Saturday, November 22, 2014

Review of The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology ed. by Gordon van Gelder

The typical speculative fiction anthology of original material that appears on shelves these days is a selection of stories intended to reach a particular niche of readers while finding as many tangents within that niche as possible to avoid monotony.  The themed anthology self-limiting, rarely do great or superb anthologies appear, average to slightly above average the usual result.  It is the retrospective anthology, with its ability to glean the years for quality stories, that has a chance at greatness.  If you’re the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, well, the possibilities are all the brighter.  The magazine publishing speculative fiction for more than half a century, and best-of every five to ten years since 1970, in 1999 Gordon van Gelder took the reins from Edward L. Ferman and produced a 50th Anniversary edition from the magazine’s backlog.  A success, he came back with another ‘very best of’ selection of stories in 2009 for the 60th anniversary anthology.  The magazine’s archives deep (perhaps like no other magazine can boast) and van Gelder's editorial skills consistent, the 60th is just as consistently good as the 50th.  (And for the record, so is the 65th.)

The anthology opens on a scattershot shot of color from the genre’s past.  Three stories in a row—rat-a-tat-tat—anticipate the reader’s hopes all will be as good.  “Of Time and Third Avenue” by Alfred Bester is the result of an author trying to write the best time travel story, ever.  A brief few pages, indeed it is a perfect little specimen (for whatever it’s worth) written in Bester’s supremely confident, dynamic hand that captures one magical possibility of time travel.  “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury is a tiny, sparkling jewel of a story.  A breathtaking moment of juxtaposed beauty and pain, the rain does stop falling on Venus—but only for a moment. “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” by Shirley Jackson is a charming and delightful story of a man who… well, it’s best just to read the story and find out.  A bit of post-WWII Americana, its sentiment produces nostalgia for simpler days.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review of Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo

I think it’s fair to say the name Paul Di Filippo is known to the majority of modern science fiction and fantasy connoisseurs but by few readers from the genre’s mainstream.  Experimental stylistically, imaginatively unlimited, in dialogue with genre, sophisticated presentation, and often ahead of his time, there is a genre radar, and Di Filippo flies under it for most of fandom.  Exhibiting these talents is his wild 1996 collection Ribofunk.  As abstract as can be, it is the off the wall science fiction written in dynamic prose that vacillates between poetic, experimental, and straight-forward narratives to present a biopunked worldview of the future. 

Like randomly hopping trains at every station, Ribofunk is a loosely connected series of stories that are definitely going somewhere but the destination is not important.  It’s the view along the way that counts for Di Filippo.  Characters and settings not the main linkages, the possibilities of human/animal biology coupled with neuroscience are the ideas cohering the collection.  And the possibilities are untamed.  “Little Worker” is the story of a human-imal servant, gene spliced sex toys, a prime minister, and southern rebels—bizarreness that works its way to a satisfactory ending.   “One Night in Television City” is that of a city boy who goes looking for drugs one night.  Getting what he wants, it takes him to the highest of highs.  But how to get down?  “McGregor”, which is Beatrix Potter’s tale of Peter Rabbit flipped on its head, spun in circles, then induced into a round or two of cartwheels is the story of how Peter looks for revenge on the farmer.  Along with the three blind mice and Flopsy, he works to free the other barnyard animals from the farmer.  With Peter puffing cigs and hanging a leary eye on Flopsy, this is not the children’s story you remember.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review of Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richards Parks

My first encounter with Richard Parks as a reader was a nice surprise.  Going through The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8 I came across the story “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”. About a young boy who goes investigating the well outside his bedroom window which emanates music each night and the fantastical things he finds within, it’s atmospheric, it’s mysterious, and it captures a little bit of that exotic Oriental something that I find so often reading Chinese stories but so rarely in Western stories of the same intent.  Thus when a copy of Parks’ novel Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate (2014, Diamond Book Distributors) came my way, it was difficult to refuse.

Lacking the subtlety and mood of “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, To Break the Demon Gate is more a straightforward samurai drama of the fantastic.  Intent on Japanese history and swordfights, demons and ghosts, and court intrigue, it mixes mystery, action, and tropes familiar from other genres to create a lean, vigorous story.  The main character a minor lord caught up in a series of seemingly impossible murders, his penchant for drink has him nodding to detectives of noir while wielding a katana in classic samurai style, killing the ghosts and demons that threaten to spin Japan’s highest regal court out of order.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of Moving Mars by Greg Bear

It is myth; it is legend; it is part of the fabric of the culture.  Every schoolboy and girl in the US knows the story of the Pilgrims, how they were oppressed in their native land and came to a new world to practice their beliefs in freedom. Ahh, America.  Among the first Europeans to settle in the West, this historical event is commonly viewed as a seminal moment in US history.  As a result, similar stories have come to be prized by the culture: good ol’ American fighting spirit and can-do will win the way when one desires to live a certain way or practice a particular political ideal.  Taking the myth/legend to the next planet outward in the solar system, in 1994 Greg Bear penned Moving Mars.  Nominated for every major American science fiction award (and winning once), it’s fair to say the cultural mindset continues to reinforce itself.

