Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Plague of Demons, by Keith Laumer

Today I finished A Plague of Demons, a nebula award nominated novel from 1965. I've read plenty of Keith Laumer, particularly the Retief series (for example Retief's War, also on Free SF Online). He has a solid grasp of straight-up adventure, rewarding for a teenage boy to read.

A Plague of Demons revolves around the premise that earth has been secretly invaded by a group of nasty superior beings that steal soldiers for their wars, among other things. Not a lot of development, other than that they are mean. Our protagonist is outfitted with experimental augmentations to battle them. He is assisted by a secret society dedicated to the preservation of civilization. All these were prominent tropes in 60's SF, including campy TV shows (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, etc.). The novel is decent up through the part where the protagonist is captured and put in a robot himself--it gets confusing there, but drives on relentlessly. Just OK as a read. 2 stars

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Border Guards, by Greg Egan

Today I finished Border Guards, a Hugo-nominated novella from 2000. This one provides yet another reason to read lots of Greg Egan--a smoothly blended mix of hard science, strong characters, and probing of human nature. The story centers around Margit, a talented Quantum Soccer player new to the community of Noether. Noether is part of the New Territories, a mathematical extension of our familiar physical universe. You need to read it to get a decent explanation. What sets Margit apart is that she is old enough to have known death and suffering. These have been banished from existence, humans have complete control over their experiences and their minds are housed in nearly indestructible computers, fully backed up.

Unlike nearly all other authors exploring immortality, Egan presents it as pretty much a utopia. Life has been a long struggle to overcome death, and now the battle is won and there's no looking back. He rejects the dystopian visions as simple versions of the Naturalist fallacy--because death is inevitable for us now, we act as though overcoming it would be a bad thing.

It's unique, and I have to say I stand with the dystopians at this point. But it's a well stated case. Three stars

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Big Trip Up Yonder, by Kurt Vonnegut

For many years I read as much Kurt Vonnegut as I could find. I started reading him after I had read other young adult SF and had matured a bit in taste. I read Cat's Cradle with much pleasure, as a required novel in a high school English class, while others suffered. My first Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, which I unearthed in a junior high school library, of all places. Imagine that happening now (if you haven't read it, just go browse the introduction. But then go ahead and read it.).

So it was with much pleasure that I saw Free SF Online had picked up a story of his from Project Gutenberg called The Big Trip Up Yonder. It's a neat little study of immortality. Vonnegut's short fiction is very different from his novels--he gets right to the point, and you know what it is. This one is no different, and one could see where it might put your average mid-1950's reader's back up. Good stuff, go read it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Morality, by Stephen King

It's not every day that a major bestselling author gives away work, so I relaxed this evening with Stephen King's recent story Morality. It's a classic story of answering the question, "what would you do for money?". Pull the wings off a butterfly? Cheat on your taxes? Steal from someone you know?

The act the couple performs is in the long run harmless, but poisoning in a much deeper way. I won't spoil it for you in case you want to read it. They get paid, but the act poisons their relationship and lives.

My complaint here is that this story is just way too conventional for Stephen King. I haven't read many of the blockbusters, but have read a short story collection and a novel or two. His work has some real bite. Not this one. Read it for curiosity or completeness, but don't expect shocks or revelations.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An Award Nominee--What Were They Thinking?

First, my apologies for the long gap. My posts may be less frequent for awhile--reading less, working more.

Today's post is of the "I read it so you don't have to" genre. Spent my precious spare time reading a Hugo Award nominee from 1961, Rick Raphael's Code Three. You really do have to wonder what the nominators were thinking on this one.

The premise of the story is an extension of the car culture of the 50's. There are superhighways miles wide crisscrossing America, with passenger cars that can travel as fast as 600 mph on them. We follow a highway patrol crew of this future as they go out on 30-day tours in what amounts to a souped up RV, chasing random robber/killers and speeders.

None of it makes any sense. There's no particular reason for patrols to work that way. At 500+ miles an hour you can go from Alaska to the southern tip of Mexico in 12 hours. All jurisdictions become local.

And it makes no sense to drive at 500 mph on a road. It should have been apparent even in 1961 that cars of the future needed to fly. Even though we are still waiting for our flying cars.

But even bad stories paint a cultural picture--they represent ordinary thinking much better than the groundbreaking stories. And the culture here is the worst of the 50's, with casually sexist characters and some racial stuff in the mix. Any remotely interesting themes in the story aren't developed.

