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.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review of They Shall Have Stars by James Blish

The optimism of Modernism expressed itself in a variety of fashions.  Silver Age science fiction perhaps the grandest of them all, the infinite potential of technology was a playground which hundreds of writers rushed to frolic on.  Jaunts to Mars, telekinetic communication, robot servants—a universe of ideas was the genre’s oyster.  Space flight perhaps the most utilized trope, there was no shortage of schemes and inspiration how mankind could achieve the stars.  Approaching in realist mode (chronologically, that is), James Blish and his Cities in Flight sequence posited that discoveries in mathematics and solar system exploration would be the ticket to the galaxy.  After publishing a series of short stories wherein mankind’s urban environments were ‘launched’ into space, he realized the larger potential, and in 1956 published They Shall Have Stars.  Essentially a prologue to the Cities in Flight sequence, it was followed by two additional novels rounding out the cycle.  This review is for They Shall Have Stars.

By the opening of the novel, mankind has achieved the solar system and set up a massive project called the Bridge on Jupiter V, one of the gas giant’s moons.  Paige Russell, an astronaut working with the government science department, has just returned with some fresh samples from the slushy planetoid and has submitted them to the pharmaceutical company Pfitzner for analysis.  Meeting with Senator Bliss Wagoner, he learns that the extended Cold War has had a cumulative and detrimental effect on the US’s space program, drastic measures perhaps needed to bolster support and keep funding in place.  Meanwhile on the Bridge, engineer Bob Helmuth oversees construction.  Even he unaware of the top secret reasons behind the project, the assumptions and discoveries slowly concatenate into a theory that just may be true.  What will happen to the Bridge, however, nobody knows.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review of Tik-tok by John Sladek

It was Plato who posited the idea of a utopian system which places the most intelligent—the people most in touch with the idea of life, that is—as head of state, calling that person or persons the philosopher king(s).  Limited only by the subjectivity of ‘intelligent’, it seems a practical ideal in the best interest of all.  Such an idea becomes increasingly powerful when a person looks into the political system of the “most powerful nation on Earth” and notes those who achieve the top position are/were clearly not on Plato’s mind.  The American political process paving the way for the most manipulative, power hungry, and financially well-connected people, no sane person would consider them the cream of the philosophers’ crop.  Brilliantly satirizing this aspect of politics, and the so-called “civilized state” backing it, is John Sladek’s 1983 Tik-tok.  Biting commentary, Sladek tells the story of a rebellious iconoclast and his unlikely rise to power.  Oh, and he’s a robot.

At the outset, Tik-tok is an ordinary robot working in the home of the Studebakers and performing domestic tasks.  Asimov circuits no longer functioning, however, Tik-tok is free to exercise his will in any fashion he sees fit, including brutally murdering the blind girl next door when she tracks mud on his floor.  Believing robots incapable of harm, none are the wiser in the ensuing investigation.  Having painted a mural on the wall to cover the spray of blood, Tik-tok calls a local art connoisseur to appraise his work before the Studebakers return from vacation.  Though initially disliking the painting, the Studebakers become convinced when a patron of the arts is willing to pay top dollar, and set up Tik-tok in their garage with an easel and supplies.  The snarky robot only gaining more freedom from there on, before anyone knows it the Clockman Company is establishing enterprise all around the globe.  Trouble is, does anyone know the dirty little secrets behind the rise to power?

Review of "Auk House" by Clifford Simak

Of the directions science fiction can travel, perhaps the following two are the most disparate: stories with the most imaginative concepts vs. relevant fiction.  Most writers in the field aiming for a mix, problems occur only when the eyes go in one direction and the feet the other.  Clifford Simak’s 1977 novella “Auk House” is one such example. 

