Friday, October 31, 2014

Review of "Tendeleo's Story" by Ian McDonald

The first two books in Ian McDonald’s Chaga series, the eponymous novel (called Evolution’s Shore in the US) and Kirinya, both feature white main characters dealing with a strange alien invasion in black Africa.  While local characters do appear as secondary, it’s fair to say much of the concerns of the continent are filtered through Western eyes.  Partially righting the imbalance is “Tendeleo’s Story” (2000), a novella set in the colorful, culturally tense milieu.  Like another short work in the setting, “Recording Angel,” it more concisely expresses aspects of the series, but gains a significant degree of perspective from someone locally dealing with the creeping crystalline invasion. 

Tendeleo, whose name means ‘early-evening-shortly-after-dinner’ in reference to her birth time, is the teenage daughter of the pastor at an Episcopalian church in rural Kenya.  Village life comfortable, things are turned upside down, however, when a chaga meteorite lands a few kilometers from her home.  Visiting the impact site with her little sister and given a tour by a few of the UNECTA scientists gathering data, Tendeleo has a part of her brain activated by the work, advanced technology, and mysteries she witnesses there. But she never has a chance to act on the interest.  The chaga taking over her village a short time later, life is spun out of control as she and her family are placed in a squalorous refugee camp on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Taking life in her own hands, the sacrifices Tendeleo subsequently makes break the heart, but prove worth it in the end.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review of "Mr. Boy" by James Patrick Kelly

One of the undercurrents of science fiction is a concern for the relationship between biotechnical advances and wealth.  Immortality available only to the rich an oft used premise, there is an awareness among sci-fi writers that the evolution of technology may not be applied democratically given the economic system we currently exist within.  Locating one such rich boy in a post-human context, James Patrick Kelly’s 1990 novella Mr. Boy examines the possibilities in highly imaginative fashion, the boy eventually falling on one side of the title coin. 

Mr. Boy is the story of Peter Cage, legally known as Mr. Boy.  Though twenty-five years old, his ultra-rich mother has paid for stunting surgery twice, and at the start of the story Mr. Boy is emerging from a third, his twelve year old body fresh and ready.  But what makes him truly happy is that his sidekick, a ‘jailbroken’ assistant called Comrade, has just stolen for him a nice piece of death porn.  The autopsy photo of a murdered CEO, Mr. Boy delights in the image on his way to a party.  Meeting a hippi-fied girl there, getting to know her proves a game-changer in his life.  But it’s the photo which comes back to haunt him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review of Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Movements within science fiction have come and gone—New Wave, cyberpunk, the Silver Age, etc.  But one which has been there nearly since the beginning is space opera.  No matter whether one cites E.E. Doc Smith’s Skylark series or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, its popularity has ebbed and flowed, but always the sub-genre has had its foot in the field.  The canvas writ large, prose barely competent (Simmons and a few others are exceptions), complex plots, and semblances of character—all zig and zag across the galaxy to save something (anything!), discover the mysteries abound, and prevent the worst cataclysms from being unleashed on the universe.  Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space series, opened by the eponymous novel in 2000, is no exception—in any way.

Starting as three separate strands that eventually intertwine, Revelation Space opens with the archeologist Dan Sylveste and the dig he is participating in on the remote planet Resurgam.  A mysterious obelisque revealed in the layers of dust from a long lost civilization of bird-like humanoids, Sylveste, along with the beta-level construct of his conniving father, attempt to interpret the mysterious runes on its sides.  Traveling near light speed in a massive Conjoiner space ship is Ilia Volyova.  On a mission to save her captain who is dying in cryo-sleep of a strange plague, she will stop at nothing to find a cure—including kidnapping and murder.  And lastly is the assassin Khouri. Legally working the bizarre architectural construct that is Chasm City, after one of her kills she is approached by a mysterious entity called the Madamoiselle and given an offer that goes against her oath as a legal assassin.  The bait too good, too personal to decline, it isn’t long before she is undercover, looking for a ride to Resurgam.  The three’s stories conflating in smooth fashion, the they find themselves chasing and facing a mystery that could mean everything to not only them, but all sentient species.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review of The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

If indeed social movements occur in cycles that over time have a net result of zero, what then is the value of scientific pursuit?  If humanity will inevitably revert to primitivism, of what use is maneuvering toward that fuzzy idea of ‘civilization’?  Is it just to give us something to do with our time on Earth?  Is it an innate, unavoidable aspect of being human we should shun? Is it just false hope?  Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?  These questions and more Leigh Brackett examines in her oft-overlooked 1955 magnum opus The Long Tomorrow.  A simple tale, it nevertheless lays bare one of the most fundamental questions we face: to what goal should humanity strive?

