Friday, December 24, 2010

In Great Waters, by Kit Whitfield

I've read plenty of mermaid/men stories--there was another one nominated for a World Fantasy award this year, just as In Great Waters was. This book puts a very interesting new twist on it--the cross between "deepsman" and human is more fit for leadership than either purebred. That's the fantasy part, that human and merman can somehow interbreed.
The book builds somewhat slowly. Whitfield's characters, particularly the halfbreed royalty, are irascible and difficult to like. But build it does. All the types are fully described and realized, and by the end of the book you come to understand them. The royals seem more human than the humans, in the end.
It doesn't seem fated to last--as the clever humans develop technology, they seem likely to push the deepsmen aside entirely. But it's entertaining to think about.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lucky Strike, by Kim Stanley Robinson

War is probably the most popular topic for alternate histories. The Lucky Strike, by Kim Stanley Robinson, belongs to the most popular subset--World War II alternate histories. The What If--suppose the Enola Gay crew had had an accident and weren't the ones to drop the bomb? What would their backups have done? In this case, the backup bombardier struggles with the notion that he will aim a device that will kill 100k people.
Overall, the story is OK. Robinson is a competent writer, but it seems here that he has to try too hard to make his character sympathetic. There's tension, but not enough. The story touched enough of a nerve to get Hugo and Nebula award nominations in 1984, but Free SF Online was for some reason compelled to note that the story finished below "No Award" in the Hugo balloting. Just 2 stars.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cryptic, by Jack McDevitt

If we were to find sentient life outside of Earth, would they be friendly or not? This is the core of all SF involving aliens, and we have another take on it in Cryptic, by Jack McDevitt. It's a Hugo nominee from 1984. In it, the current director of the SETI project finds what looks like a signal stowed away without publicity by the previous director, and the story revolves around what that current head does to find out about the signal. Why was it hidden? Turns out it was double-hidden--it shows signs of encryption at its core. And there were similar ones from two separate but nearby stars. To the author, this indicates that they are at war.
Of course we know much more now about security. Even as the Cold War drew to an end, SF writers who wrote on human conflict focused much more on large states facing off, than on terror by small actors. Now we'd say those transmissions were just taking normal precautions. If aliens use even techniques we know about now, these, combined with the sheer alienness of the content, will render them impossible to decipher. And that would be normal, rational behavior. Oh well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Black Air, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Historical speculative fiction makes up a big chunk of the whole field, and when it's done well it's educational as well as entertaining. I certainly found Black Air to be both those things. Many others thought so too, since it was nominated for all the major awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1984.
I had never read speculative fiction about the Spanish Armada before. Robinson describes the conditions well, giving the inside dope on the rush job on some of the ships. We follow the teenage protagonist through his unusual spiritual development, where he learns the talent of seeing souls (as a flame above the head) from a friar on board. The talent can't save the Armada, but it does save him, in the end. Not too much speculation in it, really, but plenty of history. I recommend it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Melancholy Elephants, by Spider Robinson

In my reading of award nominees on Free SF Online, I am now up to 1983. Ronald Reagan is president and cracks are appearing in the Soviet Union. The course of the world has not yet been changed by fear of disease (AIDS, 1983), the Web (1992), terrorism (2001), or institutional ineptitude (financial crisis of 2007-8 and onward). In that year, Melancholy Elephants won a Hugo for predicting the end of creativity. The premise being that, since ideas and melodies are copyrightable, if copyright is extended forever, we will run out of original art.
Seems just goofy on its face. There might be something slightly to it if we were totally law-abiding, copyright respecting people, but we're not. Kazaa, sampling and China all push back. See Cory Doctorow for creative ways around this. The story is interesting in illustrating how speculation can get it wrong.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fire Watch, by Connie Willis

Award judges at times like to reward a story that relies mostly on its emotional strength rather than the speculative imagination, and that would be where they went with Fire Watch. It's a time travel story, but there's only a smattering of talk of grandfather paradoxes or whatever. It's mostly the struggles of a history student sent back in time to experience the saving of St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz. It's post Cold-War-Turned-Hot, which makes it feel dated, but that's OK. For me, it never quite got a grip. It depended a lot on the reader's independent feelings about the cathedral, and I can't say I'm familiar with it. But if you want to read it, do it soon, as Infinity Plus has been dormant for awhile.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Venice Drowned, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Venice Drowned was nominated for a Nebula award in 1981. The story itself is a decent one, Kim Stanley Robinson is a pro. But what really got me is that it's one of those SF stories that's coming true. The setting is around 2040, in a Venice that is much further underwater than the present city. The conflict is around removal of sunken treasures. The details are not overly important. Just go ahead and read it to see what's coming

