Friday, December 30, 2011

Maneki Neko, by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is one of my favorites, and I try to read whatever I can find of his.  Maneki Neko got a Hugo nomination for best short story in 1999.  When it was written we were on the cusp of the Web.  I was on Compuserve at the time--there were several proprietary networks that worked sort of like the Internet was going to. 

So Sterling imagines people organizing into mutual aid networks, with computers that keep track of the favors people do for each other.  You do little favors for people, without knowing them or knowing why.  Sterling portrays it as pretty much positive, but at the same time gives a pretty good picture of how it could be subverted.  It's a really interesting short read, and with four stars you should go read it.

Divided by Infinity, by Robert Charles Wilson

I love idea stories.  Idea stories are what hooked me on SF in the first place.  Divided by Infinity is almost a pure idea story, though it has some good characters wrapped around it.  It was nominated for a Hugo for best novelette in 1999. 

The idea is a variation on the "many worlds" hypothesis of physics--that at each point where things could have happened differently, they DID happen differently, in some branched reality.  The argument is that, once we come together as conscious beings, our consciousness maintains contact with all these alternate realities.  And it keeps going on, as long as there is some reality, no matter how weird, in which we could go on. 

Now, there are a lot of holes and gaps in making the leap to having a consciousness that spans realities.  When would we, as individuals, start?  How does our sense of being in one place transition across possibilities?  The "many worlds" theory itself runs into a lot of trouble as an explanation for reality.  We end up imagining a cosmos so big, that everything that could possibly happen has happened, an infinite number of times.  That has no explanatory power at all.

Wilson doesn't fight this implausibility, he just works it in, which makes the story very interesting and worthwhile to read.  Am giving it four stars, go experience it for some mental stimulation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Presence, by Maureen McHugh

Presence is another story in Maureen McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters collection, and I liked this one quite a bit.  It's a very close and informed view of what it is like to deal with someone with Alzheimer's disease.  The growth in this condition would be considered far more tragic if several other impending tragedies like global warming and such were not drowning it out.  In this story it is possible to cure the disease, but at great monetary and personal cost--the recovered person is not really in any particular sense the same one.  This happens in other conditions  as well--see Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for how this transpires in personality disorders.  Our identity is indeed fragile.  3 stars.

The Specialist's Hat, by Kelly Link

The Specialist's Hat is another story in Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen collection, and it won the World Fantasy Award for 1999.  The hat is indeed a nasty thing, what with it's making noises like "an agouti" and grunting and such, but the setting is highly fascinating--a huge old mansion with eight three-story chimneys.  Cool indeed, and they have interesting secrets.  The story is well constructed and flows nicely, so no surprise it won.  I still like my fiction a bit on the harder side, so I will give it 3 stars to be diplomatic.

Every Angel is Terrifying, by Jonathan Kessel

I'm never quite sure how to react to stories that are mostly horror.  Every Angel is Terrifying is probably a good one, part of Jonathan Kessel's Baum Plan for Financial Independence collection.  The macguffin in it is a wish-granting cat, though it would be wrong to say it is the focus.  The focus is a cold-blooded killer who seems to be trying to go straight.  Way hard to do, really.  And he doesn't understand the cat.  Well, it's interesting to read, so I will give it 3 stars.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Random Readings

I read a couple of stories on the way to other things, so am going to go ahead and react to them here.  John Kessel's The Baum Plan for Financial Independence is the title story in the collection.  It is a nicely set story, with some reasonable characterization, but I can't say it is really all that special, just a pot of gold story.  Wicked is a very short filler piece in Maureen McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters collection.  I never quite know how to react to these in writing.  Reminds me of the ending of The Neighbors with John Belushi.

Ancestory Money, by Maureen McHugh

Ancestor Money, part of Maureen McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters collection, is its lead story.  And it's the one by McHugh that I've enjoyed the most so far.  It got a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2004.  There is a strain of thought in Christian afterlife that says it's pretty much like an ideal version of life on earth--a nice little house with a yard and time to enjoy it.  Meant to appeal to lower-middle-class folks, I got it on a flyer once.  This is where our protagonist is, and has been there happily for seventy years, though there is no real presence of God.  Then she gets word that a granddaughter has sacrificed money for her in a Buddhist temple, and she can go claim it.  It's a very well-told and thoughtful tale, and I am glad I read it.  With three stars you should go ahead and read it too.

Itsy Bitsy Spider, by James Patrick Kelly

I've been a bit disappointed by the award nominated stories I've read recently.  Some were good, some not so good, no real grabbers.  I am much happier now, having read Itsy Bitsy Spider, by James Patrick Kelly.  This story manages to combine speculation on future care of the elderly with some serious emotional content, including a very subtle but powerful reorienting of the protagonist's perspective on her father.  I was deeply moved and smiling when I finished, and had plenty to think about, which is all one could ask for in a story.  Really interesting, and I truly hope you go read it, as it does what speculative fiction can do better than most any other genre--get you far enough out of your normal way of thinking to open you to new possibilities.  I'm giving it 5 stars, which I have not done for any other story.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Hand You're Dealt, by Robert J. Sawyer

A Merry Christmas to all!  But I read on Christmas too, and when I finish a story I write about it.  And tonight I read a story that got a Hugo nomination in 1998, The Hand You're Dealt by Robert J. Sawyer.  This is the kind of story Isaac Asimov used to excel at, with his detective Wendell Urth.  SF mysteries are difficult, because it's not easy to write a mystery whose solution depends on a technology development, but at the same time isn't trivialized by that development.  This one works pretty well--the core of the story is "soothsaying", a mystical word for what is really just a close reading of one's genes.  We're pretty near to doing it today.  And like a good SF mystery, the case is not only solved but the story tells something about people and trust.  Since it's a mystery I won't spoil it, but will recommend spending a little time to read it.  3 stars.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Coppola's Dracula, by Kim Newman

Apocalypse Now is one of my all-time favorite movies.  I am told that the "making of" movie is almost as good, though I have not seen it.  The story behind the movie is certainly fascinating. But I feel like I know a bit more about it now, having read Kim Newman's Coppola's Dracula, which got a World Fantasy Award nomination in 1998.

The story follows the making of Coppola's best-known film as though it were Stoker's Dracula story, with all the weird challenges of filming in Wallachia as opposed to the jungle.  And with real vampires, though not so scary.  It's a very interesting reinterpretation, even if it does get a bit long in places.  It grows on you as it goes along.  If you like Apocalypse Now or have not seen it, you will like this story as a taste of it.  3 stars, I liked it a lot.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Primrose and Thorn, by Bud Sparhawk

I continue my reading of award nominated stories on Free SF Online--they are not all created equal.  Primrose and Thorn was nominated for a Nebula in 1997.  Sailing is a pretty common metaphor for navigating in space, but here we see it used to navigate the gradually thickening soup that is Jupiter's atmosphere.  Now, this is not 1957, where the science might say this is forgivable.  By 1997 sailing on Jupiter is pure fantasy.  But there it is, in Analog.  It reads like it was written in 1957 also, characters being pretty wooden as if from that era.  In a nod to modernity, Sparhawk takes a foul-tempered sailor and puts boobs on it, turning it into a woman.  Right.  I relent and give it two stars for some interesting sailing tech stuff and mild suspense, but that's about it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Elizabeth Complex, by Karen Joy Fowler

The Elizabeth Complex was nominated for a Nebula in 1997.  It's a meditation on the disrespect women faced, I think mostly in Queen Elizabeth's time, but part of the artsy appeal and eventual difficulty of this story is that it starts wandering around between different Elizabeth's lives (possibly not Elizabeths at all).  It's an interesting device when lightly used, but by the end of the story it pretty much just confused me.  OK, not great, 2 stars.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Dead, by Michael Swanwick

This fine little tale got nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula in 1997.  Swanwick is kind of all over the place for me, but his best is extremely good.  He always has interesting ideas behind what he writes.  The Dead is a zombie story, but not the kind where you shoot them--they are on the verge of becoming the new automated workforce.  The tale is told from the perspective of a man who is signing on to be part of the change, but is just now realizing that he ought to be repulsed.