I've had one or two experiences like this. Catherine Asaro's The Spacetime Pool comes to mind. Just because it's nominated for an award doesn't mean it's a great, or even good, work.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Favorites: Julian, A Christmas Story, by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson is a highly decorated author, and you don't find much of his work available for free. But Julian, A Christmas Story, is out there, and it's worth checking out. His story of post-oil north america is a more graceful dystopia than most, with an emerging aristocracy carrying on. The craftsmanship is superb. His mostly understated exposition of the churches' roles is worthwhile for the religious. I recommend it at 3 stars

Read of the Day

Have just finished Karen Joy Fowler's Hugo and Nebula award nominated story, Standing Room Only. Am not sure what the fuss was about. Mostly it centers on Anna Surratt's mooning over suave actor John Wilkes Booth. I learned a couple of things about the co-conspiritors in Lincoln's assassination, but not enough to make it really worthwhile. 2 stars for decent writing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Favorites: When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth, by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is perhaps the foremost champion of free literature on the internet, and I've read most all SF he's published. When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth is probably my favorite story of his. It presents a very interesting picture of how system administrators, behind their negative-pressure secure doors, might survive a societal breakdown and help to rebuild. The geeks-rule sensibility has much appeal for me, and it's quite well told. Read it and go hug a programmer.

Reads of the Day

Emma Bull is one of my favorite authors, so when Free SF Online picked up several new postings by her and Will Shetterly, I bookmarked several for reading. Today I read What Used To Be Good Still Is, a nice little story about a girl preserving the spirit of a mined mountain. The story touches lightly on the effects of copper mining, but doesn't have nearly the punch of, say, Paulo Bacigalupi's The People of Sand and Slag. Probably didn't intend to. A nice diversion, but that's all. 2 stars.

Also read an early piece by Greg Egan, Neighborhood Watch. Egan started his career writing horror, but it is as well crafted as his later hard SF. But I'm not a huge horror fan, so I only give it 2 stars

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper

For the past few days I've been enjoying Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper, courtesy of the fine folks at Project Gutenberg. This novel won a Hugo in 1961, and retains its relevance today. I've been meaning to read this since I was a teenager, just never quite got to it, and am glad I finally did.

"Papa" Jack Holloway is a prospector on Zarathustra, operated by a company with a sole concession. Environmental changes brought on by massive wetland draining drive a migration of cute, smart creatures he calls "fuzzies" into his claim. The fuzzies seem to be sapient--which would cause the company's charter to be revoked. So of course they fight it.

The story seems somewhat naive in its faith in government to do the right thing--if the story had been written now it would be quite a bit darker. But it works through several grand themes in SF, including definition of what it means to be a thinking being and the necessity of doing justice to the less powerful. One can see the echoes later in Star Trek, where Captain Kirk and the rest of the Federation agents attempt to do the right thing by the beings they find. David Brin's Uplift Series works this theme as well, in a harsher reality but with the same faith in justice triumphing in the end.

Definitely worth going back for this one. 3 stars

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford

Today I read a very fine story called The Empire of Ice Cream, a story from the Star Ship Sofa anthology. The vehicle for this story is synesthesia, a condition in which a person's senses are cross-linked. The protagonist's condition goes as far as figurative synesthesia, in which the cross-sensations form concrete hallucinations. When he tastes coffee, he enters the life of another synesthete. But which one is the illusion?

The story also speaks well to the social isolation of those who perceive the world differently. We all get the feeling of being misunderstood, but for most of us it's not constant and permanent. One in that position might think oneself mad, even if it wasn't true.

The story was nominated for several awards, and won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. I give it three stars

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oceanic, by Greg Egan

For my most recent read I went back to Greg Egan, a favorite author of mine. Oceanic is a Hugo award winning novella from 1999. It presents a study of Christianity lightly translated through a space colony, and takes on the difficult topic of whether religious faith can survive scientific discovery of its roots.

Spoiler Alert

I'll go ahead and give a spoiler here to make a point--go read it and come back if it is important. In Oceanic, the colonist's faith turns out to be biochemically induced. When the story was written this was purely speculative, but many scientific reductionists have believed all along that something like this was the case. Recent evidence is starting to lead in the direction that religious experiences can be stimulated from outside (see this Wired article for a skeptical view). If this turns out to go somewhere, whither faith? It will be interesting to see.

3 stars for the story itself.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Random Draw

Yesterday I gave the new random story feature at Free SF Online a spin. I've found many goodies just by trolling around. I found The Vine That Ate the South, by Bill Kte'pi. This is a cute, competent little story--what a time traveler would be like if he were an ordinary sort of fellow. The focus of the story is on the time traveler's love interest, one Adamae. She doesn't think much of the fellow she met, but he always seems to know what to say and do with her, so she falls for him. Until she finds out.

