Friday, December 10, 2010

Science News with J.J. Campanella 2010

A summary of J.J. Campanella's Science News articles in Starship Sofa for the year 2010.

#114, 12/23/09, Rating: A: Contagious Emotions, Caterpillar-Ant Trickery, Tumor Suppressors, Ebay Shrimp Naming, Marijuana as Addiction Cure.

#118, 1/26/10, Rating: A: Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease, Sea Urchin Sight, Environmental Causes of Lupus Evidence, Whiskey Hangovers.

#122, 2/23/10, Rating: B: Dinosaur Coloring, Sea Slug Photosynthesis, Cigarette Bacteria, Prion Function.

#125, 3/17/10, Rating: K:

Looking Back at Genre History with Amy H. Sturgis 2010

A summary of Amy H. Sturgis' Genre History articles in Starship Sofa for the year 2010.

#112, 12/9/09, Rating: C: Captain Nemo, 20,000 Leagues, and The Mysterious Island.
#115, 1/5/10, Rating: B: Anthony Trollope and a discussion of his 1882 novel The Fixed Period.
#120, 2/9/10, Rating: A: Ishmael, an unusual 1985 Star Trek novel by Barbara Hambly.
#123, 3/3/10, Rating: A+: Margaret Cavendish, 17th century poet, scientist, and SF writer.

Film Talk with Rod Barnett 2010

A summary of Rod Barnett's Film Talk articles in Starship Sofa for the year 2010.

#113, 12/15/09, Rating: A: Negative review of The Box, discussion of Richard Kelly's other films.
#116, 1/12/10, Rating: B: Semi-positive review of Avatar.
#122, 2/23/10, Rating: B: Daybreakers and Book of Eli, both somewhat positively reviewed.
#126, 3/23/10, Rating: K:

Explained in 60 Seconds with Megan Argo 2010

A summary of Megan Argo's Explained in 60 Seconds pieces for Starship Sofa in the year 2010.

#118, 1/26/10, Rating: C: Red Dwarf Stars.
#123, 3/3/10, Rating: D: Black Holes and Escape Velocity.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Starship Sofa February 2010

Episode #119: Old School vs. New School
Editorial: Some new ideas for the podcast; interview style: interrogation
SF News from Tony: Kage Baker's Death, Sir Terry Pratchett's assisted suicide test case.
Interrogation of Lucius Shepard
I don't like this interview format at all. I love Lucius Shepard as a writer, and his answers aren't bad or particularly dull, but Tony doesn't engage with him on topics like going to Somalia or his abusive father, just moves on to the next pre-determined, and rather dull, question. Rating: D
Knotwork by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (New School) 4/5

Episode #120: Gene Wolfe
Editorial: Tony gives a sweet, Valentine's Day tribute to his wife.
SF News: Independent book publishers and movement to DRM-free books from Night Shade, Neil Gaiman to write Doctor Who episode(!!!!), death of William Tenn
Promo: Beware The Hairy Mango - Matthew Sanborn Smith's hilarious podcast
Looking Back at SF (and Western) History by Amy H. Sturgis
Ishmael by Barbara Hambly (1985) is regarded as one of the best of the early Star Trek novels, and also one of the weirdest. Most of the action takes place in the alternate history Seattle of the 1968-1970 TV series Here Come the Brides, itself an unusual Western inspired by the story of the Mercer Girls. This bizarre cross-over novel also cameos Han Solo, the Second and Fourth Doctors, Starbuck and Apollo, Emperor Norton, Paladin, and characters from Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Bonanza, among others. Here Come the Brides, and Star Trek aired around the same time, and Hambly explains in this book why Sarek and Aaron Stempel (both played by Mark Lenard) look alike. So there is an amazing amount of crossoverness and complexity, and apparently the whole thing is semi-canon. I'm very glad to have Sturgis not only pointing out this book, but explaining all the complexity and references in it, and a brief look at how it paved the way for novels such as Shatnerquake! Rating: A
Pulp Cover by Gene Wolfe 4/5

Episode #121: Paolo Bacigalupi
Guest Editorial by Amy H. Sturgis: Hugos and Podcasts
A history of the Hugo awards and electronic and audio media eligibility.
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi 4.5/5
A Hugo for Starship Sofa by Matt Sanborn Smith:
An argument for why you ought to vote for Starship Sofa for Best Fanzine in the Hugos, basically transcribed on his blog. It worked!

Episode #122: Massive 3-hour Michael F. Flynn Episode
Guest Editorial by Lawrence Santoro: The Hugo's
Long-winded audio expansion of the linked blog post. Santoro talks about his geeky 3rd grade teacher who got him interested in SF, the Futurians, and the feeling of community surrounding Starship Sofa. He rambles on a bit, but it's interesting and certainly a worthwhile editorial, more interesting but less persuasive than Matt Sanborn Smith's argument last issue. On one hand, 18 minutes is too long, on the other hand, it doesn't seem like 18 minutes.
The Transcribe Project by Will Reese
Tony interviews Will Reese of the Transcribe Project in a pub in England. Will is amusing in his tales of procrastination (and the number of drinks he orders), but, again, not really entertaining or informative enough to justify 17 minutes listening time.
Science News by J.J. Campanella
An amusing introduction about Jim's children and their obsession with Dinosaur Train leads into a neat article about melanosomes being recovered from fossils which indicate dinosaurs likely had patches and stripes in white, black, red, brown, yellow and orange and may have been closer to birds in their coloring rather than lizards. It turns out the reason scientists often color dinosaurs in drab colors is that they had no evidence and didn't want to make any embarrassing assumptions, so they chose drab lizard colors.
Next up is an AWESOME article about sea slugs who have been able to steal chloroplasts from algae and keep the chloroplasts alive inside their own cells. These sea slugs are now able to create their own chlorophyll and have working photosynthesis, the first animal we've found to do so.
Another new paper suggests that bacteria on cigarettes, specifically in the tobacco itself, can actual survive in smoke to cause lung infections when inhaled. Hundreds of species of bacteria, many potentially infectious in humans, have been identified in a testing of common cigarette brands.
Finally, in a Kuru study, evidence has suggested a new potential function for the protein that mutates into the infectious prions causing it. This protein may be involved in signaling Schwann cells to produce myelin, and if it is, it could throw a wrench in some types of Mad Cow Disease research.
Nothing boring here, and the sea slug piece was great, but at only 3 minutes out of a 19 minute segment, with too much time spent on prion semi-news and dinosaurs, I just don't think this was as good as some of Campanella's other editions. Rating: B
The Clapping Hands Of God by Michael F. Flynn 4/5
Film Talk by Rod Barnett - Daybreakers & The Book of Eli
Commentary on the fact that interesting films are often released in Jan/Feb because studios don't want to release anything that makes money then, and by that they mean big budget crap.
Daybreakers is a post-apocalyptic science fiction vampire film with an excellent cast, and decent effects considering its low budget. Although it isn't a great movie or a classic or anything, Barnett gives it a reservedly positive review because it doesn't romanticize vampires, has a touch of humor, and addresses issues like over-population and depletion of resources. Despite reading a few negative reviews elsewhere, I'm inclined to see this one just for the novelty.
The Book of Eli is about a post-apocalyptic wanderer protecting one of the last copies of The Bible after most copies were burned following whatever wiped out civilization. Barnett likes the treatment of religion and faith in what might have otherwise been a standard action movie.
We're a little light on substance this time, but I'm glad he brought Daybreakers to my attention, and it's interesting to hear about the ideas involved there. The Book of Eli review was pretty slim though. Rating: B

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Clapping Hands of God

Novelette by Michael F. Flynn
Read for Starship Sofa by Mike Boris
2005 Hugo Nominee

Hassan leads a team of explorers through a gate onto another world. He is a devout Muslim, in charge of an international exploration/science team with a near-future level of technology. They don't really understand how the gates work, but they open semi-randomly onto many populated worlds. Basically they've developed an international Stargate program.

