Friday, December 28, 2012

Eros, Philia, Agape, by Rachel Swirsky

Robot stories have never really gotten past Asimov--his Three Laws of Robotics have pretty much defined how robot stories get told. It's like Hobbes in political science--everyone has to respond to Asimov.  But Rachel Swirsky's Eros, Philia, Agape is a good move away--the robot is a familiar humanoid, but his thinking is very much not in the logical vein of Asimov's artifical humans. 

We have two very equal protagonists in this one.  Adriana, a rich woman with a difficult past and much too little to do, purchases a robot as a companion.  Lucien is a fine robot, learning about Adriana and assembling his personality as her perfect companion.  She views him as human, and assists groups that work for robot personhood.  The story starts with his taking advantage of this, leaving to find his own programming.  The story got a Hugo nomination for Best Novelette in 2010, and it's quite a good read, if rather relaxed and sad.  I enjoyed reading it, and I think you will too.  Three stars from me.

Evil Robot Monkey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

When you read a really short story it can be a pretty challenging review. This review will be almost as long as the story. Evil Robot Monkey is a vignette of an experiment wherein a chimp is given a brain implant that enhances his intelligence. But he isn't human, so he is still in captivity and on display. Working clay preserves his sanity. The story includes comments, and Kowal says she is thinking of writing a longer tale with chimp and keeper because she likes them. Plenty of room for that. Three stars, go take five and read it.

The Singing of Mount Ahora, by Theodora Goss

The Singing of Mount Ahora won the World Fantasy Award for best short story in 2008, and I would say it was well-deserved. The form is one where multiple stories are woven together to form a whole (in this case it is three). And it's very satisfying as a fantasy tale, told in that sort of sing-song that makes it feel like you're being read to. And it's a love story. What more could one want? Four stars from me. I am writing this on an iPad Mini, still getting used to the keypad and cut-and-paste functions, so here is the link to the story.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nazarian, Vera - The Story of Love

The Story of Love is exactly what it says it is.  In this version it is the story of forgiveness--a daughter painfully abused by a wealthy but cruel and somewhat mad father eventually prays to the God of Love and is granted the ability to love him.  Thus saving him and her husband, whom she is dutiful toward as her rescuer but does not particularly love.  I have completely spoiled the story and am not at all sorry, as it is completely predictable the whole way through.  But it is well written, so can still be read and enjoyed.  2 stars from me, though.

The House Beyond Your Sky, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

I am unintentionally rereading some things these days, but no serious regrets here.  The House Beyond Your Sky is a very good exercise in far-future, or just far-speculative, fiction.  The entities span worlds, and possibly soon universes.  Matthias is creating that new universe, but he maintains his human connection. 

It's fun to read through the inventiveness here, that got it a Hugo nomination for best short story in 2007.  I enjoyed it both times, and may remember it better now.  Enjoy it for yourself.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Siege of Cranes, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A Siege of Cranes (the link is to Rosenbaum's The Ant King collection) is quite a unique story, challenging to get one's mind around and yet pretty darned fascinating as well.  Marish is found in the remains of his village, destroyed by someone or something.  He is not thinking too well, but decides to pursue it.  He meets an unlikely but capable Anubis-type fellow, and together they discover that the destroyer is The White Witch.  Their pursuit involves djinns and other strange beasts, and the companions don't quite cooperate perfectly, but no matter.  Marish here is quite impressive as a creative thinker, he is quite good at resolving what look to be battle situations without any battle at all.  A really interesting fantasy--I didn't feel like I was reading a human tale in a fantasy world.  The world was truly alien in its view, but with recognizable points of reference.  Good stuff, worthy of its World Fantasy Award short story nomination in 2007 and of 3 stars.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

CommComm, by George Saunders

It's not often I read SF from the New Yorker, and George Saunders is new to me, so this piece was doubly interesting.  And a World Fantasy Award winner in 2006 to boot.  CommComm is at first a bit of a tough story to get a handle on--it's definitely dystopian, possibly near future, and features an oddly (or perhaps normally) disconnected protagonist.  The world seems to be undergoing a slow death from pollution, for which our protagonist is a professional apologist.  But as we go along, we get other archetypes. A crotchety old man (with perfectly good reasons to be crotchety) is ordinary enough, but we also have a sort of super Joel-Osteen Christian who is hovering between hero and petty villain.  Which will it be?  Go ahead and find out--though I didn't find it fully compelling, I still enjoyed it pretty well.  3 stars.

I see the Burn post is doing real well--17 hits in one day, as much as I have seen before.

The Clockwork Atom Bomb, by Dominic Green

I know I have read The Clockwork Atom Bomb before, so I saved myself reading it again.  But I had not recorded it, and it deserves a review.  It got a Hugo nomination for best short story in 2006, which also makes it deserving.

The title shows the way to the speculation, though there are not any atom bombs in the story.  What if we had something somewhat more dangerous than nukes to play with?  How long would we last?  In this one, we have managed to harness miniature black holes for military purposes.  Sort of harness.  Our protagonist is the equivalent of an International Atomic Energy Agency inspector, trying to control the proliferation of black hole harnessing.  The story is told with humor, but at the core it is sad and still quite timely.  Go try it out for a good entertaining read.  3 stars.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Burn, by James Patrick Kelly

I have read Burn before, but didn't know that when I started and have not reviewed it, so now I will.  I can see that I didn't understand it fully as I only gave it 2 stars that first time.  It's a four star.  It got a Nebula award and Hugo nomination for best novella of 2006, and well deserved.

How do you keep them down on the farm once they see the city lights?  That's the starting premise behind the story, but Kelly's stories never stay simple.  Even though our protagonist Spur is a farmer living a simple life on Walden, named for Thoreau's simple paradise.  Its simplicity is enforced by compact--the rest of humanity has gone in for radical progress on the Thousand Worlds, and is quite far along.  Spur discovers all this quite by accident, being exposed to "upsider" technology while being healed of burns suffered fighting a forest fire.  Walden has its own conflict with the "pukpuks", people left over from the first colonization.

The story builds gradually from its accidental seed, and is still building when it comes to an end.  There is obviously room for sequels, but it doesn't seem like that was the intent.  The hints at larger things are just an extension of the story, shedding light on Spur's development as he struggles to choose between his old life and a possible new one.  It's a dandy of a story, and though I had marked it as "a good read" I don't recall it at all, so the reread was worthwhile.  Go read it and enjoy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Still Life with Boobs, by Anne Harris

This story made me smile all the way through.  Still Life With Boobs got a Nebula nomination in 2005 for short story, and I might well have given it the award just for amusement.  It's a single entendre most of the way, but not overwhelming at all.  As with a lot of short stories it's hard to summarize without giving away the point, but what Harris does really well here is to work on body image and sexual issues with real humor.  We tend to name certain body parts (though for some reason I never have), and that's where this starts, but it goes on quite far from there.  Have fun.  4 stars.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Men are Trouble, by James Patrick Kelly

One-gender stories are a pretty common trope in SF literature.  There's a fair sprinkling of both genders, possibly with a preponderance of all-female ones but I have not counted.  The last one I recall reading was Ethan of Athos, all male.  In any case, Men Are Trouble is an all-female Earth, made that way by an alien species who must have thought the title of the story was true, though it is never referenced in the tale. 

Kelly in this story is putting humanity in a stressful situation to see what we learn from it. The invasion and removal of men is not that long in the past, there are many women alive who remember men.  Grannies, in this story.  Fay Hardaway is a hard-bitten PI investigating the death of one woman and the disappearance of another, though of course bigger things are on the line.  We see here the tension between people trying to get by in this new circumstance, where aliens basically control the show, and others who just can't get used to it and would rather die.  The pain of finding meaning in these circumstances comes through clearly.

This is a fine read, if you pick it up you will enjoy it immensely.  Four stars from me.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Embracing-the-New, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Embracing-the-New is a fine story by Benjamin Rosenbaum that got a Nebula nomination for Best Short Story in 2004. I highly recommend it as a great example of what speculative fiction does uniquely well--take an idea outside of our normal experience (technology, magic, or in this case biology) and apply it to a universal truth or value to explain it in a new way.