Really, this is a robot story with corpses.  But the fact that it IS corpses adds an important element.  If the dead can be revived to work, how low would we stoop to ensure a supply?  Pretty damn low, according to Swanwick, and if we put on the brakes we will simply lose out to someone who won't.  Pretty bleak future, but compelling, I have to say.  At least a future run by robots won't have to explicitly slaughter people.  Three stars, on the high end of that.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Cost To Be Wise, by Maureen McHugh

The Cost To Be Wise is the third story in McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters collection to be nominated for an award, this one getting Hugo and Nebula nominations in 1996-97.  The story is told through the protagonist--Janna appears to be part of a social experiment, a group of people not related through clan kinship on a world mostly made up of clans.  People from Earth came out to try to make this community function differently from the others.  Alas, they forgot the defense part--the colony gets torn up by nasty drunks from the neighboring clan.  A visitor from Earth sees the whole thing. 

One definitely gets a sense of the emotions McHugh is trying to convey--the sadness and fear--but, well, I don't know, it's just lacking for me.  No point.  Violence doesn't always have a point, and in this story it doesn't, but it seems to me that stories should have points. Why tell it, otherwise?  A question I cannot answer here.  Two stars.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Travels with the Snow Queen, by Kelly Link

Travels with the Snow Queen was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1996 and 1997.  It's a heavy irony take on what a woman will do for love, or what she thinks is love, or merely the chance to say her piece.  Lots of riffs on fairy tales, and fairy tale endings.  Tasty enough, but no new spaces explored, really.  I have heard Kelly Link is pretty good, so will keep trying with her.  3 stars for being an award nominee.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Lincoln Train, by Maureen McHugh

The Lincoln Train, part of Maureen McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters collection, got the Hugo for short stories in 1996, and was nominated for the Nebula.  For being a moving story I guess, because the speculation is kind of one-dimensional.  Lincoln is wounded instead of killed when his assassination is attempted, and this changes the policy toward southerners.  But the story is really one of what it is like to be an unwanted refugee, which is by countless accounts horrible.  There is a nice twist in how the protagonist gets help, but for me it's just not developed enough.  Decent, but just two stars from me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dragon's Fin Soup, By Somtow Sucharitkul

I had a lot of fun reading Dragon's Fin Soup.  It was a World Fantasy Award Nominee in 1996.  I have not read Somtow before, though I've seen plenty of books by her.  This story is light as a feather, kind of a tasty clear thin soup, probably not much like the soup in the story but good nonetheless.  Her family is making a living selling soup made from a fin of a dragon the family had bound.  Her struggle for her own identity is the central theme.  It all works together well, and it's pretty apparent all will be happy in the end.  It's a good introduction as far as I'm concerned.  3 stars for it.

The typeface on the story is an ordinary enough Courier, but it did defeat my Kindle's efforts to render it in Article Mode.  Went to the Nook for web mode.  Interesting. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

None So Blind, by Joe Haldeman

None So Blind is a good little story based on the old saw that we only use some small portion of our brains, and that this can be enhanced significantly.  Neuroscience and psychology have advanced a bit since then--brains actually do grow new cells, every day, and we do make use of most of our brains most of the time.  But it's a nice bit of speculation, taking on several different prejudices and assumptions in the process.  I would give it 3 stars.

But if you really want a good story of this nature, check out Ted Chiang's Understand.  It's a powerful first-person piece, and somehow manages to convey what it's like to be so much smarter without sounding stupid.   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge, by Mike Resnick

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge was a fine discovery for me.  This story is a followup to his book Birthright: The Book of Man.  Birthright is a series of complete vignettes illustrating the rise of mankind to dominate the galaxy.  It portrays a universe where Man cuts a vast swathe through a universe of less ambitious species.  Birthright is heavily influenced by Resnick's fascination with Africa, and the book could be read as his view of how Europeans came through the African continent--an overwhelming, destructive, and at times inspiring and beautiful force.

Birthright is the central example of a book with massive scope, the sort of thing that really appeals to me.  One should really go and read it before reading Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge, as it continues the story after the fall of Man, when the race is supposedly extinct.  The story benefits from Resnick's 14 years of further experience as a writer as well--it is more polished and complete.  Both the book and the story are well worth reading, and get four stars from me.  Go read them.

An aside--I was active on a science fiction forum in the pre-Internet days of Compuserve, and we had some interesting discussions of Heinlein and politics.  The guy just can't get enough of writing.  It's been fun and interesting to read more of his work as time has gone by.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Narcissus Plague, by Lisa Goldstein

The Narcissus Plague was nominated for a Nebula in 1995.  What I liked best about it was her reason for writing it--"I wrote 'The Narcissus Plague' after a week where everyone I met seemed to talk about nothing but themselves, and I began to wonder if there was some sort of plague going around."  Nice.  Give yourself a little treat.  3 stars

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nekropolis, by Maureen McHugh

Nekropolis was nominated for a Nebula in 1994. The setting is a future Middle East, where there has been some sort of second coming of Mohammed that produced a Second Koran, one that specifically allows for a form of slavery called "jessing", like a captured hawk. This is central to the story, as is an artificial being called Akhmim.  The protagonist is Diyet, a rather colorless jessed serving girl.  What we get is the story of her life in this setting, which is altogether pretty ordinary and told that way.  On purpose.  It seems to me that McHugh was trying for the genuine voice of someone in this situation, not too bright or pretty, trying to sort out her feelings.  I don't know, it didn't quite work for me, it just came off dull.  The settings aren't particularly outlandish or even well-explained.  The full meaning of living in crypts (the Nekropolis) was not really explored.  She was just from there.  Just 2 stars for this one.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Down in the Bottomlands, by Harry Turtledove

Down in the Bottomlands was nominated for a Nebula in 1994 for best novella.  Kind of a thin year, I guess.  It's a competent story, but not something one would normally go far out of the way to read.  It's an espionage/mystery story set on an alien Earth--rather too literal a one.  This planet is what I would call an Earth "skin"--peopled by humans with predictably human motivations, with 20th century human technology, all with straightforward english analog names.  Examples--"starbombs" = nuclear weapons, "The Trench" = pretty much like the Grand Canyon, etc.  There's action, sex, and environmental appeal, but it's all stiff as can be.

Turtledove is mostly known for alternate history work--alternate versions of WWII, etc.  I would go there for better examples of his writing.  Two stars for this one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner

Music in fantasy literature is a common theme.  Seems like it would be hard to do, since you are describing what you hear, but maybe that's because novels are mostly vision and dialog.  Emma Bull's War For the Oaks (read back when it was online for free) was an example, but Lewis Shiner's Glimpses is even better.  It is finely crafted and powerfully told.  Ray Shackleford can somehow conjure up lost music onto any stereo, and the story revolves around his process of retrieving albums that were rumored but never (?) made.  To his credit, Shiner wastes no time on theories of how this would be caused, it just happens.  And Ray hits a bit close to home as a sort of OK but sad-sack character who winds up with this gift.

This book was fascinating to read nearly twenty years after it was written.  I have never read a 1990s take on the 1960s before, and it really worked on all levels.  The sadness over current affairs and longing for a better past had taken a powerful grip on the country by that time, though hope (fall of the Berlin Wall) was apparent then as well.  Shiner does a fine job of using the 90s as a frame.

The protagonist recovers two albums--Celebration of the Lizard by the Doors, and Smile by Brian Wilson.  Interestingly enough, about ten years after this book was published, Smile was finally released.  I wonder if it was anything like Shiner had imagined.