They set up camp on a mountaintop to study the indigenous people, following a prime-directive-like philosophy of non-interference. They observe the mid-19th century-level aliens with stealth drones and microcameras. One day, the aliens' behavior changes suddenly, and Hassan is forced to wonder if they've been discovered, and how long they can afford to stay. It turns out he has a much more difficult decisions to make.

As someone mentioned elsewhere, it seems Hassan is a science fiction reader, as he encounters and avoids all the standard first contact pitfalls and idiot plots. Throughout the novelette, he reminds his team that the aliens are not human, and we can't ascribe human traits to them or jump to conclusions based on imagined narratives with scant evidence. All the team members are well drawn and interestingly differentiated, and Mike Boris provides different accents and voices for each of them. I was quite impressed with his talent for accents here.

Just as we think the story is going to wrap up in an expected way, the entire situation changes for the more complex. And just when that situation is about to wrap up, it doesn't go how we expect either. The last quarter of this story is excellent, some of the best first-contact storytelling I've ever seen. The whole thing reads like a deconstruction of the standard first-contact tale. The ending is sad, thoughtful, and pragmatic.

4 hands clapping out of 5.

Originally published in Analog, July/August 2004
Anthologized in Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction 22

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pulp Cover

Short Story by Gene Wolfe
Starship Sofa podcast read by Mike Boris

This story, as explained by the title and at the end, are basically a look at one of the tropes of bad movies and generic cover art of 1950s SF, but with the introduction of Wolfe's subtlety and restraint. A man wants to marry his boss's young daughter, but loses to a handsome, rich, Yale-graduate competitor. Except maybe the guy isn't who he says he is.

This isn't Wolfe's deepest work, but there is still much more to it than your average story. Fear and sadness are much more prevalent than the jealousy you'd expect this story to be about. Somewhat simplistic, there is still an extra twist-beyond-the-twist, and the brevity and openendedness make for an effective horror story. I'm particularly left wondering why the protagonist hired a writer to tell his story (Gene Wolfe, of course!) and why he felt his name had to be hidden, but the world made aware. There is a remaining menace and mystery to what ought to be a bittersweet happy ending, and I really like that.

Primarily a creepy little horror story set in either the 50s or today, but where all the horror is implied, aside from the protagonist's feeling of being generally creeped out. The ending was great, 4 distressed women in tinfoil bikinis out of 5.

Pulp Cover was originally published in Asimov's March 2004.
It was reprinted for the Hartwell & Cramer Year's Best SF 10 anthology.
And again for Gene Wolfe's Starwater Strains collection.


Novelette by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Podcast by Starship Sofa, read by Christie Yant

When this novelette opened like Sex and the City narrated by some sort of awkward alien woman, I was a little nervous. Noella is an alien or a sort of magical being who has given up much of her innate power to take human form and marry a human man. One day, she finds out he is cheating on her with a girl at the office: J.C.. Finding her marriage vows broken, which were literally powerful, she is able to reclaim her lost abilities.

Noella meets up with J.C. to discuss the situation with Hugh, and eventually comes to forgive her. Together, they are both pretty angry with him though. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" is a more terrifying quote when she borders on all-powerful.
Hugh:"What are you doing?"
Noella: "Whatever I want."
The ending wraps up with Noella still not knowing what she wants to do yet, but I think she's partly forgiven Hugh, and wants to be friends with J.C.. The ending seems darkly happy; I wouldn't want to be Hugh in that situation, but I like to think everyone was happy in the long run.

So despite my initial misgivings, I liked this story a lot. The "knotwork" is a very interesting magical system, but the real highlight is the characters. All three main characters are exceptionally well developed and at least somewhat sympathetic. We get to know about Hugh's mommy-issues, J.C.'s loneliness and low self-esteem, and Noella's lack of understanding of some social signals and emotions. She has an odd touch of the anti-hero about her which I think makes for an interesting protagonist in a story about cheating spouses. J.C., the woman he cheated with, actually comes across as the most sympathetic though, and at the end, it's her future I'm most interested in.

Yant is a good reader for capturing the emotions here, and I suspect she improves the excitement and nuance of the story just with her voice. It does lead me to seeing connections with It Takes Two that aren't really there, but both were good stories.

I like this one quite a bit, 4 knots out of 5.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Last Evolution

Short Story by John W. Campbell Jr.

A somewhat dry history of the human and machine war with an invading alien threat. The humans lose and are wiped out, but leave behind machines which continue to evolve. In fact, this appears to be one of the first seeds of the technological singularity idea: Humans create machines smarter than them, who themselves create new even smarter machines, and so on.

The overall money-quote of the story:
"Most of mankind were quite useless"
There is a bit of a theme regarding human inefficiency and how great machines are, but the POV character is a machine, so a justified bias.

I don't mean to pick on Campbell too much, as it was first published in August, 1932, but the physics is hilariously bad. One of the joys I got out of this story was just how terrible the physics was.

Also, there was a segment that reminded me of The Colour Out of Space by Lovecraft.

Overall, not a great story, but interesting in that the singularity was introduced as early as 1932. And that things developed beyond that. Obviously some of my faults with this are just a product of the time, but it still isn't a great story. 2.5 Ultimate Energies out of 5.

Campanella does some great voices in this episode. I honestly think he may have read too slowly or something though, I can't identify how much of the dragging sensation was the reading, and how much the story. It does drag when being read as text, but I think it is slower as audio. Campanella's voicework was great, but I'm not sure it paid off overall.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's October/November 2010

Roadside Stand by Mark Rich

A settler on Mars haggles over tomatoes, and poetically enjoys memories of home. Not bad.

Foxwife by Jane Yolen

Either a fox attaches herself to a scholar hanging out in some ruins, or a woman protects her husband. Maybe both. This one is nicely weird.

Welcome Home by Janis Ian

A nice rhyming song about how reading (SF in particular) makes it easier for the weird kids to make it through a lonely childhood. References so many things I can't list them here, but I'm glad to see Cordwainer Smith in there. Best of issue, although this averages out to the most poetically strong issue of the year.

