Monday, January 16, 2017

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Having finished all the books and stories I could find related to the 2015 Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, I branched out to the Locus awards.  Lots of fine material there.  I settled on novel nominee Karen Memory because it was available as an e-book from my local library and I have enjoyed many Elizabeth Bear novels.

Karen Memery is a "seamstress" in Rapid City, somewhere along the West Coast during the Gold Rush.  The seamstressing is done on her back.  She has the good fortune to work for Madame Damnable, an extraordinarily tough and fair madame who is well connected in Rapid City politics.  The setting is Gold Rush steampunk--we have mostly horsepower for getting around, but electricity, dirigibles and advanced engineering are readily available.  A Mad Scientist license in Rapid City costs about the same as one for being a seamstress.

Things get rough when Peter Bantle, a nasty local pimp, gets higher ambitions and decides to run for mayor with outside money and a steampunk mind control device.  He is also harboring a serial murderer of white streetwalkers that brings Bass Reeves, a black US Marshal, to town.

The story is basically a good one.  We have romance (lesbian--almost feels required), adventure, strong women and strong men.  Bear is a good writer and brings it together well.  But there are a lot of problems that detract from enjoyment. 

Most steampunk novels, and lots of alternate history novels, are based around a speculation about the effects of a technological advance that takes place several decades ahead of time, like flight, electricity or computing.  The story then flows from the logical consequences of that advance.  But Bear is not a steampunk author--she writes fantasy.  That seems to show here, since the steampunk advances feel random and don't coherently drive change.  We have dirigibles, "surgery machines" that somehow harness analog power to do advanced medical care, and sewing machines that are operated from the inside like a tank (literally so later).  And a mind control device that acts through a focusing device at a distance, like some sort of early Bluetooth.

The title character's name is after a friend of the author's.  She alludes to the name pun early on but doesn't do anything with it. Karen has memories, but she does not exemplify or otherwise interact significantly with Memory in the book.

Karen speaks in rural dialect, which I find kind of distracting. 

All in all this feels like a book that didn't come together nearly as well as it could have.  The afterword describes her research and adds a lot to the enjoyment, which is why in the end I will give it 3 stars.  Possibly a stretch to consider it for an award.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Please Report Any Changes, by Scott Marengo

The last of my Wired Science Fiction issue reviews.  Please Report Any Changes is just a sad one, really from any time, about those who share their lives to alleviate their loneliness.  The narrator is part of a Belsen family, one whose every activity is monitored for a ratings service.  He's proud of it and his social life consists of relating to the technician assigned to his account.  But when his wife moves out he doesn't report the change, and eventually the service isn't interested in him anymore.  All the Lonely People.  It's sad but not terribly enlightening, though it is decently written.  In the end I can't give it more than 2 stars. 

The L7 Gene, by Jeanne Thornton

Another from the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  The L7 Gene ponders the ethics of cloning and gene manipulation in a way close to, but not the same as, the many other stories I've read on this topic.  I've read plenty, fictional and non, on designer babies.  But what if you could clone your existing, "imperfect" child and correct the mistakes?  The story explores a specific case, one where it is possible to correct the sex selection issue that produces transgender females.  There's some understandable resentment.  And what does the clone do?  Not quite groundbreaking but very current and very well done.  3 stars

Life On Garbage Island, by Ben Lasman

Another good one from the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  Life on Garbage Island describes a new landmass made from the various garbage vortexes in the Atlantic.  A place where people go to start over.  It has a great quote--"Life out here was a big adjustment from Brooklyn. Everything about it was so much nicer."  The protagonist, Francis, struggles to get by on a variety of gigs, noting that many on the island seem to somehow be independently wealthy.  He soldiers on and hooks up with a fellow garbage denizen for a trash romance.  There's a lot Lasman has to say here, the very idea of living off others' garbage is one that gives plenty of room to roam.  I say 3 stars.

The Great Dying, by Lydia Millet

Continuing the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  The Great Dying is probably the darkest of the issue's stories.  Basically about the end of the world due to climate change.  The protagonist is a teenager, not yet 18, whose parents have paid for a service to commit suicide.  They grew up in our time, when we could drive cars, eat meat, and other such extravagances.  The earth is in its last acceleration to full-on climate change, and they just can't face it.  The teens are understandably bitter, that the people who helped to bring this on aren't going to stick around for the hard part.

It's well written but a tough read if you think this is pretty close to the outcome we're going to have.  I don't quite think it will be that bad, but there's certainly a pretty good possibility of it.  3 stars for effective sadness.

The Current Entertainments, by Glen David Gold

Another from the Wired Science Fiction issue.  The Current Entertainments is told as a review of a "verite", Lemoin's Assaut Sur L'Univers.  It's very well done, with lots of good literary references--reads like a real, culturally aware review.  I would aspire to write those at some point, I don't do much of it here.  But the story is very much worth reading, it is deep and complex and makes you think.  3 stars

A., by Etgar Keret

More from the Wired Science Fiction issue, and I'd say this is one of my favorites.  Might be an award nominee this year.  Stories with single letter titles are kind of a grabber, so A. was interesting right away.  The story is as artsy as one would expect from such a title, but not more so--it was readable.  A. is some manner of artificial person, and the story of his upbringing and end is absolutely fascinating.  He and his fellows seem to age prematurely, and at the start that looks like the story's technical gimmick.  But it's not.  Can't say much more without spoiling it, so go read it.  4 stars.

