Monday, June 30, 2008

The Good and The Bad

The Good: a lovely day strolling around Oxford with Niall Harrison, followed by relaxing & dinner with Niall and Nic Clarke.

The Bad: Doing all that without Curtis. As we left the hotel for the tube station yesterday morning, in one of those freak accidents, he sprained his ankle on some uneven pavement. He briefly tried to soldier on, but we decided to get him back to the hotel. He spent the day with his foot up, occasionally limping out to get more ice from the hotel bar. I left him with water & juice, chips, a laptop, DVD player, and Ibuprofen, so it wasn't an entirely miserable day. And he got to watch the final match of the Euro Cup football (soccer) tournament, which was apparently most excellent.

Back to Oxford, then. Absolutely lovely. Buildings, gardens, places I'd only heard of before, places where many famous people have walked. It was also a relatively sunny day, which made the gardens even nicer. I even remembered to take some pictures! (Usually that's Curtis' domain.) When I get home we'll put the best of them on Flickr.

We alternated between talking about the sights and talking about reviewing. One thing that really stood out for me was talking about the criticism done by Joanna Russ and "William Atheling, Jr." back in the day. The idea of reviewing advocacy is one I instinctively reject, but now I realize that I really shouldn't. We all do it to some extent, and it's better to do it consciously than simply to point to "stuff I like."

When I get back home (Thursday, effectively) I think I'll rename this blog "Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory" and start experimenting a bit more with ranges of approaches. I think I'll also use my $10-off ABEBooks coupon and finally track down some of those older criticism collections. So much to read, so much to write! It's exciting to have so many ideas kicking around my head.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

More Buses

Yesterday was another bus tour: Stonehenge, Salsbury Cathedral & the Roman Baths at Bath. It was great to see all those places, but again it felt (inevitably) rushed. Also, I'm not sure I'd use this company again: they overbooked the tour and 4 people got left at the curb. Ouch. (Gray Line Tours)

Still, it was great to see all these places, and not to have to drive or rent a car. A couple neat (if trivial) points: Re: The Magna Carta. Those scribes were amazing. Working with quill & ink, the guy who copied out the document was writing in 6 or 8 point font, making perfectly formed letters. It's a long document, and not an excessively large sheet of vellum. He also basically perfectly justified the edges. Frankly, it's hard to make that sort of thing look good using Microsoft, much less doing it by hand. I doff my cap to that anonymous scribe.

Also, a nice feature on the audio tour at the Roman Baths: They have commentary by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite non-fiction authors. He helps give some perspective the sights you see, giving some context and generally encouraging you to go "Ohhh, Ahhhh" I appreciated his bits more than the official ones, frankly. And I can't help but agree with him: especially on a slightly drizzly day, I just wish I could have actually taken a lounge in the pleasantly warm Baths.

Today is Central London day - we're going to be off to St. Paul's, then some wandering as the whim strikes us, culminating in seeing "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. Tomorrow it should be off to Oxford to spend a day with the esteemed Niall Harrison of Strange Horizons and Torque Control fame.

We've got 4 more days here including today; we fly back on Wednesday. I have to say that I'm starting to hit the point where I long for my own bed and to see our dogs again, but I'm also glad that we've got the time to do so much. Hopefully 2 weeks will turn out to be the right balance.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Laundry Day & Reparations (sort of)

Today is our official laundry day. With any multi-week vacation, we try to plan at least one day a week to do laundry and not much else. That way we can recover from info-overload, rest our feet, and have clean clothes. Priority #1 has been accomplished: our clothes are now clean.

Yesterday's tour was very good. The bus was tolerable, and while I don't love being rushed, it was a great way to scout out things I'd like to see more of. Another day at Leeds Castle would be lovely, whereas we could easily spend 2-3 days in Cantebury (and there's a B&B right next to the old medieval wall, I saw). The cathedral is absolutely stunning, and I hope to get back there to be able to really soak it in. Dover was quite lovely, but how come I had never known that at the top of the famous White Cliffs is a big honkin' gorgeous castle!?! We'd love to go back and explore that.

The tour ended with a river trip from Greenwich back to central London, so we hit the tube and did manage to get to the BASFA thing. It was great. Terrence Dicks is a lovely story teller who knows his audience. I got to have a few last words and "I'll see you in Denver's" with various people. Also, Curts & I spent the last bit of the evening having drinks with Duncan Lawie and an aspiring writer named Nick (who, if he sees this, should definitely drop 'round and remind me of his last name, so I can keep an eye out for him in the future).

One thing that Duncan & I were chewing over was a concept that Wendy Pearson introduced: Reparative readings. The idea is that you read a text counter to the prevailing reading. All of the examples of this involved producing a new text with a more empowering narrative; i.e. after all the victimization of gays over the AIDS epidemic, a comic imagining some gay activists inventing a time machine and putting condoms on all their friends in the late 60's, early 70's, thus preventing the sweeping epidemic in the gay community. It's funny and empowering.

It's a bit hard to see how you could do a reparative reading without producing a new text, though. Presumably a piece of criticism is a next text, so should be sufficient, but it doesn't feel that way. Likewise, Duncan came up with an interesting example: there's a version of the London Underground map where people have put in literary genres/authors/works and then mapped connections between, say, the "Works of W.H. Auden" line and the "Shakespearean Sonnets" line as a train connection. It's pretty cool; is that a reparative reading in a different way?

Continuing to have lots to ponder. I think next time (even if that may not be until 2011 or 2012, I really would like to do this again) I'll put the Masterclass towards the end of the vacation. That way I'll go straight home to do more proper writing, which should help me process through what I've learned more systematically. Blogging between sightseeing isn't terribly optimal for that sort of thing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Adventure Out Around Saturn

Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell both believed that science fiction should be: a) educational, b) entertaining, and c) inspirational. (Notice the lack of "good" or "literary" in that line-up.) Richard A. Lovett's story in June's Analog, "Brittney's Labyrinth," follows that prescription to a T.

Having been rescued from a tight spot in June 2007's "Sands of Titan," Brittney and Joe are at loose ends. Joe is just a regular guy, a spacer working out around Saturn. Brittney is the AI that spontaneously gained sentience during the last story, and lives in some chips implanted in Joe, making them effectively a cyborg. Brittney is the narrator; Joe is a man of few words.

They're engaged by a rich speculator to guide him on some exploratory work on the moon Iapetus and in Saturn's ring system. Brittney can't quite figure what his angle is: rich idiot out to make a name as an explorer (there are frequent references to British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton), prospector, thrill seeker, other? Joe doesn't seem to care—he spends most of the story silently wrestling his own demons without communicating much to Brittney.

They do find out what the rich guy is up to (it unsurprisingly turns out to be sinister—he may as well have had a pencil-thin mustache, been wringing his hands and chortling the whole time) and Brittney and Joe also make progress upon the delicate path of learning to co-exist. It doesn't strike the strongest-ever blow for AI rights, but it's a start.

However, there's an extent to which all that is besides the point. The real point is: Look, Saturn! And its moons! And its rings! And all the things that might be out there! Isn't that cool?

