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.