Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April F&SF, Pt. I

April's F&SF starts with two good but completely different stories. The first, "First Editions" by John Stoddard, is a tale of sentient books. A magician has been transforming people into books and keeping them in his private collections. Our hero has suffered this fate, and rails against it. He talks with the other books, learns about them and falls in love. In this story the metaphor for sex is reading each other's intimate passages (as it were). I believe I've said before that I'm a sucker for stories about books, and this one is well done. It's interesting and exciting, even when not much is happening. It's not cutting edge stuff, but it hangs together nicely. Very enjoyable.

The next story is the stand-out from this issue. "Five Thrillers" by Robert Reed is a truly disturbing take on the thriller genre and its dubious moral values. Our "hero" is a genetically engineered man, handsome, fast, strong and intelligent, but completely lacking a normal moral center. We follow his adventurous career through five episodes. We first meet him on a doomed cargo ship, manipulating the officers and crew of the ship in order to secure himself a spot on the lifeboat. There's no doubt that this man is at least a sociopath, but a very effective one.

After the lifeboat episode, he connives his way into the clandestine services. The main source of conflict through these stories is humanity separating into different tribes, almost different species, as they genetically modify themselves. In the second episode he ruthlessly deals with "rebirth" terrorists, later he will infiltrate the orbital colonies of different rebirth species and strike a blow for "humanity." After surviving an extended period in the depths of space, he is rescued and, now an internationally known hero, gains more power than ever before.

In each vignette, Joe gains more power and commits ever more outrageous acts. Reed makes in clear in each sub-story that Joe is acting in completely unethical, immoral and frankly evil ways. However, he is simultaneously showing off all the traits that we celebrate in our thriller heroes: survival through strength and cleverness, self-sufficiency, and an ability to get the job done no matter the obstacles or the cost. Some of the situations he finds himself in lead to real ethical dilemmas: when the lives of billions of people are on the line, can we condemn evil acts taken to save them? Are there tactics that should never be appropriate?

Obviously in this day and age these questions are more important than ever. I applaud Reed for writing a story that tackles them so well (and again, I admire his ability to raise these issues without losing sight of telling a really good story). He's also raised some questions about the things we take for granted in our beloved action movies, things that have been making me uncomfortable since the first Matrix movie came out. ( When Neo shoots up all the guards in the building lobby, aren't those real people? And don't get me started on the end of the trilogy: it's OK to leave 99% of humanity enslaved in the Matrix because "they're not ready?" How can they be when no one's told them the truth or their options? ) The only quibble I have with the story is that it seems that Joe buys into the humanist mission even to his own detriment, something that needs more explanation with a character this self-centered. However, that's a minor detraction from an amazing story. Another one that I'll try to remember come awards time.

Interzone #214, Overview

"Far Horizons" by Jason Stoddard (OK)
"Psuedo Tokyo" by Jennifer Linnaea (Really Good)
"The Trace of Him" by Christopher Priest (Forgettable)
"The Faces of My Friends" by Jennifer Harwood-Smith (Good)
"The Scent of Arrival" by Mercurio D. Rivera (Excellent)

Nothing here that is less than perfectly readable. This continues my impression that Interzone is a high-quality magazine that matches my tastes very well.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

True Purpose

It's a beautiful day here is exurban Houston - low humidity, temps in the mid 70s, light breeze. Lots of flowers blooming and bright sunshine. (For anyone who feels jealous, I'll be in 90% humidity & 90 deg temps before too long, I'm assured. I'm enjoying this while I can.)

Anyway, I've opened the windows to air out the house a bit. So when I was sitting in the library room reading, I finally got to use a Robert Jordan book for the purpose God intended.

Hey, the door was slamming shut and scaring the dogs. What else was I supposed to do?

Finishing off Interzone #214

Continuing with Interzone #214, we have "The Trace of Him," a not-terribly memorable story by Christopher Priest. A woman arrives at the room of her now-dead former lover. It's on an island in a world with some magic. He was famous for something. They were intimate briefly. His family doesn't approve of her. She reminisces.

Neither the man nor the woman ever get names, we don't find out what made him famous, the magic never comes into play. Perhaps the central question is whether death has meaning when you've already been estranged, but this piece seems to be more about tone and atmosphere. The writing is, as always with Priest, beautifully crafted. However, it's all so vague that there's nothing to permanently attach it to one's memory.

Next up is the winner of the James White Award, an award in honor of Ireland's premier genre short fiction writer. This year's winner is "The Faces of My Friends" by Jennifer Harwood-Smith, and her story seems quite worthy. It is set in a world where a certain group of people are forced to wear masks, stay silent and never express themselves, on pain of arbitrary death by any higher class person or mob that happens to be around. These oppressed people try to keep the memories of the dead, but with all expression forbidden it is difficult.

Harwood-Smith writes with genuine intensity, and the story is emotionally quite moving. The only quibble I have is that towards the end, we learn the identity of the oppressed group, what it is that sets them apart. The story would have been more powerful if their minority status were generic; then we could all fill in the blanks as it moved us. As it is, I had been imagining various alternatives, and I didn't like her group as much as my own, which made them less sympathetic. There is sometimes real power in keeping things generic, or perhaps universal would be a better term.

Finishing out the fiction in this issue is the long story "The Scent of Their Arrival" by Mercurio D. Rivera. This is a brilliant story, told in two alternating strands. In one, a human survivor tells the story of the destruction of Earth, documenting its overrun by vampiric creatures from another dimension. It is a bleak and hopeless tale. In the other, two alien scientists try to decipher the transmissions from a ship sitting in orbit over their planet. It's been sitting there broadcasting for quite some time, but they can't make any sense of the communication. They've isolated the pictures and displayed them, but without a scent track it is unintelligible to them, since their primary form of communication is through chemical scents.

While I'm sure scent-based communication has been done before in the literature (in fact it popped up recently in Paul Melko's excellent novel Singularity's Ring), this story is very well done. The relationship between the two alien researchers and the world building of their planet and culture are first-rate. The tonal shift between their straight-forward first-contact narrative and the bleak defeatism of the human narration is striking. The ending packs quite a punch as we realize how the threads tie together. The only small criticism I'd have is that the ending's impact is more intellectual than emotional; it would've been a bit better if the reader were so emotionally involved with the aliens that we'd be really shocked and dismayed at their fate instead of going "Wow, so that's how it all ties together. That's gonna suck." As it is however, this is another story that I'll keep in mind come award-nominating time.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin

In 1971, Ursula K. Le Guin published The Lathe of Heaven. It was nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Awards, and won the Locus Award for that year. Since then it's been re-issued and adapted for the screen. However, until I received my copy in the mail, I had never heard of it. I had read all of what I considered to be the "classic" Le Guin stories, plus one of her short story collections, but I had never tripped across this one. Now Scribner has come out with a new edition (with a lovely, if understated cover), and I'm grateful that my ignorance has been remedied. It is frankly stunning to see how prescient Le Guin's vision of the future turned out to be. It is also a joy to see a master at work: getting straight to her points with a minimum of fuss and melodrama, while telling a story with profound dramatic tension.

The protagonist is George Orr. His dreams can change reality. He's known this since he was a teenager, and feels that it is an inherently wrong power to have or to wield — especially when controlled by the unruly dreaming mind. He tries to drug himself into not dreaming, but instead starts hallucinating. We meet him in the midst of one of these episodes, and it feels as disjointed and detached from reality as any Philip K. Dick passage. He is handed over to a psychiatrist specializing in dreams, and thus do his problems truly begin.

William Haber is the psychiatrist, and he is a master manipulator. He uses hypnotism and an Augmenting machine to make Orr dream the dreams that Haber desires. He starts small, dreaming a promotion for himself for instance. However, he is a firm believer in Change, Progress and the ability of man to Improve Things. Needless to say, as he goes further and further, things get more and more disturbed and disturbing.