And by gum, it is pretty darn cool. Lovett's enthusiasm for solar system science is infectious. He incorporates all the latest information from probes such as Cassini and Huygens, and throws in a lot of informed speculation. His description of looking out at Saturn and the surface of Iapetus from atop the moon's mountainous ridges is exactly the sort of amazing imagery that makes you want to get there yourself, even if you have to invent a way to do it. It's exactly the sort of inspirational view that Gernsback and Campbell hoped would inspire the next generation of engineers to get us that much closer to making it a reality. Let's hope it still will.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

London Update

Wonderful day at the British Museum today! Led to the best bits by native guide Cheryl Morgan, we covered a lot of ground. That is a truly world class museum, the best I've ever been in. From recreated Saxon swords to board games scratched by bored guards into the base of Assyrian sculptures (my favorite bit: bored military gamers are an ancient tradition!) it was wall-to-wall fascinating. I enjoyed the Assyrian bits the most I think; whereas I was not as impressed by the Elgin marbles as I expected. And I found the propaganda flier they have about why they shouldn't send the lot of them back to Greece hilarious.

Tomorrow is flat-out silly tourist day, as we take a guided tour to Leeds Castle, Cantebury and the White Cliffs of Dover. No internet access along the way, I'm afraid. Also, the tour is scheduled to take >10 hours. So it is unlikely that Curtis & I will be able to make the BSFA meeting tomorrow, which we're very sorry to miss. To everyone that I was hoping to see there, Thanks! And I hope to catch up with you again soon.

For those yearning for more Masterclass tidbits (I think we'll all be processing and writing about the experience for at least a week or two yet) you can find more commentary from Niall Harrison as well as some photos, plus Jonathan McCalmont's initial thoughts.

More Intelligent Masterclass Bits

The instructors were Geoff Ryman, Wendy Pearson and Gary K. Wolfe, and they all had interesting things to teach us. As an added bonus, they are all remarkably good teachers (and as a physics/engineering student, I've had some really bad ones).

Geoff went in detail through Stand on Zanzibar, which helped us see why some of the odd things he does work so well. He also went line-by-line through the first chapter of the Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, which was an illuminating exercise. From a writer's perspective he showed us exactly how Eschbach was leading the reader, setting up conventions and perceptions that he then twisted at the end. After the class almost everyone pointed at that as one of the most valuable tools they will take away.

Wendy walked us through some explanation of theory, both Postmodern and Queer, but what I found most interesting was her leading the class through an examination of The Child Garden. (Geoff sat in but was admirably restrained... I was afraid that having the author there would be inhibitory, but I don't think it was. How a 6' 10" gentleman can be unobtrusive I'm not sure, but he can when he wants to be.)

Wendy asked us to choose scenes that we felt were key and explain why they are central and what they illuminate about the text. There was a diversity of choices, which in itself is interesting. The book clearly lends itself to a Queer reading, but it's easy to see how with a shift of focus you could do a Marxist reading as well, which was interesting. Theory isn't some scary thing that teachers will beat you about the head with; it's simply adding more tools to the toolkit you can use to approach a text. She highlighted understanding the motives of the Consensus as being one of the most important things to understand the book. That bit really helped me pull together my thoughts about the book, which had been pretty confused. Again, seeing it in practice was really enlightening for me.

One of the best things I took away from Gary's talk was the idea of not defending science fiction as a genre, especially not in ways that are as harmful as helpful (e.g. It's educational! Lots of engineers read it! It's not sf, it's good! That sort of thing.) Instead, one should defend the work in question as literature, not sf as a genre. That makes a lot of sense.

I'm posting this from an internet cafe a few minutes away from our hotel in London, so this probably isn't as polished as it should be. I'll post more later, especially as I integrate more of what I learned and heard this weekend. Yesterday was spent hanging out at the Clutes, then doing touristy stuff led by the most gracious Cheryl Morgan. It was such beautiful weather that I'm surprised to be saying that I'm not as sunburned as I was afraid I'd be.

More later, but in closing I'd like to proffer my deepest thanks to the teachers at the Masterclass and to all my fellow students: it was a great group of people and an amazing experience.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Smart People = Bad Puns

I will be posting much more about the SF Masterclass soon, and rest assured we did more intellectual things than sit around and make each other laugh. (See Niall Harrison's fist post.) However, I did want to relate the following before I forgot it all:

Sitting around at dinner last night, a new movement emerged. Greekpunk! The ur-text would be Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Sidon, we could co-opt Le Guin's Lavinia, we'd photoshop some tattooed busts of Homer and Herodotus, and get either the VanderMeers or Kelly & Kessel to work up an anthology: The Frickin' 300.

However, the movement was immediately challenged by Gary Wolfe's Roman version: Tiberpunk. Graham Sleight suggested SF written about the border between India & Pakistan: Khyberpunk. Curtis Potterveld mentioned that Swiss SF is, of course, Eigerpunk.

Gary pointed out that the whole 'punk' appellation is soooo 1980s, and that we need things more like Nerdcore to stay relevant. Stefan Ekman pointed out that SF about Mac computers would be Applecore; Duncan Lawie suggested that SF about twins would be Pearcore.

Around this time the nascent movement dissolved into a fit of giggles, as was only appropriate.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"The Hob Carpet" by Ian R. MacLeod

"The Hob Carpet" by Ian R. MacLeod is an explicit depiction of the horrors of slavery. The hobs in the story are a native species enslaved by the humans of the planet. (I first pictured them as very small, like gnomes, but later realized that they were the size of small humans.) There are thousands of them for every human, and they do everything. A human butcher never cuts meat, his hobs do. Some people are carried everywhere by hobs. They raise the children, farm, build, carry—they do everything. The humans live in almost complete decadence, only taking up the more "intellectual" chores such as arranging trade.

The lives of the hobs are horrible, and this triggers the Reader Warning at the beginning of the story. They're mostly mute, often castrated, raped by human overseers, and sacrificed by the hundreds during religious ceremonies.
We learn all about them from our first-person narrator. He's a misanthropic naturalist. He studies his hobs in order to get more efficiency from them, and soon has the most productive plantation around. This is a dangerous spot to occupy when the climate is changing and the humans around you are suffering. Rumors spread about him, labeling him a hob lover and eventually a devil worshiper, until eventually the priests arrest him and arrange for a show trial. During his long captivity our hero develops many theories of natural history by observing what he can and reading religious texts that his wife brings him. He eventually discovers evolution while being locked up like Galileo, and makes some interesting inferences about the relationship between hobs and humans. He and his wife were long estranged because of his impotence around her, but they reconcile during his imprisonment.

This man is basically a classical sf protagonist: a keen, cold, brilliant intellect. Yet MacLeod makes clear is that those attributes are in no way sufficient when it comes to righting wrongs. While he was a kinder hob master, believing that light treatment will get better results from them, he doesn't feel any empathy for them. He never seeks to appreciate them as individuals or to free them from servitude (until his plantation is overrun by angry neighbors). It is his humanist wife, one who cares about suffering, who really starts to make a difference in the lives of the hobs.

At the end of this story, MacLeod pulls out all the stops, attacking religion as it perpetrates injustice, valorizing religion as it can right injustice, celebrating science for its enlightening knowledge, and castigating science for not acting on that knowledge. It may have been a more powerful story if we'd gotten to know the wife a little bit better—as it is she is a bit of a stereotyped woman, very sexual and caring, without a lot of depth. She's portrayed more as the narrator's opposite than as a person in her own right, although that may be the consequence of having a misanthropic narrator. It's a powerful story nonetheless. It may preach to the choir but it challenges our complacency.

