Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Writers Doing Good, But Not Exceptional, Things

The Oct/Nov double issue of F&SF comes, as usual, packed with stuff. UN-usually, however, I don’t really see any award-winners here. This issue contains stories by good, established authors practicing the craft they are known for, but not necessarily pushing themselves into new territory.

Albert Cowdry starts off with a short story: "Inside Story." He returns to his favorite setting, New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. Cops investigate disappearances of people living in FEMA trailers. No points for guessing that there's something unusual going on; unfortunately this unusual thing takes the hero to another dimension/realm/place, and that weakens the story. Cowdry is strongest when his stories most closely link to New Orleans itself (see "The Overseer," which I'll be nominating for a Hugo at least this year), and the ending of this story seems disappointing in proportion to the time it spends away from the city.

"Sleepless Years" gives us a nice take on Zombie-ism by Steven Utley. A gentleman died and left his body to science; they reanimated him. However, he's got no rights since he's "dead." He also can't sleep, which tortures him. The experience of a human being in a situation where they're regarded as little more than an amazing test subject is not a new one, but it's done well here.

"'The New York Times' at Special Bargain Rates" has Stephen King's heroine talking to dead people on the phone. Also not new; King himself has done this before. This time it's all fairly benign, although the woman cannot act on a vague prophecy from her dead husband and ends up feeling bad. This is a low key example of excellent craftsmanship.

The ever-prolific Robert Reed provides "The Visionaries." This ambiguous story describes a writer offered a Faustian bargain as he gets started in writing. It turns out that some of his stories may (or may not) provide a window into a real future. Various conspiracy theories regarding the Faustian organization get kicked around at sf cons. Although the nature of the deal changes over time, the author comes to believe that he may really be seeing the future. This is a tale that has both funny and unsettling bits; I'm sure the contrast is deliberate, but it feels like the story isn't sure what it wants to be. The two threads--what the author sees in the future and what he thinks is happening now--don't mesh perfectly. However, the inside-baseball bits are fun, and Reed is always a solid story-teller.

"Private Eye" looks at the ubiquitous surveillance future, less through a Big Brother lens and more through a YouTube one. The narcissism/voyeurism angle is again, nothing really new. I'm a bit surprised that Terry Bisson didn't offer something more unique here.

"Whoever" by Carol Emshwiller is an interesting story that mutates as you read it. A woman may be suffering amnesia, or be some sort of universe hopper, or perhaps a time traveller. Perhaps she takes over other bodies. In any case, she wakes up with no memories of her past life, with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and gets to reinvent herself. Her conscious process of looking at who she wants to be is great; I'm less thrilled that she immediately gets a male protector (or at least accepts the guy who wants to fill that role, she makes some noises about not burdening him but does so anyway), but that's a minor quibble.

I had already read "Evidence of Love" somewhere else, so I'll skip that one here--M. Rickert is also always worth reading. Depressing and confusing, but with awesome craft. (See Paolo Bacigalupi in F&SF, Sept.)

"Planetesimal" by Tim Sullivan is a slight story that is neither a good character portrait nor a good sf story. On a large asteroid/planetesimal, a commited-to-duty security officer has to escort a totally-geeky-introverted-whiny-dedicated-to-his-science geologist. Their craft breaks down and they have to try to outrace the sun (Red Giant) back to base. They fall into a crater (which hadn't been there before), and get sucked into some sort of time-warped mining operation. The geek wants to stay there forever and be king of his little fiefdom, the security officer wants to get him home. At no time do they rise above their stereotypes. The "mining" thing is silly, and the science is just awful. Check this out: "They had a long way to go. But with the light gravity, it was the equivalent of only a few kilometers." Really? I didn't know that low gravity warped distances--maybe high gravity relativistically, but on a small planet? Obviously it should be something like "it [would feel like] the equivalent of only a few kilometers," but these sorts of lazy mistakes are littered all through this story. Bleah.

Finally "Scarecrow's Boy" involves a mighty sophisticated AI helping out the child of a diplomat and in the process liberating itself from a useless master. It's not necessarily plausible, but in Swanwick's hands it's a solid story.


Anonymous said...

Hang on, what about Geoff Ryman's story?

Karen Burnham said...

Niall-Crap! I don't know how I forgot that one; it's right in my notes as the high point of the issue. I will remedy the matter in the next couple days by giving it its own post. Thanks for catching that!