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The Fort Moxie Branch is the story of one such author, who finds a branch of a shadow library--containing only unpublished great works.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  My favorite of these is Michael Coney's Flower of Goronwy--still unpublished after all these years, and a really fine work if it could just find an audience.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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ridge Running, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I used to live in Bozeman, MT.  We had mountains with hogsbacks and other features close by, and would climb on them.  Ridge Running is a story of three guys doing that.  One has had recent medical treatment that leaves him somewhat different mentally.  Well, it's a nice story, they have some tension but end up enjoying their time together, but the SF part is totally incidental, not even necessary.  It got nominated for a Hugo in 1985, as this sort of thing does.  It's nice, it's inoffensive, but not worth going out of one's way to read.  2 stars.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Frontera, by Lewis Shiner

SF in the 80's was looking for the next big thing.  Space had petered out--the shuttle simply did not inspire--and nothing was taking its place.  So SF writers kept on writing about space as if it would somehow prove out.  Frontera is fully an artifact of that time, making mostly straight-line assumptions about where the future would go.  Japan and corporatism would in due course collapse and take over the world.  But we'd somehow reach out into space and give a try at colonizing other planets, with crusty, worn-out spaceships.  1984 was also the year William Gibson's Neuromancer was published (Shiner credits him with help on this work).  Cyberpunk would make us forget all this space stuff for quite awhile.

The book is kind of rough, style-wise, but it's his first one and was nominated for a Nebula.  The protagonists are all deeply flawed in some way, and the flaws interplay to create the plot.  It builds action and suspense well, so it carries you along as you read, but it's hard to care about any of the players.  In the end the main protagonist, the son of one of the wealthy corporatists, comes up with some nobility.  If you really like Lewis Shiner and you haven't read it, it is probably worthwhile to see how he started out.  Otherwise, one does not learn quite enough.  2 stars.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber

It's a fine thing to go back once in awhile and read the old award winners.  Free SF Online collects these, and recently put up The Big Time, a 1958 Hugo award winner from Fritz Leiber, by way of Project Gutenberg.  Leiber is well known for his fantasy, but he had fine hard SF chops too.

A good time travel story almost always acknowledges that the very possibility ties things in complete knots.  This story does so quite well, telling of a Change War taking place across all human history, and humanity is only one small part of it.  The setting is a R&R station, the protagonist an "Entertainer", kind of like a geisha or call girl or something, but there are male versions too.  The Places are outside the regular time stream, on a meta stream called Big Time.  They end up with a tight internal drama to solve.

The story reads a little weird, and for me was hard to really get into for awhile, but it builds very well.  Each episode brings out new things in the characters, and in the end what looks like a very hopeless long term term situation is explained with great finesse to be in the natural order of things.  It's a really satisfying story to read, in the end, and not at all surprising that it won the Hugo.  I give it four stars, you should go right out and read it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Conditional Love, by Felicity Shoulders

I like this author's name, for some reason.  But that's neither here nor there.  I like the story too, it feels more fully developed than the other Nebula nominees this year, for the most part.  Conditional Love means to give us a lesson about humans, in the form of humans that have been optimized. 

But in these cases imperfectly, so they are abandoned at a hospital.  We meet a girl with no limbs, and a boy with no memory, at least not for people.  It's easy enough to imagine these kids finding good homes, but as it happens they didn't get that.  One concludes, with reinforcement in the story, that parents getting these engineered kids wouldn't even have been able to raise a perfect one.

We will be there very soon.  I am not sure if my children will design their children, but it's within the realm of possibility, and my great-grandchildren almost certainly will be designed from the ground up.  We will have to deal with all the messy issues, from acceptable mods to liability.  We need more stories like this to help us adjust.  Onward!

