Sunday, January 31, 2010

Deadly Sins

Short Story by Nancy Kress

Particularly short one about a lab tech who kills her boss. The story of what happened and why is revealed in her own thoughts as she is interrogated by a semi-intelligent wall. Fun, open non-ending. 3.5 out of 5.

Before My Last Breath

Short Story by Robert Reed

A geologist discovers the remains of an alien preserved in a coal mine. We manage to have 7 points of view in 10 pages, with minimal characterization and no characters returned to, no personal stories completed. Basically one vanilla occupation hands off to another vanilla occupation to continue the story of the dig. Birth and death happen, but it is all sort of meaningless. Nothing really happens, nothing is really discovered, and the truth revealed at the end is not at all interesting. And the Pascal's Wager at the end fails to create any lasting impression or thoughtfulness. 1.5 out of 5.


Short Story by Ian Creasey

Triple-layered title: Humanity is eroded as we replace more and more of our bodies with artificial parts. Our eroded protagonist, Winston, wanders the eroding cliffs of England, which is crumbling into a rising sea. While taking one last walk before leaving to colonize a new planet, he encounters the eroding AI of an old lady attached to a bench memorializing the woman she once was. He proceeds to get into and out of trouble, but the point of the story is more in how we are forced to give up bits of ourselves and will eventually be left with nothing of the original. And the feeling I get reading this is maybe that erosion won't be so catastrophic after all. A strangely hopeful take on a classically depressing trend; I like it. 4.5 out of 5 AI's are sick of haunting worn-down benches.

Animus Rights

Short Story by John Shirley

Two powerful, ethereal beings toy with humanity. Maybe they should consider the rights of such lower creatures. Pretty short, nothing original to see here, lame title, lame ending. The writing is good enough, but the story goes nowhere and manages to be repetitive and pointless in just 10 pages. 1.5 out of 5.

A Lovely Little Christmas Fire

Short Story by Jeff Carlson

Audio version available for free at the excellent Starship Sofa, Narrated by Amy H. Sturgis

Julie Beauchain and her boyfriend Highsong are park rangers. They fight a bio-engineered termite infestation in Montana. There may be terrorism, conspiracy, or insurance fraud afoot. Exciting, the mystery is left a touch ambiguous, which is good. The resolution is a bit cliche but nothing really bad about this story and it's lots of fun. 3.5 out of 5 rangers are too sexy for Montana.

P.S. This is the sequel to Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy, also by Jeff Carlson. I didn't know this until listening to the Starship Sofa version though, so it doesn't hurt not to have read it. Still it is available free from Starship Sofa in Episode #88, and it's pretty good.

Her Heart's Desire

Short Story by Jerry Oltion

Charming little story about a woman who finds a classic magic shop selling her heart's desire (in a jar). When she leaves, before doing anything with it, she bumps into an aspiring musician, accidentally breaking the jar. They can't seem to find the shop again, and her wish is gone, but maybe she gets her heart's desire anyway. Classic plot, but well done, with a shoutout to The Wombats. 3 out of 5 wishes don't need as much magic as you'd think.

Sleepless in the House of Ye

Short Story by Ian McHugh

Poe Ye is some sort of amphibious alien creature, whose family needs her to stay awake (which is essentially biological suicide) for the winter to protect their spawn from predatory worms. Things go to hell rapidly and keep getting worse, the ending is thoughtful and bittersweet.

I really enjoyed this one. The aliens are very alien and an intriguing world is developed well without any obtrusive infodumps. You can really empathize with these things that aren't even close to being human. And it is an exciting survival/self-sacrifice story as well. 4 out of 5.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Colliding Branes

Short Story by Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling

Rabbiteen Chandra is a physics blogger who tries to link everything with Hindu mysticism. Angelo Rasmussen is a political blogger, with conspiracy nut tendencies. Since the universe is about to cease existing (the titular colliding branes), they figure they might as well hook up. But before settling in for a night of wild, pre-apocalyptic blogger sex, they follow a tip from another blogger and head out to Area 52 ("Wow, that's one digit higher than 51.")

