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. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

And yet another The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthology to pore over, 2010’s being Jonathan Strahan’s fifth.  For those familiar with Strahan’s author preferences, the selections will not come as a surprise.  It is a rich mix, from the popular—ahem, well-known—to the far lesser known, male to female, native English speakers to the international writer, a wide spread of viewpoints is represented, but certainly some personal favorites once again make an appearance.  From the genre perspective, it covers science fiction, fantasy, and everything between (but as always, do ignore the cover, as fantasy once again holds the lion’s share).  Enough lip service; it’s about the stories.

The anthology opens on a colorful splash with “Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi.  Somewhere between hard (quantum mechanic) science and fantasy (of a mythological bent), it is the story of man living in a computer generated environment and the quest he is sent on to the city by an ex-girlfriend.  Continually escalating plot exponentially in terms of reality, the ending does close a circle, but seeming one of far too great imaginative circumference for the length of the story.  Dark like a day threatening to rain, Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is the story of a dwarf looking for treasure but with much more on his mind.  Possessing a beautiful storytelling voice, it should be read aloud.  The inclusion of a Gaiman story in a ‘year’s best’ almost requisite for Strahan, this selection, however, does not disappoint as much as others have.  Whether the moral is original, well, that is another story (ha!).  “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” by Sandra McDonald is a tale that appears absurd at the outset (cowboy robot sex slaves on ice skates??), but once the reader enters they find interesting layers of gender discussion in the story of a woman who got revenge on her husband by requesting seven said robots as part of the divorce deal—intriguing in a bizarre way. “The Spy Who Never Grew Up” by Sarah Rees Brennan is a modern take on Peter Pan where, the boy who never grows old, has become a secret agent working for MI-6.  Neither superbly well-written or sophisticated, it’s a light read that will appeal to the fairy-minded crowd, but doesn’t have much lasting appeal.  Like Brennan’s story, Holly Black’s “The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue” is another less-than-serious affair that plays with a major trope of fantasy: werewolves, in urban, tongue-in-cheek fashion. Written unnecessarily in the present tense, it is sprightly, but in due course less-than-inspiring, as well.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales

One of the interesting phenomenon I observe in science fiction is the group of fans who believe that hard sf is the true sf.  The ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ being the ultimate litmus test, writers like Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter are revered as gods, Greg Egan perhaps the ruling deity.  Having a strong preference for works which foreground extrapolation on existing knowledge, their forums and blogs revel in the technical details and theoretical underpinning of their favorite authors’ conceptions.  Looking at its title, and then perusing Ian Sales' blog It Doesn’t Have to be Right…it just has to sound plausible would give the appearance that the author would be subject to such discussion.  But if there was any doubt, his 2012 BSFA winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains clinches it. 

What Mike at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature rightfully identifies as an “unabashed glorification of the heydays of NASA”, Adrift on the Sea of Rains fictionalizes in-depth research of the Apollo program, both conceptual and actual, to produce a Cold War alternate history that has a very real, very hard sf feel.  In the story, the US has established a lunar base in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the USSR.  A small group of astronauts and scientists calling Falcon base home, the story opens some time after a nuclear war on Earth has left them stranded with no contact.  Only a few months of provisions remaining, the group, captained by Peterson, must deal with isolation, lack of morale, and character inter-tension as best they can staring down their fate.  But when a radio signal is picked up from Earth one day—the first since nuclear hostilities, the hope of seeing Earth once again rises.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review of The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper

The cycle of power, from revolution to decline, is the bread and butter of epic fantasy.  E.R.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros openly displaying the idea in its title and Tolkien penning a vast epic to describe the end of the Third Age, to say it is one of the most common tropes of the sub-genre (though for some I realize it is genre) would be selling it short.  It thus takes a special hand, an approach which make characters real and a method that invites readers into the story, to make a story (or series) stick out from the herd.  So while Terry Brooks was doing his best to assimilate in 1977, Richard Cowper was writing a story he hoped would stand out.  The Road to Corlay published in 1978, it opens with the novella The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as its prologue, and expands from there.  The result: a novel that time has inexplicably forgotten—inexplicable as Brooks is still remembered—but is deserving of renewed attention.