This is a good exercise, but not a groundbreaker. 2 stars

Monday, October 26, 2009

Favorites: Life On the Moon, by Tony Daniel

One of my favorite discoveries on Free SF Online is Life On the Moon, by Tony Daniel. This is probably Daniel's best work, and it's a finely crafted story. Nell is an architect, and Henry a poet, and their professional pursuits intertwine in a fully complex and satisfying way. It would be a really good romantic movie, but too hard to film. The stories on Infinity Plus vary widely in quality, and it's no longer an active site, but as of today it's still around. Read this one before it goes away. A four star special

Recent Reading

Just finished Lion Loose by James Schmitz. I haven't read much of Schmitz, though he wrote quite a bit in the 60's and 70's. Probably the most famous books are the Witches of Karres set. This story is a very straightforward action tale, and though it's well put together it just didn't hold my interest. It had a Hugo nomination in 1961, but not all award nominees are created equal. 2 stars.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fortitude, by Andy Duncan

My latest read is an alternate history story, Fortitude by Andy Duncan. The story was nominated for a Nebula in 2000. It tells the story of George S. Patton's career, as if he knew he had lived it before. I have heard he really thought this, but couldn't find confirmation. The story itself is well told, but it mostly sticks to events, with a lot of time inside Patton's head. And I didn't really find him compelling. 2 stars.

Harry Turtledove and David Drake do this sort of thing well. Harry Turtledove has a new set of stories, Hitler's War, out this year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Favorites: Truth, by Robert Reed

Robert Reed is an author I enjoy reading, but in small doses. He tends to make me worry and have nightmares, as his stories are harrowing and have a deep ring of truth. Eponymously enough, Truth, a 2009 Hugo nominee, is one of his best and is a bit easier to read. Agents have captured an agent they are sure is from the future, and is much more sophisticated than they are. It's been impossible to break him or get anything significant from his interrogation. And yet he has the wherewithal to bring the world to an end in service to a future conflict.

The thread of the interrogation is really well done, and the ending is powerful. You should check this one out. It's a four star.

Read of the Day

Today I read The Man Who Lost The Sea, by Norman Spinrad, a Hugo award nominee for 1959. It's a kind of hallucinating tale of a shipwrecked astronaut, a theme that was common at the time. This method of storytelling had a strong thread through the sixties and early seventies, and Spinrad was very good at it. The method makes it feel just as dated as those early 1930's efforts, though. 2 stars, unless you're a history buff.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Planck Dive, by Greg Egan

There's a nice trove of Greg Egan stories on Free SF Online, and for the past few days I've been reading The Planck Dive, a 1999 Hugo nominee. Egan writes the hardest of hard SF--as with Gregory Benford, he is a practicing physicist. Egan goes even further than Benford, sometimes attempting to explain String Theory, even.

The Planck Dive goes very deep in this sort of explication, at the expense of the narrative. Really, the story part doesn't even make much sense, and didn't grab me at all. The story itself is 2 stars at best. But I bump it up a notch for this particular version, which includes very good background material on the physics involved. So as a textbook, I'll give it 3 stars

Friday, October 16, 2009

Favorites: Shadow Christ, by Martin Cowap

Shadow Christ is an awfully tough story to explain. It's sort of about playing with time, and religion, and deeper cultural commentary. The allegory is very subtle. I enjoyed it thoroughly and looked for more by Mr. Cowap.

Couldn't find a thing. Or any details about him at all. It's very odd, he has promise, but the only trace of him is this one story in a very mixed quality and now-defunct but still available SF website. Read it to enjoy a hidden gem, perhaps not sufficiently encouraged.

Read of the Day

Today I finished Poga, a story by John Barnes. This one is a nicely wrapped fantasy tale, but mostly in the real world. It's a good character study about a person coming to grips with herself. I can almost recommend it--but not quite. Read Shadow Christ if you are choosing between the two. Two stars for this one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

That Sweet Little Old Lady, by Randall Garrett

For the past few days I went back to Project Gutenberg to read an award-nominated story, That Sweet Little Old Lady by Randall Garrett. Free SF Online also gives a coauthor credit to Laurence Janifer, but Gutenberg doesn't mention him.

The MacGuffin here is ESP as a known and studied phenomenon. An FBI agent who figures he just gets lucky is assigned to find the telepathic spy. ESP doesn't get much play in SF these days, but was much more common as a theme in mid 20th century SF. Possibly because life is imitating art--brain research and progress in MRI study is making it possible to get a rough idea of what people are thinking about from the outside.