All That Matters by Roger Dutcher

Colonizers of the outer solar system feel insignificant on the scale of space. Is there any point? Okay.

Tourists from Outer Space by Darrell Schweitzer (Unlisted in the Table of Contents by editorial error, appears on page 141)

Tourists to Earth from other species and planets don't absorb our culture, they just party and leave. Like America is with underdeveloped countries. This is just taking something from everyday life and saying "hey, what if someone did this to us." Not interesting. The only poem in this issue I didn't at least somewhat enjoy.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's September 2010

The Now We Almost Inhabit by Roger Dutcher and Robert Frazier

The Singularity is approaching, and while that is one "Now" we almost inhabit, once it gets here, things will change so fast that anything we know will only be almost. And maybe the end implies the Singularity is like The Rapture? I don't get this one entirely but it is poetic and nicely worded and not blinding obvious, which is always nice. Best of issue.

Egg Protection by Ruth Berman

Some robins protect their eggs from Berman's fourth bad poem of the year. She muses on how she doesn't want their eggs and they don't trust her. I'm getting too sick of Berman to even get up any sarcasm at this point. Long, meaningless, non-poetic story.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's August 2010

Cultural Boundaries by F.J. Bergmann

Visitors to a small alien world are amazed by how fast learning they are. And then they all die of contamination as we leave. This ground has been covered a million times, and in better poetics. A tad amusing, but nothing special.

A Wrong Turn by Elizabeth Penrose

Folded infinities don't make good glove-compartment maps. Neatly written and not obvious. Amusing.

The Great Peeloff by Qadira P. Garger

Best of the issue. Double meaning, neat poem, well written. Not a ton of depth, but there is something, and this one is fun without being obvious.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's July 2010

The Gears of New August by Bruce Boston and Todd Hanks

A fairly interesting poem about the hardship of a farmer on an alien world. Drops a reference to The Green Hills of Earth, but he misses Earth in a more sad way, especially considering he once yearned for the stars. A more thoughtful, sad poem than anything else thus far this year in Asimov's.
My third favorite Asimov's poem for the year, overall.

Neosaur by Robert Borski

In the future, we can recreate prehistoric goldfish pets for our children. Okay, not great, not really thoughtful either. But not poorly written.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's June 2010

Human Potential by Geoffrey A. Landis

There is a lot of potential energy in humans, in the nuclear sense. Would blind all the aura people. Funny, not deep or beautiful, but not bad.

Crushed by Susan Abel Sullivan

Never fall in love with a black hole. Funny, but the metaphor breaks down a bit halfway through. Black holes don't technically suck, unlike relationships.

Of Lycanthropy and Lilacs by Sandra Lindow

Werewolves in spring. Nice rhythm, very good imagery, not as obvious as I thought. Still not too deep, but this was a very nice poem. Best of the issue.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's April/May 2010

Kitchen Deities by Ruth Berman

Meaningless 23-word thing on cooking. No rhyme, no rhythm, no metaphor, no deep meanings, no humor, no interest.

Martian Opal by Ruth Berman

Okay little joke about geology and astrology and difficulties settling Mars. Not great, but best of issue in this rather meager, one-woman double-issue of Asimov's.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's March 2010

Marble People by Bruce Boston

Three types of marble that fantasy people could be, generically described. Meh.

Crazy Man by Mark Rich

A time traveler from the past comes to the future. He can't go back, and is crazy for ending up in our shitty time and leaving his. Again, Rich has a good flow and some internal rhymes and wordplay.

Our Canine Defense Team by Vincent Miskell

Cute little story where all animals were uplifted, and now dogs defend us against charges of genocide. Better than the touchy-feely ending I was expecting, still not much of a poem though, but worth reading.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's February 2010

Reincarnation by Peter Swanson

Awkward line breaks, little to no rhythm but an interesting concept: Certain knowledge that we reincarnate leads to suicide. No humans left, only animals. This is a little more depressed than I find the concept though. World might be better off for everyone without us humans.

Subatomic Redemption by Michael Meyerhofer

Electrons randomly go everywhere. No reason to fear growing up, death, adolescence, or anything else. Our electrons have already been there, done that. Pretty good, thoughtful, some clever use of pauses and breaks.
My second favorite Asimov's poem of the year.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's January 2010

DoT Acolytes by Ruth Berman

The MN department of Transportation are acolytes to the God of roads. When they don't fix potholes, he gets angry and makes worse potholes. Not funny, not clever, not complex. Blah.

Louisa Drifting by Mark Rich

Like this one quite a bit. Two astronauts dying after an accident, drifting apart. Metaphor for ending a relationship. More serious that Berman, but also funnier. Implication is obvious, but Rich doesn't completely spell it out.
Actually, in the final reading of things, I consider this the best Asimov's poem of the year.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Asimov's December 2010

A generally mediocre-but-not-bad issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.


Short Stories:
There are also 3 poems, nothing special but not too bad overall.

There was nothing truly outstanding in this issue, but nothing truly bad either. Despite being clustered around the middle, it was quite easy to establish a hierarchy. Variations is just outright more powerful than Prize or Warfriends, and given that it is his first work, I think Werkheiser is worth looking out for in the future. I was waffling between 3.5 and 4 for him, while the others were more on the 3.5 vs. 3 end.

Likewise, Uncle E was strictly better than Sins of the Father. Both are simplistic stories, but Emshwiller writes more beautifully and captures the thinking of children, plus there is a bit more underlying subtlety there.

Russia and Excellence are both partially fumbled stories by well-established masters. It's funny that the three most famous writers in the issue all got scores of 2.5, I'm not trying to hold them to a higher standard, but I'll admit there is a subconscious possibility when I see things by such prolific writers. On the other hand, maybe they've all gotten a tad lazy. Regardless, my feeling is that the stories are well-written enough, but they have essential plot failings. But Excellence is a clear top because it is trying to make a less common and, I think, more significant point.

The pairs of stories by rating really do complement each other nicely. But I put Libertarian Russia at the bottom of the issue, and some people have loved it. I don't think it is actually bad, just not good enough to recommend. But I feel safe in saying that nothing in this issue is actually a waste of time if you do happen to be reading it.

As to the Departments:
Editorial: Sheila and Ted's Excellent Adventure has a most triumphant title, and while it has little substance, provides a nice bit of human-interest news about the SFWA gathering for the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch. The neat pictures are the kind of thing worth seeing, and justify the page count.

Reflections: Rereading Kornbluth provides a bit of history, and performs the valuable public service of increasing C.M. Kornbluth awareness.

On Books: Reviews The Bird of the River by Kage Baker, Kraken by China Mieville, Coyote Horizon and Coyote Destiny by Allen Steele and The Business of Science Fiction by Mike Resnick & Barry Malzberg.

It's somewhat annoying that all the reviews are positive buy-this-now endorsements, but given the caliber of the writers, it may be more than blowing smoke. Given the reviews, I definitely need to read Kraken, and while I suspect I can leave the others alone, the reviews provide enough interest that were I to see a few more positive reviews, I might give them a shot, although I suspect they aren't exactly my thing.