Moving Mars is the story of Casseia Majumdar, university student and daughter of one of Mars' oldest families.  Called Binding Multiples, blood relations are not necessarily the common denominator to the big communities.  The BMs’ mixing corporate and genealogical ideals into ‘bloodlines’, their clannish presence is as far as Mars’ governance has evolved since humanity first settled the planet.  Growing up ‘red rabbit’, Casseia lives in the tunnels of Mars along with five million others, getting a university education, and living as normal a life as Martian underground conditions allow for.  In comparison to Earth, this is rather limited.  Technology is available but always a few upgrades behind, and in limited supply.  And while people are free to mix as they please, Martian society remains more provincial in its customs and traditions.  Following on a love affair after university, Casseia is selected by her BM for an amazing honor: to accompany a relative to Earth for political negotiations.  What she sees and experiences there forever changing her worldview, little does she know it is her knowledge Mars will be drastically changed by in the future.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review of Taflak Lysandra by L. Neil Smith

Ohh, bargain bin, you lottery of surprise and displeasure, how you hold our fate in your hands.  Delight or disappointment just a penny or two away, your risk elevates the shock of surprise and softens the fall of displeasure.  The latter significant, with L. Neil Smith’s 1988 Taflak Lysandra, a bargain book I found for less than a dollar, a softening was needed.  Core sci-fi which makes the simplest of demands on the reader, it is perhaps best appreciated by the YA audience or the juvenile libertarian—if at all.

Taflak Lysandra is the story of one young lady, Lysandra, and her underleaf (yes, under leaf) adventure among the alien Taflak.  Like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, Lysandra, her coyote father (father’s brain, coyote’s body), an eccentric professor, and a yeti (not what you think) embark on a journey through the leafy core of a planet in their subfolia ship to explore regions unknown.  Adventure, of course, ensues.  Aliens and cabals, fights and battles, and, naturally, the ever-present Sea of Leaves and its mysterious depths.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review of Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

While there remain differences, I have come to think of Kim Stanley Robinson as the contemporary Arthur C. Clarke.  More diverse in the inclusion of science, writing lengthier novels, and more obviously Californian than British, Robinson nevertheless approaches the problems of humanity with the same optimism, lenience towards Eastern religions, practically and realistically conceived science fiction concepts, and underlying belief science can bring society to a higher plane of existence.  In short, they are very similar in spirit, and Sixty Days and Counting (2007), the third and final book capping Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, is glaring proof.

The conclusion of Fifty Degrees Below, the second book in the series, saw Frank Vanderwaal caught up in a fracas with a black ops intelligence team that had apparently been involved in a plot to alter presidential voting.  The election going off smoothly despite their intentions, Senator Phil Chase was elected and has chosen Diane, Frank’s boss at the National Science Foundation, to head his science group, in turn bringing Frank even closer to the executive level of science in government.  Chase the most open minded politician ever to sit the White House, a whole world of possibility reveals itself to Frank and Diane, who immediately set about investigating big-scale schemes that might mitigate ongoing climate change issues.  Their massive salt operation having changed the jet stream in Fifty Degrees Below, they now look at ways to get the polar ice caps back into good condition and the ocean levels lower such that the radical changes in weather patterns can be brought back within normal ranges and frequencies.  And the need is pressing.  From the depths of a freezing winter, record setting temperatures are predicted for D.C. in the summer.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels – ed. by Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois Mammoth Book of Science Fiction series, sometimes falling under different guises, is perhaps the most staid of the ‘best of’ anthologies.  Thirty-one anthologies published as of 2014, each containing in excess of thirty stories, a significant backlog of superlative material has accumulated since 1984.  Thinking to create an all-star cast of stories from that backlog, in 2005 Dozois edited The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction.  With no room for the novellas, a companion volume The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels (aka The Mammoth Book of Best Short SF Novels) was published in 2007, and is the subject of this review.

And the anthology is something resembling the best of the best.  Most of the authors well known (and those that are not are deserving of more attention), the anthology does capture some of the most interesting stories of the past few decades.  Without the pressure of only a year to make a selection, rather decades, the degree to which each story has held a place in Dozois’ mind, and by extension the field’s, allows for cherrypicking.  While I would have compiled a different list than Dozois, I cannot deny that each of the stories picked (save one) are at least worthy of being in such a volume, and represent the field well.  If there is any downside to the anthology, it would be that longtime readers of science fiction in novella form will probably already have read many, if not most of the stories.  But enough gibble gabble, here is the brief breakdown of each.  (FYI—all of the stories, at one time or another, have been reviewed independently on this blog. Therefore it’s possible to click on the link within each synopsis to get more in-depth information.)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review of The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The humanitarian atrocities of certain regions in Africa are well-documented.  Warlords piling on top of warlords, all fighting for self-perceived causes or just a moment of megolomaniacal glory, much of the continent’s 20 and 21st century history, with the introduction of western weapons, is bound up in bloodshed of the most appalling, cyclical, anti-humanist variety.  For every beautiful, smiling face a person sees in a tourist brochure or UNICEF ad, there is a child soldier lying dead in a ditch. Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2012 YA novel The Drowned Cities, follow up to the successful Ship Breaker, captures precisely such a violent time in an American future history.  A grim, harrowing account, a teenage girl fights to save a friend who once saved her in a land turned upside down by internecine war and feigned patriotism.

