Monday, January 31, 2011

Helping Them Take the Old Man Down

Novelette by William Preston

I've said before that it seems like every other Asimov's/Analog story lately is a tribute to the pulps. It frequently bugs me, but this particular tribute is a thoughtful, interesting tribute, where it doesn't matter at all if you know who it is referencing or anything about him. Either you get the reference or you don't and the difference is a small bit of "oh-I-get-your-reference" enjoyment, but trivial as compared to enjoyment of the story.

So Lanny is a college professor who used to help a pulp-style hero, now referred to as "The Old Man" in various fantastic plots. They had a whole secret organization helping to foil supervillians, back in the day. But Lanny has been retired from the business for years. After the 9/11 attack, the NSA comes to Lanny looking to hunt down The Old Man, as he vacated his offices in the World Trade Center just a month before, seeming to know about the attack, but neither attempted to foil it, nor alerted anyone.

Lots of hemming and hawing and reminiscing about past adventures, but Lanny eventually betrays his old boss/friend. I'm not sure I completely buy Lanny's betrayal. I don't really see the motive for it, especially as he is supposed to be fairly tough and adventurous, despite the rampant self-doubt. The Old Man certainly knew Lanny would be the one to betray him, and planned for that eventuality, but I saw little reason for it, or foreshadowing of it.

Anyway, Lanny betrays his friend, helps the government hunt him down and discovers that they want to use this elderly hero as a scapegoat for 9/11. It is a somewhat surprising, and definitely moving ending and the end implies that maybe Lanny will try to take up some of those duties, to the best of his ability.

A thoughtful story, not only about how the best hero is always 10 steps ahead, but about the nobility of personal sacrifice for the common good, even when no one else knows about it, or even if they think the worst of you. And that sometimes we can't see all the deaths averted because of the much more obvious immediate cost to human life.

A novelette that could only be written after too many lives have been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without the knowledge of the more long-term costs of our response to 9/11, this story wouldn't be nearly as moving or the Old Man's logic sufficiently obvious. It probably won't be so obvious 50 years from now, but in 2011 this is worth 4 fortresses of solitude out of 5.

Blind Cat Dance

Novelette by Alexander Jablokov

A really interesting world, where modern humanity have learned to make ourselves invisible to animals. We have built cities and restaurants around little bits of city being reclaimed by nature. On one hand, wild animals are now allowed more habitat than they currently have, but on the other, sustainable ecosystems can't be set up, and everything has to be managed by human animal trainers. And at the same time, we grow giant "tubes" of pork in lightless factories, in one of the grossest, coolest scenes I've read in a while.

In this world, we get to see an animal trainer observe a group of friends at several restaurants, at the direction of his boss, the former husband of one of the friends, who wants to win her back. Our animal trainer slowly falls in love with her as she takes classes to become an animal trainer herself. But eventually going back to her old husband disappointing him. We get to see a very interesting world, and explore many levels of metaphorical and literal not-seeing things.

The examination of sight and blindness and ignorance is thought-provoking, if a bit dull, and the world-building is amazing. But the plot is basically pointless and doesn't entirely make sense. Particularly the big confrontation at the climax strikes me as odd and unclear. And then the story goes on a lot longer without really accomplishing anything. I love the images and commentary and the world itself, and the ending scenes would be great on their own, but this story drags something awful. It is overly long, with no real resolution to a plot that doesn't matter. And I get what Jablokov is getting at with the woman feeling more powerful and therefore less threatened by her former husband, but she goes back to him very easily. All the characters come across rather flat and poorly motivated, including our lovestruck protagonist, who doesn't make much effort for, or comment on, the plans he apparently has.

Pretty scenes, thoughtful theme, and no story to speak of. Still, have to give props for the neatness of ideas, the quality of the world, and the images themselves. 3 unseeing cougars out of 5.

Wheat Rust

Novelette by Benjamin Crowell

Rui is a ladies' man on a long-term space habitat out near Neptune. The people have been there so long they have formed low-tech nations who fight each other over food and farmland. The petty local government doesn't really understand how the habitat works (although everyone knows they live on a big metal tube in space at least).

One day, while romancing Anu on the beach, Rui sees two men in spacesuits fall from the sky. They are a survey team sent by a higher-tech outside civilization to check on the maintenance of the habitat. It turns out that a very efficient wheat rust has infected one of the neighboring nations and is spreading through the habitat. The food shortage is part of what makes them so warlike, but in the long run, everyone will starve if it isn't dealt with. The survey team was sent with a yeast that infects and kills the fungus, but they can't spread it without help, and the local government doesn't want to help their enemies by fixing their food shortage. Shortsighted bureaucracy at its finest.

Anyway, this is a story about the rogue who finally falls in love for real, and realizes all his heroic actions have been out of a desire to please a girl he thought was just a fling, but finds himself risking his life for. A classic tale if there ever was one. A happy little love story with some thrilling heroics, the main plot wraps up a bit too quickly and easily, but I like that the very last paragraph throws in a new complication, and a new daring solution. We can see that Rui is well down the road to romantic action hero from his start of uncaring womanizer. And the habitat is explored a bit, which is nice scenery at least.

I seldom say this, but this could have stood to be a longer story. Would have allowed for some more depth, this was fun but very light. And we could have seen more of the world, and of Rui's development. Plus a more detailed and dangerous resolution of the main plot. Exciting enough, and not too long. Certainly not boring, but nothing much here.
3 talking robo-flies out of 5.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Jaguar House, in Shadow

Novelette by Aliette de Bodard

This is the first I've read of it, but apparently Aliette de Bodard has a series of stories set in this world: a futuristic (nanotech, etc) alternate history where China discovered America first, resulting in the survival of the Aztec civilization, and their rise to become a significant power.

The three main characters of this story are knights of the Jaguar House, one of several powerful noble houses. Tecipiani has risen to power as head of the order, and has made the Jaguar House into collaborators with a mad dictator's murderous rule over Mexica. While other houses stand up to him and die honorable deaths, she leads the Jaguar House to betray their ideals and help the dictator.

Onalli is the hero of the story, she is a rogue knight who can't stand the direction her house has taken. The meat of the story is Onalli's self-appointed mission to rescue Xochitl, her best friend, another Jaguar knight, who is being held in the House and tortured for being a traitor (a sentiment Onalli agrees with). Interspersed with the stealth and action are several flashbacks to the three girls' shared childhood. They are all idealistic in different ways, and you can see the conflict coming even then. Not out of some competitiveness, but a belief that each is unquestionably right.

Some exciting action sequences combining nanotech enhancements, tranquilizers, knives, and Aztec mythology, this one keeps you on the edge of your seat. But through the careful character work in the flashbacks between the two girls who are now adversaries, we can get into both their heads. Onalli is righteously angry about the direction both the country and her House have taken, and can't stand what she perceives as cowardice. But Tecipiani makes this interesting, as we can see how she believes she is only doing what she has to for the survival of the House. An interesting examination of why collaborators do what they do.

4 Jaguar Knights out of 5.

The Speed of Dreams

Short Story by Will Ludwigsen

Paige is a pre-teen girl taking the easiest science class. The entire story is told through a rambling lab report she writes about her experiments on how fast her dog runs in its sleep, and the time dilation in sleep as compared to real life. But it is really a story about her difficulty talking to Austin, the boy she likes, and dealing with the long downward spiral and impending death of her grandmother.

I like fiction literally about science as a definition of "science fiction", so that made me happy. And Ludwigsen captured the tone and concern of a little girl very well. This is a well written story in an interesting form. Kind of funny, but ends surprisingly tragically. Lots of emotion here, and a neat concept with good writing, but little depth beyond that concept.

4 greyhounds out of 5 always win their dream races, duh.

The Other Graces

Short Story by Alice Sola Kim

Grace Cho has invented the phrase "yellow trash" to describe her poor, crazy Korean family. For much of her life, she can't even afford shampoo. Her brother sits at home watching History Channel conspiracy shows all day and pretends to have Tourette's even though he doesn't. Her mother makes all the money and can't speak English, and her father is insane and lives in a nearby shelter, occasionally stopping by to "clean" the house or steal mail out of their mailbox. She is desperate to escape and get into an Ivy League college.

