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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

I once taught a Business Ethics course at a Chinese university (not that the West is any better).  One of the exercises I did with the students is to ask them to list the things they would do if they could be invisible.  I did it enough times that the answers were generally predictable.  There was always the tiny number who had wildly imaginative ideas, followed by the minority who thought to become superheroes or super-policeman of some variety to stop evil doers.  But inevitably, the majority thought to use it for material gain or personal interest, usually involving robbing a bank.  Thus reading The Invisible Man (1897), it was a intriguing to discover H.G. Wells examined the mindset behind the desire.

Though Wells thought to use chemistry and biology to make a man corporeally transparent in order to test his limits, it was in fact the Greeks who first came up with the moral barometer. Called Gyges Ring, the wearer was rendered invisible—in pure fantasy terms.  Both triggers for ethical discussion, Wells uses the device in his story of Griffin, a man who has discovered the formula for invisibility.  Shifting immediately into reverse, he seeks to escape his fate by isolating himself to research the antidote.  Arriving at an inn in the small English village of Iping at the beginning of the story, the curious owner is mollified by Griffin’s willingness to pay without haggling in advance, and asks no questions why he is covered head to toe in cloth.  Baggage arriving shortly thereafter with all manner of bottles and vials inside, the owners believe they have a scientist as a lodger—a strangely accoutered scientist, but a scientist nonetheless.  But when strange events begin happening in the small village, most noticeably a burglary under near impossible circumstances, more and more questions start coming Griffin’s way.  The questions becoming drama, the little town is never the same after.

Review of "Finisterra" by David Moles

David Moles’ 2007 novelette “Finisterra” is the story of Bianca Nazario, a young woman recently arrived on the planet Sky from Earth.  Hired as an aeronautical engineer, her unwillingness to follow her family’s wishes and marry according to arrangment has pushed her to find work on the distant gas giant.  Employed by a group of poachers, her first few days are spent helping Valadez and his team capture and kill massive floating zaratanes—sentient creatures so big that communities of the poor and independent are able to eek out a living on their beings, and likewise so big their bodies can be chopped up and sold as commodities.  Her engineering skills intended to help design better air vehicles to aid in capture, Nazario finds herself in a moral delimma when Valadez asks her to the scene of an accident one day.  The politics of Sky unraveling in the aftermath, Nazario’s aeronautical knowledge may be the most useful talent she has as violence erupts.

“Finisterra” is a story that so desperately wants to be more than it is.  Featuring an equivocal ending, strong environmental and cultural themes, and elements that seem to speak to a strong socio-politcal agenda, its reality, however, is superficial.  Unable to escape the simplicity of its good and evil characterization, the strength of the novelette’s message fades with every contrived scene.  Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest possessing a similar premise (evil commercial interests invade the placid order of a benign alien group), her characters, however, are the center point upon which the ensuing agenda hangs.  Moles’ story lacks a similar focus.  This is not to say “Finisterra” should have an unambiguous ending or tone down the main thematic elements, rather that the characters should have been more subtle, more realistic, and more fundamental if it were to have fulfilled its ambition.  I will not say Le Guin’s characters are presented in purely realist terms, but there is a marked difference to the manner in which their plausibility affects the integrity of the story compared to Moles’.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review of "Black Amazon of Mars" by Leigh Brackett

While there is certainly credit due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more.  Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic.  But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas.  Similar in name to John Carter, Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark features in some of her Sea Kings of Mars stories.  More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in a fantasized version of Mars comprised of more than just uber-heroism exists, her 1951 novella “Black Amazon of Mars” is a good example of how the student may sometimes outshine the master.

Accompanying the native Martian Camar the Thief to his home, the opening of “Black Amazon of Mars” finds Eric John Stark camped in the snow, the pair getting ready for bed so they can hit the trail early the next day.  Camar dying from injuries, however, he is unable to travel further, and passes away that night.  But not before bequeathing to Stark the lost talisman of Kushat.  Having to set out on the trail alone, it’s not long before Stark is accosted by barbarians and taken prisoner.  Thrust before their leader, the masked Ciaran, he is given a choice: join or die.  Chaos unraveling in the aftermath of his decision, Stark is swept up in a whirlwind of sabotage, battles, and a journey that ultimately decides the fate of the talisman and Camar’s home.

