Archive for July, 2009

Asimov’s, September 2009

Posted in magazines, sf on July 30, 2009 by Matt

“Away from here”, Lisa Goldstein. A young woman works in her parents’ motel, bored with the tiny town and repetitive work. When dramatic and fantastical guests, some sort of traveling performers, visit, it may be an opportunity to move on without even waiting to graduate from high school. The characters are believable, even if the setup is somewhat commonplace. The visitors turn out to be something more than just entertainers, and Goldstein presents their fantastic character with just the right amount of clarity, not giving away too much detail to dispel the fantasy, then draws the story to an extremely fine point, showing that fairy visitors might be more sinister than auspicious.

“Camera obscured”, Ferrett Steinmetz. The story is set up with a gimmick: Victor Pino is obsessed with online rankings, but doesn’t have the skill or patience to rate better than 138,212th in any of the hobbies he tries. Then he meets Rosalie, a classmate who shows him there’s more to life than competing for rankings in obscure hobbies. The technical premise, the idea that constant internet monitoring of anything could rank everything down to the 4-billionth best spaghetti in the world, is just silly. But on the other hand the characters are certainly real. Both Victor and Rosalie could easily have been drawn from fragments of certain of my high school classmates.

“Soulmates”, Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn. Gary is grieving at the death of his wife and working as a night watchment while succumbing to alcoholism, when he is befriended by a robot coworker. The presentation of artificial intelligence is utterly hackneyed, combining Asimovian obedience to humans with Star Trek-style ignorance of real life played for amusement (“Your eye is leaking, Gary”). The plot is also rather predictable. The bright spot in this story is the characterization of the protagonist, who draws out extreme pathos without, at least for me, stepping over the line into the ridiculous.

“In their garden”, Brenda Cooper. Paulette is a rebellious teen who’s been raised at the Oregon Botanical Gardens, one of the last bastions of civilization in a world disrupted by climate change. She’s run away from the gardens so many times that she’s issued an ultimatum: after the next time, she won’t be allowed to return. Last bastions of civilization and rebellious teens are certainly well-used SF tropes, but Cooper stirs them up nicely to give us something new, and the story is short enough for well-used themes to work. And in the end she delivers a resolution that I can’t recall seeing before, thought it seems like an obvious one, if only in hindsight.

“The day before the day before”, Steve Rasnic Tem. This is a carefully constructed time travel story that more-or-less works backwards in the narrators perception, from his circumstances hiding out in the woods of Colorado some years before his own birth, to the central event that led to his ditching his former responsibilities. While there’s curiously no resolution to the protagonist’s circumstance, the story nonetheless holds together well. The core of the story resolves to a well-presented and interesting philosophical dilemma.

“Tear-down”, Benjamin Crowell. Like the Resnick-Robyn piece, this one retreads fairly well-worn AI story ground, but works better because it doesn’t try to also cover heavy-weight emotional territory. The basic story is that an AI house must convince its owners not to have it demolished and replaced with a newer model. Something about the tone of this story calls to mind certain stories I remember from very early in my reading life. Maybe Damon Knight stories from the ’60s or ’70s. Possibly its the way the protagonist AI is basically struggling against the banality of the human society that will decide its fate, which could fit in thematically with some ’60s-’70s SF. Which isn’t to say the story feels dated. Its quite contemporary and it may very well be time to bring back some pointed opposition to banality in SF.

“Her heart’s desire”, Jerry Oltion. Contemporary fantasy in which our p.o.v. character is caught in the cross-fire of someone else’s wish-fulfillment. Well-played and quite clever.

“Broken windchimes”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A powerful alien race develops strange and demanding taste in human music. So strange, in fact, that the music itself becomes no longer human, though it can only be produced by human voices. This is probably my favorite Rusch story to appear since I started the blog. The premise is interesting and explored well. What’s more, the action here meshes better with the development of the speculative elements than in other recent stories such as “Diving into the wreck” or “The spires of Denon”.

