Monday, September 1, 2014

Review of The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Having abandoned the space opera scene with his previous novel The Execution Channel, Ken Macleod looked to head deeper into the near-future with his next offering.  The aftershocks of 9-11 still resounding in 2008, The Night Sessions approaches religious fundamentalism from a decidedly unique approach: a setting wherein religion simply isn’t acknowledged by government, and by default, citizenry.  The story’s payout playing things safe thematically, Macleod nevertheless delivers a well-paced mystery with loads of technical, science fiction intrigue.

Starting with the World Trade towers attack and escalating into a conflict that peaks at nuclear war in the Middle East but doesn’t come to an end until the Coalition forces are driven from the arena due to lack of money and soldiers, The Night Sessions is set in a weary UK that has seen religion legally marginalized as a result of its failures in the Middle East.  The official government stance ‘non-cognizance’, most people have a sour taste for religion in their mouths from the fallout of the Oil/Faith Wars, and do not practice.  But not everyone, however, as at the start of the novel Detective Investigator Adam Ferguson and his partner, the tripod-robot Skulk, are called to the scene of what appears to have been the mail-bombing of a Catholic priest.  The investigation which results taking the pair from dirty alleys to major corporations, underground to above-ground churches, and from the comfort of the police briefing room to the dangers of the real world, the implications of the priest’s death spread from Edinburgh all the way around the globe in a story of extreme belief only science fiction can tell.

Review of Golden Girl and Other Stories by Jack Vance

For as gloriously dynamic as Vance’s plots and settings are, his main characters are all occupied by clever men cut from the same cloth.  Far from the only author to consistently use the same hero in almost every story, few are aware Vance wrote a few stories with women as his protagonists.  Story mode entirely the same, it’s fair to say Vance did not have a feminist agenda writing them.  That being said, the presentation is not the same as his male heroes, and are worth a visit for the Vance connoisseur. For those interested, Golden Girl and Other Stories collects all such stories (plus a couple more) published between 1951 and 1974, and will be of specific interest. 

The collection opens on “Golden Girl”, a short but tragic tale of a woman crash-landed on Earth with no hope of returning to her home.  Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land in short form, Vance’s content is, however, more readable.

In “The Masquerade on Dicantropus” an anthropologist is stuck in a quandary: to disturb or not to disturb the native's pyramid on the planet he studies?  Plot tension a bit forced, this may be the weakest story of the collection, but does superficially dig into the man's relationship with a woman.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review of "Kiosk" by Bruce Sterling

Though they are slowly disappearing, the city where I live in Poland (Wrocław) still has street-side kiosks.  The socialist version of 7-11, the metal or fiberglass huts open daily and sell the little necessities of life—magazines, chocolate, tissues, apples, cheese, etc.—and were once a key part of daily shopping in Poland and Eastern Europe.  Having spied one in his travels or been told of their existence, Bruce Sterling decided to write a story about one such kiosk—a near-future one.  The resulting novelette called simply “Kiosk” (2007), it is a satirical look at new industrial production techniques and the products which result on the market.  Never overtly stated, there are strong overtones regarding the dissemination of material, pirated, virtual, tangible, and otherwise.

Borislav is the owner of a kiosk in a fictional Eastern European town.  Alert to his client’s needs, he stocks what people want, but is also on the lookout for new items to keep his inventory fresh.  Brought a fabrikator one day, the local children fall in love with the temporary wax shapes it spits out.  Uncaring that the objects dissolve a week later, it’s so popular the children even start collecting and trading the cards which activate the machine without using them.  Boris approached by one Dr. Grootjans of the European Unified Electronic Product Coding System one day in the aftermath of the fabrikator’s success, she waves her shopping wand at Boris’ kiosk and decides to purchase the entire inventory.  Though settling in with his new pocket of cash, things are only just beginning for Boris and his kiosk. 

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 2 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

His first foray into aggregating the year’s best in short fiction a success, Jonathan Strahan was given the reins to produce Volume 2 (2008) of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year.  The umbrella anthology of speculative fiction, once again Strahan combed through the hundreds (if not thousands) of stories published in the year, checked contractual possibilities, and collated another solid anthology.  Each a hit for some and a miss for others, let’s cut to the anthology.

