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.