As the universe literally falls apart around them, they fall in love and conclude the story in an out-there, twist ending that makes exactly the kind of cosmic sense Rudy Rucker makes. Which is to say it's internally consistent, and if you're willing to retire your Occam's Razor from cosmology, and use it to measuring out whatever drug you're snorting off that 12-dimensional mirror - then it's plausible. I quite liked it.

This is an affectionate parody of bloggers and the blogosphere. The dialogue is stilted in places and the most recently mentioned character serves as the lens through which all description and narration is seen, changing many times without notice. This makes for tough reading in a few places, but allows for competing varieties of sarcasm and over-the-top idealism bias. I laughed several times reading this, although it might be more awkward reading than I'd like, especially the first third or so.

Given the blogosphere nature of this story, I'd have loved to see cape-wearing Cory Doctorow join the dream team, but the Rucker and Sterling are sufficiently brilliant on their own. 4 out of 5 blogs are disappointed they didn't get a shout-out, BoingBoing is not among them.

The Coldest War

Short Story by Matthew Johnson

Two Canadian Army rangers, Gord and Stan, occupy a tiny arctic island, setting off a flare each day to prove they are still there. Because of a now-open sea passage, they worry a Danish commando team may try to kill them. One day Gord doesn't come back...

I liked the story well enough, winter survival with a hearty dose of paranoia. But despite what some reviewers say, this is no Jack London. Or James van Pelt for that matter. Not that it isn't good, but I never really feared for death by freezing, only snipers and insanity. The psychological worries are a nice addition, without them this would have been too pedestrian for me, but even if the main character might be insane, it is more interesting, but still not great.

I also have trouble with plausibility here. Not that Canada and Denmark would feud over an island, I believe that in an instant, but that a flare you can trigger with a foot lever is sufficient proof of occupation, rather than proof of a robot built to send off a flare. And that 24 hours without a flare would be sufficient for the island to be declared uninhabited and Canada would have to cede control of it. Or that if all these things are true and Canada fears Danish assault, they would only station two guys instead of a larger team.

Implausible, a bit simplistic, but tense and exciting. 3 out of 5.

The Bird Painter in Time of War

Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

A burned-out, stuttering war photographer wanders enemy territory painting flowers and birds. Fast paced, heartwarming, and devastatingly tragic all at once, with thoughts on collateral damage and the unthinking, pointless violence of a certain type of soldier (on both sides). The final line could either be the one fantasy element of the story, or a metaphor implying a much sadder ending. I choose the sad, but it is open to interpretation. 5 out of 5.

The Point

Short Story by Steven Utley

Three pager about two scientists who really hate each other. Their serious interpersonal issues get a 3 out of 5.


Short Story by Will McIntosh
Published in Asimov's
Later Podcast by Starship Sofa, read by Amy H. Sturgis

What happens when we have the technology to wake up all the cryogenically frozen people? Fixing whatever killed them is sure to be expensive, so who'd really want to waste the money? Lonely/creepy old men of course!

Mira wakes up after her car crash, confused and disoriented, in a "dating center". She finds out that the only way to get revived is to convince a random man to marry her. Except she is a lesbian. As one of the older people stored in the dating center, she doesn't get many visitors wanting to wake her up for a date, hundreds of years pass between prospective husbands. Eventually she finds out her true love is frozen in the same facility. The question remains, is death somehow better than loveless marriage? Probably not. Takes the whole "I'd rather be dead than sleep with you" comment to a new level of seriousness.

Anyway, the story has a much nicer ending than the downer I'd probably have wrote, but it is still a good one. There is a small subplot about just what happened in the accident, and I found the whole marriage-for-revival situation to be suitably horrifying-yet-plausible. Well done. Just one question: WHY ARE THERE NO LESBIANS IN THE FUTURE? Seriously, this isn't even remarked on, everyone takes the whole bridesicle trade as male exclusive without a second thought. Our protagonist is a lesbian, but when she brings it up, everyone is doubleplus shocked. And nobody ever thought to ask.

Despite the conspicuous, unexplained absence of homosexuality in a future liberal enough to allow fluorescent orange-skinned lawyers, I'd give this horrifying future/bittersweet love story a 4 out of 5.

