Tuesday, December 24, 2013

And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill's Side, by James Tiptree, Jr.

Back just briefly--after today I am diving into another very long book so will be awhile.  Tonight I went back to 1972 and reread a story I've read a few times before.  And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill's Side had Hugo and Nebula nominations for best short story in that year.  Tiptree's fiction mostly explores sexuality, and this one is a fine example.  We might think it a little naïve now to think that alien life would resemble us enough to be an object of sexual desire--and yet, people are attracted to the very strangest of things, most anything at all might work.  The speculation here is that our fascination with glamorous strangers would lead us to ruin (a very direct analogy is drawn to the early Polynesians).  And I'd have to say Tiptree is probably right--if aliens were anything like us at all and not lethal to us, we would think they are glamorous, at first at least.  Unless they were refugees, per District 9.  I enjoyed this as much now as I did then, and give it three stars with a recommendation to go try it, now that it's available free online.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games had been on my list for awhile, just because of its cultural significance--it seems to be the biggest thing in reading to come along since Harry Potter.  It is the biggest hit I can recall that has a female protagonist action hero, though those are becoming more common.  There's plenty of analysis out there for the series--with Mockingjay finished I now add my own small bit.

The series is a pretty trenchant critique of a current societal trend and its biggest side effect.  The societal trend is unequal economic opportunity, and the closely related symptom of blood sport.  Games for blood are as old as human society--the Roman gladiators being the most famous early example, but people have probably been paying to watch fights since long before any form of literacy existed.  And the contestants in these fights are always some form of oppressed group--the poor, prisoners and other powerless folk are the ones risking their lives, willingly, forcibly, or somewhere in between.

The modern twist on this is the female perspective, of course.  We have the uplifting message that women can be action heroes and win in combat--which means they end up being participants.  But what Suzanne Collins really brings out and properly emphasizes is the spectacle of it all.  One of Katniss' most important, and definitely most forthright, allies is her stylist.  What we end up with is Survivor for the highest stakes, complete with all the reality-tv tropes of elaborate massaging of the games to keep them competitive (the GameMaster is another very important character) and audience involvement.  In Mockingjay, though, Katniss goes beyond the arena and takes it to the streets.  Her leadership is figurative and her conscience is conflicted, but in the end she brings it all off.

A couple of issues, at least one being kind of minor and definitely un-PC:

  1. For the 75th games, they brought back 24 former winners, two from each district, male and female.  With 12 districts participating (we don't know when 13 dropped out), that would mean there were at least 12 female winners.  That is a stretch, unpopular as it is to say.  I am in favor of women as combat soldiers, mostly because I harbor the belief that war is somehow less physical than it used to be, based more on stamina than raw hand-to-hand combat strength.  And teamwork is more important, where women excel.  But one-on-one, where strength or spatial ability is any factor--you'd be lucky to have one or two.  Women can compete, but in just about any sport the men separate themselves significantly at the top end.  That shapes relationships in ways that pretend equality ignores.
  2. More importantly, while some find the ending to be a game-changer, I think it's a bit pat.  Katniss the conflicted hero takes out the scheming rebel leader who was looking only to be the evil President's replacement.  A decent human being gets elected instead.  It happens, but not without even more blood and tears than we see here, and that's the best case scenario.  Far more often in revolutions no heroes emerge at all.  For every Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela, you have ten Nouri Al-Malikis or Thabo Mbekis.  Less often a Fidel Castro or Vladimir Lenin, who can lead and bring order but at a terrible price.  George Washingtons and Confucians are pretty rare.
It's easy to read more than is warranted into the series.  It's a powerful critique, but firmly rooted in the present, even though the themes are timeless.  The beauty of simple storytelling and well-represented emotions gives way to oversimplified solutions.  We see plenty of the simple banal evil of Coriolanus Snow.  Katniss is emotionally complex enough to see the way forward, but then hands off the resolution.  It's still a fine read, and a must if you want to be culturally literate.  Four stars.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second in the Hunger Games trilogy.  Second novels are the tough ones in trilogies, since they do not have the natural advantage of either introducing or finishing a story.  They pretty much just need to move things along, and that's happening just fine here.  Panem goes from decadent to desperate in this one as the districts start uprisings.  Katniss is the unwitting and unwilling spark.  The Arena becomes even more high-stakes in the Quarter Quell, when all the past champions are pitted against each other. Something has to break here, and it does--at the end we have yet another uprising and the surviving tributes taking part in a revolution.  But Katniss is not in on the secrets and is unhappy at being used as we close.

We see potential for a shift here.  Will Katniss come around and be the symbol?  Will she cave and sell them out?  Or something else?  Something Else is always the most interesting choice, but we won't see that until volume 3.  No new message here yet, so I'll give this one four stars and let's move on.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I tend to read highly popular books well after their initial appearance.  The title of this blog suggests why--it's pretty difficult to read a brand-new best seller for free without being some sort of pirate.  So it is with The Hunger Games--the movies have revived interest, but wait times are now going down.  Also the books are short, so that most anyone can finish them before they are due.

The other thing about reading such a popular item is that it's hard to add to the canon on it--popular guides, world expansions and scholarly deconstructions are all available in quantity.  But I am committed to adding my two cents' worth, so here goes...

The best highly influential works of fiction are both timeless--they state deep truths about human nature--and time-bound--giving a future reader insight into the time and society in which they are written.  Usually one or the other dominates, and the less-apparent aspect is unpacked in subsequent commentary.  I suggest that Rowling's Harry Potter series is more of a timeless work--a long retelling of the story of Jesus (a subset of  Campbell's Hero's Journey).  The Hunger Games is much more the latter.  While it's a very good action story on the surface (thus accessible as a YA novel, much like Harry Potter), it is also a very open critique of American society in the early 21st century and where Collins thinks it is going.

The story itself is as old as the Roman gladiators.  The protagonist, Katniss, is part of a group of youth (the Tributes) sacrificed for the entertainment of the Capitol, because they can.  And it's all done up with the trappings of professional sports and fashion.  Boxing was the popular modern equivalent blood sport--mixed martial arts and American football represent two contemporary directions.

What's new and interesting here, and what I think will be revealing for readers fifty years from now, is the emphasis on style and commercialism in the blood sport.  Collins presents the game arena as a future reality show--Survivor on steroids.  The mentor and former winner Haymitch spends much more time coaching his protégés on winning sponsors and story making than on fighting skills.

There's no point in avoiding spoilers at this remove.  Obviously Katniss survives to appear in the next two books in the trilogy.  I give it four stars--not five because it's so straight-on that it feels more like a news report than a novel, even though it's written in the first person.  If you are just coming to it now, try to imagine what your grandchildren will bring to it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe

With The Citadel of the Autarch I have finished Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  And I am certainly glad I reached back into my teen years to read it.

The last book finishes Severian's heroic journey.  Spoiler alert--I just feel like giving away the ending, so quit here if you don't want to know.  Severian continues his fall in his detached, almost elegiac way, making his way through war zones and abandoned places.  He learns the true nature of his associates Dr. Talos and Baldanders.  And in a quite unexpected twist (except that one gets the sense Severian almost DID expect it) he himself becomes the autarch.

Of course we knew this all along, because Severian is writing the account of his adventures and has already told us that he is the autarch.  But this is no story of a rise to power, though I kept expecting that given his capability.  No, it sneaks up on him--the current autarch (the absolute ruler of the country, and also the administrator of a brother) makes Severian his successor in a personal encounter.  We see the autarch's bravery, and hear more of it as Severian is told what must be done to bring the New Sun.  The previous autarch tried and failed, and survived as a eunuch.  Severian closes as he is about to embark on a voyage to try again.

The series won't raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but if you have any SF writing aspirations it is a must read.  I would also say that anyone who has read a lot of science fiction, but somehow skipped this one (as I had) should definitely read it.  Wolfe does much more than create a setting through these novels.  Through the unusual words (a mix of created and obscure) and the detachment of the tale he captures a very broad "feeling" of the time, the sense of winding down but with hope for a future.  He gives that a definite kick with his interesting appendices.