This is speculative fiction to savor, should you decide to read it.  4 stars from me.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Some Strange Desire, by Ian McDonald

I have enjoyed Ian McDonald's other works, including Dervish House, and was glad to find this one, Some Strange Desire, among the Free SF Online award winners.  Infinity Plus is still around as a site, makes me hopeful someone will pick it up again someday.  Anyway, this story is particularly good in that it manages to sketch a whole quasi-human species living alongside humans in a single short story.  Granted that they have a relationship to vampires, but the blending of Greek and Voodoo myths is very well done.  It's very different and tasty, worth a little time and one of those treasures one likes to come across on the Web.  Long may McDonald prosper.  3 stars because I had to work a little too hard to get going on it, but it is worth it.

A Walk in the Sun, by Geoffrey Landis

A Walk in the Sun won the Hugo for Landis in 1992.  I've read a little of Landis before, and been struck with nostalgia.  The stories read like those of earlier times, down to the themes.  This one is a moon exploration story, long after it became pretty clear we aren't going back to the moon anytime soon.  Though the story is not dated, so it may be further in the future than it appears--a lot of technical issues with wearing a space suit for an extended period seem to have been overcome.  The big one not taken into account is leaks.  Human exploration of space is way hard, and I expect that lots of communication satellites will be available once humans actually get into space.  Good luck.  3 stars.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Perfect Morning, With Jackals, by Mike Resnick

One Perfect Morning, With Jackals is the prologue to Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga stories.  Kind of a surprising nominee, as it's not really a complete story.  I have only read this series in bits and pieces, but I think in order to understand it I will need to go back and read it all, in sequence.  I think it will read more like a novel than some novels do.  Two stars for it by itself, go and read the whole thing.

Before I Wake, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Before I Wake is a short psychology SF story.  Those are tough to write, since what goes on in someone else's head is pretty much speculation anyway.  So Robinson adds a physical explanation for the events.  Ever awakened from a dream that you were dreaming?  This creepy sensation has inspired a lot of fiction, and here it gets a hard SF twist by being generated by a radiation field.  Everyone is continuously dreaming and waking at the same time.  Makes it tough to stay alive, and pretty much no one is.  Our protagonist fights it as best he can, but given glimpses of reality after dreaming, it's just too much. 

Short stories often end up sort of hopeless like this.  It feels like a story that's much older than 1990--after all, the Internet existed by then, if not the WWW.  But it's fun to see someone  basically pull off a psychological SF story that's not about drugs.  3 stars for trying.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Particle Theory, by Edward Bryant

Particle Theory was recently republished in Strange Horizons, linked from Free SF Online, the best one-stop SF library one could ask for.  Having gone through the award nominees for this year, I am again reaching into the past.

Ted Chiang has an excellent introduction to this piece, commenting on SF's addiction to large scales--galaxies, empires.  This focus on the very big picture is common across the spectrum of hard SF to fantasy.  I confess to being an addict of the large scale, which has made SF very rewarding for me to read.  But I also love Chiang's fiction, and he operates at a mostly personal level.  He claims his greatest influence here is Edward Bryant. 

In this story Bryant brings together two big ideas in one conflicted and lonely man.  He is an astronomer following news of several nearby stars going supernova, and is at some level suspecting we are next.  He is also facing prostate cancer, and decides to try an experimental pion therapy at Los Alamos.  I am not sure if this was even being thought of in 1977, but I do know that proton therapy is emerging as a treatment in this millenium.  Always fun to read stories that have later come somewhat true.

And the story is a decent one, expanding my appreciation of the personal approach.  Certainly those seem more common now.  In any case it is good to see this available for free.  3 stars, worth seeking out.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold

With Cryoburn I come to the end of two quests for the year--one, to read all of the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominees for 2011 (see the list at Free SF Online, my all-time favorite website), and two, to read the entirety of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series (so as to be ready for number one).  As Bujold has now generously provided the world with free versions of the series (at the Cryoburn link above), with the curious exception of Memory, I was able to stick mostly to my goal of reading freely available SF, via the web or public library.

First, the final novel.  For most of it I thought that Miles was pretty much doing more of the same as Imperial Auditor--the wife he acquired in "Winterfair Gifts" now holding down the home front, a mere homesickness memory.  He gets into plenty of physical scrapes, but is now handling them with diplomacy befitting a family man.  He resolves the latest threat to the Empire with his usual savoir faire.  One doesn't find a whole lot new going on.  But the very ending changes things, so SPOILER ALERT.

We get just 500 words (exactly--five "doodles") on Miles' reaction to his father's death.  But with those 500, Bujold has changed Miles quite thoroughly, such that it would be near impossible for her to justify writing another Vorkosigan novel that simply follows Miles on an adventure.  He appears to have made a conscious decision (very nicely rendered in a paragraph) not to be that fellow anymore.  He is an accomplished politician now, and his next moves would likely be in some sort of royal political thriller.  Hard to say how interesting Bujold could make it.  Me, I think he's done.  Maybe the Wormhole Nexus continues, maybe not, but he's background now.  Miles will not die, he will just fade away.  I see by the latest update to Bujold's Wikipedia entry that Ivan Vorpatril is the focus.  He seems a reasonable heir apparent.

Am I glad to have spent the last four months reading 15 novels and a few short stories in the series?  On the whole, yes.  It's hard to find an ongoing series that has maintained such high quality throughout.  The plots are well-developed and the characters sympathetic.  Miles has been interesting to get to know.  But it's easy enough to put down.  The suspense is contained within each volume--it's not a monolith like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. There is a Vorkosigan Companion volume on the Cryoburn CD, but I can't say I'm that curious about it--the characters in the end are vehicles for making Bujold's moral points, with the exception of Miles himself, so I am not sure what others could unpack that they are not finding within themselves somehow.  Miles definitely has a dark side, and Bujold has never brought herself to explore it--perhaps she is a little too fond of him, or his image, to let him fall prey to mere human temptations of power. Here's hoping she gets up the nerve.  Give this book three stars, and the series four.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Diplomatic Immunity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

In Diplomatic Immunity, Miles is now firmly married and just coming back from his honeymoon in this one.  He returns to Quaddiespace to sort out what looks like a messy but limited diplomatic issue, and ends up saving a big chunk of the Cetagandan empire.  The adventure is a lot of fun, and worth the read.  What's more interesting is to think of where the series is going at this point.  Miles is a grown man now, and in a role he can continue in for the rest of his life.  Where does he go from here?  He is a father now, that has possibilities.  But about all that's really left to do with Miles Vorkosigan is to explore a dark side.  Bujold has certainly left room for this, Miles' ego is big enough to lead him into serious trouble.  Or more mundane humanity--just how disappointed would he be if his children are not as driven as himself?  Or if they are, would it drive him completely nuts?  Well, we have finally come to the book that started this for me--the last award nominee for me to read this year, Cryoburn.  Onward and upward.  3 stars for the current item.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winterfair Gifts, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Winterfair Gifts tells the story of Miles Vorkosigan's wedding, but it's really centered around a couple of the minor characters in the series.  Taura has been around for awhile as one of Miles' string of lovers, and Bujold has a lot of fun portraying her.  I'd have fun writing about an 8-foot tall beautiful-scary soldier woman, anyway.  She's got possibilities as a superhero, but the series isn't going that direction.  In fact, more time is spent on Roic, Miles' newest Armsman and nOOb.  He gets to find out that he isn't such a rube after all, and of course he and Taura hook up.  No suspense there.  In fact, there isn't a ton of tension here even with an assassination subplot, so it's just a way station.  3 stars, for filler.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

We are getting later in Miles' career, he has turned 30, and Bujold returns to the romance novel here.  Still plenty of action, but Miles is ready to settle down, and this is the story of his pursuit of the One, Ekaterin.  Particularly interesting here is that all the major characters get some attention and new strength--his clone brother Mark, the Koudelka clan, and most especially his cousin Ivan.  They all get pulled into Miles and Ekaterin's somewhat agonized and self-reflective courtship.  This installment has nicely woven plotlines, even working in a commercial thread.  The march has been well worth it so far, and I fully intend to continue to the end.  One gets the feeling Miles has to peak sometime in here--once he marries, he's already had such a career that one can't see much topping all this until he dies.  But we've got three more stories.  We shall see.  4 stars here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Komarr, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I am now moving into the latter part of Miles Vorkosigan's career in Komarr, part of the omnibus volume Miles in Love.  And this one is all about Miles' love, Ekaterin Vorsoisson.  Her hapless husband ends up involved in a plot to attack Barrayar by closing its wormhole, but this is something of a sideshow.  In Komarr we return to the style of Shards of Honor--the galactic fantasy, a romance novel set in space.  Ekaterin and Miles have intense conversations laden with internal dialog.  Her failed marriage has caused her to harden her heart--can it be softened again?  An odd place for a hard SF fan, but not so odd for SF itself--Mercedes Lackey has written a lot in this space, and a very strong fraction of fantasy literature is romance-novel inspired.