Review of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Today’s citizen thinks nothing of hopping on a plane and arriving on the other side the world later that day.  Though it requires a bit more planning, it’s possible to fly around the world on commercial jets within a period reasonably measured in hours, rather than weeks or months.  There is/was (?) even a reality tv show The Amazing Race exploiting modern global transportation for entertainment.  But of course, this was not always the case, and as a result we have the dramas of the great explorers—Cook, Tasman, Columbus, Cortez, et al.  But with European empires established and transportation infrastructure in place, traveling around the world as a paying tourist became possible in the mid 19 th century.  Taking advantage of the possibility, and throwing in a pinch of mystery and a sprinkling of humor, in 1873 Jules Verne penned Around the World in Eight Days, creating one of the world’s great adventure stories—literally.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of the rich aristocrat Phileas Fogg, and the test of honor he places upon himself.  Spending his days playing cards at the Reform Club in London, a discussion of travel one day brings about a wager for £20,000 that in eighty days he can traverse the circumference of the globe.  The bet immediately taken by fellow club members, Fogg does not set out alone.  His valet, the Frenchman Passepartout, comes in tow, but with all of the bumbling, it’s uncertain whether he will be a greater help or hinderance toward Fogg winning the bet.  The stakes not high enough, a massive robbery has recently taken place in London, and Scotland Yard are on the lookout for anyone carrying large sums of cash—something Fogg indeed has in his baggage. And, as they say, the chase is on.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

In his wonderful breakdown of the genre in The Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Atterbery devotes an entire chapter to the sub-genre of science fantasy.  His view polarized, he states that of the “works that mingle the rhetoric of science fiction with that of fantasy, nearly all can be classed as either humorous or mythological.”  Though citing a scene from A Princess of Mars wherein love develops between a human male and an egg-laying Martian, what Atterbery is too coy to say directly is that humor and absurdity go hand in hand.  But he does not mention Poul Anderson’s 1960 novel The High Crusade, which may, in fact, be the poster example of science fantasy silliness.

How does this look on a genre wall: medieval English knights are one day attacked by ray-gun wielding, blue-skinned aliens.  The knights push back the attack, and in the aftermath are able to take an alien hostage.  It learns Latin in the time it takes Anderson to write a paragraph, and soon enough the knights are taught to fly the ship and embark for France to destroy their sworn enemy.  Trouble is, the alien tricks the knights.  Instead of France, the ship is on autopilot.  Destination: the alien’s home planet.  Upon landing, the group of knights lay waste to the technologically advanced aliens with nothing more than spears, bows, and arrows—the beam weaponry and power shields they encounter no match. And that’s only the first 40 pages…

Review of Nomansland by D. G. Compton

There is a scene very near the beginning of D.G. Compton’s 1993 Nomansland that directly informs the reader what kind of novel will unfold thereafter.  A woman, who is being pressured by government not to publish a controversial research paper, receives a visit from a secret service agent.  The woman and the agent settle down nicely in the living room for tea, and amiable banter ensues.  But things suddenly go… cheesy.  The agent whips out a knife and slices the cat’s throat.  Blood stains the sofa as a word of warning what will happen should the woman decide to publish her paper.  Such literary tricks in existence for ages, I thought perhaps writers might try to move beyond…  I guess not.

Nomansland is the story of Dr. Harriet Ryder-Kahn, a prestigious researcher working on the MERS problem; humankind is no longer able to conceive male children.  No cure in sight, male embryos are rejected upon conception.  Only forty years having elapsed since MERS first hit, the generation in power remain elderly men—and they are bent on keeping power until their time is over.   Dr. Ryder-Kahn having made a major breakthrough in discovering the root cause of the syndrome, it’s her research that is causing the cat-killing reaction.  But getting her research into the public’s eye is her life’s work—and humanity’s if no male is ever born again.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

I had an idea bubbling slowly in the back of my head that Jules Verne is the grandfather of entertaining sci-fi (fraternal side) whereas H.G. Wells is the grandfather of the maternal, soft side.  Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has rightfully taken me to task on the puissance of the idea, forcing me to adapt it: Verne may be the grandfather of hard sf.  Where Wells displays focus on social, political, and humanist aspects, Verne often integrates wild plots into info dumps and extrapolation on science.  This is not to say Verne was not a humanitarian, as obviously he was, only that the content of his novels is more abstract.  One of the strongest reasons backing my burgeoning idea is Verne’s 1870 classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  The story of a man made prisoner aboard a marvelously advanced submarine, the adventure he’s taken on, and the knowledge imparted during, are certainly some of the first explorations of the unknown using the tools of science fiction.  It is undoubtedly hard sf 19th century style. 