Severian pulls at us by portraying a jailer and torturer in about the best light one could do it.  The Torturers practice a detachment from the sentences they carry out, but it is not a cold detachment at all.  They care about their clients and try to make the torments and executions bearable.  They steadfastly do not judge.  Severian has a strong belief in the rightness of what he does, even as he knows others cannot understand it.  This extends to the entertainment qualities of executions and the careful details of "excruciations".  It's a challenging work to read and enjoy, but one simply revels in the mastery Wolfe displays.  I give it three stars, because it is such a stretch for most SF fans.  But by all means try it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Wolfe, Gene - The Sword of the Lictor

I have now reached the third of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series.  The Sword of the Lictor continues Severian's heroic journey, and in this book he changes much more than in any other.  In the first two books, Severian is very detached from himself and his experiences.  Not quite to the point of dissociative disorder--he owns his actions--but he definitely stands outside himself.  In the third book he becomes more human--touched by others, but also greedy.  He forms a deep attachment to the Claw, the jewel he was supposedly carrying on behalf of the Pelerines, but maybe not so much anymore. 

His adventures become more fantastical than ever.  He meets more "cacogens", but can't really continue to call them that, as he gets to understand them better.  He still does not seem to know his path, but continues on. 

This book wasn't nominated for awards the way the first two were, but it is in many ways more powerful.  Mostly for the development of Severian as a fully rounded character.  In the appendix to the second book, Wolfe "speculates" that Severian's detachment is a result of encountering beings who have transcended the speed of light--they are outside of the Einsteinian universe, so react differently to it.  Not so much anymore.  Severian now journeys toward humanity.  3 stars.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman

Have taken some time out from the Book of the New Sun to read Unwind, the first in a series by Neal Shusterman.  This was somewhat "assigned reading"--a group is reading it together--so I went ahead and purchased it, though it is freely available at your local public library.  Very popular, they should have copies.  But since it is "assigned", I have a responsibility to give it more thought than usual in reviewing.

The driver of the book is The Heartland War and its resolution, though only a small amount of backstory is in this volume.  Pro-choice and pro-life factions fought a civil war to an inconclusive end, resulting in a compromise where abortion itself is illegal, but children may be "unwound" anywhere between the ages of 7 and 18.  Unwound meaning dismembered and all parts used in transplants.  Babies may be "storked"--left on someone's doorstep, and if the mother is not caught, it's the storkee's responsibility.  Most questions are plausibly answered--transplantation has been made very easy with neurografting and preservation techniques, and people have convinced themselves that life goes on for the Unwound, just not as singular persons.  We even get solid references to note that this is happening today in China.  Some setup questions remain, for instance:
  1. There must be a LOT of babies.  Normally it is not difficult to find a family to take a healthy newborn, they are in demand.  Ending abortion would increase the birth rate, but by that much?  Possibly birth control is illegal as well?  This is not mentioned.
  2. What is the geography of the country after the Heartland War?  Did all the states stay in the union?  Maybe not important.
The book asks the question of what a society would be like that would condone such a practice, and answers it conclusively--heinously immoral.  There's not a lot of depth to the moral discussion.  Heroes (the kids resisting Unwinding, with a few allies) are disgusted by the practice, and villains (parents--politicians are mentioned but are very much in the background) condone and take advantage of it.  Yes, this is a YA novel, but Shusterman could have tried for more ambiguity.  For instance, it should be fairly easy in the near future to identify psychopaths genetically.  Wouldn't it be nice to have "unwound" serial killers before they find victims?  But no, most everyone being unwound is either a nice kid or possibly salvageable. 

The characters in the book discuss whether or not it is really true that Unwinds retain some sort of distributed consciousness or identity.  Some say yes, some say no.  In real life?  No, a transplanted heart does not ache for its old lover.  But in Unwind, through either magical realism or willful ignorance, it is presumed to be true.  Arms "remember" how to shuffle cards one-handed.  Etc.  So the basic delusion this society has adopted is--substantially correct.  Hm.  Where does this go?  There are more books in the series, so possibly the question is taken up, but I am not sure I'll read them.  I give it 3 stars, but only just.  It could have been more, and kept its YA roots.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe

I am happily chugging along in the Book of the New Sun series, and have just finished The Claw of the Conciliator.  I find not much to add at this point--the book obviously does not stand alone.  As an interim piece it has the handicaps other middle novels in series do--it's hard to make them really stand out.  This one won a Nebula Award, but I note that the next two did not--perhaps they had a higher bar to clear after this one.

But it is very enjoyable as second novels go.  The prose is as delectable as ever, and the surreal stories and plays within the story that Wolfe introduces here add to the to the interest.  Severian is narrating this story from his current position as Autarch.  It's really interesting to see the dazed, how-did-I-get-here quality of the story expressed so well.

I will be taking a break from the series to peruse some assigned reading (which I will comment on here), but will be happy to come back to it.  Hang in with this one--three stars from me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe

I picked up the complete Book of the New Sun at a very nice price at Half Price Books, which is the next best thing to free, though this is  without doubt available at your local public library as well.  The Shadow of the Torturer is the jumping off point. There have been copious reviews, and probably doctoral theses, written on this series--it is rated third best fantasy series of all time behind The Hobbit and Harry Potter in some sources. NPR has it at number 87, which seems more than a little underrated. I only add my impressions here, will say more at the conclusion.

Right off the bat it is apparent that this work is by a master, and meant to be a lasting contribution to literature.  Harry Potter is a YA series--read this for fully mature work.  The protagonist, Severian the Torturer, promises depth far beyond normal genre work, probably up there with Gandalf in Tolkien.  And there's a quite interesting appendix where Wolfe claims to have translated this from "a language yet to be invented", far off at the end of the sun's time. The prose very often just leaves my jaw hanging.
I think it is in this that we find the real difference between those women to whom if we are to remain men we must offer our lives, and those who (again--if we are to remain men) we must overpower and outwit if we can, and use as we never would a beast: That the second will never permit us to give them what we give the first.
When I try to explain to my daughter why she might enjoy Harry Potter and is not ready for the Book of the New Sun, I realize how debased the terms "adult literature" or "for mature readers" are.  We so equate maturity and sex.  This is genre literature for the experienced reader, one willing to interpolate, reread, and savor.  I can't wait for the rest.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Wizard of West Orange, by Steve Millhauser

The Wizard of West Orange is the last story in The Secret History of Science Fiction.  The link is to a paysite, there are no legit free ones that I can find.  It's a good closing--nice plotting, a good speculative base in an unusual science space.  The Wizard is Thomas Edison, and we get a very interesting view of his New York labs.  Lots of idealism, competition and secrecy.  The key is the haptograph--a device meant to simulate any bodily sensation.  It's kind of a skunk work, monitored by Edison but not closely.  It is told as a series of diary entries by the librarian, who gets involved with the experiments. 

Very interesting life lessons here on what does and does not get pursued in a working science lab.  What would the world be like if a haptograph existed?  We may find out soon.  3 stars, go read it.

Frankenstein's Daughter, by Maureen F. McHugh

Frankenstein's Daughter is part of McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters collection.  I was sure I'd read this before, and I have, but not reviewed--so here we are.  The story is told from several points of view--first, a teenage boy with a developmentally disabled sister, then the mother.  The sister is Cara, an early clone who did not turn out so well--many health problems.  The focus is on the judgment the family faces, real and imagined, for having brought this child into the world.

There's plenty of family dynamics on display, and this is the interesting stuff. The parents are divorced, the father having a new girlfriend.  All relationships are strained, from all perspectives except Cara's. 

