Wednesday, November 9, 2011

起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows)

Short Story by Zen Cho
Read for Podcastle by Tracey Yuen
Original text published at Strange Horizons, March 2011

A British Lion Dance troupe use their performances as a cover for secret ghostbusting missions. This is a warm, humorous ghost story, with lots of Chinese and Malaysian culture and some good comedic musings on why exactly magical lions enjoy cabbage so much. The ending is sweet, not really surprising, but nice. The value of this story is not in suspense, but in happy feelings and wry humor.

3.5 cabbages out of 5.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Blood Garden

Short Story by Jesse Livingston
Read for Pseudopod by Chris Reynaga

Fed up with his college friends' pedantic semantic arguments about about symbolism, Matthew wanders away from an analysis of a fictional poem, and as he wanders the streets at night, he wanders into the poem itself.

I've had many frustrating conversations of this sort myself, where argument over a definition prevents us from ever getting to the substance of the debate. The discussion and the frustration with other people's pedantry rings particularly true, but it's nice that the story flashes to Matthew's friends after he leaves, and shows us that they aren't complete tools.

Matthew feels isolated, fed up with his friends and left alone to deal with the death of his mother. He's jealous of his friends and their presumably cushier lives, he's angry, sad, and isolated. The magical, poetic garden in which he finds comfort is dark and violent and the images will haunt me.

I've felt what Matthew feels, the isolation and powerlessness, frustration with your friends and loneliness and rage. Livingston evokes these emotions so well, and I'm in love with the image of the garden. I only wish the poem he referenced were real. It's compared to Kubla Khan and the poetic description contains a long section from the end of Coleridge's poem, with "She was alone when she died" presumably interjected by Matthew to make the poem more fitting, and more sinister.

4 animals in the trees out of 5.

Kubla Khan or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.

Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Free online and in the public domain.

I like to play the amateur critic, especially with new stories that tend to receive few, if any, reviews. Kubla Khan has a Wikipedia page over 11,000 words long, with 162 citations. That's longer than many novelettes I review. I don't want to write a doctoral dissertation on this poem, and so I'm unwilling to engage in debate with nearly 200 years of critics, including T. S. Eliot. Read the Wikipedia page for in depth analysis. Or don't. But I do urge you to read this classic poem, and read it again if it has been a while. It's worth your time.

I'm blogging about it because I did reread it recently, inspired by Jesse Livingston's "The Blood Garden" over on Pseudopod. And I quite enjoy this poem, although it isn't my favorite. The imagery is my favorite in all of Coleridge's work that I've read (admittedly not as much as I'd like, but after the Big Three of Kubla Khan, Ancient Mariner, and Christabel I've never really been enthralled enough by his writing to keep reading much of it.) It's not just my weakness for the gothic, I like the rhythm of these poems better as well.

And that's really what my love of Kubla Khan comes down to. It opens all Romantic and green but the second and third sections achieve this breathless, frantic quality. The rhymes and rhythm are exciting. They get your heart beating. In a lot of ways, "Kubla Khan" reminds me of Poe's "The Raven" (I don't read everything in publishing order).

For what it's worth, I'm in the camp that counts "Kubla Khan" as a complete poem. Screw authorial intent, the poem climaxes and then gives us a haunting two-line ending, better than the endings of countless other complete poems. Coleridge is dead, it's no longer a work-in-progress, and he gave us a brilliant ending. I'm not convinced another 400 lines would have done anything but dilute it. Do yourself a favor and read or reread this today. It doesn't take long. And if you're alone, or don't mind looking like a crazy person, read it aloud.

4 pleasure domes out of 5.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Best New Horror

Short Story by Joe Hill

An anthologist growing tired of reading the same old crap finally finds a story that excites him. It's a welcome break from his downward spiraling life, and his quest to find the author and obtain the reprint rights becomes its own kind of horrific odyssey. The conclusion is left open, but I'm convinced he has found some new happiness in the horror, if only in the escape from depression and tedium.

A straight-up scary story, rather than a tale of childhood or sad ghosts, and one I immensely enjoyed. This story plays a lot off common horror tropes, but in a very knowing, metafictional way that I appreciate. I was actually a bit scared by the story-within-the-story, although that isn't the focus, and I don't think I'd like it as much as the narrator did.

4.5 out of 5 of everything is shit. This story is in Sturgeon's last 10%.

The Klepsydra: A Chapter from A Faunary of Recondite Beings

Short Story by Michaela Roessner

Lois Tilton points out some extremely valid problems with the linguistics in her review, and although not knowing what a clepsydra is seems odd for a professor interested in ancient greek, neither thing ruins the story for me. Mainly because it is still weird how the word breaks down, and it still breaks into the right roots (I think), the etymological mystery at the heart of the story is still intact, and I wanted to find the answer.

Roessner creates a new imaginary species, and manages to justify it both linguistically and biologically. It turns out to be a specialized species of Solifugid, if you're curious. The bits toward the end regarding the Pharos lighthouse seem silly at first, but they are justified later with the fate of the Alexandria Gardens caretakers. It still seems fantastic and maybe a bit silly, but by the end this conceit seems a lot more necessary and a lot less uselessly silly.

I am a fan of the academic tone of the whole piece, and the footnotes. I'm not sure I can deal with a minor character being named "Nepenthe Threnody" but for the most part I enjoyed this diversion into a land of academics much more fantastic and at least as fascinating as real life archeology.

3.5 Recondite Beings out of 5.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Buddy System

Short Story by Don D'Ammassa

A cautionary tale of computer systems destroying the world because we put too much faith in them. The idea of how they do this is a bit different, and good, but the explanation of what the computers do is complete gibberish and comes down to Magical Computers. And yet, there is a technobabble explanation anyway. Better to just admit it's practical magic.

I'm also not a fan of the fact that D'Ammassa names the character "Buddy" just so he can have a cutesy title/name for something. The titular computer system has no connection or thematic resonance in the buddy system we all had forced upon us for elementary school field trips. I don't mind cute names for things, but I like them to be relevant to the story or its themes. This story is called "The Buddy System" simply because it contains a System created by computer programer named Buddy.

And predicting elections with only 2 errors out of 1000 elections is absurd. The data doesn't exist for that quality of model. Maybe it only bugs me because I know a bit too much about polling data and election modeling, but it's one of far too many examples where the computers "extrapolate" data to a level of precision which simply can't exist. It's like he has never heard of Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.

My big conceptual problem is two-fold:
  1. You can't predict the future so accurately because unavoidable measurement error is often more than enough to decide between radically different results.
  2. You can't "Interpolate" entirely new, precise information from data that wouldn't be part of the same equation. You physically cannot calculate someone's face from an image of the back of their head.

I've picked more than enough nits here, but the point is, something annoys me about this story every few paragraphs, making it very hard to enjoy.

The author (or, even more improbably the computer programming narrator) is also biased against nerds and our ability to communicate or know things about the real world. Given the readership of Analog, this seems like a mistake. It also stinks of bad 80's movie cliche.

All told, this is an obnoxious computer-induced-end-of-world story which exists purely to say that carpenters are smarter than scientists and policy wonks. Thankfully, the carpenter-wisdom doesn't save the day, but it does wrap up the story with an over-obvious moral. The only redeeming factor is that the last couple pages are oddly gripping despite my annoyances.

2 magical computer algorithms out of 5.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Boxed In

Short Story by Marc-Anthony Taylor
Read for Escape Pod by Barry Haworth

A young boy makes money by letting rich kids "ride" in his brain. They get a thrill out of experiencing the unclean world outside the dome, breathing polluted air, even suffering from illnesses. The kid's sister acts as his pimp.

One day, a very rich girl offers to pay him an enormous sum of money for a ride with unspecified special conditions. She gives him a nice big infodump explaining history and what she wants, then he does it, with life-changing implications, and the story immediately ends.

The first time I listened to the podcast, I had to rewind. It's a sudden ending, not so much open as lacking in story. A long, flashback-filled history of the character and the world leads to a not very exciting adventure in which he has no agency, he's told to do something, does it, END. We never got to see any change in the character. He never made any difficult decisions, what he did can only improve his life, although that can't be said for others, but neither the character nor the reader is given time to think about any of the implications before the story is over.

Most of the action is caused by the two female characters, his sister, and client, both of whom are static and only appear through dialogue, although they are very much the puppetmasters, he is the unquestioning, unthinking puppet. The world is interesting, but nothing new, and the changes it is about to go through go entirely unexplored, as do the changes that led to the current state of affairs.

No character development, no adventure, no real plot. An overused setting where the rich are sealed into domes and the rest of the world is lawless post-apocalypse. Themes of rich versus poor and grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side are brought up, but nothing terribly interesting or new is said. The first 2/3 of the story are entirely character study of a boring, puppet-like main character, nothing interesting happening until the last 1/3 or so. Needless to say, I didn't like it.

