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.