I won't give away the ending, but it makes you want more. But not in a good way.  It's a slice of life, and well told, but feels a bit incomplete, I think.  Read for literate family story content.  2 stars from me.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Martian Agent: A Planetary Romance, by Michael Chabon

I have three more stories in The Secret History of Science Fiction to read and review.  Tonight's is The Martian Agent, by Michael Chabon, not available for free except as part of collections in your public library.  The introduction to the story discusses the relative downfall of plotted short stories, which would indicate that what you're about to get is one of these.  And that would be right.  Beyond that expectations are defeated, though not in a bad way, as there's not much about Mars or planets here.  This is a steampunk story, set in the later part of the 19th century--a twist where steam powered vehicles were invented much earlier and the Colonies had yet to gain independence.  The story tells a vignette from the latest attempt at independence, unfortunately generaled by George Armstrong Custer, though he is not a major player.  It's a nice slice of life, with some hints at where that steam power might take one.  Won't change your life but it's an interesting read, worthy of three stars.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

93990, by George Saunders

93990 is a very short story in The Secret History of Science Fiction,but if you are adventurous it is available for free at the linked location--looks like something posted for coursework.  The story describes a pretty cruel animal toxicity study, the speculative element being that one of the subjects is not affected.  Always hard to know how to rate these--the writing sample size isn't large, and there's a single point.  I would say he succeeds.  Two stars for it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Crandolin, by Anna Tambour

It's been 17 days since I have posted, according to the calendar.  I have been reading Anna Tambour's Crandolin.  The reviews are quite tantalizing.  Everyone who reads it loves it.  Paul Di Filippo loves it.  It is a highly ambitious, imaginative work, which one would expect from a World Fantasy Award nominee.  Our protagonist, Nick Kippax, foodie extraordinaire and cookbook enthusiast, ingests a drop of a recipe from a rare cookbook.  He finds himself instantiated as the color red in various places--pots of honey, a blemish on a bladder-pipe, a wad of fuzz.  But mostly he is an afterthought, as we follow the adventures of a confectioner, a couple of demi-gods, etc. 

I wanted to like this book.  I like to think of myself as adventurous.  But I am not, really.  I like interesting characters and engaging plots.  At least one would be nice.  It takes a pretty good stretch of the imagination to weave a story of Russian tourist trains, quests for special honey, and the experience of red.  And writer inspiration. 

But the imagination just does not come together into a story.  It's as though all Tambour's energy went into developing these utterly strange characters and putting them in situations.  Not much left for plot.  Nor did we get what I would call deep research.  A few tidbits, but none of the obsessiveness that would tell me there's more here than just brainstorming.  Lots of little morsels to savor, but it's all appetizer, no meal.  There are over a hundred cleverly titled chapters, which makes the book easy to put down.  Too easy.  No real drama here, and only a wisp of resolution.  I give it three stars for style points, and am being generous, I think.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

10^16 to 1 by James Patrick Kelly

Just finished a novelette by James Patrick Kelly with the typographically difficult title of 10^16 to 1.  It's in several collections, but I read it in The Secret History of Science Fiction.

We have two science elements in this plot--time travel and the "many worlds" physics hypothesis.  Ray Burchard, a 12 year old boy, sees a semi-invisible thing in the woods that reveals itself to be an odd sort of "person".  Burchard is fully prepared for this as he is a big SF reader.  The "person" seems to be from the future (though he won't admit it at first), and holes up in the Burchards' fallout shelter, waiting for a chance to change history.  In the end, it might be up to Ray.

It's an OK story as these go, though there are better ones. What interests me about the story is when it was first published--1999.  The story is set in 1962, when fear of nuclear war was at it's height--the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Was it our biggest fear in 1999?  I don't think there are many now who would rate a nuclear exchange as the most likely way we will destroy the world.  So what is Kelly getting at here?  Is he going kind of meta on us, projecting 1962 fears into the far future?  I don't really know.  But it was a pretty good story, anyway.  3 stars

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Breaking the Frame, by Kat Howard

I have come to the last of the entries in the World Fantasy Award Short Fiction category, this one being Breaking the Frame by Kat Howard.  This one is well worth the ten minutes it will take to read it, and gets you thinking. 

The setup is ordinary, but daring.  A photographer pitches a woman to model for him.  She figures it's a come-on, but the way he handles it convinces her it's not, and at the same time opens the door for a relationship.  That relationship is explored through the photographs he takes of her.  And like any truly interesting relationship it is complicated.  It could turn dark.  But stays interesting.  Very good stuff.  Probably my favorite to this point.  I still give it 3 stars, but a strong 3 stars.

I was disappointed to miss out on the free link to Jeffrey Ford's "A Natural History of Autumn".  It was up for awhile, but got taken down before I got to it. I have to jump on these award stories right away.

The Castle That Jack Built, by Emily Gilman

Continuing my review of the World Fantasy Award nominees, I just finished The Castle That Jack Built.  This is my first review of one of Emily Gilman's stories.  I was favorably impressed and well entertained by the story, she is a fine writer and one worth reading.

All this is sounding like damning with faint praise.  And I guess it is.  It's good solid writing, I can't find any fault with it, and yet I didn't come away with anything really new or interesting to think about.  I feel simultaneously pleased, and jaded.  After several thousand stories read, that's very likely a normal condition.  And yet, I still set expectations high.

Want a plot summary?  OK, here ya go, I will try not to spoil it.  Jack is at this point free of all desire, a scarecrow standing on his pole in a field.  He remembers how he got there, and is at peace with it.  But the spell that holds him in the scarecrow can't hold up to a high (possibly magical) wind, and he is blown out of it.  Thus begins his journey to recover himself.  It's a nice story, and you should go ahead and read it as it is well above the average writing quality you will find.  Be content to be comfortable, perhaps more than I am.  Three stars for competency in all respects.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Telling, by Gregory Norman Bossert

I am back to my favorite website, Free SF Online, for some more World Fantasy award nominees.  First in short fiction is The Telling, by Gregory Norman Bossert.  I want to have liked it, but it's hard to say I did.  The story is told with polish, and Mel the protagonist is engaging enough.  But at it's core it's an unmotivated story.

Lord Dellus, master of the House (capitalized of course) has died, and the bees need telling.  The task falls to Mel, a child of indeterminate gender whose place in the household is not clear.  The Telling does not appear to go well, and both bees and household staff are nervous.  Mel goes out in search of answers, finding random people to talk to that eventually lead her to other members of the Dellus family.  Mel also seems to have some oneness with the bees.

Why does any of this matter?  We have an outline of a rural, unpopulated area, a society of a generically European feudal nature, and a dash of oddity in Mel and his/her relationship with bees.  Plot points come together and are explained in time, but the why of it all is still quite mysterious as Mel heads off to future adventures.  Maybe this will all work better in a novel.  In any case, 2 stars from me--good writing, but not quite enough to write about.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is the first novel by G. Willow Wilson, who had mostly done graphic novels before this.  It's gotten a lot of good press (you can google it for yourself) and my library got 16 copies.  Reviews in the New York Times and everything, though that review is mostly a plot summary not a critique. 

Alif is the pseudonym of a hacker in an unnamed Arab Spring country.  He is helping various dissidents and malcontents in a desultory way with his computer work, but is pretty much an overgrown boy.  When he is jilted by his illicit royal girlfriend, he hacks up a program to hide from her by detecting her typing and word usage, no matter what accounts she hides behind.

Now, this is the only technical part of the book that isn't completely implausible.  Authenticating a person by their typing style and usage should be very doable, though putting it together in an overnight hacking session is a stretch.  But as we read on, we see that we just can't judge the book by the technology.  Wilson is no computer or coding expert, and pretty obviously did not consult one.  We have two laptops overheat to burning by using "an obscene amount of RAM".  Really?  Now I guess we could be generous here and say that she meant Alif was overclocking the CPU on the fly, which would actually overheat the chip.  There are other examples, but I need not belabor the point.

The story itself is a good page turner, holding interest and developing sympathetic characters.  It is culturally relevant and mildly educational for those who mostly read SF, though for a real intro to modern Middle East culture you might be better off with Naguib Mahfouz.  The jinn are fun and not too demanding.  Read it for a good time and a mild culture stretch.  3 stars, just, from me.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce is again nominated for a World Fantasy Award, this time for Some Kind of Fairy Tale.  Our protagonist is...well, we're not sure, the teller is a mystery.  And he/she says this is key to the book.  But the central character is Tara, a girl who disappeared in the woods near her home for twenty years, then shows up again only being able to account for six months.  And that six months was spent in an impossible place.

Her family, and in particular her boyfriend at the time, have to adjust to her reappearance.  It's particularly hard for the boyfriend since he was strongly suspected of her murder.  She also appears not to have aged, which lends unwilling credibility to her story of only being gone six months.

The characters are what make the story very well worth reading--her farrier brother, her old boyfriend Richie, and an elderly neighbor lady, along with several others, are all fully drawn and human, and it's pretty easy to like them all.  Even her misguided psychiatrist doesn't come off as villainous.  It's a circle of people all trying to figure out what happened, including Tara.

Who is the voice of the book?  I have yet to figure that one out, and in the end I can enjoy just mulling that over.  But see Ben Godby's comments on Strange Horizons--he enjoyed the book, but pretty much thought the "unreliable narrator" bit was just pulling our leg.  I think I agree.

