Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Moment

Short Story by Lawrence M. Schoen

An imaginative but overly long future history of alien intelligences observing a human footprint on the moon. First a post-singularity feeling "archaeocast", then a civilization of sentient dust-sized clones who fight inter-clone wars, followed by a cannibalistic broccoli prince, a medical gastroforensiology peer review choir, an intelligent library protocol, some cometary auditor particles who have been imbued with animal cunning and accounting skills, and finally a coterie of proto-godlings and their tutor end up tracing back the history of the place and the special significance of humans as compared to all these other aliens.

Everyone has read this "humans are so special because X" kind of story a million times before, and it is no more profound or meaningful or moving this time around, but at least the imagination is better. There is a certain dry humor to many passages that I appreciate, and the aliens are well imagined and different, but it's all imagination and no substance.

The only memorable thing about this piece is the concept of medical journals being reviewed by a group of researchers and choral directors. There are some cool (but irrelevant) concepts, and some chuckle-worthy lines, but overall, there's nothing to see here.

2 cases of fatal cannibal indigestion out of 5.

Available online on the author's website
Podcast by Escape Pod read by Graeme Dunlop
Originally published in Footprints

The Bride of Frankenstein

Short Story by Mike Resnick

Podcast by Escape Pod read by Julie Davis
Originally published in Asimov's

The Baroness von Frankenstein can't stand an uppity creature, and wonders why didn't she marry a doctor or a banker instead of a mad scientist. She's cold and bitchy, but when the delightfully sarcastic Monster takes an interest in romance novels, he catalyzes some much needed introspection.

Undead creatures are an underused resource for self-improvement and marriage counseling. It was a good central conceit, and the story was decently funny, and a bit moving, but I don't think it's worthy of a Hugo. It was too saccharine, a bit obvious and not quite funny or thoughtful enough for that. Resnick is no Mel Brooks.

The Escape Pod podcast definitely seems better than the text story here. Julie Davis does pretty good voices, I'm particularly a fan of her Igor, and she captures a proper scientist-type enthusiasm for Victor in the lab scene. The Baroness is delightfully cold and haughty. Alasdair had a good outro, as usual, but I may be biased by my love of Spaced. And my opinion of this story may be slightly higher due to the reader and my love of Young Frankenstein.

Only 3.5 out of 5 romances end in tragedy. We've gone soft.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Vishnu at the Cat Circus

Novella by Ian McDonald

My personal favorite of the 2010 Hugo Award novella nominees.

Vishnu is a bioengineered genius in a future India ravaged by drought and the technological singularity. Now the proprietor and ringmaster of his "Marvelous Magical Magnificent Cat Circus!", he makes a living telling stories and showing off his trained cats.
"All they do is run in a circle? Brother, with cats, that is an achievement. But you're right; running in a circle, nose to tail, is pretty much the meat of my cat circus."

The story he tells within this frame is the bulk of the novella. It is the story of his life, from his parents falling in love while escaping killer robots, to his nearly deadly sibling rivalry with his naturally brilliant brother and both of their rise to the top of business and politics (and Vishnu's implied fall to the bottom). Vishnu's life might be approaching too much detail, but it is pretty interesting, and even more interesting is the background technological advancements and the exploration of an underused cultural background. McDonald's near-future history of India is one of the biggest draws in this novella in particular, and in the Cyberabad Days collection in general. But this is my favorite bit of extrapolation in the collection. Not only does it go a bit farther, it covers some new and unique ideas.

But the best part by far is Vishnu's interspersed bits of present-day storytelling to the hypothetical audience. He is humorous and more interesting in voice than his younger, more naive self, and his talk to the audience is used for meta-commentary to the reader, not only about symbolism, but about story structure and the reality of heroics.

This is a dark series of predictions, but it is fairly funny and extremely interesting. There is lots of recurring water imagery, as well as the metaphor of striking a diamond correctly to split it, or incorrectly and ending up with a pile of shiny, useless dust. But the main theme, to me, is how we forget about and ignore the poor as our march towards progress increases the divide between the haves and have-nots. And how there might not be that much they can do about it, they might just be screwed.

Although the last paragraph doesn't especially impress me, I love the conclusion overall. We aren't sure whether Vishnu will succeed or not, and we certainly don't get his metafictionally-promised big confrontation with a villain capable of a long, drawn-out dramatic death scene. But we have despair, and hope of a partial solution and some great meditation on heros, villains, and resolution. And maybe that is enough. 4.5 feline incarnations out 5.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Palimpsest (Novella)

Novella by Charles Stross

Originally published in Wireless: The Essential Collection

For a Novella, there isn't really enough to this story.

It is a brilliant bit of worldbuilding, especially the ideas behind how the stasis works and how they plan to keep Earth alive for so much longer against the natural lifespan of the galaxy. The time travel mechanism required by the narrative is an interesting and slightly different one and I enjoyed how Stross explored that. The "Brief Alternate History of the Solar System" segments were particularly good.