I am a bit disappointed in the reviews because they don't provide much depth beyond plot summary, and they are somewhat out of date, but nothing really wrong here.

I'd say that is the overwhelming theme of this issue: Nothing wrong, no big problems, but nothing really outstanding. Adequate.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's December 2010

Xenoaesthetics by F.J. Bergmann

Nice language, a touch of amusing imagery, but I'm not sure I can get behind the concept. A species who doesn't use adjectives or appreciate beauty is not just secretly desperate for it. Stop anthropomorphizing very alien aliens!

Sailor by Mark Rich

Very nice rhythm and wordplay about a solar-sail ship leaving Earth behind.

Blueprint For a Domed City by Jessica Taylor

A beautiful, safe, organized domed city is pretty awful in the grand scheme. Much like the turns-of-phrase in this poem.

Mark Rich is the clear standout this issue, nailing both language and concept. Bergmann has the language only, and Taylor murders even that. But I'm still not sure Sailor is good enough for any awards.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Novelette by Tom Purdom

This is the first sequel to Purdom's 1966 novel The Tree Lord of Imeten. As far as I can tell, it was an Ace Double which hasn't seen print since, aside from now being available as an ebook (linked above). Which is why I'm surprised there is no recap or explanatory note by author or editor, or much in the way of introductory exposition to the story.

Purdom begins in media res, and while I'm drawn in and appreciate the lack of infodumps, the first five pages or so are confusing as hell and I had to re-read them a few times to understand what was going on. All the information is there to piece it together, but it is unclear and released over the entire story, which is still written as if assuming readers should know this already. When the prequel novel last saw print 20 years before I was born, I find this assumption rather ill-considered.

Once you know what's going on, though, this is a pretty exciting tale. I found myself ignoring at least two phonecalls to finish reading once I was over halfway through. And I don't think I'd be opposed to seeing another sequel in this mode, especially now that I have the setting figured out.

The itiji are a species of essentially sentient big cats, who, until the events of the prior novel, were enslaved to sentient, weapon-using, chimps. Now the itiji find themselves allied with the Warriors of Imeten, one of several nations of tree-people, in a war against the Drovil, a nation who want to steal the Imeten's iron mine, and have not yet freed their itiji slaves.

Vigdal is our itiji protagonist, and he finds himself leading the ground section of a joint raid on the Drovil. Both groups need to learn to cooperate here, as each needs to focus on the objectives the other cares more about. Only the itiji can drag away the precious iron ore the Imeten need so badly, but they need the tree-people to have any shot at rescuing the captive itiji.

While largely an exciting war story of a raid that gets rapidly more complicated, there are themes of not just cooperating with your former enemy and putting the past behind, but also of the necessity to subordinate a subgroup's goals to what is tactically better for everyone, even if that benefits your former enemies more, and a lesson in having to think like your opposition and the tactical and diplomatic benefits and difficulties of codependency.

But Purdom doesn't really preach here. The morals of the story are rather obvious, but they aren't as heavy-handed as they could have been. And most impressive is the amount of world-building and the details of how both species think, it's important that he develops the psychological differences, since they are inherently key to the tension behind such a new alliance and their ability to cooperate. Overall the itiji are a great invention and I wouldn't mind reading more about them, but this story was on one hand too confusing, and on the other too straightforward for me to absolutely love it. 3.5 shares of iron loot out of 5.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Uncle E

Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

Four orphans have to figure out how to survive in our modern world without their mother. They're able to make it with a little help from their Uncle E.

The twist here is telegraphed well in advance and goes completely unexplained. Which isn't so much a problem for this story, but it does help illustrate that without the twist, it is still pretty much the same story. It's basically a 6-page sentimental expansion on the 2 sentence summary above. The ending is cute, but there isn't much more to it than that.

3 frozen dinners out of 5.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Prize Beyond Gold

Short Story by Ian Creasey
Read for Escape Pod (free text & audio) by Josh Roseman

It stands to reason that the further we go into the future, the harder it is to break Olympic records, as we inevitably approach the asymptote of what is humanly possible. Delroy is one such Olympic athlete, and going into a race, he finally has the perfect wind, humidity, and pressure conditions to have a shot at breaking the 70-year men's hundred-meter dash record. The titular Prize Beyond Gold.

But what starts out as a sports story is really anything but. If Delroy breaks the record, his decision on what sort of bordering-on-transhumanism enhancements he gets, if any. Athletics is, of course, highly regulated, but after breaking the record, he'll presumably retire, and then it becomes a matter of international politics whether he chooses to stick with the "ancestral" model, or upgrade, and which new form of humanity he will choose to endorse.

There are some interesting thoughts here about the transition to new types of human bodies, and it's for the better that we don't see the action, or the result of the race. The important thing here is Delroy's state of mind and his quest for freedom-of-choice against the necessity of perfectly determined preparation. It's reassuring that Creasey knows this. So maybe freedom is the real prize beyond gold, and maybe that's harder to train for.

Not the most exciting thing ever, but worthwhile nonetheless. 3.5 milliseconds left to shave off the record.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Short Story by Robert Reed

This is a story I'm very torn over, in terms of rating. I absolutely love the point Reed is trying to make here, I think it is important, and the overall idea is a great one. Larry Voss is a brilliant middle-aged man who lives alone in a house he inherited from his parents, never working, just living off their life insurance policies. He sits around playing online games all day, a completely meaningless arena in which he is hugely successful.

One day, Larry is scouted by a charitable foundation interested in his wasted potential. The deal doesn't go exactly as he expected, but the twist surely inspires him to greater heights than his slightly improved coasting by would have. As his friend points out earlier, the grants are just a way for the rich to keep the masses content, and as we find out at the end of the story: "sometimes it is best to take a comfortable citizen and make him less so."

So I intensely agree with Reed, I like the setting, and I love the conclusion. But the essential twist is pure bullshit. Even in the fictional world laid out, it makes no sense, and doesn't seem convincingly legal (or even borderline legal enough to stick). And regardless of legality within fictional legal systems, it just seems like too much a game of Xanatos Roulette. The overall plot just makes no sense in terms of being likely. The characters motivations are all clear, and things make sense otherwise, but this is too much of an asspull to get past.

2.5 doppels out of 5.

What is it with so many stories getting the same name, and failing to live up to it?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Short Story by Ian Werkheiser

This is Werkheiser's SF debut and while it isn't my top pick of the issue, he is certainly a new writer to watch.

Joe Novak was a musical prodigy, but when his piano virtuoso father died in a car crash, he stopped playing altogether. Down on his luck and out of money, he has taken a job helping a technology company reproduce his father's music. But it turns out they want to synthesize his style and build machines to effectively recreate his talent. This leads to some internal conflict, both about his father's legacy, and about their relationship before he died.

