucker is about building condos in Miami. The Circle condo construction project is plagued by accidents. Only one guy seems immune, a native Seminole named Billy Black. He's just doing his job, trying to save up money to buy an ancestral plot of swamp, but he comes to the attention of the developer's executives. Now he has to balance his duty to his Native American ancestors with his need to get by in the modern world. It's not a straightforward path to walk, needless to say, but the resolution of the story is a satisfying one. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems of Native Americans, but it works for Billy and that's OK. With a good sense of humor, this story deals with a delicate issue and does it well.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Exoticism without Depth

"Firooz and His Brother" by Alex Jeffers is a well-written tale set in the Middle East and Africa in the time of caravans. When Firooz is on his first caravan journey, he goes off hunting a deer, but instead is accosted by a fierce dog. When he and his dog have dispatched their attacker, they realize it was guarding an infant. Firooz brings the baby back to the caravan, and they decide the raise the baby, now named Haider, as Firooz's brother.

As they both grow, they journey together on caravans, leaving their wives and families behind them. Haider has several children with his wife, but Firooz remains childless. They've been engaging in some away-from-wives step-brother sex on the road, but when they return to the place where Haider was originally found, something very different happens. [**Here there be spoilers**]

Haider turns into a woman, and offers to carry Firooz's child. He agrees (with some trepidation). To all appearances Haider remains a man, but inside he's carrying a baby. Eventually he gives birth, and Firooz claims they "found" another baby. Once they get home, Haider admits that he's something very different, and disappears.

I very much enjoy stories that deal with different cultures, and Middle Eastern cultures especially. There is a deep story-telling tradition there, and given the politics of the world today, it's especially important to seek understanding. A story that did that exceptionally well last year was Ted Chiang's Hugo-nominated, Nebula-winning novelette "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" which adopted the nested Arabian Night's-style story structure perfectly to a science fiction time-traveling story. However, "Firooz" didn't necessarily add to or expand my understanding of either Middle Eastern culture or gender.

From a cultural point of view, the only high points are the existence of caravans, the importance of family and the importance of having children. Maybe also an acceptance of magical happenings that we would find odd today, but that's no different from reading anything by the ancient Greeks. From a gender point of view, what do we get? These two men love each other as brothers and as lovers. In an "ultimate" expression of love, however, one of the men becomes a woman to give Firooz the one thing his wife can't: a child. On the one hand, it's a touching gift involving much pain and sacrifice and showing true devotion. On the other, it's an implication that gay lovers cannot give each other what straight lovers can.

I hate to be one of those critics who read into stories things that shouldn't be there. However, if you flip through the archives of this blog, you'll I've been getting a rapid education in gender and queer theory lately. Any story that involves fluidity between genders invites the reader to analyze what it's saying about gender. This story doesn't seem to be saying much of anything, except possibly something mildly offensive. Other than that, it's just a pretty love story in an exotic setting with an Alien Other. When I went looking for something deeper in it, I didn't find anything.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Modern Myths

"Immortal Snake" by Rachel Pollack is one of those stories that casts itself in explicitly mythic language. It begins:
"Long ago, in a time beyond memory, Great Powers owned the land, the water, and even the air. Of all these empires, the strongest was a land called Written in the Sky."

This story form is not uncommon in the pages of short story collections (I don't know of any novel-length work using these conventions). Among others, Michael Swanwick has used it to good effect recently (although I'm not currently coming up with the title of the story I'm thinking of).

Authors typically have a very specific reason for writing using this style. A myth generally has a specific purpose. The ones I've seen are usually either cautionary tales, or explanations of how a world came to be. "Immortal Snake" doesn't make any moves in the direction of the latter purpose; it seems instead to be a story with a cautionary moral. However, I don't think that a story with the moral "damned if you do and damned if you don't" is really the best fit for the mythic style. [Spoilers ahead in the story description.]

The kingdom described in the story has a very elaborate set-up for cycling through their kings. When the astrologers determine that the signs are right, they kill and cook two of the king's companions, feed them to him thus poisoning him, and he dies. They take his skin, hang it up, and then choose a new king. It's symbolic of a snake shedding its skin each year. The king lives a life as hedonistic or as useful as he chooses, but lives under the threat of the astrologers knocking on his door at any time. For time immemorial the realm has been operating this way: it is implied that this has been a very stable arrangement—the kingdom has been successful in its wars, and while there's poverty it isn't described as being extreme.

Obviously, one doesn't write stories about static situations, one writes them about times of change. This king's companions are his sister, who cares passionately about the poor, and a story-teller. It turns out that the story-teller can mesmerize anyone with his gifts, even the astrologers. They neglect their duties in order to listen to him night after night. The sister and the story-teller fall in love, and plot things out in such a way as to overthrow the rule of the astrologers. Their coup succeeds.

The king serves out his term, ruling well and dying a natural death. The story-teller succeeds him, reigns benevolently, and dies peacefully. However, in the last nine paragraphs of this novelette, the story-teller's sons fight a bloody civil war of succession, ruining the kingdom to the extent that their main enemy easily conquers them, kills and enslaves the populace, and sows the land with salt. The end.

WTF? What moral shall we derive from this? An author's note at the end states that this is based on a real myth from the Darfur region, implying that their problems have ancient origins. That seems horrible to me: Darfur's problems stem from mundane conflicts over land, religion and ethnicity, and have been exacerbated by climate change. To imply that they have some mythic origin would be to suggest that there's nothing we can do about it, it's simply their fate.

If the story is meant to have a moral in its own right, the only one I can derive is: it's better to be ruled by a silly, arbitrary, oligarchical system than to rock the boat; if you insist on change it'll all end in tears. That also seems like a less than perfectly useful message in this day and age, when change is what we will dearly need to get out of the straits we're in. Perhaps someone else can offer a better explanation of the author's goal with this story, but as I read it I found it very disappointing.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Spin State by Chris Moriarty

Spin State packs a large amount of material into a large number of pages. Even with over 600 pages, it sometimes feels rushed. There's a lot of explaining, a lot of plots, and a lot of players. By the end of the story I wasn't sure exactly what had happened. On the other hand, by the last third of the novel I could barely put it down.

I've been doing some thinking lately about how genre readers suspend our disbelief, especially when it comes to "hard" sf. As far as I can tell, fantasy has it relatively easy: as long as the rules are internally consistent, very little will cause a reader to lose the suspension of disbelief (e. g. you can't establish that each mage only works with one element, then have a water mage cast a fireball). Hard science fiction faces a much bigger challenge. While the reader usually wants to give the benefit of the doubt to the author, the reader also needs help to fit the author's world-building into an understandable framework. (I'll be delving into these ideas in more depth in a review for Strange Horizons that should be published within the next month or so.) Here, Moriarty both succeeds and fails. Where she succeeds is where her world-building is most directly based on extrapolation (an uninhabitable Earth, a diaspora of humans to other worlds, FTL travelers getting out there ahead of slow-space travelers) or analogy (her FTL communication/travel system is based on a scarce resource that everyone needs, just like oil). It's a little less successful when she's giving straight-up infodumping explanations. She tries to minimize them, but ends up shorting herself and her audience a little. Her FTL communications use macroscopic quantum-entangled blocks of room-temperature Bose Einstein Condensates (BECs) for FTL communications, but I could never figure out why she felt she needed the unique properties of BECs to do it; likewise I couldn't figure out how you got to FTL transportation from there. I'm pretty sure the explanation was in there somewhere, but it wasn't clear. During the first parts of the book, I spent too much time wondering about questions like these instead of focusing on the story.