Miles doesn't get as much development here, other than as possibly having found his love at last.  He's having a lot of fun on the Imperial Auditor gig, it's just what he needed, and lets Bujold go anywhere with him.  And we'll see where, there's only a few books left.  Onward...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Continuing my reading of the Vorkosigan series, this week I picked up Memory.  I went ahead and paid for this at Baen Webscriptions for a Kindle version.  Oddly enough, it is the only one in the series not on the Cryoburn CD, kind of an odd omisson, but there it is.  I could have gotten it at my public library, though, and am sure you can too.

It's a worthwhile read, especially if you have read the others.  Bujold is really enjoying Miles as a character.  He's going through a lot of troubles in this one, most directly related to being killed and revived in the last one (Mirror Dance).  He's having seizures, making him unfit for combat or anything stressful (his denial of this is a big part of the plot).  Being an adrenaline junkie this is really painful.  It looks like he is going to have to let go of his pet project, the Dendarii Free Mercenaries and Admiral Naismith.

What follows is a very satisfying story of personal growth.  Miles finds a new dimension to his capabilities while investigating an attack on his supervisor.  Death smacks some of the megalomania out of him, even as he gets more opportunities to indulge it. 

This story very strongly indicates that Miles is heading in a different direction--adventuring days may or may not be done, but they don't define him anymore.  Am looking forward to the rest of these, it is a series worth revisiting.  The technical references are few and feel dated since they are from 15 years ago, but the characters are the point.  Four stars for this one.  Onward and upward

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Coming off the disappointing Brothers in Arms, I approached the companion in Miles Errant with some trepidation.  Had read some reviews that it was better.  And those reviews were right.  This may be the best one in the series so far. 

Mark really comes into his own as a character here, differentiating himself in as many ways as he can from his brother.  He likes to eat more, does not like combat, and is much more analytic.  Being a clone, he defines himself in terms of his progenitor, but by the end of the book he has worked through all that.  Though he definitely seems to have more than his share of the bad luck between the two.

It will be interesting to see if Mark gets to play an ongoing role in the future books.  The synopses are still all about Miles.

And Miles himself goes through some changes here, having ended up dead trying to rescue his "brother" early in the book.  He comes back considerably weakened, but since he is pretty weak anyway this doesn't change his perspective much.  He's getting better all the time at seducing women--even manages it as a particularly nasty looking convalescent.

This is one to look forward to in the series.  I give it four stars, just because I don't hand out five stars easily.  Matter of fact, I haven't done it yet.

I've been reading all these on my Nook, and rate it a very pleasant way to read.  But I think we're going to get a Kindle Fire.  We'll see what we think of it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Brothers in Arms, by Lois McMaster Bujold

And so we come to what seems to happen to every character with a long enough history--an evil twin.  Such is Brothers in Arms, my latest read in the Vorkosigan saga.  This one is on the short side, just under 250 pages.  And it's OK that it's not longer--while it is well-written, this novel just doesn't seem to have a destination.  There are several interweaving plots against Admiral Naismith, the most salient of which is a clone (the evil twin) under the control of a Komarran rebel.  Miles foils the plots by treating Mark as a brother, basically, though it is obvious that is going to come back to bite him.  His highly dynamic personality is not really on display in this book, though.  It's just tough to engage.  He does finally get it on with Elli Quinn, so we'll see where that goes. 

My understanding from other reviews is that this is the low point in the series.  It gets better again.  Onward and upward, then.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Labirynth, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'm now returning to the Vorkosigan saga with Labirynth, a novella set somewhat in mid-career for Miles Naismith.  In this volume he is Admiral Naismith, commanding the Dendarii Free Mercenaries.  We get to see something of Jackson's Whole, the libertarian paradise where most anything goes.  Miles is to recover a talented genetic engineer, who won't come without his samples, which turn out to be embedded in an ideal soldier prototype.

Here we see, for the first time in the internal chronology, Miles as a sexual being.  He claims to have had sex at 15, but where in previous volumes he was mostly frustrated he now has acquired a backstory of at least trying to get laid.  And get laid he does, by the soldier, an 8-foot tall female frightening powerhouse.  Well well.  In the aftward to the omnibus volume linked above, Bujold says that this volume explores more of the boundaries of what it means to be human and acceptable.  It's effectively done and a nice add for the series.  I am plunging on, hoping to finish by Christmas.  After all, next year's awards start soon after that!  And I do have a few other things in mind to read.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

This is the last of my World Fantasy Award reads, and this time I had to pony up for it--will donate it to the Library.  And really, it was worthwhile, Zoo City is a unique read in many ways.

The book is set in Johannesburg, in a ghetto named after the book title.  Our protagonist is Animalled--has an animal familiar, a side effect of having committed a major crime.  This is supposedly the result of a virus of some kind, though there is a heavy dose of magic involved and the explanations don't really put all the pieces together.  The author even has a reference to Pullman's Dark Materials series, since it is based on animal familiars as well.  But Zoo City is much darker. 

This is a noir mystery, and very well done.  The book is aimed at the South African audience, with a later American release, so it's interesting to read a novel not aimed at us Yanks.  Zinzi December is a sympathetic figure despite being a former and current criminal and drug addict.  She is still trying to do right, trying to save children.  The interplay with the animals is mildly underdone--they can't speak, so the interchanges are more like what one would have with a very close pet, as opposed to Pullman's dialogues.  You could almost get the idea of what it would be like to be very attached to a very exotic pet in real life.  Also interesting are the hints at societal accommodation (food for your animal in jail).  There will be more, there's plenty of room for a sequel at the end.  I recommend it with a solid three and half stars.  Probably my favorite among the World Fantasy Award nominees this year.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

Continuing my reading of the 2011 World Fantasy Award winners, I just finished Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.  My local library was tasteful enough to pick up a copy.  Reading the award nominees has really helped stretch my reading taste, and this little morsel worked well for me.

The book is based on a Senegalese folk tale, but the author is from Barbados and flavors that in heavily.  Paama is a woman of good and wholesome spirit, who was made a poor match in her endlessly hungry husband.  She has left him to live with her family, but he finally comes to find her.  He is just a fool in this story, though, as the gods (the djombi) decide to involve themselves in her life.  She is given the Chaos Stick, the power to influence events in unlikely ways.  This power had belonged to another djombi, and their interaction over his attempts to recover it provide the meat of the story.

The story is pretty light, overall, no serious pain or ugliness.  It meanders to a beginning and end, which the storyteller makes plain is on purpose.  I feel better for having read it, though I don't know that I will remember it for very long.

I was intrigued by the author's biography.  She has done many things and is now in academia, and writes on the side.  This is just the sort of book one can get from an author who does not write fiction for a living.  It is done purely on its own terms.  Read it as a good counterpoint to full-on professional writing like Guy Gavriel Kay or the Wheel of Time series.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos (in the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem collection) is sort of a side trip in the Wormhole Nexus, not in the line of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, though he is mentioned.  This story features Elli Quinn, a mercenary who fought for him and had her face blown off.  But it centers on Ethan Urqhart, a doctor from Athos, a planet far out of the way founded for men only.  He must leave it to find ovarian cultures to continue their cell lines.

This book has a very different feel from the others in that the hero is himself not a particularly colorful character.  Ethan is a solid, down-to-earth doctor who ends up part of an espionage caper.  Kind of like Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, only Elli Quinn isn't so crazy.  It's an action book, but the flavor is much less warlike than the main series.

