Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Meme I Can Get Behind

Copy this sentence into your livejournal if you're in a heterosexual marriage, and you don't want it "protected" by the bigots who think that gay marriage hurts it somehow.

I'm sure Blogger will suffice. If you're in California and can vote, vote No on Prop. 8.

This is, I hope, the most political I will be on this blog. I don't intend to make it my politically oriented soap-box, I promise.

Friday, October 24, 2008

More Thoughts on Incandescence

For some reason Greg Egan's work always inspires me to think more deeply about SF and literature. I used his Schild's Ladder in a paper on post-human gender in 2007 and I'll be using his short fiction in a paper on Suspension of Disbelief in 2009 (based largely on this review I did for Strange Horizons). Now I'm thinking about science fiction and characterization, which ties in with my thoughts on Stephen Baxter's Flood, a discussion of which is here and my review of which is here.

In my review of Incandescence, I mentioned that it is at heart a novel about science. In my previous post I mentioned that as such, it doesn't really have much in the way of characterization or stunning prose. It has a heck of a plot that's contrived to show off science: its importance and how it can bring joy and meaning to our lives.

Now I'm asking myself: could this book be written in such a way as to include all those things? Leaving aside the somewhat trivial matter of prose style, let's focus on characterization. Could this story work with fully-realized, three-dimensional characters?

The thing is, one of the hallmarks of good characterization is character growth, usually in the form of some sort of emotional realization/epiphany. Nick Mamatas wonderfully sums up this approach to a novel:
Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a "slice of life" featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as "I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else."
For the curious, the rest of that paragraph, mocking the literati describing a novel, continues, :
Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles.
I think this is the sort of thing that Niall Harrison was pushing back against when he said, in the Flood discussion:
I do think asking if we can’t “have both” ideation and characterization is a bit of a red herring. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible to have both, since the elements of fiction are not a zero-sum game, but that doesn’t mean both have to be present to allow us to describe a book as good. I’m mildly allergic to arguments based on class properties, I think. So far as I’m concerned, a story that foregrounds ideation over (a certain kind of) characterization is no more inherently a failure (or a success) than a story that foregrounds (a certain kind of) characterization over ideation is inherently a success (or a failure); and stories that have both are not inherently superior to stories that only have one.
(Now I feel bad for citing Niall when he's not around to defend himself. However, that's the price he pays for spending a holiday week in Wales with good friends, books, and food. Thpppth!)

The thing is, Egan's characters in Incandescence do grow, but their growth is intellectual, not emotional. I wonder if in the common view of "characterization" the mainstream has ruled out intellectual concerns in favor of emotional ones. Rakesh, Paramthan, Roi and Zak all have perfectly satisfying internal lives, pursuing and discovering knowledge. For many humans, that is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable description of their lives. For some, that is much closer to their real internal state than the sort of suburban angst for which "mainstream" literature is famous.

Basically what I'm asking is: would it be legitimate for us to conclude that some sf is just as good at characterization as any other branch of literature if you allow that intellectual revelations are just as satisfying and legitimate as emotional ones?

The other thing is that I feel that a certain kind of character has been legislated against in the annals of literature: the un-angsty scientist. That is, the scientist who is basically at peace with themselves and their fellow human beings (or aliens), for whom the life of the mind is their primary life. They may have minor personality conflicts with those around them, and they may think deeply about the philosophical consequences of what they do, but they don't spend much time ruminating about their childhood, repressing anger with their spouse, or getting into screaming matches with their siblings. They have more important things to do, which things probably revolve around the plot of the book. I think many, if not most, real people in this universe have the capability of putting aside less pressing concerns, even emotional ones, if there is a real crisis at hand. I would argue that they should not a priori be labeled "two-dimensional" for doing so.

This is not to say that many sf heroes are not made of cardboard: many are. No one is looking for deep introspection--emotional, philosophical or intellectual--from Kimball Kinnison of Doc Smith's Lensmen (and I refuse to let Stephen Baxter off the hook for his randomly-acting-info-dumping characters). There is likely no real person in this world who would be described as similar to Mr. Kinnison. But simply because a character is figuring out things about the universe instead of things about their mistress shouldn't be an automatic disqualification from being a "well-rounded character." Some real people are really like that.

Edited to add something I realized as I was writing a reply to a comment on this post: Sometimes I think literary people don't think real scientists/engineers are real people. For instance, I've heard people say: "this character is completely unrealistic" at which point I would have to refrain from saying: "but she reminds me so much of myself." I've heard that some authors get the same reaction; they model a character on someone they know, then hear from critics saying that the character is obviously fantastic/impossible. Maybe it all comes down to execution, or maybe some readers refuse to admit that real people exist who think and feel differently than they do.

