Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Borrowed Man, by Gene Wolfe

A Borrowed Man was nominated for a Locus award in 2015.  Gene Wolfe has written some amazing fiction in his time, so I figured it was worth reading.  I would say so, but it's not a super strong work.

It's the 22nd century, and life has slowed down.  There are far fewer people in the world, but it's a rougher place.  The narrator and protagonist is E. A. Smithe, a mystery writer of renown.  But this version is a "reclone", a recreation of a person from a scan.  This copy of Smithe belongs to the Spice County Public Library, where human reclones wait to be checked out.  He gets checked out by a beautiful heiress who is being pursued by shady figures. 

There is some interesting social commentary in here--Wolfe has the narrator discussing the treatment of people who are not considered to be human.  Smithe does not seem to consider himself human, except by sneaking up on it.  Wolfe also comes back to a device he used in the Book of the New Sun--using words in odd ways.  He refers to a woman's purse as a "shaping bag".  But the book gets dry toward the middle as it becomes a more straightforward mystery.  The speculations don't really drive one to think about the future, they just add a speculative element. 

The book is OK, I will give it 3 stars, but a weak 3.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is an author that's really grown on me over time--maybe I've gotten wiser or he's gotten better, but I think it's very much both.  Aurora was nominated for a Locus award for 2015, and I think it probably deserved a nomination for the Hugo and/or Nebula as well.

Aurora is the name of a near-earth size moon orbiting one of Tau Ceti's planets.  Earth was sending out generation starships in the 2500's, and the story is set on the ship bound to Tau Ceti.  There are a few promising candidates for settlement there.  Our protagonist is Freya, child of the "chief engineer" (it's an unofficial title) of the starship, Devi.  They are of the generation that will reach Aurora and try to settle it.

As always with Robinson, the book is brimming with excellent science speculation.  We learn about "islanding" and "codevolution".  The inhabitants of the starship shrink with each generation, and live shorter lives.  The bacteria on their relatively small ship evolve faster than the macro life, of course, which is making each generation less healthy.  Possibly less smart--Freya is wise in many ways but cannot handle numbers even close to the way Devi can.  They have endured social stress and internal dissent.  But they can get around all this if they can establish a healthy colony when they get to Tau Ceti.

I'm going to have to reveal important bits to make my points, so I am going to do something I rarely do--SPOILER ALERT.

The colony on Aurora does not take.  The settlers are sickened by an extremely tiny almost-prion, and many die--all but one who went to the surface.  Faced with a set of very bad choices, they end up splitting, some staying on Aurora and others equipping to go back. 

Robinson uses this failure to illustrate how finely tuned we are to our home.  As we pursue space exploration it becomes more and more apparent how difficult it will be to reproduce those conditions anywhere else.  Robinson puts this forward as an explanation for the SETI problem--the fact that we have not found or heard from any other intelligent life.  Other self-aware life may be out there, but we are too far apart and too different from each other to communicate.  There's no real way to get around relativity.

This book isn't quite up to the standards of David Brin's Existence, but it's a pretty good try and makes a similar argument about what the sheer distances of space do to any thoughts of interaction with aliens.  There is one odd sort of error in it.  Toward the end of the book we get the idea that this book is set in the same universe as 2312, last year's major award nominee.  He refers to a "city on Mercury, on rails and perpetually moving around the planet"--but in this story that city was built while the travelers were away (they return in the early 2800s).  That continuity issue isn't like Robinson.

I give it four stars for entertainment and educational value.  This is my kind of SF.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Having finished all the books and stories I could find related to the 2015 Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, I branched out to the Locus awards.  Lots of fine material there.  I settled on novel nominee Karen Memory because it was available as an e-book from my local library and I have enjoyed many Elizabeth Bear novels.

Karen Memery is a "seamstress" in Rapid City, somewhere along the West Coast during the Gold Rush.  The seamstressing is done on her back.  She has the good fortune to work for Madame Damnable, an extraordinarily tough and fair madame who is well connected in Rapid City politics.  The setting is Gold Rush steampunk--we have mostly horsepower for getting around, but electricity, dirigibles and advanced engineering are readily available.  A Mad Scientist license in Rapid City costs about the same as one for being a seamstress.

