Archive for April, 2009

The New Space Opera

Posted in sf, short story collections on April 29, 2009 by Matt

Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, The New Space Opera is a collection meant to examine the most recent re-invention of the sub-genre. One thing that’s clear is these stories were mostly written to exemplify an existing style of SF, and they don’t necessarily break a lot of new ground. One way they do reach for new territory is in postulating some really outlandish means of interstellar travel, including to some really inventive concepts. This is a hefty collection, and it took a while to read, so some of this is from fading memories, but here we go:

The book launches with “Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones, a diplomatic drama, in which a splinter of human culture, proposed for reintegration with galactic society, turns out to have developed some disturbing customs. It’s an interesting reflection on how we have to deal with less dramatic cultural differences on Earth today, and a strong start to the collection.

In Ian McDonald‘s “Verthandi’s Ring”, we meet the three-clone crew of an intergalactic battleship, returning from a monumental war. This story, covering events of epic scope, might easily have become dry and encyclopedic, but never does. Instead, a surreal tone brings together the galaxy-spanning war and the personal conflicts of the three protagonists, and also keeps the reader continuously feeling they’re just one revelation away from understanding the milieu and the story.

In “Glory”, by Greg Egan, a pair of mathematical archaeologists travel between stars to investigate the mathematical theories of a vanished race, but they discover that math may have influenced the dead culture profoundly. The highlight is a description of interplanetary travel mechanics more involved than anything I can remember, but that’s only stage-setting. The story of Anne and Joan and the successor civilization to the vanished mathematicians on planet Noudah is also compelling, and well worth the reading.

“Maelstrom” by Kage Baker is a “jus’ folks” story from Mars, where a rich eccentric and a band of misfits and outcasts are setting up the first theatre. They hire a couple of B-list (or C-list) actors from London, build a temple of drama, and away they go. Good fun if you’re in the mood, maybe a little too cute otherwise.

Peter F. Hamilton‘s “Touched by an Angel” revolves around a young woman on a visit to a new lover. It turns out the lover is actually an evolved human, or “Higher”, attempting to spread his genes through the standard human population. He, and his genetic trail, are pursued by authorities using memory extraction technology. The story is something of a throwback, relying on a Nivenesque oversight by its main characters to work. It’s still a good read, but might belong more to the “old” space opera than the New Space Opera.

“Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken McLeod is a parody of a Heinlein super-man story. McLeod is as outspokenly socialist as Heinlein was libertarian, so its not hard to see where the parody is coming from. The hero starts out literally naked and running from the law, and ends up … in much better circumstances. There are even what look like (though I can’t nail them down exactly) references to Heinlein’s future history of lunar rebellion. Or maybe even democratic socialists sometimes fantasize about poking a stick in the eye of government and going off to start their own totalitarian galactic empires.

“The Valley of the Gardens” by Tony Daniel begins with a farmer whose lush land borders a desert wilderness, then flashes back to the cosmic war that created the desert. The war was waged against invaders across the boundary from a neighboring universe, making a nice thematic connection on the idea of borders. Numerous New Space Opera tropes are packed in, including pervasive computation (throughout the soil of the planet itself) and uploaded or reproduced personalities; and a few new twists, such as a pair of soldiers psychically joined by “quantum entanglement”. The story corrals all these themes and ideas nicely, making a fine read.

In “Minla’s Flowers”, by Alastair Reynolds, a one-man starship is marooned on a backwards planet. The pilot lets himself get caught up in local affairs, with disastrous consequences. Like a few other stories here, this one seems to deliberately reach back to old space opera tropes, as the natives have just reached the leather jackets and goggles era of aerial warfare, bringing to some fantastic ’30’s styling to the setting. “Minla’s Flowers” also stands out as one of the darkest stories in the collection.

“The Emperor and the Maula”, by Robert Silverberg is the 1001 Nights re-set in the court of an interstellar emperor. Despite the well-known source material, it’s very entertaining. The ending is surprising mostly for how much is never explained.

Walter Jon Williams‘ “Send them Flowers” opens with a pair of ne’er-do-well starhoppers on the run from authority in the form a family-run megacorporation. At their next port of call, they get involved with a second powerful family, avoid a double-cross on a shady local cargo run, and eventually work out the real reason their pursuers are after them. Again there’s some clever tricks employed to justify interstellar travel. But the heart of the story turns out to be the personalities and relationships of the two roguish spacefarers. A really excellent story.

“Art of War” by Nancy Kress takes off on the work of Allied soldiers who had to catalog and repatriate the Nazi’s looted art treasures after World War II, putting her protagonist in charge of a similar operation in relation to a defeated alien menace, and adds a strong story of interpersonal conflict as the academic art curator protagonist must contend with his military hero mother commanding the operation. The story is somewhat weakened by the overly one-sided depiction of the mother, and overly handicapped son, but still carries real drama and kept me engaged.