Monday, December 6, 2010

Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer

At last, I return having finished Finch, the third novel in the Ambergris cycle by Jeff Vandermeer. Since it is the third one, I considered going back to the first one (City of Saints and Madmen), but had read that the novels stood alone. In the end, I am unlikely to go back to the rest of the series.
The novel developed interest for me as it went along, as it's only the second novel I've read about humans trying to live with really pervasive fungus (the first was by Greg Benford or Greg Bear, I cannot recall which), and the first that had fungus tech. The mood lent by the constant presence of fungus and rot is pretty distinctive. Also made the book hard to get through at times, in the middle it was a slog. There's some no-doubt quality writing here, but you really have to want to dig through it. Am looking forward to more online writing here soon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Back to the Stone Age, by Jake Saunders

Sometimes one-off stories by minor writers are hidden gems. Sometimes not. Back To the Stone Age would be in the latter category, I'm afraid. Not that it's bad. It's just not GOOD, not for an award nominee (the Nebula, 1976). There's plenty of WWII alternate history out there--this is a somewhat believable exaggeration of what would happen if the atom bomb hadn't succeeded, and we'd had to wear Japan down. Takes awhile to get what's going on, and by the time you do, it's not that big a deal. Saunders collaborated with Waldrop, so he knows his stuff, but it's a competent story, not a great one.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Feast of St. Janis, by Michael Swanwick

The Feast of St. Janis is a Nebula Award nominated story from 1980. And it's one of the very few stories I have read that combine the energy of rock music with any hard SF elements at all.
The basic elements of the story are a world role reversal--after the Collapse (seemingly involving running out of oil) America is a broken country, and Africa is on the rise. A trade representative is sent from Africa to make a deal for the best of what America has left--education and innovation. The protagonist ends up on tour with a Janis Joplin tribute singer. The singer basically reproduces Joplin's ballistic career, with our protagonist along for the ride.
It's really well-told, Swanwick really rises to his subject matter here. Finished off with a poignant ending, it's a story you can really say you are glad you read. Four stars, easily

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

I read The Red Tree because it's a World Fantasy Award nominee. In the end, I may not be able to be fair to it--the fantasy horror genre doesn't really appeal to me. Nothing about it changed my mind about the genre. It was meant to be shocking, or horrible, in some way, but while the things described were in fact pretty horrible and weird, they were on the tame side. Evil trees, nasty basements, and lesbian lovers have been done before. And the erotic scenes were only so-so as well. It was all about madness, and just didn't grab me. I will give it two stars in order to try to be fair.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ginungagap, by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is an inspired author, and has some brilliant work out there. He has a series of very short stories called The Sleep of Reason on Infinite Matrix that are really good and have not been collected elsewhere, so far as I can tell. Check them out soon if you are at all interested, the site is dormant and who knows how long it will still be around.

I've read several other stories, Ginungagap being the latest, and for some reason they never impress me quite as much. This one was a Nebula nominee in 1980. It sort of meanders at the start, then turns into a pretty decent story. It turns into an exploration of the problem of matter transmission--supposing we could transport ourselves by disassembling at our current location and assembling an exact copy at the other end. It's reasonably well done. But Star Trek explored this area pretty thoroughly in the series (see this Wikipedia article), and I can't see where Swanwick breaks any new ground. So it's just OK.

To be fair, The Sleep of Reason is the most recent writing of his that I have read, where he is matured as an author. So that's the stuff of his to read.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

View From a Height, by Joan D. Vinge

I think I have read View From a Height before, but this is a good audiobook version so it was nice to "read" it again. The one-way voyage is an inspired theme to build a SF story around, and this one is done well. The idea has been discussed for a mission to Mars as well. It's an interesting tour of ups and downs of deliberate, permanent isolation. I liked it, you will too.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mary Margaret Road-Grader, by Howard Waldrop

Howard Waldrop grew up in Arlington, TX--an area I know something about, so it's a nice connection. His work is quite likeable, something you can graduate to from David Drake. Mary Margaret Road-Grader is a good example of his work, a Nebula-nominated short story. It's a post-apocalyptic story, one focused on the winding down of automobile culture--Mad Max would be comfortable there. What's interesting about it is the depiction of the protean nature of Native American culture. The natives in this story have taken to automobiles the way their ancestors did horses, but the way of life is going away. It's a fine read, worth your time.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Barrow Troll, by David Drake

The Barrow Troll is a fun and interesting tale. Drake likes to describe the origins of his stories sometimes. In most cases it just points up how far short he is of the classics--it would be better not to know. Most of his work is nice light entertainment, and the backstory is at best unnecessary. But this story is a good one, a fantasy that turns out to be based in reality. Monsters are made from greed, not necessarily magic. His Norseman in this story is much more the villain than usual, and he makes it work pretty well. I like Drake's fantasy stories (see Old Nathan) at least as well as his science fiction work, which is pretty fantastic anyway, and this is a good example--it's the only award he's been nominated for.