Opening on a bright note, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang is a mini-collection of stories nested within a time traveling device a la 1,001 Arabian Nights.  Opening and closing on Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a merchant of yesteryear Baghdad, it tells a highly engaging tale of people living with and without regret, perennial wisdom the underlying message.  “The Last and Only or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” by Peter S. Beagle is a classically styled story of an American who immerses in himself in French-ness—culture, language, food, etc.—in an attempt to make himself French, and succeeds.  Subtly examining cultural heritage, the meaning of culture, and globalization in a few scant pages, the story is not only well-written but relevant.  Trunk and Disorderly” by Charles Stross, an acknowledged experiment in style for Saturn’s Children, is the story of Ralph McDonald and his no holds barred tour of our post-singularity universe.  More for laughs and imagination than any meaningful storyline, Stross’ creativity is truly let off the leash (as if it wasn’t in the other stories) to take in the luxuries of the future with a wise-cracking butler at hand.  Glory” by Greg Egan is a story set in the author’s Amalgam universe of Incandescence and Riding the Crocodile.  Opening on a sweet mix of pseudo-science pyrotechnics, it quickly escalates to post-human proportions as an anthropologist arrives on a distant planet to do research.  Encountering local tensions, compounded by intergalactic hostilities, her job only becomes more difficult.  A rather blunted story, this is not the most subtle of Egan’s work, but engaging nevertheless.  “Dead Horse Point” by Daryl Gregory is the (heavy) story about a person with uber-concentration.  Freighted with emotion, the story is of a woman who is unnaturally able to delve into the recesses of her brain for periods on end, which affects her siblings and friends in ways she could never imagine.  A trip to Dead Horse Canyon brings their relationship to a head. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review of Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

What’s the difference between the Stars War and Trek?  Is it the in-the-moment excitement of ‘war’ vs. the long-term implications of ‘trek’?  Or is it something as simple as lightsabers vs phasers?  Hyperdrive vs. warp speed?  Giant asteroid slugs vs. ultra-anthropomorphized aliens?  No, it would seem to be something more.  Star Wars the poster example of eye-candy space opera, Star Trek attempts to dig deeper into the implications of alien contact, inter-species relations, and the responsibilities of humanity in space—soft science fiction as it were (with the requisite flash of action at the end of the episode).  C.J. Cherryh’s 1981 Downbelow Station, a dense read dependent on character and political interrelationships, is a novel precisely in the Star Trek mold.

Three hundred years in the future, mankind has made its way beyond our solar system and into neighboring galaxies.  Finding some planets barren and others inhabitable or otherwise profitable, a string of orbiting stations and habitations are built steadily outward from Earth, all business and government overseen by the ubiquitous Company.  Eventually extending too far, a revolution breaks out at the trailing end.  Starting on the station Cyteen, a well-organized and funded group calling themselves Union slowly start taking control of the chain of stations, working their way in reverse toward Earth.  The Company scrambling for defense, they enlist every vessel they can, including freighters and passenger vehicles, in the ensuing war.  A battle devastating one of the Company’s main stations, its freighters head to the next closest station above the planet Pell (aka Downbelow Station) in the hopes of getting much needed food and medical help.  Pell officially neutral, they are reluctant to allow the first freighter, called the Norway and captained by Signy Mallory, to dock, knowing the wave that will follow, and inevitably war with the Union.  Mallory forcing her way in, the story that unfolds is one of subterfuge, intergalactic battle, diplomatic, and humane proportions.  Pell’s fate?  The reader will have to find out themselves.

Review of Tales from the Arabian Nights ed. by Andrew Lang

A book oft mentioned yet little read these days, Arabian Nights nevertheless remains one of the world’s treasure troves of storytelling.  Multiple threads of story interwoven with exotic Middle Eastern settings, the fact it has persisted through time is a testament to the inherent quality of the tales.  Occupying multiple, multiple volumes originating from the cultural breadbasket of Persian, Arabic, and Hindu lands, there is no definitive, single version.  But there are innumerable translations.  In the late 19th century, folklorist and anthropologist Andrew Lang settled down to have a read, and in the process selected those stories he thought to be the most salient and poignant among them—taking care, as it were, to preserve the matroyshka presentation where possible.  Tales from the Arabian Nights (1898), a sub-section  of the larger collection, is the bite-sized result. 

Echoing through the ages, the names of the heroes and heroines of the Arabian Nights remain famous.  Scheherazade and her survivalist, honey-guilded tongue; Sinbad and his voyages of wealth, poverty, and adventure; and of course, Aladdin and the jinni (genie, genius, djin, whatever you want to call him) are all there.  As are several other stories of equal, if not better, quality, though lesser known. They may be some of the world's oldest tales, but their sentiment and morals ring true to this day.  Bad luck, good luck, fate, karma, and a host of other unpredictable influences on everyday life riddle the stories, making it a dynamic yet relevant commentary on this amazing thing we call life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review of A Case of Conscience by James Blish

The Mars surface-landers, for as much as NASA and science at large was concerned with their findings, likewise held the fascination of another huge community.  With bated breath, Christians from around the world watched to see whether any forms of life might be discovered, their precious Bible, with its Adam & Eve roots, on the line.  To this day no indisputable proof has been found that (sentient) life exists or existed on Mars, much to the relief of Christians worldwide.  But what if Martians—little green men—were to pop out of craters and start to parley?  Undoubtedly some obscure verse from the Old Testament would be rousted out to explain why they were excluded from the Genesis story, and then a missionary would be sent to convert them.  But what if that missionary found a perfectly moral society—a species without sin?  That crisis of faith is precisely the crux upon which James Blish’s 1958 A Case of Conscience hinges.

