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...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Crowd of Bone, by Greer Gilman

Sometimes I encounter a story of artistic merit, that I just don't get.  So it is with A Crowd of Bone, by Greer Gilman.  It won the World Fantasy Award in 2004, so someone knew what it was about.  And though it's a novella, I've read shorter novels, so there's plenty there.  But I'll be darned if I know what I just read.

It's set in a Celtic place, I'm pretty certain, but the idiom is mostly unfamiliar, even with all the Celtic fantasy that has been done.  One is supposed to work at it--it is a story told to a rescuer(?), with some other perspectives thrown in.  I might have looked up some of the slang, but it probably would not have done much good as it reads more like unmetered verse, with its accordant license with words.  I puzzled out that it was a tale of two young lovers, who seek work and travel together, sometimes acting, in the end working as farm labor.  But with a lot more magic and power swirling about.

I simply cannot do this one justice, unfortunately.  And just as unfortunately spent several days reading it.  I will not rate it, I don't know how.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

O One, by Chris Roberson

O One puts me very much in mind of the much more complete treatment of this theme in Sean McMullen's Greatwinter triolgy, which precedes it.  O One got a World Fantasy Award nomination for 2004, while Greatwinter was begun in 1999.  In O One we see the failure of Babbage's Analytical Engine once again, this time due to conspiracy by the Head Calculator.  It's a nice story, somewhat predictable, but interesting to recognize the theme.  If you think you would like a story about humans harnessed to calculation, I can recommend the Greatwinter trilogy highly.  I bought it on somewhat of a whim, it being on display for at least two years in a Barnes & Noble I frequented.  It turned out to be highly entertaining.  3 stars for O One.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Slow Life, by Michael Swanwick

Slow Life won the Hugo for Best Novelette in 2003, and for good reason.  It's a fine modern example of a hard SF story, lots of good technological stuff with big ideas.  The setting is Titan, one of the most fascinating places in the solar system.  There's potential for all sorts of weirdness there, so this story isn't that big of a stretch.  We set the scene with a description of a climate based around liquid hydrocarbons that would be gaseous here.  What might be in those oceans?  Life, as it turns out, and intelligent at that.  The title turns on the speculation that life in this setting would have to move slowly, since there isn't much energy.  But that's a matter of perception, and it might in fact be quite fast.  We run through a history in a few hours, with some adventure thrown in.  If you don't like this one, you just don't like hard SF.  But I do.  Four stars.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stories for Men, by John Kessel

Just finished Stories for Men by John Kessel, which got a Nebula nomination in 2003.  It's part of his The Baum Plan for Financial Independence And Other Stories collection.  I've taken to pigeon-holing these stories, which is more useful than its reputation sounds--there are only so many story themes, and it can be good to know what you will get.  This one falls into the Morality Plan pigeon-hole, and it's a really good one.  The Men's Movement was a big deal in the '90s and I studied it then.  This story takes feminist utopia/dystopias, the Men's Movement and ordinary humans and stirs it into a very challenging mix.  Our protagonist, Endo, is a man in a matriarchal moon colony.  Men are the petted creatures without rights, and most that have stayed are happy with it.  A few, now represented by "comedian" Tyler Durden, are not.  They hark back to the warrior code, defending the weak, etc.  Endo is fully torn between what he sees as the rightness of men's grievances vs. the evils the matriarchal society was set up to overcome.  The story is gripping all the way through.  And threaded through it is a 1936 issue of Stories for Men, defining the warrior ethic as it was seen in pre-war America. 

We have come further since then.  In the past 20 years I believe we have all become more comfortable with difference, and with the notion that we need both male and female energies to survive.  This story is a powerful reminder to protesters, that they not let the means of expression make the accusations of oppressors true.  4 stars.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

In Spirit, by Pat Forde

It's awfully hard to write effective SF about 9/11.  I heard a composer say once that she wrote several songs about the event and trashed them before finally finding something that worked.  In Spirit got a Hugo nomination in 2003, and it's a pretty good story.  Compelling, for me, even though it didn't suck me in entirely.  It has interesting speculation on time travel without paradox, and the science is laced through the story, which explains the Hugo nomination.  But the real point is how that time travel is used. 

