Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria was nominated for both a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award this year.  And in this case it's easier to understand why.  This is a writer's book, interesting but essentially introspective in style.  The protagonist, Jevik, is a fascinating character, a young man itching to go to the Big City and see the culture for himself--he had been exposed to it by a tutor brought to his remote island by an equally remote father.  He throws himself into the scene and pays the price innocents often pay--he loses that innocence and goes on a journey of discovery. 

That journey is driven by the ghost of Jissavet, a girl dying of a wasting disease thought to be a spiritual sickness.  She is at the end of her life, but manages to convey her bright, disdainful personality when they meet briefly on his chartered ship.  How she comes to haunt him is a long story best read in the book.

There is one parallel to the last book I read, A Natural History of Dragons--the world is made up whole.  But the sensibility feels somewhat South Asian (though Samatar herself is from South Sudan), so the tropes are less familiar.  And Samatar writes from a very foreign point of view within this space.  This is interesting but in the end becomes a critique--my mind grew tired trying to wrap itself around metaphors like "her eyes were as one who had come from the country of herons".  ???  They almost work, you strain to make the connection, but in the end are quite unsure.

Samatar also gives a nod to writers by portraying the role of books in this world as heady, absorbing, dangerous things.  Dwelling on the danger more than the fascination, though not in such a way as to imply that they should be censored.  In this context Jevik is of course very much a bookworm.

A very interesting achievement in this book is an extended portrayal of Jissavet as a haughty, unkind person yet one worth working to get to know.  Jevik certainly thinks so, even in death. 

The book did not continuously hold my interest, it gets a bit carried away with writing and settings.  The plot gets slightly obscured in those difficult metaphors.  But it certainly gave me some mental exercise, and I felt like my boundaries of what I could read were stretched.  I give it three stars for style. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons was nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year.  It's one of those books that's a bit tough to review.  It's well-written--Brennan picks a style (Elizabethan) and sticks with it.  The protagonist is a feminist role model, at least for her setting.  I finished it and stayed somewhat engaged.  What stands out, for me, is what it lacks:

  1. Dragons: The protagonist (the future, but not present, Lady Trent) is obsessed with them, and dragons do figure prominently.  But the cover, title, and early part of the book led me to expect that we would learn much more about them than we do.  We get some anatomy, particularly bone structure and a little social habits, but that's it.  The speculation about sparklings is mildly interesting, I guess it counts.
  2. Obsessive detail: Books of this sort can engage by taking a deep dive into their fantastic subject matter, making for geek fun and material for Cons and cosplay.  But see #1, we have not a lot of depth.  And if you don't have detail, you need:
  3. Compelling action: There is adventure and danger in this book, but it's pretty carefully described and doesn't arouse much in the way of emotion.  Stuff happens.
  4. Grounded culture: Anthiope is a fully make-believe place, though the culture takes an Elizabethan Europe background mostly for granted.  There's some development of what makes Scirland unique, but not much.  It could sort of be anywhere, as long as anywhere is mostly like here.
  5. Fresh and insightful social commentary: Lady Trent is minor royalty in Scirland, and bucks current social trends by being a woman interested in science.  Her father and husband "indulge" her.  OK, but it's been done.  For a long time.
So while it's a competent book, it's not compelling in any way.  I see there's a sequel, and there is definitely room to grow here, but not much to say you should start.  I say two and a half stars--never done that before, but you have to start somewhere.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fire With Fire, by Charles E. Gannon

Fire With Fire was nominated for a 2013 Hugo award.  But for my money it could have been nominated for a 1963 Hugo. 

This is a story of the early period of Earth's interstellar exploration and exosapient contact.  We have all the elements of a very good early Heinlein here:

  1. Powerful but limited faster-than-light travel (though not so fully explained)
  2. Earth governments cracking under strain, thus a secret organization (named ISIS!) emerges to steer Earth down the right path in confronting the aliens.
  3. A "true polymath" of a hero--investigative reporter, capable fighter, upstanding citizen to a fault.  And a hunk/ladies man to boot.  Named Caine Riordan.  How many action heroes have been named Riordan?  I think it's a lot.
  4. Really awkwardly portrayed women/sexuality. 
I could go on for a long time.  You name the late Golden Age trope, Gannon hits it.

It's not a terrible book.  Caine generates interest once in awhile, and the diplomatic chess games are somewhat interesting.  But this is 2014.  I looked for any sense of understanding of how we've changed since 1963, and found none at all.  Yes, the book asserts that women are the equal of men--you can find that in 1963 SF too, though the writers mostly didn't fully understand what that meant.  There's no consciousness at all of how technology has changed us socially--it's early 60's mentality with spaceships.

I can see the award nominators' nostalgia in offering this up.  But really, if you want this sort of thing, go back to the originals.  Read Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov.  Don't bother with this one.  2 stars from me.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, by Richard Bowes

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street is a sort of fictional memoir.  A lot of events appear to be true, but none of it is guaranteed to be.  Definitely the tone of the book is a memoir, more than a novel.  I guess it's OK as a form, but for me it kind of fell short.