Post apocalypse, The Long Tomorrow posits an America where technologically advanced civilization was put to blame for the catastrophe of global nuclear war that followed upon Hiroshima.  Religious groups jumping into the void of leadership that followed, new laws were enacted to prevent cities from developing larger than 1,000 people.  Large gatherings of minds seen as the root cause for the development of such destructive technology, in the years that followed America became a scattering of pastoral micro-communities of religious groups of varying fervor.  Neighbor keeping close watch over neighbor, technology such as radios and tvs is the work of the devil, the simple life of farming the norm.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

It was Brian Atterbery who introduced the idea of ‘fuzzy sets’ in reference to works of fiction which do not fit comfortably within a genre, rather at the margins, perhaps even touching upon or existing mostly within other genres.  By default, the implication is that a center exists—an effable something that can be pointed at in representation.  Reading George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1987), first novel of the Budayeen series, it’s striking how stereotypically cyberpunk the novel is.  Featuring computer chips directly inserted into the brain that modify personality, body modifications between the genders, and a noir crime storyline, a mainstream chassis has been stripped down and fitted out with Neuromancer parts.  It’s a novel at the core of cyberpunk, nothing fuzzy about it.

When Gravity Fails is the story Marid Audran.  A private eye for hire living in a seedy disrict called Budayeen (an obvious analog to Effinger’s own French Quarter of New Orleans), his life of winning and losing a buck here and there and breaking up and getting back together with his transsexual-stripper girlfriend Yasmin has a charm he can live with as long as he can have his independence.  While others around move to the lull and sway of implants and mods in the bustling Arabian city, Audran chooses to go unaltered.  But the freedom he holds dear begins to disintegrate when a trio of friends (hookers working in a brothel near his favorite bar) are murdered, one by one.  Seeking out the local police and mafia for answers, events escalate to the point Audran finds himself standing before the local Bey and facing a choice that is, in fact, not a choice.  Budayeen getting even bloodier and messier as colleagues and enemies are dragged into the mayhem, Audran must fight with all he’s got to preserve not only his friends who are still alive, but himself.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I am agog.  Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 A Princess of Mars is a book I’d never read, that is, until turning the last page today—and I am agog.  Like a genre rosetta stone, I now understand the root of America’s pulp science fiction and fantasy tradition.  Purple prose, heroes of a larger-than-life variety, a plot that continually expands its extent of incredulity, science fiction cum fantasy cum science fantasy—all the pulpy pieces are in place in one big, mythically maudlin male fantasy of the finest, squishiest cheese.  And the blazing sexism, disguised racism, undoubted ethnocentrism—everything WASP-ish, I’m just agog…

A Princess of Mars is the story of John Carter, a man who comes to be the greatest hero Mars has even known.  An officer in the Confederacy, after the Civil War he goes west seeking a fortune in gold in Arizona.  Finding a rich vein, he and a colleague head to civilization to get the equipment and laborers they will need to mine it.  But a tragedy occurs, and Carter is forced to defend himself.  Finding a cave to hide out, strange forces take over, and before he knows it, he lies naked in the middle of the Martian wilderness.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review of A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

How to describe the ineffable?  Is it possible to iron the crinkles from the crumple? Can the pieces of a Faberge egg be put back together?  Do the glass beads form some pattern?  These are the daunting questions I face setting out to review David Lindsay’s 1920 A Voyage to Arcturus.  Thus I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: review a book through the lenses of its descendants.  In this way I might be able to approximate—and approximate, only—the ideas possibly going through Lindsay’s mind as he penned the story of Maskull, his strange visit to the planet Tormance, and the myriad fantastyka there encountered.

Jack Vance’s The Green Pearl, the middle work of his Lyonesse trilogy, is a book set in a rustic land reminiscent of Medieval England.  But not all of it.  One sequence of events taking characters on a trip through a dimensional portal to an alternate world, all manner of the bizarre is encountered in the aptly named Tanjecterly.  From animals shaped like houses to strangely colored flora and fauna, the land bears little in common with Earth.  Tormance, the planet Maskull finds himself traversing in A Voyage to Arcturus, is much the same.  Green skies, multiple suns, blue plants and trees, and creatures that can only be pictured in the mind’s eye, Maskull’s journey is as psychedelic as a Jimi Hendrix song.  The fact that chaos rules the geological formations—where a mountain exists one moment a lake may the next—only heightens the alien feel, and leads one to wonder: why has Lindsay taken Maskull, and by default, the reader to such a strange land?

Review of "Anticopernicus" by Adam Roberts

Coming to the knowledge Earth is not the center of the universe was a major milestone in human history.  Though perhaps affecting Western religions the most, the seep of that knowledge into the everyday person’s brain nevertheless could not have had anything less than profound impact.  While on one hand it’s possible to see realizing Earth as a satellite as a step forward in confronting this thing we call existence, there is likewise a distancing effect.  If Earth is not center of the universe, to what other mass forces and wills are we subject?  If we are but pawns in interstellar physics, to what else are we beholden?  Tackling the issue through a human lens, Adam Roberts self published the novella “Anticopernicus” in 2011.  The story of a woman whose deep space catastrophe places humanity just in front of another important milestone, it re-contextualizes the future of human existence in significant fashion.  I still think Copernicus would have been appreciative.