Unintended Behavior

Short Story by Nancy Kress

Annie has had enough of her cheating, patronizing, emotionally abusive husband and decides she's leaving. He uses his absolute control over all the electronics in the high-tech apartment to make her miserable. She and the talking-helmet-wearing-dog finally confront him in a great, although not unpredictable climax.

Although Don is an absolute asshole, one of those types where you can't imagine why anyone would put up with him in the first place (but suspect is horribly realistic), despite the fact that a female writer is writing about an older woman leaving her abusive husband, Annie comes off as very flawed. Not in a reprehensible way like her husband, of course, but she isn't the perfect victimized martyr you'd expect from a lesser writer trying to make a point. She is sympathetic, not perfect, and this matters to me a great deal.

Finally, the talking dog, the one really SF element is actually vital to the story rather than filler. Besides the comic relief given to a necessarily dark story, it develops the dog as a character, the only source of sympathy Annie has, and the limited vocabulary allows for a lot of depth to be added, while still not confirming or denying the sentience of the dog. And the ending, which I already said was great, does depend on this development of the dog and it's limited vocabulary. Anyway, great story, although the Don The Husband is almost a caricature, which could be realistic, but more depth to him might have made the story less clear-cut. 4.5 out of 5 dogs would prefer this translator to the one from Up.

Passing Perry Crater Base, Time Uncertain

Short Short Story/Flash Fiction by Larry Niven

Some unsubtle alien AIs critique our lack of resolve towards our space program while orbiting the moon.

1.5 out of 5.

Five Thousand Light Years from Birdland

Short Story by Robert R. Chase

First contact is made with a bird-like alien who possesses faster-than-light travel and needs help to replace some parts of his ship. We get this story in flashback from the first Human ambassador sent back to the Screet (the alien)'s homeworld. The thing is, our narrator was just a translator, Screet was the one who demanded he come instead of a chosen, political ambassador. In the course of the flashbacks and shipboard conversation we learn the history of Screet's people and their ancient enemy "The Doubles", and try to figure out the meaning of the phrase/book title "Eutik Si Euban". But this makes a lot more sense and isn't the whole point of the story, compared to the classic one-phrase-key-to-diplomacy stories.

Anyway, that is a long summary for a 10 page story, and I still haven't spoiled the major plot points. A lot of things are revealed and it is all done very well. There are poker, jazz, and improv comedy references throughout, although Screet fortunately never sets talon in a nightclub. All of these actually tie into the real point of the story, as the meaning of the phrase, and the history of the Sky People wrap together in a nice understanding of their cultural values, which I could definitely get behind. This one avoids the annoying first contact clichés and fridge logic, it just works: 3.5 out of 5 bird aliens have their doubts about neanderthals.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's June 2009

And Drunk the Milk of Paradise by Robert Frazier

Oblique, poetic bit about a revolution on Mars, doesn't say anything much but not awful.

Within Your Shoes by Mark Rich

When everyone is extraordinary, the normal guy is the only unique one. This one was great on the first reading, but somehow diminished on the second one. Not to say I didn't like it, but although it is a real poem, has rhythm and depth and something to say, and tells a story on top of that, it ends up being almost too trivial? That review is almost ironic, considering the content.

Split Decisions by Kendall Evans & David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Navajo spirituality meets quantum physics. Lots of toying with wave-particle duality wave-form collapse, has a nice lyrical quality, but not as original as it thinks it is. Good, not great.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's April/May 2009

Small Conquerors by Geoffrey A. Landis

I don't like the "Here's the lesson" at the end, but this was a nice little story about mice conquering humanity. Fast, fun, but not amazing.

We Ignore Him by PMF Johnson

Pan adapts to modern civilization, moderate nature symbolism ensues.

Bridges by Peter Roberts

Space elevators non-poetically, extrapolated to cosmically unlikely dimensions.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's March 2009

First Beer on Mars by David Lunde

Just what it says on the can; story about the building of the first Mars brewery. Adequate.

Nightlife by Sandra Lindow

Grammar is sexy. Great fun, the only part I didn't love was the last line. But it needed something like that, so I'm calling this page-full-of-wordplay pretty great.