Beyond being a memoir, Dust Devil is about gay life in Manhattan, with a strong element of reaction to the tragedy of 9/11.  Bowes poses himself as a self-effaced sort of man-about-town, hanging out with many great writers and getting some nominations but not ever quite enough to make a living at it.  Supernatural elements, mostly low key, are woven in as a natural component.  He sees things because he can.

While he does appear to have been around a lot of famous people, he seems to have changed the names for some of the central characters.  I can't verify Judy Finch (Judy Light, Judy Icon) as a rock singer or Barbara Lohr as a fantasy writer.

Bowes was a reference assistant at a New York university library for 30 years, and librarian personality has sort of infested this writing.  Certainly he didn't start out that way--mostly high, lots of racy scenes and risky sex, and close calls with death.  But it all seems kind of remote.

Many reviewers seem to find this book profound and moving, but really it just never got going for me.  Bowes is so very detached from his own life that it's hard for him to tell us why we should care about his adventures.  Certainly there's an exciting life story here, that leads to something--redemption, recognition--but we don't see it here.  I'm going to give it 3 stars, but I think I'm being generous.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

San Diego 2014: Last Stand of the California Browncoats, by Mira Grant

San Diego 2014 was nominated for an award (Nebula, I think--too tired to look it up) last year, but it was only available in electronic format and I don't know how to donate those to the library.  But I was searching for award winners this year and found that my library had acquired it in electronic form.  So by happy chance I am able to catch this up and provide a review.

This is a "prequel" to the Newsflesh trilogy (I have reviewed all three--the link is to Feed, the first one).  Mahir Gowdha, a survivor of the original trilogy's blogging group, is interviewing one of the very few survivors from San Diego Comic-Con 2014, where one of the early breakouts happened.  The novella tells the story of those trapped inside. 

Where Newsflesh was grim, yet sarcastic and humorous, this story tends more toward just grim.  No one gets out alive--it's mostly about their last moments, and doesn't really stand alone.  Best if you have read the original trilogy, since the story is set after the series.  I would say it's worth seeking out if you have.  And the original series is definitely worth the read if you have not.  3 stars for this one.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The last book I read by Neil Gaiman was Anansi Boys.  For some reason I have never reviewed it.  That's unfortunate, for the book was worthy, but I don't think I'll get to it now.  The book I'm here to review is this year's Nebula nominee, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, available as an e-book from my library, which is a great thing.

Our protagonist is departing from a funeral.  Obviously someone close to him, as he appears to have arranged the funeral.  But we don't really find out who it is.  He drifts away from the funeral and ends up at the Hempstock farm, where he has a Proust moment.  Sitting on a bench by the duck pond, he recalls extraordinary events from when he visited there at seven years old.  He meets Lettie Hempstock, the 3rd generation of Hempstock women at the farm.  Together they take on a creature from an alternate world that comes to "give everyone what they want", only it does it poorly.  He is not much use, but is a good friend to Lettie.

The book is beautifully written, as Gaiman's fiction always is.  Compared to Anansi Boys, though, it just feels a couple of sizes smaller.  There's action, adventure, and strong characters, but all somewhat less.  The protagonist is something of a cipher, and though that's quite intentional it leaves something of a hole in the middle of the book. 

What makes it worthwhile, and why I still give it four stars, is the careful thought and wonderful writing that is fully present.  It's a great example of how to write a novel, and yet it's something of a toss-off for Gaiman--the casual backhand down the line, chip shot to within an inch, or easy swing for a home run.  Four stars.  Go read it, it won't take long.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata

The Red: First Light gets comparisons in its reviews to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, both of which I read (though not the whole Forever War series) and enjoyed in different ways.  The comparisons are more along the lines of how military SF progresses with its times--from glory to simple slogging to the more complex feelings we have about involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead of discoursing directly on this, Nagata tries to embody that ambiguity of modern warfare in her protagonist, James Shelley.  He's an idealist who got caught up in a protest against the US government, then took the Army over a stint in jail. 

One of the more uncomfortable elements of the novel is how fully the Army owns Shelley, and how he both chafes against it and accepts it.  Basically it's become a part of him and there's no way out.  He puts that personal transparency to use in fighting for social justice, and for trying to understand what appears to be a rogue artificial intelligence influencing people's behavior and decisions in a subtle way.  He recognizes its influence more than most--the "hunches" he gets that makes a fellow soldier conclude he has a pipeline to God.

There's plenty of action and the philosophy is well distributed, so the book ends up to be a really well executed thriller that also allows you to think.  I would give it four stars except that for me I couldn't really get going on it right away--took a bit to warm up.  So 3 stars from me.  But definitely worth reading.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Parasite, by Mira Grant

Mira Grant (pen name for Seanan McGuire when she's writing adult SF) has started a new series, Parasitology, with a Nebula-nominated novel, Parasite.  Her previous series, the Newsflesh Trilogy, was quite a fun read and I enjoyed all three tremendously.  This one...well...

