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.