Our protagonist, Vru, is a lowly apprentice God-carver--in training to be able to copy the icons that embody powerful ideas for his species.  The memory for this species is carried in Ghennungs, parasitic beasts that can transport memories or skills from one person to another. Vru's master is an accomplished God-carver, who has even created new gods.  And he selects lowly Vru, rather than any of his journeymen, to create the next one.  Vru does so, putting all of himself into it.  What happens from there forms the point of the story, so I will let you read it.  But go ahead and do so, especially if you want to know how good speculative fiction is constructed.  This is as clear as it gets.  Four stars.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Faery Handbag, by Kelly Link

The Faery Handbag really cleaned up in 2005.  It won both the Nebula and Hugo for novelette, and had a Best Short Story nomination for the World Fantasy Award.  And it is a nice story, very complete and well told.  I just don't quite see what the fuss is about over her.  Link has a very nice way with characters, which this entry shows.  Our protagonist is the granddaughter of Zofia Swinks, a decidedly odd person from a convincing but make-believe country.  Nothing of what she says is believable, but there is definitely something going on with her handbag.

The appeal here is Zofia herself--library book stealing, tall, wonderful at Scrabble if she can use her native language. Genevive, the protagonist, is an appropriately angst-ridden teenager.  They have a fine old time with her boyfriend Jake.  It's nice and feels good to read.  Did I learn something new about literature, or fantasy, or anything like that?  Doesn't feel like it.  But if you are a fantasy aficionado (fantasy fan just doesn't scan) you probably already know about Kelly Link, and like her.  Good on you.  3 stars for me.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nirvana High, by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What

2004 and 2005 were good years for Eileen Gunn--she had nominations for major awards in both.  I just finished Nirvana High, a Nebula nominee in 2005.  The Nirvana reference is to Kurt Cobain--in this universe he inspired an educational philosophy. It seems to be particularly suited to teaching "special" students--ones with paranormal ability.

So mostly it's a teen angst story, set in high school.  Our protagonist hates herself, nothing new for teens.  We see her try to get along with telepaths and other odd types.  It's a nice little story, illustrative and sad.  Leslie What is co-author--I am not sure if I've read anything else by her.

As I said, nice.  Read for a little diversion of an evening.  3 stars.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coming to Terms, by Eileen Gunn

Coming to Terms is a Nebula winning short story from 2004.  I have always liked the title of the collection it's from, Stable Strategies and Others.  Makes me reflect on what strategies are, and what Other strategies would be. 

This story is more of a little reflection, though.  Thoughts of a daughter, picking up after the death of her literary dad.  They were not close in life, but his writing might change that now.  It's interesting to see how.  The story is not overly speculative, just an episode at the end, thrown in to satisfy her genre I guess.  Mostly it's about connections.  3 stars, just because.

It's always hard to know what to say about short stories.  I dislike giving away plots, but there's not much you can say about the point of a short story without revealing the plot.  Often the point is all there is to it.  Oh well.

The Concrete Jungle, by Charles Stross

The Concrete Jungle was a Hugo winning novella for Charles Stross in 2005.  It's a very helter-skelter sort of story set as a sort of police procedural in a world where magic crosses over into technology and is understood that way.  Our protagonist is the chief IT guy and high-ranking detective in the Laundry, the British agency tasked with protecting the public from unauthorized, fatal use of magic.

The plot in this one runs from bureaucracy to pranks to deadly magic all at once, with a near-omnipotent agency thrown in.  For me, it's somewhat frantic, then resolves a bit too neatly.  It reminds me very much of Jasper Fforde's books, but Fforde is funnier.  But given that it won a Hugo I would say most folks liked it a lot. 

Give this one a try if you like British comic fiction, especially involving bureaucrats, as they are nicely skewered here.  Three stars for me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Airplanes", by Benjamin Rosenbaum, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

No, the title of the post is not a misprint.  Biographical Notes... (part of Rosenbaum's The Ant King collection) is one of those highly self-referential SF stories, so much so in this case that the story nearly disappears into philosophy.  There is a plot, but that is mere trappings for thinking.  The author's protagonist is eponymously named, a plausible-fabulist in an alternative world made as unlikely as possible, with an entirely different view of causality from our own.  He must think his way through his situation as though he were in our world, with our view of causality.  With me so far?  I thought not. 

Having dabbled in the philosophical, it's pretty easy for me to either think too hard about this stuff or dismiss it.  This story possibly deserves more attention than I gave it.  Or possibly not. It did get a Hugo nomination for best novelette in 2005, which is pretty good.  You might give it a try.  I give it 3 stars, for the attempt.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

In the Late December, by Greg van Eekhout

Appropriately enough, today I read a Christmas story.  In the Late December was nominated for a Nebula in 2004.  It's a nice little end-of-the-world tale, elegiac enough to be clever but still offering some hope.  Santa has been at it for 43 billion years, and it may be about the end of the line.  Why does one go on, at that point?  Read to see the author's answer.  3 stars.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Four Short Novels, by Joe Haldeman

One more today, this one a bit more remarkable.  Short stories are where most writers cut their teeth, and an ordinary one seems relatively easy to do (I say relatively.  I have only written one, so the opinion may not be informed).  But writing a good, remarkable short story would seem to be way hard.  One is trying to convey a fully formed, interesting story idea in a very compact form.  Some very good ones are close to poetry.  And one could read Four Short Novels that way--as four somewhat long form blank verses.  It would work.  This is a short story, nominated for the Hugo in 2004.  But it is really four shorter stories, each one quite complete, and might possibly have garnered award nominations on their own.  But they are definitely chapters, possibly verses, and hang together beautifully.  They are four riffs on immortality, each beginning "Eventually it came to pass that no one had to die...", thus the poetic overtone.

Joe Haldeman is a veteran writer, and it would take one to pull this off. This is 15 minutes of your life you will want to do again.  Four stars, go check it out.

Don Ysidro, by Bruce Holland Rogers

Don Ysidro is a nice little story on a site called Flash Fiction Online, so it figures to be short.  And sweet, since it won a World Fantasy Award for short story in 2004.  It's an afterlife story, and fairly noncontroversial, at least for pantheists.  I liked it, but don't have much more to say.  Read it in 15 minutes if you are short on time.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Different Kinds of Darkness, by David Langford

Different Kinds of Darkness is a nice little gem that got a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2001.  It belongs to an interesting little subgenre of stories that speculate on what life would be like if a thought or visual pattern put the brain in the equivalent of a Windows blue screen state--frozen up.  Ted Chiang's story Understand contains such a pattern.  I have read at least two others, but they aren't coming to mind right now.  Different Kinds is a good one, worth a read, though it might be just a touch naive.  3 stars.

The World Fantasy Awards confuse me.  I think of fantasy as involving magic somehow, not being too concerned with technical details of how the fantastic element comes about.  Though technical magic may be involved.  This story seems very hard SF, yet it's nominated for Fantasy.  Stretchy.  Oh well.

The Death of the Duke, by Ellen Kushner

The Death of the Duke is set in Ellen Kushner's Riverside series, as Jed Hartman indicates in its introduction.  He regards its main significance as having a gay romance at a time when this was less normal.  Maybe if you hadn't read LeGuin. In any case, the story reads as a sort of postlude to the series--the Duke was one of the protagonists of that romance, but he has had many since, and we see him here at the end of his life with a woman.  I guess it stood well enough on its own to get a World Fantasy Award nomination in 1999, but still goes to show that you should read a series from the beginning to really get it, regardless of what the author or series fans tell you.  Three stars if you read the series, 2 stars if not.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

TAP, by Greg Egan

TAP stands for Total Affect Protocol, a brain implant that gives the user a new, personal language--a way to express any emotion or thought, no matter how complex.  Nothing is ineffable.  One of its early users has died from what appear to be complications of the implant, but her daughter does not think so--she thinks it is murder.  So begins this story.

As always with Egan, the premise is one that will make you think hard.  In this case the premise is a bit of a stretch for me--it's hard to figure out what it truly means.  But the way the story proceeds makes it clearer as it goes along. The story winds up as a powerful combination of two future technologies--TAP and immersive virtual reality--and a very difficult moral dilemma.  Both technologies are frightening when carried to their logical conclusion, but even worse would be to have one without the other.  You'll have to read it to see why, the argument builds through the whole piece.

It's not hard to see why it was nominated for a Hugo in the novelette category in 1996.  Also understandable that it didn't win, because it's a challenging story to read, and you probably should read it more than once.  Now, I almost never read things more than once, but I do think about them, and the more I consider this story the better I like it.  Go read it, more than once if that's something you do, or read it closely if not.  Four stars.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Morning Child, by Gardner Dozios

Morning Child is another war story, I think a theme for the collection it is in.  The weapons are fantastic, but they have passed beyond understanding.  Williams and John pass their days in a depopulated post-apocalypse world, near the ruins of their old home.

To describe the story further would be to fully quote it.  It's pretty short, nominated for a Nebula Best Short Story in 1984.  It's a good short story--the relationship brings out what has happened to them, not any sort of exposition.  Except toward the end, where it adds poignancy.  Read it to fill a few minutes.  Three stars, kind of by default.