This is a moving story with an emotional ending. But Werkheiser fails to expand on what I felt was the most significant line of the whole thing, the segment where Joe has been practicing remembering how the songs were played so many times that his memories and emotional connections have begun to fade and the songs are now just rote memory actions:
"He felt like this was the way he was always supposed to have felt about life, as if it were a light stone held in an open hand, rather than a hot, heavy coal clutched burning to his chest."
This sense of well-being and freedom from the loss of emotional memories, that double-edged sword of "getting over it" and forgetting painful memories, but also not thinking as much about the good things seemed like the Werkheiser was going somewhere very interesting. But he mostly dropped Joe's changes with the admittedly good concluding breakdown. I'd have liked to see a bit more depth and exploration here.

The one other problem is that some of the sentences are painfully convoluted, creating confusion and a bad flow. But there are some nice bits of language too, and I quite like the musical theme that runs through the whole thing, even the structure of the narrative. So it isn't perfect or even the best in the issue, but this story is pretty good, definitely worth reading, and it marks Werkheiser as a writer to look out for in the next couple years. 3.5 out of 5.

Freia in the Sunlight

Short Story by Gregory Norman Bossert

Told from the point of view of the new and newly sentient Fully-autonomous Reconnaissance Electronic Intelligence and Attack drone, this is an oddly poetic and moving little piece.

We're made to feel significant empathy for an attack drone; this story is a better-than-usual exploration of how an Artificial Intelligence tries to learn and understand human language and eventually transcends and/or fails it's intended purpose by exceeding human expectations.

I know it's an old joke, but some of the vocabulary misunderstandings are pretty funny. And Freia's unique understanding of human speech adds to the emotional impact in a weird (good) way. The last line in particular was great.

This story was BeautifulTM. 4 attack drones out of 5.

Sins of the Father

Short Story by Sara Genge

A merman is exiled to land by his mermaid-dictator mother. The actual story is a subtle but minor tale of his courtship of a human girl, but the interesting part is the setting. After significant global warming, most of Earth is underwater and humans live primarily on remaining archipelagos that were once mountains. They are kept at a primitive level of technology by the more advanced merfolk.

So it's an interesting setting, and I like the way it is introduced sort of incidentally to the love story. But I don't know that there is much more to be said about it. I don't think it is really missing anything, but there still isn't much to this story. 3 out of 5 love stories begin at a party.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Libertarian Russia

Short Story by Michael Swanwick

Victor Pelevin thinks he is the only Libertarian in post-depopulation Russia, and he really enjoys his lifestyle. Having fled Moscow, he is driving across the country on his genetically locked, grass-and-water fueled motorcycle. Along the way, he picks up Svetlana, a prostitute who wants to set up her own practice outside the tight controls of the cities.

The plot seems like something from Bruce Sterling, and that impression holds up throughout, although I never like it quite as much as I'd like a Sterling story. The whole thing is an argument against a straw-man version of Libertarianism and is pretty anvilicious about that toward the end. Victor escapes from the gang of ex-secret police basically through hooker ex machina (or machina ex hooker?) But after having been successfully threatened and finding out that no government isn't as nice as he thought, Victor continues on his way, but decides maybe he isn't a Libertarian after all.

I guess the other problem I have is that the story could have taken place in any vague post-apocalyptic or other government free area, and there is no real reason for it to be Russia, nor any especially Russian flavor to the setting. But there is some nice writing here, and the story is short enough that it doesn't feel like the waste of time it would be at greater length. And I guess I can get over the conflation of anarchism with libertarianism since the two are often found together and some libertarians don't seem to get the distinction either.

2.5 Russians out of 5 truly understand the value of a good gesture.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plus or Minus

Novelette by James Patrick Kelly

The cover story for December's Asimov's is far from the best of the issue, but since the spaceship looks a bit like a Christmas tree and the stars are festive I guess it can stay.

This story is the disinterestedly-awaited return of Mariska, the bitchy teenage girl from Kelly's mediocre Going Deep (which blessedly failed to win a Nebula award). This time, she has signed on to a ship hauling cargo to and from the asteroid belt in another attempt to rebel from her clone/mother's plans. Four other "maintenance monkeys" crew the ship, none of whom are well developed and two of whom are nearly irrelevant to the story altogether. The senior member is Beep, whose stupid name goes unremarked through the entire novelette.

The first 3/4 is mostly long-winded irrelevant technical detail about the ship, and little bits of dialogue that don't end up mattering much. Mr. Kelly does a good job of drawing the setting but the Shining Legend just isn't as interesting as the earlier story's Moon and the details don't seem to matter much.

The Big Science Problem of the story finally comes in towards the end, and the characters eventually stumble upon the obvious solution that I'd expected from the moment the problem was presented. It is made out to be a tough decision but seems obvious, necessary, and not all that bad. The conclusion is where Kelly saves this story though. Just as I thought the ending was going to be too facile, it doesn't end up the way I expected. It was a pleasant surprise but I'm not sure it redeems the story overall.

A character-driven hard-SF Analog type story that isn't quite as angsty and sappy as Going Deep, but while I much preferred the conclusion of this tale, it didn't make up for the rest of it. While I can't recommend this, I would keep an eye out for the next Mariska story from James Patrick Kelly. That sounds weird when talking about such an experienced writer, but I think this chain of stories overall may be moving in a better direction. 2.5 dream circuses out of 5.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cool Air

Short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

This story is very clearly influenced by The Novel of the White Powder and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. I wrote about the overall commonalities of the three stories here. But I recommend reading all of them first. I'll put the spoilers there, and keep this post shorter.

Our narrator lives below an eccentric old Spanish doctor. He gradually befriends him (with shades of Erich Zann), and then things get a bit gross and weird. This is easily the best of Lovecraft's New York stories, really the only one I'd recommend to people. It is suspenseful and you really want to keep reading even if you know what is going to happen, or picked up on all the foreshadowing.

It's not typical or cliched in really any sense, despite my being able to cite two clear influences on Lovecraft here. I think the atypicalness of the story is best summarized by one of my favorite quotes from the introduction of the story:
"It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangor of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady and two stalwart men by my side."
Overall, a really nice, unusual piece of horror writing that shows some maturity from Lovecraft. A personal favorite, although certainly not his best.
3.5 out of 5 kinds of dark, slimy trails end in terrible little pools.

The Novel of the White Powder

Short Story by Arthur Machen

A young woman watches her brother be transformed by some early anti-depressants, but it turns out the chemist gave him something that didn't quite match the prescription.

I really like Machen's descriptions and the sense of sinister but unspecified changes in someone's personality. The final description of her brother really makes this story for me. There is also some repeated imagery of the sunset as a burning city that gets increasingly more sinister, and I'm not sure how metaphorically we're meant to take it by the end.

But overall, this story was not all that it could be. There is a nice creepy ending that could have come out of Poe, but then we follow that up with pages worth of a rambling letter from the chemistry researcher and some supernatural and religious mumbo-jumbo. Machen should have taken a page out of Poe and ended with the horror. Instead he makes the Lovecraftian mistake of overexplaining. Which is funny, since Lovecraft's own story inspired by this is much better in that regard and doesn't overexplain the ending.