Interzone 223

Posted in magazines, sf on July 26, 2009 by Matt

This was a “Dominic Green special issue” with three stories by the author, an IZ regular. Since I haven’t been reading the magazine long enough to be familiar with Green, this was a good introduction.

The first Dominic Green piece was “Butterfly bomb”. The story is about an old man living alone on a desert (in the classical sense) planet, caring for his granddaughter. Its obvious from the start that there are some secrets in his past (not to mention the graddaughter’s). There’s a couple of places at the start of the story that read like editing mistakes, but all except one turn out to have been just setting up a plot twist.

Green’s second story here, “Coat of many colours”, stays closer to home. Set in a near-future post-abundance (post-post-scarcity?) Brazil, the story revolves around the possible discovery of intelligence in a genetically engineered farm animal. Our protagonist, an Australian animal-intelligence expert, is brought in to determine whether the subject , “experiment 2308”, is actually intelligent. This leads to tension with the project managers, who are hoping for a quick verdict in favor of turning the experiment into hamburger and leather goods.

Third is “Glister”, in which we return to the space opera universe of “Butterfly bomb”. This starts out looking like a “big, dumb object” story, focussed on some unusual geography, but then morphs into a biology puzzle. The characters are prospectors who mine gold not out of the ground, but from the blood of some unusual animals. After they solve the mystery of the predatory tzee which has hunted them they return to town with a newfound source of wealth and the story morphs again; this time, into a moral tableau in which we can examine the depravity of the villagers, who don’t prospect for gold, but farm it, from the blood of the sentient native species. The story reads well, but with all those morphs I feel like I’ve just read a trainwreck of three themes that each could have driven an excellent story on its own.

Aside from the thematic confusion in “Glister”, all three of Green’s stories are engaging, clever, and enjoyable. I’ll look forward to seeing more of Dominic Green in Interzone and elsewhere.

The magazine’s next story, “The transmigration of Aishiwarya Desai”, by Eric Gregory, is set up as a story of an academic duel, set up by wealthy hosts, with winner-take-all stakes. The question is the nature of the only known extraterrestrial intelligence, the Yama, which the protagonist believes she has received unique knowledge about through some kind of clairvoyance (which she herself doesn’t understand). Her opponent, a multi-Nobel-prize-winner, argues from a purely rational point of view. Only one of them will be paid for appearing in the debate. But the debate is sidetracked when a Yama arrives in the flesh. A well-written story, but it didn’t engage me like the Dominic Green stories.

Finally, Suzanne Palmer gives us “Silence & roses”, the story of robot caretakers at an old-folks home, and their reaction when they find out their patients can’t live forever. Again a strong story, but the melancholy theme was not well-served by having to follow after the more boisterous work by Dominic Green.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, August/September 2009

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2009 by Matt

With F&SF sending out advanced copies to a dozen or so bloggers this month, and their reviews appearing as much as four weeks ago, it felt like a long wait to get my copy in the mail. But at least it did arrive eventually, which the last two issues never did.

“The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen, starts out with a mysterious 2-mile-long dragon eating the world’s art treasures, but the central plot is actually about our reaction to the invincible dragon. The writing is well-executed, and the plot moves along briskly. The predisposition in politics to treat every catastrophic event as a vindication of one’s own prior beliefs is well-captured, though perhaps without subtlety. A good read.

Nancy Springer’s “You are Such a One” invites comparison with the work of F&SF regular Carol Emshwiller with its take on the theme of the invisible middle-aged woman. Springer is much more explicit than Emshwiller usually is, with the central idea here being that the central character (“you”, in the second person) can be literally a ghost without realizing it. With smooth and careful writing, Springer makes this idea feel new, even if this is surely not the world’s first-ever ghost-who-doesn’t-know-it story.

“A Token of a Better Age”, by Melinda M. Snodgrass, is a story told between condemned men before a gladiatorial execution in a slightly alt-history Rome. Other than a few clunky parts where developing an anti-religious theme is allowed to break the flow of the story, a nicely written piece. A classic SF twist at the end is well set-up, and makes a satisfying conclusion, without the whole story having been just a setup for the twist.