Cabaret by J.E. Stanley

Blues musicians held captive by aliens and made to perform. Good enough in a shortshortshort story sort of way.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's February 2009

They Believed in Fairies During World War One by Darrell Schweitzer

A sad, meaningful one about soldiers hoping for miracles and not getting any. I like the message and the ending, but the poem doesn't flow like I'd like it to.

The Silence of Rockets by G.O. Clark

Religion versus science in a non-flowing, non-rhyming, not particularly lyrical bunch of words with frequent linebreaks.

Singularity Song by David Lunde

An outward-zooming music metaphor about universe creation. The unpoetic fact that sound cannot travel through vacuum and the stanzas ending and beginning in the middle of

phrases distract me too much to feel anything but an oncoming

facial tic.

Regular Riders by Ruth Berman

Magical girl on a merry-go-round? I liked this well enough, sentimental but not overkill. A bit long, but it had flow, even if there was no rhyme or wordplay.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's January 2009

Just one poem this month:

On Zurlygg Street by Bruce McAllister

"Run Spot, Run" is updated so it has the word "computational" in it. The last two lines are funny, but the sing-song tone wore me down. Read it to your kids if you want to explain the term "sentience".

Controlled Experiment

Novelette by Tom Purdom

A prisoner is experimentally fitted with a rage inhibiting device and released into a community. But someone seems to be trying to sabotage the program and end the idea of partially paroling life-sentence prisoners who due to medical advancement are now spending hundreds of years in prison. Since the police refuse to actually do anything, the elderly couple into whose care he has been released investigate for themselves.

Pretty good, kept exciting by the interspersing bits of diary from the hacker hired to carry out part of the attacks. Both the logical evolution of hacker culture and the budgetary and moral implications behind life sentences with expanding life expectancy will keep me thinking about this for a long time, but the ideas and the detective story aren't quite developed enough for me to love this. 3.5 out of 5.

A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime

Novelette by Benjamin Crowell

Sidibé Traoré ended up as Earth's diplomatic representative because she was an astronaut who loved to pop the blisters on a sheet of bubble wrap.

That is the first line, and between it and the title, you can extrapolate all you need to know. Sidi is unambitiously along for the ride when she is sent off to a near-light speed bus/cultural exchange/diplomatic meeting/uplift program. She unsuccessfully fumbles her way through relations with other species while referencing Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum. She chaotically moves from failure to success when she starts working on negotiations with a sentient puddle who is 837th of 837 in theoretical compatibility with humans.

Obviously this is humor, but it remains plausible to the end. Sidi is exceedingly competent, although this is applied only through a series of accidents. The writing had me grinning the whole time, although the comedy is all in description and circumstance rather than "jokes". The ending is a bit out there, and seems a little too simplistic, but room is left for all of that to be resolved somewhere after the final sentence. Overall this was much more plausible and less silly than typical for this sort of lighthearted alien diplomacy story, and I really enjoyed Sidi's rise to power, almost as much as the title. 4.5 out of 5 godlike masteries of spacetime are achieved by accident.

The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter

Novelette by Christopher Barzak

Sylvie can see ghosts, and make them visible to others. This allows her father to hunt and capture them. But Sylvie feels sorry for the poor trapped ghosts, including her dead mother, and wants her father to find a different job.

The story is sad but dryly humorous. The language gives a fantastical, lyrical quality, which is an odd thing to write about Ohio, and everything is in the present tense. The ending is what really differentiates this from a modern fairy tale; it is left very open. But none of the unresolved questions are critical enough to haunt me. 3.5 out of 5.

Blood Dauber

Novelette by Ted Kosmatka & Michael Poore

Given the name and the feel, I'd like to label this one a horror story, but not everyone shares my uneasiness about certain wasps, so combined with the evolutionary aspect of the story, most will consider it science fiction that is exceptionally light on fiction.

Bell is a financially troubled zookeeper at a financially troubled zoo. His marriage is a mess and his boss hates him. He is in charge of the entomology "castle", where he experiments on a species of wasp that exhibits some unusual evolutionary adaptations, giving the story its title. He is also in charge of the convicts who work community service, leading to the primary non-marital source of drama.