And it's the story here which needs a lot of attention, as we get deluged with as many (or more) plots as we can handle. This is not just a matter of having lots of sub-plots; here we have entirely different *kinds* of plots mixed together. We've got military sf, hard sf, romance, thriller, PI-style murder mystery, and political espionage. It's all a little overwhelming.

The experiences of Catherine Li make up the heart of the novel. In a future where your rights are determined by the naturalness of your DNA, she's hiding a dark secret. She has some protection, though. She is a publicized war hero, the go-to soldier for a powerful general, and good friends with the oldest sentient AI in existence. After a botched raid on an illegal tech station, Li is diverted to the planet of her birth. This planet is the sole source of useful BECs. There, the most famous scientist in the world, the person who made all the FTL stuff possible, has died catastrophically while experimenting on the BECs. She appeared to be on the verge of creating synthetic BECs, which would liberate the society from dependence on that one planet. Li's high-level military contact needs her to go and solve the mystery of the scientist's death, even though it's the last place in the universe that she wants to be.

Here is an abbreviated list of some of the agendas in play: Cohen, the AI, is fighting for more rights for his AI brethren; the general may or may not want Li to actually solve the mystery; the scientist may have been passing information to the "Syndicate," the bad guys of the previous war; the mining company that controls the planet wants to maximize profit and minimize scandal; the miners are trying to unionize; and Cohen may be in love with Li, who may be in love with a Syndicate agent. It's all very complicated.

This is a story that you'd have to read twice to get everything straight, and I'm afraid that's I luxury I don't have. However, from the time that Moriarty describes Li and one of her policemen helping the rescue efforts after a mine explosion, all the way to the final showdown, the story grips you and doesn't let go. It's very impressive; even the "slow" times in the final two hundred pages, where the pieces are being set up for the end game, are intense and well written, always keeping you turning pages.

I have mixed feelings about this story. It is needlessly complex, both in its hard sf aspect and in the plethora of actors and agendas scattered throughout the multiple plots. There are a couple places where the characters have to be kind of stupid for the story to continue as the author intends. On the other hand, it's good to see a future that still has significant class conflict (the miner's union vs. the corporation). Too often recent sf has been set in "post-scarcity" worlds, where everyone always has enough, eliminating socioeconomic class as a source of friction. I can understand how it makes life easier for the author, but it's never struck me as particularly realistic. Another interesting point is that all the different plots seem to constructively interfere with each other to create something really readable, if not straightforward. Is this a case where the author's craft and talent salvage a victory from what would otherwise be a confused mess, or has Moriarty discovered an alchemy of plots that really can make a PI murder mystery, a romance, and a spy novel all play nicely together? It's hard to say, but it's easy to recommend that you take a look at it and see if it (or any one of its myriad pieces) is to your taste.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Lookit me now!

I've been blurbed!

Over at SFSignal I wrote a review for Zoran Živković's last book from PS Publishing, The Last Book. I really loved it (as I have so far loved all the Živković I've read), so I'm happy to be used in the promotional material.

However, it does tickle me that though the magic of the ellipsis [...] they have joined a sentence from my intro paragraph to a sentence from the second paragraph to pretty much my entire closing paragraph. Talk about cherry picking!

No matter; it's a lovely book and you should all run out and buy a copy right now.

Satisfying Short SF

I think I'll propose that one of the key differences between "mainstream" and "genre" fiction is that in genre fiction, when people go searching for answers, they find them. Why are the crops blighted? See Evil Wizard in Yonder Tower. Whodunit? The Butler. What is the common thread linking 12 exceptional graduates (the members of which include senators, celebrities, pro-athletes and Nobel prize winners) of a small mid-western high school? That's the question in "Reunion." A woman comes to town before their thirtieth high school reunion, looking for answers as to what happened to make this small group so exceptional. The early death of one of their classmates may hold some clues (and a fairly cynical moral for the story, if you want to read that into it). It's lighter than some stories that Robert Reed has already produced this year (see "Five Thrillers" in April's F&SF among others.) I think Reed is one of my favorite short story authors simply because he provides satisfying explanations for his puzzles pretty much every time. It may not be avant-garde, but it's good sf.

"Rebecca's Locket" is a very brief piece of amusing "what if?" by S. L. Gilbow. What if you could download someone's personality, before they died, into a small piece of jewelry? Perhaps just big enough for a small camera, microphone and speakers? You could be comforted by the personality of your loved one speaking to you in your time of grief... or not. The final fate of Jerry, the gentleman in the locket, will come as no surprise to the attentive reader. It's a funny reminder that sometimes, functional immortality is NOT a boon to those "left behind" (see "Helen's Last Will" in March's Analog for the more romanticized version of cyber-life after death).

To Whit: Baen's Vol 2, No. 6

"Manumission" by Tobias S. Buckell (good)
"Virtually, A Cat" by Jody Lyn Nye (good)
"Indomitable" by Jack McDevitt (excellent, ss)
"Honorable Enemies" by Mike Resnick (good)
"Scraps of Fog" by Sarah A. Hoyt (OK)
"The Witch of Waxahachie" by Lou Antonelli (good)
"The Knight of Coins" by Margaret Ronald (OK)
"Red Tape and Cold Iron" by Lucy Bond (good)
"Extreme Reservations" by R. J. Ortega (good)

The editors of Baen's appear to know exactly what they want: good, enjoyable sf and fantasy. That's what you get here. It's all good and readable, if rarely ground-breaking.

Next up: F&SF for May. And it's still May!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Finishing Baen's with Fantasy

"Knight of Coins" by Margaret Ronald is a tarot-card based fantasy, which I usually enjoy. (Although not, I hasten to add, Piers Anthony's Tarot books. Those are just whacked.) In Ronald's story a man hires a private investigator (the second one in this issue) to track down three tarot cards that have been enchanted to curse his family. The PI has some magical talent, but hates magic and magical cases (of course). Luckily, "paying the rent" is always enough to motivate these hard-boiled protagonists, so the plot proceeds. Her dislike of magic is soon justified and things get complicated. It's another enjoyable story, nothing special.

"Red Tape and Cold Iron, or A Proposal for the Reintroduction of the Faery Folk To The United Kingdom" by Lucy Bond is a satirical story. A gullible politician agrees to let an activist government Folklorist gather up the denizens of Faery and get them back onto the British scene. The descriptions of the Folklorist are both funny and slightly sinister. It starts off by simply making government eco-do-gooders look ridiculous, which is not hard, but one gains some respect for the Folklorist by the end, with her cucumber sandwiches and her very practical brown boots. The moral of the story is to be on the lookout for all the agendas when one is dealing with government proposals. However, the ending is pretty abrupt. I would've liked some more detail about what happens when the Faery-folk finally cross over. Still, it's better to leave the reader wanting more, I suppose, compared to the alternative.