As for the story, it gets off to a somewhat slow start but picks up nicely. By the end I was amused enough to recommend it. 3 stars

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Oracle, by Greg Egan

Oracle is a very well-told story roughly following the life of Alan Turing, with SF elements added to explicate the story. Richard Stoney is being persecuted for his homosexuality, and is rescued by a mysterious protagonist. The highlight is a very rigorous intellectual debate between him and a well-known fantasist, John Hamilton. I give it 3 stars

Egan is right up there with Ted Chiang as the best hard SF writer currently active. He includes thorough explanations of seriously abstract mathematical and logical topics, much like in the Golden Age but with far more art to them. You feel like you could pass an upper division logic course after reading one of his books or stories. That might mean they are not for everyone, but they are for enough that he's won a Hugo and gotten eight other nominations. My favorite of his so far is Dark Integers, where mathematical proofs are used as a communication device. That one has the "could really happen" feel to it that the above story lacks in order to be really good.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Favorites: The Star, by Arthur C. Clarke

The Star is one of my favorites of Clarke's concerning religion. His grounding of the Easter story in a physical reality is interesting in that it calls into question the very basis of belief, even as it fully justifies belief with physical evidence. Others have done this since, but less artfully, as is evidenced by the fact that I can't bring them to mind. This is one of my four star stories, definitely one to read if you haven't or reread if you have.

Read of the Day

Every Hole is Outlined
by John Barnes is an interesting story describing a starship culture thousands of years old, where mostly automated ships continue to retain human crews for regulatory and occasional emergency use. The situation is very benign, and focuses mostly on a character study of Xhirina, the apprentice ship's mathematician. The events seem ordinary except that they see ghosts sometimes, and are interested by them. They are also trying to sort out why they are still needed, when technological progress seems to have made trade of physical goods obsolete. The story sort of rolls along in a satisfying way until it is over. But there really isn't that much here, so I can't recommend going out of the way for it. Barnes is one of my favorite authors, but I have no active free favorites for him at present. Hope to get one soon. 2 stars

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Pirates of Ersatz, by Murray Leinster

"Again time passed. In one of the remoter galaxies a super-nova flamed, and on a rocky, barren world a small living thing squirmed experimentally—and to mankind the one event was just as important as the other."

Spent the last several days reading The Pirates of Ersatz, by Murray Leinster. The novel was nominated for a Hugo in 1960. This is one of the last stories of Leinster's career, and shows his maturity as a story teller. The protagonist, one Bron Hoddan, is a young but world weary soul, his talents unappreciated. And world weariness like the passage above doesn't come about until you earn it. I can see why it was nominated, and why it didn't win. It goes on just a bit too long, and the irony wears after awhile. I give it two stars, but wasn't sorry to have read it.

New on Free SF Online

The webmaster continues his major update of the site. I wrote to him a few days ago in appreciation, and to suggest a random story link, for those who want to uncover a gem. There it was, the next day! That's fan appreciation.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Atlantis, by Orson Scott Card

Atlantis is a very sharp tale that neatly ties Atlantis to the flood of Noah, in a quite believable way. Card is a superb writer, and his hero Kemal is both larger than life and human. I owe Card my position on speculative fiction as the best vehicle for exploring the meaning of religion--Dan Brown's thrillers are crap by comparison. I've only read bits of his Alvin Maker series, but what I've read has been very good.

Read of the Day

Nine Yards of Other Cloth is an award-nominated story by Manly Wade Wellman. I found the introduction very interesting, it gave good background on a man mostly thought of as a second tier writer. The story itself is OK, not sure if I will return for more of that collection. 2 stars

Monday, October 5, 2009

Library Fantasies

No, not that kind.

I used to be a devoted user of libraries, from childhood up until about 15 years ago. My mainstay was the science fiction section. My grand fantasy was to read every book in the section. I tried this in several places, even keeping track with a database at one point. I usually began at the head of the alphabet, and made it through somewhere in the D's before giving it up for other pursuits. Fortunately there are many great authors at the head of the alphabet in SF (Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Benford, Brin, just to name a few...). And I discovered many treasures among the ordinary stuff.

Free SF Online revived this particular quest. It had thousands of stories when I began following it about three years ago, so I knew I couldn't really read them all. But I could stay ahead of the new additions at the front of the alphabet and make some progress, and got most of the way through David Drake, the attendant variation in quality.

Recently the creator of the site (Richard Cisee) made the site even better by making it a more comprehensive top site for free SF. He no longer attempts to be selective, covering a large set of publications completely. So now I can't even keep up with the A's, much less make headway. A good thing--I am off to explore the best of this and other collections, and there's a lot of good material. Here's to the good stuff!

The People of Sand and Slag, by Paulo Bacigalupi

And here is a prime example, another recent story by a great current author. This one is perhaps even sadder than his stories of life falling apart--the people in it are happy, but they aren't really human anymore. They live on the poison they have created from constant war, having adapted to it. Then they find a dog that is somehow still alive in the mess. And it's a pain to keep it alive.