The true ability to view the past would be very traumatic, as many authors from Asimov and before have explored.  We don't want to know what really happened to Jesus 2000 years ago, or at several other key turning points.  The stories are what matter.  In the current story, the defenders of time travel have found a use for it that may make the trauma worthwhile--the development of empathy.  The protagonist is one of the 9/11 co-conspirators, a fully hardened man after 30 years in jail.  He is allowed to "deep project" back to carefully selected scenes in the attack.  It reads somewhat tritely in places, but is in the end very convincing.  Read it and remember.  3 stars

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Last of the O-Forms, by James Van Pelt

The Last of the O-Forms is a nicely depressing tale, one that makes you think about how We Might Be There Soon Enough.  It picked up a Nebula nomination for 2003.  It's an ecological collapse story, with rather a stronger hint of disaster than in "'Hello' Said the Stick" below.  But a good short story has more than one thing going on.  In this one, the protagonist has tried to adjust to the change, creating a traveling show out of the mutated creatures he finds.  But it's not much of a show when the whole rest of the world starts looking like it.  In the end it looks like he finds a new gig, but also looks like it's a further spiral down.  One can appreciate his attempt, futile as it is, to adapt.  Give it 3 stars, and then go look for some hope.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Creation, by Jeffrey Ford

Creation is a triple threat--got nominated for all three major SF awards, and won World Fantasy Award short story honors in 2003.  And it was deserved--really good stuff.  It centers on the protagonist's foray into Creation, a result of his religious education but critically enhanced by his atheist father.  It just carries you along, like a really interesting dream.  It's a great online gem to find, and well worth a few minutes to take in.  I give it four stars.

'Hello' Said the Stick, by Michael Swanwick

'Hello' Said the Stick is a fine example of a short story form I would call the Hint--there's a much bigger game afoot, and you get a little glimpse of it.  Swanwick is a master of such stories, he has a number of them on The Infinite Matrix, a site no longer maintained but still around.  Our protagonist is a mercenary in Renaissance Italy--but really it's the Stick.  This comes out relatively gradually, and gracefully.  It got a Hugo nomination for 2003, which was deserved.  Go read it for a little fun. 3 stars, strong.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Little Gods, by Tim Pratt

This was a quick one, so I am right back.  Little Gods had a Nebula nomination for best short story in 2002.  And it's a solid entry.  A well-used premise--a man whose wife is tragically killed interacts with supernatural beings, maybe to get her back--but it's done quite well.  With a nice happy ending that was quite appropriate for Valentine's Day.  Slices of life make good short story material, so while I can't say I've added to my knowledge of SF literary devices etc., it was a nice read.  Would be for you too.  I give it three stars, with a pat.

The Bird Catcher, by Somtow Sucharitkul

I enjoy stories by Somtow Sucharitkul because Thailand seems underexploited as a SF setting, though Paolo Bacigalupi represents that part of the world well too.  The Bird Catcher seems like more straight fiction, just a memoir about hanging with a serial killer, but it's a very rich story for all that.  Made interesting by the description of the Police Museum in Bangkok, which seems to be a real place.  The protagonist is passing on his story of befriending this monster, and even understanding to an extent what makes him tick.  And it all seems to fit well in that weird, florid setting.  Somtow (he also writes as S. P. Somtow) manages to describe Bangkok as more chaotic than Calcutta, which is saying something.  This is a good story if you like horror with not too extreme (for today) doses of grossness.  I give it 3 stars.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Lincoln in Frogmore

Seems like Lincoln is everyone's favorite president and superhero.  Andy Duncan's too.  So we have Lincoln in Frogmore, a World Fantasy Award nominee in 2001. 