Finally, we close with a flat-out hilarious romp. "Extreme Reservations" by R. J. Ortega describes a man trying to continue the family business: running an inn and saloon out of an old paddle wheel river boat permanently moored in the Sacramento river delta in California. Just as he is coming to the conclusion that this business his uncle left him is simply not profitable, he finds out about a very unique annual engagement that his inn hosts. It's a gathering of immortals, both from legend (The Flying Dutchman) and story (John Carter, Ayesha, etc.). This is a classic homage-packed tale with a little bit of adventure and at least one truly awful, groan-out-loud pun. I have to admit, I love stories like this. It shamelessly appeals to the fan-girl in me, and this one is well done.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Science, Fantasy, or Science Fantasy?

Baen's has an unusual practice of explicitly segregating their science fiction stories from their fantasy stories. This can provide fodder for the ever-popular "Guess the Genre Label!" game. For Mike Resnick's story in this issue, it's an easy call. It's set on another planet, it's got aliens—no problem, it's sf. Things get a little trickier with Sarah Hoyt's story. It features the possible reappearance of a figure from the past to help a woman deal with her issues. At the end the figure disappears. The choice here is between reading it as mainstream (everything is rational and she's slightly delusional) or fantasy (an ancient king reincarnated for a day just to help her with her relationship issues—totally!), not between fantasy and sf. This is clearly a genre magazine, so clearly the story must be generic—fantasy it is!.

It may have been a bit harder to categorize Lou Antonelli's story. It's got a multiple-worlds thing going, where one world is science-based (Superconducting Super Collider) and one is magic-based (animal telepathy). His world-building indicates that the basis for this split lies not in differing physical laws but differing research grant allocations. This is really a science fantasy, the sort of thing that John W. Campbell banished to the pages of Unknown back in olden times. Unknown was a place where Analog (Astounding back then) authors could go to "let their hair down," i.e. not be "scientifically rigorous." (Stop laughing.) It spawned such tales as The Compleat Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Here Eric Flint seems to have applied the same general philosophy that Campbell did. Let's call it the one drop rule: one drop of fantasy makes it a fantasy. It's probably the only realistic way to draw the line if you're going to be throwing labels around, but thinking about it made me giggle a bit. On to the stories themselves!

"Honorable Enemies" is Mike Resnick's new mystery novella. It continues the adventures of Jake Masters, previously seen in Resnick's contributions to the SFBC anthologies Down These Dark Spaceways and Alien Crimes. In this story his alien partner has been murdered (a darn shame, I really liked the little guy), and Masters has to cozy up to some mighty shady customers to find out who did him in. He also has to decide what retribution is appropriate when he finally gets his answers. It's a fun read, with some good mystery twists, but nothing exceptional.

"Scraps of Fog" by Sarah A. Hoyt is unusual in its use of Portugal and Portuguese history for its setting. The protagonist is a female cop. She is losing her faith in her ability to do anything useful, given the macho culture of Portuguese police. She's contemplating marriage to an old friend. They're not particularly in love, but he needs a wife to host dinners and go to society functions, and she's talking herself into it. Her grandmother, her last link to her family's past, has recently passed away and she is settling the estate. Then, she gets a call about a young man who has turned up claiming to be the reappearance of King Sebastian, an almost mythical figure from Portugal's past. In dealing with the young man, the cop gets a reminder in the importance of being grounded. Once she regains her sense of history and place, she can move forward with her life. It's a good character story, if perhaps not the most useful self-help message. I always feel a bit sorry for the mythical or otherwise super-powered beings who have to show up and help people sort out their relationship problems. Who knew that having the brain the size of a galaxy (see my review of Elom in SFSignal) or that having helped the poor and the sick, engaged in productive diplomacy, ruled well, and waged war in Morocco would also require you to show up later as a therapist for well-off people with issues? I'm not sure I'd take fame and immortality on those terms.

Next we get the science fantasy by Lou Antonelli, titled "The Witch of Waxahachie." The hero is a newspaper editor who tags along as a scientist tries to run one last experiment on the incomplete ruins of the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas. (They claim this is being done secretly. You really can't power up something like the SSC quietly, but it's easy to give the author that bit of hand-waving.) After the inevitable catastrophe, they find they're in the same place, but the SSC is gone, the road is dirt, there's no cars... They hitch a ride into town, and luckily get to an encyclopedia set before being picked up by the authorities. (A trick also used by Robert Heinlein's world-hoppers in Job and The Number of the Beast. An excellent argument for never going completely digital—how else will dimension-hopping protagonists gather the vital information they need?) In this new world, the advances of the Enlightenment focused on magic instead of science. It turns out that each person exists in both universes, and their different fates are sobering. They get back home relatively easily after comparing notes with the folks they know on the other side. It looks like Antonelli is setting up a story cycle here, since at the end the narrator reminisces about other adventures they've had with their other-world counterparts. This is a fun story with a lot of potential in the world-building, so I'll look forward to other stories in this setting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Baen's Universe does fun, poignant

Baen's Universe (Vol. 2, No. 6) starts off with a strong action story by Tobias S. Buckell, "Manumission." The protagonist is a man without a past, enslaved to a shadowy intelligence agency he doesn't necessarily understand. He's assigned to track a woman, and she turns the tables on him. She makes him an offer he can't refuse and can't accept. It closely follows the conventions of action/thriller movies such as the "Jason Bourne" movies, where the hero goes rogue against a no-name agency implied to be evil. It's well written and engaging. Does it answer any fundamental questions of existence? No, but that's not its purpose.

Next up is a fun story, "Virtually, A Cat" by Jody Lynn Nye. A computer programming genius has been assigned to the first interstellar flight, just in case anything goes wrong with the software. He is shattered when he learns this will mean leaving his beloved cats, Parky and Blivit, behind. He goes, but torments all his crew mates with incessant stories of his cats and their doings. When every single person on board finally tells him to shut up about the damn cats, he falls into a depression. Fortunately, the crew figures out a solution. They put him in a full-body tactile suit (used for maneuvering robots outside the ship) and program the suit to act as if there's a cat there. The geek is overjoyed, and goes back to being a useful (and less annoying) crew member. The crisis comes when they get to the new star system. They record so much information that they start deleting anything non-essential from memory to carry more data home. Obviously, the cat program has got to go. The geek's reaction to this is refreshingly not what you'd expect from the geeky stereotype personality. It's both refreshing and satisfying. My only fault in this story is that it ends rather abruptly. I'd have liked to see him return home to his real cats, but the story ends with him still in space. It's a minor quibble, and as a rule it's better to leave readers wanting more. Although I'm significantly more of a dog person than a cat person (see below), this was a really fun story.

"Indomitable" by Jack McDevitt is a very short story that almost perfectly distills an important aspect of the psyche. A young boy is touring a museum with his father. He knows, with the obsession of youth, the names of all the spaceships and all their crews - all their flights and their fates. He particularly wants to see the Indomitable, one of the last of the interstellar explorers. It's in pieces now - a historical preservation group is trying to raise funds to restore her. Ships like that aren't needed now. We've gone about a thousand light years all around our solar system and found tons of planets that can support life. Enough to support human expansion for the foreseeable future. No aliens, though. So why do any more exploring? Why waste the money? The little boy knows why. This story reminds us all of the belief that exploring is intrinsically worthwhile, even if there's no immediate profit to it. It may be the faith of a child, but it's one I hope we never lose.