Machen criticized Lovecraft for not having enough of the spiritual in his fiction, but that is one sense in which I think Lovecraft holds up much better than some of his contemporaries.

3 dark and putrid masses, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid out of 5.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

Short Story by Edgar Allan Poe

A doctor uses mesmerization on a dying man to relieve his pain, and as an experiment in staving off death. He is more successful than anyone would hope for.

This is one of Poe's most gruesome tales and I like that about it. It's very short, and without the vivid descriptions of the body, Valdemar's eyes, and his voice, there just wouldn't be enough to it. But with these lovely, disgusting little bits it achieves Poe's One Big Effect quite successfully. The sudden end of things with only a sentence of denouement makes the tale much more effective than it would be from other authors. 4 nearly liquid masses of loathsome—of detestable putrescence out of 5.

The Shunned House

Novelette by H.P. Lovecraft

"Long-winded, statistical, and drearily genealogical" is how Lovecraft describes the narrator's uncle, Eli Whipple, and his book of research. And that's exactly how most readers will describe the first half of this novelette.

We get a long, past-tense description of the strangeness of the titular house, and how everyone who lived there seems to die an early death. We learn that some residents spoke in French before dying without ever having know French. And we learn all about the family history and renovations made to the house. Lovecraft lets slip that not only does the narrator survive, but the mysterious problem has been solved and now people don't die or have anything weird happen in the house. I'm inclined to either stop here, or fall asleep.

The narrator tosses around a few theories about vampires and werewolves, and tells of previous residents trying to kill their own families and being found drained of blood. Eventually he sees a human-like gaseous form rise from the fungus in the cellar, and he and his uncle decide to go in, watch the spot, and attempt to eliminate the threat. This whole story has a distinct feel of the Call of Cthulhu pencil and paper RPG. And the main characters seem a bit munchkiny.

They bring two absurd methods of fighting the unknown thing (which they take some wild guesses at that Lovecraft implies to have been not too far off): a pair of WWI flamethrowers, and a giant Crookes Tube (LASER). They have an option for either the corporeal or incorporeal menace with little reason to how they got such ridiculous bullshit.

Anyway, they have an interesting and tense night in the house and eventually vanquish the monster, which ends up a little weirder and more difficult than anyone, including me, had expected. The night vigil is actually scary and interesting and I like the sciencey method of victory. I do quite like the last two chapters and especially the night spent in the house, but overall the story leaves a lot to be desired. 2.5 out of 5.

P.S. the most significant thing in this story is the beginning of Lovecraft's use of scientific justifications and solutions to his supernatural problems. We'll see a lot more of this later on.


Short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

My least favorite story of Lovecraft's New York period, which was the worst period of writing in his career. The main value of this story is in the autobiographical aspects on Lovecraft's feelings about his move to the city.

A writer moves to New York City, then hates it (and all the immigrants of course). While wandering around one night, he meets an old guy who also loves history, and this man shows him around, and then takes him to a window that can magically see into the past and future. Then shit gets weird.

Honestly, not enough happens in the story, and it was tough to get through despite being very short. And then it is tough to actually remember. But Lovecraft isn't a complete failure; there are some nice bits of description, particularly the view of the future and the creepy ghost ooze thing at the end. I also like the first line: "I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision."

But overall, the story doesn't make a lot of sense and has little point besides hatred of the city. Although there is a bit of a stealth moral about not being too hung up on the past, I'm not sure Lovecraft meant it.

Lovecraft's visions of the future aren't good enough for more than 2 impious pyramids out of 5.

The Horror at Red Hook

Novelette by H.P. Lovecraft

Detective Malone was caught in a building collapse and now screams and runs at the sight of tall buildings. The story is about how Malone developed his phobia. He is apparently "sensitive" to magic and mysterious happenings, sort of a prohibition era Agent Mulder. He, like Lovecraft, is big believer in the theories from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and believes that there remains one big cult among all the foreigners in New York.

Malone was assigned to investigate the smuggling of illegal Kurdish immigrants into Red Hook, and later he investigates an epidemic of child kidnappings. Both cases lead to Robert Suydam and the weird rituals he and his immigrant friends participate in. It's actually a fairly creepy story with some weird twists, but the cultish phrases and whatnot all come verbatim from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is less exciting than Lovecraft's usual occult flavor. The conclusion is the other disappointment, and on reflection, the entire story makes zero sense.

The incident on the boat seems unlikely, and a terrible way to orchestrate things, relying on a lot of stupidity and perfect coordination which could have been much more easily accomplished in Suydam's house or something. The thing with the pedestal makes no damn sense at all, nor does Suydam's last-minute change-of-heart. And the whole concept of Lilith and a demon-marriage just isn't that scary. And it's surprising coming from an atheist like Lovecraft. Touches like the children who burn up in sunlight, pregnant kidnapped women, Suydam's magical rejuvenation, and the building collapses just seem tacked on, irrelevant, and built up as a lot more significant than they should be given the lack of discussion or development.

Even for Lovecraft, the story is long and rambling (as he points out himself in a letter) and the language is even more overwrought than usual. It's also pretty racist and xenophobic. I could go on complaining for longer, but the point is that this isn't a very good story.

Still, I like it more than a lot of people do. It certainly isn't the worst of Lovecraft, and I feel "The Horror at Red Hook" is underrated in the sense that it is a bad story with some merit, rather than having nothing to offer at all. I don't feel that racism is the entire point and the concept of a secret cult in the city with underground boat passages for smuggling and secret movement is a fun concept with room for horror, if not terribly original. I guess the main redeeming quality is in the description. I find the scene with the claw marks on the boat pretty scary (even if it doesn't make much sense), and the concept and descriptions of the caverns and underground waterways is pretty nice. So it is maybe worth reading if you like Lovecraft a lot, but certainly one of his worse pieces. "The Rats in the Walls" has some nice cavern description, and is a hell of a lot cooler and more original.

2.5 out of 5 immigrant children were recovered in the police raid.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Starship Sofa March 2010

Episode #123: C.M. Kornbluth vs. Mercurio Rivera
Guest Editorial by Jason Sanford: A Change
How the Nebula ballot has improved with the recent change of rules, change is good, vote Starship Sofa!
Explained in 60 Seconds with Megan Argo
Black holes, gravity, and escape velocities. Still nothing we don't all already know. Even simpler than the last one.
Intro to Snatch Me Another by Mercurio Rivera
Publishing history, Associate Editor at Sybil's Garage Magazine, his writing group, and how the story was an expansion of his earlier Dear Annabehls from Electric Velocipede #17/18.
Fiction: Snatch Me Another by Mercurio Rivera 4.5/5
Looking Back at SF History with Amy H. Sturgis
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1623-1673, poet, natural philosopher, and correspondent with many members of the Royal Society. She wrote poetry about astronomy, long before it was cool, some of the better examples are read by Amy here. She also wrote a very early science fiction novel, with bear-people on another planet, criticism of chauvinism, and a level of metafiction you don't expect to see until much later. I'm inclined to read both the novel, and a bunch of this poetry some day, and many thanks to Amy H. Sturgis. Rating: A+
Intro to The Adventurer by Lawrence Santoro
Larry reminisces about reading Kornbluth as a kid, particularly his humor and plotting and overall skill. Discusses his tragic early death. Larry says Kornbluth>Asimov>Heinlein>Everybody Else at the time.
Fiction: The Adventurer by C.M. Kornbluth (Classic) 4/5