This story is really all about the setting--Sea Island Georgia, during the Civil War.  The setup is a WPA writer's project interview of a man who was a young boy at the time.  And supposedly Abraham Lincoln snuck into Frogmore to give the "coloreds" there a speech.  All in Sea Island vernacular, one supposes because that is the tale teller's voice.  I can't pass judgement on Duncan's authenticity, it seems all well enough.  But the story really doesn't do anything more than show that he can write that way.  Lincoln in reality is not convincing as a hidden true friend of slaves, down home as he was.  The premise ends up more odd than speculative.  I give it 2 stars, not really worth going out of your way for, though it is OK.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Old Macdonald Had a Farm, by Mike Resnick

OK, now I remember why I at least sometimes like short stories.  Mike Resnick.  Old Macdonald Had a Farm is a classic of the form--the moral dilemma.  Caesar Macdonald appears to have solved world hunger with "Butterballs", a meat animal that's apparently so efficient it's better than plant life.  He had to kind of stretch to get to this, but it sets up the point.  You should go read it, so I won't give away the central point of the dilemma.  But this sort of thing is what good short stories can do particularly well--set out a problem in an entertaining yet simple way, and make you think.  Speculative fiction is an ideal vehicle for this, as the genre setting allows a suspension of disbelief.  You can ignore certain inconvenient facts like the paradoxes around the speed of light if you need or want to.  The setup is clean and, in context, believable, so one can better set up the central dilemma.  Enjoy reading and thinking about this one.  Four stars.

Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City, by Jack McDevitt

I read a story like Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City, and it makes me wonder if I just don't like short stories.  This one was nominated for a Nebula in 2002.  And it's not a bad story.  It's just not much of anything.  Not-too-bright liquor store owner hears about the discovery of aliens, and barely notices.  OK, whatever.  I don't mind having read it, but I would not have gone out of my way for it.  Two stars because it isn't offensive or incompetent, but sometimes they work pretty hard to fill a category.

The Bleeding Man, by Craig Strete

This is one I have read before, and was glad to read again.  It's Strete's most famous story, I believe, now collected in If All Else Fails.  Strete's images and ideas are extroardinary, which is a good thing as his characters tend to cardboard, other than the mystical ones.  This story is the best example, a completely inexplicable man, bleeding continuously at a rate no one could sustain.  Very simply described and told, yet complete.  The characters' reaction is revulsion, yet the way Strete describes him is not overly horrific.  Mostly it's the simplicity, the lack of over-the-top adjectives and creepy tension.  It's a man in an institution. 

Read this for a thoughtful horror fix, it's a good surrealism example.  3 stars.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Time Deer, by Craig Strete

Craig Strete is a fine author from the intersection of Native American and stoner culture, with lots of deeply surreal work to his name.  The collection this story is in, If All Else Fails, has an introduction by Jose Luis Borges, no less.  This story is just a little taste, there is a better example coming, but Time Deer is representative.  Nominally about an old man being committed, it wanders in to explore what Native American life ending would be like, as his mind wanders away.  It's short, so painted in stark caricature, but indicative nonetheless.  The collection is worth checking out.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Accelerando is a "fix-up" novel, I guess meaning it's assembled from short stories and novellas, because that is what it is.  I came across this while reading the award winners from 2000-2005 on Free SF Online.  Several of its components have been nominated for awards: "Lobsters", "Halo", "Nightfall", "Elector".  And when I went to read them, I found that the novel was actually pretty seamless, so decided to read the whole thing.

And it was quite a commitment--bloody LONG, it seemed like, especially being densely packed with near future/singularity jargon almost impossible to avoid in describing it.  Obviously a labor of love, also, taking him five years to put together.  It is on the whole a fairly entertaining period piece, kind of a William Gibson satire or parody, careening off the edge of weird.  It just does manage to make sense all the way through, which I am sure was a tremendous challenge.  Did I say it was long?  Three weeks to read it!  Not counting the Firefly interlude, even.  So it's an interesting speculation on what would happen if change just kept accelerating.  Good thing it isn't.  Change just doesn't work that way, it differentially penetrates and our poor meatminds hold it back, which is on the whole a good thing, as long as they hold out.  After all, once our computers start to program themselves (see a recent Dilbert, am too lazy to get the link) it's all over.  3 stars.