Interzone #215 Wrap Up

"The Endling" by Jamie Barras; (skipped)
"Dragonfly Summer" by Patrick Samphire; (meh)
"Crystal Nights" by Greg Egan; (excellent)
"Holding Pattern" by Joy Marchand; (OK)
"Street Hero" by Will McIntosh; (good)
"The Imitation Game" by Rudy Rucker; (meh)

Well, I'm very surprised. In the previous two issues of Interzone that I had read, the quality was head-and-shoulders above what I'd come to expect from my sf short-fiction magazines. While not every story was my all-time favorite, they were mostly above average and several of them were even better than that. This issue, with only two good stories (even if one of them is amazing), is disappointing.

Here's hoping for better with Interzone #216. That's the Mundane SF issue edited by Geoff Ryman. It's already generated a bit of discussion, and I'm looking forward to reading it (as soon as it shows up on Ficitionwise).

Next up, Baen's Universe for April & May. W00t! I'm getting this one reviewed while it's still the latest issue available! Real-time reviewing is coming ever closer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Last bits for Interzone #215

Three more stories finish off this issue of Interzone. "Holding Pattern" by Joy Marchand is a claustrophobic tale that takes place on an airplane. The stewardess is convinced that one of the passengers is an alien. As the tale progresses we get vignettes about the lives of the other passengers, and we find out why this flight is special. It's an OK idea, but the story never sold it to me. I could never really suspend my disbelief — it was all too convenient and arbitrary. I suppose it's gauche to complain about a story set in the air not being grounded enough, but there you go.

"Street Hero" by Will McIntosh is more interesting. Kilo Orange is the hero of his own running internal monologue. He's got friends and mad martial arts skillz, which he needs in the plague-ridden eco-dystopia in which he lives. Through the story he makes various attempts to fit into the world: gang-banger, superhero, hippie drop-out, until he finally finds the right place for himself. Sometimes the transitions can be a little awkward and a little rushed. That makes sense; the author is writing a fairly complex bildungsroman into a short novella (or long novelette, Interzone doesn't label their stories by length, which makes things difficult come awards time). It's a satisfying piece that avoids the easy answers of some coming-of-age stories.

The last story, "The Imitation Game" by Rudy Rucker, is a short secret history providing an alternate explanation of Alan Turing's death. I'm always leery of stories that mess with real historical figures, and this one is no exception. Throw in a piece of bio-technology that Turing not only couldn't have access to in the 50's, it'd be impossible even today, and this story really didn't work for me. Basically, I wasn't sure if I should read this as secret history, sf, or science fantasy of some nature. If it's secret history, the tech should be plausible for the era. If it's science fiction, the tech should be plausible for any era (and I don't buy it at all), and if it's science fantasy then what's the point? I was probably also peeved that I read the entire story with only minute amounts of comprehension. Then I went to Wikipedia, looked up the circumstances of Turing's death, and realized what Rucker was actually doing. Any historical work, especially alternate or secret history, depends largely on the reader's appreciation of what the author is doing. This time, I didn't have the knowledge I needed to appreciate Rucker's approach, and that also soured me on the story. It may be much more attractive to Turing devotees.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887" by Edward Bellamy

Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887 is a classic of the utopian form of genre fiction. In this case, a rich young idler falls into a deep trance in 1887. He is discovered and revived in the year 2000. The world of the future is darn-near perfect, and his hosts tell him, at great length, why their world is perfect and his sucked eggs. This goes on for a very long time, and the only semblance of a plot is the young man's inevitable romance with the daughter of his hosts.

90% of this book is dedicated to explaining the social system of the year 2000. Despite repeated protests that no system could ever be simpler, it takes roughly 200 pages to get through it all. The core idea is universal employment and freedom from want for everyone. Given this goal, the author tries to back out a system that would supply this. Instead of going the way of socialism or Marxism, as one would expect from a 20th century author, Bellamy looks to the armed forces for inspiration. He envisions an industrial army, where all of industry is controlled by the state. Basically, let the monopolistic trend that was so prevalent at the end of the 19th century continue to its logical extreme, then have the government take over the resulting corporate monolith.

Obviously this is my capitalist bourgeois-ness speaking, but the result is the worst kludge of an economic system I could ever imagine. All the efficiency of government bureaucracy with all the potential abuses of the corporate system, combined with the abuse potential of the armed forces. Bellamy suggests that instead of wages tied to performance, everyone would receive an allowance of credit that they could spend on whatever goods and services they desire, and that these would be plentiful. What would induce people to work hard then? The desire to move up the ranks in their industry, gaining more honor as they go. Wouldn't they then be envious of those above them? No, because without one's material needs hinging on promotion, there would be no envy or jealousy at all. Crime, fraud and corruption would be essentially unheard of.

This has all the naivety that has given utopias a bad name for the last century or so. It assumes that human nature will become perfect if we can only find the right political/economic/ethical system. Also, it treats workers as essentially interchangeable units, something that has never worked out well in history. Plus, while it presents all workers as being free to choose whatever employment they want, it also mentions that the government can offer inducements to get workers into less desirable positions. Sure, that would never be abused.

There are some points here I could agree with: with such a strong social safety net, property-driven crime (robbery and mugging) would likely decline. If all children were fed properly and given equally excellent education, we would likely get a healthier and even more productive and innovative labor force. However, it seems like the goal of universal employment would tend to stifle innovation. I'm reminded of an anecdote about FDR and Stalin during WWII. FDR was meeting Stalin in Russia in the winter. He looked out the window and saw women sweeping snow off the walkways. He asked Stalin why he didn't have machines clear the walkways; it'd be faster and the women wouldn't have to be out in the cold. Stalin said that machinery would put the women out of work, and he could never do that to loyal citizens. FDR contemplated the scene for a moment then asked: "Why not give them teaspoons?"

Is our capitalistic system perfect? Hell no. I'm certainly liberal enough to see that. However, the capitalist system we have today is very different from what they had in the 1880s. Back then they were suffering from the worst excesses of laissez faire capitalism. You had trusts running up prices, robber barons, corruption at every level and branch of government, no labor protection, violent labor strikes put down even more violently, and shocking poverty. Completely unfettered capitalism quickly turns into a nightmare. However, our answer, instead of transforming into utopia overnight, was to strengthen government regulation of business. Gradually since the early 1900s, and especially in the wake of the Great Depression, our capitalism is now pretty tightly regulated. We've still got lots of problems, particularly with health care and the environment, but we've come a helluva long way from the squalor of the 1880s.

So given that this book never became an economics handbook for a new movement, what value in reading it now? It is very interesting from a historical point of view, especially in reminding us how different things were then. For instance, identity politics don't appear in this story: towards the end he does mention that women participate in a parallel labor pool and aren't dependent on their husbands for support. They leave the workforce to have children but can return to it any time. That's nice. Plus, they're saved much time by only having one place to shop and communal dining rooms. However, race is never mentioned in the future milieu. To me it implied that there is no more racism and that all races participate equally in the industrial army and that miscegenation would be acceptable. I wonder if the readers of the time would read it the same way, or if the author was writing it that way?

Bellamy did at least presage the basic concept of radio entertainment, although he had to use telephone wires to do it. And in extolling the virtues of central distribution, he predicted the rise of WalMarts, in an off-kilter sort of way. Probably not quite what he had in mind. Other than that, he predicts almost no advances in technology or even fashion, which reinforced my feeling that this utopia was a static culture. It was amusing when he tried to describe great literature in the absence of conflict of any sort, though!