Grant is trying for a different heroine here.  Sally Mitchell is feminine and caring, where the protagonists of Newsflesh are hard as rocks.  The tone is earnest, not sarcastic. 

The zombies this time are tapeworms that start out as medical implants but get out of hand.  Seriously.  They kind of stagger and do violence with a vacant stare, at least at first.  But some of them get better at it.  Not so much the point, though.

The point is that the book comes off as a somewhat lesser reflection of the last trilogy.  Georgia Mason was caring within a hard shell.  Sally is just caring.  The earnestness gets repetitive.  The characters do have more differentiation here, but the book just has fewer notes--not as much variety.  Just three stars this time. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross

Continuing my exploration of the award nominees for 2013.  Neptune's Brood is a Hugo nominee--I checked it out in good old print form at the local library.  The book bills itself as a "space opera", and it definitely has that Golden Age feel, updated with today's technology.  And I'm figuring that the "today's" part is intentional as well, since most space opera was basically straight line extensions of current ideas, with starships.  So it is with Krina-Alizond 114, part of a cloned batch of metahuman daughters of an extraordinarily powerful capitalist mother.  Natural humans ("fragiles") have gone extinct several times, and are only present by reference here.  Krina holds one half of the authentication key to a financial instrument that would change the galactic economy, and is just about to locate the other half. 

What's interesting and fun here is Stross's continuing interest in how economics and capitalism would expand off-world.  His novel Accelerando speculated on how rapid change would work here on earth, but the speculation in Neptune's Brood is quite different.  He's less convinced of ever-accelerating change here. 

On the whole it is a fine read if you like space opera--it's authentically (and only mildly) blocky in prose, and liberal with background explanation.  You also have to be kind of a geeky capitalist to really get into it.  I enjoyed it for its joy of itself, as much as anything--I'm sure Stross had fun writing it.  I give it three stars, with that guarded recommendation. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni is another one of the Nebula nominated books for this year, and one I enjoyed reading tremendously.  Chava is a golem, named by the rabbi who realizes her nature when he finds her in New York City.  Ahmad is a jinni, trapped in human form by a wizard.  Neither name fits them well.  But there they are, in New York, trying to make their way in situations they didn't intend to be in. 

According to the author, this book took seven years to write.  It certainly marinated fully in that time.  The book is well written, with plenty of action and excitement.  But what's really interesting about it are the characters--the Golem and the Jinni have personalities driven by their natures--of Earth and of Fire.  These characteristics animate them throughout the book, making them feel very real and true to themselves.  They do end up in a relationship, but it's not an easy one.  And when they confront evil they do it in a way that feels authentic to them.

I would say this is an easy read, and in the very best way--the ideas go straight into your head without a fight for understanding, yet Wecker has a lot to say about human nature through these two.  Go read it and have some fun.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Prayer of Ninety Cats, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The Prayer of Ninety Cats would probably be in the novelette category in awards other than the World Fantasy Awards--it's a pretty substantial piece--but there it is in short fiction.  It seems more lengthy as it is one of those artistic stories that is somewhat hard to read.  It's written in the second person, a really difficult perspective to pull off.  The setting is a theater where you are supposedly viewing scenes from the seriously debauched life of Lady Báthory Erzsébet, minor Hungarian noble from the 17th century.

For me it's odd and chunky and never quite comes together.  The prayer of the title is supposed to be a protective incantation, but doesn't really inspire awe.  Kiernan is a pretty good writer so this almost comes off, but it just seems to me like it needs more work or something.  The artistic manner is intentionally there to take the edge off some pretty revolting acts, but doesn't end up being quite up to making them art.  It's an OK story, but not in my mind a good one.  2 stars from me.

The Sun and I, by K. J. Parker

The World Fantasy Awards are out, and K.J. Parker has a nominated story, The Sun and I.  It's an interesting take on founding a religion, starting out like L. Ron Hubbard and ending like Ludwig Feuerbach,

Our protagonist, Esp, is one of five college students gone dissolute, begging for money and running small con games together.  They seem bound only by their failure to make anything of their privileged backgrounds.  Esp has the brilliant idea of founding a religion, and discovers some skills as a preacher.  They end up with momentum through some fortuitous predictions and  breaks, and as time and success roll on they start taking themselves seriously.  I'll save the really fun reveal, but it is safe to say that they grow into their roles in mostly good ways, even without wanting to.