Slow Tuesday Night, by R. A. Lafferty

The introduction to Slow Tuesday Night is by Gardner Dozios, the great editor, and he tells us that "only those stories that were the most radical and farfetched in their conception of life in 1970 bear even a conservative correlation to reality"., of stories written before 1965.  The pace of change is tremendous.  He tells us, "If you’re still around forty years from now, do the existing societal equivalent of reading it again" and see what you think.  So I'm reading it--not downloading it into my brain or something--but reading it on a tiny device that can hold several encyclopedias (a first-generation Kindle).  Things change both more and less than expected.

So what's happening here?  In this world, everything is tremendously accelerated, and people have several entire careers and marriages in the course of one evening.  Fortunes are made and lost several times.  The fortunes part is coming close to true--with electronic trading, hedge fund companies make and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in one day.  Easy come easy go.  But Lafferty makes the assumption that humans will personally speed up their interactions and living by the same rate.  But the wetware does not change.  We can now communicate instantly with someone halfway around the world--but no faster than we can type or talk.  If humans uploaded to computers and lived their lives as fast as clock speeds, they could work this way.  But not as flesh and blood.  Good speculative fiction builds contexts for changes--the more radical the change, the more radical the context shift.  Hard to do in a short story, though.  3 stars for the introduction.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Special Kind of Morning, by Gardner Dozios

A Special Kind of Morning is a war story. It was nominated for the 1971 Nebula and 1972 Hugo awards for novelette and novella, respectively. So war was much on our minds at the time, when we did not know how we were going to get out of Vietnam.

It's told in the form of an old war story, told by a broken down veteran to someone who has stopped to listen. As a war story it's not too unusual, but definitely well executed and teaches the lesson war stories should tell--how humanity can emerge from such horror. I can't say it uniquely teaches a lesson from that time.  It could have been written during WWII, or the Gulf War. Stories of horror and undeserved survival are pretty common.  But it's worth perusing, I am glad I read it.  3 stars for me.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Gods of Mars, by Gardner Dozios, Jack Dann, and Michael Swanwick

Back to catching up on award winners on Free SF Online--visit when you can, you will never see so much free stuff again.  And I found one from 1984 that was recently posted, a Nebula nominee for best short story in 1985, called The Gods of Mars.  The authors were old-school guys even nearly 20 years ago, and the story definitely is--it is a near-future Mars exploration story, and of course something goes wrong or it wouldn't be a story.  But what specifically goes wrong is a shout-out, or throwback, to Ray Bradbury's Mars stories.  What they see with their instruments is the standard Red Planet--dry, dusty, no life--but what they see with their eyes is Barsoom.  Which is real?  It's a fun but not too ambitious read.  I'll give it three stars, but with a nagging feeling of generosity.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Osama, by Lavie Tidhar

My last novel to read for this year's major award nominees is Osama, by Lavie Tidhar.  I have not read any of Tidhar's work before, and wonder somewhat how representative it is.  I purchased a paperback version, so it had reviews of the hardcover on it.  Am not sure I would have expected what I got if I paid a lot of attention to them. More approachable than Mieville's The City and The City?  Not sure about that.  Many reviewers compare it to novels by Phillip K. Dick.  I think not too much.  Both Mieville and Dick have strong speculative fiction hooks in their work.  Things that can really make you think. Osama might do that for you too, but in a very different way at best.

Our protagonist, Joe the Detective, is hired by a mystery woman to find the author of low-rent paperback novels featuring the deeds of Osama Bin Laden.  But this is a place where terrorist violence didn't happen, and the stories are about the real world.  This place appears to have unacknowledged ghosts--"refugees"--and Joe might be one.  Things get weird as he progresses the case.

I think the most apt comparison here is Camus, particularly The Stranger, not Dick.  Indeed, Tidhar gives a shout-out to Camus in the book.  It's a very interior story, mostly focusing on Joe's feelings of dissociation with events, or just his feelings generally.  Joe, like The Stranger, is on a personal journey so deep into himself that he is in danger of disappearing.  Go read The Stranger for the real thing.  I give this one 3 stars, for reflection.

Thus ends my reading of the World Fantasy Award nominees, and all award nominees, for 2011.  The best for World Fantasy?  Probably Jo Walton's Among Others--might as well make it a sweep.  Which one was my favorite this year?  I am leaning toward Stephen King's 11/22/63, I just enjoyed reading every word.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Deadline, by Mira Grant

Deadline is the second entry in the Newsflesh trilogy, nominated for this year's World Fantasy Award.  The first one was also nominated for an award, reviewed here.  Zombies are a done to death theme, so much so that according to the acknowledgements material in this volume the author's proofreader wouldn't even bother with the first one.  And I would not say it's a uniquely told story either.  But just because it's been done before doesn't mean it's not worth doing again.  There's a lot of zombie adventure stories because they are fun.  Feed, the first in the series, is fun, and this one is too.

We pick up where the last left off, after the death of Georgia Mason at Shaun's hands. He is a haunted man, clinging to the ghost of her in his head.  Shaun, his sister's ghost, and the rest of the organization try to solve a conspiracy that's gotten so big and bad they can't even describe it.

This is consistent with the world Grant has drawn, one in which the survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse have pulled together and done a considerable amount of infrastructure work to get by in the world.  Many governments actually pulled together a somewhat effective response, and it seems that even the poorest ordinary citizens have access to, say, serious disinfectant showers with instant blood tests for infection.  Roads are maintained and the Internet is bigger than ever.  In such a world, huge conspiracies are possible, and the one described here is just such a doozy.  And it's a truly fun read.  But it's definitely a middle volume, nothing is resolved, the protagonists just do a lot of running and fighting.

It seems an odd choice for a World Fantasy Award, as the science elements in this installment definitely come to the fore in a way they did not in the first volume.  Scientists investigating the origin and control of the zombie virus come to the fore, and there is explication.  Not very fantasy.  But for me that's a recommendation, I still appreciate a good attempt at a hypothesis.

Like the last volume, I had to buy this one for my local library.  Hope they start keeping these, they are definitely worth having on the shelves.  Go pick it up, I give it 4 stars.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Those Across the River, by Christopher Buehlman

Those Across the River is a World Fantasy Award nominee this year, which is why I read it.  The pure horror genre does not usually appeal to me.  But, giving it a chance, this was a decent one.  The author has definitely read plenty of Stephen King--he has plenty of those single sentence, short, portentious paragraphs that mark King's work ("I never made it.").  Many authors use this device, so it's not a knock, but Buehlman definitely put it to work.  The setting is typical also, a sultry, sullen, Southern town dealing with devils of some sort.  I won't spoil it but it is pretty predictable.  The monsters have a long and distinguished history, not delved deeply here.  Our protagonist, a veteran of the Great War, is mostly there to suffer.  He tries to have feelings for the sad, pinched souls facing the menace but doesn't manage much.  In the end, even vengeance is too much feeling for him.  I did enjoy how it closed out, though.

This book is up against strong competition for the award, I don't think it will get it.  But it is probably a good one if you like the horror genre.  Two stars for me, three by reputation, I believe the author has promise.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Kingdom of Gods, by N. K. Jemisin

The Kingdom of Gods is the third book in the Inheritance Trilogy, and a 2011 Nebula award nominee.  I had to buy this one, my library did not, but it was pretty cheap by then.  The third installment focuses on Sieh, first child of the Three and the most powerful godling.  He's kind of an irritating thing, remaining a child forever.  Except in this novel, where he is turned mortal and grows up.  This is accomplished by the Arameri twins Shahar and Dekarta, who form a bond of friendship with him.

There's a struggle to return Sieh to his godhood before he dies of old age, and a struggle against a godling of Vengeance who wants to join the Three, but this second plot is somewhat confusing and not fully developed.  It's all about Sieh and his developing love for mortals, his two friends in particular.  There's a tendency to dwell on the tender moments in the chaos, overdone in my opinion.   Sieh's not really likeable enough, in my book, to carry this off.  I kind of struggled through the middle of it, until toward the end the book gets back to the action and scale that made the first two installments memorable.  I am not sure why this installment got a nomination and the second one, The Broken Kingdoms, did not. The Broken Kingdoms was better, in my opinion.  Three stars for this one, but only just.  Read it to finish the story.  And if you do, go ahead and read the short story at the end, it is worthwhile.

I see that Jo Walton's Among Others got the nod for the Nebula (and the Hugo) this year.  I agree, at least in the case of the Nebula, it was the strongest entry, and such a paen to SF could hardly lose.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

11/22/63, by Stephen King

I have not read many books by Stephen King--he is too good at writing scary stuff for me--but I try to read the World Fantasy Award nominees each year, and 11/22/63 is one.  And I'm sure glad I did, it is one of the best books I have read this year.