Extreme Prejudice, by Jerry Pournelle

Extreme Prejudice is pretty much the opposite of the Silverberg story above. It's a sea adventure, exploring technologies to get us past the End of Oil. About ten years ago I would have said it was dated, but now several elements seem prescient. We at least ought to be exploring how the sea could help us with alternative energy. And if you substitute terrorism and its social corrosion for the rise in crime described in the story, it would seem right on. It's a good read and will keep you going, but in the end it is not particularly special.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Schwartz Between the Galaxies, by Robert Silverberg

Not much on this one, as I just couldn't stay engaged. Silverberg is trying to take on questions of cultural diversity versus the ultimate unity of mankind. His vehicle is Schwartz, a lecturer on the subject. The aliens in the story are a fantasy device of his, ending up drug-induced, I think. Meh. Schwartz Between the Galaxies is just OK. Again, better read than heard.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand, by Vonda McIntyre

Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand (acceding to author's request to link at this level) is probably Vonda McIntyre's most famous story. Though it is really a timeless tale, the particular voice she uses dates it. The hardened, wise female healer/shaman is a really hard-worked trope now, though it wasn't when she wrote the work. Mostly it's interesting now to remind us of the bond between healer and healed. It's worth reading for its place in SF history, though I can't think of any one element that would make it unique in this time.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

When We Went To See the End of the World, by Robert Silverberg

I'll take an audio recording when text isn't available, and that is how I listened to Robert Silverberg's When We Went To See the End of the World. It's very much a period piece. A set of middle-class swingers is engaging in some one-upmanship about having been on an excursion to the end of the world. Turns out it was different for each of them. It takes awhile to see their situation. SPOILER ALERT--they are being duped. As they are partying, news reports come in about various environmental catastrophes. It seems that they are being taken to the sites of these events, and each is being told that this is how the world ends. They are all right. Plenty of relevance for today, and subtly told. Good stuff from a grand master.

Friday, November 5, 2010

By the Falls, by Harry Harrison

We have all heard of the story of Plato's Cave, at least if we have had an intro to philosophy class. Persons chained in a cave can see shadows of things outside, and try to discern what is going on outside by the shadows. Such is the premise of Harry Harrison's 1970 Nebula nominee, By the Falls. Instead of a cave, there is a great waterfall, basically the edge of the earth. But the protagonists in the story are halfway down the massive falls, viewing it from the side. Harrison provides a great description of the falls' power. The reporter who comes to interview a man living beside the falls sees things in it, and tries to figure out what is going on at the top. Very interesting stuff, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In the Queue, by Keith Laumer

One doesn't have time to do much in a short story. The best ones have an incisive point to make. In the Queue was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula. And I guess the early 70's were tough years for SF. This story is a decent one, would make a nice little read in an SF magazine, but it's hard to figure why a story about waiting in line, for years, would be that original. So it goes.

Light on the Water, by Genevieve Valentine

Light on the Water is a fine little story. The author finds another way to treat the topic of inanimate, immobile objects falling in love or otherwise having human emotions. Having seen Toy Story and being in the process of reading Edward Tulane, I have seen this a lot lately. But this was a nice treatment that has a good touch. And only 10 min to read for such a gift.

Blood of Ambrose, by James Enge

Blood of Ambrose is a World Fantasy Award nominee for 2010. Other reviews have called it predictable, and it is, very much so. A standard coming of age story, where the protagonist is a bystander in his own fight. Owing to much pluck, he comes through in the end. I couldn't spoil it if I tried. Even the naming is predictable (the two overbearing saviors are Morlock and Ambrosia--really now).

But I'm glad I read it. The dialog is quite tasty, and the heroes have the twist of being actually heroic, though imperfect. There's lots of good action, and a fine pace to the plot. This is Enge's first novel. If he can take a few more chances with future ones, they should be pretty good.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Journal of Certain Events..., by Helen Keeble

I have moved on in my reading to World Fantasy Award nominees. There are not nearly as many of these online, but one that is, is quite a good one. A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc, or, A Lullaby, by Helen Keeble, is an interesting take on the mermaid story. There's a gender reversal that adds a little, but not a lot. But its real value is in its treatment of two very dissimilar species trying to communicate, while one has committed a horror upon the other. And yet this is overcome. It's well told from both points of view. Not often do I end up giving short fiction four stars, but this one does get that prize.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

For the past several weeks I have been reading The Gathering Storm, the 12th book in the Wheel of Time series. The series itself started over 20 years ago--I picked it up about 13 years ago. There aren't many fantasy or SF series that consistently made the NY Times bestseller list, but this one has. There may not be a lot I can add to what's been said about it already, other than my particular opinion.