“Hunchster” gives us a chance to see Matthew Hughes doing something other than his usual excellent take on Vancian beyond-the-far-future science fantasy. And it shows that Hughes is not a one-sided author. This contemporary science fiction story is enjoyable and engaging, in a classic mold, with a theme of “unintended consequences”.

The first of this issue’s retrospective stories, selected by Gordon van Gelder, is Tina Kuzminski’s “The Goddamned Tooth Fairy”, first published in 2000. This is contemporary fantasy at its best. The characters are believable and sympathetic, and the fantastic elements are just enough that you know its fantasy, without making the central story about human interaction irrelevant.

“The Bones of Giants”, by Yoon Ha Lee, is competent, but somewhat “off the rack” fantasy. The setting, a region dominated by a necromancer overlord, has its novelty, but the story has occasional lapses. One character, Sakera, has a tremor that affects her ability to do magic, whose origin is never revealed, even when other revelations suggest it should be. In another case, the key fact to solve a puzzle (“A necromancer can only raise people who died during his lifetime”) is only revealed at the point of solving the puzzle, leaving the reader no opportunity to solve the puzzle himself. On the other hand, this story could very well be the germ of a good novel, by a writer who should be at least that ambitious, given the quality of her recent work.

“Icarus Saved from the Skies”, by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud (translated by Edward Gauvin) is something I probably shouldn’t review without going back and rereading The Metamorphosis first. The protagonist is growing wings from his shoulders, much to his own disgust, but his lover persues him mostly out of attraction for his wings. The somewhat stiff language of translation serves the story well, lending an otherworldly atmosphere to the story.

Lawrence C. Connolly‘s “The Others” is an interesting story about planetary exploration by a team of, … well, call them clones, though they’re actually produced by replication in something like a Star Trek transporter. The focus is on the substantial personality differences between the various copies of Cara. All are ambitious, and none of them really want to “retire”, as mission protocols demand. One flaw is the idea that anyone, clone, copy or whatever, would be expected to accept “retirement” as a matter of course, which strikes me as seriously unrealistic, even if it is a widely used assumption in SF. On the other hand, the idea is well-developed, with the personality variations between the copies being carefully set out.

“Three Leaves of Aloe”, by Rand B. Lee, strikes me as one of the most believable stories in this magazine. The protagonist is told her daughter must have a personality-altering chip implanted in her, in order to be allowed to stay in school. The setting in urban India gives extra weight to the need for education to allow an easier life. A very strong story.

“The Private Eye”, by Albert E. Cowdrey, is a whodunnit with a psychic p.i. set in rural Louisiana. The unambitious habits of the locals are played up for laughs, but if you don’t mind that the jokes are probably derogatory to somebody it’s a fun and readable piece.

“Snowfall”, by Jessie Thompson, is the second reprint story in this issue. It’s a story about fantasy as a means of escape, for someone who needs to escape from just about everything in her life. Its made even stronger by an introduction by Harlan Ellison giving a biography of the author in which possible parallels with the story’s protagonist are not quite made explicit.

The last story, Bruce Sterling’s “Esoteric City” explores Turin, here considered as the one city in the world that is a center of both white and black magic. A local corporate ladder-climber has made his place with the help of the necromantically animated mummy of an ancient Egyptian pyramid-builder. It’s an energetic romp, with plenty of wry and sarcastic humor thrown in, but I found it hard to really cheer for the action to go one way or the other since the protagonist is not at all sympathetic.

Overall this was a pretty strong issue of the magazine. Rand B. Lee’s “Three Leaves of Aloe” was the standout among the serious stories, and the Matthew Hughes and Albert E. Cowdrey stories provided excellent value in the comic relief department. The reprint stories were also excellent, as they have been all year.

