Archive for May, 2009

Interzone 222

Posted in magazines, sf on May 29, 2009 by Matt

Interzone provides another strong issue this month, but I didn’t detect any particular themes, so I’ll just take the stories one by one:

First is “Johnny and Emmie-Lou Get Married”, by Kim Lakin-Smith. This is a decent atmospheric piece with 50’s-style hotrodder gangs duking it out in the streets. Billy, a “Fly”, and Emmie-Lou, a “Rocketeer”, have fallen in love and have to make it to the church without getting stopped by either of their gangs. Its not obvious why this story should be set in the future (with steam-powered cars) instead of just done as a historic piece, but the retro-future-retro atmosphere is fun just the same.

Tim Pratt’s “Unexpected Outcomes” is a story that asks, “what if the whole world was just a simulation being run in a giant computer?” The story starts out with a situation that has bugged me in this kind of story going back to Greg Egan’s Permutation City. The world is revealed as a simulation at the moment of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., with the explanation that life to that point has been a computer simulation undertaken as part of a “historical and sociological study”, which is “peopled by all the same individuals who lived in the real history, doing all the same things their original counterparts did.” This explanation fails for me, because the whole nature of a simulation is to extrapolate from some initial conditions to predict an unknown final state or conditions. If the final state is known when you start, what you’re doing is no longer a simulation; at most its just a calculation. Luckily Pratt’s story sidesteps this objection nicely with a somewhat unexpected plot twist.

“Lady of the White-Spired City”, by Sarah L. Edwards, is a fantasy story in science fiction clothing. That is, the tone and atmosphere are decidedly fantasy, though science fiction props decorate the stage. The story is about a powerful wizard (space traveler) from the great city (home planet) who visits a backwards village (on a remote planet). The long-lived (because of relativistic space travel) wizard, it turns out, has been here before, and is seeking traces of her earlier visit. The characters and story are well-developed, and fully engaging, so that the story succeeds as fantasy, which is good enough for me.

Nina Allan’s “Microcosmos” is about family secrets, as they are seen by (or hidden from) children. Once again, science fiction elements, in the form of a desert environment apparently caused by global warming, are atmospheric rather than central to the story. The story really revolves around a young girl confronted with an old family conflict between her parents and another man. The personalities are all well-drawn, making this an excellent story. But somehow I feel I might have missed an even better story because I never did work out what the actual secret was.

“Ys” by Aliette de Bodard is about the conjuration of ancient gods, and its consequences. The writing is engaging, and de Bodard takes advantage of her French background to develop a setting both exotic and believable.

Finally, “Mother of Champions”, by Sean McMullen, is a speculation on animal psychology and possible secrets in the history of cheetahs. Its an enjoyable read, though the tone had me at first expecting a much more substantial story than actually developed.

Asimov’s, July 2009

Posted in magazines, sf on May 21, 2009 by Matt

This month’s Asimov’s featured three really strong stories by R. Garcia y Robertson, Ian McHugh, and Sara Genge. Stories by Michael Cassutt and Stephen Baxter were entertaining but not outstanding. The one remaining story in, by Kit Reed, really failed for me as I couldn’t work out what the author was trying to do with it. Let’s take them in order:

“The Last Apostle”, by Michael Cassutt, imagines that NASA’s Apollo astronauts might have found something really unusual on the moon, and where that might lead in the next few decades. For NASA buffs there’s probably a lot of interest in picking out the historical figures behind the characters here, as much of the story is spent developing the personalities of 12 (presumably lightly) fictionalized astronauts. In particular, the story centers on an astronaut who spent his career as the supporting character behind a more prominent lead pilot, making an interesting character study. Unfortunately, the tone of the piece leans largely toward the kind of hero worship we expect from 40-year old NASA promotional material, and the stronger parts of the story never reached past that to really capture my attention.

Next up, Kit Reed‘s “Camp Nowhere” is even more challenging. Its hard to tell what the author is going for here. It might be a polemic against psychiatry. It might be invective against people who think that wealth can replace human relationships. But its hard to figure out because the main character, Chazz, a teen who’s dragged to a therapy retreat summer camp by his parents, keeps moving from situation to situation, either through her own actions or forced by others, without any believable narrative motivation. One source of my difficulty might be that Chazz’s gender isn’t explicitly revealed until late in the story, but the tone of the first-person narration had led me to conceptualize him as a girl rather than a boy. Even after he’s finally referred to by a third person pronoun, I continued to think of him as a girl, and this made some of his personality unbelievable, and his relationship with a middle-aged male camper somewhat creepy.