We start out in a reality with a lot of problems: overpopulation, pollution, and global warming are only a few. No one has enough to eat, whole swathes of coastline have been flooded, and urban centers are either disintegrating or run by the mafia. Note that many of these problems would feel at home in a book written today — to find them in a book from twenty-seven years ago says complimentary things about the author's prognostication abilities. It's easy to see why any person, given the ability to do so, would want to make the world a better place. Dreams are a very unstable medium, however. If you ask for better weather and get a few more sunny days, all for the good. However, if you ask to alleviate overpopulation and find yourself in a reality where 6 billion people (that's billion with a B) were wiped out by a pollution-caused carcinogenic plague, can that ever be OK?

Here is one of Le Guin's strokes of pure genius: Haber, having done that exact thing, instantly rationalizes it to himself and to George, and continues to aggressively use George's power. Bam: right there, the Banality of Evil, laid out for us step by step. (The mere one-letter difference between 6 million—Jews killed in the Holocaust—and 6 billion eliminated by Haber's wishes is unlikely to be a coincidence.) When he realizes what has happened, his first thought is to avoid getting caught (by a lawyer Orr had invited to observe). He immediately starts to manipulate her, to keep her from realizing the magnitude of what has happened. His arrogance is such that he decides that his plans must not be stopped or wrecked. In talking with Orr, he justifies himself by pointing out how much better things are now—less crowded, no one starving, less pollution, etc. In contrast, George is horrified at what's been done, but lacks any clear path to thwart Haber's will.

This sets up a clear thematic dichotomy in the story that must have been almost unique at the time this originally came out; it's not terribly common even today. Haber embodies the Western psyche: active, arrogant, science-centered, undoubting. Although this story primarily highlights its negatives, we're all familiar with the positives as well: improved medical care, high standards of living when things are going well, massive technological progress. George embodies more Eastern philosophies. He has achieved balance: on all of Haber's statistical tests, George registers as completely normal. He's passive, hesitant to act or to change things unnecessarily. In the end he is a better person than Haber and his philosophy is shown to be the right one. However, the drawbacks of his passivity are clearly shown: he does not take any of the drastic courses of action available to him to stop Haber from exploiting him. If he had been firmer, plenty of catastrophes may have been averted. Also, his passivity makes it harder to empathize with him; we're so conditioned to the active Hero that a man with a more Zen take on life can come across as simply wimpy—although at the end of the story, when the right path becomes clear, George unhesitatingly takes action.

All that is without even mentioning the aliens, the public euthanasias, the interracial romance, the implication that our unaltered time line would be even worse than any pictured here, or any other number of important, ahead-of-their-time topics in this story. To do all this, in a story that only takes up 184 pages with wide margins, is an amazing feat. Also, Le Guin's politics do not dominate the story-telling. This is possibly a point of contention: I'm in agreement with most of the politics here, so as I was reading I did not feel like she was browbeating me or that her views were obnoxiously intrusive to the plot. However, a person who vehemently disagrees with her various progressive stances might have a very different reading experience. I felt that she told an amazing story with great thematic depth without ever descending to polemics. She also did it without an ounce of unnecessary padding. This is a lesson that I wish more authors today would learn: you can tackle really Big Issues without coming in with really Big Page Counts. (Although I understand that market forces are working against me on that one.) Le Guin is better known for her other classics, The Wizard of Earthsea, The Dispossessed, and of course, The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps it would be simply greedy to ask that this book be placed with those others in the cannon of sf/f classics, but it deserves to be there. Hopefully this latest re-release will once again shine some attention on this lesser known gem from one of sf's greatest authors.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Neat Concept: Fantatwee

Courtesy of Andrew Wheeler, I found this post by Nick Mamatas quite enlightening. I'm including a reference here so that if I ever have to use the word "fantatwee" (though fate willing, it shouldn't come up), you'll know where it comes from.

Fantatwee leaves out the shell shock. In the fairy tale mode, the jagged edges of fairy tales are filed off, and replaced with a faux threat — Snow White with fangs, a few more mentions of blood, that sort of thing. But there's no terror, no threat of the horrid arbitrariness that lies at the intersection of fairyland and early modernity. The story isn't renovated or explored or undermined. Instead, what enjoyment there is in the reading of it is the stuff of bedtime: "One upon a time...the end." "Read it again, mama!" Nothing drives the story but the prior existence of the story; the new version's theme is nothing more than "Hey, remember this old story that used to mean something? Well, it still used to."
I know I've read some of these. They can be well crafted and enjoyable, but it's the literary equivalent of empty calories.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Interzone #214, Two Stories

The Jan/Feb. Interzone kicks off with a novella by Jason Stoddard, "Far Horizons." A bioengineering genius, Alex, has made all forms of genetic engineering practical. However, his best, most useful discoveries (such as free, self-growing houses to eliminate homelessness) are suppressed by giant corporations. His sometimes lover, Adele, tries to fight the power from the inside (with predictable lack of success), and Alex, never stable, goes on the run.

He hooks up with some utopianists on the Moon, and decides that the best way for him to see the future he's dreamed of is to skip the intervening bits. He pays for an individual spaceship with hibernation capability, makes some plans involving Venus, and sets the alarm clock for 3000 years. Predictably, when he wakes up he doesn't find anything like what he was expecting.

Throughout it all, there's also a genetically engineered chimera he's adopted, named Shekinah. She looks like an angel, with beautiful features, body, feathers, and wings. She had been working for a strip club that was also a brothel for fetishists. Alex "rescues" her, but she is depicted as having enjoyed it there, having enjoyed the physical contact (creepy? yeah, a little). Alex of course refuses to exploit her, but his distance makes her sad. He "uplifts" her, giving her more intelligence and speech capability, and that hurts a lot as well. Eventually he leaves on his deep sleep voyage and she has to make her way alone.

There's a lot going on in this story, but the different threads never come together in a way that was satisfying to me. Alex doesn't really seem to grow or change much, none of his relationships ever really resolve, and the themes surrounding Shekinah seem separate from the themes surrounding the other plot threads. Perhaps they all deal with unintended consequences, but that is a flimsy ribbon to use to tie everything together.

A story that I like better is "Pseudo Tokyo" by Jennifer Linnaea. The travel technology of the future is teleportation. You pay a guide, teleport to your destination, spend a week or two, and jump home. You're expected to dress like a local and act accordingly so as not to disturb things. Hence, the guide.

Our protagonist, Sean, saves up all year for these jaunts. He wants to experience the world. However, this time he gets more than he bargained for. He is taken to another place, not on Earth, where everything is different. His guide takes off, never to be seen again. He has to make his way, alone, in a place where not only do people not speak his language, they're not even remotely human.

Thus he wanders around a surreal, dream landscape. He's in a city and can't find the exit. He keeps trying to grasp at familiarity: going into something he identifies as a bath house, he has a horrific encounter with some black tentacles. He can only barter for food by trial and error. The strong implication by the author is that tourists couldn't handle a truly alien experience, no matter how much we tell ourselves that's what we want.

Eventually Sean embraces the surrealness of it. He figures out some of the rules, and sets up a niche for himself. He goes native, and even finds a way to exploit the flaw that brought him here. It's a really fantastic tale. The dream-like qualities of it put me in mind of Haruki Murakami, especially some of the benign surrealness that accompanied The Hardboiled Wonderland at the End of the World. This is really first-rate stuff, and I'll be giving it consideration when awards nomination time comes around again.

The Story So Far

"Let me explain…no, there is too much. Let me sum up." - Inigo Montoya

So, what have I covered so far?