The final story, Dan Simmons‘s “Muse of Fire”, is the highlight of the collection. It starts out with a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors visiting the various outposts of humanity, enslaved by more powerful alien powers and working hopelessly as brute labor on bleak and uninviting planets. Although there’s an element of homage to the Bard’s plays, and some reworking of old ideas, as in Baker’s and Silverberg’s pieces, Simmons takes us well beyond the usual territory for stories of life in space reflecting the life we know. This is a well-chosen finale for an overall well-chose book of tales.

Joe Haldeman, Infinite Dreams

Posted in sf, short story collections on April 18, 2009 by Matt

Infinite Dreams is a collection of 13 of Joe Haldeman’s stories from 1972 to 1978. In these stories, Haldeman shows that a traditional style of sf survived, and continued to produce new ideas, alongside the New Wave. He also shows that the Heinleinesque authorial voice is not intimately tied to libertarian politics. Haldeman’s politics, where they show, are clearly coming from the relative left, and debating what was the mainstream of the genre without trying to overturn the genre’s literary conventions. I won’t give a detailed review of each story, but I will say that this collection is a fine showcase for one of science fiction’s top writers.

F&SF, April/May 2009

Posted in magazines, sf on April 14, 2009 by Matt

On the second try the US Post Office managed to deliver the first of the new bimonthly format F&SF. For two months I’ve had to watch the forum at SFSite discussing the issue without knowing what they’re talking about.

This issue is fantasy-dominated, with four, mostly short, science fiction stories and five, generally longer and stronger, fantasy stories. There seems to be a connecting theme of returning to youth, which might be unintentional given the thematic stories span the whole mag but the decision to combine the April and May issues appears to have been made, or at least confirmed, only at near the last minute.

First up is “The Spiral Briar” by Sean McMullen. A determined band build a steam-powered self-propelled boat to cross over to Faerie and take revenge on the elves who have wronged them. One point seems to be that science defeats magic. But juxtaposing the descriptions of engineered devices with magical ones clearly shows that the kind of magic portrayed here is just mumbo-jumbo powered engineering. For example, the portal between worlds must be located “where boundaries exist on both sides”, and the boat can defeat the elves because it “combines all four elements”, fire, earth, air, and water. In the end, the victory of humanity over Faerie is explained in terms of revolutionary social rhetoric rather than science vs. magic, but this seems tacked-on. An okay read, but only a shallow exploration of the ideas at hand.

The next story is “The Brave Little Toaster, a Bedtime Story for Small Appliances” by Thomas M. Disch. I’m not sure if this is included as part of the ongoing series of reprints from each of the magazine’s former editors, or if its a special memorial to the recent passing of Tom Disch. This story pushes the reader back into a child’s mindset with a fairy tale narrative about the adventures of the titular toaster and three electrical companions searching for their missing master. With all the discussion of Disch’s suicide in the back of my mind, I got it into my mind to expect a dark mood and kept trying to find bitter satire behind the whimsical story, which I don’t think did the story any good.

Jack Skillingstead’s “The Avenger of Love” is a present-day story about a late-middle-age man whose memories are being, literally, stolen by an unknown force. Pursuing the thief, he steps out of reality into a fantasy world where he has to reclaim his childhood belief in heroism, and restore the love which has been mostly absent from his life. Written as an homage to Harlan Ellison, the story is peppered with gritty, noirish Ellisonian asides, and blends fantasy with dirty reality, effectively achieving its goals.

“‘A Wild and Wicked Youth'”, by Ellen Kushner, explores the early days of a character who it seems we’re supposed to be familiar with from Kushner’s novels. Richard St. Vier is growing up as a hanger-about in the castle village of a wealthy country lord. When an aging and drunkard swordsman comes to the village Richard gets the opportunity to learn a craft for which he shows instant aptitude. The more central story, though, is that Richard is also the best friend and companion of the lord’s heir. This is a well-written fantasy, written in a straightforward, modernised style. More importantly, and especially unusual for a short piece giving backstory to an established novel, there’s a real plot here, making it interesting even for readers who aren’t already attached to the characters.

S. L. Gilbow’s “Adreanna” gives us the internal dialog of a robot who’s had her emotional capabilities upgraded one too many times, leading her to, as far as we can tell, attempt suicide. Adreanna gets only piecemeal views of what’s going on around her as her owners and then her designer attempt repairs, and this builds up the mystery of how and why she came to the point of falling (or jumping) off a high observation platform. Although robots-developing-personality stories are widespread (for example, Eric Brown’s “Cold Testing” in last month’s Asimov’s was well-written but ultimately trivial) the careful characterization and slowly-developed pathos of “Adreanna” makes it a cut above, and well worth reading.

“Stratosphere”, by Henry Garfield, is a well-written throwback story, giving a nostalgic reinvention of everyday life on the moon, in this case the telling of a baseball tall tale.

The second retrospective story in this issue is “Sea Wrack”, by Edward Jesby, which originally appeared in the ’60’s. A genetically (or otherwise) modified underwater-living “seaman” is washed ashore on the island vacation ground of wealthy land-dwellers. The releationships among the “lubber” aristocrats date the story. As well, the central question, of when society becomes so decadent that it might be overthrown by a more primitive one, has also lost some of the immediacy it might have had in the days when the old European empires, and especially the British Empire, were in their final years of collapse. Even so, the narrative is carefully written, the characters are believable if not contemporary, and the secrets of the underwater culture are revealed slowly enough to keep me hooked. The dated narrational point of view only adds to the sense of foreigness of the future world. An excellent choice for the magazine.