Overall, this is less a story and more a polemic. The author's primary focus is outlining his political beliefs. This makes it a little easier to see the origins of Olaf Stapledon's style thirty years later. He too wrote books with an exposition-to-plot ration of 1:0. He was one of the last writers to do so explicitly (or maybe Heinlein, depending on your readings of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land). I for one am quite glad that the genre moved away from this part of its origins. We may still have a significant amount of overtly political sf (see Brian Aldiss' HARM and Ken MacLeod's Execution Channel), but now they have to at least pretend to have a plot at the center of the book. Amen.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Interzone #215, Blah, Blah, EGAN

I was disappointed that this issue of Interzone led with a skippable story. "The Endling" by Jamie Barras never cohered for me, and I finally abandoned it. It starts with a paragraph about "Asha," who is looking for icebergs to carry out some sort of scan. That's the last we hear from her for five pages (presumably the printed version of the story has clearer indications of scene shifts than my electronic copy - one of the few complaints I have with it so far.) Next we get an "as you know, Bob" - style dialog between the human Wright and the alien, Antonov. Antonov has obviously had a rough time in his past. So as they're working together on something, Wright asks questions like "How many of your fellow captives had died by then?" With no background on their relationship, this seems like the sort of thing he should already know, or the sort of thing a polite person wouldn't ask. As the dialog continues, they continually refer to things such as the Melzemi, the Stro, the colony on Chard IVe, the VXIIers, etc. I have no problem with made-up terms in sf, but if you're going to use them for long you have to give the reader some context to work with. After awkward info-dumping dialog that didn't enlighten me in the slightest, I decided to skip it and move on.

"Dragonfly Summer" by Patrick Samphire was also disappointing. Two men and two women had been the best of friends during a year of college. Eventually sexual tensions got the better of them and their friendships were ripped apart. Twenty years later they reunite because one of them is having disturbing dreams. They discover that the abandoned windmill where they used to drink and laugh and fuck is now gone. It's not just that it has been torn down, it apparently never existed. No one remembers anything like that ever having been there. The main character, who was the source of most of the trouble back in the day, has to face the consequences of what he did. That appears to be the message of the story: actions have consequences. Well, duh. The disappearing windmill, and the dragonflies that used to buzz around inside it, are nothing but metaphors: it's never explained and doesn't have any plot significance. I understand that this is supposed to be a character story, but I feel that it is cheating the reader when things like that are used but not explained. You'd think at least one character in the story would be more concerned about the wholesale re-writing of their reality, but they're all obsessed with twenty year-old sex scandals, so the disappearing windmill is ignored. I finished the story, always waiting for something to happen, but it never does. The character lesson is learned, and the story stops.

After that lackluster opening, Greg Egan comes in and more than makes up for their lack. "Crystal Nights" covers enough ground for any ten short stories. Actions have consequences here too, but messing with the nature of the universe is more than simply metaphorical. A rich dot-com-style billionaire sinks a considerable portion of his fortune into developing the fastest computer ever. And he keeps the technology all to himself. (Egan may not be familiar with how computer geniuses become billionaires - they can be obsessive geniuses, but usually if they keep the things they do secret they don't become the rich kind.) He hires a team of people to put together a complete simulation of a universe inside the computer. His plan is to evolve an intelligent lifeform inside the computer that will then be able to help him in the inevitable war of super-intelligences that he just *knows* is coming. (Again, I'm just not sure that people this unstable really run billion-dollar software companies.) He repeatedly tweaks the design of the universe to keep evolution going in the way he wants it to: towards abstract thought, towards spoken and written language, towards sophisticated mathematics. Entire species evolve and go extinct in a heartbeat. He's literally playing God. Let's stop for a moment and reflect on the implications of intelligent design. What if someone has designed us, and the world, to achieve an evolutionary outcome? Given all the incredible pain, misery, and suffering that goes on in the world, how fucked up would that entity have to be? Egan presents us with the answer to that question in this story's protagonist.

Eventually the billionaire talks to his creations directly, telling one of them essentially what he wants and why. He lays out the choices: help him, or he'll regretfully have to destroy them and start over. He leaves an "Easter Egg" for them on their Moon, in the form of a monolith straight out of 2001. Through this interface, they can interact, in the most limited possible way, with our universe. We've all read "Frankenstein," and we know what happens to unethical creator figures. The computer beings find a third way and forge their own destiny, and we can't help but cheer. This review may seem spoiler-ridden, but there's a so much more going on in this story than my bare-bones summary can begin to cover. Egan is one of my all-time favorite authors, especially when he's using hard sf to examine ethical propositions. Here he's in excellent form. All the world building, the descriptions of the artificial simulation and the computerized evolutionary process are fascinating. This one substantial story is probably worth the price of the issue alone, and I'll be keeping it in mind come awards time.

To Sum Up: April/May Asimov's

"Memory Dog" by Kathleen Ann Goonan (nt, good)
"Slidin'" by Neal Barrett, Jr. (ss, skipped)
"The House Left Empty" by Robert Reed (ss, good)
"An Almanac for the Alien Invaders" by Merrie Haskell (ss, OK)
"An Art, Like Everything Else" by Nick Wolven (ss, good)
"An Alien Heresy" by S. P. Somtow (nt, good)
"Ghost Town" by Catherine Wells (ss, good)
"Strangers When We Meet" by Kate Wilhelm (nt, good)
"Another Country" by Matthew Johnson (ss, good)
"The Advocate" by Barry B. Longyear (ss, OK)
"The Room of Lost Souls" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (na, good)

I was a little surprised that there weren't any stories in this issue that were immediately award-worthy. Usually some of the best of the year goes into the two yearly double issues for the digest magazines. Overall impression: good, but nothing to necessarily write home about. (But writing about it on teh Intertubes? Solid gold, of course.)

And hey, I got the reviews done while it's still on the shelves! Next up will be Interzone #215, a little late since #216, the Mundane SF issue edited by Geoff Ryman came out recently. Still, with a little more acceleration, I hope to be reliably reviewing things during or before their official month of publication, the better to serve y'all.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

April/May Asimov's (Part the fourth)

"Another Country," by Matthew Johnson is a story about time-traveling refugees. It centers around a community of ancient Romans trying to integrate into modern day Seattle. One, a man who arrived when he was young, has assimilated well and now assists others. Some of his compatriots are having difficulty, especially young boys whose fathers didn't make it. Rome was intensely patriarchal, and they feel they are being pulled in impossible directions. As American pre-teens they cannot provide for the family, but as the oldest male that's exactly what they feel they should be doing. Some of the older men, having an even harder time adjusting, may be exploiting them. This story is similar to "Lost Continent," another story about time-traveling refugees by Greg Egan, which can be found in the excellent Starry Rift sf YA anthology. However, where Egan's young protagonist never makes it out of the government refugee processing center, Johnson takes the next step in describing the difficulties immigrants, especially involuntary immigrants, face in adapting. It's a good story, with an unexpectedly ambiguous ending.

"The Advocate" is another story about aging and our collective fear of losing our minds, this one by Barry Longyear. It's narrated by an ailing author. His mind is beginning to go, and as his illness progresses the narrative becomes as incoherent as that implies. The science fictional twist offers the possibility of hope, the author's constructed doppleganger of himself, but that is a very feeble hope. This is a sparse and disturbing tale, the sort of thing you don't enjoy but do appreciate.

