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