I think what strikes me most is how much detail and time were spent on the character's largely-irrelevant childhood, only to wrap up the interesting non-flashback adventure/plot in one sentence.

1.5 domed delinquents out of 5.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Militant Peace

Novelette by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell
Read for Clarkesworld by Mike Allen

Sergeant Nong Mai Thuy is a Vietnamese solider in the U.N. humanitarian invasion of North Korea. The idea is that U.N. forces have developed such a technological advantage over North Korea that they can invade and set up refugee camps without killing anyone.

Airships with powerful anti-ballistic laser defenses knock missiles and mortars out of the sky, walls for the camps are airlifted in and set up overnight, and Peacekeeping Soldiers wear suits of power armor, so they can usher enemy forces away, immune to small arms fire, and wreck all the abandoned artillery in their wake.

But Mai is having trouble sticking to the training, when people shoot at her, it's hard for her to dismiss them as not-a-threat, and when the peaceful war doesn't go exactly as planned Mai has to face the old killing-for-the-greater-good dilemma.

This is mostly an idea story, and the most interesting/modern part is the branding of the war effort, the reliance of advertising, and the fact that consequences have to be considered not just in morality or war-effort terms, but in terms of how it will play in the media and how the public, and advertising sponsors, will view any given action.

An interesting idea, well written with decent excitement.

3.5 corporate logos out of 5 on the body armor.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Still Small Voice

Short Story by Ben Burgis
Originally Published by Podcastle, reading by David Rees-Thomas

A story revolving around King James I, the King James Bible, and the Popish Recusants Act, in an England where executions are carried out via dragon, the American colonies have magic, and the Church of England's main beef with the pope is whether you are limited to five wives, or can go all the way up to six.

A new heresy has sprung up among some members of the court, instead of five gods, they think there are only three. James' bastard son has to figure out what's going on at court, witness the birth of English atheism, and help save his friend from execution.

The main theme here is that people have a right to knowledge, but the more knowledge they have, the more choice they have, and rulers can't dictate what choices people make once those people are better educated. But they'll often try. I quite liked the metaphor of knowledge as an unchained dragon.

I liked the story, it was an unusual alternate history, an exciting story, with some interesting themes on religion and freedom of religion. Nothing I haven't seen before, but admittedly shorter, with more dragons. The ending was fun and adventurous, if maybe a bit too easy.

3.5 gods out of 5.

The Killers

Short Story by Ernest Hemingway

Two mob hitmen hang out in a diner, waiting for the man they 're going to kill to come in for dinner. In a very spare, minimalist story, Hemingway examines how people get caught up in the affairs of others, some people don't want to get involved, others want to help and find their help unwanted. Most people are just resigned to their fate and don't seem interested in fighting it, just letting things happen as they will. It's an uncomfortable observation for me, but I suspect it is uncomfortably true of most people in real life as well. It's quite a comic story, but I also found myself on the edge of my seat.

A good story, oddly page-turner-y, but not my favorite from Hemingway.

4 menu items out of 5 aren't available until dinner.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Library of Babel

Short Story by Jorge Luis Borges

The universe (which others call the Library)...
Those are the first words of Borges' story "The Library of Babel, which starts off mostly thought experiment about an infinite library which contains all possible books, and therefore most books are nonsense since they are just random assortments of letters without meaning. Of course, there may be languages in which those combinations of letters make sense.

But what really makes this a story is that it becomes, through description of the mostly meaningless books, about the people, the infinitely populous race of librarians, who may soon become extinct through suicide. They search for meaning in the library (and therefore life), they form civilizations, inquisitions, and religions based around finding the book that is an index of the library. Of course, there must also be many more books that look like indices, but are mostly or completely incorrect.

So what is the point? The narrator is kept going by vain hope that there is order in the chaos, that it is only incomprehensible because our lives are finite.

5 shelves per wall, forever.

Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel

Short story by Shaenon K. Garrity
Published free by Strange Horizons
Carol and I were librarians at an infinite library where roughly 72% of books are Moby-Dick. Our library contains, within in its stacks, every edition of Moby-Dick that ever has been or will be or could be published. So does the main Library, of course, but at our branch the probability of coming across one of them is much higher.
This story was awesome. I can't really summarize it other than to say two librarians are trying to keep their infinite branch library from closing down, and mostly just exploring the concept. I suggest you read The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges before reading this, if you haven't it's one of those stories you really should read anyway, available here. Borges' story is brilliant, and this is essentially hilarious Borges fanfic. Garrity doesn't have the existential depth of Borges, but she adds more comedy, and explores her conception of the Branch Library somewhat differently. I loved it.

4.5 editions of Moby Dick out of infinitely many.

How Maartje and Uppinder Terraformed Mars (Marsmen Trad.)

Short Story by Lisa Nohealani Morton
Text and Audio from Lightspeed

In a rare turn of events, I thought the audio hurt the story, rather than helping it. Not that I liked it much either way, but the reading emphasized the kiddie tone that bothered me in the story.

This is a folktale/creation myth for the terraforming of Mars, told by a little girl in the moon (Phobos) and hideously simplistically unlikely the way folk creation myths tend to be. Which I wouldn't mind so much, but for the central conceit that the folksy stuff involves rocket ships and nanotech. It's more incongruous than I can deal with, and not really in a good way.

The repetition of lines is just how you'd expect in a simple myth told to children, but we are not children reading this, and it sort of grates. It isn't a neat enough idea for me to get past that.

Cutesy without being interesting.

2 Marsmen out of 5 know better.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trying to Stay Dead

Short Story by Richard S. Crawford.
Read for Pseudopod by Steve Anderson

Medicine mixed with philosophy has led to the procedure to remove one's sense of self. The vast majority of the human population have become philosophical zombies, and are happy about it, rather they claim they're happy about it. It's a nice idea but it doesn't really go anywhere. It reminds me of a thought experiment more than a piece of horror fiction.

I did enjoy the author's use of changes in POV to indicate self-awareness/lack-of-self. That was easily the most fun and exciting part of the story to me. But stylistic tricks can't support a story on their own, even if they are good and even if the story is founded on good ideas. I still found it a tad dull. I'm glad it gave me something to think about, but it didn't really scare me or make me feel much of anything. Mainly because the narrator was a whiny little bitch, as the woman toward the end points out. He just wants to be happy and stop existing, he doesn't have much in the way of fear or regrets or drives or anything. He's almost a zombie in the first place, so the change isn't that severe. I'd probably have liked the story better if there was more self-awareness in the protagonist to start with, or if he'd had regrets, or if it was indicated that at least someone did.

2.5 ontological mutations out of 5.

An earlier version of the story was published on the author's website in 2008, but the Pseudopod version is better written, not to mention the narration makes the stylistic trickery of the story work better.

The Cord

Short Story by Chris Lewis Carter
Read for Pseudopod by David Michel

Cordyceps fungus has gone from parasitizing ants to humans, and has spread throughout the world. People find themselves climbing to high places, and spreading spores to their communities as they die. This is the story of one such man, and the neighbor who runs out to try to get him down.

The central twist wasn't that hard to see coming, but it did take me a bit. What I liked most was that the infected man couldn't figure out what was going on, even when it should have been obvious. This was definitely creepy, and a great SF conceit for a horror story. I do have a weakness for fungus though...

That said, it isn't as good as William Hope Hodgson's Voice in the Night, which Pseudopod published earlier this month. Maybe an unfair comparison but it's hard not to make it. And my inner biologist got a bit annoyed with the philosophizing about nature regarding us as a big enough threat to give us a parasitic fungus. A) we have all sorts of fungal diseases already, including mind-altering ones, B) nature/evolution is not an intelligent force. These just take away from my enjoyment without adding any elements of horror. Maybe it's my Lovecraftian predilections, but an uncaring universe seems scarier than an intelligent one.

4 fruiting bodies out of 5.


Short Story by Bruce Blake
Read for Pseudopod by Brian Rollins

An abused teenager begins taking out his rage and isolation by torturing and murdering a drifter found in his father's shed. Complications arise for the budding serial killer while trying to dispose of the body (parts).

Honestly the most painful part of this story wasn't Tim's violence or sadistic pleasure in it, it was hearing about how his father and brother treated him. The story isn't as splatterpunky as it could be, which is for the better, although a lot of it is focussed on the mechanics of brutal murder. But the true horror here comes from the fact that I find myself empathizing with the psychotic kid. The story is written with no implied moral judgments or soul-searching. The kid just does what he does, and you can sort of see why. Of course torturing and killing people isn't a rational answer, but if you can feel the kid's pain, you can see what drives him, and drives him to take it so far. He's completely powerless and friendless and he has no way to express how much he hurts. I can't help thinking he could have grown up to not kill people, despite his obvious issues, if he'd had a brother or mother who helped him stand up to his dad, instead of making things worse. It reminds me of my favorite Fringe episode in recent memory, in a good way.