She finds she has help in this endeavor when she is contacted by The Other Graces. Versions of herself from alternate dimensions, slightly ahead in the timeline. They help her on the SATs, but the real challenge facing our Grace is dealing with adolescence and college applications and racism and getting her mail back from her crazy father to know if she is accepted.

Oh, and never directly mentioned in the story, but a deadly serious undertone: Grace reads a bunch of science fiction, has family history of mental illness, and suddenly starts hearing voices in her head helping her with the SATs. Maybe it is really alternate versions of herself, but maybe she has inherited something from Dad. She is smart enough to do well on her own I think...

Sort of a coming-of-age story that made me laugh all the way through, while at the same time feeling sorry for Grace. Her sarcasm and angry sense of humor really bring this story together for me. And I still don't know whether she is crazy or not, but she finally manages to wrest some control of her life back from her parents and generally shitty situation, so I consider this a happy ending. And a heartwarming and funny way of getting there.

4.5 Grace Cho's out of 5.

P.S. This story was told in the second person, from one Grace to another, and it didn't bug me or even seem important enough to mention in the review, it just seemed appropriate. So bravo, Ms. Kim. A non-obnoxious use of the second person!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Peacock Cloak

Short Story by Chris Beckett

Fabbro is a programmer who creates an entire artificial world, populates it with sentient AI, and makes 7 copies of himself, with slight alterations, to interact in the world essentially as avatars of gods. His copies predictably war, advance civilization, and generally take an idyllic paradise and mess it up. Towards the end of his life, and the end of the artificial world, he goes into it himself to try to make peace with all his other selves.

The story is told from the point of view of Tawus, the last of these copies, who has decided to kill his creator and take his place. No real action here, just the two of them talking and debating whether they will resolve their differences or kill each other. There is an enormous amount of religious symbolism here, but that doesn't actually take anything away from a story for once. The important thing is that there is a lot more deep thinking if you look past the God/Lucifer/etc type impressions.

It is an interesting conversation, and hits a lot of big, important ideas. Tawus spends an enormous amount of time feeling bad for atrocities he has lead people to commit, and because he feels terribly guilty about it, assumes the whole reason Fabbro wants to speak to him is to criticize these actions.

Deep introspection aside, an exceptionally interesting world is created here. The hacking-the-world method of functional magic is taken to extremes, and allows for the creation of the interestingly sentient Peacock Cloak, which Tawus made to protect himself. A lot of interesting worldbuilding goes on in the memories recalled as Tawus walks to his meeting.

The point is, there is an enormous amount I want to say about this, and I've already gone on for a long time. A very cool world, a neat central character, and some interesting thoughts on progress, technology, change, and the atrocities and personal losses needed for society to advance. Maybe there is no benevolent solution.

4.5 pond ripples out of 5.

The Incarceration of Captain Nebula

Short Story by Mike Resnick

Captain Nebula is a patient in an insane asylum. The story is told through his inner commentary and the notes of his doctor. Apparently a patient mysteriously dropped off in the middle of the night, he has remarkably self-consistent delusions of his life as a superhero secretly protecting Earth, and the evil forces out to get him. His doctor is unable to convince Captain Nebula of reality, and comes to admire his nobility. And then, at the end, we're rather ham-handedly informed that evil has won, and his delusions were all reality.

I like the musing on how we can't be sure of what is real, and the warnings of a real superhero might be impossible to differentiate from the ramblings of a madman. But this ground has already been covered fairly well before, Resnick doesn't offer up a lot of new insights in this hundredth tribute to the pulps of the year. And perhaps more importantly, the story-telling style seems inconsistent and unfair to the reader. We can hear Nebula's internal dialog, which could very well be what a crazy person thinks. We can also read the notes of the doctor and his letters and reports. Fair enough, maybe Nebula is reading them later, or maybe we have an omniscient narrator. But we hear nothing to corroborate Nebula's supposed delusion until the very end, where we are merely informed that it is true, by characters we've never seen evidence of before. Either introduce the reality of the delusion earlier, thus building tension when Nebula can't prove it, or provide some more ambiguous proof, or something at least fair to the reader.

I like the climax to this story, it isn't exactly what I expected, but the revelation afterward seems weirdly unfair. I wished we'd not just suddenly jumped to a perspective that could confirm or deny Nebula's beliefs. It could have been introduced in a way that fit with the types of information we were already privy to. Or it could have been a little bit ambiguous. Or we could have been privy to a wider variety of information before the last paragraph of the story. Either way, I like the climax, but the ending itself is awfully weak.

3 delusional superheros out of 5.

Names For Water

Short Story by Kij Johnson
First Published in Asimov's October/November 2010
Free Audio Reprint from StarshipSofa, January 2011, read by Lizanne Herd

A college engineering student gets a strange phone call. She keeps talking even though no one is there because she is worried and unsure about the future and doesn't really want to go to class. Kij Johnson basically makes a thoughtful SF story out of a meaningless scene and a girl's imagination.

This is a neat little story, especially for how short it is. Not a lot to it, but it is rather nice. The only real SF seems to be from the girl's imagination and/or informed by omniscient narration. Not much here, but it is a little taste of sweetness. Worth the 5 minutes it will take to read.

3 names out of 5 bodies of water.

Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol

Short Story by Ferrett Steinmetz

David is a quiet, abused, unpopular kid just trying to keep his head down and make it through high school. Allie is his best friend/confidant/true-love, and Valencia is the school queen bee. All the characters are bland sneering stereotypes taken to the extreme usually reserved for bad movies. And there is no redeeming camp-value here either. David has to get over his infatuation with the popular girl who abuses him through manipulation but will never date him, and realize his true love was there all along in his female friend. Never seen this before...

The one unusual conceit is that this happens in the future, technology-wise, and in a bizarro universe where the exact opposites of all overused teen movie tropes about cliques and cool kids and whatnot are reversed. It might be funnier if it was the reverse of something that rang a bit true, but it is the reverse of the fictional high school fictional characters like to attend.

The nerds are cool and popular, and abuse the jocks, who still remain a clique despite tragically underfunded sports teams. It feels like something wanted to be said here about public education funding, but it was another missed opportunity as we only learn that things well-funded in real schools are underfunded here, and vice versa. Oh and we gloss over some cruelty-to-clones that you'd think would approach murder charges.

Anyway, the popular girl is a nerd, and the picked on protagonist is a jock. We get into a bit too much detail about her sexy pasty overweight body and his gross six-pack and muscles. Feels overkill, unlikely, and over-harped-on besides. After an implausibly nonsensical robotics lab, Valencia invites David to a science fair with her. Then she kidnaps Allie, chains her up, and puts David in a dungeon to gather data for a reality-tested role playing game.

Lame jokes about Tolkien, D&D, and chainmail bikinis here, nothing new or surprising. And one of the nerds predicts a TPK for David. I find it hard to believe these nerds wouldn't care enough about semantics not to say "total party kill" when referring to a singular person, maybe I'm more anal about these things, but it sure as hell bugged me, and I'd have at least liked to see some nerd with my level of pedantry point it out. Anyway, he saves the girl, and they somehow decide they are going to live happily ever after when they are done with high school in a resolution that makes 0 sense or comic value. It is one thing to end a story about a nerd with "and we'll be happy when they work fast food and I'm Bill Gates." It is another to end a story that way when you are a looked-down-upon underclass with no science education in a super-science world making fun of a brilliant scientist (bitchy queen bee that she is).

Nonsense without being comically nonsensical. Over-the-top but not enough to be funny. A not-very-clever reversal of fake Hollywood reality. A few amusing turns-of-phrase can't save this story from coming across as a drawn-out bad joke.
1.5 Shoggoth-class biohazards out of 5.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Association of the Dead

Short Story by Rahul Kanakia
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read surprisingly well aloud by Kage Baker

Let me explain my comment on Baker's reading. Sumith is a programmer in a high-tech world working on a giant AI project in India; he is our central character. sumith (a.k.a. "Lowercase") is Sumith's reincarnated body, who sometimes acts like a zombie since eating food other than humans makes him "shit bricks." sumith is our other main character. And eventually joining them, we have sumith[?], sumith[!], and others. So I'm impressed by her ability to differentiate the characters. Plus, I love the different emphases she can put on the word "Brainnnssss."

