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.