Arrived in London Safely

Whew, we got here! The flight was fairly smooth, and the only major hiccups involved thinking I'd lost my USB flash drive on the plane, and not having hotel reservations when we got here. That's been resolved now, thank goodness. Thanks to Cheryl, Farah & Edward for their help.

Now, some good meals, good cider and a decent night's sleep later, I think I'm human again.

BTW, Niall's got a good discussion on Stand on Zanzibar going on over at Torque Control, check it out.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Vacation Notice

I'll be on vacation starting tomorrow, and I'll be back around July 4th. Blogging will be a little scarce on the ground. I'll be in London with a laptop, but I certainly don't want to be stressing out about composing posts and finding wi-fi access while I'm on vacation. I expect to check email, but replies may be delayed.

I've got some more short fiction posts scheduled, but let's just say we won't be finishing all the June magazines in June. C'est la vie. At least I managed to finish one extra thing before I turned my attention to packing: SFSignal posted my review of Marie Brennan's excellent faery story-cum-secret history Midnight Never Come.

In the meantime, the awesome picture over here (the 2007 Hugo award statue) is meant to remind y'all: The deadline to vote for the 2008 Hugos is July 7th! You can find the list of nominees over here, and you can vote online here. Don't worry if you haven't read everything on the ballot, just vote. I'm probably going to end up having read only 3/5 of the novel nominees, 4/5 if I'm lucky. The only category where I've gotten to everything so far is Best Novelette.

Exploding Lovecraft

In "Gabe's Globster," Lawrence Person takes on the Lovecraftian notion of horrors from the depths. Gabe, a genial loser, is hanging out in the Caribbean to avoid his various responsibilities. He's quietly drinking the time away, whittling trinkets for tourists. So he wasn't really prepared for the 20ft long gelatinous being that washes up on his beach after a storm. He especially isn't prepared for it to start possessing beach critters and making them attack him. What does it want? To assimilate the beings around it, apparently. Why does it want this? Well, that's hardly important, now is it?

In Lovecraft, we humans are usually at the mercy of such things. They control us, manipulate us, or simply drive us insane with their eldritch horrific-ness. But not Gabe! The creature almost gets him while he's dreaming, and he's saved only by cutting his foot on a rusty can (pain overwhelms the creature's mind-control influence). Gabe realizes it's him or the globster. He concocts a plan that involves rope, a goat, and some gasoline.

I'll leave it to you to find out how it ends, but it does raise the question: Would Lovecraft stories have ended differently if the protagonists carried grenades?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

I've been scared of New Wave sf for some time. In my project of reading sf classics I've been adding things from the late 1800s and early 1900s, hoping to delay the inevitable. I read Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions when I hardly knew anything about sf beyond the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein axis. That was a shock, and I didn't get much out of the ground-breaking stories collected there. I had picked up some of the best of that period piecemeal: Left Hand of Darkness and Dispossessed by Le Guin and some Philip K. Dick stories, but generally I've been avoiding it. So when Geoff Ryman assigned Stand on Zanzibar to members of this year's SF Masterclass to read, I was apprehensive. But it's Geoff frickin' Ryman, and if he'd told me to re-read Battlefield Earth (god save me) I would've done it. Now that I've read Zanzibar I'm very glad he recommended it. It;s a fantastic book, much better than I expected. It's interesting for its narrative techniques, its dystopian projections, and in comparing its predicted future to our own present.

The book starts out with a long series of disjointed paragraphs, setting the tone for the future that the story is set in. I didn't find this as off-putting as I expected. There's a lot of made-up slang and jargon, but one can generally piece the meaning together from context. The paragraphs themselves reminded me of Googling—getting tons of snippets of context-free information. He continues through the whole book switching narrative modes: snippets, TV advertisements, excepts from a "Hipster" sociology book, and normal narration. Again, if you trust that it's all going somewhere, this isn't that hard to read. The different pieces each shed additional light onto the future he's built (about which more later).

First, there's the actual story. The plot follows two main characters. Donald Hogan is a white, male "synthesist." He's got what I consider a dream job: he works for the State Dept. reading widely, putting information together, making connections, and letting experts know about useful information they may have missed. That's great until they "activate" him and force-train him as an assassin and send him to infiltrate an Indonesia-like country. That's not so much fun. Norman House is Donald's roommate. He's an African-American VP at mega-company known as GT. He's pretty ambitious, and perfectly aware of the advantages and disadvantages that his race gives him. He becomes involved with a project to improve and exploit the African country of Beninia, a poor but strangely idyllic place that seems to evoke interesting changes in those who live there for any amount of time. At the juncture of the different plots sits Shalmaneser, a super-computer owned by GT. Both GT and the State Dept. use its processing power to run simulations and make predictions about the best courses of action, and when it gets confused everything could go to hell.

There are a few key things that impressed me about this book. After reading so much older sf, the fact that Zanzibar is keenly aware of race, class, and countries other than those in Europe is particularly refreshing. It has a global perspective that I still find lacking in a lot of contemporary sf. Also, Brunner gets some of his extrapolation right on the money: an information-drenched world where knowledge is power, the ubiquity of advertising and communications, and the improvement in race and gender relations. That's a pretty good track record. However, the extrapolation is also firmly routed in the late 60's: military drafts for perpetual warfare and draft dodging, frequent acts of domestic terrorism/sabotage, hyper-sexualized relations, etc. One thing it highlights is the fact that progress was made towards improving race-based civil rights far ahead of gender equality. In this book there are a couple active women, notably the head of GT, but they're barely characterized. All the other women in the book are cardboard stereotyped whores ('shiggies' in the slang of the novel). Compare that to the black VP and international diplomat who drive the action of much of the book. You can see why the Civil Rights Act passed and ERA didn't, and why Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee for President and Hillary Clinton isn't.

Another contrast between Zanzibar and earlier Campbellian fiction is the different type of future they portray. Campbell's writers notoriously predicted bright, shiny futures with lots of nifty tech and little social strife. Zanzibar predicts a near future so wrought with over-population that eugenics laws are increasingly draconian (e.g. you can't have children if you have a family history of color-blindness), and people are so stressed out by being constantly jammed together that any minor spark will cause a massive riot. In fact, the main question posed by the book is really: "How can the human race survive the coming over-population crunch, given that space colonization won't come in time to save us?" In the over-romanticized idyll that is Beninia, Brunner suggests an answer, but it's a thin thread to hang a lot of hope on.

It's very reassuring to me that while we haven't reached the utopian heights that Campbell wished for, we also haven't hit the dystopian depths that Brunner portrayed. As we always have, we continue to muddle through the middle ground somehow. Lots of people aren't well off, some are abjectly miserable. Some people have all the shiny toys, most people don't. There is environmental degradation aplenty, but we continue to find enough stop-gap solutions to stave off global catastrophe, even while local catastrophes are common. It's what we do, and it's what we'll always do. That doesn't make for as dramatic a storyline as the extremes, though: Humanity Muddles On is not going to be a best-seller. Still, when you think about how bad people in the 60's thought today would be it's hard not to feel a little smug. Our world may not be perfect by any means, but it's a whole lot better than that.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ethical Questioning

"Beneath Sunlit Shallows" by Derek Kunsken asks an interesting question: how much suffering should we ask an individual to tolerate in the name of species survival? In order to set up this question he writes a conventional sf story, but twists it in interesting ways.