20,000 Leagues under the Sea is the story of the French biologist Pierre Aronmax.  Tasked with helping an American ship locate and capture an immense and elusive sea animal that has damaged one of the British Queen’s prize vessels, what they come upon is not a beast but the most advanced water craft the world has seen, the Nautilus.  Electrical engines powering the luxurious ship, its captain, the mysterious Captain Nemo, proves even more dynamic.  Dark, brooding, and driven by demons none can see, he is reluctant to take Aronmax onboard, and does so only on the condition that Aronmax and his two colleagues, the faithful valet Confeil and Canadian harpoonist Ned Land, never leave the Nautilus as long as they live.  The wonders of the sea unveiled before their eyes thereafter, it takes the three time to begin coming to terms with the idea the remainder of their lives will be spent aboard the mighty submarine, and when they do, the wonders are only beginning. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review Look into the Sun by James Patrick Kelly

Though known better inside the field than out, James Patrick Kelly remains one of the most dynamic writers of science fiction.  Writing in a range of styles, many of his stories have been nominated and received major genre awards.  But only at short length.  For reasons that entirely escape me, Kelly’s novels, despite being just as engaging as his short work, go virtually unnoticed.  In fact, a couple are fixups or expansions of his short stories.  One of the latter, the novel Look into the Sun is a work that, while not earthshaking or singular to the point of ecstasy, remains a well-written, interesting sci-fi story that has all of the imaginative ingredients of the genre with a personal story of redemption at its core.

Look into the Sun is the story of the troubled architect Phillip Wing.  Just as his greatest design is about to be unveiled, it’s revealed his wife has been cheating.  Coupled with the self-doubt regarding his ability to create real art, Wing falls into a depression of self-loathing, drink becoming his escape.  Meanwhile, on the distant planet Aseneshesh, a humanoid people prepare to send their goddess to death and introduce a new god to oversee their culture and religion.  Aware of the universe beyond via a third alien group called the Messengers, the reigning Asenesheshian goddess Tiagua requests that a human design her tomb, and settles in to wait their arrival.  Wing eventually brought to the planet, not only are his talents as architect put to the test, but likewise his sanity as he attempts to come to terms with the bizarre religion on the planet, physical changes, and what, precisely, are the stakes the Messengers have in the tomb. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review of "Outnumbering the Dead" by Frederik Pohl

Looking through my wife’s Angora today—a magazine offering a literal smorgasbord of articles from around the world—I was struck by one of the photos.  It was a close up of Melanie Griffith, an actress I remember from when I was young.  The makeup unable to hide it, the cosmetic surgery she’s undergone has, to some degree, kept her looking younger than she really is.  Age, however, still peers undeniably through the artifice.  And it got me thinking about many things, including the haves and the have nots, as well as the mindset regarding old age that brought about such anxiety as to warrant surgical defiance of time.  It was a nice segue into the novella I read this evening: Frederik Pohl’s 1990 Outnumbering the Dead.

Outnumbering the Dead is the story of Rafiel Gutmaker-Fensterborn, a movie star who takes rejuvenation treatments, but for reasons better left to the reader to discover, remains mortal.  Unlike his fellow actors, groupies, and the majority of humanity, Rafiel knows his time will pass long before others.  The pain of a recent breakup still heavy on his heart, at the outset of the story Rafiel accepts a role as Oedipus for a song-and-dance remake of the classic Sophocles play.  A couple of important surprises revealing themselves during the shoot, not the least of which regards his health, Rafiel is forced to reevaluate his life and career. 

Review of "Turquoise Days" by Alastair Reynolds

For anyone who thinks science fiction has evolved from the pulp era, specifically the ‘anything goes’ mindset regarding prose, plotting, and structure, I offer Turquoise Days, Alastair Reynolds’ 2002 novella set in the Revelation Space universe.