Finally we get "The Room of Lost Souls," a novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. It's a follow-on to her earlier story, "Diving the Wreck," but can be easily read as a stand-alone. It's about a retired wreck diver tempted back into service by a woman on a quest to rescue her father from the eponymous room. He was a war hero in the last major wars (described with the post-9/11 military scene in mind), but disappeared before the peace treaties were signed. The protagonist researches the woman's father, but eventually has to also meet with her own father and begin to face her own family's history with the room. In the end, she outfits a very reasonable, well thought out expedition and goes in to face the artifact with all due precaution. The information that will bite you is the information you don't have, and of course things don't go smoothly. It's generally a character driven story. The protagonist, while not a particularly nice person, is empathetic. She appreciably grows and changes through the course of the novella. The plotting is well done, and no one has to act like an idiot, which is always appreciated. Rusch is good at dramatic tension, and shows off her skill well here. All in all, a very satisfying story to close out the issue.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

April/May Asimov's (Part the third)

The April/May Asimov's has a novelette by someone I had never read before, although I had heard the name. S. P. Somtow contributes the disturbing "An Alien Heresy." Readers may recall last year's highly acclaimed Hugo-nominee, Eifleheim by Michael Flynn. In that novel (which I unfortunately couldn't finish) aliens land in medieval Germany. The gentle, kind, and humanistic local priest helps them out. "Alien Heresy" is the evil twin of that story. Here an alien lands in medieval Europe, and a priest working for the Inquisition does all the unpleasant things one would expect. He also discovers he's got a bastard son in the town from the last time he was through there (during the trial of the early pedophilic serial killer who inspired the Bluebeard legend), and has to decide what to do about that. I'm not sure anything in the story is graphic enough to warrant the "viewer discretion is advised" message, but it all adds up to leave you wanting to give your brain a good scrubbing. Certainly it's a strong reminder that medieval times were often nasty and brutish, not noble and Disney-fied.

Helping us to recover from that experience is "Ghost Town" by Catherine Wells. A returned astronaut wanders through her much-changed hometown. She was only supposed to be gone for two years, but while she only experienced two years, everyone else aged sixteen. Her little sister is older than she is now. Her experience of time-shock is vividly drawn. In the end the solution to her problem is pretty darn obvious, but the portrait of an emotion that no human has experienced yet is well-done.

Kate Wilhelm provides a long story, "Strangers When We Meet," using that rather-more-common-in-fiction-than-it-is-in-real-life device, the unique and unexplained mental illness. A college student has survived the car crash that killed her family. She's fine, but has day-by-day amnesia now: every night she forgets everything since a bit before the crash. She wakes up not knowing that her family is dead. She is the perfect subject for a researcher who needs to do repetitive and boring scanning of a single brain to get the best possible maps of neural function. (Normal volunteers get bored or leave for the summer, etc.) Unfortunately, she could also be the perfect tool of a corrupt and abusive government (for what, exactly, is never specified. It's just implied to be evilly nefarious). A young man also becomes involved, falling in love with the young lady. He's quite nonplussed when she fails to remember him, so he goes barging in, demanding to know what's going on. Despite my uninspired summary, this is a great tale to read. The characters are well drawn, and you start to really care for them. Wilhelm is expert at ratcheting up dramatic tension. My main criticism (aside from the story dodging the question of whether the researcher is any better than the government officials in terms of using the poor girl) is that the ending is very abrupt. I wished I'd learned more about what happened to the girl, instead of having the story just stop. With the ending it becomes obvious that the girl is only a macguffin, and the story is really about the people around her.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

April/May Asimov's (Part the second)

Oh noes, I'm falling behind! (It's been time well-spent though: two days as a referee at a youth fencing tournament where I earned as much as I would selling two reviews and an article, then yesterday I wrote 2200 words for a review for Strange Horizons that might turn into something *very* good indeed.) There shall be three short stories today to make up time—full speed ahead!

The ever-prolific Robert Reed contributes a thoughtful story to the Asimov's spring double-issue. "The House Left Empty" contrasts the advantages and disadvantages of small, communal, environmentally-friendly living with those of capitalist, nationalist, anti-social living. He makes it clear that neither is inherently superior. However, for all those who, like me, probably knee-jerk towards the green option, he makes clear his opinion as to which system is more likely to get us out into space. It's hard to dispute his assertion.

Another short story, "An Almanac for the Alien Invaders" by Merrie Haskell is interesting. It describes the journey of a dissatisfied Post-Doc joining up with our new alien overlords. It's an interesting examination of colonialism from the POV of the colonized; looking at what's gained and what's lost by throwing your lot in with the colonizers. However, the "Almanac" framing device didn't really work for me, as it never seemed well integrated. The structure was always like this passage: "In February, the groundhog will see his shadow, and a million people will disappear overnight." I'm not sure if the idea is to make everything that happens seem inevitable, but it seemed to make things trivial instead. Also, the story is told in a mixture of future and present tense that made everything seem slightly distant and surreal. This was obviously intentional, but it didn't work for me.

"An Art, Like Everything Else" by Nick Wolven is a beautiful story with a tear-jerker ending. It all takes place after humanity has uploaded into a massive computer simulation. However, after centuries, people still start to, not "grow old" exactly, but to degrade ( a bit like Alzheimer's). A man is haunted by the ghost of his lover and the places they used to enjoy together. He has to face his grief at the loss instead of trying to run away from it. It is a lovely tale, and makes the VR environment seem real. It also features a positively-depicted gay couple without acting like that's anything special, which is nice to see. It mirrors a big concern that sf stories seem to be grappling with right now: aging. There appears to be a massive fear of Alzheimer's, which makes sense for a community founded on intellect and imagination. (Once again let me pimp the Match it for Pratchett campaign to raise funds for Alzheimer's research.) Also, it may reflect the slowly aging audience for the print magazines (and some of the authors themselves). Over the past few years several Mike Resnick stories have picked up this theme, as well as current Hugo-nominee Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer, among many others. As the Baby Boomers start to go (probably not gently) into that good night, I suspect we'll see much, much more of this sort of thing.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

The third book in John Scalzi's Old Man's War (OMW) series has been nominated for a Hugo award this year. Now, Scalzi swears that The Last Colony can be read as a stand-alone novel, but I hate reading things out of order. When I read a series straight through, I feel like I'm getting the experience that the author intended (and I end up much less confused). Since I enjoyed Old Man's War I decided it was finally time to dig out my copy of The Ghost Brigades, which had been sitting in my to-read pile for a couple years. I'm glad I did. When I hit my to-read pile, too often I'm thinking about things I have to read: either to review, or because they've been nominated for something, or they're classics I need to catch up on, or things I need to read to "better" myself, or flat-out funny things to read when I'm burned out on all the above. The books in the OMW series don't usually fit any of these categories, so when they get nominated for awards I'm glad to have an excuse to get to them. They are fun, well-written books. I think they sometimes don't get credit for their intellectual depth simply because they are also fun books with lots of action.