It's all told in fine and competent fashion.  I really enjoy K. J. Parker as an author, and think she is destined for fine things.  This story should be a contender for an award, but it's missing elements I am finding in common in the other nominated stories:
  1. LGBT characters, love or sex
  2. Indications of racial diversity
It is a commentary on western and middle eastern culture's attraction to big religion that has been done before.  The setting is vaguely southern European but made up, and reads in such a way that one presumes the characters are white.  So in the end I don't think it will get traction--there's a pretty open field of social commentary in sexual and racial diversity being explored for the first time, so a more throwback tale, even a good one, isn't going to make it on the strength of social observation.  But do read it anyway.  Four stars from me.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

I've been reading Hild, Nicola Griffith's novel that was nominated for a Nebula last year.  It tells the story of St. Hilda of Whitby as a young woman.  Not much is known about her, other than a very scant historical record, so Griffith made up a childhood and young womanhood worthy of St. Hilda.  Considering that she started as a younger child of a killed noble and ended up a key advisor to kings, she must have been pretty special.

Hild becomes a "seer", mostly by being very intelligent and observant.  She has a true feel for politics and guides her king (Edwin, overking of the Angles) through a lot of tough scrapes.  The book has both sex and violence, but isn't particularly dramatic.  It is, however, interesting, and held me to it all the way to the end.  I wouldn't say it builds, but it never lags.  The characters are strong and fully developed.  It's a good read.

What it's not is speculative fiction.  There are absolutely no fantasy, supernatural or speculative scientific elements in it anywhere.  It's historical fiction.  That's fine, but why a Nebula nomination?  The author?  Griffith is best known as a speculative fiction writer, so she has fans willing to vote for her work and get it an award nomination.  But if this is speculative, anything is.  Two stars for breaking category.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Strange Bedfellows, by Rusty Rhoad

I read Strange Bedfellows some time ago, and for whatever reason did not publish a review of it.  The following review is also posted on the Amazon page linked above.  I did in fact read it when it was free.
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Walter is a numbers guy, an accountant who numbs himself to the dreary misery of his life with attention to meaningless detail at work and random internet surfing at home. Watching him leverage a break in his life will take you from pity to envy to admiration, with a side of Morgan Le Fay. You can practically hear the sultry contralto as you read Le Fay's dialog. It's a great romp that leaves you with a smile. And pirates. There are definitely pirates.

Rhoad has a real sense for what heroism means when the protagonist doesn't wear tights and a cape, literally or figuratively. Look for more from him for characters you'd be lucky to have as friends in the world we actually live in.

The Life and Adventures of Sir Kay, by Rusty Rhoad

I have recently caught up with an author friend's new novel, The Life and Adventures of Sir Kay (draft serialized here).  Rusty Rhoad writes "romantic Arthurian fiction" with an interesting twist--the stories are told from a man's point of view.  The stories center on men on paths of self-discovery, overcoming challenges and winning women's hearts along the way.  They are eminently likeable fellows, the kind of men a guy would like to have as a friend, and any gal would want to marry.

Sir Kay definitely fits into this mold.  Rhoad's other published novels, Strange Bedfellows and Return from Avalon, are set in the present day, with Arthurian influences coming from the past.  This novel is set in the time of King Arthur, and aims to give some attention to a character one can tell Rhoad believes has been shortchanged.

Sir Kay, like Walter and Arnie Penders, is a nerdy numbers guy.  Unlike the other two, he's seen plenty of combat and is really a pretty competent fighter and soldier--unless you are comparing him to other Knights of the Round Table.  In that company he doesn't measure up as a warrior, but has earned the respect of Arthur and others as an excellent seneschal--manager of the King's castle and attendant logistics.  Now that Merlin is gone, he is "the only person in the kingdom who can do long division".

But he yearns for adventure and true love, so he takes on a squire (the redoubtable Oswald--you'll like him, everyone does) and asks his king for knightly quests.  Along the way he is challenged with a Grail quest, and meets the lovely Elaine, sister to Morgan le Fay and Morgause.

All of Rhoad's work is helped by a familiarity with Arthurian literature, but this one is the most directly dependent on that history.  If you spend a lot of literary time in Camelot, you won't want to miss this one.  Four stars in that genre.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler writes very literary speculative fiction--heavy on character development, speculation to enhance it.  This is the pattern in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. 

The narrator, Rosemary, takes us through her life, which is challenging but not particularly extraordinary until she reveals that her sister was, in fact, a chimp.  Taken in as her psychologist father's experiment.  Her complex relationship with her sister and mostly absent brother carries us through the book.

We get to know Rosemary awfully well.  She's not a particularly colorful person--not close to anyone, not violent, not...really very much.  Her life is a reflection of the people (and primate) around her, and she pretty much knows it.  Rosemary seems a familiar sort--a rather dry person who simply never expects to be happy, and made peace with that a long time ago.

It's pretty challenging to make an interesting story out of such a person, with no gunfire or magic to sustain it, but Fowler manages it pretty well.  The book is entertaining and satisfying in a personal sort of way.