Or am I just making excuses now?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Incandescence Review

I've got a review of Greg Egan's latest novel of science, Incandescence, up at SFSignal today.

What I don't do in that review is wrestle with a dilemma: in Incandescence some elements are front and center which distinguish SF from "literature." The book has a plot, and it has a philosophical core/argument. It does NOT have convincing characters or poetic prose. It is, in fact, didactic, hearkening back to the days when Hal Clement taught us about gravity. In my mind, Incandescence is the best physics lecture I've ever read, and I understand gravity and General Relativity better for having read it. And I liked it!

It's an old problem: I want to defend sf as literature, but ghod love me, I love it even when it isn't. How is one supposed to define consistent standards/aesthetic under these sorts of conditions? I love Stapledon but I think Baxter's characters are woefully underdeveloped? I love Gene Wolfe for his sweep-you-off-your-feet prose, but also enjoy reading Asimov and Heinlein? How can I possibly justify these stances? Old question: why was A. E. van Vogt so loved when by most objective standards he was lousy? Going back further, James Blish (as William Atheling, Jr.) had to ask why Abraham Merritt was so loved when he was so obviously awful.

Most of the time I want sf to stand up with the best mainstream literature has to offer, and ideally you could get someone with the ideas of an Egan and the prose of a Wolfe or Chabon. It's times like this though, where I start to understand the drive towards (and difficulty of) developing a separate aesthetic for sf.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

Kalpa Imperial is the product of celebrated Argentinean author Angélica Gorodischer. No less an authority than Ursula K. Le Guin provides the translation. It is a loose collection of stories that share a common setting, the empire of the title: the “Greatest Empire that Never Was.” In some ways Kalpa is a traditional fantasy milieu—a monarchy with strict hierarchies that keep getting overthrown every few generations, based on the glory of the past, without much technology above that needed to sail ships and build castles. However, its stories share the tone of fantasy more than the trappings; one doesn’t find much in the way of overt magic here, certainly no guiding wizards. While some farm boys make good, they do it mostly through their own efforts and luck, not via being a “Chosen One” of some nature. In many ways the stories in “Kalpa Imperial” read more like historical fiction set in a time and place that never existed.

The sense that things were better in the old days suffuses all the stories. The opening story “Portrait of the Emperor” tells of the founding of the empire, but even then the first emperor builds upon the ruins that he alone has the courage to explore. The Golden Throne upon which he sits was not built by him or his craftsman, it is a relic from days when people achieved more than we could ever imagine. This sense pervades all the stories: the characters never believe that they are living in golden days, they never believe that they are achieving a pinnacle of any sort. The times they live in are always somewhat decadent, somewhat violent, somewhat degraded.

This sense is possibly a human universal; it certainly dates back to our earliest writings. Homer speaks repeatedly of how much better men were during the Heroic age (i.e., The Trojan War) than we mere mortals that make up his audience. In the Iliad he writes: “Aeneas seized a great stone, so huge that two men, as men now are, would be unable to lift it, but Aeneas wielded it quite easily.” Tennyson captures this feeling most beautifully at the end of his poem Ulysses:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Of course, Tennyson is much more optimistic than Gorodischer’s storyteller. These storytellers (each story except the last starts with the phrase “The storyteller said:") seem to have a mission to make sure that those listening do not harbor too many illusions. At the beginning of my favorite story in the book (“Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities”):
The storyteller said: They gave all kinds of names to it, they made up all kinds of origins for it, and all of them were false. The names were mere inventions of obscure, scheming little men whose sole ambition was to get one step higher on a miserable official ladder or obtain a place among the palace lickspittles or a little extra money to satisfy some petty vanity. And the origins were laborious artifacts constructed to display some influential personage as a descendant of the hero who was supposed to have founded it in a fit of divine madness.

The story goes on to relate the “true” history of the city—from its beginning as a stopping post between the capital and the ports, its first mayor who was the only survivor of a bunch of bandits wiped out by the militia, its subsequent rises, falls, periods of being in favor and out of favor. It tells the story of the city, not of the people within it although they sometimes surface. In a way it is like an Olaf Stapledon story, covering an individual microcosm in the same way he tackled the universe. There’s something both real and world-weary in the way the tale is related: regular folks, good and bad, make decisions almost randomly that later generations build up into acts of greatness or folly—legends add grandeur to banal reality. While one would imagine that in the normal course of things storytellers would be the main perpetrators of this sort of heroic white-washing, these storytellers don’t countenance that sort of thing. They put the smallness back in the stories of the “great,” and for that alone this books stands as a nice counter-balance to much high/epic fantasy.