But in that opinion, Brandon Sanderson is improving it. This series got so out of hand that Jordan was stretched past his limit trying to finish it. Though Sanderson says he had quite a lot of it written when he died. There are two volumes to go, and I believe I will go ahead and finish. The next one is due out in November, it will make a good New Year read.

Rand Al'Thor moves back to center stage in this one, and the conflict inside him comes to a head. He has always been in a fight to reconcile The Dragon Reborn inside him. And - spoiler alert - he does so here, in a way familiar to the best books in the rest of the series. What marked a difference for me in this series was that the protagonist, however difficult things get, is pulled on by more than sheer hope. He makes tangible progress.

Some absences are notable here. Rand and his immediate retinue are the only Asha'man to get any attention--Mazrim Taim and Logain are completely absent. Mat and Perrin get just a chapter or two. All these must be woven back in somehow, though there does seem to be hope for that. And the denouement of the book is a tremendous draw of the One Power into Rand, which other channelers don't seem to notice other than to note its side effects.

It will be satisfying to see this series finally conclude. It lived to be eclipsed by Harry Potter, but it will still go down as one of the great fantasy series, perhaps more comparable to Ghormengast than the Lord of the Rings, but still up there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Continuing my tour of 2010 Hugo award nominees, I just finished The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi has created a future world in which oil has collapsed, and power is created mostly from manual labor stored in "kink-springs", basically springs that can be tightly wound and release power steadily. Nature is victimized by various genetically engineered plagues, caused by agricultural firms that are big enough to be above the law. The Windup Girl takes place in Thailand, which has so far resisted breakdown caused by the plagues. It seems as if there could be no resistance, as most all local officials seem to be for sale.
Bacigalupi's real brilliance in this book is showing how a group of flawed, vulnerable human beings who seem ready to sell each other out can somehow turn the tables on outsiders looking to break them. Plots are foiled not by heroes, but by more ordinary, even mendacious people finding courage at critical moments. His short stories seemed scarily prescient. This book doesn't have that impact (it repeats the same threats many times), but the insight into a very different culture and its strengths, deeply embedded in its weaknesses, is powerful. Read as much of Bacigalupi as you can.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Today I finished Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, and can at last say I have read a recent zombie novel. This was published in 2009, so written in 2008, so I will say she gets credit for being ahead of the trend, by a little. The zombie wave is at its peak, probably just cresting, while vampires(Two-Disc Special Edition) still seem to have strength.

But on to the novel. This was a well-turned and entertaining read, and I'd say it is worth reading for free (as I did, from the public library). It didn't grab me in any special way. It has the various steampunky accessories, like airships in the 1870's. It is set in an alternate Seattle that got in on the Klondike gold rush, then was hit by the Boneshaker (of the title) and rendered into a version of Hell that reminds me of the environmentally blasted landscapes in William Gibson'sNeuromancer. But the alternate science is there mostly as a prop, other than some speculation on the cause of the zombies. The focus is on the characters, and while they are sympathetic (a mother going into Hell to get her son out), they just didn't get a real grip. But it's a 2009 Nebula nominee, and I like it enough for 3 stars

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Light of Other Days, by Bob Shaw

One other for today. Light of Other Days is more of an early story in classic mode, in that it stands alone--never was going to be a novel, not part of a series. An interestingly impossibly scientific premise is turned to the end of a good human tale. These are the stories that can stand up over time. This one seems a little familiar to me, I think I have read it before. Glass that can trap light for years at a time stores up scenes of beauty, and also of tragedy. Too hard to explain much without giving it away, just read it.

Mr. Jester, by Fred Saberhagen

Mr. Jester was a 1967 Hugo award nominee in the short story category. It's a Berserker story, of which there were many, most of which I have not read. This story does show Saberhagen's humor, but I think it would be hard to really get it without the context. So it's a toss-off.

The Witches of Karres, by James H. Schmitz

Just finished The Witches of Karres, a Hugo Award nominee for 1967. These 60's stories are a bit old fashinoned, but this one holds up reasonably well. It's basically a fantasy story set with spaceships, putting it as a precursor to "Star Wars" and other "galactic fantasy" stories (c.f. Mercedes Lackey). I'm not always a big fan of this particular strain, but I like it if the characters are well-done. And the ones in The Witches of Karres are. Captain Pausert is quite a likeable guy, as he copes with acquiring witch-like powers. So are the little witches. It's a fun read, easy to recommend, and probably could have won an award if it had been recognized more for the Nebula-type story that it is.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Goblin Night, by James H. Schmitz

James Schmitz's fiction was well-aimed at adolescents. I kind of wonder how his mostly male readers would have reacted to his very capable 15 year old female protagonist in 1965. In Goblin Night, she vanquishes an evil latent psionic with her own powers. The other fun story elements are a nightmare figure (a goblin, a horror vanquished during earlier planetary settlement) and an ultra-capable fighting dog. It's another fun little read, a period piece.