The book has a few gory moments, but it is mostly a very sophisticated, and of course beautifully written, time travel story.  Our protagonist, Jake Epping, is offered an opportunity to go back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  King succinctly and cleverly describes the possible rules and inconsistencies the first discoverer of the "rabbit hole" back to 1958, the owner of the diner where it manifests, has noted.  Things one brings back persist, and one seems to be able to bring the same thing back over and over.  Otherwise, events appear to reset to their normal course each time one goes back.  But there's someone at the entrance, a messed up drunk, who seems aware of what's happening...

The characters are vividly real and I was engaged every minute I was reading it.  Finished an 850 page book in two weeks, which is fast for me.  And I learned quite a bit about the time period and the Kennedy assassination, which made it very worthwhile.  In the afterword, King comments on how ugly Dallas was in 1963.  "Confederate flags flew right side up, and American flags upside down".  He reflects on the parallels between then and now, as forces of ignorance, intolerance and prejudice gain strength. 

This book is a great bit of storytelling and a good window on history.  Well worth sitting down for a read, and many copies are available at your public library.  Four stars here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Way of Cross and Dragon, by George R. R. Martin

I have gone back to my favorite free SF source, Free SF Online, to take in an award winner while waiting for a book from the library.  The Way of Cross and Dragon is a Hugo winner from 1980 that was added to the site while I've been away reading the Song of Ice and Fire.  It was interesting to read a story from Martin that references dragons, but has nothing at all to do with Westeros.

This is instead a story of alternative religions.  An inquisitor is sent forth to deal with an apostate believer who has invented a history and sainthood for Judas Iscariot.  Not the first attempt to revive Judas' reputation--certainly The Last Temptation of Christ tried.  It's pretty predictable, the inquisitor himself has doubts, but in the end there is a nice twist.  It is very representative of Martin's work, solid but not really adventurous.  I liked it well enough, you will too.  3 stars.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

So, now that I have finished A Dance With Dragons I am up to date on the Song of Ice and Fire.  It's been a summer-long project that has stretched into Fall--guess I'm not a fast reader.  My perspective is a little different in that I have swallowed the whole thing in one sitting, as opposed to reading the series over 15 years as some have done. 

I confess to being slightly relieved at having finished the series to this point.  Not that it wasn't entertaining, it certainly was.  The craftsmanship in this work is excellent, second to none.  It's a comfortable read, knowing that the author is keeping careful track of 1000 plus characters and taking the time (five years, in this case) to sort out the plot.

What may be tiring me a bit is that it is very much beginning to feel like a soap opera.  Soap operas can be very entertaining in their subplots.  Will Tyrion ever find happiness, or at least Tysha?  Are the Starks truly crushed now that Jon Snow is slain and the children have gone to ground?  Will Daenarys Targaryen get her act together, or will her brother take the lead, or what?  Would we actually want any of these families to prevail?

But fantasies aren't soap operas, at least not the ones I like.  They build toward something.  Rather the opposite of The Wheel of Time, where one knows exactly where the whole thing is headed.  Maybe too much the opposite, but the Lord of the Rings wasn't.  Nor was Harry Potter.  This series aims for comparison to the above, at least in popularity, so the comparison is fair.  The Hundred Years' War was actually 127 years long, all told, and this series takes a lot from it.  It's Westeros Lives of the Rich and Famous, and like life it goes on.

We do get some hints in this volume about the price of progress--perhaps Valyria was too advanced, and discovered something that brought about the Doom.  That's very Fantasy.  They seem to have invented Cyvasse, or chess, in this book.  It's a good read, but I'm not as anxious as some for the next one.  I can wait.

I took advantage of an e-reader glitch to read this as an e-book from my local library.  Simply loaded it to my old Kindle and turned off the wireless, and had as much time as I needed to complete it.  Since I could not renew this was the only way a library loan was practical.  We'll see if they ever close that.

Give this one three stars, like the rest.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Martin, George R. R. - A Feast for Crows

I have just finished A Feast for Crows, book four in A Song of Ice and Fire.  It's definitely a bridge to the rest of the story--at least I hope so.  Mostly it seemed to be focused on people destined to be minor players, with the exception of the Lannisters.  In the end, it was hard for me to get excited about it, though it did hold my interest.  Martin has carefully woven a first-rate Age of Chivalry soap opera, with a bit of supernatural thrown in.  It's enjoyable to see all this clockwork execute.

I am still wondering how a society with eight thousand years of written or remembered history fails to progress.  Could the key be in Valyria?  Not yet, according to this article on Valyria.  Oh well.  I am finally at a point to read the Hugo award nominated most current installment, after which I can move on to some other good literature.  By then a Song of Ice and Fire will have consumed about five months, somewhat more than the Vorkosigan novels did last year.  Worth it?  The last entry will tell...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Younger Women, by Karen Joy Fowler

A short story this time--Younger Women, a World Fantasy 2011 nominee in the short story category.  Short stories really have to bowl me over to get me to like them, and this one doesn't, quite.  Part of the wave of vampire stories.  This is a more mundane encounter, which is different, but the characters don't get a chance to stand out.  It's nice, but not nearly as strong as the other online nominees--The Paper Menagerie and The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.  Just two stars, for average.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Small Price to Pay For Birdsong, by K. J. Parker

As promised, I am taking a short break from Song of Ice and Fire to look at the World Fantasy Award winners available online, through my favorite website, Free SF Online.  Over the past two days I read A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, by K. J. Parker, a nominee in the Novella category.  And am really glad of it.

This story is one of the best I have read in a long time, as much as anything because it caught me by surprise.  For the first couple of paragraphs, it reads like a cover of the movie Amadeus, and I was ready to dismiss it.  But it quickly goes far beyond the resemblance.  While our protagonist remains very much Saligheri, his nemesis (Subtilius) is a much more talented and crueler version of Mozart.  His instrument of torture? 

Music comes easily for Subtilius, while it's much more of a chore for P.  Subtilius corrupts P. into helping him by offering him a piece of music written in P's own style--but so much better. 

There are a lot of simple turns this story could have taken and been pretty good.  But Parker resists them all and makes it even better.  We get a very powerful exposition of what plagiarism, and creating one's own work, means.  And as if that weren't enough we get fully developed characters to work through it--they are more than just illustrations of the point, though that would have been enough. 

For another perspective on the ethics of borrowing someone else's talent, see Nothing to Declare, linked from this post on this blog.  Together they make you think very seriously about how we create our own work from the work of others.

Four stars for this one.  Go read.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin

I am progressing steadily in the Song of Ice and Fire series, having just finished A Storm of Swords.  The book definitely has the feel of a midpoint in an epic, and it can be hard to sustain the momentum during these spells.  Since Martin eschews sensationalizing the fantasy elements of the story, it ends up reading a lot like history. But really well done history--we move smoothly from viewpoint to viewpoint, with each teller coming forward in turn, moving the plot along and revealing more about themselves in steady measure.  We see the decline of Westeros here, though none of the characters seem all that conscious of it.  This is consistent with their mostly noble positions--there is some concern here and there for the "smallfolk" and how they will get through the winter since the country is squandering several harvests on war, but in the end glory wins out.

And the lives of the players are quite tumultuous--more Starks get killed, and even the Lannisters suffer major losses.  Spoiler alert, am going to talk specifics.  Though I have not spoiled it for myself.  Seems like Tyrion is going to be one of the continuity characters.  Martin seems to be fond of him, it's hard to imagine him dying.  Of course, one fantasy element that DOES appear to be playing a large role is returning from the dead--Berric Dondarrion set that up, then Catelyn Stark does so at the end.  Most of Storm of Swords is chess moves, but at the end things are really hopping.

I am still wondering about the lack of standard progress in Westeros and the world.  Eight thousand years, and they have actually gone backward a bit, at least as regards the Wall.  But no explanations (just a bare hint in that Valyria seems to have been rather advanced before its Doom--no clue of what that is yet).  Are long winters truly that catastrophic?  We shall see.

