Thursday, March 25, 2010

Podcasts: January 2010

Escape Pod (2.5)
On the Human Plan by Jay Lake: 2

PseudoPod (3.4)

Starship Sofa (3.8)

The Escape Artists podcasts didn't do so hot this month. Escape Pod wasn't even worth my time, the most memorable thing from it was the setting (which I liked) of my least favorite story: Protocols. Podcastle had my absolute favorite story with End of the Empire, but were more misses than hits. Still I keep coming back to them because every once in a while they publish the stories I love the most. Pseudopod was the most consistent, and even though I didn't like The Tamga, I don't feel cheated. Blessed Days and Turning the Apples are both still stories I can't shake, and while not the top of my list, being enjoyable and memorable is worth something. I think Pseudopod is the most consistently good of the three.

Overall, Clarkesworld had a very good month, and there is a reason they win awards. Starship Sofa was very consistent, with stories I really enjoyed, but never sinking below a high level "meh", unlike some of the other podcasts. The articles on the Sofa were off and on, but the good ones were worth it.

Overall Fiction Favorites:
1: The Things
2: Another End of the Empire
3: The Good Detective

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Starship Sofa Articles: January 2010

Episode 115
Extra-long introduction this week about the future of the podcast and the effort to help Spider Robinson and his wife with her cancer.
Fact Article: Looking Back at SF History by Amy H. Sturgis
An interesting biographical piece on Anthony Trollope and a discussion of his novel The Fixed Period, a book that is apparently very hard to find, with few reprints since it's publication in 1882. The novel deals with mandatory euthanasia and imperialism and seems very interesting, especially in an historical sense. I'll be keeping my eyes open for this book, and I certainly look forward to more articles on semi-obscure old SF like this one. Reminds me of Curiosities from F&SF.
Sofanaut Award Winners

Fact Article: Meat Opera by Fred Himebaugh
Excerpts from and pimpage for the awesome sounding jazz opera rendition of the classic story They're Made Out of Meat. I really enjoyed this sample, and the full version is excellent as well. Very enjoyable noises from blowing all this air through meat.
Fact Article: Film Talk by Rod Barnett
A more-insightful-and-nuanced-than-average review of Avatar. Summed up by: "I have to admit, I ended up liking this film, but the road was rocky." Interesting as Mr. Barnett has the same component opinions I do, but the semi-opposite conclusion.

Fact Article: Transcribers by Robyn Bradshaw
Biographical info on each member of the group transcribing old Starship Sofa podcasts into text. And a bit of discussion on the project's progress. Not interesting listening, but a worthy project.
Extra Story: The Good Detective by M. John Harrison
I guess I should put this here. It is an extra story at the beginning of the episode, and honestly much better than the main story, A Weeping Czar.... It isn't a fact article, but I wanted to put a link to it here for the sake of completeness with the end-of-year summary since it isn't listed as a piece of main fiction for voting purposes, but it improves the overall quality of the episode.

Fact Article: This Week in Science Fiction by Tony C. Smith
Aurealis Awards, BSFA Awards, Philip K. Dick Awards, Ann VanderMeer's promotion to editor-in-chief at Weird Tales, and probably some other bits that I missed in the Tony-jabber.
Fact Article: Explained in 60 Seconds by Megan Argo
Red Dwarf Stars - Basically just what they are and why they are cool, small, and have long lifetimes. I didn't know about the slower rate of fusion, but it makes sense. A useful bit of trivia but mostly this was nothing I didn't already know. Still definitely worth including at this length.
Fact Article: Science News by J.J. Campanella
Devil Facial Tumour Disease and how it is wiping out the Tasmanian Devil population. Interestingly, all the tumors are identical, and the same cloning cell transfers itself from one devil to another through bites. This is a sad, important, and very scientifically interesting news story and I'm glad to see it given a better treatment here than it was in the New York Times.
In other news, Campanella discusses the recent discovery that eyeless sea urchins can actually see, using their spines and their entire body to see. Also lupus that affects one "identical" twin and not the other, based on environmental factors; and experimental evidence that whisk(e)y may give you a worse hangover than vodka, but no more mental impairment.

