Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review of Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales

It is a minority of Americans who are aware the Soviets were first to put man into space.  (See Andy Duncan’s wonderful novella The Chief Designer for an overview of the Soviet space program.)  Even fewer are aware it was the Russians who first put a woman into space—twenty years before the the ‘land of the free’.  Into this unrealized possibility stepped Ian Sales in 2013 to write the third alternate history in the Apollo Quartet, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (AQ3).  Once again balancing hard sf and humanism, the novella imagines what it would have been like were women the first NASA astronauts in space, and in turn reveals a few skeletons from the program’s closet.

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, while continuing the trend of ostentatious titles in the Apollo Quartet, likewise continues the trend of featuring astronauts—thirteen of them to be exact.  Led by the ambitious and stubborn Jackie Cochrane, the Mercury 13, as they are called, are trained for space while American men are off fighting communism in Korea and the USSR circa 1953.  Rosie the Riveter shifting her attention to the heavens, the women prove themselves, through the rigors of simulations, to be up for the task, and one by one are sent on missions of increasing extremes into Earth’s orbit.  Jerrie Cobb, a devout young woman, is perhaps the most dedicated among the thirteen, and through her eyes the reader experiences the wonder of the great beyond, and, disappointment at what befalls Cochrane’s presence in the space program once the war in the East ends.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review of Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Though far from what one thinks of as typical hard sf, Peter Watts’ 2006 Blindsight was one of the genre’s most cutting edge stories knowledge-wise.  The larger societal mindset still trying to catch up to the implications of modern neuroscience, Watts used fresh data to fictionally present many of the roots of human behavior brain research is uncovering.  The follow-up novel eight years in the making, 2014’s Echopraxia is, at least, worth the wait.  Though lacking a similarly engaging main premise, Watts’ continues with an agenda of hyper-determinism, producing a harsh, challenging look at the mind and its potentials.

Wikipedia defines ‘echophenomena’ as “’automatic imitative actions without explicit awareness,’ or pathological repetitions of external stimuli or activities, actions, sounds, or phrases, indicative of an underlying disorder.”  Echopraxia is the ‘action’ portion of the definition.  Beyond mere hammer-to-the-knee, it refers to the deep, sub-conscious motivations of human behavior, differing worldviews, and the manner in which people respond to the exigencies of life.  These are the areas Watts expands the idea in Echopraxia.  From religion to existentialism, the limits of science to pure fear, a broad array of topics are confronted by one man taken on a trip he wished he could have avoided.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review of Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

With the success of The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, spunky, pint-sized, witch-in-training Tiffany Aching has proven one of the strongest rays of Discworld sunshine.  Bolstered by the (b)roguish capers of the inimitable Nac Mac Feegle, her development continues in Wintersmith (2006), the third Tiffany Aching story.  Faced with her first boyfriend, once again she must look within herself (her Second and Third thoughts) to see beyond the surface of troubles past and troubles future.

Now thirteen years old, Wintersmith opens with Tiffany apprenticing to Miss Treason, a 113 year old witch whose eccentricity for black cannot compare to the twinkle in her eye and knack for dealing with the locals’ domestic problems.  The pair going to the Night Dance in the early going of the story, Tiffany breaks into dance in an impulsive moment, and in turn breaks the cycle of winter into summer.  The Wintersmith coming to look for her in the aftermath of the debacle, he begins lavishing gifts—as only the Wintersmith can—on the young teen.  His advances becoming stronger, Tiffany must sort out her thoughts to bring warmth back into her life as winter settles in. 
But can she?

Review of A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s 30th Discworld novel, called The Wee Free Men, introduced the world to the amazingly irascible, irreverently lovable Nac Mac Feegle.  Oh, and Tiffany Aching.  The lessons the nine-year old girl learned dueling with the Queen of Fairyland important, they were, however, not the whole story.  Returning to the character for the 32nd novel, A Hat Full of Sky is the second Tiffany Aching story, and just as successful as the last.