I will be back shortly, am taking a break from Westeros to catch up on the online World Fantasy Award nominees. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin

Well, these Song of Ice and Fire books are thick ones, so I won't be posting too frequently until three more books are done.  But I have just finished the second--A Clash of Kings.  Since this series is an epic, the second book is not surprisingly similar to the first.  The plots deepen as the entire area of Westeros falls into war--a not unusual result of the fall of a strong family.  I had speculated that Martin was drawing inspiration from the War of the Roses before seeing the Wikipedia article above, and that confirms it.  The series is supposed to be seven books in all--they should win awards, assuming Martin lives to complete them in good health.  That's the challenge for most all major fantasy series

Of interest in this volume for me is that Tyrion continues to show a more sensitive side than the rest of the royalty.  We'll see whether he keeps it, events at the end of the book would sour anyone.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

This post won't have live links yet--I will fix it later. I have taken the plunge and started Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, since the latest installment has been nominated for a Hugo. Kind of odd, I thought the Hugo was more for hard SF, but no matter. There are a few thousand reviews of A Game of Thrones out there, so it is hard to know what I will add. The first installment, at least, is pretty much a fantasy retelling of medieval England/Europe, in the time of the War of the Roses or perhaps the Hundred Years' War. The cast of characters is set out--the honorable Starks, the cunning Lannisters, the blundering Baratheons, the deposed but looming Targaryens, and their supporters. There is a supernatural presence beyond the Wall (think Hadrian's), but it does not drive the story yet. In this place the seasons are long and unpredictable--it has been summer for ten years, but as the Starks say, "Winter is coming". The most interesting character so far, and very deliberately, is Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf second son of his House. He lives by his wits in a time when strength is more prized, and he is mostly despised. Yet all end up listening to him. This is Martin's master work, and it is oh so carefully planned. It will not break new ground, I don't think, but it will be very enjoyable. It remains to be seen whether this will transcend good soap opera, but I will read on to find out. Four stars for this one, let's hope he can finish it.

 Frozen in Time

A very common speculation in fantasy, thoroughly indulged here, is that technology progresses to a certain point, then just stops. The world of Ice and Fire has had knights in armor for at least eight thousand years. How is it that progress stops? We do not know here. Jordan's Wheel of Time proposes resets. Is it the magic? We shall see what Martin does...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

God's War, by Kameron Hurley

Am between series right now, having finished Alex Benedict and soon to start Game of Thrones.  In the interlude I read God's War, by Kameron Hurley.  It is a very intense and inventive book, but be ready--it is as dystopian as they come, every hero is an anti-hero, and not a whole lot of hope for a happy ending.

Nyx is our lead anti-hero, a thoroughly hard-bitten war veteran and former bel dame--women who hunt down deserters and other rogues.  Umayma is a truly sad world, made habitable by insect-driven technology but being slowly destroyed by a very dirty holy war.  She and her team have a side, but basically travel between them.  Some of the setup impresses me as reversal for its own sake--in Nasheen women are the strong fighters, and Nyx's "love" (not really, but sort of) interest is a soft and graceful man.  But that's part of the war, as the other side is kind of the opposite.  And they're all being egged on by outside forces.  And so we meet all the characters, slogging along through the worn world, slugging it out between uncertain endings and the sad status quo ante.  Sounds too familiar.  In the end, I enjoyed it--good characters, good tension, kept me going.  Kameron Hurley has apparently had some close calls with death, her acknowledgements and bio mention it a lot, but I have not followed up with it on her blog.  Three stars for this one, though I would nearly give it four.  It didn't get the Nebula for 2011, but it was a worthy nominee.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Firebird, by Jack McDevitt

So now I have caught up on the Alex Benedict series, with its latest installment Firebird, nominated for a Nebula this year. 

This one is quite an entertaining read.  One can see the maturing of the series as it goes along--the characters get better, and more interesting stuff is in the plots.  In Firebird, physicist Christopher Robin (and no reference to Pooh!) is investigating the occasional appearance of mystery ships.  They fade in, but are often so ancient they can't communicate, and fade out again.  Robin himself disappeared mysteriously.  Some of his belongings are brought in for auction, which puts Kolpath and Benedict on his trail.  And solve it they do, though the tension is still simmering between them.  Kolpath is getting somewhat tired of Benedict's moral "flexibility". 

It is still weird reading stories set 10,000 years in the future, with people still using technology the way they did 10 years ago (like setting the password on their notebook to "brane"--goodness).  Not only do things not change, they got frozen in 2001. But the stories are entertaining.  Would I have enjoyed "Echo" if I had read the other four books first?  No doubt.  But I just didn't have time to catch up all the series last year.  It would have been another six books.  Well, I probably could have, but that would be all I would read in the year.  In the future I'll try harder, because a good series does develop from the beginning even if the author assures you you can jump in anywhere.

3 stars for this one, in an old-timey sort of way.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Devil's Eye, by Jack McDevitt

Continuing my catch-up on Alex Benedict, I turned to The Devil's Eye.  The books continue to get more interesting in this series.  Kolpath and Benedict get involved in a mystery that takes them to Salud Afar, a world a month out from anywhere in the Confederacy.  They are lured by a famous author with a large check and her own mind wiped clean, and end up saving a world.  There's a lot more action in this one, and we see more of Chase Kolpath as an action hero.  I'm beginning to think that calling it the Alex Benedict series is meant as irony, or something.  But she's still pretty casually slutty in a way that doesn't really build out her character, and that still galls.

In any case it's a good engaging read.  Next up would be Echo, but I have read it already.  I'm not sure my conclusion would change, as Chase Kolpath goes in a very different direction there that, if I recall correctly, would end up taking away from her and possibly simply be a response to criticism.  Reinforces the notion that one really needs to read a series from the beginning to be fair to an installment.  But I'm not going back now.

3 stars for this one.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeker, by Jack McDevitt

Continuing with my catch-up of Alex Benedict, I have finished Seeker.  This is the third book in the series, and it won a Nebula in 2004.  It start out somewhat slowly, like the first two.  Chase Kolpath, the narrator of the series (still no billing) is going through something of a slutty phase.  But toward the end I can at least see what the award nominators were thinking about--it definitely picks up, with satisfying twists and turns.  The characters get to show what they're made of, and there's even some interesting speculation on how a planet could be habitable in orbit around a brown dwarf.

I still have my objections to the series.  Some seem to think it's a strength that he depicts society as pretty much unchanged over a period of ten thousand years.  Just more spread out.  Just doesn't seem plausible, especially for current speculative fiction.  We've seen the pace of change quicken.  But it's a decent story overall, and worth getting into if you are yearning for a mystery with some space opera flavor.  I give it 3 stars.  Next up is The Devil's Eye, we shall see what that brings. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Polaris, by Jack McDevitt

Polaris (Amazon link because my public library server is down) is the second novel in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series.  Upon starting it I immediately wondered why his assistant Chase Kolpath doesn't get billing, as at least two of the books, Polaris and Echo, are told from her perspective.  So Polaris is our first view of Benedict from Kolpath's eyes.  Not too flattering.  But then again, the series hasn't really picked up speed for me either.  These are mystery novels with big-picture ambitions, but in the end seem to be told small.  Protecting the key to immortality (spoiler, ha ha) is an interesting idea for one of the Big Four back in the '50s, but it seems just a tad less innovative now.  There is some room to grow here, but it just doesn't feel like McDevitt's going to take it.  There's mild adrenaline toward the end, but not enough to make it worth a novel. 

Many seem to like him, though, so I will persevere.  The next book, Seeker, won a Nebula. Could be we're going to pick up here.

2 stars for this one.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Talent for War, by Jack McDevitt

I am catching up several series this year, Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series being one of them.  His novel Firebird is up for a Nebula this year, and Echo was nominated for 2010.  I read Echo (see my review) of sequence, but I never like to do that, and in this case thought it might have been unfair to the book.  So I have gone back to the beginning and read A Talent For War, from 1989. 

Mysteries are very difficult to write in SF, as Isaac Asimov pointed out (I can't find the quote, I believe it's at the beginning of one of the Wendell Urth mysteries). One has to simultaneously:
  1. Not cheat--use a speculative trick to resolve the mystery, and
  2. Not sound contrived--making something a mystery that in the SF setting one is creating, should not be mysterious.
 I think McDevitt does some violence to both of these, though not severe.

Alex Benedict is introduced here as a dealer in unique collectables.  He comes into a large fortune from his uncle, Gabe Benedict, along with a major mystery about the very founding of the Confederacy, a loose organization of planets formed under the pressure of defeating the Asuryyeans, the only other known alien race.  The Ashuryyeans are telepaths, not quite as advanced technically as humans but posessed of a lot of firepower.  The story of Christopher Sim, leader of the resistance to the Asuryyeans, figures prominently.  He is lionized in popular culture, but how he really died drives the story.

One gets an intimation of trouble when the major point of the book--that Sim might be a fraud--is on the book cover.  This isn't revealed until late in the book, but you know it if you read the cover material.  Hmm.  In the end there are some surprises and bigger fish fried, but it seems odd.