It always takes some guts to write mainstream novels with a gay character of any kind, let alone a lead character.  Bujold wrote and managed to sell this one in the 80's, when AIDS was first running rampant.  What's really interesting here is that while his sexuality is not hidden, it's not so much of a big deal in the book.  On Athos that's all there is, so homosexuality is taken for granted and isn't a special part of one's identity.  Although being Athosian is, and not having contact with women.  I think the latter is the bigger deal.  Ethan comes to some realizations on that score as well.  So the book is of some interest as a period piece from a time when LGBT was just starting to move into the mainstream, propelled in some part by sympathy.  Ethan needs no sympathy, or special treatment of any sort.  He is capable and fully comfortable in his own skin.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Continuing my reading of this year's World Fantasy Award nominees, I bit off a substantial chunk and read Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.  Asia is such a huge place, it should have a lot of material to be explored for fantasy.  And I'm sure it does.  Not as sure that I really got a good look here.  The novel starts out with promising fantasy material--the protagonist spends two years putting ghosts to rest by burying their remains at a haunted battleground.  He does it to honor his dead father, though it is never really clear why he chose this way.  Even to himself.  And the consequences of the deed are momentous for him, and probably the whole of China (Kitan, in the book).  He is given an impossibly large gift, which throws the court into a spin.  The theme throughout is that of a relatively simple (though learned, and not innocent) man trying to handle himself in a powerful empire's court.

There is action, physical and sexual, but the real point is the intrigue.  Because of this, the book often reads as slow.  And I struggled to read the ending, as there wasn't a lot of suspense.  The novel is historical, so the ending is known and telegraphed.  It's decent, but I wouldn't say it is a leading contender.  Still waiting for that one.  So far it's close between Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death and N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was wild fun.

Three stars for this one.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Continuing my reading of the Vorkosigan saga, working my way forward to this year's Hugo nominee Cryoburn--we'll see if I make it this year.  The latest read is Cetaganda, set in the empire of Barrayar's most implacable enemy.  This book takes place relatively early in Miles Vorkosigan's career, though it was written much later.  Bujold claims the right to write about Miles' career in any order she chooses, which is, I think, pretty wise. 

In this book Miles and his cousin Ivan visit the Cetagandan empire on the occasion of the empress's funeral.  He gets caught up in a plot to destabilize their empire, with Barrayar the intended culprit.  He of course foils the plot with his combination of intelligence, timing and general good luck.  Two things stand out for me in the development of his character, keeping in mind that he's already more than halfway developed when this book was written.

  1. The Cetagandan empire is sophisticated beyond belief--Barrayar is in way over its head trying to keep up with their civilization.  The invasion of Barrayar was a fairly big deal for the Cetagandans, but in truth seemed to get a less than full effort from them.  One might compare it to the US intervention in Vietnam.  Barrayar bled them out and they gave it up for a bad job.  I am reading a lot in here, this is not covered in the story, it's just sort of implied.
  2. Miles shows a flash or two of very broad ambition.  He treats the Cetagandan emperor almost as an equal.  His comfort at tweaking power continues to grow.
Good stuff, continues to be worth following.  3 stars

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce

The World Fantasy Award nominations are out, so I am reading the ones not overlapping other categories.  The fantasy awards take one into different territory than the Hugos and Nebulas, and the first of these books I've read represents this. 

The Silent Land starts out like it's going to be a horror novel.  Zoe and Jake are caught in an avalanche.  He digs her out, but they find the resort they are staying in is completely abandoned, no living things around.  Then the weird things start, mostly familiar from the horror scene--they cannot leave, nothing is decomposing, there are ominous presences.

But the ominous things are just a backdrop--the story is centered on the relationship between Zoe and Jake, and what their love means to them.  Their deep love, and ordinary imperfections, are shown very well.

In the end, the book is a death metaphor.  Much like The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus lives a whole other life while on the cross, the time that passes for the couple is actually time under the snow.  That made the novel right for me.  No real spoiler here, this ending is pretty much telegraphed about halfway through the book.  It's a very quick read for a novel, less than three hours for me and I'm not a speed reader.  Since it's not really my usual thing, it's not certain how long it will stay with me.  But it's worth getting out of the library, which I did.  3 stars.

Library Economics

It's nearly nine miles one way to my library.  If I make a special trip to get there, that's 18 miles.  The federal reimbursement rate for driving one's own car on govt. business is currently 59 cents per mile.  My car is slightly cheaper, let's call it 50 cents.  That is to cover consumables only--gas and maintenance.

So it costs me nine bucks to drive to the library and back, and another nine bucks to return the book.  I also own a Kindle and a Nook, and can get books delivered as electrons--no delivery truck.  Usually around 8 bucks apiece.  So I need to be getting three books every time I go to the library to make it worthwhile, if I don't count my personal time driving. 

I do it because I still support libraries as public spaces, and I am donating books there now.  The main value of libraries seems at this point to be to provide free internet access to those who come.  This is a good thing, and I support it.  But how much longer will this make sense?  Very hard to say.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Back to the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan in The Vor Game, part of the omnibus edition Young Miles.  This novel covers Miles' early career, after founding the Dendarii Free Mercenaries.  His attempts at fitting into Barrayaran military culture are doomed to fail, in very successful ways.  He thwarts a psychopathic senior officer and makes an enemy I think I'll see more of in Cavilo.  His compelling charisma is rounding into full form, and in the end he has himself a commission as pretty much a free agent.  Good times. 3 more stars.

As adventure novels these do very well, it's a very pleasant way to pass an evening.  I'm having a good time working my way forward to his present self, though that may take awhile as other attractive books are on the way.  Am going back to award nominees, this time wanting to have a look at the World Fantasy Award nominees while the award is not yet given.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bloodchild, by Octavia Butler

I took a brief break from the Vorkosigans to read an award winner newly available online, thanks to our good friend at Free SF Online.  The novelette Bloodchild won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1984-85.  So is it worth going back over 25 years to read?  Well, I am a fan of period pieces so I am not an unbiased source.  But overall I would say so.

Not only is the story well written, it doesn't contain a lot of cultural references to date it.  This means it holds up quite well.  And Octavia Butler's take on aliens is one that only she can pull off, so it's not going to seem stale or repetitive.  Her aliens have very human emotions--in fact they have quite a positive affinity for humans.  My sample may be small, but the Xenogenesis series goes this way as well.  The somewhat repetitive element is that it's a "host" story--humans implanted with alien young.  And the humans find it disgusting, though they like the aliens otherwise it seems.  If you read this story, go on to read the Xenogenesis series where the themes are much more thoroughly explored, and in an original way.  Butler's stories are always powerful and memorable, you can't go wrong with them.  3 stars for this one.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Warrior's Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Back to the free stuff!  And back to the Vorkosigan saga.  Today we have The Warrior's Apprentice, the first book in the series that features Miles Vorkosigan.  This book was actually published before Barrayar, but comes after it in the Vorkosigan chronology.  I am choosing to read them in internal chronological order.

In this book we see Miles display his seriously over the top charisma.  He is such a born leader that a troop of mercenaries basically forms around him.  This is how he views it as well.  There's plenty of adventure here, though really the book is focused on developing Miles' character.  It's pretty much a "galactic fantasy", there's very little about the science that is particularly important, though Miles does have to deal with space armor and free fall.  Miles is by turns charming, emotional, intimidating, etc. etc.  It's easy to think Bujold was a bit in love with him at this point, maybe like Dorothy Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey. In any case, this is pretty much what there is in the book.  Cordelia is mostly an offstage presence, the Botharis ultimately disposable.  But that may sound too critical--the book was quite fun to read and I'm looking forward to the next one.  This one gets three stars, and an exhortation to "soldier on".

