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.