J.J. Campanella's Science News is easily the most interesting, with Amy H. Sturgis' SF History in second and nothing else really appealing besides the They're Made Out of Meat advertising. But two good articles a month isn't bad.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Memory Dog

Novelette by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Originally published in Asimov's

Mike is a (female) dog who has had the memories of a scientist downloaded into her, as a way of staying close to his ex-wife. Forgive the pronoun confusion. He lives with his ex-wife and her boyfriend as they hide out from the fascist government.

Although the news cannot be trusted, blogging has evolved to the point where you can download trusted posts directly into your brain. The wide-scale transference of memory is dealt with in an interesting, idealistic way here. Basically this takes the hackers using memory transference for good, against the government, rather than the government using it for evil side of things.

The concept of the original memory drugs and the spread to use as news and eventually for the good of humanity is well done and complicated here. If the technology existed, this is a plausible story. And the complexity of Mike/MemoryDog as a character is great. He really is a dog, at the same time as being a repentant husband/father. Maybe I'm just a sucker for tragic stories that end ambiguously hopeful. 4 out of 5 collies remember more than you imagine.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon

Novelette by Ken Scholes
Audio Version read by Mary Robinette Kowal
Note: Starship Sofa typo'd it into "A Weeping Caza Behold the Fallen Moon"

While wiping out a heretical religious cult for the unrelated death of his wife, the Czar's men uncover what amounts to a magic telephone. One day when he is sitting in his room crying, as is common for his family of emo-emperors, a girl asks him why he is so sad. We soon figure out that she is supposed to be his true love (and wife #n+1).

They have a romance that is well written, but a bit too long. After phone sex is finally invented for the fantasy kingdom, the plot develops something beyond the pure long-distance-romance when the Czar devotes too many resources to trying to locate his love and faces political ramifications just as he is discovering the incredibly non-shocking truth. Anyway, the problems magically go away and the non-romance plot is tied up with a bow, but the romance doesn't go at all as I'd suspect, and it is a pleasantly bittersweet surprise. The whole story is supposed to be history to the setting of a couple of novels, I believe, but that doesn't hurt it. It is a little long and the Weeping Czars strike me as a bit lame but the love story was sweet and well done, and the other plot serves as a nice distraction/complication despite the predictability. I'd have preferred either a less happy or more messy resolution to that, but whatever. I liked it, but I didn't like like it: 3 out of 5.

There is an odd note to this story about how the Czar and his people are skeptics, and they are repeatedly wrong and worse off for it. Wiping out the heretics who were right about going to the moon, not believing in magic or ghosts, etc. It doesn't really fit into the theme or the story much besides being a bit of flirting, but it was a bizarrely nonsense undertone.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Good Detective

Short Story by M. John Harrison
Originally published in Interzone

From the age of 40 he had the feeling of being spread very thin on the world, like a specialized coating. If people weren't careful with him, he felt, if he wasn't careful with himself, he'd crack or peel or flake away. Then one day he was trying to understand the instructions for some household appliance and where it said 'How to Set Up the Timer' he read instead 'How to Let Things Slip.'

The central idea of this story is hiring a detective to find people who have "gone missing in their own lives." Middle-aged men who feel trapped, who want to reinvent themselves and just sort of space out of their life and family. It strikes me that men who have "gone missing" are described much as you'd describe a homeless person. I think that's the whole point.

The story is partly told to you in the second person. Lines like "she's just as compromised and vulnerable as you" and "I went missing from my own life years ago, but I don't need to tell you that." I think perhaps the detective is speaking to the reader, who is a man who has gone missing.

This is very British magic realism, and the reader's voice is great for it. One could read supernatural elements into it, but the conceit of the detective being hired and the fantastic (in both senses) imagery are enough to justify the inclusion of this story to me. It really hits hard, there is a lot of emotion contained in very few words and the ambiguity of the whole thing seems very appropriate: it makes me feel a bit lost and confused. 4.5 out of 5 midlife crises end in flames.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Novella by Bruce Sterling
Originally published in F&SF (Jan 2007)

Borislav runs a little kiosk, selling all sorts of random items. He is finely in tune with the local economy and what hot new items people want to buy. Then he acquires a fabrikator, a medical-quality 3-d printer. Soon various outsiders, politicians, EU bureaucrats, and professors get involved and things get out of control. The economy is radically changed, leading to an armed revolution with Borislav at the center.