The plot of the novel is relatively straightforward. A scientist has faked his own death and defected to one of the alien enemies of the Earth forces. When this is discovered, the military also finds that he had left a back-up of his brain imprint on one of the computers (brain-to-brain transfer is common, computer-to-brain transfer is not). The military decides to try to upload the brain to one of their Special Forces soldiers. Known as the "Ghost Brigades," due their basis in the genetic codes of deceased military volunteers, these soldiers are super-enhanced and tailored for their duties. They're "born" fully grown, and never have childhoods. They leave the crèche and immediately start bonding with their training group, learning all they need by mental connections to each other and to the future-Internet-analog. The "normal" human recruits (they've all had their consciousnesses transferred to custom-made military bodies as well, but for their first 75 years they were normal humans) find them really creepy.

When the new soldier doesn't show any signs of remembering the scientist's past right away, he's released into general service (realistic? No, but it's easy to go with the flow) and we follow him through his training. Eventually he does recover some memories, and has to decide who and what he is. Is he Charles, the traitor scientist, or is he Jared, loyal soldier? Or are there other options?

It's often said that science fiction has been engaged in a dialog with itself going back to the 19th century. H. G. Wells responded to the overly-optimistic apolitical engineering of Jules Verne. Cory Doctorow has called his recently-published Little Brother "Orwell fan-fic." Charles Stross has been commenting on Vernor Vinge's "Singularity" concept. However, that dialog is generally in the subtext: you have to know what the author is referring to in order to understand his commentary. Sometimes it may slide completely under your radar. Not so with Scalzi!

As Jared considered whether it was the fate of the Special Forces to be as misunderstood and reviled by the realborn as the monster was by his creator, he thought back on his brief encounter with Lieutenant Cloud. Cloud certainly didn't seem terrified or repulsed by Jared; he'd offered his hand to him, a gesture Victor Frankenstein, pointedly, refused from the monster he created. Jared also considered the fact that while Victor Frankenstein was the creator of the monster, his creator—Mary Shelley—implicitly offered pity and empathy to the monster. The real human in this story was a rather more complex person than the fictional one, and more inclined toward the creature than its fictional creator.

He thought about that for a good, solid minute.

He's got to be the least subtle sf author I've ever read. The soldiers in the ghost brigade get surnames from famous scientists, such as Einstein and Dirac. In this book he comes up with a new kind of soldier who can survive in vacuum. They look a bit like turtles, they're called Gammarans, and they're named after sf authors like Stross.

Likewise, when he's going to illustrate conundrums of military ethics, he does it flat out. Is it OK to kill the child of an alien leader, abducted to put the leader in a situation where she has to work to our advantage, and the leader finally agrees that killing the child is the necessary course of action? Ouch. The soldiers of the ghost brigades have to do some mighty unpleasant things, but Scalzi never assumes that those things are easy or even necessarily right.

In being so unsubtle, I think Scalzi is our new major author of entry-level sf. It's hard to start with Charles Stross: he's doing so much with cutting edge tech and references to past authors and concepts that if you aren't already thoroughly familiar with the field you miss what makes him great. However, for lots of us in the post-Boomer generations, Ender's Game was an easy entry point: not subtle at all, you can tell exactly what's going on, and it's a fast-paced exciting story with a lot of action. Those characteristics are shared by Scalzi's writing. From a reviewer's point of view, it's relaxing to read his stuff. It's all out there for everyone to see, so you don't have to worry about having missed something. He's the Penn & Teller of the science fiction world. He says "Look! Look what I'm doing right here!" and it's still really cool and neat even when it's not shrouded in mystery and obscurity. Plus, he directs people to other sf authors, another indication that he takes his "entry-level" status seriously. I'm looking forward to Last Colony. While I don't know how I'll be voting at the Hugos yet (of the nominees this year I've only read Rollback so far) but if Scalzi wins I don't think I'll be disappointed.

Friday, May 9, 2008

April/May Asimov's (Part the first)

The spring double issue of Asimov's starts off with a good story by Kathleen Ann Goonan, "Memory Dog." She continues her focus on bio- and nanotech (seen in her "Queen City Jazz" tetralogy and other short stories). Thus this story is narrated by a very special dog, or rather the person within the dog. Stories such as this depend on the slow reveal, where the audience keeps reading to find the answers to mysteries and get new enigmas to draw them forward. It's almost impossible to review that kind of story without spoilers. Let's just say that the narration and world-building is very cool, with an interesting extrapolation of dispersed blogging going on. The story is a paean to dogs and dog lovers (and as a dog person myself, it's mighty refreshing after all the cat stories!). However, the ultimate solution to humanity's problems, as presented here, didn't really fly with me, no matter how tear-jerking and dog-related it may be. (The tears are honestly come by in this story; it doesn't feel horribly manipulative.) This is a good story, but again (see my Marsbound review from yesterday) I'm not sure that the intimate milieu of the story can support the global scale of the ending.

Next up was the only story in the issue that I skipped, "Slidin'" by Neal Barrett, Jr. It relies heavily on amusing dialects in the dialogue:

It's bad enough your baby sister's hopping 'round like a frog. Worse still she flat looks like one, ick-warts and all. 'Course, there's folks look worse than that. I got family it is hue-miliating to call 'em kin. Like ol' Jeb-Reb and Ducko Bill. Don't even talk about Grandpa Foot. 'Least Ducie's got a head, and just one, we can be thankful for that.

It keeps going on in this vein for quite some time. Everyone's ugly (mutated) as the result of an "ugly bomb" (nuclear weapon, I assume we're suppose to assume). Laureen (the narrator) is a typical teenager and is being bratty. It's not very pleasant reading, but the author has a good ear for dialogue and good rhythm, so I decided to keep going despite my initial reservations.

What tipped me over the edge was what I regard as just a tease. Laureen's Mom promises something big:

Now, you're going to see something not ever'one gets to see, and I expect you to behave and do as you're told. This isn't no ordinary place we're going, I don't have to tell you that. It'd be something to tell your younguns 'bout. I mean, if you was going to have some, which, God help us, you're not.

After a build-up like that, I expect something interesting, cool, and central to the plot, if there is one. However, after the "big reveal," they go on like nothing's changed. Laureen keeps being snarky and observing her ugly family. They don't interact with the special place/thing, and it doesn't look like they're going to. That's when I decided to bail out and head on to the next story.

April Analog Overview

"Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink in the Can" by Thomas R. Dulski (good, nt)
"The Beethoven Project" by Donald Moffitt (OK, nt)
"Amor Vincit Omnia" by Craig DeLancey (good, nt)
"Righteous Bite" by Stephen L. Burns (OK, ss)
"Into That Good Night" by William Gleason (OK, ss)
"The Anthropic Precipice" by Jerry Oltion (good, ss)
"Marsbound" by Joe Haldeman (OK, serial pt. 3)

This is exactly what we expect from Analog: lots of perfectly readable stuff. Nothing atrocious, nothing outstanding. They've found their happy medium niche and they're sticking to it.

But hey, I'm getting closer to real-time! This is the last April-only magazine, and it's only the second week of May! Next up is the April/May Asimov's double issue, then Interzone #215 (pay no attention to the fact that Interzone #216 was published this week. Please.)

On a purely technical note, I've added the ss, nt, and na labels to these summary posts so that come awards time I'll be able to see at a glance whether something should be nominated as a short story, novelette or novella. I know it's not 100% reliable, since different awards have different word counts, but it should generally be close enough.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Finishing April's Analog

"Into That Good Night" is a short story by William Gleason that puts me in mind of an early Heinlein story. Specifically, the Heinlein story it reminds me of is "The Long Watch" where a young man has to think fast in an emergency and save the day by sacrificing himself. Here a young man has just joined a facility on a moon somewhere. As he's getting checked out on his equipment all hell breaks loose, and the boss that everyone thinks is a complete jerk calls on him to save the day. The reversal here is in the role of the sacrificial hero, which is nice. However, by itself that isn't really enough to make this story worthwhile. Yes, asshole bosses can be heroes too, but there's nothing else new here.

