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.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pyre of New Day, by Catherine Asaro

Catherine Asaro is in a nearly unique space in speculative fiction--she writes SF action/romance from the female point of view.  I normally wouldn't go near it, but...

  1. She gets nominated for major awards
  2. Her last name begins with A
I am an obsessive reader, and for quite a long time read mostly from the beginning of the alphabet.  Fortunately there are a lot of good writers in that range (Asimov, Benford, Brin, Bradbury, Bova, I could go on and on).  Coincidence?  Why are there so many AAAA service companies?  I am sure this doesn't make as much difference as it used to.

But I ramble.  Asaro's latest award nominated effort is Pyre of New Day, a sample chapter from the Mammoth Book of SF Wars.  She's full force on both the action and romance fronts.  She's willing to get kinky as well, but doesn't do that here.  It's a fun read if you're into that sort of thing.  Something new here is that she paints a very vivid picture of life on a failing colony planet.  Read it if you are tired but don't want to sleep yet, you won't even be tempted.  3 stars.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Barry's Tale, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Barry's Tale is the other Nebula nominee currently available online--hopefully there will be a couple of others.  This is more of a standard SF story, with hypnosis as its central science theme and a "buffalito" - a small sort of buffalo, but enhanced - as a sidekick.  Schoen has written several stories and novels featuring the Amazing Conroy and his buffalitos, but I didn't feel compelled to seek out the series.  Though it would not hurt, I think the stories would in fact work better read in sequence.  Anyway, Conroy and Reggie the Buffalito bull their way through the plot with good humor, saving the girl and getting a fine reward, so it's a fun read.  I do wonder if Schoen is familiar with schmoos and gobbleglops from Al Capp.  I give it three stars--nice, but probably won't come out on top. 

Schoen's writing reminds me of Jack McDevitt.  I have reviewed a few of his books.  If you like McDevitt you may well like Schoen, at least the science fiction.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

All the Flavors, by Ken Liu

I make a point of reading as much of the award nominated fiction cited on Free SF Online as possible.  The Nebula award nominees have been announced, and Ken Liu's story All the Flavors is my first read in the novella category.  And what a fine story it is.

This one is not particularly speculative--unless you count reader speculation about the identity of the lead character, in which case it is speculative enough.  Really, it's a writer's story.  The protagonist is a little girl living in Idaho City, Idaho in 1865.  A gold rush is under way, and some Chinese miners have come to cash in.  They also bring along a large helping of their culture.  The hero is Li Guan, or Logan, a large man from Northern China, who befriends the little girl.  They deal with cruelty and prejudice in the local population, even unto murder.  If it stopped there it would be formulaic.  But the story weaves this into a growing acceptance of the Chinese by the locals, particularly through the ambassadorship of Li Guan.  Some of the customs are hard to swallow.  While Liu clearly favors openness, the disruption the foreigners cause is dealt with forthrightly.  The historical references really sold me--the interactions are based in truth, on how the influx of Chinese influenced local culture in Idaho.  Really good stuff, I enjoyed it quite a lot.  4 stars from me.

Back After Hiatus

I'm back after a bit of time away to read some things that were not SF at all, so no need to go into them here.  A refresher of my point for doing this (mostly for myself, I do not pretend this is widely read)...

The purpose of this blog is to read and comment on SF literature that I find available without having to pay for it.  Most of it is online.  Now, I know a little about economics and know that nothing is truly free.  Most of the sites have ad content, and many ask for a donation.  If they do, you should consider it.  I read quite a lot of fiction from my public library, and that is taxpayer-supported.  Sometimes if my library does not have the title, I buy it, read it, then donate it.  I like the idea that authors are putting their materials out there to enrich the general reading environment, and want to encourage them with links, and positive comments where warranted.

Sure, I could put these comments on Amazon, or attach them to the sites that host the material.  But I like the idea of my own space.  So if you are doing a search and happen across this blog, and stay a moment to see what I like, good for you.