Archive for September, 2009

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Posted in books, sf with tags , on September 27, 2009 by Matt

Somehow I never managed to pick up this classic story until now.

Genly Ai is the envoy of the Ekumen (an interstellar affiliation of planets) to the planet Gethen. What makes Gethen unique (aside from its ice-age climate) is that its people are ambisexual, not divided into two sexes. Gethenians are basically asexual (or only latently sexual) for most of each month, until they enter kemmer. In kemmer, a Gethenian might take either the male or female role in sexual relations and childbearing.

Ai is trying to get either of the two main powers on the main continent to agree to join the Ekumen. Karhide might be described as feudal, but Le Guin carefully shows how non-sexual psychology modifies feudal political relationships. The description of Orgoreyn, on the other hand, reads like a gloss of The Gulag Archipelago, although in fact this book predated the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s by four years, and again there are differences from the Stalinist model due to the Gethenian psychology.

If the heart of SF is literature that takes a technological premise and explores its ramifications, The Left Hand of Darkness might be considered the quitessential SF novel. Even in the final chapters, new facets of the Gethenian psychology and society, derived from their unique biology, are still being revealed. This is not just a chapter or two of scientific or technical premise tacked on to the front of a long action story, but a speculative exploration from front to back, and that is what really made the book shine for me.


Driftglass, Samuel R. Delany (Part 2)

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags , on September 25, 2009 by Matt

To wrap up my review of this collection, begun here.

“Driftglass” Cal Svenson is a former depth gauger for International Aquatic Corp, adapted with gills and webbed digits to work underwater. His career ended years ago in a major accident in the Slash, an underwater trench. He’s living as something of a beachcomber in a tropical fishing village near the Slash, when he runs into a younger Aquatic who tells him about new plans to explore the Slash.

The story explores themes of generational torch-passing and of living in the world as it is and not how it might ideally be. Its as poetically and dramatically told as any other in the collection.

Read more after the break.

Driftglass, Samuel R. Delany (Part 1)

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags , on September 20, 2009 by Matt

Driftglass collects Samuel R. Delany’s first 10 published short stories. These stories were originally published in a four-year period from 1966 to 1970. Before any of these stories appeared, Delany had already written eight novels, but when he wrote the last of them he was still aged in his 20’s. I read a 1977 facsimile of the 1971 Signet edition. According to Wikipedia, all of these stories are also available in the 2003 collection Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories.

The collection shows why Delany is often ranked with the likes of Gene Wolfe as one of the foremost literary stylists in science fiction. In a few cases, Delany’s style has suffered from age, for example when he uses contemporary slang, like “rumble” for fight. Otherwise, his prose is as evocative and compelling as any author in SF.

The Star Pit This story pretty much hits you right in the nose with its theme, which is our reaction to human limitations. The story starts with the narrator, Vyme’s, recollection of an ant farm he had as a child, and the central premise is that most people die if they attempt to leave our home galaxy. Only a limited few, known as golden, have the psychological make-up needed to survive travel to other galaxies. The flip side is that golden are all more-or-less psychotic, uninterested in the feelings of others.

Vyme lives at the Star Pit, a waystation on the edge of the galaxy, compelled to push the limits of his containment. There he encounters a variety of other societal misfits, some of whom turn out to be golden. Finally the golden discover aliens who can travel to places the golden cannot, and they too must face the limits of their containment.

Knowing Delany is one of very few African-American SF writers, its hard not to draw a parallel with the black experience in America. In the ’60’s even more than today, blacks faced constraints and limits that did not affect the whites around them. And whites by-and-large must have seemed as callous toward blacks as golden toward normal humans in the story. Realizing that whites face their own social limitations must be small consolation to those who were (or are) stuck in some narrow role dictated not by their own will but by uncontrollable forces.

And there’s much more to the story than just human limits. There’s Vyme’s lost family and others scarred by war; and there’s Vyme’s fatherly adoption of various young riff-raff of the Star Pit. There’s really as many intertwined themes here as you’d normally find filling out a novel. This is truly a fantastic piece of science fiction.