Sumith spends most of the story coding and basically being a victim. But sumith is an EMP-gun totting zombie with utopian ideals, and groupies. Although they both do their part to drastically change the post-singularity world, I think sumith is really the (anti)hero of the piece. He has goals and ideals and amounts to things. Eventually, he repents his initial violence, and Sumith forgives him, but that wasn't the point so much as the exploration of how the world was changed. And maybe some thinking about how different we can be from ourselves, given different experiences.

The world itself is quite interesting. First, I'm amused that there is no difference made between being dead, and having your nanite implants turned off. And this makes the second thing even more important. Everything, including how long you have to be on hold while calling customer service, whether or not your oven works, and how long it takes for packages to arrive in the mail, is based on Karma. Not the metaphysical concept, but how many thumbs up or down you get from people based on your actions online. Social networking is vital to getting anything done. And since you can't rate the dead this way (no nanites to track it), they are irrelevant and can't do anything. Which actually matters, since we can bring people back now.

This was a very amusing comedic story, with a great ending, and more depth and extrapolation than most humor gets around to. The social networking commentary is amusing, and the central concept of how sumith goes about achieving his change is just brilliant and hilarious. Plus the finished AI as the model of bureaucratic idiocy is a nice satiric touch.

Best little tidbit: Cory Doctorow seems to be pretty revered in this world: "Doctorow knows we got a huge backlog; and we've done as He decreed."

4 zombie selves out of 5 keep promises to themselves, unlike the living.

Futures in the Memories Market

Short Story by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker

Itzal is a bodyguard for Geeta, a woman with an exceptional talent for memory and sense perception. Her memories are taken from her by a company that has effectively owned her from childhood, and sold to the public. Everyone but Geeta is allowed to share her memories, but aboard the ship they are strictly regulated, to keep them away from her. The only things she can remember are the boring spots between worlds; only things too boring to sell.

Itzal and Geeta hatch a plan to buy her one of her own memories on the black market, disguised enough to fool her corporate masters. On first reading, this seems like a poetically written futuristic slice-of-life, but when you consider the revelation at the very end, it is definitely worth a second read/listen.

Geeta is exceptionally innocent and happy, which reflects on the tone and poetic imagery. Making the true betrayal and loss and other anger/sadness inducing themes all the more striking for being told through such a happy, uneventful story. The fantastical emp we see a bit of at the end is just so lovely and joyous, it clashes wonderfully with the exceptionally dark surprise (but well foreshadowed) ending. Nearly everything in the story deserves more thought than it initially gets, and a second reading is nearly mandatory. But for all that, it is still a touch boring.

3.5 surprisingly cuddly talking horse-people out of 5.

Between Two Dragons

Short Story by Yoon Ha Lee
Text and audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

Admiral Yen Shenar is the most brilliant tactical mind in Cho, a small empire lying between two larger, fiercer ones (the titular dragons). When Yamat invades, and Feng-Huang is slow to offer help, Admiral Shenar brilliantly pushes back the Yamat forces. But political enemies within the government see to his downfall, and have his memories wiped. He proactively hires a programmer to wipe them first, making sure to preserve his tactical acumen.

This programmer at the Ministry of Virtuous Thought is our storyteller, and she speaks hypothetically to him, giving him the beginning he's missing to his own story. But the military and political intrigue isn't the real story here. It is more about the great sacrifices a brilliant man makes for his country and what sacrifices he won't make, the changes he is willing to make in himself for the greater good, and the unsure future. The ending not only leaves open the outcome of the final battle to ward off the invading space fleet, but Shenar's future. We hope that he'll be able to fight off his political enemies this time, and effect some real change in the country's cruel and unusual abuse of political prisoners. He is the sort of man that plans these things far ahead, but we don't know how successful he can really be.

4 amnesiac military tigers out of 5.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time

Short Story by Catherynne M. Valente
Text and audio at Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

Greek, Aztec, Norse, Japanese, Christian, Apache, and Pacific Northwest Native American mythology are mashed together with quantum physics and molecular biology to form exceedingly poetic bits of science-fictional creation myth. I'll put an excerpt after my rating, because there is no way I can get the feel of these segments across.

They are amusing and funny, inspire deep thoughts, seem to be creating a mythology connecting various old religions to our scientific understanding of our own creation. They throw big words around so much that you almost get the feeling Valente doesn't know what she is doing with them, but on closer inspection, I can't find a single word that doesn't make a deeper poetic/scientific kind of sense.

Unfortunately, like real mythology, they only make a partial kind of sense, drag on far too long, and make it hard for me to finish a story I know I want to get to the end of. And mythology buffs may have trouble with all the slightly non-popular science allusions.

Fortunately for the story, these admittedly delightful mythological segments are tied back together towards the end (in a brilliant way), and are interspersed around a real, very moving, story. Most importantly, they add to this story, rather than merely break it up. It is the story of both how the unnamed SF writer (presumably Valente) views her work, and the world. And also a story of her childhood and her first marriage, divorce, and ultimately, her birth as a writer and who she is today. Take the old "open a vein and bleed" advice about writing to an entirely weirder place.

While it is definitely overlong and probably overdense, the story has an amusing beginning that transitions into a sad/tragic story, that transitions again into an examination of who the narrator really is and how all the events of her life made her who she is today. And that doesn't even summarize it. The ending is more deep and emotional than I'd ever expected. And, as always, I'm amazed by Kate Baker's ability to evoke the sadder feelings and bring additional tears to the eye that a lesser reader wouldn't have been able to reach.

4.5 human hearts out of 5 will one day be fed to the entropy of the universe and/or an Aztec god.

And now, your excerpt:
She gave birth to Quetzalcoatl who was a plume of electrical discharge and Xolotl, who was the evening star called Apoptosis. Her children, the moon and stars, were threatened by impending oxy-photosynthesis, and resolved to kill their mother. When they fell upon her, Coatlicue's body erupted in the fires of glycolysis, which they called Huitzilopochtli. The fiery god tore the moon apart from her mother, throwing her iron-depleted head into the sky and her body into a deep gorge in a mountain, where it lies dismembered forever in hydrothermal vents, swarmed with extremophiles.

Thus began the late heavy bombardment period, when the heavens crumbled to pieces and rained down in a shower of exogenesis.

The Lovely Ugly

Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

This doesn't feel quite like anything I've read before, and that makes it interesting. But it doesn't do as much for me as I'd hoped.

A group of human explorers touch down on an alien planet and set up camp. Told through the eyes of an alien linguist who doesn't quite get humanity, we see them play with and love their dogs and fall too easily for the alien's ruse of being tame and not much smarter than animals themselves.

These are aliens who achieved spaceflight, by the way, pretending to be friendly and only semi-intelligent while at the same time disabling the lander so as to have more time to study us. They even make up a low-vocabulary pidgin language to teach us as if it were their own, lest we learn too much about them from language.

The bat-like aliens are legitimately friendly and joking and have a great love of humor, which adds some humor to the story itself, but their deception eventually goes too far, and while the humans underestimate them, they also overestimate their own understanding of humans. Relations head south when our viewpoint alien crosses a line he doesn't realize can't be uncrossed.

An extremely interesting take on first contact, although the aliens themselves are (necessarily) implausibly mammalian. But that, along with the inclusion of dogs on the space expedition, makes the story work in terms of what insights the two species can have about each other, and how similar-yet-different they can be. The story wouldn't have worked with less mammalian aliens.

The climax is emotional and well-written, and things wrap up with no twists or turns, surprisingly neatly. We aren't cheated of emotional payoff, but neither are we rewarded with any dazzling insights. The reader is left to think about how far ignorance of wrongdoing can be accepted as a defense, and how hard it is to keep working with someone when you can't forgive them.

A very good story, but it didn't move me to calling it great. 3.5 out of 5.

They Laughed at Me in Vienna, and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show Them! I'll Show Them All, I Tell You!

Short Story by Tim McDaniel

As the delightfully long title would tell you, this is a humorous story of a Mad Scientist. From the viewpoint of his daughter, Molly Cule Crawley (terrible pun intended by her father), we see several World Science Conferences, starting in the 50's, and working up to the present day (and beyond!). Every year, Dr. Crawley presents a new, superscience invention, rants in stereotypical fashion all over the stage, and eventually gets laughed off it even as he demonstrates that he isn't quite as ineffectual as he seems.