4 sympathetic serial killers out of 5.

Originally published online by the author, no longer available as of October 2011.

Friday, October 28, 2011

We Were Wonder Scouts

Short Story by Will Ludwigsen
Free Audio from Podcastle (Narrated by Christopher Reynaga.)
Originally published in Asimov's, August 2011

Our protagonist is telling a story of his 1920s youth to the campers at Camp Manticore. As a boy, his father couldn't stand imagination or reading of fiction. So the narrator joins The Wonder Scouts, a fictional organization run by the real life Charles Fort. I like their oath:
On my honor, I will do my best
To confound the expectations of society,
To observe the super-consciousness in all is workings,
To seek independence in body, in intellect, and in spirit.
Not content to merely talk about ghosts and UFOs and portals to other worlds, the Wonder Scouts plan a trip to the Adirondacks, where several young girls have vanished in the past few years. Possibly abducted by Little People, possibly fallen through some sort of spacetime vortex. The answer isn't at all what they expect, but our narrator himself sees something the others don't. Maybe it was his imagination, or maybe it was something a little bit magical.

I like the storytelling tone of the story, and the story within the story, and particularly the story that Fort told the narrator around a campfire, when the Scouts asked for a scary story. It's a bit scary, in a traditional ghost story sort of way, but it's also really, really sad. It's about regretting your lack of courage and curiosity, and the fear that maybe you aren't special, but other people are. I can see kids not getting excited about it as a ghost story, but that makes it more special as a sad adult story.

That's the real take-home message here: the narrator experienced something terrifying and dangerous, but he went back into the woods later in life, and he doesn't regret it. And maybe if he'd been afraid and stayed safe at home, or stayed with the group, he'd have been safer, but he'd have regretted not knowing. Curiosity is important, as is the courage to indulge it. And we can always hope for a more fantastic answer, somewhere out there.

4 cryptozoology merit badges out of 5.

Some Fortunate Future Day

Short Story by Cassandra Clare
Text reprinted free by Lightspeed

Airships and maglev trains, bunches of artificially intelligent clockwork robots, and hand-held time machines. Quite the obnoxious magical-but-with-gears-so-SCIENCE! steampunk backdrop. I find it a tad annoying because, for the most part, this story could work without the steampunk backdrop, and if you want to keep the obvious-but-still-creepy twist ending with Chekov's Time Machine, that's really all you need.

I know it was originally written for a steampunk anthology, and I like airships as much as the next guy, but it seems like we're cramming AI clockwork robots into everything lately, seldom for any good reason, especially given how hard they make suspension of disbelief. Or maybe I just think they're a particularly stupid trope. But they just bug me.

The story is competently written, and a bit creepy, which I like. But there isn't a hell of a lot to it, and much of the length is spent on fleshing out entirely irrelevant and uninteresting details about the standard steampunk world.

2.5 steampunk tea parties out of 5.

Originally published in Steampunk!
ed. Gavin Grant & Kelly Link

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Her Husband's Hands

Short Story by Adam-Troy Castro

The Army has found a great new way to reduce the number of deaths in a pointless but very deadly war. They preserve whatever bits of a person remain, and attach them to metal life support units with the last backup of their memory. Bob comes back to his wife as a pair of hands. And his hands have PTSD.

This is the story of a woman trying to hold herself together for the sake of her marriage, trying to decide if she can come to love the very different man that her husband became while he was at war. The fantastic premise highlights the absurd and hard-to-cope-with plight of the wife in an interesting way. The support group scene, in particular, is powerful, sad, and darkly humorous. I like how they both tell everyone they're all right, to avoid having to deal with other people "helping".

It was sad, and absurd, and makes some important points, but I did find the story a bit more dull than I'd expected. Not sure there is much of anything to do about this, he did capture the both husband and wife's anger, frustration, and grief. I do like the conclusion, but the whole thing just doesn't stand out as great to me, just good.

3.5 bits of husband out of 5.

Against Eternity

Short Story by David Farland

Old Man's War, but instead of uploading elderly soldiers to new human bodies, we're uploading them to mechs and spaceships. You are uploaded into one of these spaceships, and it gives you a shot at immortality, if you're rebellious enough to seize the chance.

The story is told in second-person, future tense, which gives events a sort of inevitable feel. I think future tense makes the whole second-person narration thing work much better, because rather than telling you what you did, it's telling you what you will do. Given that the story is set, presumably, within my natural lifespan, I don't mind it so much.

That said, it's a very short story, just this side of flash, and not a lot happens. As I implied by linking to a rather famous novel, this isn't something entirely new, although the story is simpler and more pacifistic than said book. Honestly, if it weren't for the second person narration, which I actually sort of liked her, this would be a very boring story. But it is short enough that you aren't wasting your time, and the POV is fun.

3 Aspiring spaceships out of 5.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project

Short Story by Brad R. Torgersen

A story with a done-before comedy plot, that then takes said comedy plot entirely seriously. Our hero operates a small radio station in the desert, with some extra financing from a reclusive millionaire. The rich man has built his own radio telescope and uses the radio broadcast to provide a more interesting signal into space. One day, the FCC comes knocking, and the protagonist's world is changed forever. It isn't quite as obvious as you might think, but only barely.

Besides the obvious problem in logic that Earth is already broadcasting plenty of material out into space and we don't really need privately funded enterprises to be noticed if any aliens are listening, what strikes me most is just how earnest this story is with a premise where the only originality to it is not being comedic. The writing is good, and the setting well drawn, but the idea is nothing special and the climax is about as anticlimactic as possible. And it doesn't even make any sense either.

2 FCC complaints out of 5.

The Sock Problem

Probability Zero Flash Fiction by Alastair Mayer

Cute ending, and a cute scene with the kid in the car, but I only liked the second half of this flash piece. The first half spent a lot of time explaining how motors work and how dryers are put together. I can't believe I'm saying this, but this flash fiction would be stronger if it were about half as long. I do like the phrase "it isn't Rocket Surgery." I'll be stealing that for personal use.

Tangential Nitpick: while I appreciate a Doctor Who namedrop as much as the next nerd, given the audience I think "The Doctor's TARDIS" would have sufficed instead of "Dr. Who's TARDIS". I'm not going to get into that debate here (1-4th & 9th Doctor credits be damned!) but I'd assume the readers of Analog are nerdy enough not to need the reference spelled out for them, especially at the expense of enjoyment for a pedantic subset of us!

2.5 out of 5 appliance repairmen think their job is rocket surgery.

The Last of Lust

Short Story by Jerry Oltion

Two sexy scientists working on identifying the Lust centers of the brain, and means for selectively turning it on and off, fall into a relationship. Then a group of religious zealots steal their research and engineer a plague that will rid the human race of lust. We get to see how this effects the main characters' relationship.

The science is idiotic, especially the idea that just because you can do something with microwaves, it's possible to quickly engineer an incurable superbug that infects 100% of the human poplulation, that will have the exact same effect biochemically. But I'm probably too annoyed about this, given that it's a story about people. Still, bad science doesn't have to be obnoxiously bad. It would have been more interesting and less facile to deal with a more varied and realistic bioweapon.

Anyway, science aside, the style of the writing is sort of dull and lacking any description beyond "this happened, and then that happened" for the middle portion of the story. Still, Oltion inserts little flashes of humor that made it fun, and much more enjoyable than it could have been. And the protagonist's relationship drama was interesting, especially with the surprising form of happiness he finds. But the greater extrapolation to the general population, and the conclusions he comes to at the end seem stupid, silly, and maybe a little sexist. Really, I'd have liked the story (although I wouldn't rave about it, there was definite humor in the telling), if it weren't for the diner scene at the end, which hurt my perception of the entire piece.

2 lusty lab assistants out of 5.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Church in High Street

Short Story by Ramsey Campbell

Really buoyed up by the ending. The first half is long, rambly, landscape description, and what seems to be a haunted-house set-up. But after the Strange Old Man warns our narrator off from the Haunted House, and our narrator ignores him and finds a Terrifyingly Crazed Diary, he goes to investigate the titular church, finds a passage descending into the underground (copying Lovecraft's motifs, not just his adjectives), things get legitimately strange.

There does seem to be a science-fictional explanation to how things work, which is nice. And the resolution is a neat way to have a happy-ish ending without breaking the rules that make the monsters scary (well, scaryish anyway), and at the last moment, Campbell snatches the hopeful part out from under us, and makes the terror seem delayed-but-inevitable rather than escapable. I like the ending, but not so much the rest of the story, although the central idea involving fungus-as-portal or whatever is pretty neat.