Plenty of your typical humans-as-animals comparisons, and the underlying story of Bell's own metamorphosis, which I can't peg as either a good or a bad thing, definitively, support my feeling that this is an introspective horror piece. The tone of the writing is sometimes humorous, but always very dark. I like it a lot.

And then the ending. Not a total surprise, but handled quite well. Sort-of happy ending, that doesn't seem happy at all. It strikes me as roughly as happy as the ending of 1984. I like it, but don't read this hoping to cheer yourself up.

The loss of the experiments and the crappiness of the zoo itself speak to me further, as some of my favorite things are made to be awful. This is one of those stories that almost feels like it was written for me personally. 4.5 out of 5 animals are more adaptable than they expect.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lion Walk

Novelette by Mary Rosenblum

Tahira runs a wildlife preserve, for animals recreated from the Pleistocene. Against the wishes of her PR-obsessed boss, she investigates how a pair of young, scantily clad women got passed high-tech security to become lion bait. In the process we examine the unsavory side of the human psyche and how technological advancements may accentuate that.

This is a remarkably innovative, cliche-free detective thriller. The thoughtfulness is always kept in the periphery of the high-tech crime story and its contrasting natural setting, so it never overwhelms. A serious amount of world-building is done without detracting from the action at all. After an initial shock the ending was unsurprising, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. I can't think of a better way it could have gone, as far as ensuring I remember the story and continue thinking about it long after.

4.5 out of 5 snuff films could be improved with some prehistoric lions.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

California Burning

Novelette by Michael Blumlein

A man is having his father cremated, but for some reason the bones won't burn. In the allegorical background, California has a bunch of wildfires and gets all smoky.

This is an emotional story about the unnamed first person protagonist learning to cope with not knowing some things about his father, with an implied SF explanation. Handles the whole grief thing remarkably well while you almost don't notice the otherworldly aspect; I could imagine this happening with one of my dead relatives easily. The thing that stands out most about the writing is that the "action" of the scenes is moved along entirely with dialogue. For a slow, sad story, boredom is avoided remarkably well, and I am prone to boredom in a story like this. An impressive feat, at least to me. If you want an example in excellent dialog writing, this would be a good one.

Despite all that, I'm not really moved to emotion, and nothing really happens. Masterfully written, but not interesting enough, 4 out of 5.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wife-Stealing Time

Novelette by R. Garcia y Robertson

Sequel to SinBad the Sand Sailor and after this I'll be looking forward to more SinBad stories in the future.

Wife-Stealing time is when the Crow of Mars allow their men to kidnap away from their husbands any married women they've slept with over the past year. Pretty Bottom doesn't want to be stolen, but has had quite enough of her husband, so of course she ends up with SinBad. Then they have to save a vegan lion-hunting party.

Trades some of the first story's manic energy for more comedy and a bit more sex, but this one still moves fast. An adventure story much more to my taste, staying more in one place instead of always in transit. The ending was a little out-of-nowhere, but that isn't a problem in this story. Despite liking it better, I'm still only giving this one a 3.5 out of 5.

SinBad the Sand Sailor

Novelette by R. Garcia y Robertson

SinBad smuggles antibiotics on the planet Barsoom, which has very little law enforcement besides a strict prohibition on advanced weaponry; swords and crossbows must suffice, despite GPS, solar powered wings, and a space elevator. He finds a prostitute on a dune, apparently fallen from an airship, and pulpy adventures ensue.

Fun, exciting adventure story, with a little implied comedy (SinBad is guilty of such horrendous crimes as "cohabiting with known lesbians"), but not much to it beyond that. There are some good twists, and the whole thing moves along remarkably fast. The main appeal to the story is nostalgia for older readers, and the concept itself of updating pulp adventure for plausibility in a modern SF frame, rather than the surreal crap paying homage. It succeeds at this, but I'd have liked to see a bit more... depth. 3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's December 2009

The Anti-World by Andrew Gudgel

Six Anti-stanzas of words beginning with anti-, anti-strung together into anti-sentences making anti-sense. The last stanza tries to tie it all together with some actual meaning, but falls flat. I anti-love this anti-poem, because I find it anti-anti-annoying.

