Monday, May 30, 2016

Asymmetrical Warfare, by S. R. Algernon

Asymmetrical Warfare is one of Nature's very short SF stories.  Kind of a shout-out to classic Campbell, in that we have a battle between Humans and star-shaped aliens.  That stellate shape is quite important to them.  They regenerate like starfish also.

It's a fun little read, take a few minutes. 3 stars

Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang, trans. by Ken Liu

This is the second translation I've seen by Ken Liu that is getting an award nomination, the first being The Three Body ProblemFolding Beijing has a lot of the same flavor as that one.  The latter has a novella nomination for Hugo this year.

China has many more potential fans of SF than the US, or probably all english-speaking countries put together, so I'm interested in their SF.  The story is an interesting setup for social commentary on inequality--which unfolds (ha) differently than it would with an American author, I think.  The technology speculation here is that China has solved Beijing's space problem by constructing the city so that it will literally fold up, exposing three different parts of the city.  The high-class folks (10%) get half the time, and the two lower levels split the other half.  When one's part of the city is folded, one is in hibernation until it's time to come back.

But there are ways to travel between the spaces, since it's mechanical.  Our protagonist, a middle-aged, single man working as a recycler, is prepared to make that journey for money.  As these stories go it's a well-worn path, but pretty radical for China.  The fact that the protagonist is older and never married stood out for me, even though that's not that unusual in classic SF.   Made me think about their one child policy and preference for males. 

The premise seems a stretch (at one point the author describes the construction, seems like bricks and wood), until I remembered James Blish's popular Cities in Flight series and figure maybe it's no worse than that.  It's worth checking out for cross cultural interest.  3 stars from me

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Obits, by Stephen King

I haven't quite given up on the Hugo Awards yet--I am reading the works that don't look to be too influenced by the Sick Puppies or the more radical of the Sad Puppies--I have discussed them earlier.

That leaves a short list in the shorter fiction.  Obits by Stephen King is on it.  He doesn't get a lot of these nominations, I would think that the nominators don't think he needs it.  But one could nominate most anything he writes, as it is both speculative and very well written.

Obits treads a well-worn path of sympathetic magic--voodoo in particular, though that's not exactly what's going on here.  Our protagonist is finding his prowess as a writer--in fact, he can kill with it.  But not with great control.  The power and terror of that possibility is shown here. 

It might be a little too tired, I think I saw this on The Twilight Zone but am not sure.  The protagonist at one point becomes afraid that his secret will get out.  Maybe too much?  Would anyone believe him if told?

It's a decent story and I am sure King fans will enjoy it.  I was mildly amused.  Will give it a weak 3 stars.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson

The Matrix is an old trope in speculative fiction, and even non-fiction--it was invented by Descartes ("I think therefore I am" is the one thing he could definitively know of his own volition even if he was in a Matrix--see Discourse on the Method).  But it's not nearly mined out as a thought provoking starting point.  Brandon Sanderson's Perfect State is a fine entry of this archetype, and a Hugo nominee this year. 

The protagonist inhabits a world of which he is the master.  He has friends and exciting challenges to overcome, things to learn, and pleasures to indulge in.  Even a very powerful nemesis named Melhi. All as a brain in a jar, controlled by an organization called The Wode.  His journey toward broader self-awareness--somewhat--begins when he is called by The Wode to meet with the avatar of another Liveborn (real person, as opposed to the simulated people of his world) to virtually have sex, supposedly as part of the ritual of procreation.

Sanderson goes on to begin to explore what life would mean if we were aware that all we perceived was an illusion, all triumph and suffering arranged for the benefit of our character.  His protagonist ends up wanting to go beyond those contrived spaces--but after all, at least some (inspired by Descartes and Bishop Berkeley) believe this to be true philosophically, and others technologically.

In the end, we might as well act as if it is all real.  Even if we know better.  4 stars

Monday, May 16, 2016

Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

I'm taking a break from reading Nebula-nominated novels to read some Hugo nominated stories.  I am finding them so far without the help of my favorite SF site, Free SF Online.  The moderator may possibly have given up on the Hugos, since there is some evidence of gaming and slate voting again this year, though not as much.