Balanced Ecology, by James H. Schmitz

Continuing my exploration of James H. Schmitz's award-nominated stories available for free online, linked from Free SF Online. This one is Balanced Ecology, a little adventure story. It follows a familiar line--children living in a fine, supportive environment are threatened by an evil uncle in league with commercial interests. They defeat him with the aid of the local life forms on their planet. But it's actually the planet itself doing the defending--the humans are integrated. It's a reasonable read, somewhat new for its time but familiar territory. Give it 2 stars

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Planet of Forgetting, by James H. Schmitz

James H. Schmitz was a prolific and decorated author in the 60's. The Planet of Forgetting was nominated for a Nebula in 1965. It's pretty much a standard action story, mostly focused on a Buck Rogers type space agent recovering his memory on a strange planet. The idea seed is about a particular way one of the native life forms has of defending itself. It is well executed and fun to read, but not unique or memorable. However, it was these sorts of stories that hooked me on SF in the first place--super capable men (nearly always) sorting out some unusual puzzle while doing intelligence work. Takes me back. Read it for relaxation, when you're not quite ready to sleep yet.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cat and Mouse, by Ralph Williams

Cat and Mouse is a Hugo nominated short story for 1960. It's a good adventure tale of a man pitted against a somewhat equivalent alien, a popular SF theme (including a Star Trek adventure and a better-known story that is not coming back to me at this time). This is the last story Williams wrote, apparently at his peak. It's OK, but there are many more like it.

The City and The City, by China Mieville

Just finished The City & the City, a Hugo-nominated novel by China Mieville. This is the first book of his, so I have not experienced his style--it's not for everyone, but I didn't mind. And the book itself is fascinating. The setting dominates the story completely, and drives it effectively. It consists of two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, that are barely civil to each other and intricately interleaved. Citizens are trained from birth not to notice the goings-on in the "other" city spliced through. The division is mostly maintained by psychology and behavior, though there is a possibly supernatural element thrown it that supposedly watches constantly for transgressions. In this bizarre setting a murder mystery takes place.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found the speculative elements very strong. I think it's a real contender for the prize. I found myself looking for real-world analogues--in the book, the characters specifically reject comparisons to Jerusalem or East and West Berlin, though I think the situation in the Palestinian territories might somehow compare. Settlements interleave intricately with Palestinian territory, most likely creating a mix of ostentatious ignoring, violence, and some secret trade. It's well worth a read, in that it does what speculative fiction should do--make you think.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson

Just finished reading this Hugo 2010 nominated novel. The first chapter, written as a standalone story, is available at Free SF Online as Julian: A Christmas Story.

The story is set in a world after oil somehow goes away (the age is referred to as "The Efflorescence of Oil"). It is not a dystopia--in fact, given the current outlook, one could regard it as something of a best-case scenario. America and its institutions have survived in recognizable form, and even prospered. The world somehow failed gracefully back to 19th century technology through the catastrophe (the "False Tribulation").

Julian Comstock's story is one of an American aristocracy that arises from the catastrophe. He is of noble blood, and comes to fight the tightly linked power structures of Church and State.

The action itself is a well-told coming of age story with strong tragic roots. It's good stuff, and I really enjoyed reading it. I can't say it breaks any new ground. From my own perspective it's almost too optimistic--if we do have a general failure of resources in the future, whether it's water or oil (water being far more likely), breakdown is far more likely than unwinding. But the setting is rich and fully realized, and the narrator of the story, Julian's best friend, has a fine comic-ironic voice.

The story is firmly grounded in the belief that truth and sense will eventually overcome ignorance and brutality. A very hopeful message in these times. I give it three stars. Read it and you will be entertained, with a lift besides.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Status Quo, by Mack Reynolds

Status Quo is a Hugo award nominated story for 1962, available on Project Gutenberg. Lots of great material there. This story is something of a sleeper. I had not heard of the author. The theme of the tale is keeping up with the Joneses, with a vengeance. The protagonist is Lawrence Woolford, a CIA man trying to rise in the organization by doing all the right things--drinking the right drink, reading the right books, driving the right car. Fads gone wild. If you don't try to keep up, you are "weird", next best thing to a Commie. So far, a pretty heavy-handed tale on the dangers of judging by superficial titles.

The story turns self-referential--there is a Movement afoot to fight such faddism, marked by extreme technical competence and political naivete. Our protagonist fights, and fights being seduced by, this group.

And so it goes, rolling along pretty well. But a good 2 star becomes a 3 star in the last 2 paragraphs. The ending is truly worthy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak

I recently finished The Love We Share Without Knowing, a 2009 Nebula award nominee. I wish I had better things to say about it.