The Road to Corlay opens with the story of an elderly storyteller named Peter and his young traveling companion, Tom.  On their way to York to enroll Tom as an apprentice cleric, the two strike up a special friendship.  Tom’s skills as a flutist complementing Peter’s tales beautifully, the two rake in the cash on the journey.  Peter loathe to give up the boy once they arrive in York, he plays off Tom’s strange visions and convinces him to stay on the road for another half a year.  Trouble is, they never get a chance.  Events conspiring to prevent their road trip, a wrench is thrown into the works of the kingdom on the eve of the fourth millennium as a wildfire of belief spreads itself across the land.

Review of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Richard Cowper

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the story of Peter the tale spinner and his nephew, fourteen year old Tom, who are on their way to York to enroll the lad as an apprentice clerk for the government, per his mother’s wishes.  Meeting a wide variety of people on their journey, through their conversations the state of the land, as ruled by a strong-armed theocrat, slowly comes into view.  Tom a gifted pupil of the pipe, his tongue, split like a serpents to produce notes in the two halves of his instrument, was trained by the now dead magician Moffred.  Hoping to keep the young boy’s talent backing his street corner parleys for a while longer, Peter attempts to subvert Moffred’s teachings the closer the two draw to York.  But it’s in the medieval-esque city that the decision is made for them.

Cowper proving himself as adept a storyteller as Peter, what begins simple enough slowly cottons into a tale that extends beyond the traveling duo to encompass a kingdom.  Not epic-epic, however, Cowper keeps his story character-centric, a person here and there added to expand the setting.  The prose smooth and gentle (Robert Silverberg’s comes easily to mind), the reader is guided along without truly feeling the pages turn, imagery perfectly balanced with dialogue and plot development.  Aiming at and hitting the larger concepts of religion, society, revolution, and societal transition, the fact the whole reverts back to the characters is a testament to the novella’s integrity.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, while not the seminal work of dystopian literature, is certainly one of, if not the most influential.  The premise a thought experiment wherein an authoritarian government monitors its citizens’ behavior for purposes of subjugation, it puts freedom at the ultimate premium: a person’s ability to comprehend reality.  Wholly politicized, Orwell delved deeply into the individual aspects of replete authoritarianism, but left gender as a sub topic.  In 1985 Margaret Atwood produced The Handmaid’s Tale, and in doing so foregrounded gender in a dystopian setting just as powerfully disturbing and politicized as Orwell’s. 

Not an imitation, The Handmaid’s Tale, while borrowing the geo-political premise of Orwell, remains unique.  North America at war, differing religious and political factions have taken pockets of power after a mass assassination of the American president and senate.  The Gileadans one of the major players arising in the aftermath, they enforce their religion on the society they rule.  Nuclear weaponry having been used in the aftermath of the assassinations, the Gileadans sequester their women and heavily regulate behavior to the point of making them prisoners under the guise of protecting the procreation of mankind.  This protection in the form of moderated ovulation, copulation, and conception, each woman is in fact a baby factory, disposed of when they pass the age of child bearing, sent to clean the radiation belt in the zone beyond.  Power and control wholly in the hands of men, it is in the house of a Gileadean commander that the story of The Handmaid’s Tale takes place.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review of Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

It seems that for every ‘good’ piece of technology, a ‘bad’ exists to offset it.  And for every invention developed with the best of intentions, it sure seems able to be put to some awful uses.  Medicine, atomic bombs, television—you name it, it fits within the multi-colored spectrum of humanity’s creations—a spectrum that seems to sum at zero in the end.  Seemingly no chance to avoid the development, use, and misuse of technology, it’s best to take a fatalistic view; whatever happens, happens—at least this is the view I came upon reading Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 Cat’s Cradle.

Cat’s Cradle is the story of the everyday journalist John and his attempts to write a book about what Americans were doing the day Hiroshima was bombed.  Desiring to include the inventor himself, John seeks out Felix Hoenikker, the brain power behind the weapon.  Learning he’s since passed, however, John settles for interviewing his surviving children.  Through the course of getting the interviews and other material for the book, John arrives on the island of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean.  The local dictator not the only strange aspect to life there, a religion called Bokononism permeates society with mysterious precepts shrouded in words such as ‘karass’, ‘foma’, ‘sinookas’, and many others.  John also learns of a secret substance called ice-nine and its radical potential to alter the world in ways humanity never dreamed.  But the biggest surprise of all on San Lorenzo is the dictator’s announcement on his deathbed.   John’s job is about to change.