His mannerisms get tiredly overused by the end of the story, I tell you! But they do add some additional comedy. The central amusement is Professor Crawley's absurd, B-movie mannerisms against the jeering of unimpressed "real" scientists. Although their inability to recognize actual evidence does get rather strained toward the end. It's decently funny, but Crawley's success is a bit too obvious for the joke of no one believing it. This is all addressed by a rather warm ending, but while we haul the sweet old man off to his idea of laboratory heaven, it strikes me that everything would have worked better if his hilarious 50's mad science inventions had been a little less obviously functional to anyone paying attention.

Funny for what it is though. 3 angry scientists out of 5 insist their hunchback is congenital! Congenital I tell you!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Letter from the Emperor

Short Story by Steve Rasnic Tem

Jacob and Anders are an Imperial Recording Team, basically a combination of the Postal Service and the Census Bureau. They collect messages and data, and deliver them. They've been working together for years, all alone, traveling the fringes of a gigantic empire but not seeing anything as exciting as you might think. One day, Anders dies.

He probably killed himself, although we're never 100% sure, and it doesn't really matter. Which is the point. He was depressed, and now he is dead, and Jacob has all kinds of regrets. The freak accident or suicide question doesn't matter much. This is a strong point in the story's favor by page one.

It turns out that besides depression, Anders had also been hiding his aspirations of adventure and friendship from his crewmate. His diary is filled with fictional stories he made up about his and Jacob's fantastic adventures, and their wonderful friendship. In reality, they'd never been particularly close, just work acquaintances. It's an extremely sad, regretful story, and it takes place all around the fringes of the central plot.

With Anders dead, Jacob has to deal with their next planet, and a retiring Colonel who expects a letter from the Emperor that Jacob can't seem to find. The relations with the small outpost planet, ironically named Joy, form the meat of the story, and allow for some interesting exploration of the functioning (or lack thereof) of the empire. Not all that far from the ideas explored in Reed's The Long Retreat, and plenty of other stories I'm sure, but Tem focuses on the internal communication aspects. It makes for an interesting backdrop, but I'm glad there is more to the story. So much more.

Tem manages a huge amount of musing on loneliness, isolation, loss, replacements for things lost (better or worse, never the same), and the utility of telling yourself helpful little lies. The last page or so is absolutely great, with Jacob taking up Anders' writing both as a way of coping, and (to my reading) as an homage to the friend he never bothered to make, but regretfully realizes he should have. Especially impressive for so few words. A simple story that in some ways reminds me of Asimov, with an ocean of emotional and philosophical depth hiding beneath. The poem isn't as good as it could have been, although it reeks nicely of pulp-SF, but otherwise a near-perfect short story.

5 depressive fiction-writing mailmen out of 5.

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Father's Singularity

Short Story by Brenda Cooper
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

Paul's father told him from childhood that he would see the Singularity, never die, and become the next step for humanity. Paul goes off to school, becomes successful, and comes back to realize his Alzheimer's-afflicted father no longer recognizes him.

A sad rumination on how we don't notice our own changes, or those that happen gradually enough. The singularity might be able to sneak up on us that way, but also might not be as big a concept as some would expect, or it might never come. Expectations for the future, or for your own children, aren't always met the way you think they will be.

Beyond that, this is also a story about how father and son talk past each other. Son feels rejected by his father's insistence not to be like him, and his later failure to recognize his own son. At the same time, the father's expectations aren't met, and yet his son still leaves him behind, without even realizing it. Neither understand each other, the future, or themselves. And then there is the less technological definition of singularity. What is it that we emotionally just can't see past? Expectations for the future, or fond memories of home and how things used to be. Both men have clouded judgment based on what they want to believe, rather than reality.

Heartbreaking, but also insightful. And blessedly short, where many stories run on too long with these sorts of themes. We just get enough of a glimpse of the future to get the point.
4.5 imagined singularities out of 5.

Torquing Vacuum

Short Story by Jay Lake

Text and Audio on Clarkesworld

I put this in the same category as Genevieve Valentine's Seeing, a good, exceptionally well-written story that doesn't take us anywhere we haven't all been many times before. Engineering Supervisor Domitian Spanich is a tech on a space station, out in deep space. He is infatuated with a hooker, who one day, despite his being broke, turns to him for help. It turns out the ship Spanich has been working on has more important and dangerous passengers than he knew. And now his probably-unreciprocated love interest has dragged poor Spanich into the whole mess.

Don't get me wrong, this is an interesting story, it's just that I've seen it before. Same with the worldbuilding. There is some great and clever world building in an interesting, nicely cramped-yet-huge feeling world (more details, with spoilers, on this blog, with a very nice post about Lake's technique). But the world, and the mysterious Mistake isn't that fresh. I do want to learn more about it, and I can imagine it exceptionally well, but some of that is because it fits space station tropes I know very well. I might just as well have read a story in this world before, if you take away a big, irrelevant, mysterious event we don't hear anything about besides the name.

But the story does keep me interested, and the world does pull me in, the writing is of excellent quality, so I shouldn't complain too much. The one thing I haven't seen enough of before is that Spanich and his hooker-friend are both men. The reason I didn't mention it until this far into the review, was that it was nice that the main character was gay, while being totally irrelevant to the plot. It wasn't a story about him being gay, or about sex-in-the-future or anything, it was a plot we've seen before, where a character just happened to be gay. The same feel and (rough) plot could have come from a noir story where some 1930s private eye hooks up with some dame he's been after, and it turns out she was using him, to drag him into helping out with problems way over his head. Nothing new, and in a way, that is some of the charm of the story. You would have assumed heteronormality in 1940, but that's the one difference.

Oh, and the climax is a bit weird. It's tense and interesting, but Spanich solves things by basically saying: "Central problem, I hereby declare you Solved!" And then he walks out the door and everything really is resolved. I mean I can imagine this working in that situation, but it is a bit weird.

Another 3.5 out of 5. I'm giving these a lot lately, while trying to review stories others are talking up a lot for Best of Year. I keep thinking they are good and recommendable, but not really interesting enough to be award nomination worthy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Jekyll Island Horror

Novelette by Allen M. Steele

The story is presented as a manuscript by another writer, discovered by Allen Steele while visiting Jekyll Island for a wedding. The story takes place in March, 1934 and is told by the Sol Hess, the valet of a wealthy but struggling pulp magazine publisher, Mr. Russell.

While wintering at the fancy Jekyll Island Club in Georgia, Russell and Hess both enjoy themselves in their own ways, meeting women, and Hess finds time for his ambition to be a pulp SF writer. But one day, a strangely large meteorite is seen falling towards the island, and then things move into traditional Lovecraft story territory.

In that vein, I actually like Steele's style here better than Lovecraft's or Howard's, although it's still a homage to the era. There is a partially explained, implied scientific explanation for events, and the ending is nice and unresolved, but I'm not terribly impressed. Mostly I think it's that I was underwhelmed by the horror itself, and not terribly interested in the first half or so of the story, although by the end I was pretty interested in Hess' life.

The main value of the story is in the possibility that a pulp SF writer left a story as a sort of one-last-joke on his descendants, and the whole thing being within Steele's supposedly true frame narrative adds another layer to our examination of the plausibility of "true stories" told by SF writers. So an interesting conceit, in an average, not bad, not great, story.

3 gentlemens' gentlemen out of 5.


Short Story by Genevieve Valentine
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker

A beautiful story about a girl who is basically drafted into becoming an astronaut, on another dying world with a water shortage (same one?) She's a bit of a screw-up, but she goes into space, and ends up part of the crew on a mission to scout a new planet that humanity can colonize as they try to flee Earth.

It is a strange, gorgeous, falling-apart world these characters inhabit, and between that, the descriptions, and the constant parenthetical commentary/foreshadowing/authorial musing, Valentine takes a rather pedestrian (though emotional) Hard SF Fix-this-shuttle-malfunction story and makes it something worthwhile. Not like anything that was being published when these stories were common (or in Analog).

The characters aren't the most well realized, and the plot is nothing new, but this is still a gorgeous little story with a different background (which does help). It's all in the style here though.
3.5 broken fingers out of 5.