In the introduction Bacigalupi says the story was inspired by a real dog living by the Berkeley Pit in Butte, MT. I used to live up that way and have been by once or twice. It is one of the eeriest places on earth, a blasted landscape with a large livid green-blue lake in it. The thing was allowed to fill when the Anaconda company couldn't make a profit anymore. A flock of geese once touched down on it during a migration--not one took off again.

3 stars

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Asimov's Best For Free

The Last Question, one of Asimov's best, is now available in a free anthology online. I have not seen one like it before or since, and it truly displays SF as a literature of ideas. How can entropy be reversed?

Read of the Day

The Ghost Fleet is from The Trouble With Aliens, a collection of Christopher Anvil's stories about alien conflict. This is from a series called The War With The Outs, the Outs being a human-like race with incredible powers of persuasion. Mostly pretty forgettable, this one is 2 stars.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pandora's Legions, by Christopher Anvil

Spent the last few days reading Pandora's Legions, a novel put together from several stories following up on Anvil's most famous tale. The first story, Pandora's Planet, is very typical of him and was anthologized many times. It tells the story of the human encounter with the Centrans, a vast star civilization. The humans are much smarter than the Centrans, and tie them in knots, thought they can't quite beat them. It's basically the same plot as Turning Point, the last item discussed here. It's OK, but you're better off with Poul Anderson. 2 stars

Christopher Anvil and John Campbell

As noted in Wikipedia's article on Anvil, he was a competent executor of Campbell's favorite plot. When John Campbell founded Astounding, he was tired of the stories of aliens running roughshod over Earth. He wanted stories where the Earthlings won out. Campbell shaped the best minds in SF around this vision--Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke.

Read of the Day

Sweet Reason is another unconnected story in the Pandora universe. This is more typical, not real good Anvil stuff--the ideology overcomes the storytelling. Basically an apology for spanking. One star.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Turning Point, by Poul Anderson

Read of the Day

Had to get back on to share a classic from Poul Anderson, Turning Point. It's classic Anderson, a team of traders figuring out how to handle an alien race that's so superior and nice it's just not fair. Anderson's heroes are broad-living men, good at most everything they do, and can even handle it if they are not the best. Eric Flint's intro to the story casts Anderson in the same light. This is from a collection called The World Turned Upside Down, which I will return to after a detour into some Christopher Anvil...

3 stars for this one.

Frank Herbert's Dune series

Yesterday I read a short story entitled Treasure in the Sand, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Brian Herbert is Frank Herbert's son, continuing the franchise with wordsmith Anderson. The piece is a corner tale, about a priest of Dune's religion coming back to the long-dead planet to find treasure.

The Dune Series

Herbert's Dune novels are about as complex as books can be without completely losing the reader. You can get sucked in by them just through the accomplishment of understanding some of where they are going. The influence was tremendous. Really I don't have much to add--except that I wish I'd been older when I read them, or raised UU, or some such. I read them as a teenager and persevered through references I couldn't understand or figure out how to look up (Zensunni? WTF?). I read several of the novels before finally wearing out on the series, but I deeply sympathized with Paul Muad'dib.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Favorite Stories: Karuna, Inc. by Paul Di Filippo

One of my favorites found through Free SF Online is Karuna, Inc. by Paul Di Filippo. This is a powerful good vs. evil story, with great characterization. A veteran named Thurman, hanging on to life, is transformed by his association with Shenda Moore, a dynamic Caribbean woman. She has created a working cooperative per the title of the story, where people having hard luck like Thurman can work. She takes on the completely amoral Phineas Gage society. The story is a great ride, of people surmounting tremendous limitations to confront evil. Go read it for a lift.

Read of the Day

Today I read a story from Eric Flint's Ring of Fire anthology, called American Past Time. This is part of a series featuring a 20th century small town in America displaced to 1632 Germany. It's a decent read, but nothing to chase down. It is part of a large slug of material posted on Free SF Online from Baen Books, and I'll be reading a lot of it in the next several days. 2 stars for this one.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Come Lady Death, by Peter S. Beagle

Today I listened to Come Lady Death, a very fine short story by Peter S. Beagle, and the first story for Podcastle, a fantasy podcast site. This is from Beagle's early period. His most famous work is The Last Unicorn, and a coda, Two Hearts, is now available for free.