I'm not sure how I feel after finishing--not exhilarated, or bored, or intrigued.  Just there.  Rosemary and her ape sister Fern make their animal rights point fairly gently and move on.  Read this as an interesting side track.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Distributed consciousness is probably an underutilized  trope in SF--it's a lot of fun if done well.  The best example I know of is Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, which included a doglike species where an individual was a pack. Ancillary Justice is centered completely on this concept, taking it to another level and exploring it thoroughly.

The novel is pretty much straight up space opera.  There's some interesting social speculation here--the protagonist is a citizen (sort of) of the Radch, a galactic civilization that until recently was completely devoted to expansion.  They are pretty ruthless about the process, but direct and fairly honest.  At the time of the novel they have been stopped by the Presger, and our protagonist is working on the last colonizing "annexation".

The protagonist herself (gender is not a factor in the Radch, the default is "her") is an Ancillary, a person whose individuality has been removed and is now part of a group consciousness, usually a part of a Ship.  Our protagonist is the sole survivor of this Ship's disaster.

I'd say the work is a little subdued for a space opera, but the exploration of distributed consciousness and imperialist social structures is worth the read.  Have fun and think a little.  Three stars from me.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

I rather enjoyed the first story of Heuvelt's that I read, The Boy Who Cast No Shadow.  This one, The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, not quite so much.  It's written as a very light and fun tale, set in Thailand in order to allow a sort of quaint rendering where everyone has a nickname and a descriptive adjective that follows them everywhere.  But that's not the point of the story.  The people of Doi Saket grant wishes as part of an annual festival.  But Tangmoo does not wish for anything--apparently having achieved enlightenment.  The story rolls along in a droll sort of way, with various coincidences described in that quaint dialect.  I was perhaps too tired when I read it, but just couldn't get into it.  Two stars, but you might like it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere, by John Chu

Gay and lesbian romance is now finally getting its day, so pretty much all the romance in SF is actually bromance or girlmance (I made that last one up.  Slightly lame).  But SF has never been great at romance, so the GLBT versions give it a chance to go back and get that more right.  Would that it didn't feel so fashionable.  The Water... is a story of coming out to an unsupportive family, with the SF twist that no one can get away with lying anymore.  Why?  Instead of noses growing like Pinocchio, people get drenched with water. 

So there's a lot you could do with this premise as social experimentation.  What really counts as a lie?  And that's explored here, but pretty much purely through relationships.  It's the trickiest case for the omniscient water-dousers to handle, but handle it they do.  Or it does.  The source of this new permanent polygraph is not clear.

The story is much more serious than the review.  The SF is really window dressing for the fraught family situation, but given the power of the speculation that's kind of a waste.  On the other hand, it's a well written story, so 3 stars from me.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal has nice range as an author.  She can do an effective hard SF story, and also does well in fantasy.  The Lady Astronaut of Mars falls on the hard SF side, but it is really more of a human relations story.

We have an alternate history element--in this history Washington, D.C. was obliterated by a meteorite strike early in the space age (insert politician doom joke here).  Earth was thus energized to pursue space travel in self defense, trying to start colonies elsewhere in order to ensure continuity of the race.  We thus went to Mars with technology similar to that which took us to the Moon.

Our protagonist is one of the first (and very few) female astronauts.  She has both taken advantage of this, and been held back by it.  But she was one of the most popular figures in the space program.  She is now 63, and her husband, who did (and sometimes still does) programming for the space program is in very poor health.  They live on Mars.

She is offered the opportunity to travel to a nearby star with an inhabitable planet.  Near light speed, but she will still be gone three years.  Her husband will die soon.  Should she go, or not?  That's the frame in which the emotions play out.

It's a good story, and worth the time to read.  3 stars from me.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Equoid, by Charles Stross

Equoid is the second story I've read in Stross's extensive Laundry series.  The Laundry is part of British civil service, the part that deals with occult threats.  And the threat in this one is a doozy.  We get a lot of fun action as Bob Howard (not really), computer nerd and office drone, takes on unicorns.  I know I've read some similar stories but can't bring them to mind right now, so you'll just have to go read it for yourself.  Very good stuff.  Reminds me very much of George Saunders' CommComm, so if you liked that one you'll like this one.

Seventy-Two Letters,by Ted Chiang

I took a time out from reading award nominated stories to read one I found somewhat by accident, linked off Ted Chiang's Wikipedia pageSeventy-two letters is a more "normal" SF story than the others I've read by Chiang, which figures because it's from 2001. But really no less inventive.

In this story Chiang invents a place where golems are real, and the science of "nomenclature" is a prominent one--the study of how to create True Names for things, which then can animate them.  He describes a discipline emerging from craft and magic into an empirical, engineering type of application.  Wrapped in with it is a completely different principle on how reproduction occurs--animal species contain all their future generations in the male line, and each generation is the amplification of some chosen set from the infinitesimal.  At the time of the story, we are discovered to have only five generations left.