Sisters, Naqi and Mani, live on a small research vessel hovering above the oceans of the planet Turquoise, studying the seemingly sentient waters.  Best friends yet in competition for a prestigious university position, one night while trolling above a particularly dense patch of ocean life they notice a strange spot in the water is shadowing their vessel.  The pair decide to take a closer look, and slip into the water with diving suits.  Trouble is, only one sister returns.  In the years that follow, the surviving sister gets the university position, but has all her best laid science plans put on hold as an Ultra ship visits their planet.  The mystery of who the creatures in the ocean’s waters are is revealed, but under circumstances she’d rather have avoided given the conspiracy unleashed. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review of "Surfacing" by Walter Jon Williams

While more often used for entertainment purposes, the tropes of science fiction possess powerful metaphorical and symbolic potential, and when used appropriately, can rise above what appear as mere “squids in space.”  Walter Jon Williams’ 1988 novella Surfacing is one such example.  The story of a deeply scarred and tormented researcher, his work with aliens transcends outward tension to become something personal. 

Surfacing is the story of Anthony, a philologist of sorts, researching deep ocean creatures on an alien planet.  Humanity years before having come to an understanding of whale language, a team of humpbacks act as Anthony’s spotters, notifying the lone scientist when the rumblings of Deep Dwellers, as they’re dubbed, can be heard.  Only a simple grammatical structure apparent, at the outset of the story Anthony is still collecting samples as he tries to piece the Dwellers’ language together.  Approached by a woman onshore one day, asking if she can share his humpbacks for her own work, the steady life of alcohol, research, and the sea he’d built over the years starts to unravel.  Problem is, the woman has severe personal issues of her own.

Review of Chindi by Jack McDevitt

Science fiction having grown from a needle in a haystack to a haystack of needles that has spilled over into nearly every other genre, numerous works appear these days that evoke discussion (to put it politely) about whether they are science fiction at all.  But there remains a solid core to the haystack—an undeniable center point to the genre—that nobody would argue with.  There may be debate within the community about what precisely that core is, but nobody would disagree Jack McDevitt is a writer of anything but.  Featuring aliens, space adventure, heroes in the mold of the Big Three, and just enough real science to keep things honest, his 2002 Chindi is a needle everybody would agree is nowhere near the periphery of the haystack.  Whether or not it is significant literature, well, that is yet another debate.

Chindi is story set in McDevitt’s ongoing series of Hutch novels.  Like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series (another of which there is no doubt as to its genre location), it’s not necessary to have read the previous books to think of reading Chindi.  And Hutch’s adventures begin before she even knows it.  A research vessel, plying the interstellar starways looking for extra-terrestrial life, stumbles upon signals emanating from a star too regular to be galactic interference or random radio waves.  When learning of the discovery back on Earth, a group of Fermi enthusiasts charter a ship to investigate.  Hutch, and a friend called the Preacher, are handpicked by the government to head the two-flight mission.  Arriving at the star, however, brings a huge surprise.  It also sets the team following signals from one system to another, the purpose of the mission radically shifting gears as fresher and fresher knowledge is revealed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review of The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

In a recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, hosts Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe invited Nina Allan and Paul Kincaid on the show to discuss, among other things, the state of speculative fiction publishing.  Allan and Kincaid agreeing that commercial publishers use a heavy hand molding authors’ submissions into a shape they believe will better sell, the conclusion was that small presses are the place to find works that do not spoon feed, rather offer the spoon.  And Aliya Whiteley’s short novel The Beauty (2014), published by the new small press Unsung Stories, is a perfect example.  Though at times lacking the subtlety of pure literary genre, the poetic prose, thematic outlay, and sharply focused narrative nevertheless give it a leg (or two) up on the majority of factory produced speculative fiction currently being published by the big houses.

Though technically post-apocalyptic, The Beauty bears little in common with the titles the sub-genre is most known for.  Feeling perfectly like the love child of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer, Whiteley uses fungal bizarreness in a dark woodland setting to overlay a story hitting a couple major touch points of feminism and gender relations.  Playing things safe, Whiteley works within comfortable bounds, thematically.  The story of an all-male group eking out existence in the aftermath of a catastrophe that wiped women from the Earth nevertheless purports ideas that bear repetition, the wisdom not perennial for all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review of "The Wreck of the Godspeed" by James Patrick Kelly

Note: this review is for the novella “The Wreck of the Godspeed”, not the short story collection of the same name. A review of the collection can be found here.