Asimov’s, August 2009

Posted in magazines, sf on July 3, 2009 by Matt

I’ll just jump right in to a run-down of the stories in this month’s Asimov’s:

First is “The Qualia Engine”, by Damien Broderick. A group of a half-dozen or so genetically enhanced hyper-intelligent high school kids are working on various world-changing projects. Our narrator, Saul, is building a “qualia engine”, a machine that essentially records human feelings, and can play them back into another person’s mind. Meanwhile he and his crowd survive their ordinary teenaged romantic issues. Its an okay story, but not really outstanding. Saul’s enhanced intelligence is laid on so thick, and in such a smug voice, that I thought for a while this story might be an attempt to justify the mob violence against “mutants” that’s typically seen in stories on this theme.

Next, Robert Reed gives us “Creatures of Well-Defined Habits”. Again we have genetically modified humans, in great variety, created by mixing in genetic material from many other species; but now the modified people are the bulk of the population, and unmodified humans, or “Olds”, are a novelty or curiosity. When the oldest of the Olds dies, his mechanical replacement doesn’t satisfy his friends, and they have to take drastic measures to…well, I’m not really sure what. Maybe they’re trying to break the robot replacement out of its pattern of just repeating what the original did and give it an individual personality; or maybe they’re just acting randomly. I couldn’t really follow the motivation of the narrator here, and that made the story hard to appreciate.

Derek Zumsteg‘s “Blue”, however, was very easy to appreciate. From a science crew sent on a multi-year mission to study a black hole, only two members survive. Even worse, the black hole has some unexpected features that probably mean they’ll never make it home. And, after years alone together, they’ve understandably gotten on each others nerves. This is a fascinating character study on scientific personalities gone stir-crazy, and it reflects a lot of what I’ve heard from colleagues who did the nearest thing to this on earth—wintering over at the South Pole research station.

“The Conciousness Problem”, by hot new writer Mary Robinette Kowal, is another strong character study, this time on a scientist who’s suffered brain damage due to an accident. But, her research was on “cloning”, in the sense of making perfect duplicates of a person, including memories up to the time of duplication; so she can’t be sure if she was really injured, or if she’s actually a failed experiment, an imperfect duplicate of the “real” researcher. The story does a good job of bringing together the potential personal implications of the duplicating technology, without getting bogged down in cliche cloning issues.

Steven Popkes‘ “Two Boys” covers two generations in a world where Neanderthal man has been brought back from extinction by Jurassic Park-like techniques. The similarity to anything by Michael Crichton pretty much stops there. Popkes does a good job of imagining how another species could be similar to us, and yet have strikingly different personalities; and how their different personalities could give them an important place in our world.

“Turbulence”, by Asimov’s regular Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a short look at fate in a modern setting. An okay story, very short, but I never felt any real empathy for the main character.

The fiction in the magazine wraps up with “California Burning”, by Michael Blumlein, about a man who finds out about his father’s lifelong secret only after his death. The writing is engaging, and the protagonist is sympathetic, making this an enjoyable story. What’s more, the central question, of whether every secret truly needs to be discovered, is surely worth pondering.

So, yet another quite good issue from Asimov’s. All of the stories are worth reading, though I’d especially recommend the Zumsteg and the Blumlein as highights, with the Kowal and the Popkes very close behind.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Posted in books, time warp on July 1, 2009 by Matt

I won’t say much here, since I can hardly expect to add anything worthwhile to 150 years of prior criticism.

This was Dickens’ 15th novel, according to Wikipedia. It’s a social commentary on the lives of industrial mill-town laborers. The notes in this edition mention that this book is widely read in schools. I imagine its chosen for school reading because while it has many of the characteristic Dickens elements (noble young ladies; young men fallen in dissipation; ignorant, selfish men of property; social commentary against the lot of the poor; …) its relatively short, at under 300 pages in this copy. Compared to Our Mutual Friend, for example, thats substantially less ponderous build-up from the time I figured out who the mysterious stranger would turn out to be to the final revelation. On the other hand, it hasn’t got quite the wit of Bleak House, which remains my favorite Dickens novel.