As an idea story, this is excellent. It examines the 3-d printer concept from an economic and social perspective much deeper than many such stories, and the poor, second world country setting is an important and underused viewpoint. The EU and more developed countries want to keep these things under control, but the people who just want to be able to afford knives and hair pins have a much different view of copyright. The revolution is dealt with quickly, all the focus is wisely saved for the causes and repercussions.

Borislav is an interesting character, and we get to know him pretty well, since the first half is spent listening to him philosophize on economics and social trends. And here is the best thing about Bruce Sterling: I was never bored by this. The dialogue is witty, the setting is very well developed by the random people Borislav interacts with and his discussions with them. He remains lightly sarcastic through the revolution to become the king of the prison economy when he is arrested afterward. And yet he's an idiot with the ladies.

So I love the setting, the idea, the character, the dialogue. Why am I going to give this less than a perfect score? Well the plot doesn't really do much, but I never lost interest and that wasn't the point; I'm fine with that. It was something that rarely bugs me enough to actually remove points: style.

And it frustrates me, because I can't pinpoint my exact problem with it. It is a bit dull and understated and utilitarian I suppose. More pessimistic than I'd like. But those really fit the setting and the character, and there is humor to be had. And to some extent, that is just how Sterling writes, and I've enjoyed his writing quite a lot in the past. Maybe it is the philosophy after all. I was interested in it, I wanted to keep reading, but maybe it distracted me, or wore down my enjoyment of the story. But I love Neal Stephenson, and he lately writes 900 page books with nonfiction essays chucked in. So I'm not really sure what it was, but I had no connection, no emotion. I didn't really care. I wanted to read the economic philosophy and think about nanotube printers. These desires were fulfilled, but I'm unsatisfied. So here is my best guess: Sterling did an excellent job of laying the hook and promising exactly what he was going to deliver, but it turns out that wasn't what I really wanted from a novella of this length. Maybe if it were shorter. Anyway, I'll close with a quote:

Some dedicated groups of damned fools would have to actually carry out the campaign on the ground. Out of any 10 people willing to do this, 7 were idiots. These seven were dreamers, rebels by nature, unfit to run so much as a lemonade stand. 1 out of the 10 would be capable and serious, another would be genuinely dangerous, a true immoral fanatic. The last would be the traitor to the group, the police agent, the coward, the informant. There were 30 people actively involved in the conspiracy, which naturally meant 21 idiots.

And 4 out of 5 enjoy Bruce Sterling.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Short Story by Paul Di Filippo

A look at the cutthroat world of competitive urban planning in a city under constant renovation by democracy and nano-goo. This is an idea story with a cute, happy ending. 3 out of 5.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Union Dues: The Threnody of Johnny Torkuo

Short Story by Jeffrey R. DeRego, read by Stephen Eley

A gay, teenage super hero debates coming out to his friends and his crush on one particularly oblivious member of the team. He also struggles to keep his powers under control when external stresses amplify is internal turmoil.

This is not only a part of the Union Dues series, but a part of the Team Shikaragaki subseries. Yet another series I haven't read or listened to, but the rest of the subseries are available here.

Very well done and tactful. Johnny manages to have a crush on another guy without Gay Superhero being his entire character. His various emotional scars and tragic history are well done, and I'm glad that the obvious, but uncomfortable option his teammate T.K. brings up is dealt with, rather than ignored. Overall this is a bittersweet little story about unrequited love, it's good, but it isn't great; 3.5 out of 5.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

On the Human Plan

Short Story by Jay Lake, read by Mike Boris

This is a love-it-or-hate-it story, set in a post-singularity, death-of-the-sun distant future. Personally, I hate it. Hate is a strong word actually, but I couldn't stand the phrase "love-it-or-dislike-it." Anyway, none of the people I know who actually liked the story have any idea what it was about. I'm generally not one to shy away from the literary in search of plot, but nothing happens here at all. Digger gets commissioned to find something, he seems to be an archaeologist sort, but he is told to find death's door. He basically goes to a library, does some research, finds out that some ancient people thought death was a wave-function, and goes home. He doesn't really find anything, the initial question of the story isn't even sort of answered. There is a bit of meaningless patter about life without death being stasis, but that conclusion or thought doesn't work for me, as presented here, in any meaningful philosophical or artistic way. There is just nothing to it. The author asserts something semi-related that sounds philosophical, and hopes everyone thinks it is deep. I detect no actual depth.