When aliens appear in the outer galaxy and request an audience, Ange Mlinko is one of the pilots selected to fly a delegation to meet them.  Removed from the list at the last moment, however, she returns to her normal life.  Indifferent to the rejection, life goes on and she eventually gets a gig capturing an ice asteroid for the Martian colony.  But after picking up the object and heading to the red planet, a string of bad luck unleashes itself.  One of her crew dies in unforeseen circumstances, and a short time later, another larger catastrophe wrecks itself upon the ship.  Staring her fate in the eye, mankind’s first contact with aliens conflates with her predicament, forcing the apathetic young woman to examine life from a new perspective.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Out of the Phone Booth Dressed in Black: Response to Benjanun Sriduangkaew's Alter Online Ego

Just what speculative fiction needs, another affair to be magnified ten times larger than it should be.  Case in point: Benjanun Sriduangkaew and the revelation of her alter online egos, Requires Only That You Hate among them. 

The short term: certainly the politically correct crowd is going to make a big hullabaloo about the revelation of the person behind Requires That You Hate and her other online personae.  Like a classic novel ending, she was standing among us all the time.  But let’s reflect on a few things.  One, Sriduangkaew could have simply closed down Hate with none the wiser, but instead chose to confess, which, for as much as it pales in comparison to the content that was apologized for, is worth something.  (Vox Day, after all, has yet to make a similar admission.)  Two, we all were young once and made choices and behaved in ways we regret.  Certainly it’s regrettable these mistakes were so public and vehement in Sriduangkaew’s case, but there are uncountable worse acts committed on this Earth every day than venting virulent opinion at fringe corners of the web.  The confrontation of the vitriol via apology seems to mark the beginning of the end of the immaturity.  Three, amongst the profanity and vehemence were some valid points regarding violent sexual behavior and racism in the fiction many genre fans support.  The genre needs to confront some of these issues, even if presented in jagged form, and should not be part of the fallout of this debacle. (And yes, Patrick Rothfuss is an idiot - see here.)  Four, the only reason this is getting the attention it is, is because Sriduangkaew is a writer.  Were the proprietor to have been revealed as Jane Doe, people would ignore it for the relative anonymity, and move on.  This relates to five: Sriduangkaew’s fiction puts its money where her alter ego mouth is.  On top of being dynamic linguistically, it never features those elements she so intensely spoke out about and is, in fact, some of the most unique short work being published in genre these days—not an easy feat to pull off.  And lastly, six: it's obvious Sriduangkaew is dealing with some real mental issues, paranoia, anxiety, the inability to release emotions healthily, egoism, etc. But like the steps of AA, owning up to your problems is the first.  'Hi, my name is Benjanun, and I have a problem.' has been voiced.  But having to stand and face the group of people who will rehash her transgressions in the most dire of tones is not part of the AA program.  Humans being what they, however, this is inevitable.  She did, this, she did that, she is evil, she is unworthy of existence is a kind of punishment and will satisfy some.  But it's not part of the cure; the mental issues appear punishing enough.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review of The Embedding by Ian Watson

At its worst, science fiction is cheap, shallow entertainment on par with mainstream popular fiction that fails to induce anything in the reader save the thought ‘time wasted’.  At its best, however, science fiction can be a powerful tool for exploring the human condition and supply deep-reaching questions for thought.  Done right, it expresses aspects of existence that literary realism can (literally) only dream of.  After all, the opportunities for comparison and contrast, profundity and insight are exponentially myriad when the universe, not just the world, is your canvas.  Taking full advantage of the possibilities, Ian Watson penned The Embedding in 1973.  Using linguistics as a bounce point, humanity’s chances/willingness/ability to merge toward a common understanding are examined under a genre light that features aliens, political intrigue, jungle tribes, and language experiments in intelligent if not hackneyed fashion.

While there are several side stories, The Embedding can be divided into three main flows.  The first is set in the deep jungles of Brazil where the Xemahoa tribe live.  Pierre is a French anthropologist observing the tribe, taking particular note of their use of language.  Rather languages: everyday speech is in a format readily translatable into other known languages, while in their religious ceremonies another language, a language which combines fungal psychedelics with embedded words and phrasing, is used.  A controversial dam project threatening to force the Xemahoa away from their ancestral home and fungal grounds, it isn’t long before politics ad violence interrupt Pierre’s research.  Meanwhile in the UK. a highly experimental language study is underway—one that would certainly be illegal were it performed today.  Linguist Chris Sole teaches brain damaged children using embedded language, experimental drugs, and physical techniques that occupy the gray area of abuse, all in the hopes of not only better understanding human communication, but perhaps unlocking something deeper in the brain.  Appearing about a third to halfway through the novel is the third storyline.  Passing through the Milky Way is an alien ship, returning to its home world.  Its mission to understand reality deeper than known reality, they come looking to barter knowledge for knowledge in the hope humanity may offer some piece to their reality puzzle.  They, of anyone in the story, find the unexpected.