The World's Ending Again in 2012 by Darrell Schweitzer

Not the most poetic piece, but still a fun look at end-of-the-world prophecies. James Randi should factor into more poetry.

Shiner by G.O. Clark

An okay poetic pun.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's October/November 2009

The top 5 poems of the year are split between this issue, and August's.

Derivative Work
by Elissa Malcohn

Frankenstein's Monster has legal troubles: fun concept, mediocre poem.

For Ye, of Very Little Faith by W. Gregory Stewart

As physics puns go, this one's electroweak.

Monsters by Geoffrey A. Landis

Commercial Halloween makes monsters unscary, this could be a mistake. Like spending too much time on this poem. And I like Werewolves of London.

Unghost Stories by Greg Beatty

A haunting poem about how one does not need ghosts to feel haunted. Excellent.

The Hedge Witch's Upgrade by Sandra Lindow

Fantastic gardening inspired by the world record for World's Longest Herbaceous Border. Magical description of the mundane is always fun.

Edgar Allan Poe by Bryan D. Dietrich

I like his poem, but I'm not letting Mr. Dietrich run my Dead Writers Action Figure business.

In the final evaluation, this was an excellent issue for poetry: I rate Unghost Stories as my favorite poem of the year, with Edgar Allan Poe and The Hedge Witch's Upgrade as fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's September 2009

Speculative Tai Chi by Kendall Evans

Strong first half, weak second half.
smiling for half of them,
but last few parts seemed half-assed.

Nearly Ready For Occupation by Danny Adams

Newsflash: humanity has more baggage than moving to a new planet will fix. Shrug.

The Last Alchemist by Bruce Boston

This poem is in a pretty sweet-looking box, also, it's well written. But the sentiment bugs the hell out of me. I'm with Feynman.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's August 2009

The top 5 poems of the year are split between this issue, and October/November's.

Chicken From Minsk by Karin L. Frank

Poor little chickens aren't dinosaurs anymore.
Kind of funny, awkward wording in places, actually rhymes. Not bad.

Osteometry by Erin Hoffman

Another poem in remembrance of dinosaurs.
Spacing is a bit distracting, interesting thoughts on extinction, but ultimately forgettable, like our civilization is implied to be.

Doing Splits by Ruth Berman

Pithy variations on "split"-containing idioms.
A bit disjointed, but I like it.

And My Sinuses Are Killing Me by Tina Connolly

Not everyone wants to turn our cities back into forests.
Good flow, good idea, unique sentiment, best of issue.
The editor really screwed up here, DC (as in the city) is distractingly typo'd as KC.

Human Resources by F.J. Bergmann

Well done surreal imagery, funny yet meaningful ending. Second best.

After reading everything, and rereading, I think And My Sinuses Are Killing Me & Human Resources are the second and third best poems of the year.

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's July 2009

For Sale: One Moonbase, Never Used by Esther M. Friesner

Would be interesting to see in the Classifieds, in Asimov's not so much. Generic.

Exobiology II by F.J. Bergmann

Just a bunch of sentences with
semi-random line breaks.
Seriously I'm not getting any sense of rhythm
Makes you think, because it doesn't tell a story
that makes a whole lot of sense.

Earth II

Novella by Stephen Baxter

Nothing to do with the tv show, for better or for worse; nothing to do with comic books, for the better.

I am not a fan of names so very generic, especially when it seems only there for lack of a better title. But the generic title doesn't ruin the rather good story.

Xaia Windru is a warrior queen sailing around Earth II and exploring things, her husband is a stay-at-home-king involved with the politics of building a super-library. The exploration of Earth II is exciting, and there are some good ideas here, but the top library lobbyist strikes me as a Hari Seldon wannabe. The discoveries Xaia makes on her expedition are surprisingly relevant, but are always revealed back home by one scholar or another at the same time. This gets a bit annoying.

