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.