My favorite part--after a very well-told story, we get a real ending.  Some very good authors (I am thinking of early David Brin in the Uplift novels) struggle with endings.  Others don't try (see David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, and a gaggle of other auteurs).  I was very moved, and glad to have had the opportunity to read this book.  A strong four stars from me.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Let Maps to Others, by K. J. Parker

K. J. Parker wrote the wonderful A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, which was nominated for last year's World Fantasy Award, and returns this year with Let Maps to Others.  It's as good, in a somewhat different way. 

Our protagonist is the foremost scholar on a most confusing phenomenon of a country.  Essequivo was visited once, three hundred years ago, by a merchant who brought back a massively valuable cargo.  There is incontrovertible evidence that he really went somewhere (brought back inventions as well as spices etc.) but he kept the reference to himself and then died suddenly.  Ever since, scholars have been turning over every archive and scrap of evidence trying to figure it out.

Parker goes on to tell a remarkably well-rounded tale, giving a very brief, entertaining but complete description of the impact this fact had on the Republic (the protagonist's country) and the protagonist himself.  The economy was greatly stimulated just by the preparations made for the future visits.  Fortunes were made, then lost as the hoped-for return did not happen.  Our protagonist (it's first person all the way, and his name is not mentioned) was the son of one of these investors.  The story scales all the way from economics down to the personal rivalry of the protagonist and another leading Essequivo scholar.  We have wonderful detail on Renaissance sailing ships, manuscript creation and preservation, and human relations.  All this without a romance crutch.  Great stuff.

Many stories of this sort would be set on an alternate Earth, with recognizable geography.  Parker chooses to forgo this and set it in an entirely fictional world.  This is obviously deliberate--Parker demonstrates very good research and would have been perfectly capable of adapting Earth.  To me it's just an aesthetic choice, though Parker might have something else to say.

There's even this fun undercurrent of the Republic as a reasonably well-off nation, but a somewhat feckless one.  They build ships that appear to be quite capable but are in fact no match at all for the rival Empire ships, or even weather.

All in all a very deftly woven story, highly worthy of reading for both enjoyment and appreciation of craft.  The more I think about it the more I like it.  4 stars for me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Hardened Criminals, by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is a powerfully good writer.  Such strong stuff I have to take it in small doses.  It took me several days to get through one of his novellas.  I finished The Hardened Criminals in one sitting, but it's still a bit of a test. 

Lethem was one of the inspiring forces behind the collection I am currently reading, The Secret History of Science Fiction.  He speculated in an interview on what SF would be like today if Gravity's Rainbow had won the 1973 Hugo award, rather than Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (also a pretty good book).  He believes SF lost an opportunity to reward and promote literary SF, but chose the safe route. 

I've read them both, and have to say I enjoyed Rendezvous With Rama but can't remember much about it, while I remember quite a lot about Gravity's Rainbow.  Mostly I think I'd be better off reading more Lethem, but haven't quite gotten up to it yet.

The Hardened Criminals starts with its literal premise--a prison built from the bodies of criminals, somehow hardened and preserved so that they sort of live and talk, but are solid as rock.  The son of one of the hardened criminals is put in the cell where his father is built in, as part of an effort to uncover a conspiracy.  But there's quite a lot more to it, of course.  Lethem gives you an insight on the thoughts and decisions of Nick Marra as he negotiates prison life in this very unusual prison. The state of the prisoners is explored in detail, but without diverting the story from the living characters.  It's a great example of speculative fiction being used to explore an idea and bring it out in more stark detail.

Lethem has been feeling constrained by SF lately, and has been branching out.  But I bet he never leaves entirely.  I highly recommend this one, it will leave you thinking for a long time.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Ziggurat, by Gene Wolfe

There are some interesting theories out there on what Gene Wolfe's "The Ziggurat" short story means.  Indeed, Wolfe is heavily analyzed as an author. The theories involve spoilers, so be alert if you want to experience the story for yourself. 

It's anywhere from a madness allegory to a more straightforward but disappointing ending. In the story, the protagonist (Emery Bainbridge) is going to be visited in his cabin by his ex-wife, and he expects it to be unpleasant.  But he is also visited by people who rob him, but don't act like normal thieves.  They steal his gun and his wife's car, briefly kidnap one of his twin girls, and kill his son.  But through all this they seem to be trying to survive, not necessarily kill for the fun of it.

Most of the story is centered on Bainbridge, and his wife Jan.  Wolfe is a masterful writer, bringing out the characters' personality while leaving motives mysterious.  Bainbridge is a strangely detached man, ruminating on the violence of the women robbers (he works this out) while planning what to do about them.  He deduces that they have arrived in some sort of a spaceship, shaped like a ziggurat and landed in a nearby lake.  At last he confronts them as they hide in his cabin, kills  one and wounds the other.  He assists the survivor and plans to live with her, concocting a story for the police about how they were both wounded by his own gun by accident.

It seems an unworthy ending for Wolfe, so the link above leads to others.  "Maximum Delusion" runs the theory that the whole story is Bainbridge's delusion, papering over having killed his twin daughters. 

I tend to believe the "Flawed Hero Unhappy Ending", where Bainbridge may be trying to make the best of a bad situation but it's unlikely to go well.  The story is too outlandish to fool the cops.

In any case, there's a conundrum here that good writers struggle with in creating aliens.  Wolfe's humans are very human indeed.  But his spaceship humans (and humans they are--time travelers) can't speak, so end up very light sketches.  It's a puzzling story, but in the end I vote for just a little disappointing, not full-on mad.  2 stars.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Buddha Nostril Bird, by John Kessel

I have returned to The Secret History of Science Fiction for some more stories--today's is Buddha Nostril Bird.  And the link is to a full version of the story, which was by complete coincidence recently published in the Weird Fiction Review. 
It definitely qualifies as weird fiction, in that it's strongly surrealist.  But not so far as mere Dadaism.  It's on the edge of coherent, one can definitely follow a story.  Kessel tells a story of a contest between Objectivism and Relativism (as he uses the terms, though the usage is close to the vernacular and not much like what philosophers mean).  Our protagonist is in prison, resisting the calls of the jailers to use the Well and become protean like they are.  He escapes and reconnects with his old faction in the city.  But he doesn't understand it anymore, though he thinks he does.
Challenging fiction like this takes an accomplished author to have a hope of pulling it off, and Kessel definitely is.  Reading something like this is mental yoga--makes you feel good to achieve the posture (or be able to follow the story).  And feels good afterward too.  Worth the stretch for 3 stars.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Return From Avalon (And Points West) by Rusty Rhoad

I have just finished a delightful first novel by Rusty Rhoad called Return from Avalon.  I don't consider myself an expert on Arthurian Fantasy--in fact, most of my experience with the legendary king is through the movie Excalibur.  Which was a fine film, by the way.  But back to the book.  Arnie Penders is a mild-mannered bookseller in San Francisco who decides to chuck it all and go on a road trip.  The trip is driven by dreams--vivid, sometimes frightening dreams of what he was in the past or will be doing.  It is told as a series of letters to his ex-wife, starting out quite tongue-in-cheek and presuming she won't read them.  He also begins to act a bit strangely--braver than he has been in the past, seeking out evil to confront.  And getting respect he isn't used to from strangers, particularly women.

His journey takes him across the country and the ocean, all the way back to Mother England.  You can watch him grow every step of the way as he encounters and deals with the characters that cross his path.  I rooted for him all the way through, and was fully rewarded.  This book will make you smile all the way through it.  There's enough action, heroic and erotic, to keep adrenaline going for a late night read.  But unless you are the most delicate of hothouse flowers nothing to be offended at.  Read this one to make yourself feel better, it will work.  Four stars from me.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Emperor's Soul, by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's Soul is the last of the Hugo Nominees for me to read this year.  Brandon Sanderson is getting a lot of eyeballs these days for completing the Wheel of Time series, but hasn't landed one of the really big awards yet.  He might do it here.  This item was a good, engaging story.  It took a little time to grow on me--very little, which is a good thing since it's a novella.  But once it did, I couldn't put it down.  It's a story of magic, and the magic is Forgery--making a perfect replica of an existing item by causing the history of the replica to change to match the original.  Or for the object to believe it did, rather.  The philosophy is complex, and Sanderson makes use of the complexity--the powers that be don't understand it either.  It's also a nice interplay between Shai and Gaotona, the ultimate con artist and the Last Honest Man.  Quite a lot in a little package, and well worth taking a couple of hours to read.  I give it a strong three stars, and figure he might follow it up since he likes to write in series.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The Drowning Girl is by far the most literary work I have read this year.  It's too bad this sort of thing doesn't make more of an impression on me.  I find it hard to be truly fair to dark fiction, but it's out there as a major element of speculative fiction so I do keep trying. 

