Archive for December, 2009

Bug Jack Barron, Norman Spinrad

Posted in books, sf with tags on December 29, 2009 by Matt

Norman Spinrad is an author who has a pretty strong reputation in the “literary” side of the genre, but who I know almost nothing about. I started my efforts to rectify that with what’s probably his best-known book Picking up this book may have been influenced by the Aismov’s forums, where they discussed it recently.

The eponymous “Bug Jack Barron” is a TV show where Jack Barron, a former political radical now committed only to his media career, takes phone calls from the public, to find out what “bugs” them. Naturally the show touches on a major ongoing public debate about “freezing”, a process offered by the Foundation for Human Immortality in which, for a price, a person is held in cryogenic suspension after death, awaiting the eventual development of an immortality treatment. The Foundation wants to be granted a monopoly on the freezer treatment; while the upstart political party known as the SJC, which Jack co-founded, then abandoned, wants the freeze process nationalized. When Jack’s on-air inquiries start to unravel a mystery within the Freezer Foundation, he (because of his 100 million viewer audience) becomes a potential political pawn of all factions, and he has to choose between the bribe of immortality and his long-suppressed “Baby Bolshevik” principles.

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The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes

Posted in history, history of technology with tags on December 27, 2009 by Matt

Dating from 1986, this is a massive (near 800 pages) popular history of the World War II atomic bomb project. The focus is on the American effort, though there are brief detours into German and Japanese nuclear research. There’s also substantial background material on nuclear physics beginning with J. J. Thomson in the 1890’s.

The book takes the stories of Leo Szilard and Neils Bohr as central threads in the overall story. Bohr’s importance develops from his philosophical idea of “complementarity”, by which he not only subjugated the wave-particle duality, but also other apparently contradictory but ultimately complementary ideas such as super weapons and world peace. Throughout the book, complementarity is a standard against which the ideas of other physicists are compared.

In the case of Szilard, Rhodes credits him as one of the first to recognize the potential power to be released by nuclear physics, and its possible impact on human politics. From early days, and taking his inspiration in part from H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel The World Set Free, Szilard advocated a world government (obviously never realized, but still promising as the books story closed in the 1950’s) as the only way to control the vastly dangerous new technology predicted to emerge from the atomic nucleus.

Of course, there’s also plenty of detail on the Manhattan Project itself. And, mostly to show that the Americans were much further ahead of their competition than they realized, a few glimpses at vastly smaller and less well-funded German and Japanese bomb programs. The vast effort needed to extract the fissionable material from endless tons of raw uranium could only have been accomplished by the industrial powerhouse USA at that time. And its (somewhat) comforting to consider whether even today a “rogue state” could actually accumulate nuclear weapons in any quantity, although its also a frightening thought how much technology might have improved in the past 60 years.

An epilogue describes the beginnings of the nuclear nonproliferation efforts of the physics community, as well as continuing weapons work following the war, up to the point of the first Soviet a-bomb explosion and the first American h-bomb tests.

The important role of the bomb in ending World War 2, the potential ramifications if events had come out differently (what if the first nuclear war had involved not two weapons, but dozens or hundreds?) , and the influence of the bomb on the remainder of 20th century history, make this an important history to understand. And indeed the new danger, mostly unforseen in 1986, of smaller states obtaining nuclear weapons means this history is still relevant today, and this book is an excellent introduction covering the topic in both great breadth and also substantial depth.

Interzone 225

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

“Here we are, falling through shadows”, Jason Sanford Shadow-dwelling “rippers” have somehow come into our world from some other dimension or plane of reality, and firefighters like our hero are among the few who must still get their jobs done, even after dark. On top of a job that’s suddenly gone from frequently dangerous to regularly deadly, he must deal with a teen daughter who’s suicidally fascinated with the rippers. Like Sanford’s “Sublimation angels” in the previous IZ, this story steps just shy of the line of explaining what’s going on, and I think the technique is much more successful in this new story, possibly because the rippers themselves are fundamentally unexplainable. A fine read.

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Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2009

Posted in fantasy, magazines, sf with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by Matt

“Dragon’s teeth”, Alex Irvine This is Lieberian high fantasy, with a strong but amoral protagonist and a bit of ironic wit. The King’s Guardsman Paulus is sent on a mission to slay a dragon for the queen. He does his duty, but he is also looking out for himself along the way. The story is littered with references to Paulus’ earlier adventures, giving the story a somewhat incomplete feel when read on its own. Despite that, it holds together well, and the story is one of the highlights of this issue.

