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.