Godspeed, along with being an old fashioned term of good luck, is also the name of the British ship which first brought people (all men, actually) to the US, settling what would become the US’s first official city, Jamestown (or at least so history tells us).  A metaphor just waiting to be used, James Patrick Kelly selected it for his 2004 novella The Wreck of the Godspeed.  The story of a passenger aboard a search and discovery vessel that continually pushes at the boundary of known space looking for planets humanity can colonize, he takes the metaphor only so far, however.  Given the religious commentary, perhaps the Mayflower might have been a better choice? (I ask jokingly.) 

Wreck of the Godspeed is the story of the pilgrim Adle Santos.  Winner of a church essay contest, his reward is to be teleported to the Godspeed.  Captained by an A.I. nicknamed Speedy, Adle’s first days onboard are anything but standard. Raised in a conservative family, he is soon enough participating in pleasures he’d never imagined.  But on a spacewalk one day, a fellow crew member makes him aware of certain anomalies in reality as explained by Speedy, as well as the Continuum they are in contact with on their home planets.  Doubt and uncertainty brewing inside Adle’s head thereafter, the Godspeed eventually ‘wrecks’ in a way his fears never allowed.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review of "Spin" by Nina Allan

One spear in the onslaught of fantasy currently storming the market is the re-visioning of world myths and legends.  From long to short form, stories from our collective past are now fair game—with political agendas and without, quality and otherwise.  After an affecting experience visiting Greece, Nina Allan re-visioned the Arachne myth and wrote a fine novella, “Spin”, in 2013.  A fantasy story set in a near-future version of the country, it’s an example of literature that makes the phenomenon viable.

“Spin” is the story of Layla, a gifted young weaver who leaves her poor home in the countryside of Greece for life in Atoll City (a futuristic veneer for Athens).  Her mother executed when she was young for political subversion, Layla’s uncanny talents as a weaver leave her exposed to a similar fate if she is not careful—the regime mindful of unnatural talent that might upset their control.  Life in the big city troublesome, both socially and personally, Layla struggles within herself to find the source of her craft, as well as meet the demands of those around her, particularly a family that asks her to heal their terminally ill son.  Layla eventually finds peace within herself, but in a manner that only hints at the original Greek myth.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review of The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly

Moving into his third decade of writing, James Patrick Kelly keeps tightening his skills.  The truly original ideas perhaps not appearing with the same consistency, his storytelling and craftsmanship, however, just keep getting better and better. Exemplifying this evolution of talent is Kelly’s 2008 collection The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories—his most recent collection as of the posting of this review (leaving six years' worth of stories waiting to be collected).

The collection is bookended by fine novellas.  Holding up the left side is the title story “The Wreck of the Godspeed”.  The story of a pilgrim who wins a year’s travel aboard the search and colonization vessel the Godspeed, Adle Santos’ arrival aboard ship means big changes.  Raised a religious conservative, his behavior undergoes shock treatment but he eventually joins in with the liberal mindset of his fellow passengers.  It’s the strange anomalies in reality and the subterfuge of the Godspeed’s AI captain, however, that really get him questioning the norms of his life.  The titular wreck more allegorical than actual, the novella ends up a fine voyage of self-discovery and religious commentary.  And Plus and Minus, the virtual demon and angel resting on the shoulders of Adle’s brain?  They are the icing on the science fiction cake.

Review of The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton

If there is any marked difference between space opera as it first appeared on the market and space opera today, it’s size (along with a public/editorial acceptance of more graphic content).  What was first published in magazines at short story to novella length appears today in door stopper tomes of lengthy series.  The evolution a natural one, the inherent qualities of the sub-genre seem to require a broad canvas, one which marketing and changes in publishing have supported.  One of the modern masters (for what it’s worth) of the form is Peter Hamilton.  Fitting the space opera stereotype to a T, the length of his books, the size of the universes he describes, and the action fast and simple, his books are everything one would expect from space opera.  Delving into his third major series, and second in the Commonwealth universe, The Dreaming Void (2007) is the first of a trio of more big—in more ways than one—science fiction.