Come Lady Death describes the jaded life of Lady Neville, who is the most fashionable lady of London. She grows bored with the role, and decides to invite Death to a party. And Death comes. And decides to stay. The guests' fear and fascination with death come through. It's well read and a good listen--I give it 3 stars.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Crystal Spheres, by David Brin

The Crystal Spheres is a podcast on StarShipSofa. David Brin takes on a theme that occasionally crops up in SF and colloquial contexts--why are we alone? Why have no alien civilizations contacted us, or conquered us? Earth has been prime real estate for billions of years, and yet no credible evidence of visitation (UFOlogists aside) has been found. Life should be common, but it isn't. Stephen Baxter's Manifold Time touches on this as well--see my earlier review.

Brin's take is that Earth has been surrounded by an undetectable sphere, which we broke accidentally from within. We explored outward, and found all other habitable planets similarly protected, and we cannot break in. The sadness and loneliness of future humanity is palpable.

This one is going on my all-time favorite list--I highly recommend it. Four stars.

I also listened to Brin's Tojours Voir. A very tiny piece on epilepsy as a space travel device, cute if you're a Brin fan. I have seen this theme before, but cannot remember where--will catch you up if it comes back to me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Bookmarks

About three years ago I began bookmarking SF I had read or planned to read on Delicious. Over 800 items are on the lists now. On the site I've written very brief reviews/descriptions of the stories, with a 5 star rating system like those occasionally shown on Free SF Online. If you want to check it out, go to Delicious ( and check out peterkin's bookmarks.

Read of the Day: Hell Fire at Twilight, by Kage Baker

This is a 2 hour podcast on StarShipSofa, a fun site I'm getting to know through Free SF Online. It is a tale set in Elizabethan England, but the protagonist is a time traveler. The plot is a bit thin, centering on a fake manuscript. The rather florid reading on the podcast is simultaneously interesting and irritating, in the end it kind of makes the tale. OK, but not a short lister. Rating: 2 stars.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hell Is the Absence of God, by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is my favorite author to emerge in this millenium. His stories challenge you to follow them through and consider the ideas. So I have been very much looking forward to reviewing Hell is the Absence of God as free online literature.

The piece depicts a world in which God, through the Angels and other beings, is very much a part of ordinary life. But that presence has a very random feel to it. Miracles happen regularly, but they produce collateral damage. The story revolves around ordinary peoples' responses to both.

It is a very thought-provoking piece. Chiang manages not to fall into the ordinary supernatural-being-in-the-story traps, just as he avoids the usual time travel lessons in The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate. The Podcastle website allows comments, and there are some highly literate ones. As an SF reader and a religious person it was a must read (listen) for me.

Podcast Vs. Reading

And yet, like several other commenters, I will want to go back and read this one in print. The audio quality is a bit poor--I don't recommend listening in the car. The deadpan reading style actually helps one focus, in my opinion, but not all would like it. When I have the choice, I like my SF as literature rather than a story told to me.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gregory Benford, a Favorite Author

I've read all of Greg Benford that I can find for several years. Today I read a little piece he published in Flurb, a very attractively produced online 'zine. Paradise Afternoon depicts a couple of researchers discussing what they cannot say around the FDA, as very advanced bugs hover near. It's a toss off piece for him. Much better pieces available online for free include Bow Shock and I Could've Done Better. His Galactic Center series was my introduction. Great stuff.

Reads of the Day
Up today was a nice little story from Ruth Nestvold entitled "Mars: A Traveler's Guide". It's a quick read from what looks to be a very good anthology, StarShipSofa Stories Vol. 1. You are reading the results of a traveler's database search, which gives clues to his situation. I've seen this plot device before, but cannot remember just where--if I remember I'll post it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Pump Six, by Paulo Bacigalupi

Pump Six is the lead story in a collection of the same name. The link is to a podcast including it. Paulo Bacigalupi is a very hot name now, one of those who is capturing darker versions of our future. This story tells how quality infrastructure might do us in, by continuing to function incrementally less well as time goes on, such that we forget how to maintain it. Sounds like modern India, or, increasingly, the U.S. I don't think we're actually in danger of having this particular future materialize--what we build doesn't hold up nearly that well, though some water systems do remind one of it (there are wooden pipes under Boston, leaking 5 gallons for each one they deliver).

This one goes on my recommended list.

Read of the Day

Also in the above podcast is Iain Creasey's Reality 2.0, a piece of irony done as an infomercial. Check it out for a little laugh. The folks in Pump Six world might have been able to manage Wondernumbers.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Keys I Don't Remember, by Forrest Aguirre

Keys I Don't Remember is a tasty little story that stretches SF greatly. Aguirre has honestly achieved unclassifiable status, and is proud of it. This one is worth checking out for a quick challenging read.

