Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Jaguar House, In Shadow, by Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard, according to her website, sets many of her stories in Mesoamerica.  This one is, I think, part of the Xuya series, where China got to the New World first.  I'm setting a lot of context here, because the story seems to need it.  On its own, The Jaguar House, In Shadow is OK, but hard to see as a Nebula nominee.  The system of Houses, which seem to be sort of Mesoamerican ninjas/CIA folks, is central but not real clear here.  This is an episode out of context, where a commander sells out in order to stay in favor with a mad dictator.  Two stars, on its own.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Map of Seventeen, by Christopher Barzak

When we are small children, we believe that we are the center of the world.  We start to learn about empathy and others as we get older--then get sucked right back into the center of the world during adolescence.  Barzak captures this very well, and in a sympathetic way, in Map of Seventeen.  It's a Nebula Award nominee for 2010, and a reasonable contender, most likely.  The protagonist is a young girl, angry with her older brother, her town, her culture, in different ways.  Her brother brings home a boyfriend, who seems pretty normal but has a big speculative-fiction kind of secret.  Exactly what doesn't matter so much.  She gets perspective on her life from what they are facing.

My favorite part of the story is how she controls others with her very strong will.  She refers to it in a sort of paranormal way, exerting it on others as though their thoughts were visible.  This is SF, so it MIGHT be so--but again, it doesn't matter, what's really interesting and genuine is how she THINKS she has that kind of control.  Center of the world.

It is worth a read, do take the time.  3 stars

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window is another Nebula-nominated story linked from my personal favorite website, Free SF Online.  The main trope is familiar, a soul bound in magic, this time for all eternity, summoned back occasionally for her knowledge of magic.  But this story is powerfully unique in its treatment of how magic interacts with ambition. 

The protagonist is bound early in the story, a result of treachery.  She has her revenge on the one who bound her, but the story is only getting started there.  She continues to get called back through time, to advise future societies.  They study and develop magic almost as a science, getting better and better at it but still needing the old versions.  Our subject grows reluctantly fond of several of those she has called. 

The protagonist is an unrelieved bigot, of the fashionable sort--no men allowed to have magic.  And she is called on it as well, by the most sympathetic characters in the story.  She does not change, but she does evolve over time and at least sometimes judge people as individuals.  Fully drawn characters interacting with interesting ideas are the true heart of speculative fiction, and Swirsky has done it well here.  A rare 4 stars.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

The first book N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, nominated for a Nebula award this year--I read it as an EPUB from our public library.  One thing about it, it's a strikingly different read from what one normally comes across in fantasy.  The setting for this story is a place where the "gods" are more like a somewhat more powerful species--they created everything, but are very accessible, and indeed are omnipresent in ordinary and extraordinary ways.

The prose is interesting in style--informal first-person, but somehow very large, almost stentorian, at the same time.  It does almost feel as though a god is telling you, personally, a story of his/her trials, which I think is quite intentional.  In the end, it is very over-the-top, and keeps you very involved.  I never wandered or got sleepy, which is a recommendation. 

In the version I read there is a preview of the next book, and it seems to have a much more mundane setting.  This is a writer not afraid to take on challenges.  It's not a jaw-droppingly great book, but it is a very good one, and I recommend you read it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sultan of the Clouds, by Geoffrey Landis

Continuing my reviews of the Nebula award nominees for this year. Sultan of the Clouds is a real throwback of a story. Geoffrey Landis is one of several accomplished scientists with a sideline in writing. He makes his main living working right here in Houston at NASA. This is the first story of his that I have read.

All the time I was reading it I was thinking about the early 60's. The hero is a basically 2D tech nerd, infatuated with another somewhat different 2D tech nerd. They deal with a power-hungry rich kid in the atmospheric cities of Venus. Zowie! The kid even has a Kinect ("some sort of full-body input device"). The ideas are pretty interesting and the story moves along, but the prose is a little awkward. It's just weird to see something like this as a current, award nominated story. Enjoyable for the hard SF fans among us (and I am one, so I liked it anyway). I'll go ahead and give it 3 stars.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, by Paul Park

The past couple of days have been devoted to Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, a nebula-nominated novella by Paul Park. It is a very literary tale, and ties together with nice subtlety. It is set in the near future, in a period of breakdown. The protagonist is trying to sort out his family history--several minor intellectuals, each with a disparate contribution to the final theme. The trope is familiar as a set of strange stories, or rather, ordinary stories with strange parts to them, far enough in the past that it seemed hard to believe they were truly made up. The defenders of this world are an unlikely lot. Not sure it's a winner, but I give it 3 stars and enjoyed it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang

Every time I see a Ted Chiang story online, I jump on it, and this is no exception. It is nominated for a Hugo award this year, so I read it with great anticipation.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is basically an AI story. It's a very thorough study of how humans would relate to trainable software that matures. The "digients" are based on animal personalities, designed so that people would become attached to them. Most people put them aside when they're not convenient anymore, but some, including two of the designers, invest the kind of time and money one would spend on a child. The story weaves a complex romantic interest in as well.

Ted Chiang always has a bit of a dry, earnest style that has the realistic ring of a professional workplace conversation. That's a bit more extreme here, to the point where one wouldn't mind a bit more of an emotional investment. But the story is so complete and thorough that it's forgiven. Chiang isn't prolific, and one understands why when reading him--every passage seems to have had a full edit. I give this one 3 stars, and you'll learn something reading it

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

I have been away for almost two months. This hiatus was caused by a desire to read Infinite Jest. Do not expect that I have much to add to the innumerable reviews. Whole dissertations and readers' guides are available to help you take it apart in detail.

As a speculative fiction reader I am most interested in those aspects. And it is definitely strong there, with social (auctioning off calendar years for sponsorships) and technological (predicted the availability of nearly all media digitally). The novel makes several top-10 literary SF lists . It is, of course, a truly massive read, not just in pages (1076) but that it is densely packed and baroquely footnoted. At one point I required three bookmarks. Everything ever said about it being a tour-de-force is true--it holds one's interest all the way through.

That said, it left me less than satisfied. I'll have to give something of a spoiler here, but really it's hard to say it spoils it. After all thousand pages, the book ends utterly unfinished. Pace-wise, it probably had another third to go. This is making me think very hard about endings, and developing more of an appreciation for authors who can bring a big difficult effort to a close. Wallace doesn't even try, it obviously wasn't in his mind. Robert Jordan mananged to die out from under all 12000 pages of The Wheel of Time. The Gormenghast trilogy, the Worm Ourouboros--all began well and ended poorly. Am beginning to think endings are perhaps a truer indicator of the talent of a writer--thus Infinite Jest begins to look like possibly one of the author's less effective works, even if it has had more influence.

One dives deep into this work. I have lived the detailed lives of a tennis academy student, drug addict, special agent, assassin, and film director/physicist/schoolmaster for months now. Having it end in midair this way just seems weird. Back to my faves at Free SF Online for some relief.