The action plays out well, but the best SF is about the ideas, and this is a classically written one.  Definitely can recommend it.  3 stars.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang

It is almost a crime that Ted Chiang doesn't write more.  He addresses deep philosophical questions in every topic he addresses, from religion, to the nature of intelligence, to our relationship to new technology.  He visits this last topic again in The Truth of Fact...and it's another home run.

He also hits my favorite scary topic, which is to speculate just a very little bit about where technology might go.  Imagine wearing Google Glass, and having it record constantly.  That's a "lifelog", which Chiang speculates many of us will be keeping in the near future.  In the story, people are keeping lifelogs but they are cumbersome to search--only worth it if you REALLY want the answer (like forensics).  But an app company comes along and offers easy, fast searchability.  All past events that are in any way recordable can be brought back within seconds.

Our protagonist is to do a story on the app company and the software.  He's pretty nervous about trying it out.  His ensuing journey through his past, as remembered and as actually happened, is realistically tangled.  And his conclusion on where this could go is rich and deeply satisfying.  I would tell you, but I really want you to go read it for yourself.  You think he's going one way and then he doubles back so artfully it's completely convincing.

We are within a few years of this, so it isn't a story for the ages.  It's a story for right now, and everyone should read it as it is a much better exposition of the situation than any factual article or editorial. 

It's just a crime that Ted Chiang does not write full time (he is a sysadmin). In a just world he would have a MacArthur grant or some such to just talk to people and write, even if it's only a few articles a year.  We very much need this kind of thinking about the world.  Come on, Ted, what do you say?  Be a pro! 
Four stars from me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Alive, Alive Oh, by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

There is a purity to this story that probably struck those doing the nominating for the Nebula.  It's a story of colonizing an exoplanet, none too hospitable.  And it is purely about homesickness.  No respite, no making the best of the current situation, none of that.  Our protagonist is homesick through and through, and passes it on to her daughter.  Much sadness.  Read to feel sad, and maybe get a glimpse of what our world will be like in a few decades.  Oh well.  3 stars.

If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky

So here's a nice, deserving award nominee.  If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love is, indeed, a love story.  Kind of a prose poem.  The emotions are both delicate and raw, thus the dinosaur metaphor she chooses is very accurate.  Good stuff here, spend a few minutes and read it.  Three stars.

Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer, by Kenneth Schneyer

This story is a kind of catalog story.  I usually like these, they are an interesting way to convey a mood or culture and free an author from plot constraints.  Some of my favorite philosophers (Wittgenstein, Heraclitus) wrote this way too.  But not so much with Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer.

This particular catalog story is really a catalog--told as an exhibition catalog for an artist, as the title explains.  I found it kind of meandering and didn't get the connection between the entries.

Then I read the brief notes at the end.  Mild Spoiler Alert: This story is an elaborate joke.  Not being any particular expert at exhibition catalogs, I didn't get it.  Still didn't get it after being told what the joke was.  So read this and see if you get the joke, before or after explanation.  I find it hard to be generous to jokes I don't get, so two stars for me.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Selkie Stories are for Losers, by Sofia Samatar

This is an appealing little story, mostly because it's told a little off balance.  You have to hang on and use lots of riding (reading) skill to stay on.

Selkie Stories are for Losers starts out with why our protagonist hates selkie stories.  You can figure pretty quickly that it has to do with being abandoned by one.  From there we get a nice bit of biography told in that off-balance way.  It's fun, you can see why it got both a Hugo and Nebula nomination.  I give it three stars for execution.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Souunds of Old Earth, by Matthew Kressel

The Sounds of Old Earth is a story that's been done a thousand times in SF--and never really gets old.  I always like reading a good version, though several in a row would get wearing.  Matthew Kressel does a fine job on this one, taking what is pretty much a light touch.  The premise is a little odd--complete destruction of the earth as a salvage job is being undertaken to form a new planet, very near the old one.  Seems like the only reason humanity would want to do this would be to build the largest Dyson Sphere possible, or maybe Ringworld, but in any case the point of the story is loyalty and its limits.  It's a graceful tale and worth reading to remind one of the power SF has in storytelling.  Three stars from me.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Pinsker, Sarah - In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind

The parents of the boomers are now very late in life.  They are old, their children are old too.  In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind uses a speculation to confront growing old, and what one sometimes has to do to survive and feed a family. 

Millie and George have been married over 60 years when he suffers a stroke.  It's pretty apparent to Millie that he will never come back from it.  Ground very familiar to this generation is covered--frailty, aging children, putting aside dreams.  George was an architect, and very much a dreamer when they met.  Events described in the story change him into basically a stoic.  He remains a dedicated family man and enthused about family projects, but work is not of interest to him any more.  In the hospital, he starts drawing, and brings the time of change back to Millie.

The story is very well written and a solid read.  I have not heard of Sarah Pinsker before, and this is a fine debut.  I don't think she really needed any speculative elements to tell the story, but they didn't hurt.  It's often easier to make a point in speculative fiction, since you have fully imaginary scenarios at your disposal.

