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.