Now older (eleven years old) and wiser (a survivor of the fight with the Queen), Tiffany is ready to take the next step in her education toward becoming a witch.  Leaving her beloved Chalk and fields of sheep behind, she goes to study with the duplicitous Miss Level, an older witch living in the forest some distance away.  All going well in Tiffany’s first days with Miss Level, a strange spirit called a hiver comes to haunt the land, however, dogging Tiffany’s steps.  The Nac Mac Feegle aware of it too, they prepare themselves for a trip—Jeannie laying geas on them to protect Tiffany.  Arriving too late, they, and Miss Level and Grany Weatherwax, must find a way to help Tiffany, or at least give her a way to help herself from the hiver.

Review of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is perhaps the most unique story of Discworld.  It is also the series’ first YA title.  Opening a new door for Pratchett in the setting, it was apparently a wide one as he opted to write a second YA novel, The Wee Free Men.  Like Maurice, The Wee Free Men is a book that can easily be enjoyed by the young and old alike.  Tailoring the perspective rather than content, he uses a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves motif to introduce a playground-sized heroine with strong will, the delightful Tiffany Aching.

The Wee Free Men opens with nine-year old Tiffany playing by a stream near her parents’ farm in the Chalk, a very rural region of the Disc.  A basket floats by, but turns out to be a boat oared by a mouthy, mini-blue man covered in tattoos and speaking in a strong Scottish brogue.  He shouts a quick warning to her, but just as quickly floats on.  A strange green creature attacking from the rushes soon thereafter, Tiffany heads home to get her frying pan and some bait to take the creature out.  Her little brother Wentworth unwittingly occupying the role of the latter, she soon regrets the choice as he is stolen away by the Queen of Fairyland in the aftermath of the fight.  A rescue needed, the little blue men return to help Tiffany—perhaps offering more than is needed—to get her brother back.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review of The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

It’s is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions. Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail.  Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.

Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave.  Atwood utilizing not only The Odyssey but also Robert Graves’ monumental The Greek Myths as well as other historical material, the woman’s recollection of her life covers not only her time with Odysseus (or at least waiting for him), but her childhood, demise, marriage, relationship with her son Telemachus, relationship with her father, and relationship with her maids—maids hung by Odysseus and Telemachus.  So while a sympathetic character arises from the shadows of history, there remain others whose light is diminished.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review of Solaris Rising 3 ed. by Ian Whates

In my wild mind, I often compare the job an editor has sequencing stories for an anthology to a band sequencing songs for an album.  New bands often lump their better songs toward the beginning, hoping to cash in on the splash, while the more experienced tend to use different tactics to evoke a desired response.  One such tactic is to follow up a solid opener with a bit of mediocre material before laying on the good stuff—an easing into the music as it were, such that the last impression leaves the best impression.  While reading Ian Whates Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction (Solaris, 2014) this strategy took shape in my mind, and as the last several stories were absorbed, I was convinced as to the tactic.  But then again, the beauty of science fiction anthologies is that everyone walks away with a different opinion of what was good and what wasn’t… 

Solaris Rising 3 opens on a strong note: “When We Harvested the Nacre- Rice” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, which is the story of Pahayal and a woman she finds laying half-dead in a puddle near her home.  War raging between Pahayal’s land and a neighbor, she isn’t surprised to learn the woman, named Etiesse, is a soldier.   But it isn’t until the two visit a weapons’ museum and an attack takes place that Pahayal learns exactly what kind of soldier Etiesse is.  The line of story playing out steadily and evenly, with ripples of poetic prose here and there, Pahayal’s tale, for as minimalist as it is on the surface, tugs subtly at something deeper, more emotional, and certainly more anthropological.  Set in an intriguing setting where the ocean lies just a meter beneath the soil and ethereal, unearthly creatures emerge from pools in the night, “The Goblin Hunter” by Chris Beckett has a wonderfully described backdrop. Set in his Lutania world, a young woman is tasked with keeping the locals under control as they needlessly hunt and kill native species for reasons of superstition.  Beckett’s agenda an obvious one—and one that, in fact, should be propagated further, I remain, however, wishful that the characters and their dialogue were closer to mimetic such that the impact and heights of profundity aimed at could have been better achieved.  Carrying on with the idea of cultural intrusion, “Homo Floresiensis” by Ken Liu is the story of the grad student Benjamin and what happens when his ornithology studies in Indonesia are sidetracked by the discovery of some very unique bones.  Though ending in a manner unqiue to Liu, the question remains: does the simplicity of plot and character bear the heady weight of the theme? 