This is a story of madness.  Not over the top pathology like Hannibal Lecter, but a more ordinary sort of madness that millions have lived with.  India Morgan Phelps, or Imp, sort of controls the madness with drugs and therapy, but her ghost story is waiting to be told.  Writing is her attempt to sort out madness from reality, and if there is any good news here it is that she succeeds.  And as I said, it is literary--very stylistically complete, everything about it intentional, fully developed backstory.  And even though I do not care for this genre much, I found it grew on me at the very end.  So I would say that if you liked The Red Tree you will definitely like this one, though you have probably already bought it. Three stars from me, for the ending.  I value endings, more than some do.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Mono No Aware, by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is one of the very best emerging authors in science fiction.  I have reviewed a couple of other fine works of his (search for them yourself--see the tech note below).  This year he is nominated for a Hugo for the short story Mono No Aware, just out in Lightspeed.  A lot of really good SF is cultural exposition that is current but set in a plausible future.  This story is a great example, and a very good quick read.  The protagonist is Japanese, and is in fact the last Japanese person alive, so far as they know.  The story is told in a very simple and moving way.  It may in fact be slightly over the top as a cultural exemplar, but I really didn't mind.  Take 20 minutes and read it.  Strong 3 stars from me, and probably my favorite for the Hugo this year.

I am writing this on an iPad, and pretty much had a fail on the Blogspot site using the Safari browser.  Could not create a post at all.  That was cured by installing Chrome (who'd a thunk it?).  Still pretty hard to select text in it, but I'm getting used to it.  Am parsimonious with links, though.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

I was in the middle of another novel when I stopped to read Redshirts.  I normally don't like to do that, but library availability will not wait and I'm a committed free fiction reader, as well as library supporter.  So I took a brief break (4 hours total) to take it in.

The book is quite a lot of fun.  I have not read a lot of Scalzi's work, so mostly what I know of him is as a parodist.  His other recent award nominated work, The Shadow War...is a very funny April Fool's joke.  This one is a takeoff on televised SF, specifically on Star Trek and the red shirt security officer phenomenon. 

Having your characters mirrored in real life, or a "real" life mirroring literary characters, is a common trope in fiction.  I remember it in SF from Lazarus Long in The Number of the Beast, a not particularly good Heinlein novel.  This one is much more fun. Scalzi's writing style reminds me ofdialog on Firefly, though he did not write for that series as far as I can tell.  Read Redshirts for a good time.  I'd say it was a contender for the Hugo, though it wouldn't beat out 2312.  Four stars from me.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is continuing the Vorkosigan saga, even though all the Vorkosigans are pretty much retired.  The successor protagonist is Miles' cousin, Ivan Xav Vorpatril.  I looked forward to reading this one, if only to see where she is taking this venerable and overall quite good series. 

And the answer is--pretty much to the same place.  Not nowhere--Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is a decent enough book, Bujold is a great writer with a good sense of how to hold interest.  But not anywhere else, either.  Bujold has built a large space in the Wormhole Nexus, and has explored some of the other cultures there (Beta Colony, Cetaganda, Jackson's Whole) but except for Ethan of Athos the series is pretty much fixated on Barrayar, a feudal culture suitable for galactic fantasy but not so much for science fiction.  Ivan is not much of a character--the other characters (mostly Jackson's Whole denizens) carry the story.  He's just a bit generic as a handsome slacker hero (now growing up a bit) to carry the series.  Miles has large shoes to fill on Barrayar.  If Bujold doesn't move the series focus offworld for the next novel (assuming there is one), the series is pretty much done as far as I am concerned.  Three stars from me, and slightly disappointed.

Friday, June 7, 2013

McGuire, Seanan - In Sea-Salt Tears

I am a pretty obsessive-compulsive reader, perhaps in other things as well but particularly reading. I read things in sets, taking what comes.  Sometimes these sets don't hang together so well, or lead me directions I don't want to go, and I agonize over changing them.  That's the obsessive part. 

And so it went with In Sea-Salt Tears.  I normally like to read stories in a series in the order they were written, and will make a point to try and catch up a series if a later novel is nominated for one of the awards I follow.  I did this for the Vorkosigan Saga, and also for Game of Thrones

So I found that In Sea-Salt Tears was nominated for a Hugo, and went looking for a legal free version.  The story is self-published by McGuire, in this case meaning that she is giving it away.  A good practice for award nominees, I think. I don't usually catch up a series in order to read a short story--I didn't do this for Lawrence Schoen's Buffalito series, the latest of which was nominated for a Nebula this year and thus I read it.  But McGuire clearly states that her entry will make more sense if you have read the novels that come before it--the October Daye series, five of them.  My local library has them, but they look pretty much like YA novels aimed at 14 year old girls.  And the series started out a bit spotty, according to reviewers.  So in the end, I decided to just read her nominated story, and see if I feel like catching the series up.

I liked the story.  It stands alone reasonably well as a tale and is deserving of the nomination, though I don't think it will win.  Her tone is very different from when she is writing as Mira Grant, which shows her range.  As a romance and a scene-setter it does just fine, though like her zombie novels it is in a crowded space.  But I don't think I'll go read the rest of the series just for this story.  If one of the October Daye novels gets nominated for a Big Three award later, I'll read them all.  3 stars from me.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mantis Wives, by Kij Johnson

One more for tonight.  Mantis Wives is a delightful little story of a type I enjoy--reminds me of one Ken Liu got nominated for, The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.  These little catalogs are lots of fun, and in this case the list is the art works a mantis can make out of her husband.  Kind of nasty, but cute anyway, take 10 and read it.

The Boy Who Cast No Shadow, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

It took a bit of digging to find a source for The Boy Who Cast No Shadow, but it was worth looking for.  This is a nice little giveaway from PS Publishing.  In it, we have a boy called Look, who for some reason literally casts no shadow, makes no reflection, can't be seen in media.  What would his life be like?  He tells us a bit about it, being famous for no particularly good reason.  Pretty sad until he meets Splinter, a boy of normal volume but made of glass, only weighing 9 pounds and fragile as can be.  Their friendship and romance form the core of the story, though I would say that the romance is quite mild as that goes.  Alternative bodies are quite common in speculative fiction, but this is a uniquely interesting take on it--usually what we get is that the difference is some kind of superpower but makes the holder misunderstood.  Look and Splinter are just weirdly different, not revoltingly ugly or hiding special powers--just quite unavoidably different.  And reacting to that difference in a pretty normal, but interesting way, not just sublimating it into being superior.  I would say it is worth checking out for yourself.  3 stars from me.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Stars Do Not Lie, by Jay Lake

Am now on to the Hugo nominees for this year, and found The Stars Do Not Lie on the Asmov's site as a PDF.  And I must say it brought joy to this reader's heart, though I was just a tiny bit unsure at first.  We have an alternate Earth history here (or really it could be any planet, just calls itself Earth) wherein they have quite solid evidence that Man appeared on Earth, just as he is today, 6000 years ago.  The Church and the powerful Thalassocretes (Lords of the Sea, though they are most definitely Masons) are rivals for power in this young civilization.  In this setting a young professor injects his finding, using new photograph technology, that an artificial spacecraft is approaching.  There is denial and consternation.