That said, the voice of the character, the style, the imagery, and the world itself are all very well done. It is a pretty picture, with nothing to it. No story, no character, no completion, no depth. And the people I know who liked it, liked the language, but can't tell me what it was about. A meaningless 2 out of 5.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Secret Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Short Story by Lavie Tidhar

No, not those protocols, Mr. Tidhar is jewish not an anti-Semitic crazy person. But as Steve Eley points out, it is nice to steal search traffic from the crazies when you can.

The title is actually a joke, which I like. It is about a colonized asteroid named Zion and some methods of bio-engineering and communications networks that are kept secret from the rest of human civilization. Told through the view of a child who doesn't understand the technology, so it's almost indistinguishable from magic. So there is some interesting science here, but it isn't really dealt with beyond the surface level. And then towards the end of the story they throw out the science explanation (which was fun and unique) and make it magic with cosmological implications. This was a big disappointment for me, there was no need to take the science and make it new age religion (for real, rather than hypothetical philosophy).

The story was about a commune asteroid and their resistance to control from any of the bigger nations who wanted their technology. It was a good story and I would have been perfectly happy with the plot without the weirdly religious ending that came out of nowhere. It strikes me as the same as reading about a group of fundamentalist Christians fighting some big battle to survive, and then actually getting raptured up into heaven at the end. The other major problem I have is that the villainous Americans and Chinese have less depth and complexity than the evil Colonel from Avatar. I've listened to worse stories, and this one started off so well (and had a really neat setting), but it was a disappointment. 2 out of 5, man.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

All the King's Monsters

Short Story by Megan Arkenberg

A fantasy world is ruled by a cruel king who makes giant, metal monsters that personify and maybe feed off of bad feelings (Grief, Fear, Hunger, Vengeance, etc.) Our narrator's husband was killed for leading an unsuccessful rebellion, and now she sits in prison, nursing her own monster-emotions.

This was more sad than anything else. It is a rebellion/revolution story, but it just seems all wrapped up in tragedy, although the ending is hopeful. Really, the action is secondary to the monster/emotion metaphor, which is perhaps taken to one more extreme than I'd have liked, but it is a good metaphor, and a moving story. 3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Things

Short Story by Peter Watts
Available free as text and/or audio from Clarkesworld.

In 1938 John W. Campbell, Jr. wrote Who Goes There. In 1951 it was (loosely) made into the movie The Thing from Another World, which in 1982 was remade into The Thing by John Carpenter (which was of course novelized, sigh). Carpenter's Thing was much more faithful to the original story but he was a big fan of the movie too, so elements of both are present.

Anyway, Peter Watts (whose website you should read) has written a short story based on Carpenter's Thing, from the point of view of the Thing itself. The title is a take on how horrifying and bizarre we appear to it. Watts does a brilliant job laying out the thought process and emotions of the Thing, and it is impossible not to empathize with it. Also some issues with the movie are explained away much better here than they ever were originally.

So the plot is obviously the same as in the movie (and Campbell's story), but what really makes this stand out is the logic, the reasoning, the loneliness, confusion, fear, and sense of loss of the alien and how utterly different we are. This sort of empathy is not a rare theme, but it is rare to see it so brilliantly done. The story is horrifying yet sad yet (terrifyingly) hopeful. And the final line is just ... Wow. It makes perfect sense from the alien's point of view, and manages to convey so much fear and violence, and misunderstanding. If I ever need to give someone an example of a killer final sentence, this story has it. 5 out of 5 cancers dread new roommates.