Read of the Day

Today I listened to Gigantic, by Steve Aylett. Aylett inhabits a strange space, and this is a strange podcast, on the comeuppance of dismissers of weird theories. Don't know that I would repeat the experience.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Best Obscure SF Novel Ever

Thanks to Free SF Online, a few years ago I found this very fine unpublished work by Michael Coney, Flower of Goronwy. It is the story of a galactic UN-type mission that turns into a career for well-meaning but only marginally effectual bureaucrats. I really haven't seen that theme very often. The aliens appear familiar but are thoroughly alien underneath. Most notable is that it has the two most fully-realized female characters I have encountered in SF, and they are extremely different from each other. All in all, a delight to read. It was never published, so you can join a very elite group of readers. Take the opportunity while it's still posted.

Reads of the Day

Michael Allen's An Invitation Via Email is in this issue of Weird Tales. Very much a tossoff, not much here, but the rest of the issue looks OK.

Kevin J. Anderson's Newts is a smooth and competent tale, as all of Anderson's work is. He tells the tale of an Earth colony founded by a leader/prophet, now under attack from decadent Earth. His perspective is that of a "newt", a neutered man who cannot feel the deep emotions of the time. It's an interesting exploration of how it would feel to not feel. My only critique is that the story is kind of told backward--the backstory comes a good ways in, making the front harder to follow.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Manifold Time, by Stephen Baxter

Manifold Time is a great big read from Stephen Baxter. It takes on nothing less than the making and remaking of the future of the entire universe. The central character is Reid Malenfant--"bad boy", loosely translated, and it fits him nicely. He overcomes bureaucracy by daring in an attempt to understand events. These kind of big scope books are my favorites--Cosm by Gregory Benford and Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick are good examples. There are actually sequels, maybe I will check them out someday.

The book came at an interesting time for SF. It was a heady time--published in 2000, after we all survived Y2K and the .com boom was still on. Cyberpunk still dominated SF at the time, so a big book about the universe was a little unusual. But it fits Baxter to a T. In Manifold Time we read the confidence of that era, that even if we didn't know the answers we could find a way through.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Current Read: Manifold Time, by Stephen Baxter

Manifold Time is the first in Stephen Baxter's Manifold series. It recently became available as a free PDF--this blog will be on hiatus for a week or so while I read it (so little time in the day!) and I will let you know what I think of it.

Baxter's works don't quite make my very favorite list, but there are many on the Very Good list. SHEENA 5 is a preview of the above book, if you want a sample. Fubar is a cute quick read. I don't always agree with his worldview, but I like his style. More on that after Manifold Time.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Under Arctic Ice, by H. G. Winter

Under Arctic Ice is another early Astounding Stories piece, by Harry Bates and Desmond P. Hall under the H. G. Winter pseudonym. The hero is more sympathetic than their Hawk Carse stories--an ordinary man with an extraordinary tale, scorned. He rises to the occasion. It lacks the prevailing cultural biases of the time, but that actually makes it less interesting. Pretty much skippable.

Favorite Stories: Kij Johnson, The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change

Now THIS is a good one. It haunts me to this day. Most stories about speaking dogs kind of assume we'd get comfortable with the idea. This one is more complex, the dogs have their own interior lives we just can't quite handle. And cats are just right out. If you really want to think hard about our relationship with animals, this would be the story to read.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Bluff of the Hawk, by Anthony Gilmore

The Bluff Of the Hawk is the second in Gilmore's Hawk Carse series. Mostly about how wonderful Hawk Carse is. Why am I reading it? Unintended humor gems. Hawk's sidekick, a stereotyped African American, is named Friday. One of the hero's friends lives near a town named Porno. All without apparent irony. Nuff said.

The Best SF Story Ever
Isaac Asimov's Nightfall is now available as a podcast on Escape Pod. Not much to add to this story, except to make it free! Seeing something bad coming, not quite knowing what it is--all told in the cool, rational style Asimov mastered. It gets no better.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Veteran, by Neal Asher

The Veteran is a podcast of this Neal Asher story. It's reasonably well put-together. Neal Asher gets better as I read more of him, someday I think he might write something striking. This isn't quite it.

Favorite Stories: Understand, by Ted Chiang

Most stories about very advanced human intelligence sound stupid. It's hard not to sound stupid describing something smarter than you. This story does not sound stupid. Chiang captures the essence of how it feels to be way, way ahead. The 'zine where this is published is no longer active--get it now while it's still live. Chiang is an amazing author, every story makes you think hard.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Why this blog? It's about free literature, and freedom from ownership. From very early on I have deeply enjoyed the atmosphere of access to literature without concern for ownership. Before the internet I was a devoted library user, and in fact became a professional librarian for many years. I love to read, and love books. But I've bought no more than 20 or so for myself, aside from textbooks. Access is sufficient--I do not need to own them.