I'm finding less of the fiction available free online, and much more on Amazon as stand alone short stories.  My library buys some of these, and Alastair Reynolds' novella Slow Bullets is one

Our protagonist is Scur, a soldier in a war coming to a close.  The novel starts with her capture by a noted war criminal, Orvin, who sets up to torture her using a Slow Bullet.  These are normally used to permanently store personal information about a soldier.  Physically they are bullets, with ability to propel themselves into the chest for permanent storage.  Orvin's is modified to torture.

Scur survives the torture but is swept up on a ship taking the last combatants, and others just in the way, to a prison planet.  They get there, but a breakdown in their drive has them arriving five thousand years late, with civilization apparently dead.  The story from there concerns the society they build with their damaged ship and mostly criminal passengers.

You have to work a little to accept the premise, it seems slightly awkward, but if you do the story works well.  Scur is blunt in storytelling, so the story is nice and punchy.  It's not flashy at all but it's worth the time to read and enjoy.  I give it 3 stars.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

It was no surprise that Ancillary Mercy, third book in the Imperial Radch series, got a Nebula nomination.  I had very much enjoyed Ancillary Justice and thought Ancillary Sword was even better.  So I was really looking forward to this one.

It didn't disappoint, but I'd say the series came down from its peak.  In the first novel we had distributed consciousness.  In the second, that consciousness is truncated and the protagonist is forced to go deeper within.  The third sticks with that perspective, and the story plays out.

Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai was sent to Athoek station by one faction of Anaander Mianaai, the dictator of the Radch for 3000 years.  She is now acting independently of all the factions, and is concerning herself mostly with saving the citizens of Athoek.  They are a challenging group, but in the end are pretty ordinary human beings.  The book spends a lot of time on them, to not as great an effect as might be hoped.  The fleet captain is now living openly as an ancillary, formerly part of the ship Justice of Toren.  Eventually she has to confront the splintered dictator, which she does very deftly.  We learn a lot about the emotional states of all involved, even though the common soldiers are somewhat anonymized by their military names--decade and rank within (Bo two, Amaat one, etc).  Thrown into the mix are the much more advanced and totally inscrutable Presger.  The comic relief from the current Translator (the previous one was killed in a misunderstanding) is very welcome.

The book's continued strength is the description of powerful emotions, love, and even sex without gender being a factor.  That got the last installment four stars.

In the end, I can only give this one three.  The story is reasonably interesting but doesn't break much new ground.  The ending is a logical one.  I have noted throughout that the human crews are mostly depicted doing relatively menial tasks--cleaning, providing service, but mostly making tea.  The Ship and Station do the heavy lifting.  This makes the ending logically sensible. 

In sum, we have a series that is highly enjoyable and very much worth reading,  We have some fairly standard tropes--civilization has stayed remarkably stable and unchanging for several thousand years.  At least we have a potential explanation, in that we have near-immortal dictators and AIs that would value stability.  But the speculation on gender is very much worth reading, and yes, it's worthy of awards.  A good read and a good contribution.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin is one of my favorite authors to see in my reading queue.  I really enjoyed the Inheritance Trilogy and have just read the first in her new series, The Broken Earth.

The book has a protagonist running through three narrative sequences, but the main character underlying it all is the Broken Earth itself.  The people call it The Stillness, ironically because it isn't still at all.  It's highly seismically active, regularly spawning world-spanning disasters called Seasons. 

Our nominal protagonist is an orogene, or more vulgarly a "rogga"--a person who can control, or cause, seismic events and much more.  Sort of advanced telekinesis.  In the current dominant society, Sanze, orogenes are treated as close to subhuman, controlled as closely as possible without killing them.  Their talents are too valuable to waste.

The initial event of the book is a violent start to a Season that the orogenes know will last far longer than any season has in the past--over a thousand years in which no crops can be grown.  This is on the minds of the orogenes but no one is really grappling directly with this in the first volume.  And it appears to be caused by a powerful orogene.

This is a wonderfully written book, easy to recommend and enjoy.  The parallels to The Killing Moon (First novel in the Dreamblood series) are pretty obvious--we have a caste of people with magical powers that are highly valuable and can easily get out of hand.  I never did get around to reading the rest of that series as it garnered no more awards.  Dreamblood's "vampires" are valued by one society, and completely renounced by another.  Orogenes are similarly feared in The Broken Earth.

I give this one four stars, with hope that the series will go in an interesting creative direction.  I can see greatness from where this book is, so it would be kind of sad for Jemisin to get to the level of Pretty Darn Good and stop.