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

I have once more funded a "free" sf item, in the public interest--now that I am finished with the 2010 award nominees, they can go to the library.  The last is one I was particularly looking forward to--The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

In my last post I stated that Africa has a relative shortage of speculative fiction on it.  But Turkey--damn near none.  I had a great time reading this novel, perhaps the most pleasurable part being rolling the place names around in my head.  McDonald offers a brief pronunciation guide at the beginning, and as I went through the book it became a real pleasure to be able to properly pronounce names like Sarioglu (though the accent marks are not possible here). 

The story is set in near-future Istanbul.  Near-future work is always a real challenge--one is either not speculative enough and it reads like yesterday's news, or completely wrong.  Istanbul's age grounds the speculation, though, and gives it a very full and real backdrop.  Nanotechnology as a mental aid forms a solid backdrop for the story, and a tech start-up tale (one of five well-managed narrative threads) makes it geeky enough to hold interest while McDonald develops all the characters those threads require.  The characters don't make you cry or anything, but they are very genuine and insightful.  I learned a lot about Turkey and people generally.  The book is not an easy read, you have to keep paying attention, but it rolls along well and picks up at the end just as it should.  If you missed out on this one, go back and get it.  4 stars!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

I have again reached into the ol' wallet and found a used copy of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.  I had planned to donate this to the library, but the Amazon vendor sold me a page proof copy.  Not real cool, but that's for the Amazon review later.

For now, I enjoyed the book.  Many ethnic mythologies have been done to death in fantasy (Celtic, early Britain) but Africa has a long way to go.  This one is based in some future/alternate Sudan, where dark Okeke and light Nuru live as slave and master.  But of course there is much more to it.  Sorcery is a major force in people's lives, but sorcerers are very dangerous and no one would envy one.  The protagonist, Onyesonwu, is Ewu, a child of rape and thus shunned (a real practice in Sudan, the afterword says).  Her mother wishes sorcery upon her, and from there she is destined to change all.

The novel isn't furiously gripping, even though the imagery and situations are often pretty ugly.  Mostly one can detach from it.  Okorafor's descriptions of magic and how one invokes it are unique and interesting, though, and the characters are refreshing and lively even in their sadness and desperation.  The feel of the African desert is clear throughout.  If you want a good unique read, this would be one for you.  Hopefully your library has it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Feed, by Mira Grant

This week I reached into my wallet and bought a used copy of Feed, by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire), first in a trilogy.  Time to give back.  And overall I am not sorry.  Feed was a fairly good feed for the action itch.  This is basically a YA novel, though it does have enough development of the zombie virus (that's how they become zombies in this book) to count as semi-hard SF.  The rest of the speculation--is not very speculative.  It's 2039, and there have been zombies since 2014.  Bloggers are closing in on traditional media (yep, happened already, as was said in the Afterwords) and we figure the traditional media to be in bed with the powers that be anyway (check, again).  But as suspense, the novel works fine.  Grant builds the story effectively, and has that martyr-cynical voice down very well, so it is convincing.  The plot carries along at a good but not hectic pace.  The ending is telegraphed, but somewhat deliberately so it isn't disappointing. 

Grant has bloggers in her story getting government-issued licenses and breaking down into classifications (Newsies , Fictionals , and Irwins ).  Irwins?  Really?  And SF writers do seem to be attracted to having people put labels on themselves, for whatever reason.  I hadn't seen that trope in awhile and it was something of a flashback.

So read this one for the strong and direct plot, and good execution.  The speculation, not so much.  It got nominated for the Hugo in 2011--one normally expects more ambition in awards--but you gotta round out the category, and the thirty-third installation in a shared universe won't cut it.  3 stars.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Native Star, by M. K. Hobson

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wild_Wild_WestOur local libraries, like many, are having funds cut drastically.  We shall have to stock them ourselves, pretty much, for awhile.  So I'll be continuing my reviews of award-nominated fiction by buying and donating the titles.  Starting with M. K. Hobson's The Native Star.

When reading this book, what came to mind over and over was the old TV show The Wild Wild West.  But this book is somewhat more magical than steampunky.  In fact, magic takes the place of early computing as a science driver.  Much good adventure ensues as a back country witch unintentionally takes part in the process of preventing a natural magical disaster.  It doesn't really break any new ground, but there's not much bad to say about it either.  I enjoyed reading it, and may even read more.  But its insights are at best medium-deep, so this would qualify more as light entertainment than literature of ideas.  But that's good too.  This book is a good choice if none of your true favorites have produced something recently, or you just want a break.  3 stars.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

All Clear, by Connie Willis

All Clear is the second half of the Hugo-nominated Blackout/All Clear two-volume novel by Connie Willis.  I reviewed Blackout even though it was only half the novel, but now I've gotten through both.  And for the most part, it's pretty much like the first part--the four protagonists, historians from the future, are still trying to get out.  They continue to scramble, with less hope. 

But toward the end, the novel finally pays off.  The various theories about time travel and the continuum are woven together, with all the complexities of knowing how things came out faced fully.  It's hard keeping it all straight, but done well.  And I have grown more appreciative of endings since reading Infinite Jest (see earlier post).  This one is very well executed, with all hard work paying off as well as it could.  Was it worth 900 pages to get to that ending?  It's really hard to say.  In her forward she says the book grew on its own, but I do think the action got pretty repetitive--a Reader's Digest condensed version would probably actually work (do they still do those?).  In any case I'll give it 3 stars and say I liked it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

For I Have Touched the Sky, by Mike Resnick

Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga series tells the story of Kikuyu who have given up life in modern Kenya to reclaim their ancestral lives in a satellite.  For I Have Touched the Sky is the second story in the series, and like the first (and I suspect them all) it fully explores the strengths and limitations of tribal life.

Koriba the mundumugu (witch doctor) for his tribe is the protagonist in the series, and in this story he encounters a young girl who is fully tied to tribal life, and yet is a genius longing for much more than the tribe can give her.  The story metaphor is of a wounded bird, who could be cured but could not fly again, and so will not be content and dies.  Koriba knows that allowing her to be herself will introduce ideas that will be the end of the colony, and also knows that thwarting her will be almost impossible.  And it is.  The story fully shows the fragility of the idea of the colony itself--it will be only by a series of increasingly difficult compromises and costly decisions that the colony will continue.

Resnick is a good and prolific author.  I had a chance to chat with him about SF over 20 years ago via email, when online chats were still a novelty.  He is full of ideas and never seems to stop writing.  This series won several awards and is well worth reading.  4 stars for this one.

Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Apologies for the three week hiatus--have been reading several things at once, and am now finishing them.  Most recently I've finished Barrayar, the second book written by Bujold in the Vorkosigan series.  As said earlier, the entries in the series have won several awards, and the whole thing is available for free on the site and CD referenced above.  It's quite a treasure.

As for the second novel in the series--this entry, like Shards of Honor before it, features Miles Vorkosigan's mother Cordelia Naismith.  The first two entries are more "galactic romance" novels (I recall first seeing the term used by Mercedes Lackey, but can't find that specifically) than hard SF.  The first book definitely fits there, but this one has a bit more action.  And the feminine view on it is very interesting--Cordelia basically gives up nearly all of her Betan values to save her son, and in the afterword Bujold frames this as a very natural thing to do.  I'm starting to get more involved in the series.  I have so far stuck somewhat to the series chronology, but will see whether I keep going that way--Bujold herself says she writes so that a reader can encounter them in "a completely random order", but I'm not so sure that makes sense.

Barrayar in itself is a fine action/romance novel, interesting and fun to read, giving an idea of how good the series should be once I get into it.  But I'm going to be taking a break from it for awhile to read more of the award nominees from last year.  Barrayar gets 3 stars

Friday, May 27, 2011

Blackout, by Connie Wills

Blackout is the first volume of a two-volume set nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.  It is followed by All Clear.  The story is from her time traveler environment, set in 2060 Oxford.  Historians have discovered time travel and use it to investigate the past, but they can't get close to the big stories--"laws of time travel" prevent them from changing big events, they think.  I am going to go ahead and review Blackout, though I've started on All Clear, just to stay in touch.