Along comes the internet, and more than I could ever read is freely available. All hail Project Gutenberg. And then, even better, Free SF Online. Science fiction has by far the strongest tradition of freely available work, I have not found near its like in mystery or any other genre. It's a feast larger than I could possibly digest--but I dine on as much as I can, and I'll share the goodies I find in the process.

Acephalous Dreams, by Neal Asher

Acephalous Dreams is a novelette-length story, about a man convicted of murder given the opportunity to be in an alien tech experiment instead. Neal Asher's work is pretty uneven, ranging from OK to unreadable--haven't found one I really liked. This one has better execution than average, but has some unnecessary violence that isn't quite justified by the story quality. A near miss, maybe the next one will be a hit.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Paradox & Greenblatt, Attorneys at Law, by Kevin J. Anderson

This story is a nice little time travel tale. As said earlier, Anderson is a good wordsmith and his stories are entertaining. If you're looking for challenges, though, this wouldn't be one.

This story is part of a large group of podcasts from Escape Pod, linked from Free SF Online. I'm a literacy snob, but since I read these late at night it's relaxing to listen for awhile.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Job Qualifications, by Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a polished writer, who mostly seems to work in others' universes. Job Qualifications is a decent little story about how a candidate for high office might go about acquiring the necessary worldly experience to do the job--via clones. If you want a more full treatment of this theme by a deeper writer, try David Brin's Kiln People

A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica, By Catherynne M. Valente

This one is a World Fantasy Award nominee, and I must say I've never seen cartographic fantasy before. Though it seems fertile ground, when you think about what early cartographers put on their maps--dragons, mermaids, etc. It's cool in a sort of "you had to be there" way, but I can't quite recommend it unless you have a background.

Favorite Stories: Nothing to Declare

Every once in awhile a story hits you just right. This one is not particularly speculative, though it was linked off of Free SF Online. Just how much does attribution of our stories matter? If we make a real difference to someone else, why do we apologize to ourselves? This story of ordinary life hit very close to home, in a "wish I'd done that" way. Read it and see for yourself.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Affair of the Brains, by Harry F. Bates and Desmond Hall

Project Gutenberg has been putting up some of the early Astounding Stories material. This story is one such, very typical. Not a lot to recommend it unless you are into this period.

But reading such stories is a real insight into the WWI-II interregnum. The villains are canny Eurasians, Chinese or Japanese. Germans were not the villains yet, it was thought they had been subdued. The overt racism and sexism of the period are educational as well.

Favorite Stories: The Underhandler
Christopher Anvil wrote quite a lot of stories that are so bad they're hard to read. But I decided to wade through at some point, and found a gem. The Underhandler captures the frustrations of working with a consultant, and trying to figure out what the heck subordinates are trying to communicate in their reports, with a fine wry touch. Go read it for a great time.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Makers, by Cory Doctorow

I'm following Makers, Cory Doctorow's new serialized novel, on Tor's website. Doctorow has become very good at writing SF by chronicling the cutting edge of the present. 24 of 81 parts have been posted so far, and it's taken many good twists. The future just gets weirder as it gets closer to the present.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Valor of Cappen Varra, by Poul Anderson

This short story was recently posted on Project Gutenberg, linked by my favorite website, Free SF Online. Cappen Varra is a little atypical for Anderson's protagonists--most are larger than life, Varra is small and clever. It's a fine tale of confidence, and I can highly recommend it

Poul Anderson has long been one of my favorites, I have read nearly all he has written. Nicholas Van Rijn of the Polesotechnic League is my favorite character of his. Anderson's writing shows classic mid-century SF values--libertarian yet big-hearted, a paen to the capable. Grownups know better, but hey.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Far Side of the Stars, by David Drake

Just finished The Far Side of the Stars, one of David Drake's formula SF adventure stories. It is the third in the Royal Cinnabar Navy series. A fairly ordinary work, entertaining enough to stay awake but not a must read unless you're a big fan. The main character is a somewhat stereotypic librarian, though she's pretty much a hacker as well.

David Drake

Drake posts a lot of his work for free, mostly available on Baen's Webscription site. My somewhat quirky choice for his best work is a foray into fantasy - Old Nathan. There are a few other goodies I'll mention another time.


This is pretty much a personal effort, capturing thoughts and opinions of what I've read. It will mostly cover material that is available without charge online. Cheap entertainment rules.

I will include frequent lauds and shoutouts to Free SF Online. It is the single best source for quality free speculative fiction online. I've been reading it with near obsession for about four years now, over 800 items and counting.