Interestingly, it's a familiar story but manages not to be a commentary on present times.  The themes and conflicts are timeless and universal.  Lake has a unique prose style, it's sort of old-fashioned yet very much draws one in as one reads.  This is quite good stuff, go out and enjoy.  4 stars from me, for present and potential.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Blackout, by Mira Grant

I am now starting on the Hugo-nominated books.  First one up is Blackout, the last in the Newsflesh trilogy.  The series is part of a huge wave of zombie fiction that appears to still be cresting, possibly because we are still pretty unhappy after the Great Recession.  Be that as it may, this particular entry is worth reading, because it's a prime example of why genre fiction is fun to read.  Grant gets right to the action and has a fine time with her wise-cracking protagonists.  My only minor complaint would be that if the quotes didn't have names next to them I couldn't really tell the characters apart.  But a lot of classic SF is like that, and doesn't diminish it at all.  And I'm seeing signs that Grant is not done telling this particular tale yet, so lots more to come there.  Read this book if you want to have some good, splattery fun. 3 stars, solid.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Schwarzchild Radius, by Connie Willis

I am back to reading from the Secret History of Science Fiction, this time the story Schwarzchild Radius by Connie Willis.  I have read several of Willis' works about the past, including Blackout/All Clear.  They go pretty light on the speculation, mostly focusing on the characters in the past, possibly with some time travel thrown in.  Schwarzchild Radius is pretty much a straight short story, an aging professor having a flashback to the trenches of WWI while being interviewed by an amateur historian.  Many of the stories about the Great War have that surreal quality--it was the most intense war ever fought, after which we stepped back from the brink with the Geneva Convention for awhile.  I thought the story was OK, but Willis is kind of verbose for me sometimes, and this is one of those times.  2 stars from me.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Now here is a novel!  I have spent the past near-three weeks slowly savoring Kim Stanley Robinson's Nebula (and apparently Hugo) nominated 2312, named for the year of its setting.  Here we get the best of a mature, skilled writer.  The setting is rich, the fun technology gimmicks multifarious, and the characters as fully drawn as any I have read.  I feel like I have met them.

Swan Er Hong is an artist living on Mercury, in a fascinating city called Terminator.  In truth her art is in the way she lives, with works and performances sort of spinning off it.  She is also a high-order designer, having done many of the "terraria" (hollowed out asteriods with environments constructed in them) in the solar system.  She is a very strong and somewhat violent character, cajoling, demanding, and sometimes punching for cooperation.  Her mother Alex was the Lion of Mercury, but Alex has died and left Swan with messages to be passed to her allies.  The solar system is populated all the way out to Pluto, made liveable by a fascinatingly wide variety of technologies, all of which function very reliably.  They make a stable backdrop for incredible creativity by the "spacers", those living off Earth.  Earth itself is slowly recovering from environmental disaster, but spacers still need it--they do not live nearly so long if they do not take an occasional "sabbatical" in full 1 G.  Swan meets Wahram, an ambassador from the Saturn League, and Jean Genette, an exiled inspector from Mars, to investigate the destruction of Terminator.

In this technological mix we have qubes--quantum computers that are high-order machine intelligence.  They may be turning into something more.  Swan has one installed in her head--others carry them or put them in more conventional chassis. 

The social and technical speculations, along with strong and intriguing characters, are the real highlights of the book.  The plot carries these things along.  I would say Robinson is pretty optimistic about physical technology (we are incredibly capable engineers in 2312) but probably behind in terms of computers and AI (I think we'll have something qube-like before I die, if I make it to 80).  But it's by far my favorite book this year so far.  A very strong four stars and my favorite for the Nebula. Go read it right away.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress

Post-apocalypse stories are a dime for several dozen these days, and not much wonder--many who follow the news are convinced we will be there soon, whether it's Revelation's End Times (on the Christian Right) or environmental collapse from global warming (pretty much everybody else).  So a story has to stand out to get a nomination.  After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is a pretty good example.  Each event leading to the catastrophe is pretty well thought out, if presented only at a high level.  We have sympathetic characters of various kinds.  It reads right along and I "got" it pretty easily, so I enjoyed it very much.  Might be my front runner for the Nebula in the Novella category for 2012.

Like On A Red Station, Drifting, I bought this book to give to my local library.  And again, while I liked it better, I would have resented paying list price ($14.95) for a book that's about 2 hours of entertainment.  Except I got it used for somewhat less.  But the idea was certainly worthy of a full length novel.  Both her characters and the setting were up to it.  On the other hand, working at this shorter length gets her out of having to really grapple with how the Survivors were saved, and what these "alien" beings are.  The message scales to the length, I guess.  It's not quite profound, and the speculation isn't that realistic, but it's interesting and fun to read.  If you can find it at Barnes and Noble you could finish it over coffee and not have to buy it.  Or maybe you'll find it at the library.  3 stars.

Monday, May 6, 2013

On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard

On a Red Station, Drifting was nominated for a Nebula award in the Novella category in 2012.  My library did not have it, so I have purchased it for donation.  Now, lots of people liked this work--it has good ratings on Goodreads and Amazon, in addition to the Nebula nomination--but I had a few beefs with it:

  1. It's billed as a novel, and priced like one.  But it's a novella.  Novels don't have to be thick, but I felt this was asking a lot for what I got.
  2. The production values from Immersion Press were so-so.  Somewhat compressed type and spacing, and several grammatical and spelling errors detracted from enjoyment.
That said, we move on to the substance of the story itself.  The setting is Prosper Station, a permanent installation run by a Mind (born of humans but now operating a ship or station).  And that Mind is breaking down.

Reading this work is an interesting cultural exercise because it's very non-Western--the basis of the Empire's culture is classical Vietnam.  The dynamics of family relations and achievement in that culture are fully played out in the relationship between the two main characters, Quyen and Linh.  The story is driven by how they understand, and misunderstand, each other.  And in the end, even though they never truly reconcile, their strong traditions lead them to do the right thing.

A funny thing--planets get numbers in this story, and I guess they work like the numbered streets in New York--character associates with them even though the names are generic.  Linh is from the twenty-third planet (always spelled out), and a thirty-first planet is mentioned.  But only a few planets are covered (maybe three) so the device doesn't really get explored.  All the action takes place on Prosper Station.  The supporting cast development is somewhat spotty also.  A cousin's father (everyone on the station is related) is portrayed as drunk and unreliable, and commits a serious sin against family tradition (essentially selling off the ancestors), but when he actually interacts with people (Linh mostly) he comes off as uniquely wise.  We have no bridge from here to there.

So it's interesting, but probably had room to be a real novel.  Worthy of a longer review, but only 2 stars for enjoyment.  See what you think.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass is the second in Mary Robinette Kowal's series about Jane and David Vincent, Jane being the main character.  They are done in the style of Jane Austen, with magic.  In this one they become involved in Napoleon's return from his first exile.

I would say the books are decent but not quite my cup of tea--but then again that's why I'm reading the award nominees.  I am looking for reading challenges.  Not that this book is in any way challenging--it's a nice light read.  Certainly not going to keep you up at night.  It's well-done and all, Kowal is a good writer.  But it is definitely intended to appeal to a very specific audience, possibly the same one as Tina Conolly's Ironskin.  Or possibly a less specific audience--these are romance novels, with magic in them.  Approachable for that audience.  So I'm not really a romance reader and don't get as much out of them--that's OK.  3 stars from me, and may you enjoy it. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Salvador, by Lucius Shepard

When I search for the stories from The Secret History of Science Fiction, I come across many reviews in little blogs like mine--someone just decided to put their reviews in a blog instead of posting them on Amazon or Library Thing or some such.  I currently use Delicious for my bookmarks and this blog for reviews--might have to switch someday, the Delicious folks may not keep this going.  We shall see.

In any case, I, like many other small bloggers, have read Salvador by Lucius Shepard, and am going to write about it.  Shepard is known as an SF writer but he is quite literary, and this one is very much in the vein of heavy reflections on the Vietnam war.  Except that is in the past, and this is set in Central America, where it looked at one point like we might go to war.  So he only got the venue wrong.  Soldiers amped on stimulants scour the rain forests for Sandinistas, finding some but doing vast damage in the process.  Including to themselves.  But the experience centers on our protagonist Dantzler, and how he feels about it from inside.  It's pretty good, in an elegiac sort of way.  I almost like it, but say in the end, 2 stars.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Interlocking Pieces, by Molly Glass

Now we get back to fiction that looks like fiction.  Our protagonist wants to meet her brain (well, part of brain) donor.  I think this is a universal need--to meet biological parents, to wonder about the person that made your life possible.  So we see a very natural impulse played out here, in a sensitive way.  Not a big stretch, but Interlocking Pieces (found a legitimate-looking free source, staying true to the blog) is a nice little read.  Still 2 stars.