This is not to say that the stories aren’t interesting! I don’t want to make this sound like a depressing or boring short story collection. These stories tell of rebellions both successful and un-, revenge and obsession, good leaders and bad ones, insane ones, insane ones who are also good ones, and battles for reasons good and bad.

The Empire has never been able to conquer the lands to the South, but often tries. The final story, “The Old Incense Road” finally tells us a little bit about the South itself—at which point one’s knowledge of the book’s context makes it hard to avoid overlaying allegorical elements onto the narrative. The South is hotter and more tropical, less technological and more tribal, with a slower pace of life—standing in a similar relation to the Empire that South America does to the United States. The Empire never understands the challenges of operating there and certainly does not grasp the cultural differences and their import. One man from the Empire ends up, through a series of random happenstances, sort of “going native,” spawning legends about himself as he wanders through the jungle, rumors which are then misinterpreted by Empire intelligence agents. At this point one need must remember that “Kalpa Imperial” was originally published in 1983 although it wasn’t translated until 2003. While most of the stories are not “political” in the sense of bearing on contemporary politics (they are very political in the sense of dealing with governance and power relationships), “Incense Road” may strike a little closer to home. Various Western superpowers have been meddling in places they fail to understand long before our current misadventures in the Middle East, and certain South American countries still bear the scars of some of that meddling.

Kalpa Imperial is an impressive collection of short stories. In their tone of decay they remind me somewhat of “New Weird” authors Jeff VanderMeer and China Mieville, although she obviously predates them by a decade or two. Still, that feeling of urban realism in a fantastic setting, of people and politics driving events instead of magic, binds them together. I was a little disappointed that the stories did not feel more exotic or foreign—aside from the parts about the South, most of the stories deal with a realm similar in most ways to those found in Western history and fantasy literature. Of course, Argentina is a country with a thriving European culture (especially in Buenos Aires) made up of numerous ex patriates who settled in the exotic continent of South America—it makes sense that the Western literary tradition would be the primary influence on these stories. Nonetheless, I hope to see more of Gorodischer’s work translated in the future; if not by the masterful Le Guin, then at least by somebody. It would surely take a uniquely incompetent translator to ruin the work of such a talented author.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

September Asimov's

Sept. seems to be a bit of a lull month in Ye Olde magazines. Although I'm sure I'm making unwarranted inferences, one could believe they're holding back their best material for the big fall double issues; those generally seem to have award nominees in them. In the Sept. issue of Asimov's I ended up skipping two stories ("In the Age of the Quiet Sun" by William Barton and "Slug Hell" by Steven Utley) but they didn't commit any grievous sins, they simply failed to capture my interest. Of the more RUMIR ones "Soldier of the Singularity" by Robert R. Chase has a good twist and "Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone" is a well-done emotional tale about standing up to a verbally abusive mother (but offers no new perspective on the time-worn scenario). None of the remaining ones will necessarily be award winners, but they did pique my interest enough to warrant further comment.

"Horse Racing" by Mary Rosenblum tells a story of back-room dealing in human futures. It's a great concept: shadowy corporate interests scan the gene pool for raw talent, work behind the scenes to make sure it's nurtured, then gain an interest/stake in the person's eventual output. Some of these particularly bright young things get to see behind the scenes and some of them even start trading in their own "futures." I love the idea, although probably for all the wrong reasons. It's presented as quite benign which is a BIG change from the usual depiction of back room dealings; it'd be nice if things could be so win-win for everyone. Then there's the slightly "Fans are Slans" aspect of it: smart people really are really special and someone out there will recognize that. So, probably a wish-fulfillment tale, but a nicely done one.

"Midnight Blue" by Will McIntosh takes Collectable Card Games as the structure for its world-building. A boy is growing up relatively poor in a time that feels like the 1950s. A generation earlier, a whole bunch of magical charms had appeared all over the world. When you matched the stones and staffs that made up the charms, they passed on powers to whoever held them. Most of the powers were inconsequential and common: "Sense of Smell," "Singing," "Talk to Animals." Some of them were rarer, but more elaborate, like "Flyer" or "Skin that's Hard to Puncture." However, no new charms ever appeared. People alive then got lots of free powers, and there are none left for kids like our hero to find. You know where this is going. He finds one, and it's incredibly rare, and he has to figure out what to do with it. He finally makes a decision, and the consequence was something I didn't see coming, which I appreciate. This could have profitably been a shorter story, but other than that it was well done.