The "novel" is a series of very loosely connected vignettes about expatriate Americans teaching english in Japan. The Japan of this novel is a brooding, elegiac place, where the weight of collectivism and general decline literally squeezes the life out of people. You are told right at the start that there is no happy ending or redeeming value, which leads one to believe that tragedy is immanent. Not really. Just lots of sadness.

The author is a decent writer, so the tales are crafted well. But they have a very dated flavor--from the main subject (Japan) through the subtext (9-11) and even the slang, the book seems like it sat for a long time on the author's computer before finally emerging.

Overall, slightly stale croutons--decent flavor but dated, and not at all filling. 2 stars, just.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Lost Kafoozalum, by Pauline Ashwell

Occasionally I go back and pick up old award nominees off of Free SF Online. Just finished The Lost Kafoozalum, a Hugo award nominee from 1961. I had never heard of Pauline Ashwell, she was not prolific though was nominated for three awards.

The Lost Kafoozalum is written in a unique voice, which made it sort of interesting to read. But she took a social engineering premise (averting a war by creating a common enemy) and then put it in the background, making it mostly an action story. The hero is a heroine, which is ahead of its time. But the story didn't age that well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

WWW:Wake, by Robert Sawyer

A few days, ago, I finished WWW: Wake, a Hugo-nominated novel for 2010. The novel is the first in a trilogy about the awakening of the world-wide web. I use the old-fashioned terminology purposely--this novel is reasonably well executed, but reads like yesterday's news all the way through. Really, we've seen this before. And nowhere better than Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

The plot is suitably ordinary--a young girl, blind from birth, gets a chance to try a treatment to correct the "coding error" between her eyes and her brain. Instead of seeing the normal world, she sees a visualization of the Web. And detects something else out there.

Sawyer is a veteran writer, and the execution kept me reading and entertained. But it has a flavor of someone's grandpa explaining new technology. Cute, sort of. It is flawed in other ways--there is a subplot on a smart chimp that never ties back in this novel. It's obviously intended for the sequel. Just a little sad that this sort of ordinary effort makes it onto a list of bests of the year.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Moment, by Lawrence M. Schoen

This story started out in a way that made me think it was going to be silly. The aliens in it were sort of whacked. But as it went on, it grew on me. In the end, it has a message and a grip.

The problem here is, I think the message is incorrect. Spoiler Alert: The story ends with aliens in the far future visiting the Moon, viewing Neil Armstrong's boot print. "This is where humans jumped off".

I think not. I watched the Moon landing in 1969. I took it for granted that we would be going into space, in numbers, in the near future. Instead we got the space shuttle. And with the troubles we have, and the troubles coming, I see no way we will be leaving this planet's gravity well in my lifetime. It is a truly sad state of affairs.

3 stars for the story.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Bride of Frankenstein, by Mike Resnick

Mike Resnick has a Hugo-nominated story this year, which, according to the introduction to The Bride of Frankenstein is no surprise. He is the most award-nominated writer ever. And this story is a good example of why. He is a great craftsman, making most any theme worth reading. This story in most people's hands would be a dull rehash. He lifts it with his understanding of people. I can't give this more than 2 stars, but it's a decent read.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Island, by Peter Watts

The Island by Peter Watts, a Hugo finalist, tells a really interesting story about a deep time colonization project. Peter Watts specializes in horror, so of course this has a dark turn. The human crew are creating colonization star gates for a completely post-human humanity. They live in tension with the AI guiding the ship. The protagonist has to work and contend with a human co-opted by the AI--her son. They encounter a large distributed intelligence encompassing a star. Their gate will destroy some part of it. Which part?

These kinds of stories aren't too common, but they are some of my favorites. I give this one 3 stars.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Overtime, by Charles Stross

Charles Stross has a Hugo-award novelette nominee to accompany his novella nominated Palimpsest. This one is called Overtime, one of a series of stories about the Library. The Library appears to be an ordinary sort of run-down British government bureaucracy, except that it deals with the supernatural. And it is dealing with the first of an expected onslaught of Things That Go Bump In the Night brought about by belief. The story is quite funny, a good read. If you like this you'll probably like Jasper Fforde's work.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It Takes Two, by Nicola Griffith

Just finished another Hugo contender, It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith. This story mostly centers around the lead character and how she falls in love with an exotic dancer in Atlanta. The lesbian angle makes it very 21st century. And it is quite well crafted, a good read. The science part, about how an experimenter managed to induce that love, reads like something that would very much be possible today, for an unethical researcher. Pretty interesting, but it feels slightly gimmicky to me and I can't give it 3 stars.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Of Our Bastards Is Missing, by Paul Cornell

Latest read in the Award series, this time the Hugo, is One Of Our Bastards Is Missing, by Paul Cornell. This story is the second in Cornell's John Hamilton series. The interesting thing for me was how it built. Even though it's part of a series, it stands alone well. You start off thinking it's just an alternate Elizabethan Europe story. Then the advanced technological elements get introduced, one by one. By the end, it's a very speculative story. And a good one. This particular ground is very well-trod, most major authors seem to have tried their hand at it. But this one is decent, worth 3 stars.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Palimpsest, by Charles Stross

Have just finished another Hugo-nominated novella, Palimpsest by Charles Stross. This is a very intricately woven time travel story, and very well told, probably the strongest of the lot I've read so far. The time entanglements in the story make it clear what a pain time travel would be if it were possible--times become more like places, infinitely accessible and mutable. There is a sense of time outside of time--the sense of bodily decay, I'm guessing. Some have speculated that that is in fact what time is, the sense of entropy. There's no rules in physics that say time has to run one way.