Baen's Universe, Vol. 2, No. 5
F&SF, March
Analog, March
Asimov's March
Given the number of posts I've been making and the number of stories published in five magazines over a month (counting Interzone, which I haven't reviewed yet), I think I'll speed up my April posts to try to get closer to real-time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Finishing off March's Asimov's

"Spiders" by Sue Burke is a nice, quiet short story. It depicts a man and his son walking through the forest on an alien planet. The father knows that some of the life on this planet is dangerous, but wants to teach his son about it, instead of having him always be afraid. The eponymous spiders watch them as they pass, and the father hopes his son doesn't notice. Of course, five year olds are always more observant than we think they are. The story doesn't follow any of the well-worn paths that our arachnophobia might dictate. The man is a little worried about the boy's mother and her influence on him, but mostly it's a natural history lesson. There is obviously more to this world than we see in the story; there's a feeling of depth to the world-building. I would be interested to see more stories set on this world, to see what else the author has thought up but hasn't shared with us yet.

Finishing off the issue is a novelette by Carol Emshwiller, "Master of the Road to Nowhere." This long story depicts a group of people with unusual tribal customs. They're nomads, like gypsies only more stand-offish. The people in each group have well-defined roles, and as older members die, younger ones take their place. Wandering through a post-apocalyptic landscape (population and tech levels have obviously fallen, but no reason is ever offered), they are finding it difficult to maintain their way of life.

Each group has one strong man. He hunts, gathers, scouts, and performs the most physical labor, although he does not lead. The society is matriarchal. His other physical attributes are shared equally amongst the women of the group; there is no private ownership in their society, not even exclusive relationships. However, the man for this group falls in love. It is a real and oft-told tale, the individual rebelling from a collective society and its strictures. In a story that feels as quiet, desperate, and heroic as The Grapes of Wrath, we learn what he and his lover gain and what they lose.

I enjoyed this story: Emshwiller's writing is always beautiful and very emotional. However, I always seem to get so wrapped up in the emotional content of her stories that it's only when I get to the end that I find questions that haven't been answered, meat that I expect from sf stories that isn't there. I'm always left with a lingering sense of beauty and perhaps tragedy, but not much else. Her craft and prose are wonderful, and I almost never fail to finish one of her stories, but I always feel like there's something missing. I imagine that for many people, this won't be an issue, and I hope you enjoy this story.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Save a Tree, Read an eBook

In my last post, you'll noticed that I urged you to buy the March issue of Asimov's. However, it's April now. They're off the shelves. However can you pick one up?

All of the magazines that I'll review here (Analog, Asimov's, Baen's, F&SF, and Interzone) are available in eBook editions. They're also available in a wide variety of formats. It is beyond easy to pick any of them up, with or without a subscription.

I read all of these on my eBook device: the orginal eBook. I've been using it for more than two years now, and I love it. It's much cheaper than either Sony's eReader or Amazon's Kindle. It may be backlighted, but the battery lasts more than twenty hours, takes less than two to recharge, I can highlight passages, search for notes or text, take notes on it, bookmark, and I've never been able to fill up more than 60% of its memory. I take it everywhere. I particularly like downloading text files from Project Gutenberg, uploading them to the eBook, and reading them there. It supports the file formats: plain text (.txt), rich text format (.rtf), Microsoft Word documents (.doc), HTML (.htm or .html), and Rocket eBook Editions (.rb).

However, even if you don't have a dedicated eBook reader, you can still enjoy electronic copies of all these magazines:

Baen's Universe They publish six issues a year. $30 for a year's subscription, $6 for an individual issue. They're available in: Mobipocket, (palm/blackberry/symbion,etc.) (.prc); RTF, PDF, Microsoft Reader (.lit), Rocket E-Book (.reb), HTML (as a .zip file).

The other four are all available from FictionWise. Analog is $4/issue or $33 for a year; same for Asimov's; F&SF runs $4.50/issue or $37 subscription; and Interzone is $5/issue and $24 subscription (they publish 6 issues a year). And they just keep adding more formats; generally they're available for Kindle, Palm pilots, Sony eReader, PDF, Microsoft Reader, eBook, Franklin eBookMan, iSilo, Mobipocket and hiebook (whatever that last one is).

I understand all the objections to eBooks, and lord only knows I haven't given up physical books. Wider selection, ease of reading in the tub, etc. However, especially for the fiction digests, you may want to give it a chance. Reading them electronically, you never have to worry about finding them, or having them stack up on a shelf somewhere. You're supporting the markets that bring us the short fiction that keeps the field vital, and reading short fiction from a screen is easier on the eyes than reading a whole novel (although I have no problem reading long novels from any kind of screen now).

So this is my Earth Day post pimping my all-time favorite tech toy, my beloved eBook. I hope that this will give folks out there some food for thought and some specific resources if they want to dip their toes into the electronic fiction market.

"Sepoy Fidelities" by Tom Purdom (and a poem)

In this novelette, Tom Purdom gives us a flat-out adventure story. It's got a handsome, competent man, and a gorgeous, competent woman, and bad guys who monologue. There are gun fights, sword fights, and if there wasn't an explosion it feels like there was. This is a follow-on to a novelette written back in 1992, "Sepoy." I hadn't read that story but I still enjoyed this one.

There are also aliens and some historical resonances here. Apparently aliens landed, set up an enclave for themselves, and took over the world. They're largely absentee rulers, sending out loyal natives to do their bidding as needed. In an interesting twist, the heroes in this story are two of these human underlings. Their loyalty has been firmly bought: born handicapped, they have been transplanted into gorgeous and athletic bodies, the better to complete their missions (the man is actually standing in for a political leader who has disappeared, wearing his likeness). The "bad guys" oppose the aliens for various reasons: human patriotism, hunger for power, and pure greed are all in the mix.

Purdom is obviously a student of history, and the depiction of natives subordinate to powerful yet absent rulers is quite pointed. It gives an otherwise slightly fluffy action-adventure story a bit more gravitas. Not that it needs it: sometimes it's enough just to read for pleasure, and this story is well-paced and enjoyable.

Not to be missed in this _Asimov's_ issue is the poem by Jack O'Brien, "Classics of Science Fiction: 'The Cold Equations.'" In only three short stanzas (with both rhyme AND meter!), he pointedly and hilariously deconstructs this all-time "classic." I wish I could quote the whole thing here, but I'm sure it would violate fair use. Frankly, it's worth the cover price of this Asimov's alone. Combined with the Elizabeth Bear story I guarantee this issue will be worth your $5.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"How It Feels" by Ian Creasey

To all four of my readers out there, let me know if you think this review has too many spoilers. In a short story, it's really hard to avoid. Without giving away the ending I couldn't think of any way to talk about the morality/genre subversion aspects of the story. However, if I hear that people would really prefer to find these things out on their own, I'll limit my reviews to accomodate. Thanks!

This is a classic "what if" story: one big idea and an examination of the implications. Now, this idea isn't particularly plausible, and it's certainly not on the horizon. So this is a bit of an abstract exercise. Given that it doesn't have any immediate political implications, this particular story instead goes for the personal moral. It's not a bad moral, but it ends up feeling heavy-handed.

We meet a man grieving for his daughter, trying to get through his day. However, it becomes clear that he never had a daughter. Upon being arrested for speeding, he has been sentenced to carry around a module that installs in him the grief and memories of a man whose daughter was killed by a speeding driver. The man is completely unable to drive faster than 30 mph, even on the highway, and it's ruining his ability to work. He tries to think his way around the problem, to remind himself that it's not real, but the grief is too overwhelming - it never fades with time. In the end the guy decides to embrace the lesson of the module: it's OK to slow down. It's not worth anyone's life to go faster. It's better to live in the moment and value the time you have, instead of relentlessly pursuing career advancement.

Creasey's evocation of the emotions the guy is wrestling with is powerful without being melodramatic or weepy, and the contrast between what the module is thinking and what the guy is thinking is well done. However the moral ending feels incongruous. I was trying to get at the root of my mild dislike of this well-told story, and I think it comes from an intentional or unintentional subversion of a genre convention.

Usually in stories like this, we see a government-imposed, heavy-handed "solution" to crime, and we learn why it is a Bad Thing (especially in Analog stories). And my thought on a technology like this, if such a thing were possible, is that it would indeed be a Bad Thing — you shouldn't force people to respond emotionally to other people's traumas. As the protagonist discovers, if we all had true empathy, we'd all be frozen and unable to act. So that's where I expected this story to go.