“Bad matter”, Alexandra Duncan A university linguist, Dr. Saraih Hertz, investigates a mystery left behind by her late father, a famed anthropologist. He’s left behind another heir among the merchant spaceship crewes. The story is interesting and well-developed, but it felt like there’s too much going on here, lots of ideas thrown in the air but not developed, or at least not explained. Much is made of the protagonist wearing the hijab, and being uncomfortable with less modest dress in the crewes, but there’s no explanation of how a Dr. Hertz came to live in such a modest culture. Footnotes emphasize Saraih’s academic outlook, but don’t add much to the story. The crewes speak a highly modified language, but there’s not even a passing evaluation from the linguist protagonist on the connection of this dialect to English or other languages, and there wasn’t really enough length to the story for me to get the hang of it. A fine story, but a little bit busy.

“Farewell Atlantis”, Terry Bisson This story starts out with a disconcerting, disconnected statement, “I remember exactly when it all started, this incredible adventure. It was during The Look of Love, when she wakes up after the operation…”, and two people meeting in a movie theater. It’s a good mesh with the mental state of those two people, who turn out to be watching weeks of continuous movies as reorientation after thousands of years of suspended animation. The story goes on in a somewhat disassociated tone, eventually revealing the what and why of the characters’ past, or at least their conjectures about it. Quite good, even if it requires a bit of mental drift to get the hang of.

“Hell of a fix”, Matthew Hughes I could imagine this infernal comedy (as its been called on the F&SF forum) coming from the pen of one of the genre’s wittier 1940’s greats, maybe Kornbluth or Boucher, and the “deal with the devil” set-up has been a staple of the genre since at least that time. The idea that labor relations in Hell might echo those on earth also seems to make this a story out of time. One thing that distinguishes Hughes’ story from a piece from the 40’s is that it’s about twice as long as it likely would have been back then. But none of that makes the story unenjoyable. Hughes has great wit, and the story is fun all the way through.

“Illusions of Tranquility”, Brendan DuBois Eva is a worker on a struggling moon colony, one that needs to do whatever it can to obtain extra cash from Earth. Eva’s role is to fleece wealthy tourists by selling them “unique” bits of moon history; if that fails, she must sell her body. The colony is also trying to maintain the illusion of prosperity to give its donors confidence, so tourists and colonists are strictly segregated into regions with vastly different economic rules. The story didn’t work well for me. First, DuBois fails to convey the brutality (or hard-edged reality) behind the deception of the tourist zone. Worse, the shock line that ends the story, meant to carry earnest weight, comes off as light-hearted, or even comedic. Takes on a significant theme, but doesn’t support it well.

“The Blight family singers”, Kit Reed A portrait of a washed-up folk-singing act, living on the drama of their backstory. But with no sympathetic character, I didn’t find much entertainment in it.

“The economy of vacuum”, Sarah Thomas Astronaut Virginia Rickles is stranded on the moon when the American government crumbles down below. An excellent melancholy story develops as she survives thirty years alone, and then is discovered by a new spacefaring nation that doesn’t have the capability for compassion needed to rescue here. Another highlight story for the issue.

“Iris”, Nancy Springer Another melancholy story, a brief exploration of new discoveries at the end of life.

“Inside time”, Tim Sullivan Herel Jablov not only designed a time machine, he joined the first mission aboard it. When the mission goes wrong, he finds himself, with only one companion, stuck on a automated “station” somehow outside (or inside?) of time. Quite good, even though I saw the trick ending coming from a few pages away.

“The man who did something about it“, Harvey Jacobs Colin Kabe is an auto mechanic, but one who normally works on cars valued in the 6 figures and above. When he’s asked to work on an out-of-this-world vehicle, he finally gets his chance to do something about it. It’s not a story that would benefit from having its secrets given away, so I’ll only say its worth the read.

“I needs must part, the policeman said”, Richard Bowes The story starts out a bit disjointed, but it does reward holding on until you get into it. If this is fiction, its an incredibly nuanced exploration of the situation of an older man dealing with a serious illness. If this is autobiographical, its a much more revealing look at an author than we normally get in genre writing. I’m not sure I could read an entire magazine of such intense stories, but to have one like this come along once in a while is breathtaking.