There is also a novel named Palimpsest that is nominated for a Hugo. It's a fun word to say--palimpsest, palimpsest, palimpsest. I expect to see it in a Zippy cartoon sometime.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bridesicle, by Will McIntosh

Death, and what it would be like to come back, is a dominant theme in speculative fiction. Bridesicle, by Will McIntosh, explores this territory by looking at one of the crasser motivations for reviving frozen and stored people. No afterlife here--the dead are simply gone until they revive, in this case as part of a dating service. The protagonist is a woman who died in an auto accident, but had a contract to be frozen and preserved. She is interviewed by a succession of men looking for a mate. This is a sufficiently weird twist to give originality to this kind of story, which is no mean feat. And it is reasonably well told so I will give it 3 stars

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going Deep, by James Patrick Kelly

Today I'll begin with James Patrick Kelly's Going Deep. It's pretty much a straightforward coming of age story, well written and paced as his work usually is. Mariska has a good life, but it is very predetermined, from her profession to her partner. She is happy in many ways because it's done so precisely, but it still chafes her. In the end, her only escape is to "go deep". Good stuff, but there's a lot like this out there so in the end I can't give it more than 2 stars.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Non-Zero Probabilities, by N. K. Jemisin

Continuing my reading of this year's Nebula Award nominees with Non-Zero Probabilities, by N. K. Jemisin. The hook on this one is that our good luck wards and gestures actually do something. Probability goes weird in New York, and unless you keep up on your luck the rare bad events will catch up to you. Seems kind of interesting, in that you would gain some control over otherwise uncontrollable events. And that's what some in the story think. It's reasonably well executed.

As a side note, it is interesting to see how many of the shorter fiction nominees are coming from online publications now--nearly all of them. The short form lives on in SF, in the advertising/sponsorware support model.

Bonus: Spar, by Kij Johnson

Given that an alien rescue could be most anything, I suppose it could be an endless fuck. So the story goes. Sort of interesting as a nightmare story, but hard to view it as a Nebula award nominee. Hard up, I guess. 2 stars.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela, by Saladin Ahmed

My latest read has been Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela, by Saladin Ahmed. This is a reasonably well-written story about a court physician who finds a hermit consorting with a hideous ghoul. The protagonist is a favorite of the caliph, but having unwisely resisted the caliph's wishes regarding his girlfriend, he must spend a little time among the country rubes reflecting on his behavior. He ends up performing surgery on a local hermit at the behest of his ghoul wife. The story is well written, but aside from the middle eastern setting it is not real different in any way. I give it 2 stars.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Memory of Wind, by Rachel Swirsky

Moving along through this year's Nebula Award nominees, tonight's review is of A Memory of Wind, by Rachel Swirsky. In this story we get Iphigenia's point of view on the Siege of Troy. All we know about her from Homer is that she was sacrificed to Artemis in exchange for a wind to blow the Greek army to Troy. The story is told in a haunting fashion, but it's kind of self-consciously so. While it was crafted well, it left me pretty much unmoved. Maybe it just isn't my thing. But it has many positive comments on the site, so quite possibly you will like it better.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Divining Light, by Ted Kosmatka

Moving on in my reading of the 2010 Nebula Award winners, my most recent read was Divining Light, by Ted Kosmatka. The protagonist is a brilliant quantum physicist, but the very study of physics has pushed him close to madness. He gets one more chance at a research laboratory, where he explores the implications of retrocausality in the classic two-slit experiment. This is really great stuff, reminding me of why I read speculative fiction. The collapse of a wave form to a particle form ends up to be used in a somewhat mundane way (detecting aliens among us). But Kosmatka's simple description of the utter weirdness of the two-slit experiment is priceless. Read it just for that. Four stars

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest: by Eugie Foster

Had time for another one today, this a tale of semi-horror, though not too scary. Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest describes a society in which one's identity is chosen every day, by means of a Mask. The story is interesting in that it focuses on tactile and scent communication, unusual in literature. And in the end it's reality-based, not magical. In the end its execution is just OK, I would not say this is a real contender for the Nebula.