The novel is the story of Mahlia, a half Chinese, half American girl left behind in the drowned cities (a post-flood, tropical version of the Chesapeake Bay area) after the death of her mother and father’s return to China to escape the partisan violence which followed upon America’s fragmentation in the aftermath of environmental disaster.  Caught by a passing warlord, Mahlia’s hand is chopped off.  With her head planned next, a boy named Mouse steps in at the last moment to save her.  The pair escaping the warlord, they eventually find themselves living with and assisting a doctor in a remote jungle village called Banyantown.  Only partially out of the warzone, however, distant guns can be heard throughout the day and soldiers occasionally tramp through.  But when a highly-prized escapee finds himself in their backyard one day, it’s only a matter of time before a whole army comes looking to collect.  Matters drawing to a head in Banyantown as the soldiers carouse and trample what semblance of civilized life remains to the village, Mouse and Mahlia’s have their worlds spun further out of control.

Review of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Growing up poor, no matter America or in Africa, is a difficult task.  Human nature being what it is, a variety of perspectives can be taken of the wealth gap.  The affluent side might be something mysterious and forever unattainable, it can be motivation to work hard and one day find yourself amongst the rich and likewise a lifestyle entirely undesirable, it can be something that becomes owed—like feelings of victim hood, it can be the nexus for crime and other means of obtaining fast wealth, it can be the source of depression and frustration, and it can be accepted as normal; life just goes on, best to be happy with what you have instead of don’t have.  An interesting examination of the haves and have nots, Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2011 YA novel Ship Breaker takes a look at the world through the eyes of a poor teenage boy.  Existing at one of the lowest rungs of society, it’s through a whirlwind adventure that the ultimate value of his life is made apparent.

Ship Breaker is set in a post-oil world warmed drastically by the greenhouse effect.  The polar ice caps have melted and raised sea waters hundreds of feet, inundating the continents.  Humanity pushed back but not defeated, the effect is nevertheless significant.  Whole cities drowned, conglomerates of the destitute have emerged wherever food can be found and valuable materials scavenged.  It is on the coastline of what was once Louisiana that young Nailer is found.  Rooting through abandoned tanker ships, he locates steel, copper, and other metals to earn his quota for the day.  Choking dust and mold filling every breath and the danger of being in tiny, enclosed environments haunting every step, his working conditions are abysmal.  But nothing is as bad as his return home.  Richard Lopez, Nailer’s father, is a drunken drug addict who beats his son for the most trivial of transgressions.  But one day, when a major storm breaks over the beach, their lives change forever.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of Gradisil by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts’ debut novel Salt was a story that balanced the meat and potatoes of conceptual science fiction with a political examination of the crossroads between anarchy and authoritarianism.  Later, his eleventh novel (excluding the parodies) New Model Army was the pertinent contrast of a purely democratic militia against a traditional army (an organization that historically has been, and is currently, totalitarianist).  Fitting nicely in the middle of these two is Roberts’ sixth novel Gradisil (2007).  An intriguing exploration of libertarianism, Roberts unpacks the political ideology with his trademark attention to society and the individual, telling the saga of one family’s rise into the highest ‘uplands’ of Earth possible and the turmoil that results.

Gradisil is at heart the story of three generations of one family—an atypical family, but a realistic one for it.  The novel opens with teenage Klara as she helps her father set up home in high orbit around Earth.  Wanting to escape the political trouble brewing between the European Union and the US, the pair are among the first people to fly into the upper atmosphere carrying a large metal tube and filling it with needed supplies: oxygen tanks, communications gear, food, sleeping hammocks, and the like—a truly Spartan freedom, but true freedom, nonetheless.  A tragedy interrupting their zero-g set up, Klara is left to pick up the pieces of life as war breaks out below.  Giving birth to a daughter, Gradisil, the narrative shifts ahead in time to when the Uplands, as the orbiting domiciles are called, have come to represent a political objective to the American government. The homes numbering in the thousands, most of which populated by rich dissidents, the President and his cabinet want to establish American governance and tax the burgeoning populace.  With violence between the land and sky threatening, Gradisil attempts to unite the Uplanders in defense of their “motherland”.  After experiencing catastrophes of her own, it is up Gradisil’s timid son Hope to resolve the political issues that have built around the Uplands, Earth’s most wide open frontier.