I find McDevitt a pretty dry read, but a lot of people like him.  I understand the comparison to Asimov, in that they both do not have much in the way of style.  They just tell the story.  Asimov, though, had the advantage of an open field to develop new ideas--he was a pioneer.  McDevitt comes into a more mined-out area, where telling a story that has been told before requires a fresh approach and deeper exploration.  This one doesn't really cut it for me.  But the rest of the series has been nominated for three awards, winning one, so I'll keep going.  Two stars for this one, as it is.

This novel made me think a lot about the assumption SF authors make about nations.  Once action becomes interplanetary, it seems very natural for planets to assume the role of nation-states.  Intrastellar SF thus sounds a lot like 18th century colonial interactions, with long sea voyages separating far-flung states.  So it's been nearly from the beginning, and it isn't slowing down--see my previous review for an assumption that the planets will have one government each.  I recall a couple of examples where this assumption is not made, or is at least remarked upon, but the quotes don't come to mind.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey

Have just finished Leviathan Wakes, a Hugo award nominee for 2011. It's the first in a series, and pretty slick.  George R. R. Martin endorses it as "old-fashioned kickass space opera", and I guess I'll agree with that. 

The story starts out set in a reasonably plausible future--mankind has discovered a cheap fusion drive that lets us get access to the planets and expand settlement there.  We've got asteroids that have been hollowed out and spun for gravity, and lots of mining activity.  Into this space comes the stretch part--a "protovirus" that seems to be trying to restructure whatever life it encounters. The struggles with and over this life form are set in a backdrop of political strife between Earth, Mars, and the Belt (everyone else).  We have a hard-boiled detective, an idealistic captain, and various other characters to root for.  Lots of good action and some nasty horror scenes.  The book is long enough to be satisfying without bogging down.  Is there anything surprising in a literary sense, or do we go somewhere we haven't before?  Not at all.  That's kind of the point here.  This is pure entertainment, and it delivers in a very fine way, like a half a pizza or a 20 ounce beer.  Good and plenty. 

James S. A. Corey is a pen name.  The book is actually a collaboration between Daniel Abraham and George R. R. Martin's assistant, Ty Franck.  It's a fine blend, I've read plenty of Daniel Abraham and would not have guessed it was him. I give it a nice round 3 stars.  I got it from our local library, and it's quite possible to finish it in the usual lending time.  Have fun.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue), by John Scalzi

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue) is nominated for a Hugo.  This is pretty darned funny as the story is an April Fool's joke, and none too subtle at that.  And the joke has many layers to it.  I think it got and deserved its nomination as a reward for the subtlety of the humor behind the really obvious slapstick of it.  One can't really describe it, you just have to go read it, and it's not that big a deal, won't take long.  Go do it and have a nice chuckle.  3 stars for fun.

The Homecoming, by Mike Resnick

The Homecoming is Mike Resnick's 34th Hugo nominated publication, which is pretty darned amazing.  He is such a pro at writing it's hard to imagine him turning out anything not at least worthy of consideration for an award.  But while this story is worthy of consideration, it's not a contender, at least in my mind. 

The story is pretty direct and familiar--a son has left his family and become completely different from the person they knew.  Literally, in this case.  The protagonist's son is in an artificial alien body, necessary for studying the aliens he is with.  This makes him not human, in the father's mind.  They struggle to reconcile, but do, in the end.  This doesn't spoil it really.  It's a nice story and well done, but it's pretty much a poster.  If you read it you will like it, so go do that.  I give it three stars for execution. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Copenhagen Interpretation, by Paul Cornell

The Hugo Awards are out for this year.  In the shorter categories there's a lot of overlap in what's available online between the Nebulas and Hugos.  The Copenhagen Interpretation is one of three stories that don't overlap.

If it seems to come in a bit in the middle, that's because it does.  According to Cornell's website, it's the third in the series. Continental Europe has continued to dominate the world scene into the space age, with all the powers struggling to maintain the "balance" that now, if tipped, threatens to annihilate the world.  So we have a mix of DWEM manners and SF tropes like spacetime "folds".  The story is a competent spy thriller in its own right.  It might hold up better as part of a novel with the others.  As is, it's OK but not a threat to win. 3 stars.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Among Others, by Jo Walton

Among Others is one of the Nebula and Hugo award nominees for 2011, and I would not be at all surprised to see it get a World Fantasy Award nomination as well. It's pretty much tailor made to get an award--the protagonist is a serious SF fan from the 70's which coincides nicely with Boomer award voters.  The standout element of the book for me, and probably for those voters too, is the continuous shout-out of familiar authors and titles from that time--Zelazny, Zenna Henderson, Simak, Silverberg--it goes on and on.  Vonnegut.  Etc.  So it's got an automatic appeal to those of us who lived (and maybe still live) for the moments we have to read our beloved genre.

So how is it as a current story?  Here I am not so sure.  The protagonist suffers the very real pains of exclusion, because of her interaction with magic and fairies.  The magic is always deniable--natural events could have brought it about--and the fairies are definitely supernatural beings but that's just what she calls them.  Morganna is a reasonably engaging character but matter of fact to the point of flat affect.  She moves through the world and cares very much about the SF elements, but not a lot else.  The book doesn't really build at all--Mor (that's what she goes by) is so fully preoccupied by her books that she seems to barely notice the fantastical elements in her life.  And this is deliberate.  My library classifies it as a YA title, but none of those 70's books are going to resonate at all unless the reader has really been digging--those books don't have a prominent place in libraries anymore (though libraries certainly have a prominent place in the book). 

So what we have here is very much "inside baseball".  Stronger as a contender for the award than as a novel in its own right.  I still give it 4 stars because reading all those old titles was so much fun--I had actually read the vast majority of them.  If you are a die hard SF fan you will like it for that too.

Fields of Gold, by Rachel Swirsky

I wrote a review of this about 10 days ago, but somehow it did not post.  So I will try again...

Fields of Gold is a Nebula nominated novelette.  It's a good example of a "what happens after you die" story, and I think it's a pretty strong candidate for the award.  Our protagonist has died young, diabetic coma, and is now in the afterlife.  The first event is a big party where everyone important to you, apparently including fictional characters, shows up.  We get a review of Charlie's life and disappointments, as well as its few triumphs, but it is not mean-spirited or sad.  It's a hard story to describe other than to say it is sweet and makes you glad you read it.  We even get an idea of what Heaven might be like.  So it's a nice story, and I'm giving it a strong three stars.  Go check it out.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Broken Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

The Broken Kingdoms is a catch-up read for me, as I intend to read Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods this year.  The latter is book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy, thus The Broken Kingdoms is Book 2.  So much for that.

The first book in the series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is quite the sprawling affair, where wildly powerful beings are commonplace.  The story is highly entertaining.  Based on the sample in that book, I expected The Broken Kingdoms to be of smaller scale, kind of an opposite.  It does start that way, but quickly builds to warp fantasy speed.  I wasn't at all disappointed, Jemisin brings this off very well.

Our protagonist, Oree Shoth, is a blind woman from a race whose land was wiped out by the Nightlord (one of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' three Gods) earlier.  She lives in the Shadow of the Tree the reborn third god of the trio caused to grow in the first book.  And she is "plagued by gods", surrounded by the children of the three, including a very strange and taciturn one she calls Shiny.  Shiny is not what he seems, that much is obvious, and thus the ride begins.

Jemisin's over-the-top style is quite fun.  Too much is never enough for her.  Yet through it all she maintains a sense of proportion, and the human emotions are human-scale.  Thus a very unreal story of gods and godlings becomes a very down-to-earth story of love and its price.  You feel like you at least sort of understand all the characters, whatever their scale.  I give this one four stars, and am very much looking forward to reading the last one.  Hopefully I can convince my public library to buy it, but I may just break down and buy it for them.  We'll see.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Embassytown, by China Mieville

Embassytown is nominated for a Nebula for 2011, and I think it's the one to beat.  Here's why:

China Mieville's novels are great examples of "idea" SF.  But not just any ideas, or explorations of technology--Mieville goes after philosophy.  In The City and The City he very purely explored ideas of place, and how one knows where one belongs.  Embassytown has more of the tropes of SF--it's set on an alien planet, with alien beings and technology--but it's every bit as idea driven.  The core idea being one of semiotics.

A perennial problem in philosophy is that of reference, significance and anaphora--how we come to associate things in the world with our language.  A pretty tough idea to convey as problematic, but Mieville will give you an introduction with his Ariekenes, a race where language does not signify and there is no anaphora.  Ariekenes speak Language, with two mouths (which makes for some interesting typography), and the words are wired directly into their nervous systems.  They construct "similes" out of living humans and other things to give substance to comparisons, their thinking tools.  The central trouble comes when they are sent an Ambassador (pair of humans) from Earth that speaks Language in such a way that they become addicted to it.