The Language of the Whirlwind

Short Story by Lavie Tidhar
Text and Audio on Clarkesworld, narrated by Kate Baker

A story about religious belief, both some people's need for it, and it's potential futility in the face of real disaster. Tel Aviv (and probably the rest of the world) has been destroyed, when a giant mountain rose in the center of the city, strange whirlwinds came from the sea and killed thousands of people, and a giant black wall trapped the survivors within the decimated metropolis.

Strange, powerful beings I take to be aliens are living on top of the mountain, and our main character, The Priest, thinks they are gods. To explain the devastation to himself, he's created a complicated mythology and is writing a Holy Book. He expects a fireman who was taken by the aliens to return as a prophet and savior, and the Priest has created a small congregation out of the people breeding and eating rats in the wreckage of Tel Aviv.

A constantly whistling little boy follows him, and the Priest thinks the whistling might be the language of the whirlwinds, that the boy might be able to communicate with them, and is protected by them. But after witnessing further horrible events, the Priest is left wondering how it fits into his new religion, why he believes what he does, and why would his gods do what they do?

"I pray for salvation. Yet what sort of salvation could a Fireman bring?"

The story asks a lot of questions, and leaves them all unanswered. Chief among them is "Why?" Why would powerful beings do what they do? Why do we believe what we believe? And all this is backed up by a fairly standard, yet hauntingly described post-apocalyptic setting. Still, I didn't love this story. The characters were poorly explained and generic, even the priest didn't have the depth of crazy I'd have liked. We didn't get to see where his religion came from, and I'm still confused about some factual details of the whirlwinds, things the character observed . The conclusion is dark and haunting, but feels a bit like a trick. We are lead to believe things which aren't true, fair enough, but the heads exploding just sort of took me out of the story. Not bad, and well written, but not enough detail to truly draw me in. Or perhaps just the wrong details. Frankly, the story was a bit boring as well, it felt like it took longer to listen to and read than it did. 3 whistling whirlwinds out of 5.

Unexpected Outcomes

Short Story by Tim Pratt
Read for Escape Pod by Tom “Devo Spice” Rockwell

Tim Pratt and his girlfriend break up when the world comes to an end in 2001. We've all been living in a simulation, and it turns out that it's over. We can't just be turned off for ethical reasons, but there is going to be a "reduction in non-essential services." With no more weather, or other chaotic systems, and the knowledge none of them are real, society starts to break down. A couple of young science fiction authors, better at dealing with this than some, decide to resist the urge to surrender silently.

It's a great end-of-the-world story, with some Matrix themes, but the best part of this is all the metafiction. I've seen some whining about writers having main characters be writers, but the metafictional, autobiographical aspect of this story adds a lot of emotional power, and makes me think about what the me in this other world would be doing. Maybe I'd become friends with Tim Pratt.

Seriously, the author as a main character absolutely makes this story. In some stories it can seem a bit wankish, but it can also be a useful device, as Pratt shows us here. And all the winking little references to real life add some nice humor. I saw this described somewhere as "Chicken Soup for the Post-Apocalyptic Soul", but it is darker and more combative than that would imply. Tim Pratt is not endorsing passive resignation to our fate, even if we are all simulations.

The best part of the story is both Pratt's anger toward the end, and the reader's ability to capture it.

4.5 out of 5 science fiction writers would be leading the resistance in worlds with more science-fictional threats.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wind From a Dying Star

Short Story by David D. Levine
Read for Escape Pod by Meg Westfox

Old John is the last remnant of humanity, in a post-human society where he has left his old body behind and become an energy being. Humans have become a race of hunter-gatherer energy beings, roaming space, feeding on zero-point energy and the like. He hears that Sol is dying soon, and wants to go back for one last visit before he dies. But the tribe may not be able to survive such a journey.

It's an interesting bit of far-future speculation with two memorable characters: Old John and Gunai, the tribe's leader. Their relationship is well realized, as conversations between energy beings go. The conclusion is sad-yet-hopeful-yet-heat-death-of-the-universe-is-coming-anyway. Basically this is "Clan of the Cave Bear"... IN SPACCCEEEEE.

4 energy-wolves out of 5.

A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness

Short Story by Tim Pratt
Read for Escape Pod by Steve Eley

A sentient robot's examination of his marriage to a human woman. He adjusts his programming to make her happier, and in return, maybe he is adjusting her as well.

There is a definite correlation to the need of human couples to compromise and change themselves in subtle ways to make their partners happier, with some dark, robot-war overtones and some hilarious bits of subtle humor. Also, his emo human stepdaughter seems to have caught a "happiness virus". Very convenient.

I love Tim Pratt as always. This isn't his best work, but it is subtle and funny and thoughtful. And Steve Eley's outro bit about "topping from the bottom" made me giggle a bit as well. P.S. not a story for kids.

3.5 out of 5 fathers are less chill than Robopop.

Little M@tch Girl

Short Story by Heather Shaw
Read for Escape Pod by Mur Lafferty

A couple of party girls take drugs and go out every night. One day, Em's father loses his job and his pension, and her college hopes are scuttled. She has to take a low-paying, low class "jacker" job to support her family instead. When she finally get a vacation, she gets back together with her friend, they take some more drugs, and there are terrible consequences this time.

It feels like the story wants to be about class differences, particularly relating to the types of drugs, and the effects of them, as they differ by financial/social class. But really it comes across as just an overly long, weird warning against doing drugs.

For one thing, I'd have liked a bit more resonance with the original Little Match Girl (text on wikisource). But the writing was good, and I have no real complaints other than a general lack of story or depth. 3 out of 5 m@tches are needed to get a good fl@me.


Short Story by Genevieve Valentine
Read for Escape Pod by Mur Lafferty

Sarah and Kay are two (teenage?) girls sparing over a boy, Fortuni. They are all students in a New York City where the world faces a massive water shortage. All water is rationed harshly according to social status, as desalination from the oceans appears to be the only source of water. Houseplants are illegal, to the point that Sarah worries about jail time for bringing one home from a trash can. The U.S. seems even closer to a police state, but the wealthy are allowed to ignore most of the rules.

What seems like a rather plotless teen romance gets more exciting when it seems Fortuni is part of a group of outlaws/"terrorists" intent on bringing back natural rain and the water cycle. The central conflict of the story, beyond jealousy between the two girls, is Sarah's internal conflict as to how far she'll let herself go in Fortuni's direction, and how she'll change her own goals and take more risks to make his dreams of rain come true. Enthusiasm/rebellion are infectious, and that is what I take to be the point of this slice-of-waterless-dystopian life story.

Advection is the transport of substances/particulates/energy/other conserved properties by a fluid via the fluid's bulk motion. Wikipedia says advection in meteorology is the transport of some property of the atmosphere or ocean, such as heat, humidity or salinity; it is important in cloud formation and precipitation. As the title of the story, it literally stands for the changes in climate leading to no natural rain and a water shortage, as well as the meteorology classes Sarah takes. Metaphorically, I read it as the transference of passion/hope/rebellion, from Fortuni to Sarah.

By the end of the story, she is dreaming of his dream to create rain, gathering illegal condensation on her bowl under the bed, and while she hopes he is alive, I suspect her life and career aspirations have shifted to keep his memory and hopes alive, if nothing else. She expands beyond her non-ambition, takes more classes, and has goals for her life she never had before meeting Fortuni.

I still love Mur Lafferty's voice, but her reading of this story is one of the worst I've heard from her. She captures emotion well, and is as dynamic a reader as always, but she stumbles over words many times, and has awkward pauses and loud background noises. I get the impression this was rushed, and she had to do the whole story in one take.

4 thirsty thirsty jade plants out of 5.

God of the Lower Level

Short Story by Charles M. Saplak
Read for Escape Pod by Steve Anderson

A water-treatment plant worker has been keeping a newly sentient tank of bacterial slime on the lower level, he works third shift and just wants someone to talk to at night, but it wonders if he is its god. Fredrick has given it television and internet feeds, a sound card and voice synthesizer, and has been teaching it things. He calls the slime Horatio.