Review of The White Otters of Childhood by Michael Bishop

Roger Zelazny’s 1966 This Immortal is a post-apocalyptic story which puts humanity on the stand and adjudges its value.  Dashes of comic book violence tossed in to spice up the noir mood, the novel displayed multiple facets of the genre.  Taking precisely the same idea yet shading the sensationalism with symbolism, Michael Bishop’s 1973 novella The White Otters of Childhood is likewise a quality read that critiques humanity’s worth. 

The year 5309, mankind has somehow survived a second holocaust, its 2 million remaining souls living on the island of Guardian's Loop in the Caribbean.  An alien group called the Parfects, aloof of human concerns, live beyond the seas silently watching and ensuring humanity does not extend beyond the island.  Markcrier Rains, employee of the Sunken Library, is called upon to be an ambassador amongst the Parfects for a year.  But it’s upon his return to the island that the story really starts.  Falling in love with a friend’s daughter, he does so in the knowledge the island’s Navarch, a hairy man called Fearing Serenos, is likewise in love with the beautiful, disfigured woman.  Rivalry, hatred, scorn, and revenge unraveling in the aftermath of the wedding, the island of Guardian’s Loop is never the same, the Parfects overseeing all.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review of The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales

Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”, while not on the list of short stories many consider canonical, remains a poignant piece about a husband and father at war with himself.  The joy and excitement he experiences traveling and working in space offset by the despair of spending time away from his wife and children, the resulting heartache is the centerpiece of the story—a heartache easy for a person to relate to looking up at the night sky in amazement and yet be grounded with love and life invested in their family.  Layering on the technical details of the space program and adding a pinch of Genre 101 to spice things up, Ian Sales’ The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself (2013) is the second of a projected four alternate histories of the Apollo program.

Like Adrift on the Sea of Rains, an astronaut is the main character of TEwWtUBI.  Brigadier General Bradley Elliot the first human to set foot on Mars, one half of the narrative is devoted to describing the mission, and all its ups and downs.  Elliot’s nine days Mars-side anything but standard, a bizarre discovery has a direct effect on mankind’s next steps in the solar system, and beyond.  The trip also affects the relationship with his beloved wife on Earth.  Elliott now in his late fifties, the other half of the narrative (interwoven in alternating scenes with the first) finds the man once again suiting up for space.  This time, however, his mission is top secret.  After arriving at a system orbital, he is whisked away to the planet Gliese 876 where a mysterious occurrence has top layers of US government astir, even down to Area 51.  His relationship only deteriorating in the time since the Mars’ mission, it is with heavy heart Elliot sets out for what is to be his final mission.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review of The Execution Channel by Ken Macleod

The Fall Revolution quartet, Engines of Light trilogy, Newton’s Wake, and Learning the World—the first nine novels written by Ken Macleod—are all science fiction of a new space opera/far future/BIG concept variety. In 2007, however, the author decided to abandon space and focus on Earth and contemporary concerns.  The Execution Channel his first near-future work, it also (seemingly) gave Macleod a release valve for his thoughts regarding terrorism and the surrounding post-9-11 disorder in media and government.  A savvy techno-thriller, the novel delivers all of the political science Macleod is known for in an angry, riveting story of (dis)information in the age of the Patriot Act.  Keeping his oeuvre fresh, the transition produced a work as notable as those which came before.

On the opening page of The Execution Channel, a small nuclear bomb is detonated on an American military base in Scotland.  A handful of nuclear explosions having gone off in the few intervening years between now and when the story is set, it’s not a huge surprise (in the context of 9-11, that is) but one which has those involved active and hungry for knowledge about responsible parties so they may seek vengeance.  Initially announced as a weapon malfunction by the British government, a young peace activist named Roisin was at the base a short time before the explosion and has photos which tell a different story.  The blogosphere exploding with frenzied discussion, big questions, and complex conspiracy theories, a blogger named Mark Dark tries to dig through the muddle to find the truth.  While sieving through the information and disinformation provided by viewers, known sources, and internet hit groups, Dark comes across info that sheds an interesting light on the accusations flying at Al Quaeda, Syria, Russia, China, Korea, and beyond.