It takes a lot of work for Mieville to get this across, but it comes clear as the drama unfolds.  He has fun with other words--he introduces the term "floaking", for a certain sort of taking advantage of what one knows and being acceptably productive without working hard.  It's kind of unattractive or it would make its way into the vernacular.

The human characters are harder to appreciate, though they are worthwhile.  The protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, is a starship navigator and accomplished floaker, kind of drifting until the crisis peaks in Embassytown.  She proves acceptably sympathetic to drive the plot.

It took a bit for the book to get going, but it's definitely worth the work.  You will think differently after you read it, just as the Ariekenes do.  Read it for fun, and particularly appreciate it if you enjoy thinking about what words do.  We haven't had this much fun with semiotics since The Name of the Rose. I give it 4 stars.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dry Bones, by William Sanders

Dry Bones got a Nebula nomination for best Novella in 2004.  Hard to say why, there is no particular way in which this story stands out.  It's not bad, but it's not good either.  We have an anthropologist, a pretty girl, and a potential time-traveler skeleton found in the Bible Belt.  But none of that introduces much tension, except that the local science teacher and the pretty girl have an affair.  I'm spoiling it, but there's nothing to spoil.  Competent as a newspaper article, but somewhat less entertaining for not being true.  Oh well. 2 stars.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Legions in Time, by Michael Swanwick

Legions in Time was nominated for a Hugo in 2004.  It's a delightfully twisty time travel story.  Swanwick is one of the best writers of ideas, stories that show you something interesting and new.  Describing the particular paradoxes in this story would give it away, but we do have the basics of a plucky heroine and a very odd, alien seeming being of power.  One of the basics of time travel is that one ends up doubling back on oneself, and like a nasty collateralized debt obligation derivative, there's no limit on the doubling.  How the author handles this is key to time travel storytelling.  Read this one to get an entertaining read followed by a nice surprise ending.  I give it three stars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mechanique: A Tale of the CircusTresaulti, by Genevive Valentine

Mechanique is the first of the Nebula nominated novels I have read this year.  No freebie this time, I purchased it and will donate it to my local library.  Hard to say if they will keep it, though on balance I hope they do. 

Mechanique is a story of a circus, as the subtitle says.  It is an unusual circus in that the performers are magically enhanced and bound by Boss, the Ringmaster.  The magic is mechanical.  But these are pretty flat descriptions, the language of Mechanique is much artsier.  It is told in very small chunks, tenses mixing freely, floating between present and past events.  Not at all effortless.  In fact it's kind of hard to read.  We spend a lot of time describing the characters, which should mean we get to know them.  But not really, they remain obscure.  There's a nice action sequence toward the end where they show their stuff, and a bit of actual profoundness emerges.  Overall, though, I was not really satisfied.  Cherie Priest (Boneshaker) endorses the book as a "fierce, gilded textual circus".  Fierce, nyuh unh, though I'll accept gilded.  Valentine has had a lot of work published, but this is her first novel--I think she will get better.  But two stars for this one, and the Nebulas need to keep looking.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Hortlak, by Kelly Link

The Hortlak is an exercise in surrealism.  One might want to say Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, but not really.  This is Dali all the way.  Familiar things, mainly a convenience store, take on a strange shape and retreat from reality.  The rot is provided by the Ausible Chasm, a place where trash goes and zombies come out.  The zombies themselves are not in any way typical, except for being described as dead.  They are placeholders for more surrealism.  There is a girl, and ghosts of dogs, and bees.  The Turkish sentences are good too, Turkish reads in a very surreal way.  I like Dali, so this was interesting to read, even if it didn't go anywhere in particular.  It's a nice seasoning for SF.  I give it 3 stars, and would recommend it if you think you might like to let your mind wander a bit.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees, by E. Lily Yu

The Nebula awards span hard, soft and fantasy SF genres.  This diversity means you read a lot of very different fiction in the process of evaluating nominees.  The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees is very much on the soft end, pretty much in fantasy space.  It reads as a very different sort of story, which likely makes it a strong contender.  The Asian flair is popular this year as well.  The central characters are wasps that make maps inside their nests, which are discovered by humans.  There is opression, but it is somewhat circular.  Wasps are oppressed by humans, and oppress bees, but the wasps are then removed.  As a side effect, we have a faction.  You will need to read this one yourself and try to sort out the point.  There are several ways to read it, and it doesn't take long to read it repeatedly.  Three stars from me, and good luck.

All of the seven stories nominated for Short Story of the Year are online this year, so in this category I can make a completely informed choice.  Strongest contenders for me are probably Her Husband's Hands as absurdist fun, and The Axiom of Choice, because I like logic stories and this one is well done.  I'm pulling for Axiom.

The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie is Ken Liu's second Nebula entry this year, he is also up in the Novella category (scroll down).  Pretty good for a new guy, there's plenty to look forward to.  This story is probably not as strong a contender, but it's a good and touching read.  The speculative part is nice but is not a driver for the story--the significance here is the relationship between the boy and his mother.  She is a mail-order bride from China, and just doesn't really fit in the United States.  It's pretty classic, the boy doesn't really know how good he has it--stable home and all--he just wants to fit in and not be teased.  It doesn't help that his mother makes his toys out of origami that comes to life, though that is actually pretty cool.  A nice sentimental tale that I will give 3 stars.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Axiom of Choice, by David W. Goldman

The Axiom of Choice is a very clever story.  The cleverness is all in the way the story is told, so it's hard to think of very much to say about it that doesn't spoil it.  Other than that the actual Axiom appears in a brief but crucial role, and holds the whole story together very well.  A logical speculative fiction story, as opposed to a physical science one.  Very fun, an interesting read, and a strong contender.  I give it 3 stars, but a strong one.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Movement, by Nancy Fulda

Movement is only SF at its fringes.  It mostly tries to get inside the mind of an autistic girl and describe her experience--that of someone who is aware of time changes at all scales.  This interferes with communication and makes her seem abnormal.  My description is nothing so artistic as the story, of course--Fulda's prose is much richer. 

Some believe that autism is a syndrome of a barrier between a normal mind and the world, and use things like assisted communication to get at the "real" person.  And though the person might get something out of it and be communicating, autism is nothing so simple as that.  It has been shown to go all the way down.  This story has some of both, an extraordinary, not normal mind shut off from the world, and perhaps not minding that.  Interesting, and I'll give it 3 stars.

Shipbirth, by Aliette de Bodard

I have read just a few of de Bodard's stories, but would have to say that for me they are a hard march.  They might be worth it in longer form, but am just not sure, and Shipbirth doesn't answer the question for me.  The relationship between the characters, Ships, and Minds (which run ships) is hard to fathom.  de Bodard works at conveying the story through protagonist Acoimi's complicated history--as a woman, as a man, as a solider, as a physician.  Notice how the work metaphors keep coming up here.  Reading this story is work.  In the end, I think I was glad to have done it, but am still deciding.  Her work is probably very rewarding to those who come to appreciate it, which is why the Nebula nomination.  We'll see if I get there.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mama, We Are Zhenya, Your Son, by Tom Crosshill

Mama, We Are Zhenya, Your Son is a sort of learning-curve quantum mechanics story--a boy seems to be being coerced into quantum uncertainty.  He's sad about it.  The story was OK, though I found it a little hard to follow.  Not quite sure what I came away with, so I can only give this one two stars and a Good Try.

Her Husband's Hands, by Adam-Troy Castro

This is the first of the short stories I'll read for the Nebula 2011 awards, and it's a darn clever one.  Her Husband's Hands takes the returning war veteran to an illustrative extreme.  It's an outlandish setup to think that a piece of a person kept alive could contain them somehow, but that's the driver here.  Our protagonist's husband has been reduced to a pair of hands.  It really brings home the sense of adjusting to loss that one would have while shaking you out of the pity zone that paraplegics or the brain damaged would put you in.  Gives a new way to think about the cost soldiers pay.  Three strong stars, and it's a contender.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sauerkraut Station, by Ferrett Steinmetz

The author in his closing notes refers to this story as "Little House On the Prairie Meets Space Station", and I think that fits Sauerkraut Station pretty well.  It's a fun and mildly quirky story about a space station in the hands of one family for generations.  Seems hard to figure that technology wouldn't pass it by in that time, but then again it's been nearly three since we went to the moon, so it could happen.  I didn't think of the metaphor above right away, but I have heard the audio books of Little House on the Prairie so it clicked right away.  The tale of ordinary loneliness shattered by extraordinary war is familiar enough from Earth. It's a plucky survivor tale too, so feels good in the end.  Ferrett Steinmetz says he's finally got the hang of writing, which is a good thing, we need more decent hard SF out there, with a heart.  I give this one three stars.