The main character is Vincent, a miserable scientist. He has been genetically engineered to live in the depths of an alien ocean. However, while his physical form is suitable for his environment, none of his mental instincts are. He can digest the crud they scrape off the ocean floor, but he finds it disgusting. He's sexually attracted to some vague idea of two legs that he's never actually seen—his own kind are ugly and repellent to him.

Vincent spent a lot of time thinking about the people whose decisions had, generation after generation, put him at the bottom of the ocean of the world they'd named Indi's Tear. He could not sum the series of seemingly well-intentioned choices with a result he clearly considered immoral. Where was the breakdown?

It turns out that Vincent is the latest product of a singularly ill-fated extra-solar colonization attempt. At each step the colonists chose to do whatever it took to survive. The planet they intended to colonize was struck by a Moon-size object as they approached the system. They didn't have the fuel to go look for another home. They took up orbit around another planet in the system, but the debris from the gigantic impact started punching holes in the ship. They moved down to the planet with a barely breathable atmosphere and three gravities. They engineered themselves to live in the coastal shallows, much like seals, but they still worry about gigantic meteor impacts. They've engineered Vincent and his siblings to live at the bottom of the ocean, protected from the threats. However, the engineering is only barely workable: 47 of his 50 litter mates died, leaving only himself and two others, with every waking moment a misery.

The main question here revolves around his thoughts about suicide. He is one of the most brilliant minds that the colonists have yet produced: he is intrinsically valuable for his problem-solving ability, but his genes are also valuable. However, at the beginning of the story he has destroyed all of his stored genetic material; he doesn't want to be culpable for bringing more miserable creatures into this existence.

Now another large asteroid is heading for the surface, and he's got to decide. Can he commit suicide when it means that the colony will suffer and possibly fail? Should he be forced to live every day in abject misery simply to propagate 'human' survival on this one rock? The author makes it clear what his choice is, but leaves a lot of ambiguity in the mind of the reader as to whether or not that choice is the "right" one, or whether there is a "right" choice.

This story reminded me of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. He described many times when humanity had to transition from one evolutionary phase to another in order to ensure the survival of mankind. However, he was writing from such a high historical perspective, he never stopped to describe the human suffering that such transition periods might engender. This short story is like an expansion of one sentence in a Stapledon narrative. Possibly if Vincent had read Last and First Men or Starmaker, he might have felt as if his suffering could lead to something better. As it is, it leaves an important ethical question for the reader to ponder.

One quibble: Vincent is the main character but there are two others, his two surviving litter mates. One is bright but less brilliant than Vincent, and the other is described as being quite dull. Guess which one is the girl. Would the story change in any appreciable way if the other smart person was the girl instead of the guy? Not that I can think of. With actual sex or attraction between two members of this gengineered species off the table, the dialog wouldn't even be different. Why reinforce the "girls suck at science" stereotype? This point is obviously incidental to the philosophical thrust of the story, but it still irritates.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cranky Tiptree

Taking a break from the contemporary for a moment, let's talk about James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," originally published in 1973. Over the past two years I've learned a lot about Tiptree, although I haven't yet delved deeply into her fiction. I read the rightfully acclaimed biography by Julie Phillips. As I've been reading about sf criticism, I've learned a lot about Tiptree's thematic content and politics. For instance, many of her short stories have been analyzed by feminist and queer theoreticians. "Plugged In," "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "The Women Men Don't See" are probably the three that are mentioned most frequently in books on literary criticism. It makes sense: Tiptree, a woman writing under a male pseudonym, is herself a perfect example of queer theory. She is a textbook case study for gender as performance, given how long she convinced her many correspondents of her masculinity. In regards to "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," I feel like its different thematic facets have been admirably and exhaustively covered. It's feminist, cyborg, queer, performative and pre-cyberpunk. Above all, it's good.

However, I'd like to talk about something that I hadn't seen mentioned in all the synopses of it that I've read, and that surprised me when I finally read the story myself: the narrator of this story is really pissed off at the audience.

Here's the opening paragraph:

Listen, Zombie. Believe me. What I could tell you—you with your silly hands leaking sweat on your growth-stocks portfolio. One-ten lousy hacks of AT&T on twenty-point margin and you think you're Evel Knievel. AT&T? You doubleknit dummy, how I'd love to show you something.

After that berating opening, she introduces the main character, the ugly girl worshiping celebrity beauty. She'll go on to be one of those beauties herself, but it will cost her soul and eventually her life. Anyway, Tiptree introduces this girl and then assumes that we won't care about her:
But you're curious about the city? So ordinary after all, in the FUTURE?

Ah, there's plenty to swing with here—and it's not all that _far_ in the future, dad. But pass the sci-fi stuff for now, like for instance the holovision technology that's put TV and radio in museums.... We're watching that girl.

I'll give you just one goodie. Maybe you noticed on the sportshow or the streets? No commercials. No ads.

That's right. NO ADS. An eyeballer for you.... How does that finger you?

Think about it. That girl is still sitting there.

The narrator assumes that all the readers will care about are the sci-fi trappings, the world building, and she's pretty pissed off that they (we) would be ignoring the girl at the center of the story.

This tone continues through most of the story, although it fades to the background when the plot is moving forward. It comes back at the end in full force. After relating the tragic end of the girl, the narrator portrays how the characters and corporations in the story continue to profit from the same exploitation that caused the tragedy. Then she highlights the complicity of her readership in that exploitive, oppressive system in the final paragraph:

Believe it, zombie. When I say growth, I mean growth. Capital appreciation. You can stop sweating. There's a great future there.

I've heard some older sf readers (in particular my parents) say that they loved sf through the 40s and 50s, then dropped it when the New Wave came in. I wonder if this sort of blaming, condescending narration could account for some of those drops. After all, if the author doesn't think the reader is worthy to read the story, why should they?

This is not to say that it's bad or wrong: there's value in getting up in people's faces and confronting them with their part in systems you think are wrong. This story deserves the critical attention that it gets; Tiptree was making important points here, well ahead of her time. However, it's understandable that when you confront people with their perceived misdeeds, or accuse sf readers of essentially being mindless sheep, that they won't necessarily appreciate it.

Send Some Love to Borderlands Books

From Cheryl Morgan I've learned that Borderlands Books is looking for help. They want to add a cafe, but need to get the proper permits. To help smooth this process, they're circulating a petition signed by people who support them. Now, even those of us who live outside of San Francisco appreciate Borderlands; either by ordering books from them off the web, or visiting them whenever we visit that fair city. So please head over the Cheryl's website and sign her online petition of Borderland's out-of-city friends. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Slipstream Nostalgia

"The Auctioneer and the Antiquarian, or, 1962" by Forrest Aguirre illustrates a trend in stories that ride the genre/slipstream line while tapping in to the rich vein of nostalgia surrounding the 1950s and 60s. (See also "The Boarder" by Alexander Jablokov in March's F&SF.) However, in "1962" it doesn't add up to much.

In 1962 Hayden is a young boy suffering from cancer. The US space program is in the midst of setbacks, suffering several significant (and public) failures to get unmanned probes on the Moon. Hayden's father passed away, so his mom has encouraged him to hang around Mr. Simms (the Antiquarian) and Lenny (the Auctioneer) who can act as father figures. Mr. Simms seems to represent rationalism, talking often about Cuba and worries about politics. He's rooting for the space program to work. Lenny seems to symbolize more magical thinking. He gives Hayden a "space helmet" with "healing" properties to help him fight his cancer. He thinks that aliens around the Moon must be sabotaging the NASA missions, and he's getting Hayden worried that the aliens may not appreciate human expansion. The reader is never sure how much Lenny believes and how much is him just trying to help the boy by making up stories.