However, the author chooses to side-step this message and instead have the protagonist learn a valuable lesson about life, one straight from pop-psychology land. Although it isn't a bad message, even the best wisdom can feel facile when it's been repeated by large numbers of shallow and commercial self-help gurus. Perhaps the author felt no need to emphasize a political message because it's so obvious, or perhaps because there's no real-world risk of such technology coming into being anytime soon. I'm honestly not sure if this subversion of my expectations is a good thing or not, or even if it is intentional or not. Nonetheless, I think it's at the root of the fact that when I finished this story, I felt like I didn't like it very much.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Witches Abroad" by Terry Pratchett

OK, who let Terry Pratchett go to Disney World? This Discworld novel, #12, has two main threads. In a magical kingdom surrounded by swamp, an Evil fairy godmother is forcing everybody to be clean, happy, and consistent with the archetypes of fairy tales. By forcing everyone to follow the fairy tale script and posing as the Good fairy godmother, she's hoping to gain power.

Back closer to Ankh-Morpork, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and a younger witch, Magrat, get wind of these happenings and set off to right them. Armed with a magic wand that only turns things into pumpkins, and Granny's "headology" brand of witching, they set forth into foreign lands. Pratchett does his best Twain impression, seeing how Granny et. al. view the foreign lands, the foreign people, and not being able to speak "foreign." Nanny writes postcards home such as:

We had some stuff it was chewy you'll never guess it was snails, and not bad and Esme had three helpins before she found out and then had a Row with the cook and Magrat was sick all night just at the thought of it and had the dire rear. Thinking of you your loving MUM. PS the privies here are DESGUSTING, they have them INDORES, so much for HIGEINE.
As usual they muddle through somehow, and hilarity ensues. Magrat learns that real female empowerment mean more than wearing trousers and taking subscriptions to self-defense pamphlets by Grand Master Lobsang Dibbler. Granny Weatherwax owns up to some unpleasant past history and realizes that foreign places may not be intrinsically evil. Nanny Ogg reveals that there may be more underneath her witches hat than a harmless old Mum.

This is straight-up enjoyable Discworld. It's light and enjoyable, yet still makes you think. Certainly it made me think that my suspicion that something about the Disney empire just isn't right is well-founded. Of course, it makes sense: Discworld is pretty much the anti-Disney fantasy empire. Ankh-Morpork is squalid, filthy, corrupt and you can walk across its river, assuming it doesn't eat your shoes off first. Compare that to the impossibly squeaky-clean image that Disney projects, and ask yourself which one is more fantastic.

By the way, I'm sure you've heard of Terry's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's. Please consider joining the Match it for Pratchett campaign. He's donated about a million dollars to Alzheimer's research. If all his fans chip in even a little bit, we can surely double that. Thanks!

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear continues to bring the awesome. This year her short story "Tideline" is nominated for the Hugo Award (and of the three nominees I've read so far is my clear favorite), and this novelette may end up making my nomination lists for next year.

As one might expect, "Shoggoths" is a Lovecraftian story. It's set in cold windy New England, in the 1930s with WWII looming on the horizon. It deals with alien and eldritch creatures. However, instead of being a Lovecraft homage or pastiche, this is a rather pointed critique.

The main important change that Bear has made to the Lovecraft formula is that the protagonist, Dr. Harding, is black. Everything else really stems from that. He is a professor coming in to do field research on these shoggoths and their life cycle. They are huge gelatinous creatures, usually inhabiting the deep sea, except for times when they roost on the rocky New England shoreline. They appear to be immortal, but not much else is known about them.

Dr. Harding doesn't encounter any overt racism from the locals, and the fisherman who takes him out to the shoggoths is as friendly as a taciturn Maine native can be. Bear's points are much more subtle. When Lovecraft's protagonists go looking for knowledge, they are usually driven insane by coming face-to-face with the unknowable, horrible eldritch. Instead of recoiling in unthinking horror, Harding reaches for understanding instead, and achieves it. He embraces their alien, Other nature. It makes sense, given his alienation as an outsider in America.

Likewise, by firmly grounding this story in a time when almost unthinkable horrors were about to be unleashed, Bear seems to be dismissing Lovecraft's "horrors" altogether. If you want horror, she seems to say, skip the stories and go straight to the documentaries.

Once more, like all the best stories with a point, in this tale the polemics never dominate the story itself. Bear is a great story-teller, and this one has some good humor and some in-jokes for the Lovecraft fans. Even on its own, without any background in Lovecraftian fiction, I think this story would stand up well. The message and the critique are embedded nicely within an enjoyable tale, just the way they should be.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

March Asimov's

In the March issue of Asimov's, Cat Rambo contributes a cute story about alien life on a space station. In "Kallakak's Cousins," our eponymous merchant hero is trying to keep his store front, but some more powerful aliens appear to be trying to legalistically maneuver it away from him. The station administration turns over every few months, and if they win this time it will be a fait accompli when the next administration comes in. To add to his very bad day, when he gets back to his quarters he finds himself with a trio of his wife's cousins to deal with. They are comically inept, messing up everything as they try to be helpful.

Kallakak is a down-on-his-luck, weary, but fundamentally good guy. He's easy to root for, and his robotic shop assistant is awesome. The resolution of the story comes from manipulations of alien psychology, in a traditional yet well-done manner. It's a light story, but genuinely entertaining.

Another very short story comes from Steven Utley. "The World Within the World" involves physicists at a station, observing that things seem haunted. There are all sorts of places a story can go when you mix physics and spooky apparitions, but this story takes one abrupt twist and then ends. I felt let down - I was settling into the story nicely, reading what felt like a developing plot, when the words seemed to simply stop. I hope it will be taken as a testament to Utley's skill that I really wanted more from this story - more development after the twist, more examination of the core concept. Maybe he'll go there in a future story.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Finishing off March's Analog

The last few stories in the March Analog were generally OK, but nothing outstanding.

"The Bookseller of Bastet" by John G. Hemry involves a bookshop on a planet undergoing political unrest. The bookstore tries to maintain independence, tries to stay above the fray, and they're successful for a few generations. But eventually the violence comes to them. It's a nice moral tale about the importance of free and independent sources of information, but I suspect that it's preaching to the choir. I doubt that any Analog reader has been quietly muttering to themselves: "If only we could bomb out those darn book sellers!"

"Knot Your Grandfather's Knot" by Howard V. Hendrix starts out with an older man restoring an old car plus an extended health report. He's failing at getting the car running, and his health is failing. Then he goes off reminiscing about his grandfather. I didn't get any whiff of an incipient plot, and with all the car/health reports, no sense of the protagonist's character, or why I should care what may happen to him. So when I asked myself "skip or keep going?" the answer came back "Skip."

I love John Clute's "Real Year" concept. It's a handy tool for identifying when a story seems temporally out of place. The Real Year for "Helen's Last Will" may be the late '40s or early '50s. Blanche is a wealthy, elderly and unpleasant woman. Her sister Helen has died, and this unpleasant woman feels that she hasn't gotten her fair share of the will. She's also concerned that Helen's head has been removed from her body, as she donated it to "Advanced Technologies." She sues Helen's son, a one-dimensional momma's boy, and eventually finds out what it is that Advanced Technologies actually does. With all the dialog between selfish older women and their lawyers, and their concerns with their social charities, there's almost nothing in this story that couldn't have been written 50 years ago. It's readable, and it's nice when Blanche gets her comeuppance, but there's nothing new here.