2.5 Tomb-Herds out of 5

Monday, October 17, 2011


Short Story by Erik Amundsen
Text and Audio free from Clarkesworld

Our protagonist wrangles a herd of ponise, IN SPACEEEEE. By 'ponies' we mean semi-sentient, self-reproducing, evolving spaceships, that feed on debris, using it for fuel, and to occasionally make more ponies. By 'barn' we mean mothership, and by 'saddle' we mean cockpit.

It's Cowboys in Space taken in a much stranger, more original direction than usual. I like the world that has developed, with all the western slang, but it does seem a bit contrived, and there isn't much in the way of story or theme here, beyond "Hey, look, Cowboys!" The problem is caused by random bad luck and a jerk-ass pony. And then it is resolved arbitrarily easily. Still an interesting idea and a very neat setting.

3 pony penis guns out of 5.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Husband Steinn

Novelette by Eleanor Arnason

Signy bought a house in rural Iceland so she could have peace and quiet to work on her novel. But various dead animals show up on her doorstep, courtship gifts from a troll, and she realizes peace is hard to come by. Signy ends up befriending the wife of the unfaithful troll, and is drawn into a meeting with the troll queen regarding Iceland's public works projects driving trolls and elves from their homes.

The best thing about this story is the wry, fairy tale writing style. Especially in a story about women laughing off their men to deal with the very modern problem of habitat conservation. The second best thing is the original bit of Norse mythology Arnason invents about Loki inventing the apple corer.

Although the style had nothing to do with Dunsany, he's the writer I couldn't stop thinking of at the end of the story, with the procession of trolls and other mythological creatures fleeing their homes. Something about the past fleeing from human encroachment and mystery leaving the world. Any comparison to Dunsany is a good thing from me.

3.5 trolls out of 5 enjoy cookies.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Man Who Bridged the Mist

Asimov's October/November 2011 CoverNovella by Kij Johnson

Construction story turned love story. Kit is the architect sent by the empire to build the first bridge across a corrosive river of some sort of mist dense enough to sail a boat across. Rasali operates the ferry which Kit's bridge will put out of business, if she doesn't die an early death to one of the giant "fish" living in the river first.

More than just romance against an intriguing fantasyish SF background with 19th century-level technology, Johnson makes a mega-construction project interesting without any of the predictable disasters, terrorist plots, or over-the-top human drama. She makes a better story by focusing on just the normal difficulties of large-scale construction, and a quiet character-study of the architect himself.

Lots of obvious thought about how the bridge changes the town and the townspeople illustrates the deeper theme: how the bridge changes Kit himself. By the end of construction, I think he's more capable of happiness than he was before, but he's certainly not on the path he originally imagined for his life.

The story is aptly titled, it's all about Kit, but the rest of the novella: the world around him, the townsfolk, the details of construction, the mystery of the mist and the Big Ones living in it all provide a fun background for a character-study of a mildly-unhappy man who builds big things.

4 Medium-Large Ones out of 5.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The High Priest

Short Story by C. Deskin Rink
Read for Cast Macabre by R.E. Chambliss
With Additional Voices by Abigail Hilton and Bob Eccles

Story Review (Audio Review Below)
This horror tale of the homicidal madness of a grieving mother is the sequel to Ankor Sabat, reviewed here last year. I saw a lot of promise in Ankor Sabat, but ultimately had to downgrade it a few points despite enjoying it. So of course, this review is heavily in comparison to the prior story. Another Clark Ashton Smith/Lovecraft pastiche. More action heavy this time, and I think a bit more overwritten. The first story's writing was delightful but two instances in this story particularly take me out of it:
"The nightmares brought with them images of a cyclopean black castle or fortress, flung up against blacker mountains and glimpsed always beneath a boiling glacial sky. The castle's jagged tiers piled atop one another, terrace upon terrace, battlement upon battlement, until its highest spires and minarets clutched at the very heavens themselves."
"Then, a hemorrhage of shadows split over the throne. The shadows waxed in depth until, slowly, surely, they took on a positive quality. The bells went silent, the figures abased themselves upon their bellies, the shadows congealed. There, sprawling upon the throne, a titan of carrion flesh, a colossus of rotten planets, a gargoyle of the death of stars, Ceocetep, the High Priest."
You can see the talent here and I do love some of the descriptions but through much of the story, Rink uses three descriptions where one would do. I don't mean only that this is not Hemingway-like prose, but there are some places I swear Lovecraft would have used just one adjective where Rink piles them on. It is distracting, and I think more pronounced here than in Ankor Sabat. I think he was going for the waves of big words and poetic imagery that wash over you in such stories as Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear". But Rink slows down his own action too much in a few places, and repeats himself.

Aside from that, the action is a little too overwrought and goes on a bit too long, but it does help illustrate Rink's theme of cycles of violence and revenge begetting more revenge. I understand the need for descriptions of the violent action scenes, but they are the part of the story that drags the most. Bethany undergoes the interesting character change of becoming more and more driven by vengeance throughout the story, to the point that she will murder hundreds just to get at one woman. I love that Bethany rails against everyone who has wronged her, but when she finally gets what she wants, she helps the High Priest further, essentially out of gratitude toward him, while condemning her opponents to an even worse fate and telling herself she is sparing them. I enjoy her unsympathetic madness.

Also: the animal people have mechanized guns left over from a "Golden Age" which I take to mean these stories take place after our civilization has faded away and lower technology humans have been building up society again, but this time with the Elder Gods and magical beasts remaining in the forefront rather than fading into the underbelly of the world as they did in our age. I really like this idea, and it does add a neat extra layer to what would otherwise be pure fantasy. I, for one, welcome guns and trains in my horror/fantasy.

I have to say, I liked the writing and plot, the twist and the development of themes better in Ankor Sabat. But I'm going to give this story a slightly better grade. The reason is that this story is more consistent, and doesn't fall apart toward the end. It accomplishes what it set out to do, and that is worth something, although I think Ankor Sabat was aiming higher. I'd still recommend Ankor Sabat if you are going to read one C. Deskin Rink story, and perhaps this is a problem with a numbered rating system. This story was more consistently in the middle, while Ankor Sabat was both better and worse. Ankor Sabat's highs are what recommend it, the point grade also reflects the low point, and The High Priest doesn't have such a low point, but it's heights are less lofty. Still, if you like Ankor, listen to this. If you didn't, then don't. But I say read/listen to that first.

3 out of 5

Audio Recording Review
The thing that most surprised me, and initially put me off before I began to like it, is that this is almost an audio play. Not just a reading, there are different actors for different voices in the dialog, and an actual musical score, not just background dithering, but rising and falling music to coincide with the action of the story. The reason this bothered me at first is it is almost distracting. I like audio plays, but Rink's prose is dense, and prone more to the exposition through narration rather than through dialogue. The music and shifting voices provide some distraction from the actual text. That said, all the voice actors are very talented, they do a good job, and the music seems appropriate. You get used to it, and after a second listen, I think it is better this way, just surprising at first.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Faithful Soldier, Prompted

Short Story by Saladin Ahmed
Read for Escape Pod (Free Text and Audio) and Starship Sofa (Audio Only) by Rajan Khanna

Ali is a veteran of the great Global Credit Crusades whose wife is dying of a bioengineered disease spread by one side or the other during the war. Ali doesn't know which side is at fault, and it doesn't really matter, his wife is dying. He can't afford the expensive serum she needs to be cured, and soon won't be able to afford even to keep her alive.

Ali has given up all hope when he starts receiving strange prompts on his glitchy cybernetic interface, which usually just spits out demands that he report for uniform inspection or shop at Honest Majoudi’s. He isn't sure whether these are messages from God, or the beginnings of some sort of psychosis, but with no other hope, he sets off for Cairo at the prompts' direction.

Not so much a story of the physical journey as of Ali's need for something to believe in, a man willing to latch onto any hope that presents itself. He starts as a not very religious man and ends up sounding like a crazed fanatic, and noticing this change in himself.

I love the world Ahmed develops, frequently conveying volumes in tidbits of description and trivia about the war. Ali himself is quite the badass when it comes right down to it, but he finds himself powerless to save his wife from collateral bioweapon damage because he can't afford the exorbitantly priced medicine. The best thing is that 90% of the story actually takes place before, after, or between the lines of the actual narrative we read, and this is done quite deftly.

A particularly nice touch is that we still don't know whether the messages were sent by oddly tricky criminals, some godlike AI manipulating people from behind the scenes for reasons bigger than the scope of the story (my favorite), or an actual supernatural entity as Ali comes to believe.

And a note for the many people who miss the point of the ending, this line near the beginning is very significant:

"His thoughts went to her again, to his house behind the jade-and-grey marble fountain"

4 Nanohanced tigers out of 5 need no credit rating.

Originally Published in Apex Magazine #18

The Insurance Agent

Short Story by Lavie Tidhar
Read for Escape Pod by Christian Brady (Text & Audio)

"It was a bit of an unfair fight as Reagan was young, pre-presidency, circa-World War Two, while Nixon was heavy-set, older: people were exchanging odds and betting with the bar’s internal gaming system and the general opinion seemed to be that though Reagan was in better shape Nixon was meaner."
The story opens with this fun description of a boxing match. I just wish it had run with that concept, rather than immediately veering off into the pointless and surreal for surreality sake.