Episode #124: Will McIntosh
Guest Editorial by Mur Lafferty: Fanzines
Mur makes fun of and points out the irony of science fiction fans and writers being opposed to new technology and internet fiction sources winning awards. She just reads her blog post linked above, but her voice emphasizes her humor and righteous anger. Worthwhile.
Interogation: Gene Wolfe
Wolfe gives a great interview and can talk forever with very little prompting. He talks about his desire to bury other SF writers in his basement, replace them, and claim their work, and about how now that he has been writing for a long time, he is now capable of sitting down and writing about bees if someone is writing a bee-themed anthology. Wolfe addresses how writing works, his process, and learning Ancient Greek. Everything he says seems to be both well-thought-out and humorous. I could listen to Gene Wolfe for hours, and, although I haven't yet, I'd consider donating to Starship Sofa just for the extended interviews for a few more like Wolfe. Rating: A
Fiction: Bridesicle by Will McIntosh 4/5
Observation Deck with Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan reports from the Library Bar at P-Con (Phoenix Convention). Nick Harkaway is the guest of honor. A summary of what conventions she was on and what sort of breakfast the hotel served. Definitely not worth the 15 minutes. Rating: F

Episode #125: James Morrow
Editorial by Tony C. Smith: Thank You
Science News with J.J. Campanella
Promo: Galactic Suburbia
Fiction: Lady Witherspoon's Solution by James Morrow

Episode #126: Karen Joy Fowler
Editorial by Tony C. Smith: The Interviews
Film Talk with Rod Barnett
Fiction: Always by Karen Joy Fowler

Episode #127: Tanith Lee
Editorial by Tony C. Smith: What Happened to Me This Week
Flash Fiction: iThink by Ken MacLeod
StarshipSofa Stories Vol. 2 Update by Dee Cunniffe
Fiction: The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald by Tanith Lee

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

by Tanith Lee
Read for Starship Sofa by J.J. Campanella


Flash Fiction by Ken MacLeod
Read for Starship Sofa by Geoff Michelli


by Karen Joy Fowler
Read for Starship Sofa by Amy H. Sturgis

Lady Witherspoon's Solution

by James Morrow
Read for Starship Sofa by Peter Seaton-Clarke & Nicola Seaton Clarke

The Adventurer

Short Story by C.M. Kornbluth
Free from Project Gutenberg
Read for Starship Sofa by Lawrence Santoro

I wasn't quite as impressed with this story as I felt I should have been. It may be the reek of the 50s, but I find it in my heart to love Asimov and Bradbury, you'd think I would love Kornbluth more. The concept is good and there is a nice layer of satire in the story:

America is a few hundred years into the future, still engaged in a cold war with the Soviet Union. The people are stupid and disinterested, and, more importantly, the president is stupid and disinterested and has become a hereditary position with all the name-only trappings of democracy you'd expect from us. It's really a dictatorship where cabinet members get executed as traitors on a whim, everyone spies on everyone else, and the people are kept in line through a mix of mind-control, terrorism, random executions, and press censorship.

Like some of Bradbury's work, Kornbluth is hating on anti-intellectualism before it was common, although it isn't the center of this story as it is in some of his others. Basically, the cabinet members want to overthrow their idiot-king but are certain they'll fail if they try any of the traditional means. Meanwhile, we read about the seemingly unrelated life of a young cadet.

The last lines are actually very surprising. I'd foreseen the main development, as I'm sure most readers will, but not only are some of the root causes different than we'd have thought, but the ultimate future of the nation doesn't go where I was expecting either. Kornbluth sets us up for one thing, especially given the hopefulness of the era, and then gives us a rather sobering, but probably more likely conclusion. And, again, it was all there earlier in the descriptions and the explanation of the title. I'll be left thinking about the stealth-moral of this story for years, I think. What is the true difference between the conquering hero and the villain?

Still, there is something about Kornbluth's prose that doesn't really strike me here, although Larry's narration is great as always, and this story, at least, isn't quite brilliant or subtle enough to be a favorite. 3.5 Soviet Jovian moons out of 5.

First Published in Space Science Fiction, May 1953

Snatch Me Another

Short Story by Mercurio Rivera
Published free online in Abyss & Apex #25, 2008
Read for Starship Sofa by Liz Mierzejewski

A very dark tale of two parents mourning the loss of a child. One turns to drugs and despair and withdraws from everything, the other goes fairly crazy, and remains happy. Both of these reactions play out to tragic extremes by the end. To complicate matters, this takes place in a near future where we've developed the technology to bring things over from other universes.

Both main characters are well characterized and empathetic in their madness. It's easy to imagine either reaction being your own, although you'd hope to be stronger, or at least more stable. There is a spinning, terrifying, sickening, vertigo feel to some of the description that's much more effective than the bland description so common in stories with this sort of technology. It seems perfectly real, but horribly so. Everything from the clouds to the minister to the drug inhalers at the beginning foreshadows the end and builds on some of the themes.

That said, I'm glad I went back and read this as text. The audio didn't work for me nearly as well here. I might not have given it a second chance if it weren't for the impression of brilliance behind the narration.

I have to say I'm not a fan of Mierzejewski's voice. She does do different voices for the characters, but the two main ones run together at times, I don't really like her voice in the narration, and there is something in her cadence that just sort of bothers me. The speed changes make things a little harder to follow than they could be. She does capture a lot more emotion toward the end though, but there's a singsong quality to the beginning that feels out of place in such a dark tale. It's so rare to be disappointed in a Starship Sofa narration that I'm still a bit surprised.

So, not something for a light mood, but dark and thoughtful and terrible, in the best possible way. Snatch me another story from Mercurio Rivera. 4.5 out of 5.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Starship Sofa Episodes 111, 112, and 113

Episode #111
Brief Intro by Tony, and a brief outro by Larry Santoro discussing his writing process, his inspiration for the story, and his love of throwing in puns, anachronisms, and subtle pop culture references. Actually this is pretty interesting.
But the bulk of the episode is just Part 1 of Lord Dickens's Declaration.