Finally, we get part II of a serial by Joe Haldeman, "Marsbound." I won't go into too much detail, as two-thirds of a novel is a bit much to cover here. I've read it all the way through so far, but it hovers right on the keep going/skip it boundary. The protagonist seems too stupid to be a realistic teenager, and the plot seems to hinge too much on her making silly decisions. I may be biased, but I just don't remember teenagers being as stupidly silly as some authors write them. Also, in this story even the adults get pretty irrational when the plot calls for it. It's probably not too far out of the bounds of realism, but it just didn't ring true for me. However, the hard-sf trip to Mars & the Martian colony in the first installment, and the encounters with "Martians" since then have been great, and keep me on the right side of my dividing line. The Martians here aren't quite like any I'd read before, and that's a big plus. In the third installment it looks like the protagonist will be significantly older, and I suspect that I'll probably enjoy it more. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Free John Kessel Anthology!

From SFSignal I see that Small Beer Press is giving away DRM-free downloads of John Kessel's collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. The files will be available, for free, in HTML, plain text, RTF and PDF, under a Creative Commons license. Or, you can get the trade paperback for $16.

Since going on leave from my job, I've been cutting back on my book spending. I was afraid I might have to skip this one, despite meeting John last month (and he is a really great guy) and the rave review that this collection got from Locus. However, now I've downloaded it into my eBook reader, and was able to use PayPal to donate $5 to Small Beer. (They're not shilling for donations by any means, but I saw the button and it just felt right.)

Go! Download! Enjoy! Tell your friends!

"Not Even the Past" by Robert R. Chase

I've spoken before about some of my biases when it comes to storytelling. For instance, I'm overly fond of stories about sentient books, not a big fan of metaphorical "they're all really dead" stories. I think I'm neutral when it comes to the noir-ish private investigator trope which shows up so often. However, I am decidedly a fan of well-done closed-door mysteries. I'm not a regular murder mystery reader, but Murder on the Orient Express is one of my all-time favorite books.

So as "Not Even the Past" moves from well-realized diplomatic tale on a space elevator to closed-room murder, I was delighted. It starts out with a great hard-sf hook: cooking on a space elevator. You thought cooking on a sail boat might be hard! This chef's got problems that have barely been dreamed of so far. Plus, given the nature of the story, he has to cook individual meals of completely different ethnic cuisines to cater to the various diplomats on board. He's got pressure cookers, LED indicators, and everything has to be stowed and accounted for so as not to go astray in the ever-changing gravity.

This makes it easy for the chef to notice when there's a knife missing after dinner, but before he can do anything about it, the unpleasant Chinese ambassador has been murdered. Now we find out that the chef isn't merely a chef, he's also security personnel, and it's his job to try to solve the mystery.

Which he does. The story eventually covers a lot of ground, including the national and personal sins of the past coming back to haunt the victim. It makes a very good point about Chinese relations with the world, although we shouldn't assume that China is the only bad actor on the national stage. Nations, and powerful individuals, do a lot of very nasty things. Sometimes, at least in small ways, the little people take revenge.

This is a well-paced, serious story, with good hard-sf furniture, and a little more political nuance than average. It doesn't take itself too seriously, even when dealing with serious issues, which also helps. It stays a story, without becoming too much of a lecture.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" by Raphael Carter

Fully titled: "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K. N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin," this fantastic short story and Tiptree Award winner is styled in the form of a scientific paper. It is, of course, infinitely more readable than any real scientific paper on such a topic would be. The fundamental topic of the paper is: where do our categories of gender come from? Are they things that the brain creates, or are they objective facts of the universe that our brain learns to recognize? As the authors of the paper point out:

The days are past when questions such as this were argued using reason and introspection; now we solve them by magnetic resonance imaging and DNA sequencing.

We've all heard of studies involving people with intriguing forms of brain damage: blind-sight is an old favorite, which even inspired the title of a recent Hugo-nominee by Peter Watts. In blind-sight, a person who is convinced that he is blind can still point to a light or catch a ball that is suddenly thrown at him. The unconscious brain is still processing visual input, but none of it is getting to the level of conscious awareness.

So now imagine a small population of people who cannot "correctly" process gender. In one Indian family, they do not "correctly" gender new adjectives. This is the sort of study you couldn't do in English, since we don't use gendered forms of verbs or adjectives. It turns out that this family also may not identify the gender of people that they meet - one assistant mentioned that they treated her as if she were male, given the mores of their society. They deduced that the issue was the family members were not identifying the "male" and "female" illustrations used to give a visual clue about what to do with the new word.

Another family was found in America with similar problems: asked to identify the "actress" on the screen, they would write: "The actress is Arnold Schwarzenegger" without correcting the gender form. They had only 50-50 success on identifying genders from pictures of people's faces, and in interviews simply could not associate "female characteristics" with the female pronoun.

The last case involves identical twins. They shared genetic characteristics with the two previous families, but no problems with gender identification. In fact, they were so accurate about it that at a glance they could identify photos as male, female and other, with a total of roughly 22 gender categories. The "others" involved women with XY chromosomes, men who were XXY, various forms of hermaphrodites, etc. As children they had made up their own words for these different categories, but were generally able to "map" them to the usual binary categories.

The conclusion that the study leads to us to imagine is that our brains evolved with a "gender identification" module, but it may not function the same for all people. Likewise, we have a "animal species" ID module. For every-day life, two genders is all we need, but the ability to distinguish between many kinds of animals (wolves, dogs, bears, horses, etc.) could mean the difference between life and death, so we need to be able to see more categories there. What if some people can see a broad spectrum of genders like we can see many kinds of animals? What would that imply about how we've constructed our ideas of binary genders?

This is a completely fascinating story, and its language of presentation almost makes it hard to remember that it is fiction. It is so easy to accept these conclusions when presented in language that we associate with "science" and "authority." It is a much different way of presenting ideas than is common for short stories. It draws attention to the way that gender gets fuzzy out on the borders (as I mentioned in my last post), and suggests that maybe we keep insisting on ignoring these margins simply because of how our brains are structured. It is always interesting to confront the idea that if our brains were different, a lot of what we think about the "objective" world would be radically altered.

The introduction mentions that this is the only short story to win the Tiptree Award, an award dedicated to works that "explore and expand" gender. This is a deserving winner: it packs more exploring and expanding into 15 readable pages than most novels do in 300. Of course, I say readable because I'm used to reading technical papers, and compared to those this is an absolute joy to read. It may not be as readable to folks comparing it to Gene Wolfe. However, if you find the format difficult, just stick with it for all 15 pages. Your efforts will be rewarded with a different way of looking at the world. That's about the highest praise that one can offer to any story.

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer" by Riki Wilchins

This is the sort of book that I probably wouldn't have read had I not been required to. I've had bad experiences with academic identity politics in the past, and postmodern theory seemed to attack pretty much everything I stood for. However, this book was eye opening. Certainly to anyone with academic credentials in this field, it would be much too simplistic. However, for a layman like myself it was invaluable. In particular, it helped me see how the theory I had always detested supports conclusions I already agreed with. I imagine that everyone will read this book in different ways. Gender identity is at once intensely personal as well as political. This review will be more about me than most, but it should show some of the ways in which this short and easily readable book is thought-provoking. (I apologize in advance for the autobiographical bits here, but these are some things I'd been wanting to get off my chest for awhile, and this book is the perfect excuse.)

Let me start with a brief outline of the book: the author begins with the history of the feminist and gay movements, describing how they made their advances and what compromises they made to do so. She discusses how people with transgender and other queer identities, people who can't be easily shoehorned into "female" or "gay" boxes, got sidelined during this process. She discusses how postmodern theory supported attacks on the prevailing cultural constructions of gender. She discusses how cases out on the margins of our binary labels, such as hermaphroditic children, show the absurdities of our cultural constructions. She also mentions the problems that postmodernism cause for what we now think of as "traditional" identity politics: when we break down these constructions, why should we have a women's movement separate from men? Why have a black movement separate from other races? She then goes into some of the history of her own political efforts, through GenderPAC, to widen the discourse away from labels such as "woman" "gay" "transsexual" or "black" into a more encompassing discussion of the problems with gender.