A bodyguard is hired as "insurance" for a god/alien/"Supernatural Entity". These aliens seem to be most of the figures who have gained any kind of following in our history, from Elvis to Jesus to Uri Gellar. The setting is neat, and we get two particularly vivid scenes described in a rather surreal world, but in the long run there is no plot that makes any sense, the main character is poorly developed and doesn't seem to have any reason to go along with these plans he doesn't understand, and as far as anyone besides "Kim" is concerned, there aren't really any stakes to this story, and the reader doesn't even know what they are for Kim.

Tidhar seems to be going for a theme of people fighting for their ideals and perhaps something about the level of stupidity of what kinds of ideals people will fight over, but not much comes through beyond a sense of vaguely mythological-style symbolism.

A pointless tour through rather neatly described scenery. 2 out of 5 gamblers bet on Reagan in that boxing match.

Originally Published in Interzone, 2010

Kill Me

Short Story by Vylar Kaftan
Read for Escape Pod by Mur Lafferty (Audio Only)
Text Available Free from Transcriptase

Kaftan sets up an extremely interesting world in which memory downloading and uploading into clones is possible, but due to "sanctity of life" legislation just dumb enough to be right up Congress's alley you can't have backups of yourself or otherwise more than one copy at any one time. Oh, and less plausibly with our current society, but I'm willing to assume society has changed, this allows for women to be hired out to get murdered, and then revived later, under the logic that this will allow psychopaths to vent some of those urges and not go after non-consenting women.

Our protagonist, Ada, is a professional masochist who owed a great deal of money to pay for her new body and upload after a car crash. Due to planned obsolescence, she has to buy a new body every few months, and they are too expensive to save up more than one or two in advance. In this way, the resurrection company has her in a kind of indentured servitude to be constantly murdered by psychos and brought back every few months.

Right here, Kaftan has a killer premise, and one I'd love to read a story about. Indeed, the opening third of this story is great. It establishes the messed-up ugly world, Ada's situation, and the fact that she doesn't mind her job all that much, although she doesn't really get off on it anymore. I'd have loved to keep reading about Ada trying to get out of her job, or to read about another woman who can't bear the work she has to do in order to keep herself in a new clone body every few months.

But rather than any of the several promising and interesting directions we're presented with, Ada gets a mystery client and Kaftan throws us for a sharp left turn that takes the middle of the story into a long, boring ineffectual let-me-tell-you-my-evil-plan rant, and the last half turns into a completely different, drawn-out, story of her general dissatisfaction with life. Kaftan is trying to tell a story here about gaining power by relinquishing it, hence the submissive BDSM references scattered throughout, but this only partially works. The ending is not very convincing, and it is trying to be profound. And the big evil plot doesn't actually make any damn sense when you think about it, especially considering it's nearly unenforceable nature.

I liked the world, I liked a lot of the options Kaftan set up, but I wasn't satisfied with the story she ended up building out of this world and character.

2.5 out of 5.

Originally Published in Helix, 2007


by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn
Read for Escape Pod by Dave Thompson (Text & Audio free)

Gary is mourning the loss of his wife, whom he made the choice not to keep alive in a coma after her insurance money ran out. By pulling the plug, he feels that he murdered his one true love and he has taken up drinking to self-destructive levels. He is on the verge of being fired from his simple security-guard-at-a-robot-operated-manufacturing-plant job and doesn't really care.

One day, Gary makes friends with a robot, MOZ-512, whom he decides to call "Mose". Mose is a troubleshooting AI, programmed to be think outside the box a bit in order to diagnose and solve problems on the assembly line. This programming has sparked a bit of curiosity in the robot, and he sees Gary's drinking as a problem that needs solving. This curiosity leads to many longwinded philosophical discussions that contain some improbable jumps for the robot, indicating an overly advanced AI for the company not to expect odd behavior.

Anyway, we get to ponder whether destroying a no-longer-useful robot is any better than euthanizing a human being, and maybe it is a bit worse. And then the robot becomes more human in it's morality than the company, and a touching but sappy resolution where Gary decides Mose is his second soulmate/best friend. It is a touching little story, a little overly saccharine, but not bad for Resnick.

My biggest problem, rather than the reality of what leaps of logic the AI can make, in that this is a retread of ground Resnick has covered before, and Asimov did a less sappy job before that. The writing is competent but not amazing, there is just a feeling that we've seen all this before. And more significantly, most of the philosophy seems a bit too old hat. Gary tries to make some points that seem like a man from the 1950's who hasn't read any Science Fiction before, a viewpoint I have serious problems with when you work in a robot factory.
"You can’t compare a robot’s value to Kathy’s. She was unique. "
He argues that robots are not unique and have no intrinsic value and are no different than toasters, basically, and has this argument with his best friend the robot. Gary is just too oblivious to take seriously, most of their discussion seems like introductory socratic dialogue on AI or musing over stuff that was old hat 50 years ago.

Not as insightful as it thinks it is, overly long and talky, but oddly heartwarming (damn you Resnick). Fun, but mildly annoying fluff. The real story here is the well-written friendship that develops and Gary's rehabilitation. A bit too long for all that, it would have fit better with a more interesting background plot or less overused subjects for discussion.

2.5 robots out of 5 can logic away the alcoholism.

Originally Published in Asimov's

Monday, October 3, 2011

Radio Nowhere

Short Story by Douglas Smith
Read for Escape Pod by Wilson Fowlie

A physicist can't let go of his dead wife to see the obvious love right in front of him. His particle accelerator experiments seem to be causing flickers in time, moments where he is in the past, and moments where the radio seems to be broadcasting messages from a lone survivor in an apocalyptic future with no stars or people left. Ignoring potential consequences for himself or the world, he wants to use these time flickers to prevent his wife from having ever died, which will of course undo his unrequited love's years spent being friends with him, and any chance of consummating her love.

A very human story of a man hung up on the past for far too long, and a woman who can't make him realize her true feelings, and can't get up the courage to be forward about it, remaining only his shoulder to cry on. The resolution is a key moment of personal growth for our protagonist, and that's really what I ask for in a story. I'm glad Liam finally reaches the acceptance part of his grieving process.

3.5 Jesus-ducks out of 5.

P.S. The Escape Pod forums are filled with complaints about various perceived plot holes, and I don't want to deal with those other than to say that I agree with the interpretations of the minority who argue that they actually make sense. Ziggy's emotional state in particular, and the fact that the lake wasn't there fifteen years ago. I don't think you can claim to hate a story based on thinking an arbitrary number of years is an excessive number and this story really stands on the merits of character growth backed up by spooky atmosphere.

Originally Published in Campus Chills
Text for sale by Author for $0.99

Midnight Blue

Short Story by Will McIntosh
Read for Escape Pod by Paul Haring (Text & Audio Free Online)

Extremely fun world in which White Picket Fence America has been transformed by spheres which convey superpowers to whomever absorbs them. More rare spheres contain better powers, and since they appeared 2 generations ago, most of them have been used up, and today superpowers are a commodity only the rich can afford. Jeff is bullied by his rich classmates who love to show off the trivial little powers their parents have bought for them (Better Sense of Taste!, Good Whistler!). One day Jeff finds the rarest sphere of all, no one knows what it does but bulletproof, flying millionaires want to purchase it from him.

A sweet, fun little childhood story. I love the world McIntosh develops, but I'm a little torn on the ending. It is extremely heartwarming, but I feel like it takes away any of the negative consequences for Jeff's decision. I like the initial depiction as both options had pluses and minuses, but Jeff ends up all positive, and this rings a little false for me. I guess it does fit better with the hopeful, magical, nostalgic mood of the piece, but I prefer consequences.

3.5 superpowers absorbed, out of 5.

Originally Published in Asimov’s

Union Dues: Sidekicks in Stockholm

Novelette by Jeffrey R. DeRego
Read for Escape Pod by Stephen Eley (Text & Audio online)

Dark comedy about a Superman-like hero in a hostage situation. But the hostage taker is a villain called "The Chairman" who is mainly just upset about corporate greed and wants to use the ransom demands to force the various big and corrupt companies to undo some of the harm they did. He is a crazed extremist, they are a bunch of particularly exploitative CEOs and the Chairman's political lectures are softened by meta-commentary and opposing viewpoints presented by the hostages. DeRego isn't a fan of big business, but he isn't giving a one-sided lecture about it either.

The best thing is everyone's amazement at how little Adam Smasher understands of economics and politics. The whole debate basically goes straight over his head. At the end, dark political humor goes out the window for a just plain dark ending as Adam has to make a decision about where he stands on the debate.