Ghosts of New York, by Jennifer Pelland

Since we have no idea what's going to happen to us when we die, we can say pretty much anything we want about it.  What if our experience comes apart when we die?  There's some part of us that relives the death, over and over?  Such is Ghosts of New York.  Very Groundhog Day in its approach, the story speaks to us about the importance of moving on, or finding some way to do so.  There is a way out.  3 stars

I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You In Reno, by Vylar Kaftan

Lightspeed Magazine's debut story involves the trope of light speed, and romance.  I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You In Reno is a letter and a history, of lovers that can't be together and yet influence each other when apart.  The protagonists are swapping near-lightspeed trips to nearby stars, they keep just missing each other or are only together a short time.  It's good stuff, but the SF component is somewhat optional.  You couldn't set this story anywhere near the present, but it could just as easily have been set in the 1500s, though having the woman depart on a long sea voyage would have been harder at that time.  It is a nice, meditative piece, worth the time to read.  3 stars.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ponies, by Kij Johnson

And one more, for today, because after I read this I just had to.  Ponies is a very trenchant commentary on primary school girls.  Hits pretty darn close to home for me.  Really you should read it rather than have me spoil it for you.  I'll just say that little boys that beat the crap out of one another are much less cruel.  We think we can protect our daughters from these sorts, but we cannot, in part because our daughters turn out to be the perps as well.  The unicorn metaphor is cutting way too close to the bone.  This will get strong consideration for a Nebula, but would be somewhat surprised if it won.  Yeek.

The Green Book, by Amal El-Mohtar

When I get into short stories, I can do more than one entry a day.  A good contrast to thousand-page books.  Though I will do those again soon...

The Green Book is an example of short SF of the "hints at something dark" variety.  There isn't time to tell a whole story, unless it is a smallish one, so another way is to come in in the middle.  The animated book that understands you is a pretty common trope.  It was even in Harry Potter, one of Voldemort's Horcruxes.  Here there is more romance, and only hints of the larger story of the Sisterhood.  Am sure she could do more with it, and likely will.  3 stars

Arvies, by Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro likes a big dollop of political relevancy in his work.  Arvies takes on the abortion debate, or so most of us assume, along with questions about what makes people human.  If you can experience everything in a fully virtual way, what would be the advantage in coming out of the womb?  All you're good for at that point is hosting a fetus.  A chicken is an egg's way of making another egg.  And it's not subtle at all, pretty much a slap upside the head.  Castro is fun, though, he has a unique way of telling a story that can make you laugh at it enough to forgive the heavy hand.  I give it 3 stars for fun.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara, by Christopher Kastensmidt

I left off reading for listening to pick up this Nebula nominee, The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara.  Audio is not normally my thing, but I'll do it for a good story and StarShipSofa is a fun podcast site.  It's a funny sort of story, because it reminds me of my kids' playtimes--the whole thing is about getting ready to have an adventure.  Gerard van Oost finds an ideal companion for his Brazilian adventure plan, but has to get him out of slavery.  He deals with obstacles human and semi-divine just to get his wish to risk death.  It was nice and relaxing to listen to--I could give it a higher rating if it went somewhere, but it is a novelette, after all.  No doubt Mr. Kastensmidt has a world in mind here, so we'll see what else he does with this.  3 stars.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Stone Wall Truth, by Caroline Yoachim

There's a genre of stories out there that are mostly about the author working through some gruesome nightmare and what it would mean if it were true.  Some authors make a living on it.  Stone Wall Truth is one of those stories.  What would it mean if the shadows in our hearts were real ones, and could be seen if only we were opened up properly?  This story does it literally, told from the point of view of a surgeon that does it.  The Crystal Wall that such an "opened" person is hung on is some remnant of a more advanced technology.  Advanced at what, one wonders.  But it's told well, so worthwhile to read and ponder.  3 stars

Friday, April 1, 2011

Plus or Minus, by James Patrick Kelly

Stories about the routine of interplanetary space defy the relatively low likelihood of seeing such things in the next generation or so.  Plus or Minus is another kind of throwback story that got a Nebula nomination this year, much like another Asimov's story, Sultan of the Clouds.  We see people born and bred for space travel slogging through the routine of cleaning mold off the spaceship and overseeing robots doing cargo work.  Spaceships can be ugly and purely functional.  The crew are not the highly trained and selected astronauts of today, but teenage interns.  And they face the classic will-we-make-it-before-the-air-runs-out danger when an accident happens during a run.

It's fun to read, too.  Kelly uses the story to tell of teen dangers of today, like creepy people creating animated photomanips of girls they are stalking, or getting deeply involved in a realistic dream-scape (OK, that one is mildly ahead of today).  All the things SF is supposed to do.  No new ground, more like nostalgia, but I still liked it.  3 stars.