One day Horatio wants to learn more of the world than Fredrick can tell him, and they come into a parent-child sort of conflict. Steve Anderson's voices add a lot to this story, especially his changes in tone based on Horatio's moods.

Nothing outstanding here, it goes pretty much where you'd expect, although the ending surprised me and is much better than the one I'd anticipated, which is worth some bonus points. The narrative device of having the entire story in dialog between Horatio and Fredrick is neat, and works well in places, but feels overly forced in others. Particularly in Fredrick's description of himself, and Horratio's monologging towards the end. Like I said, it is a nice ending, to a funny, if mostly predictable story. Both sad and funny.

Good fun, not too deep, but still a bit better than it seems on the surface, despite the strained dialog at times. The pop culture references are fairly amusing at least. 3.5 out of 5 gods are keep their valves meticulously labeled.

Kachikachi Yama

Short Story by Michael R. Underwood
Read for Escape Pod by Lauren Harris

An extended, stealthy pokémon joke or an oddly generic cyberpunk/samurai tale. Yuriko lives in a future Japan where samurai are back, with all the service to feudal lords and whatnot intact. But due to some modernization, women are now allowed to be samurai warriors, and Yuriko is one of these female samurai. Sadly, her lord doesn't treat her with any respect, demanding she prostitute herself out in the course of an increasingly petty vengeance mission. Having already caused her father's death with similarly dishonorable orders, Yuriko doesn't seem willing to die for her own personal honor.

This is both where the story is, and where I think it fails. First, there isn't much plot-wise. Yuriko seduces the guy her boss wants embarrassed, embarrasses him, and kills him, before even thinking about what she should be doing in the bigger picture. Then we have a much shorter amount of story devoted to wrap-up with the boss, which should have been the main story, since he basically killed her father and is the real villain of the piece.

Second, Yuriko does an amazingly small amount of thinking about honor for how much she claims to be bound by it all the time. Maybe that is the point, that it is fear of death keeping her in line rather than any devotion or honor, and she takes her first escape when she has the chance, but why kill Tanuki then? Especially given how haunted she's supposed to be by previous kills. She shows none of the personal growth it's implied she should be showing, she neither finally understands honor (would probably require her dying at the end, a better story) or finally renounces the whole thing, tells tradition to go to hell, and does what she thinks is right (also a better story). Committing to either resolution would be fine, but the author, like Yuriko, can't seem to figure out which way to go. There is no emotional resolution besides a touch of revenge, and it seems like we're expected to see her growing, but she is still stuck in limbo.

Third, Tanuki's crime is a lot more serious and rape-y than author or any characters seem to be admitting. Sure he embarrassed a lord or whatever, but neither he, nor the lord, nor any of the female characters seem to think about the surprise-sex implications for the helpless wife. I mean I know he isn't supposed to be a good person, but Yuriko doesn't even seem bothered by it (after whoring herself out to him against her will too), and he thinks it is a funny joke. Moral relativity isn't a good defense for this also being a future story with women's rights and trying to make sense to a modern audience. It should at least be addressed, although I think the story would work better with a legitimately more petty affront.

Finally, the real sin of this story: it did nothing for me. It wasn't exciting, it didn't inspire any deep thoughts, suspense, surprise, or emotion at all. I could forget the setting by tomorrow, and it should have been an interesting one. I took Japanese, I'm interested in these things, so how did it lose me? Maybe because I've read real cyberpunk, reducing the novelty value to zero here. OMG he had a computer interface in his neck!!1!

And another thing! Hacking-as-magic got obnoxious by about 1990, that isn't how computers work. I love a good pokémon joke. I was just too annoyed by that point to even laugh.
1.5 out of 5 Magikarp used Splash... but nothing happened.

Trivia: カチカチ山, the title of this story, is the title of a Japanese folktale (translating roughly as "Fire-Crackle Mountain"). You can find an English version here, and read a summary and some modern references on wikipedia.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Horror of the Heights

Short Story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Read for Pseudopod by Alasdair Stuart

This is Alasdair's favorite short story ever, and I can see why our beloved host/narrator decided to read it for us, rather than farming it out to some lackey (or editor). I don't love it as much as he does, and for my money it isn't ever the best of Doyle, but it is a pretty darn good story.

Not so much horror as weird fiction, Horror of the Heights is about an English aviator who wants to set the world height record. He's been defending a crackpot theory about "air jungles" and various carnivorous beasts living up so high that only the highest airplanes reach them. A few pilots have never come back, and one was found... missing his head. He is determined to fly up there with his shotgun, set the new record, and maybe bring back evidence that he isn't such a crackpot afterall. I won't spoil the story, but in the first few sentences, we learn that we're getting this story from his diary, found in a crash with no body...

Published in 1913, we knew a lot less about the upper atmosphere back then, but something about this story still works. A bit slow at times, not bad, but it's more neat idea than great story. 3.5 out of 5 sky-creatures are herbivores. Somehow.

Text of the story is in the public domain, available at wikisource and many other places.
Note: This is part of a Pseudopod 200th anniversary doubleshot, along with Oil of Dog.

Oil of Dog

Short Story by Ambrose Bierce
Read for Pseudopod by Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips does an awesome southern accent for this story, and it absolutely makes it for me. I actually have owned a physical copy for years, in my complete collection of Bierce's short works. I've read the story before, but with Phillips' voice and accent, I can't imagine it any other way. Another example of a great narrator improving an already great story. He really captures the dry, dark humor, which is what it's all about.

And that's about my summary of the story as well, dry, dark, hilarious, horrible, and brilliant. One of Bierce's best, very short works, it's the story of a boy whose mother runs a back alley abortion clinic and whose father makes medicinal oil from local dogs. Humor and social commentary alongside creepy, vivid descriptions of murder and bubbling cauldrons. You can see a lot of foreshadowing and underlying craft in this story that lesser authors would have missed. And the last line is brilliant, both funny and sad/scary for the kid.
5 disagreeable instances of domestic infelicity out of 5.

Note: This is part of a Pseudopod 200th anniversary doubleshot, along with The Horror of the Heights.

The Moon and the Mesa

Short Story by Daniel Braum
Read for Pseudopod by Ben Phillips

A bizarre desert meditation on revenge and forgiveness, blame and acceptance. Both on the small scale of high school bullying, and the gigantic scale of the holocaust. The story isn't plotless, but it is light enough in plot that I can't actually add much to that sentence. Meditation really is the best word. Another one well worth thinking about, but not transcending thoughts you've probably already had with more complex stories. I'd compare this strongly with Set Down This, although I think that is a stronger story as it has a bit more nuance. Still not bad.

3 ancient scorpion spirits out of 5.

Papa Was a Gypsy

Short Story by Shannon Celebi
Another Pseudopod 'cast featuring Ben Phillips' Southern accent!

Elma is a black girl working as a nurse/servant for an old white man in the 1920's (or so) South. Mr. Haggle is bedridden and mute since a stroke, but he still laughs and pees on Elma. Mrs. Haggle beats her, and their son regularly rapes her. To top it all off, Elma is haunted by the ghost of her mother. This is the story of how she finally has had enough and snaps. Also how she uncovers a whole bunch of family secrets.

You're never really sure how in-control Elma really is, until the end, but you can vaguely feel her slipping, especially any of her thoughts involving power. I like all the ghosts, and the seeming ghostly chain-reaction, set off by Mama at the beginning, where Elma is increasingly more and more haunted. You really get a feel for everything spiraling out of control. Which is why I'm so disappointed by the supernatural ending. Don't get me wrong, Celebi has created a great (if hard to understand motivationally) villain by the end of the story, and the smaller ghost and charm level supernatural elements were entirely necessary. But why not leave it at that, with the possibility of interpreting the whole things as psychosis + superstition, rather than firmly committing to the supernatural?

That said, the ending is actually pretty good, Elma's emotions are perfectly described, you really feel for her, and the final line about love is great. Overall, Elma is an extremely well-drawn character, and the Southern Gothic setting is pretty well done too. I just wish we'd learned a bit more about Regina. 4 jars of blood-preserves out of 5.

About 77 Degrees, West of Nassau

By Don Norum

Modern-day pirates throw a man overboard from his yacht and he tries to survive. It takes him a bit longer to come to the obvious conclusion, but he eventually does, and the writing is gristly and dark. Sort of a modern nautical-noir. Nothing too exciting about the plot, characters, setting, or writing, but it is all done well enough. 3 out of 5.