Hayden is pulled in both directions. He's naturally skeptical, but after getting the helmet his cancer eventually goes into remission. He starts to think that he's hearing alien voices through the helmet as well. At the end of the story, the Cuban missile crisis is on, and the US is on the brink of nuclear war. The story ends without any clear resolution between the poles represented by Mr. Simms and Lenny. One would expect Hayden to either choose one or represent a compromise between them, but the story ends abruptly before that can happen. It has an interesting premise, but I found the ending didn't pay off the set up.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


OK, I feel like an idiot. The central metaphor of "Burgerdroid" is not about the human/machine interface. It's all about how the drudgery of mundane day-to-day life saps our artistic and creative impulses. Elsa is an artist, a ballerina. To make ends meet, she essentially takes a (glorified) job flipping burgers. Her "robot" act, and even her costume, represent the walls that go up around a person to protect them from the outside world, but can inhibit emotional connections. She realizes that she can't dance as she used to (all her movements are too robotic now), and when she begins a romantic interlude with one of her co-robots, their costumes literally get in the way until they "come to their senses" and give it up. Basically, the day-to-day drudgery of her job has cost Elsa her artistic self and her ability to make real attachments to others, all in the name of making ends meet. This story would be just as true set in a McDonalds instead of a "Burgerdroid." In this context the nihilistic ending, which I'm still trying desperately not to spoil, makes much more sense.

I suppose I could "cover" by saying that it's admirable that the story can be read on multiple levels, that it's as much about the cultural and social oppression of the working class as it is about female cyborgs and the human/machine interface, but really I feel pretty stupid for missing the metaphor that was the glaringly obvious one. Mea culpa! It's all part of my learning process.


"Burgerdroid" by Felicity Shoulders is awesome in a completely different way than the sf stories that I usually consider awesome. It could be set in any near-future time—actually with the tech involved it could be set today. The story doesn't have a plot to speak of, and ends in a fairly nihilistic way. It spends a lot of time describing the emotional state of a single mom. And yet, it's still really awesome. Let me summarize before getting to the root of its awesomeness.

Elsa is a single mom. She's an under-employed ballerina, working at Burgerdroid to make ends meet and get health insurance. See, Burgerdroid isn't your run-of-the-mill fast food joint. Its conceit is that it's fully automated—no humans, just robots. Obviously they do this through trickery, hiring actors and dancers to play the parts of the robots. They invest a lot in keeping up the charade: relatively high pay and health insurance to reduce employee turnover, renting out adjacent building space so that human workers aren't observed entering the Burgerdroid facility, etc. There's a risk that Elsa's son Henry might spill the beans, another source of tension for Elsa.

So it's a lot like Disneyland, a carefully maintained corporate facade. One of the most fascinating parts of the story comes from the descriptions of the customers: some who assume everything really is automated and like the fact that they don't have to deal with people at all, some who come for the novelty, some who come over and over to try to catch the robots out, and some who come in with vandalism at heart.

So that's all awesome, and really well imagined. What puts this over the top though, is the way it investigates our relationship to machines. SF often romanticizes its robots, but as Elsa plays a robot day after day, she feels her artistic side draining away. She's worried that she's becoming too mechanical. The way that the customers treat the dehumanized robots is also telling. It implies that robots are unlikely to be our bestest friends; they're at least as likely (as, in all fairness, Isaac Asimov also portrayed) to be disassembled by hoodlums. This is a short story that packs a lot thinking about the human/machine interface into a short number of pages. Well done, and another one to keep in mind for awards time.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Skipping Norma Desmond

James Patrick Kelly is a good writer and a great guy. So I fully expected to read through "Surprise Party" and enjoy it. Unfortunately, I ended up skipping it. It starts out with a portrait of an aging starlet. This already does not thrill me, since the whole Norma Desmond/Sunset Boulevard thing never worked for me. It's got a nice sf cast to it though, where the medium she worked in was all neural. People experienced her life recorded from her brain. Nothing new there, though. She's got one faint customer today, but she doesn't give it much mind. She's got stuff to do.

As I read the story, there were two questions with the potential to make me stick around to find out the answers: what might happen at the "surprise party" her friends are throwing for her, and what is the "neutrality" issue that she mentions without explanation? However, before we get into that, we join her as she works on a draft of a crappy series novel, continuing a series started by her late partner. This could have been funny, but instead it really dragged on. And on. And then the two questions didn't seem enough for me to stick around for more of this.

I did skim the ending, and it looks like one of the questions I should have been looking forward to was an explanation of the faint presence in her head. However, since she gave it so little thought, I didn't give it any weight. It seemed inconsequential. I'm not quite sure if that's what Kelly was going for there.

Full Disclosure: when I was reading this I was feeling a bit under the weather and was generally in a bad mood. I wonder if the hack story excerpts might have been funnier if I'd been in a better frame of mind. As it was after I abandoned this story I went and read non-fiction for the rest of the day. Non-fiction is my comfort food now, since I don't have to review it. It takes a lot more effort to closely read something you're going to review than to just read something for enjoyment. It's odd to say that reading Herodotus is more relaxing than reading Asimov's now, but such is the odd place to which my life has come.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon has set himself a lot of plates to keep spinning. This is book is: a noir murder mystery, an alternate history, and a character drama (at least). This being Chabon we're talking about, he keeps everything in the air with wit and style.

Let's take the murder mystery first. A Jew going by the alias Emmanuel Lasker has been shot in the flophouse hotel that is also the residence of our protagonist, Detective Meyer Landsman. Lasker was a chess fanatic and a heroin user, but beyond that he's an enigma. Landsman is a predictably down-on-his-luck detective, but some of the reasons for that stem from the alternate history aspect of the story, not just from his alcoholism and his divorce. As many characters in the story point out, these are strange times to be a Jew (about which more later). Landsman sees in the Lasker case another chance to chase redemption before the tide of uncertainty completely engulfs his life. Along with his cousin and partner Berko (the relatively sane one of the pair, married with two children and another one on the way), they start tracking down Lasker's identity. They start with the chess-playing community, but are quickly led to the city's main criminal gang of orthodox Jews. The plot, of course, thickens. This is especially true when they are told to "clean up" all their outstanding investigations—don't bother solving them, just file them away.

This all has to do with the alternate history part of the story. The initial point of difference with our world is that in the book, the representative to the US government from the territory of Alaska was run over by a taxi in the 1940s. With his opposition removed, the government went ahead with a plan to settle European Jewish refugees from WWII (then just starting) in an "uninhabited" region of Alaska ("uninhabited" except for a bunch of pissed off Tlingit Indians, of course). In this universe the attempt to create Israel in 1948 was thwarted, and so Jews, mostly from Europe, have congregated in the "Federal District of Sitka," mostly in the "big city," Sitka. Unfortunately, the original plan was not a land grant, it was a lease, and the lease is up on Jan. 1, 2008. The story is set in November of 2007, and no one is sure what will happen on New Year's Day. Laws against Jews are much more prevalent in this universe than ours; most countries won't accept any Jewish immigrants unless they have family to live with. No one is sure if the USA will let them stay where they are. Some people are leaving for Madagascar, or finding long-lost families in New Jersey, or considering another try at invading the Holy Land, or, like Landsman, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping it will turn out OK.