The book jacket promises some big-picture time travel ideas, but the story so far is pretty deeply enmeshed in day to day events.  There's a vast amount of words and space spent on conveying the utter confusion and scrambling involved in getting historians to the past.  One would think they wouldn't have to rush around so, after all it is time travel and they can appear when they want to.  But assignments change and instructions are given at the last minute, and the chaos persists into their past assigments.  Such is the setup for our three heroes' investigations into WWII.  They get shifted in time and stranded, continuing their frantic scramble into survival in war.  It's picking up and possibly I will like it better as events come together, but I dunno, the relentless urgency just doesn't seem to fit the depicted events so well.  We shall see.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Continuing my reading of award winners, I have just finished Shades of Milk and Honey.  Also available at a public library near you.  Makes me glad for some compulsive tendencies on reading, as it is not something normally in my comfort zone.  Kowal sets out to write a novel in the style of Jane Austen.  I have never read Jane Austen, at least not more than paragraphs, so I get an echo here.  It's a shortish and easy read.  The speculative part is only one power, that of "glamour", which closely associates with femininity though it is a form of illusion.  Like beauty, some men work in it particularly well.  It's a standard plot, fitting for a style novel, wherein our "plain Jane" heroine, though smart and skilled, is not thought of as wife material and is resigned to spinsterhood.  And yet she is the one who must save her family honor.  The action is satisfying, if a bit long delayed.  And the novel actually closes off, so there's not a lot of room for a sequel.  Unlikely she'll revisit the space, though it is possible.  There is a somewhat weak attempt to age the spelling--"shewed" for "showed" is about the only instance, but it's used a lot--and it wasn't necessary.  The style is carried in the choice of words, the spelling was not important.  Not quite four stars, but I will give it a comfortable three.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Midwinter's Tale, by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is quite the stylist in SF literature, and he really seemed to dominate the '80s.  A Midwinter's Tale is a Hugo nominee for best novelette from 1984.  It's written in a jumpy voice, so that it's hard to tell who or what is speaking.  But at the core of it is hard SF speculation on a species that learns from its prey by eating their brains.  When they first eat a human, they get sucked in, though no one seems to have made this connection.  It's a fun story because the protagonist species is basically a big cat, and I'm a cat fan.  There's lots of other stuff kind of stirred in there, and it's mostly entertaining if jarring.  A good example of Swanwick, you will like it if you like him, or just for itself.  3 stars

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kirinyaga, by Mike Resnick

Kirinyaga is a fine story, one I believe I have read before but was worth a reread.  It was a Hugo winner in 1989, and is the first story in the series by the same name.  Resnick has important lessons to teach in this story and series.  The protagonist through them all is Koriba, a mundumugu, or Kikuyu witch doctor.  He keeps the traditions of the Kikuyu in their home on an orbiting environment, preserving what was lost on Earth.  The opening story has trouble starting when their tradition of killing feet-first babies clashes with the sensibilities of Maintenance, who runs the ship. 

Koriba's point to them and to his tribe is that the Kikuyu traditions are a whole, and cannot be taken apart.  Give on one point, and they will become Kenyans.  So they won't give. 

But such traditional societies, as we know now, are brittle.  They might be hard, but the breaking is a shattering.  We are ready to relearn that lesson today.  3 stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold has a new entry in the Vorkosigan series out, called Cryoburn.  It's the twelfth in the series, I believe.  I have not read much of the series--just Falling Free, set in the same universe but much earlier and not really connected.  I always have this dilemma with award winners--read the latest entry, or go back to the beginning?  This series has won a lot of awards and I've always wanted to read it.  What's more, the whole thing is now available for free through the Cryoburn link above.  So I started with Shards of Honor, from the Cordelia's Honor omnibus.

The series crosses several types of writing within SF.  The first novels are romances, stories of Miles Vorkosigan's mother and his Barrayaran father Aral.  I have to say that romances are not nomally my style, and don't do much better for me in the SF format.  This one is well-written and won't deter me from the series, but it didn't cure me of the dislike.  Cordelia swoons for her opponent in war and sometime captor, the honorable Aral Vorkosigan--seems like pretty standard romance stuff.  She is a strong and vivacious, beautiful woman, drawn to honorable, capable, strong, homely Aral.  Yep.  We even get a bondage scene thrown in.  It did keep me interested, though, and I'm planning to go on to Barrayar and get into the rest.  I'll go ahead and give this one 3 stars.

Read this one on my new Nook Color.  The Nook is a fine reader, a very reliable interface and no fumbling for where you are in the book, just like the Kindle.  I wouldn't miss print for it, though I'll continue to support reading free SF through libraries while they are still committed to dead trees.  The Nook is better as a general purpose device, and will get better yet when I'm able to root the latest version of the firmware.  But I like the reading experience on the Kindle just a bit better, I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Things, by Peter Watts

SF gets a fair bit of mileage from revisiting a classic and telling it from a different point of view.  Peter Watts does this brilliantly in The Things.  It's a retelling of John W. Campbell's Who Goes There?, told from the point of view of the alien taking over the bodies.  In the story it was easy to believe in the mindless evil of the assimilator, a story told many times over in SF.  But assimilators can have their own point of view--in this case the Things have accumulated the wisdom of the universe, and are wanting to add to the store, improving Man in the process.  We might not want it to happen, but the creature certainly believes it is doing good.  Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series has a similar point of view.  This has to be the short story front runner for Hugo 2011.  4 stars

Amaryllis, by Carrie Vaughn

Amaryllis is a nice Green tale, the unwanted child making good.  In this case it's pretty serious, as we are in the severely resource-constrained future and extra children are considered deadly.  But it's not the kid's fault.  It's a fairly vanilla picture of that future--the seas still produce, and there is general agreement on how to live, so as dystopias go it's not too bad.  Authorities are even reasonable and fair, which could make it qualify for a utopia.  It's a sweet thing.  3 stars.

For Want of a Nail, by Mary Robinette Kowal

For Want of a Nail gives a good lesson in both the development of artificial intelligence, and in single points of failure.  Cordelia is the ship's AI, a beloved figure because she does all kinds of handy things for the ship.  But an accident exposes the fact that she's been covering for her last "wrangler", who should have been "recycled".  It's well told with sympathetic characters.  A strong Hugo contender.  Though I don't quite get the title, it is quoted in the story but still doesn't quite fit.

Kowal has a novel nominated as well, which I hope to read once I make my way up the library queue.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Emperor of Mars, by Allen Steele

Some still have optimism that we will get to the planets someday.  I think they are right, but someday may be further off than they think.  Allen Steele's The Emperor of Mars is set in "'48", but I think that might be 2148 rather than 2048 as implied here.  This is basically a sweet and sentimental tale, about a man coping with loss from very far away where he can do nothing about it.  Kind of reminds me of the King of Hearts somehow, not sure why really.  But it reads nicely and leaves one in a good frame of mind, which is not a bad thing.  A good read for a time when you don't really want a challenge, just something to mentally ingest like a good pudding, as oppposed to a thick steak.  3 stars.

I really like reading these web articles on the Kindle.  It strips off all the adware and formatting, giving you a nice consistent print-like page to look at.  Did some browsing on the Nook, but it doesn't look good at all there.  Am looking forward to rooting the Nook to see if I can get a better-behaved browser on there.  As well as a Kindle reader!

Eight Miles, by Sean McMullen

It was a fine thing to read Sean McMullen again.  I read his GreatWinter Trilogy (beginning with Eyes of the Calculor) on a total whim after seeing it on display at a Barnes & Noble bookstore for what seemed like a year or more.  His short story Eight Miles is a fine one as well.  He ventures into steampunk territory here, telling of an early balloonist.  The balloonist is engaged by a rich baron to take an unusual specimen to a great height--she was found high in the mountains and is obviously not human.  The story revolves around just how sharp she gets as she is restored to her native atmosphere.

The story has the authentic steampunk 19th century voice, and it is a good adventure tale.  Not particularly groundbreaking, but the opening few sentences set the story so well it meets expectations.  Read it for some fun.  3 stars.