First, by John Rogers

More from the Wired Science Fiction Issue.  First is a straight-up exploration story, well written with a fine ending.  The protagonist is a Mars explorer looking for the remains of the First Martian.  The author manages to personalize him in a very short stretch.  Recommended.  3 stars.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Hunger After You're Fed, by James S. A. Corey

One of the better ones in the Wired Science Fiction issue.  The Hunger After You're Fed tells the story of a man searching for a mysterious author, one Hector Prima.  This is not a society of want--everyone seems to have a basic income.  The problem then is purpose.  The protagonist suffers from purpose issue--this seeking of Hector Prima makes him doubt himself.  The town he visits suffers as well, with its denizens looking to get more appreciation than their neighbors, by sharing food they make.  Doesn't seem so bad.  The story is reflective and sad, pulling you along.  I enjoyed it.  3 stars.

I have read James S. A. Corey before, but that book was much more of an adventure.  This is more of a reflective story.  I also did not know that the author is actually a husband and wife team. 

Know Your Enemy, by Matt Gallagher

More from the Wired Magazine Science Fiction issue.  Know Your Enemy is a tribute to Haldeman's The Forever War, and rings very true.  It's set in the future but that's not particularly important--the point is the relationship of war veterans to the rest of society.  We are in a period where we glorify military service beyond measure, partly to make up for the guilt of putting the soldiers in harm's way.  The protagonist in the story, a female Marine, reflects on this and many other things about being a disabled vet.  It's a good story, solidly written and allows drawing your own conclusions.  I give it 3 stars.

Hold Dear the Lamp Light, by Jay Dayrit

Continuing the Wired Magazine Science Fiction Issue: Hold Dear the Lamplight is one of several dystopian stories in the collection.  We see a picture of society failing, rather gracefully actually, through the story of the loss of a community's power plant.  In the story it's climate change taking the plant away, but this could be in any war torn disorderly country in the Middle East or Africa.  The family learns to make do.  It's sort of made to sound tragic but isn't.  Anyway, it's OK, 2 stars.

Stochastic Fancy, by Charlie Jane Anders

Continuing my review series on the Wired Magazine Science Fiction issue.  Stochastic Fancy has our protagonist sitting in a bar, answering polling questions into her KloudScape, which seems like a fancier and more immersive phone interface.  Her thing about incessant opinion polling is pretty on target.  In the story the polling is used as a real-time matchmaker.  Works so-so.  Story OK but forgettable.  2 stars.

The Black Box, by Malka Older

Another from the Wired Science Fiction issue.  The Black Box shares an element with the previously reviewed story Subtext, in that the technology it features is capable of recording and playing back your personal experiences.  The author illustrates how such an outsourced, potentially publicly available memory would shape a person's life.  It's kind of true to life in that it doesn't upend everything, the world is still recognizable.  It's fine, but not amazing.  2 stars from me.

Subtext: It Knows What You're Thinking, by Charles Yu

Another entry from the Wired Science Fiction Issue, Subtext is a literal stream of consciousness, as transcribed and possibly helpfully edited by the app.  Not much different than a raw first-person narrative, which is something of a staple in many fiction genres.  I guess the idea is that we're getting close to making it real.  I suppose we are.  2 stars.

The Evaluators, by N. K. Jemisin

Wired Magazine's January issue consists of 15 science fiction stories they commissioned to allow us to "approach reality a little more obliquely".  SF has always been the best way to tell truths about the future that mere prediction can't manage, and more importantly to tell truths about the present that are impossible to express directly. 

Most of the stories are freely available on their website, so I'll start with N. K. Jemisin's The Evaluators.  She tells the story of humans contacting an alien species through their correspondence. The story has the same driver as John Campbell's classic Who Goes There? (Link courtesy of Free SF Online)  A super powerful, adaptive predator threatens to subvert the species.  What Jemisin does with the predator's origin is what makes the story worth reading.  3 stars

The Owl Keeper, by Christine Brodien-Jones

My daughter asked me to read this book, and had a copy of it for herself--it's kind of stretching to say that it was free since I paid for it, but I'll count getting a second read out of it.

The Owl Keeper is aimed at the younger end of the YA set.  The protagonist Maxwell Unger thinks of himself as a sickly boy, kept at home by a nasty guardian who rules the household, including his weak parents.  Turns out she has influence far outside the household, and he's not so sickly.  He and a fierce girl (Artemis Rose) go out in search of the Owl Keeper to rescue their people from the Absolute Dark and the High Echelon.

What I liked best about this book was the very full and complex character of Artemis.  She is strong and impetuous in the extreme, being fully herself but needing Max to provide calm and make good decisions.  She made what was otherwise a much too youthful book for me a fun read. 

I can recommend this for 10-12 year olds with 3 stars.