Episode #112
Poem: Safe in Their Cryogenic Chambers by Lyn C.A. Gardner
An SF take on Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers by Emily Dickinson, the resurrection they are waiting for here is to wake from cold sleep on arriving at the destination of their presumably slower-than-light spaceship. It's only okay in a vacuum, but the correlation with the Dickinson poem definitely adds something, at least for me. If you are going to listen to this episode, and haven't already, I'd read the poem linked above, and think about it for a bit before listening to Gardner' s version. You'll definitely appreciate it more that way. It wasn't written to stand alone, and it's frankly better when Dickinson is there to supplement, but this is a good tribute.
The Sofanaut Awards by Mark Bormann
Announcing the shortlist for the 2009 awards, and a bit about the voting process.
Looking Back At SF History by Amy H. Sturgis - Captain Nemo
A long look at one of the first proto-steampunk protagonists, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo is "A classic Byronic hero ... mad, bad, and dangerous to know... an early emo-boy, action hero, and scientific genius." Perhaps too much time is given to a list of all the actors who've portrayed him, movies, TV episodes, and musical tributes, but this is an enthusiastic, loving tribute to Captain Nemo and a pretty good analysis of his character. It was interesting to learn that He was changed (for the better, in my opinion) after the first draft so as to sell more books in Russia, a funny motivation for a good decision, and a nice bit of trivia. I'd urge everyone to read (for free) the two books in which he appears: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Mysterious Island.
Recap of Part I by Lawrence Santoro
Thank Larry for this recap, I missed about half of this on my listenthrough of last episode.
Lord Dickens's Declaration Part II
Update by Spider Robinson
An update on the health of his wife Jeannie and their financial status. Sad but thankful.
Fact Article IPv4 by Simon Hildebrandt
A fascinating article about how we assign our current 32-bit IP addresses, which we're expected to run out of in the next few years. IPv4, our current plan, can only have 6 billion addresses, while IPv6 could assign 10 to every single molecule on the face of the planet. We currently just keep going using a bunch of tricks and stopgap measures, but it will not be enough. We have the technology to fix the problem right now, and most software and hardware is set up to deal with the changes we'll need to make, but countries and large companies are too slow and unlikely to address the issue until serious problems have already happened. The solution is IPv6, and it's something we'll all need to adopt in the next few years. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and router manufacturers know this, as do the Internet protocol guys, but countries aren't getting the hint yet. Hildebrandt gives us a look at the way the system works, the changes that will have to be made, the need to encourage early adoption, and the fact that it probably won't happen fast enough. Great stuff. Rating: A
Film Talk by Rod Barnett - The Box
Barnett opens with a discussion of Richard Kelly's first two films, before he directed The Box. Kelly made a name for himself with Donnie Darko, a film I loved, and Barnett felt he should have loved, but just didn't. Many years later, he followed up with Southland Tales, an unholy abomination of a movie. Which puts the pressure on him for The Box, his third film: does it indicate a comeback from a sophomore slump, or another failure in a likely one-hit wonder career?

The Box is based on Button Button by Richard Matheson, but of course, being a big Hollywood movie, completely screws it up. It's the classic idea of "If you press this button, you'll get a million dollars, but someone you don't know will die." It isn't hard to find negative reviews of "The Box", but I think most of them miss some of the points Barnett gets, possibly due to his awareness of SF tropes and literature. The problem isn't in the initial idea, it is that, in order to stretch it out long enough, Kelly comes up with a bunch of surreal bullshit that isn't in any way relevant. He doesn't add any depth to the plot or the themes or the central moral dilemma, he just throws a bunch of random, unconnected things at the wall in an attempt to give an illusion of depth. I find too many reviewers are unwilling to call people out on this sort of thing, and just attribute their hatred of the movie to other things besides it not making any sense. Barnett's ability to call out this bullshit endears him to me, this is a good review. Although I'm disappointed he can't get behind my Donnie Darko apologetics, I rather have Rod Barnett than Roger Ebert.
Recap of Parts I & II by Lawrence Santoro
Wrap Up by Lawrence Santoro

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lord Dickens's Declaration

Novella by Lawrence Santoro

Broken up over three episodes of Starship Sofa, podcast for free as always, and brilliantly read by the author himself. It must be pointed out that Larry Santoro is one of the greatest story narrators of all time. If listening to this doesn't convince you, check out his other voice work.

On first listen, the first third is nearly incomprehensible in parts. At least to the ability to understand what the hell is going on. Maybe I was just tired though.

Santoro's introduction to Part II explains the first part much more clearly than it came across actually listening to it, so I'd advise not skipping it even if you are listening back-to-back-to-back, there is a decent chance you missed something important. That said, it is also worthwhile to actually listen to the first third, it isn't that bad.

The introduction to Part III is less vital, but still nice. Finally, the wrap up bit by Santoro is really fun and interesting to listen to, about how he came up with the ideas of the story and went about building it up.

Now, on with the actual story review.
This is an alternate history, steampunk time travel story. Set in a 1902 without religion, where war is something long forgotten, Jesus was a politician, as were Poe and Dickens. Literary historians are at the top of the academic food chain, with math and science at the bottom, filtering up through the softer and softer humanities. Philby is one such time-traveling literary historian, and this is largely the love story between him and his constant rival: Master Mary Mariah. The interaction between the two of them is pure gold. They fight and betray each other and call each other names, and from the very first segment, where my overall comprehension was lowest, I knew they secretly loved each other. That effect is throughout the story the finest bit of writing by Mr. Santoro.

So Philby gets in trouble for traveling back in time without proper protection, as part of his research into Lord Charles Dickens's declaration of love and proposal of marriage to Queen Elizabeth. He thinks it was not true love, just a ploy to get out of a publishing contract. This opening sends us off on an exceptionally weird, fun, confusing, and at times hilarious alternate history adventure. The ending is oddly sexy, and then oddly philosophical, I like the concluding segment quite a bit.

I don't want to give too much away in plot summary, so I'll just wrap this up with the comment that Santoro's ending and opening segments around the story are a pretty good description. There are a lot of little puns and fun anachronisms throughout. The dialogue is snappy even when it is written in Middle English (William of Occam is a favorite character). The steampunk setting is neat, although even more implausible than steampunk usually is (i.e. very). And the overall themes about love, religion, and human nature are neat, but not as well thought out as they could have been.

This is actually something Santoro mentions in his last segment: It's facile fun with ideas, which is unusual for SF which tends to be overly thought out, while Santoro is a horror writer, and they tend to be more concerned with the moments. He also comments that the story seems rough and unrevised, unpolished. I'd agree with the author on all these counts, he basically points out every problem I might have with the story. And yet I quite like it. SF often isn't as well thought out as people would like to think, and humor certainly has it's place.

I regard this story as primarily humorous, with some deeper thoughts lurking unexplored around the edges. It is good, light fun. The first third is confusing and overly complex and the segment most in need of revision. The second third was the most funny and worked the best overall I thought. The third third is a little more serious and deep, while still being lighthearted, although it could use some trimming here and there. But it is a good story, especially for what it aims to do.

I don't think I'm cutting Santoro any slack for writing on a deadline when I recommend this novella with 3.5 disaccommodated, illusory timelines out of 5.

Oddly, the biggest thing I take away from his explanation at the end, is how hard it is to swear and cuss people out without Gods or the concept of eternal damnation. I would suggest he could use vulgarity though.

Best Quotes:
  • "Few heeded Darwin anyway."
  • "Oh lovely twin-backed beasts."
  • "I am persuaded that Elizabeth, among her many virtues, was not a virgin."
  • "Nothing seems to improve a thing like making it larger."