Wearing the Dead

Short Story by Alan Smale

Trevor is a kid taking care of the ghost of his dog while befriending a former gang, Robbie, member hiding out with his emotionally distant mother. Neither mother nor son has coped well with the death of the father, or the subsequent death of the family dog, Trixie. Trixie haunts them, but only Trevor can see her. This is really a story about Trevor's attempts to grow up and have some agency in his life, and his partial failure to do so. A sort of failed-coming-of-age tale.

Robbie in a good replacement father-figure, seemingly a better parent than Trevor's Mom by a long shot. He tries to teach Trevor to stand up for himself against the bullies and understand and atone for his part in Trixie's death. Tragically, Trevor can only act by hoping for the help of others, he doesn't seem to get the concept of doing things for himself. His mom doesn't help things any, but Trevor's cluelessness makes things worse for everyone. Particularly in the conclusion to the story, where whether Trevor is delusional about the dog or not, he certainly makes things worse for himself and his mother's relationship either way. I like to think he is crazy though, it makes for a more tragic and interesting reading.

3.5 ghost dogs out of 5.

Set Down This

Short Story by Lavie Tidhar
Read for PseudoPod by Elan Ressel

A man watches Youtube videos of war on his brother's computer. His brother seems to enjoy watching a lot of explosions and people dying and some bits of toilet humor. As he watches, he makes up little stories about two of the random people in the videos. A poor Iraqi man who gets killed, and an American soldier who says "Dude," in the background. The more he thinks about the fictional people he imagines these two to be, the more they sort of haunt him.

This is a modern, almost entirely plotless story. There isn't much narrative beyond watching of the videos, it is all in the internal dialog and how our point-of-view character thinks about the war and violence. An interesting aspect is that our main character seems to see what big balls of shit we create for ourselves (to steal his dung beetle metaphor), while his non-present brother just enjoys watching violence as much as funny videos.

The story here is essentially all social commentary about enjoyment of watching violence, not just how we're desensitized, but how we don't connect with the human beings in these sorts of videos. I think the narrator is sort of snapping towards the end, and the implication is that that might be the correct response to witnessing these sorts of things. The horror of the story lies in why we don't. This will only fit some people's loose definitions of horror, but I'm okay with it, and quite glad PseudoPod took this risk. That said, the dung beetle doesn't do enough for me, and there just really isn't enough to this, despite how much it makes you think, it isn't really more than some other, more interesting stories might. 3.5 out of 5.


Short Story by Camille Alexa
Read for PseudoPod by Claudia Smith

Hansel and Gretel are drug-addicted teenagers in a rehab clinic. They fall in love over a couple hits of acid, save up pills for a bribe, and make their escape. Of course, then they become lost in the woods and stumble on a strange cottage with an old woman in it. The rest of the story is pretty much the same as you'd expect.

There are two main changes from the fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel as teenagers in love rather than siblings, and the running theme of drug addiction. Other than that, the kids are actually starving, rather than greedy, and the witch is a lot more sinister and obvious, daily eating little strips of skin and body parts, rather than being just implied to want to eat them. I'm not sure that the love adds much, just that Gretel tends to be self-sacrificing to save Hansel because he thinks she is beautiful. The teenage love is intense and irrational and maybe sweet for some readers, but I don't believe it improves the story over the original.

The drug theme, on the other hand, is the only important innovation over the traditional story. It does change things, and as the only change besides description, I think the success of the story hangs on this. Being lost in the woods is a metaphor for addiction, made all the more clear by the witch deliberately getting the kids addicted to a strange, powerful opium-like drug. The orderlies watching TV all day, taking bribes, and tacitly encouraging the kids not to take their medication (so they can sell it back to the orderlies as bribes) is an interesting replacement for the trail of breadcrumbs. What should have been a way out of addiction disappears without the kids even realizing it, by self-interested orderlies rather than forest creatures. The kids are finally able to find their way back to the road when they throw away the witch's opium pipes during their escape, completing the metaphor.

The witch herself is an interesting creation in this version. She apparently feeds on escaped kids from the rehab clinic, but laments how much harder she has it compared to the good old days when it was a hospital for morphine-addicted civil war soldiers. She's definitely a supernatural entity, I suppose the door is left open for most of the witchy details being part of some kind of drug trip, but I prefer a more literal reading. It is surprising that more isn't done with the effects of her magic drug though, and how that alters the perceptions of the kids.

Gretel makes a nice journey, overcoming both her various addictions (better when fighting a witch than with a bunch of uncaring, corrupt orderlies) and her fear and lack of action. She starts off compliantly going along with the witch, then subtly defying her for the sake of Hansel, and eventually taking action to save both of them. A real bit of personal growth there, with self-sacrifice and inner-beauty and all that. I think Hansel might be brain damaged though, he just repeats "You're beautiful," over and over for the whole story.

To summarize: Gretel is a good character who changes over the course of the story, the witch is a terrifying supernatural creature who also facilitates drug addiction to keep her victims in line, and the whole story is one big modern addiction metaphor. Some descriptions are a bit overkill, and I'd like to have seen a bit more than the basic simplicity of the original, but I liked this one well enough. 3.5 opium witches out of 5.

The Dark Level

Short Story by John F.D. Taff

A very effective horror story about man's search for a parking space. And once he gets there, his search for the elevator. A parking garage is one of the few remaining dark and creepy places we encounter in everyday modern life, and it is nice to have a story set in one. I had a few problems with this story in retrospect, but I want to emphasize how effective it was. This was one of the more scary and suspenseful PseudoPods and it kept me up listening to it late at night when I was fully expecting to fall asleep and listen again in the morning. And it actually had me nervous and jumpy while listening to it.

On a second listen, however, it loses some of this. The scream Jim doesn't hear, but we are informed of by narration when he first sees the garage is right out of an 80's campy horror film, gives away that it is bad a bit too early (we know we're reading a horror story, but I like to not be so sure about it), but it also just seems like we get some vital hint the character doesn't. It was kind of obnoxious and the whole story would be better to just cut that line.

Once Jim is in a garage, he hears noises which creeped me out on first listen, but remain unexplained, and now that I know what the horror was, don't make any damn sense. I like some element of the unexplained in my horror, rather than explaining everything away, but when you have a very clear definition by the end of what was going on in the parking garage, I would like the completely unexplained non-sensical but scary noises to get some explanation. Because the one we have not only doesn't account for them, but seems to preclude my default assumption.

Third, the metaphors chosen to describe things spell it all out a little too well, a little too early. Dark, creepy metaphors are good, but not ones that give away the whole story by choice of idioms. That said, the central concept is good, if not totally unique, and the ending is just great. This one has style and atmosphere, but I'd advise against thinking too hard about it, or you might find the story crumbling away like a partially digested business suit.

2.5 unsafe parking spaces out of 5.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ankor Sabat

Short Story by C. Deskin Rink

This is Rink's first published story, and a PseudoPod Original. By my count, two more stories have since been published, both horror. This one is technically a Cthulhu mythos story centered on Tsathoggua, and in the style of his creator: Clark Ashton Smith. But honestly the only Tsathoggua we get is by way of a high priest and what a particular cyclopean temple was built in honor of. So you could sub in any dark god you want, really.

I saw a lot of hate for this story over on the PseudoPod forums, but I quite liked it. It was a bit slow getting started, and a tad confusing at first, but once we have our hero on his quest, it moves along pretty well. The meat of the story is Lord Galen's attempt to rescue his TrueLove™ from the evil priest, and to play the game the priest challenges him to. And this is absolutely the best thing about this story.

Although I've seen some criticizing this as generic horrific heroic fantasy, I beg to differ. There is an actual point, with themes and all that, rather than just some sap running off and having terrifying but meaningless adventures before dying or whatever the standard is. My favorite bit of resonance, is how we tend to put our loved ones "up on a pedestal" and imagine they are perfect. This story addresses that in two ways: both the tendency to remember the past fondly and forget all negatives of past romances, and in the present tense, to put a love up on a pedestal where they could never achieve that level of perfection if you were to look at them with unbiased eyes. Either way we can be sorely disappointed if we examine our past or present loves too closely while remembering only our ideal image, not what attracted us in the first place.