I give it three stars, and can recommend it.  Decent stuff.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King, by Ken Liu

And now for something completely different.  Ken Liu usually writes pretty serious fiction.  That continues here, and The Litigation Master... is somewhat dark stuff.  Tian Haoli is a lawyer (songgun) in Manchu China. Law and the ability to argue at court was a pretty disrespected profession, but while today's lawyers can be wealthy, Tian is rather poor.  Probably because he helps the poor himself.  The Monkey King is a demon from that time that seems to talk to or appear to Tian.  That's the speculative part.  Helping the poor against the powerful is always a dangerous proposition, and that's no different here.

Liu likes to teach a bit in his fiction, and Tian is apparently based on a real character.  It's not a light read, but you will come away knowing more than before.  3 stars, because it's a bit more straight-up than his previous work.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters, by Henry Lien

There's a line in comic writing wherein the author, trying to make a wry social commentary on a stereotype, ends up merely reinforcing it.  Leslie Jones did this recently on Saturday Night Live.  And I think Henry Lien accomplishes something similar, on a smaller scale, in Pearl Rehabilitative Colony...

The riffs here are on Asian over achievement, filial piety and general disrespect for girls.  All good points to skewer, but this story pretty much beats them with a stick.  It ends up to be mostly wearing and not all that funny.  I guess the Nebula nomination is for bravery in taking on your own, but that's not so special--comics do it all the time.  This is a short read but I would say not worth quite that much time.

Interestingly enough, this is supposed to be the start of a series.  Pearl is an area where much of the architecture is made from a tough substance suitable for skating, so that;s how residents get around.  The story centers on martial arts on skates.  There might be somewhere to go here, but at this point not really.

2 stars from me.

They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alien invasions seem to be a great way to bring out the best and worst in our social/political situation.  The classic John Campbell style heroism had its best modern representation to me in Independence Day.  But just as often it's more dystopian, with subjugation bringing out (or based on) our weaknesses.  Sometimes it's to save us, as in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series.  There might be something of that going on in They Shall Salt...and in this case the social weakness is the abortion issue.

The narrator is a farmer/survivor of the invasion.  Humans are basically scraping by and a sad bunch.  Aliens come along and mine the area with glass bead bombs (thus we have a commentary on modern warfare as well), along with other social engineering.  They offer to take in pregnant mothers and assist them through birth, but what happens next might be sinister.  So the story revolves around what happens when the narrator's sister becomes pregnant.

Johnson makes things interesting by throwing in an almost-sympathetic alien that discusses their efforts to rebuild human society in foreign NGO/UN speak.  Would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Read this for a tweak at your conscience.  It's one of the things speculative fiction is good for. Three stars from me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Waiting Stars, by Aliette de Bodard

I never quite know what to make of Aliette de Bodard.

Critics like her work a lot, she gets nominated for awards every year.  But I find her work difficult to read--not that it's gross or anything, it just seems heavy.  Now that I've read a few other pieces, The Waiting Stars makes more sense to me.  The Mind Ships and their companions are more interesting.  But in the shorter fiction, there just seems to be a lot left out.

In this story, we have a Ship and its human companions searching a Ship graveyard set up by the Outsiders--a group of people very offended at how Mind Ships come about.  The story comes together from two perspectives--a woman named Catherine, who has been "rescued" by the Outsiders and somehow rebuilt to fit into their society, and Lan Nhen, the human companion of the Ship searching the Outsider graveyard.

As her stories go, I was able to follow this one better than most, and the Mind Ships are growing on me a little.  But not really enough to spend a lot of effort searching it out.  Two stars from me, probably more from the critics.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Paranormal Romances, by Chris Barzak

Stories are stories, and pictures are pictures.  But some pictures tell a story, and some stories paint a picture.  Paranormal Romances is the last.  It's one of the better ways to make something that's complete in short fiction, and we have an example here.

This is the story of Sheila the witch, and her struggles with a subject on which she is an expert.  Spoiler Alert: In order to say anything else about this story I pretty much have to give the picture's subject away, so be warned.

Sheila makes a living at witchcraft, specializing in love spells.  She's good at what she does and not greedy, so she has what she believes to be a satisfying life--evenings alone, dinner once a week with her gay neighbors who are quite nice and love her.  Her mother is getting desperate to fix her up, and that desperation (and resulting lousy date, complete with inappropriate disclosures from her mother) gets her off the schneid to go find some romance of her own. 

So in the end you're pulling for her, which is a good thing.  Read this one if you're a bit down, but too proud to just whistle a happy tune.  3 stars from me.

Trial of the Century, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Trial of the Century is a tale for fans of old-school John W. Campbell style science fiction in the Analog days.  It is a novella bridging the first and second of Schoen's Amazing Conroy/Buffalito stories, though this one is very much Conroy's story.  Since the first novel wasn't award nominated and isn't in our local library, I've never read it.  This always puts me on the spot because it's hard to be fair to the work.  But since this novella recaps some of the early history in order to tell the story, I feel like I've caught up with the series better than when I read last year's award nominated novel.