It's in this context that the police force is being ordered to start closing things down, quietly, with a minimum of fuss. No investigations needed; who will care in two months anyway? Especially about some no-name Jewish smack addict. Well, Landsman cares. And here we get into the character drama. Landsman is carrying around huge amounts of guilt, which he drowns with work and alcohol. He's a first-rate detective, but with the prospect of losing his job he's even more unstable than usual. It doesn't help that his ex-wife has been reassigned to be the one to close down the department—for the next two months she's his nominal boss. Awkward. As he investigates the murder (and finds himself caught up in events much bigger than he had counted on), he also has to delve into his family history and his history with his wife, whom he obviously still loves.

My synopsis all sounds very serious, but this book is also funny. Truly serious books wouldn't allow their hero to break out of a jail/rehab center wearing only his undies, brain a guy with a cot that he's chained to, then going running through the snowy forest (still sans clothes) only to be shot at by Jewish cowboys in golf carts until being rescued by a Native American dwarf detective. Seriously. Along with his humorous set-pieces, the story is also imbued with the sarcastic black humor inherent in Yiddish culture (unlike our Israel, which speaks Hebrew, Sitka's dominant language is Yiddish). (Be aware that if the Yiddish words he throws in are confusing you, there is a glossary in the back of the book.) Combine that with Chabon's own unique prose style, especially his love of similes:

"When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It's like there's a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn't working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down."

Chabon is never anything less than a joy to read.

This is the second of this year's Hugo novel nominees that I've read. (I'd better get cracking, the deadline is July 7th. Luckily I've already read all the short fiction except for five of them, so it'll be easy to catch up there.) So between Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer and this, how can one even begin to judge? Rollback has some wonderful extrapolative near-future sf, always delightful, often moving. Policemen's Union has great world building combined with an interesting plot, amazing prose, and character drama that develops without slowing down the plot. So far, I'd have to rate this above Rollback, but it just goes to show how difficult it is to compare gorgeous apples to delicious oranges.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Emo Teens, But in a Good Way

I'm not a huge fan of reading about immature teenagers. However, Nancy Kress' novelette "Call Back Yesterday" easily sustained my interest. We're first presented with a girl, Caitlin, who sees figures in her mirror besides herself. ("This morning the bathroom mirror shows only a lone person—besides Caitlin herself, of course.") She tries to ignore them and instead focus on normal teen concerns ("She washes her face, brushes her teeth, and tries the effect of pinning her dirty hair on top of her head. She looks like a dork. More of a dork.") So there's the first question to pique our interest: what's up with the mirror figures?

Next she is called to group therapy of some kind. It turns out she's institutionalized with other teenagers with similar issues—and aside from the mirror figures there's also some sort of amnesia going on. There follows a description of the sort of nasty group politics you'd expect with a random group of less-than-stable teenagers, but the "doctors" also seem a bit off. The next question for us is why these kids are institutionalized, completely cut off from the outside world. The fact that there are no windows is a nice touch to make us wonder about what's being hidden.

The story really picks up with the escape attempt. One of the boys, Josh, leads Caitlin and her friend Sheena out of the institution during a power outage. It turns out that the place is surrounded by some sort of wild vegetative jungle—not what you'd expect from North Carolina, which is where the girls think they are. Even more intriguing. The emotional intensity of the story picks up as Sheena and Caitlin begin to remember more things, Josh seduces Caitlin, and we begin to suspect that Josh is not quite what he seems.

This story grabs you and doesn't let go. The emotional intensity of the teenagers rings very true. The ending is a little disappointing; it answers some questions but not all of them, and some of the answers seem to come a little too easily to Caitlin. However, the story is less about the world the characters inhabit and more about the characters themselves, and the characters and the drama are very well done.

100th Post! And a Shout Out to Strange Horizons!

Hey, 100 posts already! Who would've thunk? To what weighty subject matter will this post be dedicated?

To pimping for my favorite reviewing outlet, Strange Horizons! They publish (my) reviews of great books (some of which they send to me for free), as well as articles, columns, and original artwork and award-winning fiction. And here's the truly mind-blowing part: they do it by paying contributors for their work! Shocking.

To continue doing all this, they're having a fund drive. They've got way better swag than NPR tote bags. Go check it out! Donate freely! Support a paying outlet for quality writing on the web.

May's Analog in Review

"Test Signal" by David Bartell (na, skip)
"No Traveller Returns" by Dave Creek (nt, OK)
"The Ashes of His Fathers" by Eric James Stone (ss, OK)
"Still-Hunting" by Sarah K. Castle (ss, meh)
"Petite Pilferer Puzzles Piedmont Police" by Walter L. Kleine (ss, good)
"What Drives Cars" by Carl Frederick (ss, good)
"Consequences of the Mutiny" by Ronald R. Lambert (nt, good)
"The Night of the RFIDs" by Edward M. Lerner (ss, meh)

This seemed to be a below-average issue of Analog. There was some heavy-handed politics and some fluff, and nothing that really grabbed me and changed the way I thought about the universe. Can't win them all.

Next up is June's Asimov's. It's good that we're getting into the June stuff this early. However, I think the gains will be short lived. I'll be leaving for England on vacation in mid-June, and I'm not sure what my posting schedule will be. And if there's one thing I know about vacations, it's that I never get as much reading done as I expect. So we'll have to see how it goes. I'm trying to get ahead, but between Masterclass reading and Hugo reading, it's a bit tight.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Generation Ship Issues

The remaining story in May's Analog is a novelette: "Consequences of the Mutiny" by Ronald R. Lambert. This is another story using the oblique approach to transfers of power. In much same was as "Immortal Snake" and Galveston, it focuses on what happens after you have a dramatic shift in power. Generally speaking, when in a story you overthrow the status quo, for whatever reason, there are two points of drama. One is the initial overthrow (think American Revolution) and the second is when the new system is tested again (think the election of Thomas Jefferson). In the other two stories it only takes a generation for the new system to be tested. In "Consequences" the system has been stable for several generations before the next crisis point arises.

"Consequences" takes place on a generation star ship. There's a living crew, with generational turnover, that is supposed to deliver 50,000 frozen colonists to their new home. A few generations into the mission, the crew mutinied against their original leadership—many of them, having never set foot on a planet, certainly didn't want to become part of the new colony. Now the plan is to create a new starship, drop off the original colonists and original starship, take the new one, and keep going. The problem is time and storage space.

Due to environmental constraints, many of the crew's children have been placed in cold storage until there is environmental slack enough to restore them. Given that they're almost at the end of the mission, they're running out of space for the children. All of the sudden, those 50,000 frozen colonists look pretty vulnerable. Most right-thinking crew members oppose starting their new mission with innocent blood on their hands, but people can get pretty emotional when children are on the line.

This is a good story that brings together the generation ship trope with the fuzzy thinking that surrounds reproductive issues and terrorism. However, as it must be in a novelette, it's all a little too simple. The one main character figures out all the answers exactly when he needs them, and has to hand exactly the people he needs to solve the problem. For an every-day-Joe sort of character, he's suspiciously competent at everything.

That's easy to forgive, as is the other glaring flaw in the story: the ending. It feels like the author couldn't quite figure out where or how to end the story, so we get a flash-forward and some painful dialog—all the more surprising given that the dialog for most of the story is fine. Still, those points are quibbles against a solidly well-done sf story.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Something Completely Different

It took 10 months of reading (between everything else I review here), but I've finished Herodotus' Histories!