By personalizing the discussion with anecdotes from her own life, and by using straight-forward language, Wilchins helps us understand the issues. She talks about confusing the heck out of sales people when she moves from men's shoes to women's underwear to men's socks in a department store. She talks about getting whistled at by guys when out rollerblading, being identified as "he" when playing basketball with some guys, and strolling down the street as one half of a lesbian couple when out on a date - all in one day. She watches people struggling to put her into one of the comfortable gender boxes (I finally decided I could use "she" to describe her because that's the pronoun the author bio on the back cover uses) when she simply doesn't fit either one. She also doesn't fit in either of the gay/straight binary categories either: as far as I can tell (and now I'm tempted to pick up her autobiography Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender) she's biologically male, but identifies herself as psychologically female, but is sexually attracted to women. So is she gay or straight? Well, neither.

This is the conclusion that I've always agreed with. The binary notion of gender, while good enough and convenient enough most of the time, never quite seemed adequate to me. This is largely due to my biography, I imagine. People generally have no problem identifying me as a female, thanks in part to my deliberate choice to have long hair. They more often have trouble identifying me as an adult, due to my "slim" (i.e. flat-chested) figure. However, in many ways everything I actually do is more "male." I'm a physicist and an an engineer. I play role-playing games, I read science fiction, I fence, I rock-climb, I ride a motorcycle. I dress in jeans, men's shirts, and boots 90% of the time. (Once upon a time I wondered if I were transvestite - who could tell?) Once I was having lunch with some co-workers (all male), and described kicking out a cabinet door when I was frustrated. They looked at each other, and one of them said "Dude, you're totally like a guy!" I find it very easy relate to guys, and I used to find women a bit scary to be friends with (thanks to my youthful incompetence at schoolgirl emotional blackmail tactics and some unstable early female acquaintances). On the other hand, I'm not exactly like my male engineering counterparts either: I'm more talkative, I describe things in terms of people and personalities, I enjoy writing and I'm proud of my communication skills. So while I never strongly identified as "female," I also couldn't really identify as "male" either, especially when I do clearly fit the biological "female" box and generally the sexual "straight" box.

I want to add that I never felt particularly victimized or oppressed by this state of affairs. Sure I got teased a lot in grade school, but I assumed that a) that was normal; and b) that it had more to do with being smart than being odd for a girl. Besides, through my elementary school years I had particularly good teachers who were thrilled to teach a girl who was into math and science. When I encountered teachers later who did not share their enthusiasm, that early grounding made it easier to bull through. Also, throughout school, I may have been often teased by my peers, but I could always find supportive adults around. Wilchins indicates in her book that the teasing queer kids go through is a horrible problem, and hopes that maybe one day it could stop. I agree it's a huge problem, especially given the suicide rate of queer teens, but I doubt that we can stop children from being mean to each other. What's needed is for all these kids to be able to find supportive adults - that's a goal that we could someday reach.

As I moved through school and work, I appreciated the feminist movement: I'm glad I can be a physicist and an engineer and not feel like a failure for not having babies. However, in college I worked for three years as the web designer of the Women's Studies Dept., and I learned that academic feminists and I don't see eye-to-eye. To me, it seemed that they felt all science was patriarchal, and thus evil, and thus women should never be scientists. This did not seem helpful to me at all, struggling as I was with my physics degree and one misogynist adviser (an anomaly in an otherwise generally wonderful department, I hasten to add). What I read about postmodernists seemed to reinforce that opinion: Science is evil, there is no truth, there is no objective reality, etc. Also, I got to experience the joy of the rhetorical tactic: "You don't agree with me? Well, you must just be a tool of the patriarchy, you assimilated woman!" Bleah. So I took advantage of the political advances of feminism, and tried to ignore all the self-identified "feminists" who seemed to want me out of the engineering firm and back in the kitchen, being nurturing and feeling and stuff, to really be a "woman."

So, this book finally helped me see how postmodern theory (pomo) can work without rejecting everything I believe in. As Wilchins describes it, pomo does not reject facts, and does not reject an objective reality. What it does reject is the privileged position that Science used to claim in arguments. To put it another way: there are facts about the universe that we can ascertain, and both modernism and pomo agree with that. However, modernism often took whatever scientists said about the world and said "Well, you can't argue with that. It's SCIENCE!" Pomo reminds us that after we get the facts, everything we do with them is human-determined, not reality-determined. We organize, we interpret, we theorize, we pass laws, we write grant proposals. All of that relates to the facts in some way, but may not be determined by the facts. Most of those post-fact activities are influenced by our culture, and can be critiqued in the same way as other cultural constructions. To give some examples: no one is interested in arguing about a thermometer reading; "Water boils at 212 degrees Farenheit" is a basically factual statement (although awareness of the history of such things can be interesting). At the other extreme, while it is an indisputable fact that we can make nuclear weapons, the decisions to make them and use them are undeniably political. Less obviously, the need to classify people into binary genders, either male or female, is also cultural/political. To the majority of us who are solidly in one category or the other, it doesn't seem that way. But for intersex people who are on the margins between the two, it absolutely matters. Doctors who perform surgery on intersex ("hermaphrodite") children, while acting with the best of intentions, aren't performing some objective act of SCIENCE, they're enforcing the cultural norms of gender identity on children for whom that may not be appropriate. So while I used to feel that postmodernism was rejecting any factual understanding about the universe, which I feel would be totally useless, the way Wilchins describes it makes sense. It's not facts that are under dispute, it's what we humans do with those facts that can and should be argued with.

Aside from brevity and readability, another strength of Wilchins' style is that her writing feels descriptive, not prescriptive. When she talks about cultural enforcement of gender norms, it doesn't sound like she's blaming us for doing it and insisting we do something else (while not defining what "something else" would be). I've encountered that tone before and it always gets my hackles up. Instead, she is describing how many people perceive the world, what people do in reality, and how it affects people. She's saying "here's how it is and these are the consequences" instead of shrieking "how could all you stupid sheep do this!" That tone makes it much easier to listen to what she's really saying, instead of reacting emotionally and defensively.

So, this book was completely eye-opening to me. It also gave me more understanding of some things I'd heard from friends: for instance that transsexual people have had real trouble with both the traditional feminist and gay communities. And it defines some things as gender related that I wouldn't have thought of before: like male-on-male workplace harassment, usually because some guy decides to pick on another man who isn't "macho" enough. I'll certainly be evaluating news stories a little differently after reading this. Wilchins' core argument is that even traditional identity rights advocates have ended up reinforcing the prevailing binary definition of gender, and that's too constricting. It breaks down at the margins when we examine people like herself, intersex individuals, and transsexuals, or even just people like me who don't fit neatly in our otherwise straight-forward gender categories. Individuals are way too complex to be hemmed in by overly simplistic categorizations of gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else. I already agreed with that, but now I understand it better both intellectually and emotionally.

Now, I'm sure that there are some issues here. For instance, given how much more practical her view of postmodern theory is than any I'd previously read, I'm not sure that an academic philosopher would agree with her presentation. That's OK by me, it's something I can live with. But it may not be "correct." (Although how a pomo philosopher would make that argument is beyond me.) Also, when describing some of the schisms and conflicts within the early incarnation of GenderPAC, Wilchins' is telling her side of the story. It may be that people on the other side would tell a very different story. And traditional feminist and gay rights advocates might have a different take on the history. And one thing isn't completely clear: what should we do about it? What's the course of action going forward? Can any collective action actually mitigate the problems she defines? So this isn't a complete study. However, it's not meant to be. It's an introduction for people who aren't well versed in these issues, and as such, for me at least, it was a huge success.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"The Spacetime Pool" by Catherine Asaro

The March issue of Analog leads with a novella by Catherine Asaro. I had previously read her novel, The Quantum Rose, which is a book in the middle of her famous Skolian Empire series. I didn't much care for it: the mix of sf background with fantasy and romance plotting tropes just didn't work for me. I decided to give this novella a shot to see if a different piece would give me a different perspective on this author. Nope, not this time.