The Nine Billion Names of God, by Carter Scholz

No, it's not Clarke, it's an exercise in parody semiotics.  And pretty secret indeed, though I found an excerpt.  These publisher exchanges can be kind of funny, this one was about average.  Read it and reassign the meanings of all the words, for fun.  2 stars.

Homelanding, by Margaret Atwood

When I went to search for Margaret Atwood's Homelanding, I found lots of comments in little blogs like this one.  Just like mine.  So you can go there for the plot summary.  She does this particular trope, the alien visiting, pretty well and quite briefly, so if you own The Secret History of Science Fiction you can dip in for just a minute or two.  But not memorable enough to go beyond two stars.

Human Moments in World War III, by Don Delillo

I have read many comments and quotes by Don Delillo.  He seems to be a favorite to quote in SF criticism, frequently as a lead-in.  But this is the first short story I have read by him.  I read it in The Secret History of Science Fiction, and now I better understand why all the quotes.  He's very much the writers' writer.  Human Moments in World War III is set in orbit above the earth, in something much like the ISS, except with more control--it orbits high and low.  And the intent is spying on Earth at War.  What strikes me is his capture of how ordinary space must get after awhile, even though his characters are still fascinated by it in their own way.  Characters are deeply explored, even though the protagonist doesn't really want to have anything to do with that.  It's an interesting read, as is the whole book.  But not quite 3 stars, I can only give it 2.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Descent of Man, by T. C. Boyle

Descent of Man is the title story from a collection by T. C. Boyle.  It's been pretty thoroughly reviewed, or at least the collection has--that's what you get when you are a highfalutin National Book Award etc. nominated mainstream author.  Whether the story deserves more attention for that I don't know, but it is kind of clever and funny.  Descent of Man and Rise of Ape.  Planet of the Apes?  Not really, but fun enough to read and very witty, if you like that sort of thing.  Just 2 stars from me, though.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis, by Kate Wilhelm

I read Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis from The Secret History of Science Fiction, though it is also available at the link above.  An outfit called World Tracker, and they have a huge library of book files, as well as news.  Seems like an interesting source. 

In any case, this story was written in 1975, but as near-future speculation.  Where it's right on and falls short are both interesting.  Wilhelm assumed, like most of us, that labor unions would continue to protect factory workers and shorten the workweek, so ordinary folks would have time to watch even more TV like they were in the '70s.  It went the other way.  But the show they're watching is called Crisis Therapy.  Several people are placed in dangerous wilderness situations, and the first one out wins a million dollars.  The experience is supposed to straighten them out.  Fast forward 30 years and we have...The Amazing Race!  And it's a fairly good speculation.  Going through a very difficult experience, and prevailing, is indeed therapeutic--the contestants all say so.  Whether they are permanently helped is another matter. 

Wilhelm even anticipates that folks might binge-watch the entire contest.  And we have sophisticated tracking technology to help the viewers, who can pay extra for a premium experience.  Where does she miss?  Some ways where she should have known better--everybody didn't watch the same show even when we had less than 10 channels, unless it was early Monday Night Football.  And thinking that people would compulsively watch people walking around in the wilderness in real time, even in danger, seems like a stretch.  But it's very interesting as an anticipation of reality TV.  I give it three stars--find out where you think she got it right and went off track.  Fun.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Killing Moon, by N. K. Jemisin

The Killing Moon is the first story in Jemisin's pair of Dreamblood novels.  It has a Nebula nomination in 2012, and I will not be at all surprised if the second entry doesn't get an award nomination too.  It's a fun story that works on many levels, I had fun thinking about it. 

I would say at first that I thought the story was a bit simple--it is told in a much more subdued way than the kind of bombastic Really Big Magic style of her Inheritance trilogy. It still goes pretty big at the end, but builds to it slowly.  The Killing Moon is mostly human-scale.  The main character is Nijiri, an apprentice Gatherer.  Gatherers collect the "dreamblood" from those they cause to die, and perform other healing magics with it or give it to others in their path to use.  It's a powerful magic, though, that is easy to misuse.  So a central theme is how the Gatherers discipline themselves to handle this awful, volatile power.

A couple of metaphors stand out for me.  One is that this is a vampire novel.  Now, it's a good vampire novel because it is subtle.  The mythos is roughly Egyptian, but all the other vampire tropes are there--the beauty of the practitioners (commented on many times), the struggle for control of powerful magic, the "dreamblood" taken--maybe it's not even all that subtle.  Jemisin admits to no vampire influences in the acknowledgements or accompanying material, but it's pretty clearly there.

But it goes bigger than the vampire novel in that the power is potentially world-scale in a single individual.  Control of it can slip without the practitioner noticing.  Gujaareh has used this power to become great.  There's something of a nuclear power metaphor here--the other nation involved, Kisua, has sworn off narcomancy (the power is all in dreaming) because of the dangers.  Things can and do get out of hand, and it's sort of surprising it didn't happen sooner.

Anyway, very good stuff, it very much grows on you as it goes.  Four stars from me.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Angouleme, by Thomas M. Disch

I received an anthology entitled The Secret History of Science Fiction as a gift, so it counts as Free SF.  I plan to spread these stories out between reading the award winners.  The main point of the anthology is to collect "literary" speculative fiction, some of it mainstream, some genre.  They are stories that in some way challenge the sense of the genre.  I'll come back to that.

The first story is called "Angouleme" (one of five novellas in Disch's novel 334).  It was written in 1971, set in New York in 2025.  The story concerns a group of what would now be called "tweens" who have been hanging out together.  Good kids overall, but then their leader, Mister Kissy Lips, decides that they need to commit a murder to...well, I'm not sure what it is to accomplish, but they do.  The characters are explored in some detail, which one would expect in literature.  It doesn't feel all that speculative except for the date, but I think some of this may be accurate anticipation vs lack of speculation.  In any case, technical or severe social change isn't the focus here.  It's the kids and the leader's obsession.  An OK read, but does not rise to above average.  2 stars.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Ironskin is a new take on the Fey (fairies, but not in this book) with dwarves too.  The story is about a war-scarred woman's very English romance with a mysterious widow.  She is trying to help his fey-damaged daughter.  Lots of repression and denial, with a side of lover's anguish, but more fun to read than that sounds.  The backstory on fey technology and dwarvven mechanical cleverness finds its way through but is told only in hints and tiny flashbacks--no classic exposition here.  The book is deftly and professionally written, easy to enjoy all the way through.  Is it an award contender?  In the end probably not, but fine as a nominee.  I give it 3 stars.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat, by Lavie Tidhar

I had a little time before my next book was available at the library, so pulled up a random story on Free SF Online. Try that sometime, it's like Every Flavor Beans in Harry Potter.  And I take credit for giving the webmaster the idea.

What I got was Henry (no way I'm typing that again).  It's a serialized story on Daily SF, and is quite a fun read--you never quite know what is going on.  Henry is a white man on an island of pygmies, quickly forgetting how he came to be there.  To what extent is what is happening to him real?  Emotions and impressions are the stars here, and they carry the story well.  I spent an enjoyable hour reading it, and you would like it too. 3 stars.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Five Ways to Fall In Love on Planet Porcelain, by Cat Rambo

Five Ways to Fall In Love on Planet Porcelain is the last Nebula nominated short story I read for this year.  And it's a very likeable little story.  It does a good job of invoking the feeling of what it would be like to live in a different kind of body, in this case made of porcelain.  A good take on power relationships too.  So definitely worth 10 minutes to read (it really is short).