Four of the seven Nebula nominees are available online for free--scroll down in this blog and you'll see them.  Of those four, I think that Six Months, Three Days is probably the strongest competitor, it held my interest quite well and was unique in its way.  Good stuff, all in all.  On to the short stories!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Migratory Pattern of Dancers, by Katherine Sparrow

The Migratory Pattern of Dancers is a new setting of a familiar story line--the dystopian future in which a class of entertainers are set apart to tame the masses.  The version that comes to mind is Rollerball, but the first one I remember I can't find the link to--something like "The Champion", where people come to watch an annual suicide car race, and the one and only winner comes back to compete again.

But to our present story--some men have voluntarily integrated genetic material from birds into their DNA, which makes them do birdlike things, including migrate and engage in bird dances.  These are compelling to the public, which they would be, danced with feeling as the men do.  The story does a nice job of covering male bonding--the laconic physicality of it, and all.  Not a lot of tension but it reads well.  It's nice, and I'll give this Nebula 2011 nominee 3 stars, but am hoping for more.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Old Equations, by Jake Kerr

We were wrong about relativity.  Oops.

So goes The Old Equations, by Jake Kerr.  It's good to see there are still room for these stories--take a very simple physics twist and make a story out of it.  So what if we never figured out relativity was real until we tried a FTL flight?

Not too realistic, really.  Once measurements get sensitive, they don't make sense without relativity.  So even if Einstein dies in obscurity, someone else would promulgate the theory in a few years.  But this was still fun.  It illustrates the more basic point that unprecedented exploration carries major risks.  Beyond that, it's done.  Three stars.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Six Months, Three Days, by Charlie Jane Anders

Stories where someone can see the future have a sort of inevitability to them (pun intended, I think).  The person lives a secret life of some sort and tries to change the future based on what he knows, for gain or good.  Six Months, Three Days defies that inevitability totally, and for that reason it's a very interesting tale.

Doug and Rachel are two clairvoyants who seem to live kind of normal lives, at least Rachel does.  She has a good friend who knows her secret and seems willing to play along.  Neither of them try to take advantage of their situation particularly, though Rachel seems to be able to choose between possible futures.  Doug is on a single track, and it's not good.  So the driver of the story is the interplay between these versions of clairvoyancy.  It also covers a nice six month relationship, which shows off Anders' writing well.  It's a fine thing when you see a new take on an old plot, and this story does that with some flair.  It's a nice strong three stars, a story both sweet and thoughtful.

Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne M. Valente

Silently and Very Fast is a very interesting and challenging read.  It doesn't read like a hard SF story, but in some way it may be a very accurate way of describing what's coming for us.  This is the second AI-buddy story in the Novella category for the Nebulas this year, and it couldn't be more different from Kiss Me Twice, which I reviewed just a few days ago.  Silently and Very Fast was harder for me to read, as it gets more magical and loopy than I normally prefer.  But Kiss Me Twice was a more straight technological projection, and as a result put what I think were artificial limits on the artificial intelligences.  Valente places no such limits on her AIs, or at least the limits are not apparent at first.  The ending puts it in context very well.  Valente made me work and it put me off a little, but in the end I really enjoyed it, and give it 3 strong stars.

So now I've read all the Nebula nominees that are available online for free.  Adam-Troy Castro's "With Unclean Hands" and Carolyn Ives Gilman's "The Ice Owl" are in Analog and F & SF respectively, and those publications do sometimes put award nominees up as samples for awhile, so we'll see if I get to see those under the aegis of this blog.  Who do I think will win?  Ken Liu's The Man Who Ended History.  Most fun to read?  Kiss me Twice.  It was a strong field this year, all the stories were pretty good.  We'll see how the novelettes are.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Man Who Ended History, by Ken Liu

And now for the second "The Man Who..." title nominated for a Nebula this year, The Man Who Ended History, by Ken Liu.  But jokes seem a bit out of place here, for the story is serious as a heart attack.  The driver is an expose of the Japanese Army's infamous Unit 731, which committed many atrocities in WWII in China.  The SF portion is a method of time travel that does not interact with the past--interception of the "Bohm-Kirino" particles emanating from a past event.  In this way it echoes Pat Forde's In Spirit, which I recently reviewed.  The protagonists of the story, a historian and his physicist wife (Kirino) work to preserve the memory of these events against deniers.  The story is written in documentary form as a discussion of history, and in that way it's extremely interesting.  The protagonists' decision to rely on human memory as the documentation is given thorough examining.  In the story, the revival efforts serve to "turn history into religion" by forcing one to decide whether one believes eyewitnesses.  In the story the point is made that we distrust eyewitnesses these days.

And surely we do, for good reason.  Research done during the first decade of this century indicates clearly that memories are rewritten by the act of remembering them, and in the process changed.  A person's recollection of events tells us more about what the person believes than what happened, even for what appears to be merely factual information.  Read that linked article for a glimpse of why our children's world will be unutterably strange to us.

As for Unit 731 itself, the story seems to indicate that the deniers are winning even today.  It doesn't seem so from my brief research--there's a lot of well-documented work exposing it in detail.  The story claims no one was tried for war crimes--Macarthur let them off to keep their work from the Russians.  But the Wikipedia article above says at least some of the doctors were tried, and that the Russians did in fact get hold of the research. 

As you can see, a very thought provoking tale.  Might not be my favorite, but I think it's a pretty strong contender and wouldn't be surprised if if won.  I give it 3 stars, but recommend reading it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kiss Me Twice, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Next up for Nebula nominees in 2012 is Kiss Me Twice, by Mary Robinette Kowal, in the Novella category.  Close collaboration between an AI and human is an old theme.  My first SF novel that affected me emotionally was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein.  I was very moved when the AI lost too many nodes to be conscious.

Kowal's entry is quite fine.  We have an AI with somewhat realistic computing capabilities (indeed, along those lines it probably doesn't go far enough), and a lonely detective that encourages "her" emotional side.  The adventure is a good police procedural and nicely tense, with likeable characters throughout.  The story is ripe for a breakout--the AIs seem about ready to go independent, I might be curious to see that.  It makes a good try at imagining what "life" would be like for a being that normally never goes offline, if they do so unexpectedly.  Good fun and a great read.  I gave it four stars, somewhat impulsively but so what.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Man Who Bridged the Mist, by Kij Johnson

And first up in the Nebula Novella category, it's The Man Who Bridged the Mist, by Kij Johnson.  I generally like her work, and there's nothing not to like here.  But it's hard to say why this is nominated, because it's pretty obviously not a standalone story.  Kij Johnson has generally worked in shorter forms--the intro to the story says this is a venture into longer work.  But this is a sketch of at least a novel, and she is most likely hoping it could be a series.  It sets out a landscape ripe for storymaking.  There's an unusual environmental challenge in the Mist, a weird caustic semi-solid that fills some major canyons on this world.  There are life forms small and big in it, so plenty of room for interesting biology and nature challenge.  There are families of ferrymen who seem to have a supernatural "feel" for how and when to cross it.  And we have Kit Meinem, an engineer/architect at a time when the people are just becoming technologically sophisticated enough to build bridges over this mist.  This is the story of Kit's attempt to bridge the largest chasm.  It's well told, but there's no particular plot tension.  It just lays out the characters and scenes.  So it's likely the first chapter or two of a novel.  Fine, but not necessarily an award winner on its own.  I give it 3 stars and look forward to the novel.

I had to come back and edit this post, as I somehow missed the fact that the link to the Asimov's version of the story was part 1 of 2, and part 2 was not free.  Kij Johnson has posted the entire story on her website at the above link. 

Once I read the whole thing, it is indeed a complete story.  I still think the above comments are correct.  It makes a good precursor for a world of stories.  This one went on to win the Hugo for 2011.  I am not sure that I completely agree, but can live with it.  It's a very interesting "big plan" engineering story, but does not have the excruciating (and/or fascinating) technical detail of some stories of this kind.  The protagonist is a fairly cool character, so though he does in the end form a romantic attachment it doesn't really tear at you.  It is a measured work.  Go read the whole thing, now that I've found it all.

Nebula Awards Opener

The award season has opened for Happiness is Free SF.  I'm much more in tune with the awards this year, and the listing has come out on Free SF Online, my favorite SF hunting ground.  It looks to be a decent year, am looking forward to reading the stories.  My general plan: I will read the short fiction available for free online (note the blog title), and make my picks from there, hopefully in the time frame available for voting.  Not that voters actually read this blog, unless I name-check them and their reputation crawlers pick it up (has happened all of three times).  But then again, if I really wanted these read I'd post them on Amazon or Library Thing or some other such review site.  But no, I go my own way...