I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said, by Richard Bowes

I have been reading the Nebula Award nominees available online--the latest was I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said , by Richard Bowes. The story is of a Greenwich Village man, seemingly rather ordinary, developing a serious illness and making contact with the world on the other side, as it were. The story has a very autobiographical feel--the character turns out to be a writer of speculative fiction. His struggles to maintain sanity might be contact with a different reality, or a more mundane slide into madness. This one grew on my as I read it, I like it just enough to give it 3 stars.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vinegar Peace, by Michael Bishop

My latest read is Vinegar Peace, by Michael Bishop, also available in this collection. I think I may actually have read it twice, which is too bad, as it isn't really worthy of that. Michael Bishop is always somewhat roundabout, but at his best he's quite entertaining. Chihuahua Flats is one of the more unique and memorable stories I have ever read. But this one doesn't quite make it, despite being nominated for a Nebula award. You can't win em all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sublimation Angels, by Jason Sanford

Today's read is Sublimation Angels, by Jason Sanford, brought to us by the good folks at Free SF Online. This fine work is a reminder that science fiction provides most of the support for work shorter than novels these days, particularly the mid-length (novella and novelette) categories. The story itself is a fairly standard adventure--a group of humans have been tricked into living on an alien's planet, and must somehow deal with them. Tension is built and released nicely. No new ground is broken, but it's a worthy read.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Act One, by Nancy Kress

The read of the day is Act One, by Nancy Kress. The protagonist is a dwarf, a man with achondroplasia. He manages a mature actress on a comeback. They are planning a movie about children genetically modified to be empathetic. Things get difficult when The Group, the power behind the modifications, decides that mods from birth aren't sufficient, and goes about infecting "normals" with some version of it via retrovirus.

The story explores themes of disability and people's reactions to it in somewhat standard but richly explored ways. Nancy Kress really knows how to write and construct a character, and this story shows her craftsmanship at its best. This plotline is also explored in David Brin's The Giving Plague, with a different setting but the flavor of the story is actually very close. Go out and read it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Arkfall, by Carolyn Ives Gillman

My read of the day is Arkfall, by Carolyn Ives Gillman. This is a Nebula award nominee for 2009. It is a competent story, exploring themes of interdependence and its limits. The protagonist learns about these limits while caring for her increasingly debilitated aunt, who is afflicted with Alzheimer's syndrome.

It's a reasonably good story, with current scientific interest and social relevance. Just not too much of each. It just doesn't have a lot of flavor, particularly for an award nominee. It reminds me of far too many stories, most of the ones in my 2-star category, which this will join. So it goes.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Makers, by Cory Doctorow

Just finished Cory Doctorow's Makers, which was serialized on TOR.com and is also on his blog. I read it in the serialized form, with a rather long break.

The book has some of his best characters yet--tinkerers, bloggers, evil corporate functionaries. And some really interesting ideas on where work is going. An entire way of working travels the hype curve. The storytelling is powerful and hits hard. I really enjoyed this one.

The only thing that wears a little thin is his thing with Disney rides. Doctorow has a complicated love affair with Disney. The theme of people obsessing over an amusement park ride was the focus of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I think he's pretty much done that.

For all that, it's a great ride. I recommend downloading off the blog site for reading, since some of the links in the tor.com serialization are messed up. But the comments on the serialized version are entertaining, and the commenters correct the bad links, so it might be worth a look.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tatja Grimm's World, by Vernor Vinge

Just finished Tatja Grimm's World, by Vernor Vinge, one of my very favorite authors. This one overall does not disappoint. It is a tale of superhumans in a human world, so Vinge here takes on the task of trying to represent the thinking of someone much smarter than any human can be. Mostly he just finesses it, but does it pretty well. In the end, my only complaint is that it seems such a partial story. There's so much more to tell about Tatja Grimm, and the book is not overly long. Good stuff, overall.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Diaspora, by Greg Egan

I've been away for awhile--as you can see my pace has slowed down a bit. A major distraction has been Tiger Woods 10 for the Wii. Maybe I should have blogged about that, but probably not. In any case, I have started reading science fiction again, not available for free this time but pretty cheap.

Diaspora is a sprawling novel in the tradition of other universe-spanners like Mike Resnick's Birthright: The Book of Man or Asimov's Foundation novels. But Egan's twist is always mathematical--the explorers are post-human software constructions, running as personalities inside "polises" of different flavors. Their efforts to save ordinary humans from destruction from a collapse of neutron stars lead to the discovery of an alien species that predicts a much larger disaster for the whole galaxy.

This is a truly twisted and difficult read, the mathematics are just on the edge of readable for a math tyro like me (I only took the major calculus sequence), and several of their adventures are dead ends. I couldn't finish it and couldn't give up either, because I really like other things Egan has written. But I can only recommend this one for his biggest fans. 2 stars, maybe

Diaspora, by Greg Egan