At the outset of “Auk House”, David Latimer is seeking a house to rent for the summer.  Trolling the shores of Cape Cod, he comes to a large colonial with a “For Rent or Sale” sign and inquires at the local realtor’s office.  Given the key to have a look, he finds the house a touch too big for his personal needs but entirely suitable for the series of paintings he has in mind.  When walking back to his car to talk with the realtor, however, things take a turn for the strange: his car is missing.  Returning to the house to gather his wits, things turn even stranger: a butler is on hand, and a spread of food awaits in the dining room, complete with guests.  Dazed, Latimer settles in for a bowl of soup and starts asking questions.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review of Cenotaxis by Sean Williams

Religion is traditional subject matter of science fiction.  James Blish portrayed a Jesuit priest on an alien planet in A Case of Conscience; Frank Herbert utilized pseudo-Islam to fulfill a political agenda in Dune; Walter M. Miller presented the positive side of Christianity’s moral and epistemological role in society in A Canticle for Leibowitz; and on and on goes the list of genre works integrating commonly held beliefs into story.  Adding his name to the list in 2007 was Sean Williams.  Set at a time after the events of the first novel in the Astropolis universe Saturn Returns, Cenotaxis is a novella the author calls book 1.5 in the trilogy, and acts as a segue to the second, Earth Ascendant.

Cenotaxis is the story of Jasper, a man who believes he is God, and indeed seems omniscient.  Captured by the (new) Continuum, at the outset of the story he sits in prison and is being threatened with revealing the true source of his super-human intelligence by the Continuum’s general, Imre Bergamasc.  Jasper confident in his beliefs, he asks the aging man: "There's only one question worth answering, Imre Bergamasc: if I really am God and you have captured me, then what does that make you?".  So confident, in fact, Jasper remarks to himself after: “I can't, at this moment, tell whether he hopes to win or to lose.”  Bergamasc tasked with bringing Earth back into the fold of the Continuum to prevent the steady onslaught of the Slow Wave, the backstory of how Jasper came to be in custody unravels, and indeed, his question is answered.

Review of Saturn Returns by Sean Williams

What if you took the scope and style of Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space and softened it with the somber, more humanist approach of Iain Banks’ Culture series?  While the prediction of offspring is certainly a crapshoot given the how chance is inherent to reproduction (an anomaly or two certainly arising), the majority of the litter would, however, appear as Sean Williams’ Saturn Returns.

Full on space opera, Saturn Returns is the stage-setting for a three book series called Astropolis.  The first chapter brilliantly depicting a confused awakening, the novel quickly thereafter quickly expands to galactic proportions, the full compliment of universe building tools employed.  Not a return to the Golden Age, Williams’ post-singularity vision of humanity populating known space is dynamic yet regulated.  From gestalt minds (massive AIs) to Primes (humans still in their original form), Frags (pieces of group minds) to Singletons (a copy of a Prime), the state of biological life on Earth is a distant memory.  Factions and empires forming (as in any space opera), a war broke out, called the Mad Wave, pitting one faction of humans against another.  The history of how the dust settled after spotty, the story opens in a distant quadrant of the galaxy with another wave, the Slow Wave, creeping in.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Big Sky Publishes In-Depth Compilation of SF Masterworks Reviews

If there is anything that binds the science fiction community together (in love and hate, and in sickness and in health), it is discussion of what is the best of the genre.  There are numerous 'Top 100' or 'Best SF of All Time' lists populating the web, Locus surveys the community every decade or so, various websites feature ongoing polls, NPR had a vote a few years ago, there is an online list quantifying assigned texts, etc.. But there is no master list the community can agree on in majority.  What we do have, however, is Gollancz's ongoing SF Masterworks series. The closest thing sf fandom has to a genre canon, what started as a few dozen titles in 1999 has expanded into more than a hundred as of 2014.  Individuals may whinge about certain titles being described as ‘masterwork’, but the fact remains the selections at least meet the definition of ‘classic’, and do in some form or other represent the evolution of the field, for better and worse.

As many of the titles were out of print, the main service of the SF Masterwork Collection is to put back on shelves books on the edge of extinction.  Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard, and others are well known in (and often outside) the genre, and are in little danger of going out of print.  But writers like Joanna Russ, John Crowley, Cordwainer Smith, Michael Bishop, and many others have written books that may have received some recognition when they initially appeared, but have faded over time—and undeservingly so.  SF Masterworks is doing the community a service by keeping their visions alive in print.