"Usurpers" by Derke Zumsteg actually showed me a different perspective on an issue, in this case drug abuse by athletes. Told from the interior perspective of a poor, black, natural runner, it shows him trying to win a major race against rich, white, juiced-up runners. The stilted prose style: "Fifty kids fifteen to eighteen stamp their feet. Stretch. Check each other out. Hopping in place to stay loose. Bitching about the bus ride over…" works very well for this kind of story. (I didn't like it at first, especially after my experience with the serial "Tracking" in recent issues of Analog. But here it developed its own compelling rhythm that really got you inside the guy's head and helped ratchet up the tension.) The guy is an asshole, but he's good at what he does, works hard, and doesn't have the resources to cheat like the other kids do. You root for him, despite all the jerk jock stuff. It makes you realize why it shouldn't be OK to just throw open various sports to doping, as I've occasionally thought myself. I definitely appreciated it.

Finally, "The Ice War" by Stephen Baxter gives us a decidedly odd, but really enjoyable homage to H. G. Wells set in the late 1600s. England is invaded by ice creatures. Our hero, Jack, is initially just trying to survive in whatever sneaky way he can, but via the sort of coincidence typical of historical fiction, is co-opted by Daniel DeFoe, Jonathan Swift and Isaac Newton to help save the country. The ending is predictable and entirely Wellsian, but Baxter tells a heck of a tale here. Jack is a fun character to root for, a charming rogue which is not one of the typical Baxter archetypes. His animation of the historical characters is probably over-the-top but still fun, and he throws in some lit references for the fans: Robinson Crusoe as early SF? Interesting thought! It's a great way to round out the issue.

Monday, October 13, 2008


You are now reading the blog of an official (if probationary) Editorial Assistant at the award-nomination-generating Fiction Department of Strange Horizons! Yay, go me! I am very grateful to the current team for giving me this opportunity, and I'm looking forward to getting started with it.

If you look over my current list of activities--getting a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering, writing book reviews for several outlets, writing a paper for ICFA 2009, designing a research project for ICFA 2010, keeping my house in some semblance of order, and trying to read and review all the fiction short stories from Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, Interzone and Baen's Universe--fitting in being an Editorial Assistant means something will have to go. Given that my SH work will revolve around short stories, my short-story reading habits are at the top of that list. So 2008 will possibly be the last year in which I'll be a truly informed Hugo award short story nominator; it's a sacrifice I'll just have to live with. Being able to help out future award-winners is much, much cooler. I'll try to finish out the 2008 issues, even if it takes to Feb. 2009, but that will likely be it for short fiction reviews around here.

I do have a favor to ask of those of you who read this. Given my new position, I'm tempted to finally apply for membership in SFWA (as an affiliate). My understanding is that my review work for SH qualified me before, but now it seems more official. For affiliate members they require you to list three SFWA members who would be willing to vouch for you (in lieu of requiring story sales). I'm willing to bet that I can wrangle up three people to say nice things about me, but I don't know which of my friends are SFWA members. Help! If you are, or know someone who is and knows me but doesn't read this blog, could you drop me a line via email or comments? Thanks! I'm planning on securing my status as a unique little snowflake by possibly being one of the only people with memberships in IAFA, SFWA and IEEE--if you know anyone else doing this, for the love of ghod don't tell me!

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Issue Before the Current Issue of Analog

Analog continues to deliver thoughtful stories that are more or less well-written. In the nature of thought-experiments, of course most of these stories are rather shamefully contrived. In "The Last Temptation of Katerina Savitskaya" by H. G. Stratmann aliens have terraformed Mars and allowed only two people, a man and a woman, to live there. Then they put them through a series of tests and offer them ultimate power. The story focuses on the reactions of the humans, but I would have liked to see more about the motivation of the aliens—what the hell could they be thinking?

Likewise in "The Fourth Thing" by Stephen L. Burns—aliens wake a woman up one morning, tell her the world is going to end in an hour or so, they can only save a few people (including herself), and she can only bring four easily carried things with her. Luckily she's an assistant librarian... you can see where this is going. I’ve noticed that short story writers can never go wrong appealing to people who love books. Can’t imagine why that could be.