The last short story in this issue is "The Anthropic Precipice" by Jerry Oltion. In this one, some "grey" aliens (like the ones from X-Files) visit a physicist to dissuade him from conducting an experiment he has planned regarding the dark energy of the universe. Or rather, from giving a paper that will lead to being able to conduct the experiment. He shrugs it off and gives the paper anyway. Going to dinner with colleagues that night, they are all abducted along with their taxi driver, and once again given a stern talking to.

The interesting part of the story is the physicists' response to all this. They know for a fact that the instant they say they've seen aliens, their credibility will be shot forever. In this way, it hearkens back to the story that opened this issue: "Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink in the Can." No one pays attention to crackpots, no matter how serious they seem. In the end, I think the author comes up with a perfectly plausible response to the scenario he's set up. Nicely done for such an outlandish premise.

Finishing off this issue is the last installment of Joe Haldeman's serial "Marsbound." I read it through to the bitter end, but I was never able to settle into the story. Even in this last installment, as an adult, the heroine never rang true for me. (I'm going to note without comment the fact that she's fascinated by xenobiology, having made first contact with Martians, but is so bad at math that she can't major in it and has to major in English instead.) The end the story takes a turn for the "The Fate of the World is At Stake!" It's a problem I've had with sf stories before (*ahem* *Kiln People!* *cough, excuse me*). The plot is perfectly suited to a story of limited scope, one investigating a certain intellectual space of "what if" questions. Then, as if needing a large fireworks show for the finale of a small intellectual symposium, they threaten the fate of the entire world and our protagonists have to make an instant conversion to pulp heroics. (Here I'll mention without comment that the heroine's space-pilot boyfriend is the actual pulp hero here, putting his life on the line while she sits and waits, tearfully, back on the station.) I found it an unnecessarily dramatic ending. Also, most of the characters don't gain any depth: the bad bureaucrat woman is still evil, the heroine still makes immature decisions, her boyfriend may as well be made of cardboard. The other characters can be distinguished only by their different names. It's a shame. The story's strongest point is the world-building, which is excellent. So again, this was throughout a readable story with good science, but it never quite found its focus. It wandered through a few different types before going out with a whiz-bang ending out of left field. I hope that the transitions gets smoothed out when this is published as a stand-alone novel later this year.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

April Analog, Pt. II

"Amor Vincit Omnia" by Craig DeLancey is a nicely done novelette. A successful business man gets a visit from a government official. The official is asking questions about the orphanage where he grew up. Government officials asking questions always make us suspicious, and of course here the suspicion is justified. The man gets in touch with other alumni of the orphanage, and it turns out that they're all pretty special people: each one is successful, and they do their best not only for themselves but also for the greater community. There is some alluded-to scandal in their past, but it seems minor.

Eventually of course, all questions are answered. We find out what's special about the man, the orphanage, the scandal, and why the government is looking for them. It all ties together nicely, although I suspect that the effects of the orphans' specialness is over-dramatized (i.e. the author seems to be presenting a silver bullet for the world's problems). I enjoyed it quite a bit: the author has a good feel for when to tease the audience, when to answer questions, and how to explain things in such a way as to raise more questions.

A tangential note: it's a bit depressing how easy it is to hook into reader's paranoia about the government. One guy in a suit, claiming to be from a government department, and we know something's up. We have no trouble believing that this person is a bad guy with a hidden agenda. In fact, that seems to be the default. If he *didn't* have a super-secret evil agenda, maybe that would need some explanation. I'd say it's the post-9/11 times we're living in, but the example of the X-Files certainly pushes that paranoia back a decade or so. In fact, it probably goes back at least as far as Heinlein. So it's something of a constant, but it happened to jump out at me here.

In another government-related story, we have "Righteous Bite" by Stephen L. Burns. This is a straight-forward war story: two soldiers moving through an enemy-occupied urban landscape (obviously somewhere in the Middle East) at night, looking to assassinate an enemy target. Burns plays it completely straight until the twist at the end, which I shall not spoil. However, I'm afraid that this story will probably generate quite a bit of mail for Stan Schmidt (Analog's editor). I suspect that people will either say it's glorifying war or that it is insulting our nation's soldiers. It will be interesting to see what the Brass Tacks column looks like a few months from now.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

April Analog, Pt. I

April's Analog starts off with a story that is about a real manuscript. "Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink in the Can" by Thomas R. Dulski takes as its plot center the Voynich manuscript. This is a work in some sort of indecipherable language, originally created around the 15th century. It has served as an endless source of entertainment for cryptographers and conspiracy theorists alike (I first read about it in Fortean Times Magazine, a wonderful place to find out about odd things in the world such as this). Most people dismiss it as an early and elaborate forgery.

That option isn't open to our protagonist. He's a private investigator, hired by a girl's father to find out why she abandoned a promising career in chemistry to follow a bunch of crackpots who seem to think that the Voynich documents have something to do with alien abductions. She engaged to the ringleader of this conspiracy-theory group, and her dad is really unhappy about that. So now our hero has to find out about the manuscript, the girl, the guy and the group. Along the way we learn some very interesting things about all four of them.

I found this a very enjoyable story. However I suspect that some Analog fans will be a bit disappointed by the ending, which takes a turn for the mundane instead of opening out into the fantastic. There's nothing wrong with that; conspiracy theories in sf stories can't all turn out to be true. For those waiting for the sf genre conventions to kick in though, it feels a bit like stepping on a step that isn't there. Kudos to Dulski for reminding us how close and yet how far away the fantastic is in daily life right now.

The next story, "The Beethoven Project" by Donald Moffitt, is another story that seems to have its Real Year somewhere in the 1950s. I get this impression mostly from the set-up: a bunch of recording studio executives worrying about market share and figuring out where the next big hit will come from. While I'm sure that's been a constant ever since the days of phonographs, the company names seem outdated (Divergences, Inc. vs. The Music Factory) and so does the dialogue: "We need a biggie, Marty," he said. "Something surefire."

That nitpicking aside, the rest is an enjoyable "what if" story. What if you could go back in time and get Beethoven to write a 10th symphony? In fact, what if you could restore his hearing? He was notoriously money-hungry (as so many artists have been throughout history). What would he do faced with that sort of scenario? I'll leave it to you to find out, but Moffitt has obviously done his research and I could completely buy in to his extrapolations.

The Summary for April's F&SF

"First Editions" John Stoddard (good)
"Five Thrillers" Robert Reed (excellent)
"The Nocturnal Adventure of Dr. O and Mr. D." Tim Sullivan (meh)
"The Fountain of Neptune" Kate Wilhelm (good)
"The 400-Million-Year Itch" Steve Utley (OK)

Robert Reed is in top form, Stoddard and Wilhelm are fun and interesting, and those more than makes up for the average quality stories from Sullivan and Utley.

You know, it turns out I don't skip as many stories when I read these issues as I thought I was. It speaks highly of the general level of quality that even mediocre stories seem to usually hold my interest.