I've been on a classics kick for the last year and a half or so, working my way through the publicly available syllabus of St. John's College. It's a four-year program that offers a liberal arts degree through reading the Great Works of the Western Canon. (I'm up to Oct. 15th of the first semester!) While I disagree with narrowing one's focus this way (if nothing else it disregards everything written by people south of the Mediterranean--no Sinbad or Arabian Nights--everything from Asia--no Lao Tzu or Confucius--and everything from oral cultures), I can't argue that all these works are worth reading.

I was turned onto this program by John C. Wright. I love his books, especially his Golden Age trilogy, but when I read his Livejournal I find myself disagreeing with almost every word he types, sometimes including 'and' and 'the.' He's a product of this college, and I thought it would be interesting to see if, by reading the same works, I came to the same conclusions that he has. So far, not so much.

I haven't been reviewing these things here; I don't feel worthy of reviewing classics like these. I can only meditate upon them, really. That said here are some thoughts from my reading:

  • It doesn't matter how big an army you have if you can only bring a small fraction of your force to bear
  • Likewise, huge numbers can't make up for being insufficiently supplied, equipped and trained
  • Back then the gods were much more involved; they usually seemed to take humans who were on the verge of doing something really reasonable ("Hey, I don't really need to take an army of 2 million people across a sea and a penninsula just to get revenge on some Hellenes...") and made them continue to do stupid stuff
  • People defending their homeland get mad fighting bonuses
  • Free people defending their homeland get even better ones
  • The 300 were nine kinds of awesome, but they started out with more than a thousand guys and voluntarily stayed to be killed. They also were not solely responsible for the failure of Xerxe's campaign--a lot more strategic/lucky stuff had to happen for Xerxes to finally give up
  • Even back then they knew that Oracles weren't 100% reliable
  • It's neat to remember that once upon a time, many tribes in and around ancient Greece lived very much like the Native Americans did when the Europeans showed up
  • Science, history, and narrative were related in very different ways back then
  • Herodotus desperately needed an EDITOR
So those are some of my thoughts from the last 10 months. I'm very glad I read this, and read it cover to cover (the St. John's syllabus only reads brief selections from the first few books, I think they're missing some of the really fun bits).

Onwards to Plato's Republic!

Politics in Analog

Taking things slightly out of order, I'd like to discuss two stories in May's Analog that touch on politics. One is a silly short story from Carl Frederick, "What Drives Cars" and the other is a polemic from Edward M. Lerner, "The Night of the RFIDs."

Frederick's story is very cute. Our protagonist is a high school guidance counselor who, by the grace of a brother working for the car company, has gotten a first generation AI car named Victor. He's already well on his way to anthropomorphizing it when Victor and his "family" (all the Victor cars share information via the cell phone network) decide to head for Philadelphia (with their owners inside) to lobby for more ethanol stations. Upon learning that ethanol production has been raising food prices world-wide and making more poor people starve, they all change course and head for the nearest ethanol plant to try to destroy it and themselves in protest (they've been programmed with Asimov's Three Laws, you see). Eventually the guidance counselor, recognizing their similarity to teenagers, works with his brother and the head programmer to solve the problem. It's a funny story, one that could have been written any time in the last 80 years with only a substitution of political issues. It also gives hope to those who dream that one day their knowledge of the Norwegian language will help save the day!

Contrast this then, with Lerner's story. I was hesitant to read it at all, since he's been on a tear about RFIDs and their potential for governmental abuse for at least the last year in Analog's non-fiction columns. I suspected that this story would be a thinly veiled rant, and I wasn't wrong. The first give-away was in the 2nd paragraph of the first person narration:

"I never wanted to go into politics. Sometimes we sacrifice our dreams for a greater cause."

There's a lie right there: people who never want to go into politics generally don't. The story is told in flashback from the point where the narrator has achieved high political office. He remembers the crisis that started him on that road.

For a couple of days when he was a teenager, all the electronics in his region of South Carolina go on the fritz. Annoying, but not catastrophic. Terrorism is suspected, and once everything is back on line, Homeland Security thugs show up, asking about one of the narrator's friends. Turns out he'd hacked the RFID tags of some things to upload viruses to the RFID databases in the giant government databasing warehouses where they sinisterly track all of our movements. They arrest the friend (he nobly allows himself to be captured rather than abandon another friend). Then the government institutes checkpoints all around the region insisting that everyone submit to a full RFID scan or else not be allowed to travel. Apparently they're so concerned that they might be missing some tracking data that they'll tip their hand by disrupting all commerce with heavy-handed checkpointing. Various speechifying ensues, leading to a (non-violent, of course) threat of secession and civil war rather than submit to evil government surveillance. By becoming a spokesman for the pro-freedom side, our hero winds up in high government office, able to enact legislation that all right-thinking people agree with.

This is all so much wish-fulfillment. Noble, self-sacrificing, ideologically pure politicians and hackers fighting against the evil, sneaky, jack-booted thugs of the government. I can't dispute Lerner's obsessively researched (and info-dumped) facts. RFID tags are ubiquitous nowadays, and with massive amounts of computing power, collecting and using huge amounts of surveillance data becomes feasible. However, I still just can't get that worked up about it. Frankly, we make the same choice to allow information about ourselves to be collected every time we use a credit card to buy something. Yes, RFIDs make it harder to live off-grid. With the credit cards, you could choose to pay cash (and never use the Internet ever again). With RFIDs in the dollar bills that you get, you don't even have that option. However, it's been getting harder and harder to live that sort of totally off-net individualistic existence ever since this country was founded. Most people don't want to live in caves with freeze-dried food paid for with RFID-free dollar bills. Most people are perfectly fine with the knowledge that someone could find out that they buy too many books about science fiction on with their credit cards. It simply isn't the end of the world, and it isn't a causus belli for risking another Civil War. I agree in principle with Lerner's leanings here: it'd be great if the government would back off on the ubiquitous surveillance. However, I can't agree at all with the level of histrionics embodied in this story.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Two Twee Stories

Analog continues with a couple of stories that ride the "twee" threshold. "Still-Hunting" by Sarah K. Castle ended up on the wrong side of that line for me, while "Petite Pilferer Puzzles Piedmont Police" by Walter L. Kleine stayed on the right side of it. A bit counter-intuitive, given the titles, but you know what they say about judging stories...

"Still-Hunting" involves "uplifted" polar bears: they can talk to an extent, plus interact with humans and pursue goals. The main character is a successful male, looking to mate with a favorite female. She has thrown her lot in with the humans. She taught them the basics of polar bear communication and accepted their deal of having her live in a zoo during tough times. The male thinks all of this is pathetic and beneath their dignity. Eventually though, he sees which way the winds are blowing, and capitulates to the inevitable. It all seems very improbable to me, especially since no mechanism for the bears becoming so intelligent was ever offered. I needed a little more help building up my suspension of disbelief. In the end it seemed more like "Look! Talking polar bears hurt by climate change! Isn't that awesome/awful?" than a well-thought out sf story.