Continue reading

Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2009

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by Matt

A monster 60th-anniversary issue.

“The far shore”, Elizabeth Hand Philip, a former ballet dancer, is let go from his teaching position at his dance company in the cruel reality of the dance business. An old friend invites him to spend the off-season as caretaker at her lakeside campground. What he discovers there is not Swan Lake, but might be something from a related tradition.

“Bandits of the trace”, Albert E. Cowdrey A humorous historical mystery in deepest Appalachia combines cops and robbers, mysterious cyphers, dangerous men and women, and a dash of fantasy for flavor. Very fun reading.

“The way they wove the spells in Sippulgar”, Robert Silverberg A tour-bus trip through Majipoor, with a character study of religious believers as a subthread. Probably more enjoyable for those already familiar with Majipoor, but still worthwhile for readers like me who don’t know the giant planet.

“Logicist”, Carol Emshwiller A schoolteacher is confronted by the harsh reality of war. As usual in Emshwiller’s stories, the emotional pain of the protagonist’s position is conveyed strongly. But the way the protagonist’s rigid thinking is expressed in multiple-choice questions felt more gimmicky than revealing.

“Blocked”, Geoff Ryman Our protagonist, Channarith, a Cambodian casino-owner, and his family are fleeing to a vast underground city along with the rest of humanity. They are afraid of an alien invasion, or a comet, or maybe just environmental collapse brought on by human activities. Ryman pays special attention to Channarith’s relationship with his three adopted children and their mother, who has married him mainly because he can afford to take a family underground. A new look at a not uncommon sf idea.

“Halloween town”, Lucius Shepard Halloween is a town at the bottom of an Appalachian gorge so deep and narrow its practically subterranean. Clyde Ormoloo has moved there after a workplace accident gave him the power to see people’s inner character, if the light is strong enough. In Haloween he encounters an amusing bunch of characters, some of whose inner character is at least as vile as the “topsiders” Clyde hoped to avoid. Definitely an imaginative story in an imaginative setting.

“Mermaid”, Robert Reed There’s no mermaid in the story, just Jake and his pathological relationship with his unnaturally young-looking girlfriend. When Jake runs into another man in what looks like a similar relationship he tries to intervene. It’s not obvious if he’s trying to protect the other girl, or if he sees the other man as a future version of himself. The story had a kind of dreamy what-will-happen next feel that kept me engaged, but I never really figured out what was going on, leading to disappointment by the end.

“Never blood enough”, Joe Haldeman A mysterious death on a lightly populated colony planet full of dangerous and not well-studied fauna. It starts out like a whodunnit mystery, but doesn’t end up that way. In fact, the ending doesn’t resolve or solve any of the mysteries thrown up in the story, making this feel like the introductory chapter of a novel instead of a complete short story.

“I waltzed with a zombie”, Ron Goulart A story about “the only movie ever made starring a dead man.” An fun, atmospheric story about early 1940’s Hollywood, with a plot that feels like a 1940’s film.

“The president’s book tour”, M. Rickert Something has eliminated all vegetation in the p.o.v. narrator’s town, and also caused the townspeople’s children to be born with grotesque deformities. The tone expresses vague political dissatisfaction, and vague unhappiness about the environmental situation. But it’s all vague. The roots of the environmental catastrophe are never explained. Which is a significant distraction from the main point of the story, related to how the townspeople come to accept their children as they are.

“Another life”, Charles Oberndorf As a young soldier, our protagonist met his first love, a woman soldier; and a good friend, a hermaphroditic prostitute, on a base station near the front in an ongoing war. After soldiers die, they’re typically restored to new bodies and returned to the war. But mysteriously our narrator finds himself in a new body, but with no money and no connection to the military. Years later, he recounts these stories to his longtime partner, who’s chosen to forgo restoration and die of old age. A really excellent story, exploring truly speculative space in human relationships.

“Shadows on the wall of the cave”, Kate Wilhelm Years ago, Ashley was playing with her two cousins in a cave on their grandparent’s farm when the younger cousin mysteriously disappeared. She hasn’t been back to the farm since, but now her grandfather has passed away, and she has to return. The best part of the story is excellent characterization of both children and adults. The plot is sensible as far as it goes, but the explanation of the cousin’s disappearance is just a backdrop for those other story elements, not something that can bear any scrutiny or carry any weight in the story.