Campbell was the first editor in SF to try to bend storytellers away from tales where aliens came in and killed/dominated earthlings wholesale.  Campbell wanted humans to be able to outsmart more technologically advanced species with local knowledge.  Schoen's novella delivers on this front in Conroy's unfortunate delivery back into the hands of the Arconi he stole Reggie the Buffalito from.  It's a successful story in that vein, so I'll not spoil it further.  But it's a good chance to go back in time and enjoy SF the way it was. Three stars from me

Friday, May 2, 2014

Burning Girls, by Veronica Schanoes

I enjoy a good culturally grounded magic story--all cultures with any history have a culture of "witch" magical lore, and Burning Girls delivers a fine example.  The magic delivered here is Jewish, from the 1800s in Poland.  Pogroms against Jews were a regular feature of Polish history, and one of them drives the survivors to America..  But first we have the training of the witch--she learns the lore from her bubbe in rural Poland.  She then must face a lilit, an apparently high-level demon quite close to Satan. 

I can find no fault and a lot of good.  I have read stories like this before so it wasn't something fresh for me, but would make an impression if you haven't read much of Jewish lore before.  It's not going to turn the world upside down for originality, but that's asking a lot.  Three stars from me.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Weight of the Sunrise, by Vylar Kaftan

The Weight of the Sunrise is the second story I've read by Vylar Kaftan, and since I seem to only have time for award nominees these days that means he's pretty good.  I certainly enjoyed this one--it's a solid alternative history.  What if the Incas had held off Pizarro's initial Conquistador attack (he only had 168 men), and figured out how to hold off smallpox through public health and hygiene measures?  In this story, they would have been able to sort out how to hold on to their empire in the face of European imperialism.  That makes for many changes in the Western world--the Americans come to visit in 1806 with a proposal to sell them the technique of vaccination.  And so hangs the tale.  We get a good exposition of Incan culture as Kaftan speculates it would develop.  It's not a whitewash--it has plenty to say about the shortcomings of both Incan and American culture.  Not quite in the spectacular category, but I was glad of the time spent reading it.  I give it three stars.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Wakulla Springs, by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

With this review I open my 2014 award nominated story and novel reading.  Only a so-so start.  No objection to the writing--Wakulla Springs is a nice story in the Nebula novella category.  It's a personal history, following a few highly varied characters (Johnny Weismuller and several impoverished black people from central Florida), giving vignettes of their lives from the late forties through recent times.  We see integration struggles, discrimination, and the ennui of stars.  What we don't see is much actual speculation.  We have exactly one page where an animal might have talked.

As stories go, it's sort of several related stories put together.  But really only juxtaposed.  I didn't mind reading it, but this isn't what I read speculative fiction for.  Hopefully the stories in the novella category get better from here. Two stars from me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Wheel of Time series was 23 years old when it concluded last year.  I did not start reading the series when it first came out, though I did hear about it--I began it around the turn of the millenium, and then purchased the books as they came out.  So partly free.  And I am part of a legion of fantasy SF readers for whom the series has been part of life, for 14 years now.

It was never a compulsive part, as even when I am not a free SF reader, I am a cheap one. I got the final volume, A Memory of Light, for Christmas this year and spent close to three months reading it.  Coming to the end of such a series, I was bracing for disappointment.  Bringing a series to a close is a truly difficult affair.  So many classic works have ended poorly.  Brandon Sanderson had done a very good job of getting the series from the death of Jordan to the ending, but still...

Not this time, though.  A major series spanning many years comes to a full and satisfying conclusion.  Jordan gets only partial credit, since he didn't manage to conclude it in his own lifetime.  But it was really good to see such a fine strong ending.  Sanderson says Jordan had most of the ending written, and I can buy that, since it's heavy on battle scenes.  Those were his strength before he undertook this series.  But the pacing is definitely Sanderson.

Really, in the end it delivers what was promised all the way at the start.  Rand Al'Thor leads the forces of the Light into the Last Battle, as promised.  All the major characters are there, and get their say one way or another.  Rand becomes rather larger than human, even as he tries to hold on to his humanity--pretty much what you would expect of the Savior.

But while this, like so many of its kind, bears a resemblance to the Bible, this isn't really a Christ allegory.  In the end, Rand is still human, with some special power.  The ending underlines this well. 

No tricks or gimmicks here.  The heroes of the end of the Third Age step up and play their part, as do the villains.  The series never was about complex personalities, though they do have flavor.  If you have never picked it up, I would say it's worthwhile to spend a year (or however long it takes you to read 14,000 pages) and read it.  It sets a good expectation for what a fantasy series can deliver.  I give this one my rare Five Stars, in the special category of Long Series With A Real Ending.