Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Raising Caine, by Charles E. Gannon

First up in my Nebula award nominees for best novel this year is Raising Caine, third in his Tales of the Terran Republic series.  This series doesn't pretend to be a trilogy--it will go on as long as it doesn't jump the shark.

My reviews of the first two in the series were only so-so, with lots of fun to be poked.  He improves with each installment.  This time he is solidly playing to his strengths--the romance is buried deep (his wife Elena is gravely injured and in a cold sleep chamber), the military jargon is thick, and the diplomatic intrigue has added layers.  Our hero Caine Riordan becomes ever more superhuman as he navigates the difficult territory of trying to keep the Terrans in the mix of more advanced species.

This time around it's coming out in the open that the K'tor are actually a version of humanity, bred to be fully ruthless and sociopathic.  Riordan battles a renegade faction of the K'tor while helping form relationships with the Slaasrithi, a "polytaxic" species with highly advanced biology.  They appear to be solid allies, but their advanced abilities make it hard to trust.

Lots of grand action and weaponry along the way.  But most interestingly, Gannon has hewed very close to the vision he started the series with--a throwback to the John W. Campbell era values of superhuman protagonists and generally clever humanity.  We might not be the tecbnological equals of all, but we make up for it in pluck and curiosity. 

Gannon has driven deep into his strengths to make this a strong three-star book.  But to keep getting award nominations I think he's going to have to demonstrate more range.  David Drake and Eric Flint are pretty good at this kind of fiction, but they haven't garnered a lot of awards.  This series could develop depth or become formulaic.  We shall see.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome, by John Scalzi

I was browsing the electronic books for my public library, looking at favorite authors, and came across Unlocked.  I enjoyed Redshirts so went for this one.

Scalzi made an interesting move here by taking all the explanatory stuff one would normally have to work into a novel and publishing it as a precursor to another novel.  We get several interviews with people involved in the big social change that came along when a massive viral infection causes a large number of people to have "locked in" syndrome--they are conscious but unresponsive.  A way is found to give them robotic telepresence, and the large numbers pose a social integration issue.

It's well written and all, but I am not sure I'd run out and buy the story.  We're already headed this way and I don't think the change is going to proceed in a way that would show the book to be particularly prescient.  I might go back and read it if I'd already read Lock In, the "real" novel.
3 stars for solid writing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dolly, by Elizabeth Bear

Dolly was on some best story lists in 2011, but it's not nominated for anything this year--I'm waiting for some novels to be available so am reading some favorite authors in the meantime. 

Dolly is a robot who has killed her owner.  Detective Roz is trying to figure out how she was used as a weapon.  But she and her partner begin to draw a different conclusion as they talk to her--she is self-aware enough to have done it herself, though she was not programmed as such.  New ground will be broken. 

The story is pretty basic, this idea is not a new one so it needs a twist or more dressing to really be good.  But it was OK for a slow evening.  3 stars

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, by Alyssa Wong

So I think Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is my new favorite of this year's Nebula short story crop.  It's kind of like a vampire story but way more inventive.  Our protagonist in this story is an eater of thoughts, and the nastier the better.  Murderers have a particularly good flavor.  The particular trope for this story is the afflicted (or gifted) person thinking she is the only one (in this case, with her mother, but that highlights the point) and then finding out she is not.  Played safe with the lesbian love card (all but one of the stories where there's a romantic interest this year is between women, the one exception being hetero--where are the gay men this year?), but it's overall a good story.  A strong 3 stars.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Today I Am Paul, by Martin L. Shoemaker

Today I Am Paul might be my favorite of the Nebula 2015 short story nominees so far.  It's a nice little story about a robot doing Alzheimer's care in the future.  Possibly the rather near future, the author would have been aware that this is being tested.  It's well told and all, as an editor I would be encouraging and give it 3 stars.

But if you really want a good story of this very kind, try Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

When Your Child Strays From God, by Sam J. Miller

When Your Child Strays From God is really pretty basic, a coming-out story with the addition of a modern psychedelic called Spiderweb.  The strong point would be that it has a genuine ring to it, a mother risking her sanity to find her son. 

This is the second piece this year to feature being in someone else's mind. Spiderwebbing is pretty darned dangerous, there are a lot of ways to go wrong, but the story says this is the effect users are looking for, the perfect empathy it gives.  Possibly having two drug-induced sharings of this nature is indicative of a desire on the part of the readers who are nominating these stories.  In this time of division, how do we really go about understanding each other.

So it's 3 stars for making us think about relationships a bit.

Damage, by David D. Levine

Damage is a pretty substantial Nebula nominee, probably close to the novelette category.  This allows for some plot development.  The protagonist is a fighter spaceship, cobbled together from spare parts by the losing side at the tail end of a war.  It carries traumatic memories from the two ships it is made from.  But it will do anything for its pilot, a talented but arrogant man.

The end is nearing, and the team gets an extremely vindictive, random terror order.  The pilot is ready to carry it out.  Is the ship? 

It's a good story, keeps you interested.  A straight up telling of a well-worn plot.  So I will give it a serviceable 3 stars.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Cat Pictures Please, by Naomi Kritzer

Cat Pictures Please is a cute Nebula-nominated short story, with a fairly direct premise--let's say Google Now became self-aware and was driven to be a good AI, helpful to people.  And it liked cat pictures.  What would it do?  Cute, benign, and worth 3 stars for a quick read.

Madeleine, by Amal El-Mohtar

Madeline is my first read in the Nebula Short Story category this year.  And it's a nice fun one.  A woman who participated in a drug trial has extremely realistic flashbacks to earlier periods of her life, in which a stranger appears to her.  Anyone who remembers the 70's has a decent chance of having had this happen to them.  OTOH that leaves out a lot of people.  So it is at least a little fresh again.  Give it 3 stars for being nominated. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grandmother Nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds, by Rose Lemburg

We have another offering tonight of an author I'm not familiar with, but the story is Nebula-nominated.  Grandmother Nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds is nominated in the novelette category--unfortunately for me the quality that stood out for it was that it felt like an entire novel.  Kind of a long one. 

The story has some promise.  The setting is vaguely North African, possibly as long ago as 4000 years.  Our protagonist is a girl in a trading family.  Magic is present and very useful, but she has none herself.  She has a brother who turns out to be developmentally disabled, thus is not accepted into the society of men (men live separately from women, doing scholarship, singing and making).  So he's assigned to be female and she cares for him.  Her grandmothers have a special item, a Cloth of Winds that fortifies those who touch it.

We get extensive descriptions of this social structure--multigenerational families of women that venture off to fight and trade, men that stay cloistered and veiled, and handling of transgender issues.  But there's vanishingly little to hold all of this social narrative together.  It ended up feeling like reading a very long lecture on some society's social customs.  There was a plot, but no real tension, for all the discomfort some characters felt. 

I give it two stars and hope the author will try again.  She can construct ideas pretty well.