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.