Regardless, this is a strong adventure story with some really interesting concepts, particularly the organism known as The Purple. And, following up the return of our heroic/dangerously impulsive warrior queen is a conclusion that really surprises. I don't agree with the end at all, and if I lived in Zeeland I'd probably commit some sort of treason, but it is perfectly in character and makes logical sense, I just hate it. And that is what makes it, I can't stand the ending, but I have no problem believing it, and get angry enough that I might as well be there. So well done Stephen Baxter, 4 out of 5.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Act One

Novella by Nancy Kress

This has now been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo. I went back to see why I didn't like it, because I couldn't remember anything besides there being a dwarf and some genetic terrorists. On second thought, that is reason enough for it not to win awards.

This one is going to join Gunfight on Farside as a good story that I liked, but not nearly as much as internet/reviewer/best-of-collection-editor consensus indicates I should. 3 out of 5.

The strange thing is I can't really identify why. The protagonist, Barry, is an excellent, well drawn character. Imagine Toby Zeigler washing out of politics and deciding to become an actress's manager. Also he's a dwarf and has to think about genetic modifications and free will.

I love this sort of character, I love genetics, the ethical issues brought up by the story are important,
every character is excellent, the plot is plausible yet surprising. The only complaint I can come up with is that the ending is maybe wrapped up a bit too fast, but I see no good way to make it longer, and it does make you think. There is really nothing wrong here, but I didn't love it, I only liked it. Kress is an excellent writer, and you can certainly see that in this story, yet it lacks the punch it ought to have for me.

Broken Windchimes

Novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Pané are a species of aliens with extremely picky musical taste. Picky to the point I can see it being selective pressure against the continued existence of their society, but everything works so well I can get past it. One of the top musicians on the planet, a castrato male soprano, misses a single note during a performance, and his career is over. So rather than sit around being a has-been he catches the first cargo ship to the musical capital of human space. There he spends a bit too much time agonizing over the specifics of musical theory behind the blues, before getting to an extremely poignant conclusion. This one brought a tear to my eye, and proves that Ms. Rusch does actually know how to write a brilliant ending when she tries. 4.5 out of 5 orphans can sing the blues, but they don't all have perfect pitch.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Sea of Dreams

Novella by William Barton

A jumbled mess, with a couple good ideas tossed in at the end; 1 out of 5.

At 38 pages, I found exactly one page of this novella good, with maybe another ten worth reading to get to that one. And that leaves a good deal of fluff. You could safely amputate the first 25 pages without losing much of anything (the mark of great literature!) The Sea of Dreams should have been a short story, and even then I can't see myself giving it more than maybe a 2.5 out of 5 with extreme editing.

There are many instances of entirely irrelevant sex in this story. And for all the time wasted talking about sex, it is neither graphic nor erotic, so you can't justify it as erotic fiction either, (if you consider that a justification). The central scientific dilemma, while admittedly not the point (although I'm not sure what the point was) is complete rubbish. The problem the characters have to solve would have resolved the same with a comatose protagonist being wheeled around between scenes, although I guess his boring chatter ended up making things worse for some parallel universes we don't care about.

A brief plot summary (spoiler-light, although I anti-recommend wasting your time on this) :
7 pages of almost entirely irrelevant introduction. 12 more of dealing with a civilization that exists purely as an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs, with some Red Orm references sprinkled in. Neither of these have any bearing on anything. I quit reading 6 times during this part. It took me a week.

Finally, we get to the good bit: 9 pages of moving between some other irrelevant locations, with about a page worth of disjointed, barely comprehensible useful background, delivered with lots of made-up terms that never matter. Then our pointless heroes get sent to the past for 4 pages of standard-issue paradox avoidance, before being sent to the distant future for 5 pages of wandering around aimlessly with a little bit of pseudo-physics thrown in.

And finally the quest to return home is completed with a very literal bit of deus ex machina and we get exactly 1 page of fairly thought provoking denouement, although it ends with an out-of-nowhere speculation about which option to choose of what seems to me a false dichotomy about an issue I'd gotten the impression the protagonist should have moved past long ago. Why the hell semi-ruin the universe to get back a lost love after spending the whole novella falling for your cloned sex slave. Not that the reader can actually care about our central lizardman anyway. 38 pages and all the character development of 5. The saving grace to the ending was that it wasn't either terrible thing I expected: it was neither all a dream nor The Number of the Beast for dummies. Small victories.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Novella by Judith Berman

Ari's parents have been killed by space pirates in a very creative future setting.  She joins their crew hoping for revenge, but first has to prove herself useful.  An ancient space station that responds to her commands gives her some interesting options here, if only she can pull herself together psychologically enough to survive.  Space-Opera/Horror/Coming-of-Age.