Set 1,500 years after the story told in Judas Unchained and Pandora’s Star, The Dreaming Void sets the scene in the universe at large as it deals with a massive void slowly expanding to engulf star systems.  A religious order is also growing in belief of the void.  Led by the enigmatic Ethan, its pilgrims prepare to make a trip inside, believing it offers salvation.  Local aliens against the idea, thinking such an intrusion will cause the void to expand dynamically and swallow their nearby systems, tensions run high in human/alien relations.  Meanwhile, a government scientist is tasked with creating a super-ultradrive that may affect the diplomacy, and behind those scenes, a man whose past is blurry even to himself, sets out to find a person named Inigo who may, or may not, have extensive knowledge about what the void really is.  His methods violent, he will stop at nothing at find Inigo—or at least virtually.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of "Men Are Trouble" & "The Last Judgment" by James Patrick Kelly

James Patrick Kelly is an important science fiction writer forever deserving of more attention than he receives.  A student of writing, his style covers a wide range, and can be imitative if it wants.  Raymond Chandler among his favorite writers, in 2004 Kelly decided to write an homage in conjunction with an idea in the vein of another favorite writer, James Tiptree Jr.  The novelette “Men Are Trouble” the result, it was such a success for Kelly, both in terms of personal satisfaction and public recognition (i.e. award nominations), he decided to write a follow up, the novella "The Last Judgment" appearing in 2012.  Each story written in high quality prose and digging at gender issues, I’m hoping for a third.

“Men Are Trouble” and "The Last Judgment" are both set on a version of Earth wherein all men have been ‘disappeared’ by an alien group nicknamed the devils.  Chaos following the mass disappearance, women work their way toward societal equilibrium once again, setting up new birthing routines with sperm left over in banks and establishing relationships without men.  Provided bots by the devils, the little metal guys are found in many homes and businesses, answering doors, cooking, and cleaning, to make life easier.  But a great deal of domestic strife and troubled hearts remain.  Suicide is a problem, and some women force themselves to take hormone treatments or have outright sex changes to become men.  But something is still missing in society, a fact indirectly reflected in the fact crime carries on after the crisis.  Enter Fay Hardaway, private eye for hire.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review of "The Master Miller's Tale" by Ian R. Macleod

Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages and The House of Storms are core steampunk texts.  Not only do they utilize what have come to be the central tropes of the sub-genre (anachronistic technology, class struggle, and Victorian England), they also feature superb prose and an uncanny intertwining of vividly realized characters with theme.  Published two years after The House of Storms, “The Master Miller’s Tale” (2007) is a wonderful addition to the world that distills elements of the two prior novels into one exemplary novella.

“The Master Miller’s Tale” is the story of Nathan Westover, the latest in a long line of Westovers manning the grain mill on Burling Hill in Stagsby, a rural English community.  Taught the spells that keep the winches and pulleys turning by his mother, and by his father the necessities of bargaining with the wind-seller for the knotted ropes that will unleash the skies when they become calm, Nathan spends his youth learning the ways of the big wooden windmill, getting dusty with flour along the way.  Coming to understand every aspect of the trade as he grows, Nathan is ready to take over when his father suddenly passes away, the family business in good hands.  But something new appears in Nathan’s lifetime that his ancestors never had to deal with: aether technology.  Finding the new competition stiffer than his upbringing taught him to handle, Nathan pushes himself harder and harder to stay ahead, working the old windmill on Burling Hill to its limits.  Problem is, even the most well-maintained mill has a breaking point.  And so too do people.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of "Souls" by Joanna Russ

There are many characteristics universal to the sexes, and among them is the respect confidence commands.  A person may speak utter rubbish, but if they do so in a firm voice, with an active body, and in a dynamic tone that implies they know what they are talking about, it may take some time before the listener figures out that it is indeed bullshit.  (Watch any televangelist for a fine example.)  Joanna Russ’ 1983 novella “Souls” is the story of one such person.  Their ideas, however, are the opposite of bullshit.

“Souls” is the story of the Abbess Radegunde, as told through the eyes of the novitiate Radulphus.  Their abbey falling under Viking attack one day, instead of organizing the defense of the grounds Radegunde rushes out to face the group of rape-and-pillage minded men, alone.  Swords without ‘s’ her weapons, at every turn she surprises the men, negotiating terms for the safety of the abbey and its people.  Disaster is not completely averted, but the hostile takeover yields bigger surprises yet—even for the sharp-tongued Abbess.