What was my favorite short story this time?  I think Ken Liu's The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species would take the prize for me.  Though the current story is a pretty good one.  I also have read enough to select in the Novelette category, and again Ken Liu would take it with The Waves.  Strong consideration for Nanny's Day also.  I'll make my picks for Novella and Novel at some point as well, but probably not before the winners get announced.  I just don't get around to reading all the nominees that quickly.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a Nebula nominee for 2012.  It's also a YA novel.  It is not billed as such at my public library, but it's definitely written as YA.  And not particularly old YA, probably pitched 10-12 except for the especially gory interludes where the villain is preparing his ploy.  As other reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads have said, it is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign set into a novel.  We have a cleric, a dervish (specialized fighter) and a kind of lycanthrope.  They pursue an evil cleric and a lycanthrope.  All emotions and plot drivers are stated plainly and explained, educational for a young reader.  This is not a bad book, but it isn't a good one either.  I was definitely expecting more from a Nebula nominee, but they can't all be hits.  I'm not too sorry I read it, but definitely glad to have gotten it from the library.  2 stars unless you are 11 and have a strong stomach.  Not more violent than Harry Potter, though, so most would be fine.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, by Ken Liu

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species is a type of short story I've seen a few times, and liked all of them.  I cannot recall exactly where I have seen them before--somehow Michael Swanwick comes to mind, he would do something like this, but I can't remember exactly.  Anyway, the form is a kind of geography of bookmaking.  Not the gambling kind, the making of actual books.  Various species make their books in different ways, some with deliberate acts, a few simply by living and remembering.  Ken Liu is really taking off, I expect to see him soon in the novel category.  I reviewed a couple stories by him last year for awards, and this year he is up for two more.  Good stuff here, come read it and enjoy a few minutes of fun.  4 stars.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Immersion, by Aliette de Bodard

Continuing my reading of the Nebula short story nominees for 2012.  Immersion is a straight-up story, focused effectively on an extension of smartphone dependency.  What if our devices could steer and cue us through our lives so effectively that we didn't have to think about it?  We would always know just what to say or do, even in foreign places.  De Bodard speculates dependency, and tells a moving story of a woman trapped by her device, and another who recognizes it.  It's pretty easy to see where else this could go--could it prop up the demented past sanity, and would it still be them responding?  Fun.  3 stars from me for a solid read.

Reading the author bios for this year, I am struck by the fact that most have day jobs.  I think that to live as an author must be to really scramble, take a vow of poverty or be a best-seller.  Awards don't help much.  Probably has always been that way.

Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream, by Maria Dahvana Headley

Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream is a nice little story, but kind of difficult to read.  Star-crossed lovers with powerful exes are always a good starting point, but Headley is trying just a bit too hard to make it fun and clever.  In a few places she crosses that fine line between a distant, interesting metaphor and just wandering off.  I liked it ok, but would say "nice try" rather than award winner.  2 stars from me.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cypess, Leah - Nanny's Day

Now here's a fun one.  Nanny's Day is social speculative fiction--purely social.  You don't see that a lot.  There's "hard" science fiction that is based on a technological advance or alternative, and fantasy based on magic.  I am sure I have read other stories based on a different legal road, but just can't think of one offhand.  So this story is worth reading just for that reason.

Also, it's a good story, told in a straight-out way from a believable feminist perspective.  The protagonist probably thinks of herself as post-feminist, but that's OK.  What if, at some point, society decides that the best person to raise a child is whoever the child is most attached to, not necessarily a biological parent?  Caregivers could win children away.  And testing the laws could be lucrative for lawyers.

This story is a Nebula award nominee for 2012.  Will it win?  Most likely not--but it's a pretty good try, and a good story to say that an alternate legal history is a valid jumping off point for speculative fiction.  4 stars for originality.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes, by Tom Crosshill

Uploading the personality to a computer so we would "live" there is really done, from an SF perspective, but as it gets closer it's good to have more on it.  What kind of "life" would we have as simulations in a computer?  On the one hand we have modern philosophy embracing ourselves as truly, inevitably embodied--our wills and personalities floating on our hormones and metabolism.  On the other hand, a Buddhist might say we wouldn't change much at all.  Continuity of identity is an illusion, therefore we would be no more and no less conscious of "ourselves" as simulacra than as embodied beings.

Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes doesn't really speculate that far, but it is a good story on the topic.  How we ourselves are so different as projections by someone else.  When others love us, who do they love?  Their picture of us.  So this is how love is blind.  Fun to read, and think about.  3 stars.

Robot, by Helena Bell

I'm finding myself reviewing stories much more as writing than as stories, these days.  Maybe I've read so many I've seen it all?  Have been thinking about writing?  Don't know. But short stories really lend themselves to that sort of review.  Authors can do their experiments in short form, doing things that would be tiring in a novel.  Like writing it in second person, the way Robot is done by Helena Bell.  The narrator is orienting her alien robot health aid, but doing it in a very literary way.  I liked it fine, you would too.  3 stars.

Fade to White, by Cathrynne M. Valente

A pretty common theme in disaster stories, true and fictional, is that people in those situations try to hang on to some form of normalcy.  It's very deliberate where children are involved, and is done for their comfort--presumably that is true for adults also.

So speculative fiction can take that to its logical conclusion.  In the worst forms of disaster, people may cling to the most staid of their traditions, represented by extreme conservatism.  One example that comes to mind is A Boy and His Dog, a series of stories by Harlan Ellison adapted into a movie.  I only saw the movie, and apparently it doesn't do the series justice.  We have another in Valente's Fade to White.  

The story centers on Marvin, hoping to grow up to be a Husband--few men are now fertile, and the ones that are must have several wives, so they travel from family to family.  Sylvie could be one of these wives, but she is not looking forward to it--she is tuned in to the desolation of the situation, large swaths of landscape glassed over and lifeless.  President McCarthy endorses beer and leads the few people left after a nuclear war.  The story is illustrated with drafts of ad campaigns for enhanced food and toiletries--marketing is part of that normalcy.  And it's really pretty good, in a very overt Sheri S. Tepper sort of way.  I liked it, even if it doesn't really extend the trope much.  A nice dystopian read before bed.  3 stars.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia, by Rachel Swirsky

Fine art and literary fantasy associate very closely, so closely it's hard to separate them.  Art seems to reach into the same mental space as fantasy, using imaginative perception to see how things "are" as impressionists see space.  Major contrast with science fiction, where mechanical arts and technology dominate.  Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia gives a straight-up combination of art and magic--artists can use magic to enhance their work.  The catch--the process of enhancing a representation with magic damages or destroys the original.

Our protagonist has the gift of using magic in painting, but little else.  The why of that is explained through her relationship with her master, Lisane da Patagnia, last in a line of genius painters.  Lisane lives by no ordinary codes.  And she finally asks her former apprentice to break the last code--to paint her with magic before she dies.  What happens when a painter attempts such a thing?

Good storytelling, with bold and slashing color.  A good and worthy read, 3 stars from me.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Swift, Brutal Retaliation, by Meghan McCarron

Swift, Brutal Retaliation is a nice little ghost story.  The author is new to me.  It is well written but does not really stand out in any particular way.  We have two sisters dealing with a somewhat dysfunctional household that is now coping with the oldest boy's death after a long illness.  He was a cruel prankster in life, and now they see him when they play pranks themselves, pretty nasty ones.

One thing I think the story captures pretty well is the confusion such an early death brings.  No one knows quite what to do with themselves, or how to feel about it.  Especially with ambivalent, normal relationships. One certainly feels for the girls in the story, which means it was effective.  Kudos for the nomination, and 3 stars from me.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Finite Canvas, by Brit Mandelo

I had not heard of Brit Mandelo before reading this story, but likely will in the future. The Finite Canvas is a very worthy Nebula novelette nominee. The setting and flow of the story are pretty familiar--post-apocalypse Earth, an exile doctor, and a tough assassin.  But it's told with good strength, making it very enjoyable to revisit familiar themes.  Molly is a doctor exiled from the now more habitable space stations, scraping by on ravaged Earth.  Jada comes to her clinic to trade a nice sum of money and her story for a tattoo.  Doctors don't do tattoos, but there's the money...so Molly gets the story as well.  Both characters get to be sympathetic, though they are pretty damaged goods.  Earth is hell enough for both.  The nice solid story makes revisiting the familiar themes worthwhile.  This is a flat-out good read, a nice way to end the day, though the story itself is not so nice.  Three stars, and only not four because of originality.

Liu, Ken - The Waves

The Waves is a type of SF story I particularly like--the eternity/galaxy spanner.  There are many like this, but my introduction was Mike Resnick's Birthright: The Book of Man.  It's tough to pull off in some ways, because there are so few constraints--pretty much anything might happen.  And none of it is particularly likely, because I don't think we have the capacity to imagine what such post-human life would be like.  But it's great to make the attempt.

Liu's story explores how star exploration would proceed, given that technology would continue to advance back home and the generation ships might get passed.  I recall reading a classic SF story with this theme, but the name is not coming back to me--another time, perhaps.  In any case, Liu handles the tensions and choices very deftly, through telling stories within stories.  It's a very satisfying story to read, and I can heartily recommend it.  4 stars from me.