Our heroine is Janelle, a recently minted Ph.D. in Math from MIT. She is out hiking when she is suddenly kidnapped, dragged across dimensions, and then attacked by savages. The kidnapper tries to explain why he did it - his father had seen a prophecy many years ago that involved her. He is one of twin brothers, and he's the good one. The bad one is the elder, currently ruling in oppressive and warlike ways. The prophecy said that whoever married her would rule, and whoever killed her would die. So he was able to get to her first, and would she like to get married now?

After some absolutely token protests, she decides that she's really into the hunky good prince, and yes, she would like to marry him now. That's where it all started to break down for me. It's one thing to accept the practicalities of the situation, but she's really into him from the first horse ride. After all, he's studly. And seems nice. Why not dive in after only a day's acquaintance with a guy who's torn you away from everything you knew for his own gain?

After this other adventures ensue. The wedding does not go smoothly, and she finds herself in a trap which only her detailed knowledge of mathematics can help her solve. Talk about contrived. The dialog goes:

"Very well." His laugh grated. "The combination that releases the chain is the same number of terminal zeros in 4089 factorial."

What the blazes? She understood what he meant, but it astounded her that he offered such a game of number theory. It wasn't something most people knew even in her own universe.

"You do know what a factorial is?" he said.

"No," she lied.

"Pity. Not that it would help you. You could never multiply all those numbers together."

Yep. Contrived.

The story ends on a cliffhanger, and seems very much like the opening third of a novel. It's perfectly well written: well-paced, good action, empathetic characters, nice prose, good descriptions. Again, it's the instantly-fall-in-love-with-the-hunky-barbarian romance trope that just turns me off. I understand why so many people enjoy her stories, but she's just not the author for me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Finishing March F&SF

Finishing off the March issue of F&SF, there were two ignorable short stories.

"The Second Descent" by Richard Paul Russo is one of those "they're all dead" stories. I was initially hooked by the setting - a group of mountaineers descending a difficult mountain. It seemed that some of them had died up there. They have to get off the mountain, and they're trying to reach a city. However, as time goes on it seems that they aren't making any progress. Sometimes they can see the city, looking nearer or farther, most times they can't. The membership of the group keeps shifting, with people we thought were dead popping up again at points. It's all very vague. The implication is that they're all dead and they'll never get to the city, but so what? None of the characters have much in the way of characterization. I finished this one because I kept hoping it would resolve into something different, but it doesn't. It just ends. Every reader has their own preferences; I've got a large soft spot for stories about sentient books. Unfortunately I have an innate bias against stories about ambiguously dead people wandering aimlessly around a symbolic landscape. This story didn't overcome that bias.

The last story I ended up skipping. "A Ten-Pound Sack of Rice" by Richard Mueller starts out with an old man musing on his mortality. He speculates on the end of the world and his immediate surroundings in a very disconnected way. He thinks a bunch, and after a few pages his cat actually moves, the first action in the story. Then the old man starts musing about the cats he's had. And then I decided to pass. It didn't look like there was any danger of anything actually happening, and the man wasn't an interesting enough character to demand that I find out what happens to him. I suspect that there's something wrong when the apocalypse and the memory of cats past get roughly equal billing.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"Exit Strategy" by K. D. Wentworth

This story revolves around an intriguing concept: people who no longer wish to live can donate their body to those with terminal illnesses. The original consciousness is wiped out, and replaced with a new one. (Let's leave any discussion of technological plausibility out of this, shall we?) Charlsie is a teenage girl going through usual teenage girl angst. She walks into one of "Second Life's" temples/clinics, hoping to off herself. They make her fill out a bunch of paperwork and send her home. She keeps coming around, and they suggest that she do volunteer work around the place. She meets several individuals who have undergone the procedure, and others who are waiting to do donate.

Her father finds out where she's been spending her after-school time and completely flips out. He'd prefer it if she were doing something normal, like sex and drugs. Charlsie is dragged into therapy, and the therapist's misinterpretations of everything are very pointedly funny. By this time of course, Charlsie is over her mild suicidal phase and enjoys doing her volunteer work, but the therapist keeps harping on it. Eventually we find out why her father over-reacted the way he did.

Although presented with the trappings of a cult, with church-like offices, monastic-seeming volunteers and people calling each other Brother and Sister, the author represents the Second Lifers as thoroughly reasonable people. They're perfectly aware that for many teenagers suicidal thoughts are merely a passing phase. They take their screening responsibility completely seriously, and by encouraging Charlsie to volunteer, they help her get a little perspective. Sometimes one of the most important step in maturation is simply getting over yourself.

There are two big flaws that I saw in this story, neither one a deal-killer, but each noticeable. The more minor one is that the Second Lifers assign people needing bodies to donors completely randomly. This leads to lots of insti-sex-changes. I strongly suspect that anyone setting up a system like this would aim to match bodies and brains a little more closely, especially with regards to the extremely sensitive aspect of gender.

My other concern plays off John Clute's idea of the "Real Year" of a story. The most common example used is that the "Real Year" of most Ray Bradbury stories is roughly 1927. Heinlein's Real Year tends to be around 1940, and Charles Stross has gotten up to at least 1999. The Real Year of this story can't be any later than 1985. For instance, Charlsie had titled a school paper "The Division of Labor: How Women Always Like Get the Shaft." Her character seems to be based on a valley girl from an 80's movie more than any contemporary teenager. She introduces herself at the Second Life Temple thusly:

"I'm, like, tired of living," she said, unwrapping a piece of Tart Tangerine gum, "so, as you brochure says, I thought I'd give someone more optimistic a chance."

It's grating at first, although she gradually drops the valley girl act, and that becomes a noticeable narrative technique to show her growing up. All in all this is a good story, one that makes you think.

Monday, April 7, 2008

"Rumple What?" by Nancy Springer

This short story is a re-telling of the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale. It gives real motivations and agendas to the otherwise stock characters. The farmer's daughter, a basically practical girl, can't believe her father is out to kill her. When rescued by Rumplestiltskin, she fully intends to fulfill the "first born child" part of the bargain. However, when she gives birth, the maternal instinct kicks in with a vengeance, and she can't imagine voluntarily giving up her beautiful baby. Rumplestiltskin himself is a creature ostracized by everyone. He's not human, not elf, not dwarf or pixie. In asking for the child, he hopes to raise someone that will love him for him, instead of shunning him for his difference. The author has to resort to "the force of story" to get Rumplestiltskin to give the girl a way out (the name-guessing), but other than that this story fills in the missing motivations in the fairy tale, answering the "why" questions that arise.

It's good, however, that this story is as short as it is. There's obviously a very long and involved essay lurking in this story, just begging to come out. The whole tone of it smacks more of commentary than of fiction. There's nothing wrong with that, and on the whole it is a funny and thoughtful piece, but it swings a little too close to didacticism for comfort.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Martian Odyssey, by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Having enjoyed Weinbaum's entry in Damon Knight's anthology Science Fiction of the 30's, I sought out this classic novella. It was as good as I'd been led to expect. Told with good humor and a tolerant outlook on things, it is a particularly enjoyable early sf story.

Our narrator, Jarvis, has survived a harrowing experience. Out on a scouting mission on Mars, his plane crashes. He starts hoofing back to base, but with hundreds of miles before him he suspects it will be a fool's errand. As he's trotting along he stops to help a Martian in distress, one that was being entangled by some sort of black tentacles. The Martian, whom Jarvis comes to call "Tweel," sticks with the pilot and helps him get home. The story consists of Jarvis telling the tale to his co-workers back at the base.

As Tweel and Jarvis travel the landscape, they see many amazing creatures. They learn to communicate, if haltingly. Jarvis gains a lot of respect for Tweel. Using only a few common words he can convey complex ideas, he's got some impressive technology, and he certainly knows his way around the landscape. He saves Jarvis from a nasty end several times.