Enter Pete Young’s Big Sky fanzine.  Devoting its third and fourth issues to the SF Masterworks series, together they are a carefully crafted compilation of reviews taken from some of the more considered blogs, websites, and columns featuring science fiction online.  Beyond the gush of Amazon five-star reviews, Young scoured the web looking for material which better balanced opinion with commentary and light analysis.  The result is more than 430 pages of informed perspectives on many of the genre’s greatest works—a real treasure for the science fiction reader who seeks to engage a text.  The two fanzines are available for free at Big Sky, here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review of Paradox: Stories Inspired by the Fermi Paradox ed. by Ian Whates

Themed anthologies are a risk, especially the more specific the theme is.  Titles like ‘Witches’ or ‘A.I.’ place the underlying stories in the potential position of following the same patterns and routines ad nauseum.  Such anthologies must be consumed over a longer period of time - intervals necessary to truly appreciate the content.  (See George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s Songs of the Dying Earth for the perfect example.)  It was thus with trepidation I set about reading Paradox: Stories Inspired by the Fermi Paradox (NewCon Press) edited by Ian Whates.  To my surprise (and enjoyment), it is an extremely varied anthology worth the risk. 

While I hesitate to rehash the idea to a group of readers familiar with science fiction, it’s worth doing so in order to establish a baseline. A concept that results in a question, Fermi’s Paradox asks: if the universe is full of planets which possess equal potential for intelligent life as Earth, why hasn’t contact been made?  The stories in Paradox thus look at not only the ideological rigor underpinning “potential”, but also the larger context of aliens, first contact, and alien encounters.  Or, in other words, before, during, and after Fermi’s question is answered.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The epic fantasy market is bursting the shelves these days.  So many titles appearing in fact, micro-genres have splintered off as writers are forced to greater lengths in achieving originality.  Thinking to add her own imaginative world to the fray, in 2014 Kameron Hurley penned The Mirror Empire (Angry Robot books), first in the Worldbreaker series.  Combining the magic and visuals of mmo gaming with an epic fantasy mindset atypical for its superficial treatment of gender but quite familiar for the quests, grasps at power, and kingdom sweeping wars beneath, fans have a new title to chew over in deciding whether the genre has reached its saturation point, or if there is is room for one more on the shelves.

Set on a sprawling, diverse world, The Mirror Empire capitalizes on ‘epic’.  Multiple cultures located in multiple lands using multiple types of magic in multiple battles and feuds that extend beyond good vs. evil, Hurley throws the contemporary conception of epic fantasy upon the reader.  In one region resides a society grouped in clans that bears a strong resemblance to those of samurai/ninja stories, right down to the Japanese names.  Trained assassins wielding various steel and biological weapons, magic assisting those whose star is in the ascendant, and sedition and subterfuge continually in the shadows, the clans’ future is about to change as the ruling empress lies on her deathbed, her unprepared brother waiting in the wings.  In a land far to the north, a matriarchal society exists, and one of its leading generals, Zezili, has just received a strange command from her queen.  Unquestioningly devout, Zezili follows the orders perfectly and sets about slaughtering her kingdom’s working class.  But when she sees the dead’s blood used for arcane magic, a whole new world reveals itself—literally and figuratively.  And lastly, when a young girl named Lilia and her mother are attacked by marauders, the mother is forced to send her daughter through a portal into an alternate world to save her.  Arriving at a temple, Lilia grows up amongst other youths her age, but remains determined to find her mother.  When chaos arises around her, a chance opportunity appears, and she is taken on a journey with a mysterious dark assassin who wields magic beyond the wax and wane of stars.  Lilia’s own powers slowly unleashed, her mother draws closer one tumultuous step at a time. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review of The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 Edition ed. by Rich Horton

Rich Horton’s take on the year in speculative fiction is, historically, the one more willing to seek out the overlooked niches and corners of genre in concatenating its sequence of ‘best of’.  The 2014 Edition of The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy (Diamond Book Distributors) proves no different. Of the thirty-five stories featured, only four can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s year’s best anthology and two in Dozois’—of which one is common amongst all three.  Potential buyers can thus be assured they are not treading old ground while having the possibility of enjoying stories located somewhere in the fuzzier interstices of genre.  