I do have a few problems with this novella, however. The second person narrative bits at the beginning of most chapters are pointless and annoying. I realize Stross wants to differentiate the possible alternate Pierces from "our" Pierce, but he doesn't really achieve this until the last few times, it remains annoying-as-hell even after we get it, and really how does making alternate versions of a third person narrative into second person make any sense anyway. Use a different font or something, I don't know.

Besides that, I was a bit annoyed by the invocation of Kafka, both as the appearance of the Internal Affairs guy and with a section called "The Trial" in which he appears. There wasn't enough actual reference to Kafka's "The Trial," or any other bit of his writing to justify this. There was bordering on 0 reference to Kafka besides Stross name-dropping him a few times. It annoys me when allusions are made to things like this for no good reason, and not really tied into the writing in any other way. If he wanted to have a guy look like Heinlein, I'd have loved it. Or if he wanted to really reference "The Trial" a lot in that section of this novella I'd have been okay with Kafka. But I don't like the randomness of what could have been a meaningful literary allusion. It seems like it just wants to name drop a bit in hopes of sounding more thoughtful.

Which is too bad, because the story is pretty thoughtful as it is. I love a good time travel story, and this one is intense, suspenseful, and has possibly the grandest scale and best sense of wonder I've ever experienced from a time travel story. But there isn't much more to it. Like I said, this piece oozes Heinlein.

So I'd recommend that anyone who enjoys time travel stories (or Heinlein) even a little bit should read this one. But I can't recommend it as an award nominee. 4 out of 5 paradoxes overwritten.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It Takes Two

Novelette by Nicola Griffith

Originally published in Eclipse 3
Podcast by Starship Sofa, read by the Christie Yant.

Cody is a female executive trying to close a big contract and get a promotion. She's a lesbian and in order to seal the deal, her southern good ol' boy client insists on taking people to a strip club. Some kind of weird test. Cody is understandably uncomfortable with the whole setup, both the strip club in general, and the guys watching her watch the girls. Then Cookie takes the stage and Cody falls madly in lust.

This is almost a love story. But rather than the point being "happily ever after", it's philosophical about what love, lust, and attraction are. The setting is two-weeks-into-the-future.

I'd recommend the audio over the paper version: Yant is a good reader, but more importantly, the awkward exposition bit 2/3 into the story is less awkward when listened to. And the sex stuff is less generic-erotica-sounding than it reads on the page. But I might be biased because Yant sounds like a friend of mine.

I can't say much more without spoilers. And they matter to this story. So go listen/read if you're going to. This is definitely R-rated, if that matters.

Anyway I do recommend this, but not unreservedly: 4 eccentric strip-club-loving businessmen out of 5.

My likes, dislikes, and general thoughts on the story (with spoilers) are well mirrored by this review. So rather than make the internet more redundant, I'll just post the link and for the sake of posterity, quote the relevant part of Abigail Nussbaum's Strange Horizon's review in white text on white background (highlight to read):

Nicola Griffith's novelette "It Takes Two," ... is one of my very favorite stories from 2009. It also doesn't really work.

...

After several pages of Cody and Cookie (real name Susanna) simultaneously marveling and rejecting their undeniable chemical response to one another in slightly clich├ęd terms ("'Do you suppose this is l—' She couldn't say it. She didn't believe it."), Cody returns to San Francisco and is accosted by her friend Richard, and for the next ten pages or so "It Takes Two" mainly consists of Richard explaining the story's McGuffin and Cody reacting with varying degrees of alarm, disbelief, and horror to the revelation that she hired Richard to prime both herself and Susanna with each other's sexual and romantic preferences and fantasies, essentially manufacturing love at first sight. Even leaving aside just how convoluted and tenuous a method this is of securing a deal (are there really executives, even Atlanta good ol' boys, who will sign a deal with someone because "I like the way you handle yourself . . . no boasting, no big words, you just sit quiet then seize the opportunity"?) the structure of the story is off: story, story, story, exposition, exposition, exposition, dilemma—as Cody has to decide whether to take what Griffith rather cleverly dubs "RU486 for the brain" and destroy her artificial feelings for Susanna, or embrace them.

Why then, do I still think that "It Takes Two" is a brilliant story? Because it is just so damnably creepy. We all know, even if we don't like to be reminded of it, that even the loftiest of emotions are chemical fluctuations in our brains, and that those chemicals can and are being manipulated on various levels and with various degrees of finesse. What makes "It Takes Two" disturbing is not so much that it adds love to the list of reactions that can be externally, medically controlled, but that it takes the obvious next step of assuming that once that ability is achieved it will be commodified, that the next step in prostitution will be whores who really do mean it when they say "you're special, I wouldn't do this with anyone but you" (in that sense "It Takes Two" covers much of the same ground as Joss Whedon's recently cancelled Dollhouse). "It Takes Two" doesn't shy away from the fact that Susanna has sold herself in the most profound way possible, and that Cody has bought her, but at the same time it encourages us to root for a romantic ending. The resulting tension between romance and revulsion is what makes the story, what makes it possible to ignore the problems in its premise and structure, and what makes its ending simultaneously satisfying and horrifying.