Things get rough when Peter Bantle, a nasty local pimp, gets higher ambitions and decides to run for mayor with outside money and a steampunk mind control device.  He is also harboring a serial murderer of white streetwalkers that brings Bass Reeves, a black US Marshal, to town.

The story is basically a good one.  We have romance (lesbian--almost feels required), adventure, strong women and strong men.  Bear is a good writer and brings it together well.  But there are a lot of problems that detract from enjoyment. 

Most steampunk novels, and lots of alternate history novels, are based around a speculation about the effects of a technological advance that takes place several decades ahead of time, like flight, electricity or computing.  The story then flows from the logical consequences of that advance.  But Bear is not a steampunk author--she writes fantasy.  That seems to show here, since the steampunk advances feel random and don't coherently drive change.  We have dirigibles, "surgery machines" that somehow harness analog power to do advanced medical care, and sewing machines that are operated from the inside like a tank (literally so later).  And a mind control device that acts through a focusing device at a distance, like some sort of early Bluetooth.

The title character's name is after a friend of the author's.  She alludes to the name pun early on but doesn't do anything with it. Karen has memories, but she does not exemplify or otherwise interact significantly with Memory in the book.

Karen speaks in rural dialect, which I find kind of distracting. 

All in all this feels like a book that didn't come together nearly as well as it could have.  The afterword describes her research and adds a lot to the enjoyment, which is why in the end I will give it 3 stars.  Possibly a stretch to consider it for an award.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Please Report Any Changes, by Scott Marengo

The last of my Wired Science Fiction issue reviews.  Please Report Any Changes is just a sad one, really from any time, about those who share their lives to alleviate their loneliness.  The narrator is part of a Belsen family, one whose every activity is monitored for a ratings service.  He's proud of it and his social life consists of relating to the technician assigned to his account.  But when his wife moves out he doesn't report the change, and eventually the service isn't interested in him anymore.  All the Lonely People.  It's sad but not terribly enlightening, though it is decently written.  In the end I can't give it more than 2 stars. 

The L7 Gene, by Jeanne Thornton

Another from the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  The L7 Gene ponders the ethics of cloning and gene manipulation in a way close to, but not the same as, the many other stories I've read on this topic.  I've read plenty, fictional and non, on designer babies.  But what if you could clone your existing, "imperfect" child and correct the mistakes?  The story explores a specific case, one where it is possible to correct the sex selection issue that produces transgender females.  There's some understandable resentment.  And what does the clone do?  Not quite groundbreaking but very current and very well done.  3 stars

Life On Garbage Island, by Ben Lasman

Another good one from the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  Life on Garbage Island describes a new landmass made from the various garbage vortexes in the Atlantic.  A place where people go to start over.  It has a great quote--"Life out here was a big adjustment from Brooklyn. Everything about it was so much nicer."  The protagonist, Francis, struggles to get by on a variety of gigs, noting that many on the island seem to somehow be independently wealthy.  He soldiers on and hooks up with a fellow garbage denizen for a trash romance.  There's a lot Lasman has to say here, the very idea of living off others' garbage is one that gives plenty of room to roam.  I say 3 stars.

The Great Dying, by Lydia Millet

Continuing the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  The Great Dying is probably the darkest of the issue's stories.  Basically about the end of the world due to climate change.  The protagonist is a teenager, not yet 18, whose parents have paid for a service to commit suicide.  They grew up in our time, when we could drive cars, eat meat, and other such extravagances.  The earth is in its last acceleration to full-on climate change, and they just can't face it.  The teens are understandably bitter, that the people who helped to bring this on aren't going to stick around for the hard part.

It's well written but a tough read if you think this is pretty close to the outcome we're going to have.  I don't quite think it will be that bad, but there's certainly a pretty good possibility of it.  3 stars for effective sadness.