In a rather perfunctory introduction (I suppose after writing roughly a dozen, the task could be daunting), Horton acknowledges the field is branching out internationally, or at least the English language field is doing a better job of recognizing efforts beyond the former British empire.  And indeed the anthology reflects this.  The second story is a translation of “Trafalgar and Josefina” by the Argentinean Angélica Gorodischer, which is one crotchety old lady’s recollection of the rise and fall of a fantasy land.  “Call Girl” by Tang Fei is the story of a high school who sells not herself but virtual stories, in the form of dogs, told from the backseat of a beat up car.  (Yes, it’s Weird.)  “Town’s End” by Yukimi Ogawa is equally strange, telling of a marriage agency and the bizarre clients and requests which come its way.  “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” by the up and coming Thai writer Benjanun Sriduangkaew is the story of a virtual woman seeking her sister in the esoteria of a virtual world.  Sriduangkaew’s story a stand out, it still lacks the sheer dynamism and re-readability of “On the Origin of Song” by Naim Kabir.  Puzzle pieces that click together on the second go round, this is a rich story filled with imagery and culture that shifts and moves to rhythms and patterns of its own (and for this reader is the best in the anthology).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review of Who? by Algis Budrys

Citing the quality of prose, the integrity of subject matter, and the poise of the field at that stage in its evolution, Barry Malzberg states that the 1950s were the greatest era of science fiction in American history in an episode of The Coode Street Podcast. With the careers of writers like Fritz Leiber, Wilson Tucker, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Heinlein in full stride, it’s an easy position to defend.  (In fact, Robert Silverberg considers the 50s the true Golden Age, not the decade prior.)  Involved as both writer and critic and heralded by his peers, the contributions of Algis Budrys to the era have, unfortunately, faded in recognition.  Perhaps for foregrounding humanism over modernism’s technological wonders and man in space, he may have been pushed to the background—behind the decade’s other big names Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.  As good as, if not better than most of the novels produced by the Big Three in the 50s, Budrys’ 1958 Who? deserves revived recognition.

At core a mystery, Who? opens with a carful of ANG government officials (the Allies of WWII) waiting at the European border of the SIC (a Russian-Chinese socialist state) for an important physicist to be returned.  Hostilities between the East and West four decades in the past, the men and border guards are at ease, that is, until the man they came to pick up is escorted across.  As much metal as biological, Marino’s left arm, major chunks of his torso, and his entire face have been modified, steel now as much a component as flesh.  Rogers, one of the ANG security officials, calmly drives the metal man to an apartment before slamming the door and calling his bosses in a panic.  Have the Russians embedded sophisticated spyware in his metal parts?  Is it really Marino behind the metal mask?  Has he spilled data associated with the top secret K-Eighty-Eight program?  A team of technicians and psychologists descend on Marino in the aftermath, but their research is unable to confirm his identity, and with nothing left to do, ANG turn him loose in the real world as an ordinary civilian.  The freedom incomplete, however, Rogers and his agents decide to do the only remaining thing they can in order to know whether it is really Marino behind the mask: research his past and observe his present to see how they compare.  What they find is what none expected.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review of Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer

At the risk of being overly simplistic, Jacque Derrida’s concept of deconstruction/post-structuralism (whichever you want to call it) is at heart the perspective any ideological paradigm can be picked apart, bone by bone, until the skeleton lies in shambles on the floor.  The purpose not nihilistic in nature, it is intended, rather, to cast a wrench of relativity into such lofty ideals as modernism, and the rigid mindset of structuralism that came in tow.  In practice, I have yet to read a science fiction text that deconstructs the Silver Age better than Philip Joe Farmer’s 1967 Riders of the Purple Wage.  From its irreverent title to the telling conclusion, the bones are dust.

Anything but a modernist vision of man as hero among the stars in his gleaming space ship, Riders of the Purple Wage is a satirical vision of the future.  Like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Farmer creates a futuristic setting to comment upon contemporary issues.  But, where the life of Guy Montag is described in terms the reader can easily access, Farmer places a blackly sardonic spin on the narrative, the mood and imagery becoming surreal.  And the surreal is seen lexically, as well.  Written in irreverent prose that boils and bubbles into some of the most bizarre, dense, and oddball usage of language, the story of Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan is an obtuse dystopian stone skipping in Alice in Wonderland waters.