I don't agree with Adam's decision, and I suspect none of the hostages, terrorists, or most people reading this story will either. Which is what makes it a great one. We don't have to agree with the hero or like his decisions, but it is great fun coming to understand how they get to that point. Even more fun for being such a deconstruction of the superhero hostage situation. DeRego and others have done superhero deconstructions before, and I've liked some but not all of them, but this is my absolute favorite such story I've ever read.

4 out of 5 supervillains have the floor, goddamnit.

Leech Run

Short Story by Scott W. Baker
Read for Escape Pod by Alasdair Stuart (Audio & Text free online)

A very cinematic feel. It's neat, but at times the point-of-view is frustrating. We mostly follow Captain Titan as he investigates a disappearance from among his contraband human cargo. 'Leeches' are human mutants who are shot on sight aboard ships and seem to have few rights planetside. They are particularly dangerous to transport due to the ability to drain all power from a ship's systems, and Titan provides the rare service of smuggling them.

But throughout the story, Titan always knows twice as much as the reader, despite being the point of view character. On one hand, we are informed of his emotions and reasons for doing some things, but reasons for other things are kept entirely hidden, certain actions not mentioned until after the fact (The story climaxes with a bit of "Oh, I did that ten minutes ago"), we are never allowed to see or know half the things we ought to for fair storytelling. Baker is playing games with the reader, distorting the narrative and point of view to keep a big surprise hidden until the halfway point. This annoys me even more in literature than it does in film. Even if we don't know the character's key bit of backstory, we should at least see what action he takes and get to see him acting as if he knew the thing he knew, instead of hiding so many facts from readers.

Anyway, it is a pretty engaging bit of mystery and space-operatic suspense. World-building and tension are high in the first half, with fun characters bantering and acting smugglery. And the ending is good, except that the sudden reveal of what Titan knew all along makes his escape a bit of a cop-out and his previous actions seem not-that-smart. And again, the final climax is neat, but resolved by way of deus-ex-I-did-this-offscreen-ten-minutes-ago-and-now-you-see-how-smart-I-am-via-flashback.

Narratively, a few points really really annoy me about this story, and I'm not always the biggest fan of Space Adventure stories anyway, but the setting, Leech powers, banter, and high tension take it up to another level, after I'd knocked it down a bit from neutral, it evens out to being just below average.

2.5 Energy-sucking Space Pirates out of 5.

Monday, September 26, 2011

This Moment of the Storm

Novelette by Roger Zelazny

"Suddenly, it was very dark and there was only the rain."

Zelazny's description of the aftermath of a lightning strike could also double for a description of the turning point in the story where it appears.

This is one of my favorite stories, but one I sometimes have trouble recommending (although given the resemblance of most best-selling novels to cinderblocks, I probably shouldn't.) The writing itself is brilliant throughout, alternating the humor of the opening and foreshadowing the terrificly melancholic end around worldbuilding I still find interesting 65 years after Zelazny came up with it. The story is emotional and thoughtful and even a bit understated in parts.

Literally the only fault I find with "This Moment of the Storm" is that almost nothing happens in the first 2/3 of the story. It's all worldbuilding and character work and setup. All of which is engaging and well done, but it seems a bit slow. The first time I read this, I honestly found myself wondering if anything was going to happen in the story, or if Zelazny was just setting up a neat colony planet to describe hurricane flooding with time out for philosophy. And then, suddenly, everything happens in the last 1/3 of the story. It almost seems as if the slow build is there to make the ending that much more shocking. And where I'd usually wish I'd just skipped the first 2/3, everything that comes before is absolutely vital to the ending. I wouldn't want it a single word shorter.

I'm not sure exactly what I'd call the climax of the story, but I'm sure it doesn't take up more than a line or two. Everything after the line I opened with is short, dark, and devastating. We are moved from humor and love on a world ravaged by a record-setting rainstorm to what may as well be news footage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans with a slight SF tinge.

Here the narrator explains his dismissal of the definitions of humanity from the philosophy-class introduction.

"Man is the reasoning animal? Greater than beasts but less than angels? Not the murderer I shot that night. He wasn't even the one who uses tools or buries his dead."

Terrible things happen, but eventually the storm clears and recovery can begin. But the narrator finds that the storm has washed away what little progress he had made toward happiness, too. He ends the story, emotionally, in the same place he was before it began. Here are the closing lines, which cinch this one as a personal favorite:

"Years have passed, I suppose. I'm not really counting them anymore. But I think of this thing often: Perhaps there is a Golden Age someplace, a Renaissance for me sometime, a special time somewhere, somewhere but a ticket, a visa, a diary-page away. I don't know where or when. Who does? Where are all the rains of yesterday?

In the invisible city?

Inside me?

It is cold and quiet outside and the horizon is infinity. There is no sense of movement.

There is no moon, and the stars are very bright, like broken diamonds, all.

5 out of 5 philosophy professors are familiar with the time-killing method Zelazny explains here, for whenever they misplace their lecture notes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Signals in the Deep

Short Story by Greg Mellor September 2011 Clarkesworld Cover
Text and Audio at Clarkesworld

A mother travels through the Solar System to Pluto to visit her son, who has never written back to her. On the way, she muses on child-rearing, and by the time she gets there, she realizes she has no more to do:
Such a blind thing I had become, journeying all this way with the answer in my back pocket. It was that paradox that all parents face at some point. He was always going to grow up despite my good intentions and overbearing guidance. It just happened a little sooner than I expected, or rather sooner than I was willing to acknowledge.
On the way out, we get a nice little tour of the Solar System, before she finds out what job her son is doing and how much he has changed since she last saw him. He has adapted exceptionally well to do the job he needs to do, and although at first she barely recognizes him, she realizes he is still her son and he promises to write home once in a while.

Heartwarming SF space story. The mother and son dynamic is well written, as our the other people she meets on the way out. We can actually imagine the thoughts their respective mothers have about most of the characters we meet. A tad dull, but sweet, and an interesting future backdrop.

3 alien starfish arrays out of 5.


September 2011 Clarkesworld Cover
Short Story by Robert Reed
Text and Audio at Clarkesworld

A post-human who consumes his courage from dispensers lives alone in his castle, one of several such lone castle dwellers among the sparsely populated world. He considers himself and his neighbors the last remnants of humanity.

One day, he adopts a dog, and a pack of them start to live outside his castle, living off his scraps. Reed never describes exactly what a dog is, but they use guns and talk and cry. My theory is that they are the last bits of unmodified, low-tech humanity, no longer acknowledged as human by the post humans, and maybe not even by themselves. They live in packs, surviving off nature and the scraps of the post humans.

The pack continually push our post-human narrator's boundaries, seeing how many he will feed, if he will protect them, break up fights, or help them in a war with another pack.

Reed leaves the setting extremely sketchy, few descriptions of anything, no history lessons, and names and personalities left ambiguous. But he establishes the dynamics between the Post-Human and the dogs, and establishes that the dogs are smart enough to be dissatisfied with the current arrangement. A fun, strange little story about the future of humanity. More sketch of the social order than character study or plotted plot-heavy thriller.

3.5 wolf empires out of 5.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shadow Angel

Novelette by Erick Melton

Emil pilots ships between the stars, creating bubbles in space to exceed the speed of light. After enough trips, these bubbles can stabilize into wormholes. But it seems his ex-wife has manipulated him into helping her reach something strange in the middle of the sponge that is the universe. The whole story is told through his hallucinations, hearing of thoughts, voices, memories, and glimpses of the future, all caused by the strange nature of a mind twisting itself to control little bubbles of spacetime.

It seems a lot of people found the story structure confusing, and it was at first, but you have to just read straight through to the end, without going back to try and figure out the meaning of one or another sentence. It all clears up toward the end of the story, and there are several narratives going on in different times. I also quite like the world Melton built and the rules for physics and FTL. It's a neat idea.

That said, the story seems kind of boring to me, once you get past the confusing bits. Emil is an exceptional pilot. His ex knows this, and with her research has figured out why. She tries to use him to advance her research, and he eventually figures out what is going on: with his abilities, her plan, his hallucinations, his future, and spacetime in general. The reader figures this all out with him, which is fun and a bit mind-bending. In a good way. But that is really all there is to it. It is nice that the character is as confused as readers will be, but this is very much a story of a world, and how the physics in it work. Emil and the reader figure that out, there isn't much story to be had, besides some vague bits of Emil's future career direction. It's a puzzle to be unraveled, but the plot isn't much beyond that, and the characters are hazy by necessity, since most everything happens inside Emil's head.