However, one story stood out for me with some particularly interesting speculation. "Invasion of the Pattern Snatchers" by David W. Goldman investigates the possibility of the brain being damaged in such a way that it consistently fails to recognize certain patterns... say a parasite that wants not to be noticed. (In a broad sense this is perfectly possible. In my Neuroscience class I just learned about patients with damage to their right parietal lobe. They simply fail to notice things on their left. If you show them a clock and ask them to draw it, they’ll draw a circle and numbers 1 through 7, then leave the left part empty.) The plot involves long-distance territorial conflict between planets. One planet’s modus operandi is to drop slow-acting biological agents that lead to planet-wide sterilization over a couple of generations. Then they swoop down and colonize. The send a human agent to a planet where this failed to work. The ability of the brain to recognize both patterns and their significance comes into play as the un-conquered population recognizes what is going on and modifies the agent's pattern recognition facilities. The story is nothing particularly ground-breaking or award-winning, but the speculation on the power of the brain and how it may be modified was well done. The brain works in mysterious ways and it seems that the more we know about those ways the more mysterious they get.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Issue Before the Current Issue of Baen's Universe

Baen’s Universe continues to build its reputation for publishing solidly entertaining, though rarely ground-breaking, science fiction and fantasy. I suspect that this will continue to be a highly successful publishing model for them in years to come. Let me reiterate my praise of their DRM-free, let’s-not-treat-our-customers-like-thieves e-publishing business model, as well. Given that I didn’t find anything massively mind-expanding in this issue, let me instead highlight the stories that kept me well entertained.

These include “Discards” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Two adolescent scavengers on a trash planet find a living being in their trash heap and have to decide what to do with it. Unfortunately, the story feels like it stops just when it’s getting particularly interesting—they make the decision but the story ends before getting into consequences. I’d like to read more!

“Letting Go” by David Walton won a “NSF Contest,” and predictably centers on a pure physics problem—a capsule in a frictionless tube drilled through the Moon. I appreciated the physics even while I really disliked the main character—a domineering jerk who seems to think that if his daughter got married, she’d have to stop working. What? Real Year = 1950?

“Dragon’s Tooth” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch did not have such problems. The heroine is a magic investigator who finds an unlicensed magic store in Paris that has artefacts in inventory that could be particularly dangerous. She’s “retired,” but just has to solve one more problem… nothing groundbreaking here but a well-told-tale. I’ve consistently enjoyed Rusch’s sf work for the last couple of years, and I’m glad to see that I enjoy her fantasy just as much. (Although I find it less emotionally engaging than the sf, that has more to do with my relationship with the space program.)

My favorite in the issue is “The Super” by Bud Sparhawk. It describes a solo-around-the-Earth sea-sailing race (I was going to say “around-the-world sailing race” but in an sf story that’s much too ambiguous), where the prize is the chance to inaugurate a sailing competition in the clouds of Jupiter. One of the participants swings too far South to try to shorten her distance and her ship capsizes in the rough storms of the southern latitudes. Most of the story consists of her flashbacks as a hallucinatory Orca prompts her for her tale and she tries to hold on to her boat until help can reach her. The extrapolation of sailing technology, built-in drama, and science fictional stakes all made this a favorite for me. Add in the fact that I particularly enjoy non-fiction about these sorts of extreme outdoors adventures (sailing, mountain/rock climbing, etc.) and this one was written for me.

That’s the reason that I keep my Baen’s subscription: even though I know I’m unlikely to find much in the way of genre-bending/expanding award-winning new perspectives, they continue to tell tales that I *like*. Can’t fault them for that!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Slowly Catching Up on Magazines

First off, I did read F&SF for August, and nothing there particularly stood out. I didn’t skip any of the stories, but neither did any of them rise above the RUMIR designation (again from Joanna Russ’ comment: “The stories are routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable”).

Most of the stories in the August Asimov’s fall into the same category (of course, almost by definition, most short stories everywhere will be RUMIR). “Old Man Waiting” by Robert Reed ends with a good twist but doesn’t have much else. “Lucy” equates a robotic probe on Saturn being abandoned with people in an apartment complex being unpleasant to one another. “What You Are About to See” by Jack Skillingstead has the misfortune to follow one of the non-RUMIR stories (about which more later) which does quantum effects much better, leaving this one suffering in comparison. (It doesn’t help that Skillingstead’s style has never worked well for me; I appreciate it intellectually but it’s usually so unrelentingly depressing that I remain disengaged emotionally. This one impressed me the most of his that I’ve read so far.) “Wilmer or Wesley” is a nicely ambiguous tale by Carol Emshwiller—the protagonist may be human but is being displayed as if he’s some sort of experimental ape. The moral seems to be “treat animals as you would want to be treated.” Finally “Radio Station St. Jack” by Neal Barrett, Jr. continues his post-apocalyptic future. Somewhere around northern Texas, various groups have devolved to roughly Civil War times. There’s a settlement that’s basically friendly with local “Indians,” and they’re all threatened by a big bad group of bandits. A local “priest” runs a radio station and as a local leader, has to try to save the town. I wasn’t totally into the story but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt… until the end when it turns out that all of the priest’s actions didn’t matter and the story was resolved from completely out of left field. Quite frustrating.