I read this one on the Kindle--it is an HTML page on McMullen's website, but the Kindle has an experimental browser that got to it competently.  It has an "article mode" for websites that made reading text on it a very good experience.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

SF and Ebook Readers

SF has an interesting relationship with words in print.  Some don't seem to think there will be any print, most seem to presume we read our text digitally.  I only know of one book, Ben Bova's Cyberbooks, that focuses on digital readers.  It's a very minor work of his. It's an insider story on the publishing industry, with an e-reader business conflict as the driver.  It was written in the late '80s, and there were some early tries at CD-based ebook readers on the market, so one couldn't say it was super-speculative.  But I read it with interest, because 1) I was a practicing librarian at the time, so SF about books was really different, and 2) I figured that's where we were going someday.

The day pretty much arrived with the advent of the Kindle a few years ago, and now we have the Nook, Sony's ereader, and many other entries.  Our family has just dove in with both feet, purchasing both a Nook (color version) and a Kindle (base model).  I'll be trying both out in my future reads, and will include some comments on the reading experiences in this space.

Would I miss paper, if it passed?  I like to think not.  I've never had trouble with screen reading, and the Kindle's e-ink display pretty much bypasses that problem.  The modern readers provide a fine reading experience.  Most important is that I've never been that attached to having books.  Having access to the books is sufficient, and digital access is much more convenient than the library, as important as I think that space is today.  Books as physical objects are mostly clumsy and inconvenient to own, as far as I'm concerned.  To the extent they survive, it will be as art--goodbye mass-market paperbacks, and good riddance.

Echo, by Jack McDevitt

Whenever I decide to pick up a series, especially in trying to cover award nominees, I am faced with the dilemma of where to start it.  Do I choose the award nominated book at the end, or go to the beginning, or what?  Echo is the fifth book in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series.  In this case, I decided to pick up the latest one and see how it went.

Well, it went OK I guess.  The cover of the library book I borrowed has Stephen King saying he is the "logical successor" to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  Lofty company.  I have enjoyed some McDevitt stories, but that's a lot to put on.  I can see the analogy, though, since McDevitt is a matter-of-fact writer who lets the science and the storyline drive the book.

Not so sure it worked well this time, and it may have to do with the point of view.  This installment in the series is written from the perspective of Chase Kolpath, his young, attractive and talented assistant.  He is at some pains to depict her in a non-exploitative way, which ends up making her a somewhat cardboard character.  And since we see Alex only through her eyes, he ends up that way too.

The plot matches these somewhat thin characters pretty well.  Benedict is an antique dealer, and they get a line on a tablet with some inscriptions in an unknown language on them.  Sunset Tuttle, the one-time owner, was on a quest to find intelligent life in the universe--in all man's travels there has been only one other race.  They pursue the mystery doggedly and in places miserably.  The ending could be rather spectacular, but ends up rather understated.  This kind of old-fashioned work has its place, but I think I'd want the science to be edgier and more forward to carry this book.  It's just FTL ships and far-flung colonies, and the personalities are supposed to move the load.  They are not quite up to it.  3 stars, but only just.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Night They Missed the Horror Show, by Joe R. Lansdale

I am not much for horror as a genre, so this one was not to my taste.  No speculation of any sort, just nasty violence.  I wouldn't link to it, but I read it, so Night They Missed the Horror Show gets one star.  Yuk.  World Fantasy Award nomination, but do not know what for.

The Fort Moxie Branch, by Jack McDevitt

Most authors feel underappreciated.  They occasionally express it in metafiction, and here we have an example.  The Hugo and Nebula nominated The Fort Moxie Branch is the story of one such author, who finds a branch of a shadow library--containing only unpublished great works.  But this library takes those works and sequesters them, the return being conditional.  Our protagonist has been offered a place, his novel being simply too good for philistines of this era to appreciate.  Will he take it?

Of course these stories are not what they were--the long tail of the Internet changes everything.  Obscure works can indeed live on.  My favorite of these is Michael Coney's Flower of Goronwy--still unpublished after all these years, and a really fine work if it could just find an audience.  The Fort Moxie Branch is a fun little story, but go read Flower of Goronwy while you still can.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rachel in Love, by Pat Murphy

Intelligent primates abound in SF literature, but there's plenty left to be mined in that vein.  I'm reading through the award nominees on the Free SF Online site, and read this little gem tonight.  Rachel in Love is a story I am happy to recommend. 

Rachel is a chimp, abandoned when her master dies.  But she is not an ordinary chimp--she's had a personality overlay, from the researcher's deceased daughter.  This has augmented the chimp's communication skills, and she now acts as his daughter herself, though she is in some sense aware that she is a chimp. 

This is the real strength of the story--Rachel is aware of being both a chimp and having been a human girl, and the story captures that mix and confusion perfectly.  This stranded being has to respond to the terrifying situation of being left while she cannot fend for herself.  Murphy brings other humans and chimps into play in the process of Rachel discovering herself.  It leaves you convinced you can really imagine what it would be like to be Rachel.  And it's an exciting, emotional story as well.

Rachel in Love, got the Nebula, and was nominated for a Hugo in 1988 and 1987 respectively.  No surprise at winning, it's one that will stay with you for awhile.  4 stars.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Jaguar Hunter, by Lucius Shepard

South America isn't a common setting for SF, but it has had its moments.  The Jaguar Hunter joins that thread of literature, and it was a fine addition.  Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominated, it's a fine story of a jaguar hunt and a man's search inside himself for what is real.  There's definite flavors of Hemingway and magical realism in the story.  The writing is simple and direct, making the story the focus.  I was very impressed, and fully enjoyed reading it.  To describe it would be to take too much away from it--no plot summary is needed.  Read it if you want to simply enjoy a fine, professional piece of work.

Friday, April 22, 2011

More Than the Sum of His Parts, by Joe Haldeman

The rebuilt, augmented human has been done and done and done in SF literature and film--Frederik Pohl's Man Plus, Robocop, the Six Million Dollar Man, etc. etc.  Though Robocop was a late add.  So why the Nebula nomination for More Than the Sum of His Parts?  Well, it is a pretty good tale, a story of a man letting his augmentation go to his head.  It's got hard SF elements that get underplayed in some of these stories.  But really, I just don't know.  While it is a good story, it would have felt overdone even at the time.  I liked Robocop better, go rent that.  2 stars.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Paladin of the Lost Hour, by Harlan Ellison

Ah, Harlan Ellison.  One of the most tormented writers ever to whack at a manual typewriter.  If you have never read the Dangerous Visions anthologies or his collections, drop this and go do it.  And better yet, you can have this little gem for free.  Paladin of the Lost Hour is a story of friendship, utterly pure.  Two men meet in a cemetary, and one guards a special artifact.  He is responsible for it.  The artifact is important, but not more important than that responsibility.  Gaspar, the current Paladin, could be any of us.

Billy, the other man, is a cutout--no friends, no family, night manager at a 7-Eleven.  The perfect man for Gaspar's situation.  And he proves himself worthy.  Handoff stories are pretty common in SF, but they are not done like this.  Read it and have a better day.  4 stars

Trojan Horse, by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick really seemed to dominate the SF awards for awhile, at least in nominations.  But that may be because I'm seeing it through the lens of Free SF Online, and his stories are more available as free downloads.  Be that as it may, Trojan Horse is a Nebula nominee for 1984, and a really good example of what a speculative fiction story can be.  In this future we have learned to program our minds like our computers, and can change our abilities and attitudes with "wetware" adjustment (cyberpunk language just coming into prominence).  Elin has had an accident that scrambled her wetware while it was in a programmed state, effectively erasing her personality.  But personalities are recorded like any other wetware, so she gets a new one.  Personal identity issues abound and are explored, and people have self-referential access to what their mental states might be when not influenced by programming.  The focus here is an experiment giving users control over their own metaprogramming, which turns them into God.  One can imagine this gets tangled.

Of course, there are more mundane ways to get a new personality, like with amnesia or electroshock therapy (well described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).  But this is a more accessible read.  3 stars, and fun.