This novella is actually an excerpt from Berman's novel-in-progress Invisible House.  But don't let that put you off.  It had me worried a bit too, and it did take a little while to piece together all the background information, but everything you need is there.  And more importantly, there is an excellent ending to this excerpt.  A lot of novel excerpts end on a "to be continued... buy my book!", but this concludes very nicely.  Only the immediate situation is resolved, and there is clearly more story in store for our heroine, but I feel confidently optimistic about her future.  Ari develops impressively over the course of this segment and the ending surprised me by being better than my at-the-time ideal way to end the story disregarding continuing it as a novel.  

Additionally, this story evokes some real fear and manages to paint the pirates both as terrible monsters, and as realistic, round characters.  At novel length I can imagine myself cheering for the captain who had one of his crew turned into a still living, sentient chair.    Ari is a great protagonist with much more depth than usual to the revenge motive, and heck, I'd even read a story about the poor repairman who was stranded on the station before this excerpt starts.  I'll definitely be reading the book when it comes out whatever direction it takes, my only worry is that I might like this segment better than the novel considered as a whole.  5 out of 5.

P.S. The pirates speak in a grammatically bizarre creole dialect that some people find really annoying.  I was a bit frustrated at first, but you can learn to parse it fine after a while, and it is definitely worth the effort.  Much like Juliette Wade's Cold Words, the non-standard speech is justified by the story, and, although it may be frustrating to the reader, doesn't provide that much of an obstacle, and succeeds in enhancing one's enjoyment of the story.  Don't let early frustration prevent you from continuing on.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Great Armada

Novella by Brian Stableford

Francis Bacon and a bunch of other Sixteenth Century personages save the world from an armada of ether-ships sent by the insect civilization of the moon. This is apparently the conclusion to a series of 3 other stories, none of which I've read. I get the impression this was the weakest of them. It took me 15 of the 40 pages to engage with the story at all, the Preface summarizing the first 3 stories was probably necessary, but between that and all the allusions to prior events, there was a large hurdle to get over before having a clue what was going on.
When I finally did get into the story, it was very interesting, although Bacon seemed just along for the ride up until the last 1/4 of the story. And besides the heavy amount of background required, I guess that is my major complaint: none of the main characters had much to do with the events or resolution of the story. Technically Bacon did, but the ending he brought about, although satisfying, smelled a bit of deus ex machina. And still, I absolutely loved it. A bit of meta-humor certainly helps.
"It was a comedy," Francis said. "For which we should all be truly thankful. Had it been a tragedy, as it might so easily have become, it would not be a suitable subject for drama for at least five hundred years."

The technology, descriptions, and religious overtones really made this feel like this came from the Sixteenth Century, and that pays off big for me. Much of it was a simple adventure ride, proceeding along the tracks from scene to scene regardless of the efforts of the protagonist, but still enjoyable. Although I can only give this a 2.5 out of 5, I suspect the others in the series would fare better, and I'll be tracking them down sooner or later.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Spires of Denon

Novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

We follow the exploration of the caves beneath the titular Big Dumb Object from the points of view of supremely competent security chief Meklos, frustratingly secretive (and to my mind, incompetent) archaeologist Gabrielle, and mysterious hidden agenda lady Navi. One cannot help but like Meklos, and it must be tough resisting the urge to punch Gabrielle. So the characters, although perhaps more flat than one might like, are certainly well drawn. The setting is neat and the archaeological mystery is pretty good and there is an excellent tension throughout the whole story. But, again, the whole thing falls apart in the last couple pages. The action builds up to a critical point, a major twist is revealed, although it was subtly foreshadowed, but then said twist fizzles out the entire climax rather than satisfactorily resolving it. And the two things I was most curious about were either not explained, or implied to be non-mysteries in the end. An exciting tale of archeology and danger that has a crap ending and comes across as half finished despite being the longest novella in Asimov's this year; 3 out of 5.