This story stands up well today, with the exception of the Mars science. Weinbaum has Jarvis at risk from cold and dehydration, and he has the atmosphere be uncomfortably thin, but other than that Jarvis can get around without a space suit. The story stands out compared to other stories from the same time period in its excellent sense of humor. Most stories of the time seemed rather determinedly serious, even the rip-roaring adventures of E. R. Burroughs. Jarvis, as a narrator, has a good sense of humor and it shows. The dialog, while nowhere close to being natural, is at least readable, and isn't as stilted as was typical of the time (and still is, for some short story writers).

However, the best part is how Weinbaum shows contact with aliens based on shared experience and respect. Instead of instantly trying to kill each other, or even attempting to kill each other before coming to an understanding, Jarvis and Tweel respect each other as fellow sentient beings. They do the best they can with limited avenues of communication. Compared to many other tales of the time, this was refreshing. Of course, other aliens had been represented as friendly in sf: John Carter got on quite well with his beautiful Martians, and Stapledon had good and bad aliens almost without number. But showing the everyman hero getting along famously with an alien that I always pictured as flamingo-esque, helping each other out as best they could, that's always good to see. A little more understanding, a little less fear of the Other, all with fun adventures and a good sense of humor. It may not be the apotheosis of sf, but certainly it's nothing to sneeze at.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

"The Overseer" by Albert E. Cowdrey

The novella in the March issue of F&SF is remarkably good. It will almost certainly be on my awards-nomination lists for 2008. Cowdrey blends historical drama with horror to write a creepy yet beautiful story about real, human, not over-the-top evil.

The story takes place in two times: in the early 1900s Nicholas Lerner is a old rich cripple, slowly dying. He has a big house in New Orleans, and some servants to care for him. He is secretly writing his memoirs and these writings make up the other sections, detailing his life in the South before, during and after the Civil War.

He describes his childhood on the plantation in idyllic terms, but there were also problems. His father treated the slaves "too well," especially his mixed-race offspring. Eventually he hires a cruel overseer to literally whip them into shape. As young Nick is about to leave for college, the overseer begins to get overly familiar with Nick's sister. Nick encourages his black half-brother, Royal, to kill the overseer if necessary, which Royal eventually does. Right after this the war breaks out. Nick joins the Confederate army, fights in one battle and has to have his arm amputated. His family plantation is confiscated, his father drinks himself to death, and eventually he must try to support himself and his sister however he can - very difficult for a one-armed man in war time. He turns to mugging, then smuggling, making connections with shady people that will leave him well-off when the war ends. Meanwhile Royal joined with a colored regiment and used his natural leadership, eventually becoming a leading figure amongst the black politicians in the Reconstruction South.

Throughout, the ghost of the overseer haunts Nick. The ghost is an enabler, helping him to steal, to avoid detection, and to kill when needed. As he navigates the political waters of the post-war climate, playing both sides of the fence between progressive politicians and the KKK, the overseer is always there.

In the real world, Nick's main manservant, Morse, has been getting into trouble. He's met some shady characters himself while supplying Nick's opium addiction, and has been relying on his relationship to Nick to get out of them. Nick is a mean old man, but he realizes how dependent he is on his servants. The climax of the memoir story and the resolution of Nick and Morse's relationship is dramatic but not histrionic, and the figure of the overseer continues to loom large.

Cowdrey does some remarkably good things in this story. For one, Nick is very straightforward about his evil deeds. He does what he does in order to get by and further himself, not out of any psychotic or political agenda. One gets the feeling that in peaceful times, when it easy to advance while being basically righteous, he could have been a "good" man, i.e. he is a morally neutral character shaped by the ease of evil in the chaos of war. Even with supernatural help, Nick's evil is mundane.

Next, the examinations of race relations in the antebellum and postbellum South are not presented in any simple way here. While Nick idealizes the plantation he grew up on, he is not blind to its problems. Nick himself admires Royal in many ways, but after the war he is uncomfortable with the equality for which the blacks are trying to reach. Likewise, in the more modern time period we see that blacks have come farther, they are paid more and have more autonomy, but are still relegated to "their place," and are punished when they transgress the firm but unwritten boundaries. One is forced to compare what Cowdrey writes to what we read in the newspapers everyday.

The other two masterful touches have to do with style. For one, the third-person narrative voice of the modern sections and Nick's first person narrations have completely different tones and styles. They are easy to tell apart. Nick's voice matches up particularly well with the tone of Civil War memoirs that I have read. And with both voices, the story is beautifully written and completely readable, with the prose pulling you through the story without a stumble, something I always look for and particularly appreciate in a writer. The other well-done aspect is Cowdrey's ability to evoke a sense of place. He specializes in New Orleans and its surroundings; almost all his short fiction is set around there. Here he continues to do it well, and also to evoke the sense of change over time - New Orleans during the Civil War was a very different place than it was afterwards.

This is one of the best stories that I have read so far this year. I'm particularly impressed because I don't usually like stories classified as "horror," but it wasn't until after I was finished with this one that I realized that it could be classified that way. As with all the best writing, while I was reading it I wasn't thinking about genre or classifications, instead I was caught up in it. I hope that this will earn the author some recognition come awards season.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Old-time attitudes - or not?

I've been doing proofreading for Project Gutenberg (and so can you!), and while working on the Papers and proceedings of the twenty-eighth general meeting of the American Library Association, 1906, I came across this gem:

Good novels are worth reading. Advertise
them. They bring people to the library. It
is better that the novel reader should get a
good book from the library than that they
should get poor ones some other place. They
get the novel for entertainment, and presently
they may want something else in the book
line, and they will know where to get it.
But they are entitled to the novel as mere
entertainment or amusement if they want it.
It may be the link which binds them to the
library and gives that institution the opportunity
it might not otherwise have to interest
them in some other department of reading.
Imagine the culture where someone would have to write this. On the other hand, it's probably an attitude still in existence today. Apparently Americans still generally either don't read, or only read "improving" books like prayer guides, diet books and other self-help books. It's nice to know that even back in 1906, we had serious people sticking up for us frivilous folks.

"The Boarder" by Alexander Jablokov

Possibly the most interesting aspect of "The Boarder," the lead story in March F&SF, is that by some definitions it isn't sf of any kind. In some ways, it's perfectly mainstream. Instead of having speculative elements, instead it is a historical story about science itself. In this case, the narrator remembers a Russian boarder his parents took in when he was young. Vassily was a metallurgist, and had worked on the Russian space program for some time in the 50s and 60s. The story doesn't have a plot: the narrator and Vassily interact, the narrator begins to grow up, and eventually Vassily moves on.

Some people would argue that stories like this don't belong in the speculative fiction magazines, but I think they have a place. Similar arguments were made about four of Neal Stephenson's books: Cryptonomicon and also all three books of the Baroque Cycle. However, I think there's a lot of value in fiction that examines ideas, even without speculative elements. Certainly if we harken back to Hugo Gernsback's aim of making science fiction educational Stephenson's works are great, and Jablokov's story also mentioned things I'd never known, or even much thought about, regarding the Russian space effort.

What worries me about "The Boarder" is its atmosphere of nostalgia. As a space afficionado myself, I want our dreams of space to be active and forward looking, not passive and backwards looking. Especially looking at the Russian efforts engender melancholy: half-assed engineering pushed beyond any reasonable timelines or safety margins in the name of furthering a political propaganda agenda. It may be good to remember that humanity's dreams were abused that way, but it is depressing.

Back to the story itself (I'm afraid I've been falling into the "talking about things other than the work at hand" trap that, among other things, other reviewers have been criticizing of late), it is generally a successful piece. Vassily captures our interest, the more so for being somewhat mysterious. The balance of information about the Russian space effort and Vassily personally is good, as is the pacing of revelations. However, this is interwoven with small vignettes about the narrator's youth and growth, and that didn't seem to work out as well. Those sections didn't reinforce the theme or tone that the Vassily sections had - Jablokov may have been shooting for contrasts, but that didn't come across either. Despite some of its structural flaws, I'm glad to have read this story; it was thought-provoking in some very positive ways.