Deborah J. Ross‘ “The Price of Silence” is a nice piece of space opera. The highlight is an interesting conception of the social structure that might develop on an isolated space vessel. The plot is nothing special: the story is in the human relationships.

Finally, “One Bright Star to Guide Them”, by John C. Wright, returns to the theme of childhood regained. Middle-aged businessman Thomas was once Tommy, one of four children who had magical adventures in a fantasy world, reminiscent of (or an outright pastiche of) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Now fairyland evils are threatening the real world and Thomas must try to regroup his old companions to defeat them; which of course is no longer possible. The story is fun to read, but I quickly started skippping over long mood-setting digressions on the old adventures with the “ships of Lemmergeier” and “Gloomshadow Forest”, and the eventual resolution was not excessively predictable, but not particularly novel, either.

So, indeed, the new format does pack a lot of stories between two covers. The stories ranged from good to excellent, with the fantasy being somewhat stronger than the science fiction. And my favorite reprint turned out not to be the one everyone’s been talking about (though Suite 101 agreed with me).

Asimov’s, June 2009

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , on April 7, 2009 by Matt

This month’s Asimov’s arrived while I was still waiting for F&SF‘s May/June number, supposedly mailed over a month ago. Apparently the new format at F&SF is not working out well with the post office. Moving on to the subject at hand, this month’s Asimov’s is good across the board, but no story really steps up to the next level.

If there is a highlight in the issue, it’s James Patrick Kelly‘s “Going Deep”. This is apparently Kelly’s 25th successive year appearing in the June issue of Asimov’s, an event that occasions a column from editor Sheila Williams and a collection of reflections on Kelly’s writing and character from other prominent authors. “Going Deep” is a story about a teen who was born, in fact cloned, for a particular purpose, and now on the verge of adulthood she has to face her destiny, and also the return of her mother, who’s been away on a long space journey since the girl’s infancy. In my last post I was a bit worried I was too hard on John Scalzi for his portrayal of a young female character in Zoe’s War. Along with its other merits, this Kelly piece shows how much more believable a young female protagonist can be.

“Controlled Experiment” by Tom Purdon sets the stage for the rest of the magazine. It’s enjoyable but not hook-line-and-sinker engaging. The question behind the story is how we might deal with extending prison sentences in a future with life-extending medical technology leading to hundred-year life spans. Our protagonists are managing an experiment in early-release involving Bud, a former “mischief” whose pranks went awry, causing two deaths years ago. Now another mischief is trying to goad the former prisoner into a new crime, for the benefit of political forces who want the prisoner-release experiment to fail. There’s a decent story here, and significant questions behind it, but somehow I never got fully invested in it. The central character of Bud remains undeveloped, and in the end the story ties up so quickly I almost wasn’t sure what happened.

Next up John Alfred Taylor’s “Bare, Forked Animal” is about a man who loses all contact with the world around him because of over-reliance in society on virtual reality overlaying the real world. It seems to be meant as a warning against excessive trust in technology, but this message has been repeated many times in sf and elsewhere over the years, and (at least I hope) it isn’t really as ignored as the author seems to think, which makes the premise seem very unlikely.

Eric Brown‘s “Cold Testing”, similarly, is a story that might have been more at home in the science fiction of 40 years ago. A spaceship captain hires a new crewmember, a new model female-formed android, and starts to become emotionally attached to “her”. It’s capably written, but doesn’t really explore any territory that hasn’t been covered in Star Trek.

“The Monsters of Morgan Island” by Sandra McDonald combines a kind of romantic mood to describe a small town society with post-modern narration, giving a new and interesting feel to the story. The ending, which solidifies a previously obscured theme of deconstructing the idea of “monsters”, makes this the most meaningful story in the magazine. Unfortunately, for me the authorial cleverness in developing the mood blunted the impact of this serious idea behind the story. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this is a much better story on the second reading than on the first.

Finally, “Sails the Morne” by Chris Willrich, after Kelly’s story, is the closest in the magazine to stepping up from good to great. The story showcases a varied cast of characters, mostly aliens, in a kind of locked-room whodunnit scenario. Spaceship Eight Ball‘s key cargo is missing and Captain Gesar “Brick” Chin, a Sino-Tibetan-Martian sometime smuggler, is trying to figure out who took it. The multi-factional future solar system, dominated by technologically advanced aliens in the Kuiper belt, appears to be well thought out. Unfortunately, I was interrupted a couple of times while reading it and had to set it down overnight, which didn’t help me to keep track of all the details needed to follow the information-dense mystery format. This is probably is why I never got fully “in” to the story.

So, again, this was a very evenly “good” issue of Asimov’s. There are no duds here. But nothing that really jumps off the page either.