A Case of Conscience is the story of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist.  Visiting the planet Lithia as part of a four-man scientific mission, he is the only one with religious convictions, and in the process of studying the soils and bacteria, animal life and aliens who inhabit the planet, ruminates upon the quandaries and paradoxes the Lithians, a reptilian species, present.  The biggest is the fact the Lithians do no evil.  No murder, no theft, no malicious acts whatsoever, their existence is purely a logical one that has seen them evolve through various phases of simple technology, the lack of metals like those found on Earth the limiting factor.  With the scientists time on Lithia drawing to a close, each must cast their vote what is to be done with the planet.  Ruiz-Sanchez’s crisis of faith determining his choice, the planet is never the same after.

Review of The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Ahh, the robot: docile servant or humanoid waiting to explode in revolution against humanity.  Modernism riding a technological high that science would solve the world’s ills, it’s only natural that the majority of the science fiction of the era would depict the metal men as the former.  Isaac Asimov a leading proponent of this view, after writing a collection of short stories (I, Robot) and establishing the ground rules (literally) he published his first novel-length work The Caves of Steel in 1954.  Utilizing the three rules of robotics in an interstellar murder mystery, the story had strong resonance with the genre readers of the time.  Whether the story continues to resonate depends on what expectations the reader brings to the table today.

The Caves of Steel introduces Elijah Baley, a mid-level detective working for the New York City police force, who is charged with investigating a murder at nearby Spacetown at the story’s outset.  The small area just outside the domed metropolis of NYC having special diplomatic rights, Baley must accept the requirements of the Spacers, and soon after finds himself paired with a robot investigator, R. Daneel Olivaw, as he starts his inquiry.  Anti-robot, Baley must deal with his own feelings about humanoids as he and Daneel fight through confusing clues and the red-tape of performing an investigation in the pro-robot Spacetown.  Olivaw intelligent, consistent, and helpful, Baley’s sentiments undergo an evolution the closer the pair draw to the murderer.  But will Olivaw obey his programming when the final confrontation comes?  That is for the reader to discover. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review of "The Cartesian Theater" by Robert Charles Wilson

Toying with traditional philosophy is one of science fiction’s most pleasurable conceits, and Robert Charles Wilson’s 2006 novelette “The Cartesian Theater” is a perfect example.  A simple premise played out in obvious terms, it nevertheless possesses strong impact for its presentation—the evolution of technology dragging it ever closer to our visceral reality.

“The Cartesian Theater” is the story of Toby Paczkovski, a ‘gypsy’ living on the dole in a world of post-industrial/economic collapse.  The collapse brought on by the pluralization of AI-enhanced robots which replaced human labor, society has been left to pick up the pieces; everyone is consistently able to get money, yet still straggles to live.  Getting himself into trouble when agreeing to perform a bit of gray work for his ex-wife, Paczkovski heads for his grandfather’s grave for advice in the aftermath.  A former trial lawyer kept alive with neuroprostheses, the dead man has nothing but insight into the bizarre story of existentialism possible only in a technologically advanced world that his grandson lays before him. 

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume One ed. by Jonathan Strahan

It’s become quite apparent that short length speculative fiction is bursting at the seams for quantity.  The number of magazines and ezines printing its short stories, novelettes and novellas outstrips any other genre by a mile, dozens and dozens of new anthologies and collections published each year.  Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction series running since 1984, Rich Horton’s Science Fiction: The Best of the Year and Fantasy: The Best of the Year series starting in 2006, and David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF (1996) and Year’s Best Fantasy (2001) all on the scene, it’s amazing there was room for one more.  Rearranging the words, Jonathan Strahan started The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year in 2006.  Significantly more fantasy than science fiction (despite the cover), and overlapping the other year’s best anthologies all around, Volume One is a solid start for readers interested in the umbrella view of (short) speculative fiction.

The anthology opens on a comfortable note: Neil Gaiman.  “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is, technically, a science fiction story, though Gaiman uses it for symbolic purposes.  The story of two boys who go to a party looking for girls, they find relating to them is more than they bargained for.  Possessing an age-old moral, it is written in the author’s signature feathery-light prose. A smooth stylist in his own right, Peter Beagle presents a refined version of his talents in the YA offering “El Regalo”.  The story of a Korean-American brother-sister tandem, their rivalry (capital ‘R’) is everything childhood is made of—one sibling going back in time to save the other, resulting in a touching, nostalgic story with a target younger audience.  “I, Rowboat” by Cory Doctorow is a story for those interested in science fiction for science fiction’s sake.  Taking one yet-possible idea and stacking it up against an even further-in-the-future-possible idea, it is Asimov’s laws of robot sentience set against the uplifting of ‘animal’ sentience of singularity proportions.  At times overtly ideological and poorly written, at all others it is pure genre. (For my money, Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” and John Sladek’s Tik-tok are better commentary on Asimov’s robots.)  The second YA piece in the anthology, Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians” is the story of a baby girl found by a group of librarians who decided to lock the doors when a new, bigger library is announced on the other side of town.  A love affair with silent book halls everywhere, it is a charming, nostalgic paean about a girl who grows up in a library (like Bod grows up in a graveyard), but lacks re-readability and fluidity.