However, none of that should detract from the two most interesting stories in the issue, “Lagos” by Matthew Johnson and “Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka.

“Lagos” takes place in a near future Nigeria. Lower class women find work going into VR and controlling various remote robotic appliances for rich Westerners—robot vacuums, dish washers and the like. Safrat is our protagonist and her brother (who sells water to make a little money; he’s hoping for one of his relatives to find him a better job) discovers that she talks in her sleep, in English. Needless to say, the VR firewalls are acting a little funny. They go see a traditional healer and find out what the problem is. At the same time her supervisor believes that her dreams may point him to a fortune, but he gets a big surprise when he tracks it down.

I appreciated this story on several levels. One is simply the fact that it is set in Nigeria and all the actors in the story are Nigerians: good, bad, and indifferent. I also appreciated the extrapolation: much like some spammers already hire kids in third-world countries to decipher all those little random “type the letters you see” boxes meant to defeat automated spam-bots, one could easily imagine it being cheaper by far to hire third-world women to run appliances than to come up with adequate artificial intelligence to do so. Finally, I appreciated that the characters (to a limited extent) rise above the level of stereotypes—difficult to do with a short story. Particularly the supervisor is not one-dimensionally greedy and exploitive, although others around him are. Also, the “shaman” is neither the deus ex machina nor a useless impediment, but someone who helps to resolve the mystery. Overall, a nicely done story that helps to push sf to more awareness of the non-Western world’s future.

That said, the real stand-out in this issue is Kosmatka’s novelette “Divining Light.” I expect to see this in many Year’s Bests and a whole bunch of awards ballots. It’s one of the few stories to unflinchingly wrestle with the implications of quantum wave function collapse, and it does it with style and emotional realism. It is pretty bleak (the tone closely resembles his previous widely recognized story, “The Prophet of Flores”), but fascinating and unique.

Our protagonist is a burned-out scientist, once an up-and-coming star. A friend takes pity on him and hires him on at an R&D firm. To amuse himself, he starts replicating the famous double-slit experiment of quantum physics. If you fire a photon stream (beam of light) at two slits, the pattern on a screen on the other side will be a diffraction pattern; the photons act like waves and interfere with each other. However, if you place a detector on one of the slits, the pattern become two solid groupings behind the two slits—the act of measuring which slit the photons go through makes them behave like particles, not waves. That part is absolutely true by the way, and it’s weird enough.

Then comes the big “what if” of the story: what if it makes a difference whether or not an observer knows about the detector results? Here’s what he does: he runs the experiment with the detector on (one would expect 2 groupings on the screen behind the slits). Without checking the screen, he clears the memory of the detector, then looks at the screen—it’s an interference pattern as if the detector had never been on. He calls it retrocausality: the system behavior depends on the actions of a conscious observer in the future. If a conscious observer doesn’t “collapse the wave function” (cause the pattern to go from interference to blobs), it remains an interference pattern.

Kosmatka goes all the way with the implications of this: they start testing the meaning of a “conscious” observer. They rig up a series of lights so that animals have the capacity to collapse the wave function; none of them can. In a twist I hadn’t thought of but makes perfect, depressing sense, a pro-life group decides to test fetuses in the womb to see when they become conscious. They refuse to release their results—in fact as studies continue, it turns out not all humans can collapse the wave function. However, at this point the whole thing has already become some sort of test—of “humanness,” “consciousness,” or “soul,” depending on your agenda. In the end, the characters have to interpret and deal with what they’ve discovered. It’s an absolute triumph of taking pure, hard science and digging into the human implications. Although I might wish for a tone less bleak (I really think it’s possible to consider quantum indeterminacy without becoming an alcoholic wreck), I appreciate the characters he’s created and their investigations: pursuing the truth of the universe no matter how bizarre, and not shying away from the consequences. I haven’t done this story justice—go read it!