3 sponge space futures out of 5.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Odor of Sanctity

Short Story by Ian Creasey

Dora wants to ease the death of the priest who helped her and was a huge charitable figure in the Philippines, so she finds the scent of a forest near where he grew up, using a new scent-capturing technology. Since she can't afford such an imported scent, the shopkeeper wants her to capture the priest's scent as he dies. He's betting on the priest being canonized, and wants to trade on the medieval beliefs in the odor of sanctity. I like that Creasey named the church after a saint known for this odor.

Anyway, there is a clever but not unpredictable twist to the plot, and I do appreciate Dora's growth by the end of the story, but I just didn't see much to this one. It was written well enough, and things happened, but it dragged a bit and just doesn't leave me with much to think about, and didn't have me thinking much while reading either.

3 smelly saints out of 5.

Grandma Said

Short Story by R. Neube

A teenage protagonist gets a job as an apprentice plague cleanser on a world ravaged by a fungal pulmonary disease. This story follows his misadventures with goth girls, parents and hormone-induced stupidity as much as his burgeoning career and attempts to survive daily plague exposure. It's a story of growing up with lightly comic sensibilities, mirroring Grandma's advice to the narrator to keep laughing. Good advice, and an oddly cheerful little story. Sadly there is not much else to say here. I guess the commonplace modern elements of high school on this alien world bother me a bit, but it almost isn't worth mentioning. I never laughed, but I smiled quite a bit, and didn't want to stop reading.

3 UV lamp towers out of 5.


Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

I'm never quite sure why I love Emshwiller stories as much as I do. This one left me with a big goofy grin, but it's hard to explain exactly why. I'm confident most people will enjoy reading the story though, so go do that.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rambling:

Lewella is an older, single woman. Her head is in the clouds most of the time, and she's more than a bit crazy. The story is narrated by her friend Mary Ellen, who describes Lewella like so:
"She sits and hums to herself. Bees and hummingbirds fly aroundher as if she's a flower and even when she's not wearing red or yellow. There's a jay that comes and hops around her feet and she feeds him crumbs. ... Once a streak of sunlight shined down sideways through the trees on to her tangled white hair and made it glow in a magical way. Not for long, though."
One day, Lewella invents an imaginary fiance, and decides they are to be married in the spring. She gets a painting of him somewhere and eventually decides to set out into the world to find him. Mary Ellen tags along on this grand quest to make sure her batty old friend doesn't get hurt.

One big effect impresses me about Emshwiller's writing in this story, her descriptions and choice of details. The two old women, picking vegetables in their village seem to inhabit an idyllic fantasy land. As they wander further from home, the modern world breaks in. Hummingbirds and lace collars give way to bus fares and dollar amounts, and eventually Wal-Mart and park benches. This effect climaxes along with the climax of the story itself, with vines, trees, and other naturalistic descriptions intruding on a modern bar room. I also particularly enjoyed the odd symmetry of the last lines.

The story has fantastical descriptions, and perhaps Lewella is supremely lucky or implied to innocently cause things to work out for her, but this is magical realism with only the faintest tinge of fantasy. I think Emshwiller may write fantasy in the same way Neal Stephenson always writes science fiction: "it's an attitude."

I don't think I'd have enjoyed a story with this plot written by any writer besides Emshwiller, but she makes it sing.

4 lace collars out of 5.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Asteroid Monte

Short Story by Craig DeLancey

Humans are one of the newer species in Galactic Civilization, and newer species make better policemen, since they have more experience with crime than more advanced, more civilized species. Our protagonist is one such human, sent with his herbivore-hating alien partner, to a system where a rogue species is stealing seeds from a bio-mechanical non-sentient fungus-like species. These seeds could be used as a weapon, and so are a danger to Galactic civilization.

The protagonist predictably uses his knowledge of three-card monte to solve the crime, thus proving that humans are qualified to be part of the police force, and are really omnivores, despite our flat teeth. Amusing, but nothing too deep here.

3 vicious herbivores out of 5.

The Chaplain's Assistant

Short Story by Brad R. Torgersen

The Mantes, or Mantises have been wiping out humanity, but a small human colony remains, walled off and isolated, on a world they control. A Mantis Professor comes to study them one day. In particular he's interested in religion, god, and spirits. Both the other species they've wiped out have believed in gods, and the atheistic Mantes worry they are lacking some kind of perception other species might possess. The assistant in charge of the nondenominational chapel sees this as an opportunity for leverage, maybe this professor can help keep humanity from being exterminated.

I'm a bit torn about this story. I liked the ending, in essence, but it seems artificial, calculated to burn just enough red shirts for some dramatic flair, but not so many as to make the ending bittersweet instead of happy. Frankly, the protagonist has no agency for the events of the back third of the story, just sort of riding along, watching things happen, so the happy ending feels cheap, and weird to ignore all the deaths. Also, my impression would be that the Mantes should be more capable exterminators, given how easy it is, and not prone to drawing things out for dramatic tension. It feels like Torgersen realized that the solution as written was too quick and easy for the narrator, but he fixed it with some meaningless, unmourned deaths and two pages of drama that seem pointless once you're aware of the facts.

Second, I'm torn about how Torgersen handled the delicate dance of Talking About Religion. On one hand, he deserves some props, he didn't spend the story preaching like I was expecting after the first page, and he didn't present one religion as right and the others as wrong. He was delicate, and this should be appreciated. BUT. He didn't really say anything about it, just enough to raise all our hackles in worry, not enough to actually make a point.

Between the mantes, the narrator, and the two other species, it seems the only atheists are killing machines and everyone else acknowledges that they need God in their lives, in one flavor or another. I don't think Torgersen means to offend anyone, he is very delicate, but it's the sort of stealthy, accidental prejudice. Like when the only black guy in a movie is a criminal, or the only woman happens to need a man to rescue her. It isn't deliberate, hell it wouldn't even be offensive if they weren't the ONLY character with that minority trait, but that almost makes it more offensive, like the writers can't imagine black people not stealing, or atheists not murdering or women who don't exist for Prince Charming to rescue. I'd have liked some acknowledgment that atheists actually exist among humans, not just homicidal aliens.

Also, he may have vaguely offended some muslims, by making them out to be the only occasionally intolerant religion. He says some muslims are intolerant, not all of them, but it's hard to miss that all the christians are more tolerant than those muslims. Once again, I don't think it was meant to offend, but it leaves a weird/bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, I'm not the political correctness police. The writing was decent, and actually funny in places, which was nice. I'd have liked something more interesting to come out of the philosophical/religious debate, and maybe a less artificially dramatic ending, and a more reasonable way to spice things up action-wise. But not a bad story, just not a great one.

2.5 praying mantes out of 5.

Therapeutic Mathematics and the Physics of Curve Balls

Novelette by Gray Rineheart

After his parents die, poor cranium-deformed Joey is sold to a 1940s-era freak show by his uncle. On display for his misshapen skull, no one realizes the two more significant freakish things about him: Joey is a mathematical genius, and he can read minds.

But reading minds hurts terribly, and the only way he can keep the pain at bay is by solving complicated equations and developing mathematical models in his head. One day Joey tries to leave the circus and go to a baseball game for his birthday, where he learns an entirely new kind of math.

Despite the mathematical focus, this story is very character driven, following an abused youth who just wants to be normal, but at the same time is learning to embrace being a freak, in one form or another. I'm glad the telepathy is mostly treated as a disability, with the math being the real superpower. That's psychic power I can get behind!

The ending is extremely ambiguous, possibly too much so for some readers, but thinking about which ending I'd have chosen makes me realize exactly how many plusses and minuses there are to Joey's choice. I know what I'd have done, personally, but it isn't what I think Joey probably did. The neat thing is that neither choice is an entirely happy ending, but both have upsides, too. So I'm glad it was left ambiguous, although the last line makes it a tad more confusing than is necessary, that is my only complaint about the whole story.

4 atomic fastballs out of 5.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Analog July/August 2011

An issue pretty much carried by Richard Lovett

Energized, Part II of IV by Edward M. Lerner: NOT REVIEWED

Coordinated Attacks by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: 2.5

Jak and the Beanstalk by Richard A. Lovett: 4
One Out of Many by Kyle Kirkland: 2.5

Short Stories:
Probability Zero: ... Plus C'est La Meme Chose by Arlan Andrews, Sr.: 3.5
A Witness to All That Was by Scott William Carter: 1.5

So Long, Proxima Centauri by Kevin Walsh: B

Schmidt's editorial is a decent enough read, and The Alternative View is better than it often is, but the reviews in this issue are absolutely awful. Painful to read as well as useless.

One stand-out story in Lovett's "Jak and the Beanstalk", one stand-out article in Lovett's "Narrative Voice". The articles are mostly better than the stories, being 3/4 enjoyable, although aside from "A Witness to All That Was", the lesser of the fiction is never really bad. A lot of it is unimpressive, but only one story really bothers me.