"Petite Pilferer" on the other hand is a cute mystery story that doesn't aspire to higher things. A small woman has been stealing random items from homes in upscale Piedmont, CA. Even more oddly, she begins returning them. Our protagonist is an older cop with some health problems. Even when directly confronted with the Pilferer he can't catch her. However, when he goes on vacation he meets a woman in the art antiquities business who may have some answers about the pilferer... and may open up the cop's horizons. It's a nice story with a good sense of humor. Given that this is Analog the resolution won't be too surprising to anyone. It may be the start of a story series (a bit like "The Witch of Waxahatchie" that I wrote about in the last issue of Baen's) and I think it could make a good running series. Kleine seems to have a good feel for how to deliver fun, light sf.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Adventure Tales and Philosophy

"No Traveler Returns" by Dave Creek is a story centered on Mike Christopher, a character he has written about before. However, it is perfectly readable on its own without having read the other ones, which I haven't. This is an adventure story. Christopher hired passage on a ship piloted by an alien with its own agenda. Instead of taking Christopher where he wants to go, they've made a stop at the Station of the Lost and wrecked their own ship in the process. The alien is running from something, and has decided that his best option is to go to this no-alien's-land of smugglers and villains to try to make the next step in his voyage.

At first I thought that this would be a "two very different beings learn to understand one another as they journey on" story. They land at the wrong side of the Station, bickering all the way, and begin to trek down the axis of the Station to the place they want to be, encountering thugs, alien colonies, and arms dealers along the way. However, the story takes a different turn when the folks pursing the alien catch up with him, with Christopher caught in the middle. An unexpected ethical dilemma presents itself, and Christopher takes matters into his own hands. It all comes to a satisfying conclusion, although perhaps not the most sensible one.

"The Ashes of His Fathers" by Eric James Stone also takes an unexpected turn at the end. A young man has traveled over a year to get to Earth, carrying the ashes of the founding fathers of his colony. He was raised strictly within a fundamentalist-style religion, and believes that these ashes must be returned before the millennium of the year 3000. Many bureaucratic and diplomatic tangles ensue, as the founding fathers did not leave Earth on the best of terms so many centuries before. A customs official takes pity on him, and tries to help him work through all the red tape. As the millennium date approaches though, he must take matters into his own hands. He may not have been the best seminary student the planet ever had, but he really believes in what he's been told.

The story makes unnecessary self-sacrifice in the name of an arbitrary belief system seem very noble, which, while a common sentiment, isn't really one I approve of. I can appreciate the craft of the story, with its very empathetic and noble characters, but it all seems a bit wasted on a relatively unpalatable philosophical stance. I'm sure that Stone is not making any sort of statement that religious suicides are in general Good Things, but the unquestioning heroism and nobility of the guy's sacrifice seems a little shallow. C'est la vie.

Galveston by Sean Stewart

There's a particular thrill that comes from reading about someplace you've been (or going to some place you've read about). At least, there is with fiction. With journalism, you can read about places you know, but likely it's because something bad has happened there. That's not so much fun. But reading about a real place that you know in a work of imagination seems to make it more "real" or adds another dimension to a place in some undefinable way. It's a particular pleasure that one does not get to experience much when one is a genre fan. (It's also a pleasure that led me to visit the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was a worthwhile visit on many levels, but the *reason* I went was because it's where aliens made first contact in Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God.) So many of our stories take place in outer space, or on other planets, or in vaguely European medieval landscapes with made-up names. So I'd like to thank Gary Wolfe for recommending Galveston to me when he heard I was moving to Houston. I live almost exactly halfway between Houston and Galveston now, and I've been to the island a couple of times. Galveston is very definitely a work of fantasy, but it's also a completely grounded book, being rooted in a real place and an (almost) real time.

In 2004 (the book came out in 2000) magic broke into the world. It was Mardi Gras, which is as big a deal in Galveston as it is in New Orleans. The Krewes (community organizations who run floats in the big Mardi Gras celebrations, among other things—something I was totally unfamiliar with before moving here) saw what was happening and were able to ride the wave of magic, shaping it in less catastrophically destructive ways. Powered by strong emotions, some places were a complete loss, such as the UTMB (University of Texas Medical Branch) hospital (actually, one of my neighbors works there). Many people died outright, killed by magic overload or by the creatures spawned from nightmares. Two women took control and were able to create a wall between the "real" world and the magic world.

Fast forward about 25 years. The women who have patrolled the border between the real and the magic and led the community through the times of deprivation are aging. A generation has grown up now who know nothing of the world before the Flood. The two main characters of the story are emblematic of this second generation. Sean Stewart merely sketches in the first dramatic part of the crisis of the Flood, the part where individuals take charge and lead the community through the immediate crisis. He instead focuses on the secondary dramatic point: how will the next generation build upon what the first achieved? Will the systems put in place be sustainable, or will it devolve into anarchy once the founders of the system are gone?

The answer to that question lies in the growth potential of two less-than-promising young folks. Sloane Gardner is the daughter of Jane Gardner, who became the effective civil authority after the Flood. Jane has been trying to groom Sloane to become her successor, but Sloane, while trying very hard, finds nothing of interest in community meetings and factional negotiations. She's a people person, doing well at the mingling and nudging side of things, but completely failing to be ready to take the reins of power. Her mother is slowly dying of Parkinson's disease, and the generational hand-over crisis is nearing.

Josh Cane is the son of a gambler and a pharmacist. Mostly raised by his mother the pharmacist, he's become the neighborhood medicine man and herbalist as all the real medicines have gradually run out. He used to run in the same high society as the Gardeners, but his father's gambling finally ruined them. He lives in the barrio now, and resents every minute of it. He's obsessive, intelligent, competent, and anti-social. In most genre fiction, that would be enough for him to triumph—we all perhaps lack some of the social graces, and hope that our raw intelligence and competence will make up for it. However, there are consequences for being disliked, and Josh runs into them hard.

The upshot of all this is that Sloane rebels against her mother and disappears into Mardi Gras, the magic side of the island, while her mother dies. Her trajectory clearly follows that of a drug user: running away, having fun, being violated and left in a gutter. Ultimately she has to seek redemption, incorporating her new self and perspective with a rejection of total selfishness and hedonism. While she is gone, Josh is accused of murdering her. He and his best friend get banished to the mainland, where they have to contend with wildlife, a hurricane, cannibals, and each other. Josh likewise hits an all time low and must seek redemption. He has to integrate himself into human society, learn a little empathy and tact, and stop focusing on what he doesn't have and do the best he can with what he does have.

Damn, I've made this all sound trite and self-helpy. It's not at all. It's intense and dramatic and often funny. Josh's friend Ham is nine kinds of awesome, and when Ham finally smacks Josh around we really understand why. Likewise, while Sloane's journey could devolve into maudlin melodrama, instead it picks itself up in a practical way, gets with the plot and drives forward.

At the end of the book everything has changed: Josh, Sloane, and especially Galveston itself. The boundary between the real and the magic is dissolving, and reintegration has to take place all around. Stewart has a good feel for place and for people. While all of this crazy stuff is going on, the people inhabiting this universe seem totally solid, even the ones with issues. This isn't a subtle character piece where nothing gets resolved; in this book people's character defects really matter. People's lives depend on the main characters' ability to get their acts together. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't, and the narrative draws you through every step of the way.

Suspension of Disbelief at Strange Horizons

Over at Strange Horizons they've posted my review of two Greg Egan short fiction collections. I'm very proud of this review and the way it looks at the question of how we, as genre readers, suspend our disbelief when we read weird things.

David Moles has already posted a brief comment about it, which bodes well for some future discussion.