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.