Not a great issue of Analog, but not without its merits either.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Fish of Lijiang

Short Story by Chen Qiufan (Text & Audio online)
Translated by Ken Liu

The Narrator is an office worker, frequent employee of the month, and on track to become Assistant Manager.
"I have a car, a house — everything a man should have, including erectile dysfunction and insomnia."
He isn't exactly happy with his life, but he likes being a workaholic. When he is diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, he only goes to the rehabilitation center/resort in Lijiang because they force him to. An interesting character development mentioned a few times but never dwelt on is that our narrator apparently used to be an artsy type, before he got into business.
Ten years ago, I had nothing and no care. Ten years ago, Lijiang was a paradise for those who liked to exile themselves from civilization. (Or, to put it less pretentiously, that was where young people who fancied themselves "artists" slept with each other.) Ten years ago, I carried everything I owned on my back (still had some muscles then).
But the ancient city isn't as he remembers it. Everything is fake. Artificially controlled sky kept a perfect blue, robot bands poorly playing traditional music. Before he can despair too much, he meets a woman, they hit it off, and before things go down the predictable woman-shows-him-the-error-of-working-too-much route, the whole story takes a Philip K. Dick-style twist. The world is more fake and less pure than even he imagines, and the government and large companies are collaborating in some very Science Fictional research.

The whole story ends up quietly depressing, much like the narrator's life. I really liked that about it. I was expecting a happy, lesson-learning sort of story, and it turns out that this story is more what you'd get if Philip K. Dick were writing in modern day China. Like a Dick story, though, there are a few too many abandoned threads, half-themes mentioned poignantly once, and never brought up again. They do all add to the feeling of the plight of the modern office worker though.

I'm glad Ken Liu took the time out from writing his own brilliant stories to write a translation of this one, and I'm very much interested in finding more translations of Chen Qiufan's work. If anyone who reads this knows of any other English translations of Chen Qiufan stories, please post a comment.

3.5 little red fish out of 5.

Originally published, in Chinese, in Science Fiction World, May 2006

Conservation of Shadows

Short Story by Yoon Ha Lee (Text & Audio Online)

A retelling of the Sumerian mythology of Inanna's Descent into the Underworld, narrated in the second person, as some sort of Ereshkigal/GLaDOS hybrid speaking to one of several Inanna clones.

From what I can gather, Sumerian culture was still dominant when Earth began to colonize space, and people wanted to send out copies of their gods, to reenact myths and ensure that other planets properly experience seasons and whatnot. Or something.

Honestly, I've read and listened to this story five times, and I like it less each time. The first time it didn't make a ton of sense, but I was pretty sure that I liked it. The fifth time, I'm pretty sure that it makes no sense at all, besides trying to justify Lee's mythological conceit, and I dislike the story. The climax in particular annoys me, because I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, and from what we're given, it just doesn't make any damn sense.

So I'm not a fan of this story, but I must admit to loving the writing. Where it fails as a story, it entirely succeeds as a sort of incomprehensible prose-poem. Yoon Ha Lee never fails to provide haunting, beautiful imagery and poetic description. "Ghostweight" remains my favorite, both for the story, and for descriptive poetry, but "Conservation of Shadows" is well along that track for description. The problem is that the only story is a less-comprehensible version of a pre-existing myth. Some good ideas, like the inventory slots of a video game, and the clones reenacting stories, but they don't really go anywhere, and the more I think about them, the more I think the actual work of fiction in question isn't good, just beautifully done and full of distracting half-ideas.

With the second person narration and retelling of mythology, I was at first reminded of Rachel Swirsky's "A Memory of Wind", which put me in quite the mood to enjoy this story. Sadly, it didn't pan out, and felt more like weirdness for weirdness sake (and because you can't just repeat a myth straight and get it published), with an unconventional POV more to add to the weirdness than to the story.

2.5 empty inventory slots out of 5.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Other Articles: Analog July/August 2011

More than Plot and Character: The Story-Telling Secrets of Narrative Voice
Special Feature by Richard A. Lovett

Lovett discusses the danger of taking the "show, don't tell" dictum too seriously. "Telling" is what constitutes a lot of narrative voice and style. I do find it odd that he worries some SF readers are afraid of/opposed to the very concept of "style" in writing. I'm not sure if he is underestimating SF readership or I'm overestimating them. Anyway, with several examples, most useful of which is a before-and-after bit of editing from a story Lovett collaborated on, he shows how sentence length, and variety among sentence lengths can be used to achieve various different voices. A very specific advice article, refreshing in that most narrative voice advice is vague to the point of being useless. By being extremely specific, Lovett gives everyone some useful advice, and limits himself to a scope achievable in a magazine article.

Rating: A

Science Fiction Imagines the Digital Future
Special Feature by James Gunn

Not worth reading. I'm not sure how, but this article took me 45 minutes to read. I just couldn't stay focussed on it. Gunn comes across as more curmudgeonly and old-fashioned than I'd have expected. I think his take-away point, that we should all expect that some future outcomes will be unpredictable, is a good one. As is his advice to writers to look at technological advances in terms of what unintended negative side effects they cause, rather than the more predictable benefits. But these are both sort of things we've heard before, and that a lot of people know, and Gunn doesn't add much besides a lot of words.

Rating: D

The Deficiency of Black Holes at the LHC
Alternate View Column by John G. Cramer

Simple reportage on a paper stating that no black holes have thus far been found at CERN in the LHC, a short review of the physics of why we might expect black hole to form, and paraphrasing the paper's discussion of what this means (that if gravity behaves in extra dimensions than the other 3 forces do, and thus the minimum black hole size is lowered, it must be greater than at least certain numbers). Pretty much straight reportage with a bit of background.

Rating: B

Division of Labor
Editorial by Stanley Schmidt

Thoughtful as usual. Schmidt gives us the history of the term "multitasking", its rise in popularity and possible origins in the "MultiFinder" application for early Mac computers. The whole editorial seems to be brought on by recent studies contradicting earlier ones and psychologists making sweeping, unfounded statements (as psychologists are wont to do) about Multitasking Is Bad, mmkay. This a reverse from it being the best thing ever in the 90s. Schmidt argues that the question we should be researching are "when, how, and for whom does multitasking work?" A couple engaging autobiographical anecdotes and he ends by pointing out that everyone is different, so we should beware employers and pushy parents coming to demand multitasking if it is better understood and cycles back into popularity. SF story idea, check. Thoughtful, but not his most thoughtful.

Rating: B-

The Reference Library
Book Reviews by Don Sakers

The reviews this month are all anthologies. Of this I approve, since I prefer short fiction to novels. But the page-and-a-half introduction to the reviews confuses and annoys me. First, Sakers explains the merits of the short story. Fine, I guess, since he admits he is preaching to the choir, and he is introducing a bunch of short story collections. Then he gives us a history of SF anthologies as a publishing form, which is vaguely interesting, but overlong and not actually relevant (I thought I was done with the fact articles). Finally, he closes by defining a 'novelette' as a "long short story". Thanks Don. The readers of Analog, with 2 NOVELETTES IN THIS VERY ISSUE weren't clear on that term. And besides pissing me off with unnecessary condescension, I don't think you need to know the difference between a novelette and a short story in order to appreciate either one of them.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 ed. by Kevin J. Anderson: Sakers explains what the Nebulas are, and that this anthology contains short stories nominated for these mysterious "Nebula Awards."

Dark Futures: Tales of SF Dystopia ed. Jason Sizemore: Sakers doesn't seem to like dystopias, but "enough variety here to keep the various dystopias from becoming too oppressive." Not a helpful review at all, but I guess this is either positive, or damning with faint praise. I'd be better able to tell if Sakers weren't mostly talking about dystopian stories in general.

Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change ed. Gordon van Gelder: Most of the "review" on this book is a discussion of how it's okay if you don't believe in climate change. Very little about the actual book, aside from it being about climate change. Sakers does give a recommendation to the anthology, but it almost gets lost in all the talking around how he doesn't believe in climate change. I know Analog's readership tends to the conservative, but I didn't realize you had to spend most of a book review on whether or not you believe in climate change. I'd have bought this anthology on Gordon van Gelder's editorship alone (F&SF being his main project), and Sakers doesn't do much to enhance or diminish what I get from the title page of this book.

By Other Means ed. Mike McPhail: Finally a real review, a positive recommendation with enough detail to know I probably won't be interested.

Golden Reflections ed. Joan Spicci Saberhagen & Robert E. Vardeman: Theme anthology in honor of Fred Saberhagen, a good history of how this anthology came about, what inspired it, and the contents. A positive review I probably agree with.

Jar Jar Binks Must Die ... and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies by Daniel M. Kimmal: I really liked having a themed review article, too bad Sakers couldn't stick with the theme and reviewed a collection of essays about movies. A positive review.

A good concept for a review column that ended up profoundly unhelpful and actively annoyed me to read.

Rating: D-