R. Garcia y Robertson’s “SinBad the Sand Sailor”, though, starts to turn the magazine around after two stories that I couldn’t really get in to. SinBad is a smuggler on a Mars-like world called Barsoom. Threatened by his gangster employers, slave hunters, flying men, and genetically engineered “greenies” who hold the real power on Barsoom, SinBad and the beautiful “air hostess” escapee of the airships he rescues early on, are driven from encounter to encounter with various Barsoom figures. Along with the planet’s name, we have various colors of Barsoomians, and a “Skylark” class of spaceship to fill in the homage to the golden age. Lots of fun, and a well done adventure story in Golden Age style.

“Sleepless in the House of Ye”, by Ian McHugh, has a simple plot that enables a deep exploration of a truly alien culture. The females of the House of Ye are the aliens, preparing for a winter sleep from which they’ll never awake, though their spawn will swim away from their bodies in the spring floods and complete the circle of life. A crisis in this nursery setting brings out various implications of the imaginatively developed biology of Ye, and also shows the dramatic potential of these incredibly unhuman people.

Sara Genge‘s “Shoes to Run” presents another well-developed alien society, this time here on Earth, in the shadow of a future Paris, in fact. Here, environmental disaster has made it impossible for European natives to survive in the open, and even the ethnic Africans who lived in the Paris suburbs required genetic modification for protection from the elements and radiation. Among the descendents of these former immigrants, we meet Shai-Shai, a boy on the brink of manhood, but born in a girl’s body. From this, Genge develops a strong human story about Shai-Shai’s struggle to be accepted as a hunter, and of the survival of humanity by a return to its earliest customs.

The magazine wraps up with “Earth II”, by Steven Baxter. This story is apparently tied to Baxter’s recent novels, though it stands up fairly well for itself and its not obvious if the characters we see here appear in those books or not. Xaia Windru is the commander of an armada of sailing ships on a mission of conquest. Driven onward by her ambition, and not anxious to return to a less authoritative role at home, she leads her crew to the unpopulated ends of the planet searching for secrets of the Founder colonists of Earth II and of the planet’s previous inhabitants. Throughout the story I was vaguely bothered by the character’s description of the features of Earth II by comparison with the original Earth, generations in their path. In the end, this anomaly is revealed to have been a deliberate plot point all along, but perhaps it was laid on a bit too thick. While this is a decent read, there weren’t really enough new ideas behind it to justify the 33-page novella length given to it.

Iain M. Banks, Matter

Posted in books, sf on May 10, 2009 by Matt

There’s something about Iain M. Banks; I enjoy every minute of reading his stuff, but afterwards I remember almost nothing. What happened in The Player of Games or Use of Weapons? I can’t recall anything except that there was some kind of hypercomplicated Dragon-poker style gambling sequence in the first. I suspect that both books ended with a big shoot-out and most of the main characters died.

Matter is true to form. We start with a feat of mega-engineering, in this case a shell world, which is a super-sized habitat consisting of nine concentric spheres, providing nine separate environments for various wildly conceived alien species. One two of these spheres we have some basically human semi-primitive people, just entering the steam age and fighting each other with swords and blunderbusses.

Sarl, one of the two nations fighting each other, had years ago sent a princess off to the Culture, where she’s become a Special Circumstances agent, and one of our protagonists. When the heroic if brutal king of Sarl is killed in nefarious circumstances his eldest son secretly witnesses the event. A dissipated sort, and himself recognizing he’s not fit to rule, Prince Ferbin strikes out into the galaxy in search of his sister. Meanwhile the bookish youngest prince, Oramen, is left in line to the throne, but can’t actually inherit until he comes of age.

One of the few things that annoyed me about the book is the title given to Oramen, “Prince Regent”. In our world, this term means a prince who is also regent for an incapacitated king. That is, for someone whose power exceeds his inherited position. Here, its used to mean a prince who is in line to inherit but hasn’t yet; meaning someone with less power than their inheritance implies. It’s a niggle, but still distracting.

As the plot unfolds, we tour briefly through the nine shells of the shell world, visit the Culture’s neighboring galactic scale society, the Morthanveld, learn about some Senile species, and meet one of the Culture’s more eccentric Ships.

In a Banks book, its not a spoiler to tell you it all ends in a shoot-out and most of the main characters die.

Like a drug that directly stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, every word is enjoyable. But I don’t expect to remember everything that happened when I wake up in the morning.