Asimov’s, October/November 2009

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by Matt

“Blood dauber”, Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poore Bell might not quite be down and out, but he’s sure not up and in. He works a low-paying job as a zookeeper, where he gets the unwanted jobs because he won’t take risky ones. He fights constantly with his wife. In one thread of the story, Bell works with a parolee doing community service work. Like the animals Bell won’t work with, Cole is unpredictable and dangerous. In another thread, Bell discovers what seems to be a previously unknown species of insects, possibly one that even transcends what we currently think of as a species. These story threads wind around each other and interrelate to deliver a strong message about relationships and the human animal. Excellent.

“Where the time goes”, Heather Lindsley In an enjoyable time-travel farce, a pair of time prospectors must fend off their creditors long enough to fix a paradox they’ve created.

“Wife-stealing time”, R. Garcia y Robertson This story returns us to the world of SinBad the sand sailor, last seen in the July 2009 Asimov’s. Like the previous outing to Barsoom this is a fun romp through a dangerous world. This new story loses some of the fun of the earlier one by approaching sexual situations more directly, rather than with a humorous roundabout. Even so, it’s still an enjoyable read.

“Flowers of Asphodel”, Damien Broderick Asterion is wakened early from a rejuvenating “Big Sleep” in a world where the Singularity is expected at any moment but seems to be stalled. The reason Asterion is awoken early is that his former wife, Europa, is about to do something very dangerous, possibly to the entire universe. The story is well put together, and the idea of a stalled Singularity is a nice twist, but otherwise too much seems to be borrowed from elsewhere. The dysfunctional family at the heart of the Singularity changes is just too much like the one in Stross’ Accelerando sequence, in particular, giving this story a “me-too” quality.

“Erosion”, Ian Creasey Our first-person protagonist is trying out a new body he’s been given in preparation for joining an interstellar colony mission, and ends up getting in some trouble hiking on the English coast. Like the Broderick story, this one is borrowing heavily from elsewhere, in this case from John Scalzi’a Old Man’s War (and probably older material that Scalzi borrowed from too). But Creasey is not as ambitious as Broderick: his story is shorter, and the borrowing isn’t an entire plot and theme, but just a technological premise; so it works out better to my taste.

“Flotsam”, Elissa Malcohn As a young girl Mercedes discovered a biological “impossibility” in the polluted coastal waters of her city. The discovery, and the way it was denied haunts her throughout her life in the working class world of the US-Mexican border. Working blue collar jobs, she spends her free time researching the impossibility she’s sure she remembers from childhood. An excellent story, which does particularly well at blending the story of Mercedes as a person between cultures into an sf story.

“Before my last breath”, Robert Reed A geologist makes a discovers an unusual fossil in the bottom of a pit mine, leading to a mystery about the origins and fate of long-ago visitors to Earth. Very well done.

“The ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter”, Christopher Barzak Sylvie’s special abilities are the secret to her father’s ghost hunting business, but she doesn’t agree with the need to rid the world of ghosts. She goes along with her father due to his authority and because ghost hunting has become his only real success in life. A well-developed study of family bonds in opposition to personal convictions.

“Deadly sins”, Nancy Kress A kind of caper story with an SF twist. Renata has murdered Dr. Rudy Malter, a biotech scientist who she worked for as an assistant. And she’s ready to admit to the murder. The mystery is why she’s admitting to it. A fine short piece.

“The sea of dreams”, William Barton Allen Burke, aka Mr. Zed, is investigating a mysterious object in orbit around Uranus, assisted by Ylva, a computer incorporating human “central nervous system tissue”, and a troop of vat grown human bodies operated as peripherals by the computer. The story starts off as a basic space opera superman story about the hypertalented Burke, but then veers off into an homage to E. R. Burroughs once the mystery object is investigated. Not a bad story, and fun to read, but really loose when it comes to thematic coherency.