That said, although I liked the story at heart, want to defend it from attackers, and will certainly be looking out for more stories from Rink, I know I'm looking at my idealized version that ended about two minutes earlier. When I take this story down off the pedestal and inspect her, I remember that the end completely ruined it for me. A nice, thoughtful ending was all set up, and then we had to flash back to a long speech explaining everything to the point where it not only feels disrespectful to the intelligence of the reader, but actively detracts from the thematic internal dialogue I was having. It isn't just a case of Bondvillianitis, but the author going in to pound one last nail into the poor horse's coffin, missing, and smashing a hammer right through the rather pretty looking box. The story is shallower, and oddly less sinister, for the sinister, explanatory ending. (To be fair, Lovecraft and pals were often guilty of this, so it nailed the writing style...)

2.5 out of 5 of my carnal and gastronomical desires have been satisfied by this story.

Wolves Till the World Goes Down

Short Story by Greg van Eekhout

This story inspired van Eekhout's Norse Code, where he expands on some of the ideas from this story at novel length. I'm hoping to actually buy it soon, and I will then try to review it here. It looks like everything I wished American Gods had been, and I've been impressed with van Eekhout a few times this year.

Munin and Hugin fly over Southern California, preparing a pre-Ragnarok report for Odin (including windchill statistics from CNN). As the end of the world approaches, they meet Baldr and Hod, who ask the ravens to tell them a story. They tell about Vidar and Vali's plot to free Fenrir, so as to bring about Ragnarok sooner (Vidar and Vali are prophesied to survive Ragnarok, while most of the other gods die, leaving some of the younger ones to pick up the pieces.)

While this story-within-the-story gets us started with the themes of predestination, free will, and whether or not the gods are really puppets to destiny, or if they can effect their own change, the story takes off in a much more serious and emotional direction. Hugin's decision at the end is what absolutely makes this one for me, and I did love it. Possibly my favorite PodCastle of the year, this is funny, thoughtful, moving, and oddly hopeful for a story about the end-of-days. 4.5 ravens out of 5.

And the Blood of Dead Gods Shall Mark the Score

Short Story by Gary Kloster

Woody is a transsexual ex-thief turned tattoo artist who can't afford to biologically become a man, but wants to. When former controlling lover, Huck, comes back to L.A. and his life, Woody is dragged back to the criminal world she'd escaped. Woody has a special ability to sniff out the blood of gods, and the new score is the blood of Ungud, the aboriginal god of snakes and rainbows and desire, a god who could be male or female, depending on its want. Woody wants to become male, Huck wants to get revenge on their old partner Nikolai.

They plan and execute their heist and then everything goes completely to hell, as expected. There is a neat dynamic of both Nikolai and Huck using Woody and trying to control him as part of their rivalry, while Woody just wants to be left alone and not used as part of a scoring system. Eventually Woody is forced to choose which ex-partner-in-crime hurt him worse, and they both seem such asshole, I really don't know how he chose. I think I might have gone the other way, but then again, it would have been nice to just off both of them. I don't really like the ending, but it is open enough not to really kill things for me.

Woody is a great character, grabbing freedom by creating chaos that others can't deal with as well. My problem with the end is that I think Huck doesn't deserve that kind of redemption, but it could just be that Woody is such a strong point of view character, and Ms. Ellis has such appropriate voices for the characters, that all my sympathy goes to Woody and none to Huck, whom he resents. Or maybe Woody still has dependency issues to get over. Either way, the plot is nothing special, and all the characters besides Woody are generic assholes, but Woody is a great character, the setting is interesting, and the concept of making tattoos out of god blood which varies by which god it came from is interesting. Oh, and it was pretty well written too. 3.5 frat-boy tribal tattoos out of 5.

The Alchemist's Feather

Short Story by Erin Cashier
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, free online.

Alrun is a wooden puppet, brought to life and used as a familiar by a sinister alchemist. Under pressure from the King, the Alchemist has been experimenting on Alrun and various little girls like poor half-starved Maria. He routinely makes Alrun forget awful things he has him do, but as the little puppet falls in love with the girl, Alrun decides he needs to help save her from death-by-experiment and help himself remember. If only he could muster the willpower to disobey his master.

A heart-breaking/warming tale of child abuse and the necessity of ignoring orders and setting yourself free from your own psychological torment. Although it was successfully tear-jerking, this story was a bit too obvious and you could pretty much see where it was going from page one. It was well written, but not enough depth, and hardly original ground.
3.5 ornithology based STD cures out of 5.

California King

Short Story by Michael Jasper and Greg van Eekhout
Originally published in Asimov's April/May 2005

The people of California watch their king confront his magical nemesis: his father. It's hard to tell how far apart this world is from modern day California. The king rides a Greyhound bus, fights mutants with his magical tattoos, and California is a desolate wasteland. So 2 out of 3 true to life.

The King is basically a superhero who tries to help the people of California in small ways, helping immigrants and abused women and whatnot. He mostly fails to ever change anything, but makes a valiant effort at it, and does do some good. But then his father wants to take back power and see The King deposed, so he sets an elaborate trap which has very little actual trap-ness to it, as is the way of super villains. And then shit gets interesting and magical. You get the impression his father did a whole lot less ripping out tongues of rapists and whatnot.

This is a weird, sort of surreal story where you're never really sure who has what sort or amount of power or what is really going on with all the machinations about things we don't understand. But the point is that the King wants to protect his people, and that the people need to stand up and take action for themselves too, rather than relying entirely on some superpowered regent. 3.5 out of 5 royals would like to trade themesongs with the California King.

The Behold of the Eye

Novelette by Hal Duncan
Read for PodCastle by MarBelle
Originally published in Lone Star Stories, free online

Flashjack is a fairy, and like all fairies, lives inside the magical part of the eye/brain that holds onto significant memories. Through his eyes, we see a young, gay kid grow up, from infancy to being picked on at school, to more traumatic events later in life. Young Toby starts out as a happily imaginative, bookish nerd but his life takes some turns for the worse, and behind the melodrama of general teenage angst, we get a poignant depiction of suicidal depression and self-loathing in a vivid fantasy whose telling grows increasingly darker, angrier, and sadder.

It is a brilliant concept, wording, and story that evokes some very raw emotions, but the 1700 word epilogue kills a bit of my enjoyment. Not that coming-to-terms-with-one's-sexuality wasn't a minor theme of the story anyway, but it really could have been left as a loose end. The epilogue ends with a mostly but not entirely happy resolution, which is far less moving than it would have been if Duncan had just ended it earlier. Especially since an entirely new (undeveloped) character was added to help resolve this.

The real climax of the story, and to me, the real point of the story, was Toby's depression, self-loathing, and inability to see anything worth living for. The climax wraps this primary thread up in an extremely poignant fashion. It makes a lot of sense, is exceptionally relatable, and ties up the whole theme of the story. A "semi-happily ever after" wouldn't have added anything on the end, but I could see it being okay. But instead we have another short story worth of epilogue dealing with a whole different issue that was at best a root-cause and sub-theme of the earlier story. A tad more of the world is built up here, but I honestly wasn't looking for that, and I don't know that the questions left after the real ending are anything but weaker versions of the questions that would have been left with the pre-epilogue ending.

Still the last part isn't awful, it just drags things out to expand on and tie up threads better left untied. But the majority of the story is great, focused, and just plain neat to read for something so emotional.
4.5 monstrous teddy bears out of 5.


Short Story by Ramsey Shehadeh
Read for PodCastle by Norm Sherman
Originally published in Weird Tales (Text Online)

An amusing and dark post-apocalyptic story about a girl and her amorphous blob monster told in a sort of children's-book style. There is a dry humor to the whole thing, some amusingly named fantasy animals, and a dystopian police force. The plot and world are much darker than the narration style would indicate, and this difference makes for a much better story. Still, not all that much happens, imagery and humorous description only go so far, although the story is nicely dark.

3.5 bulbous ballerinas out of 5.

Biographical Notes to “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Novelette by Benjamin Rosenbaum.
Read for PodCastle by Graeme Dunlop

Originally published in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories
2005 Hugo Nominee

The Goats are Going Places

Short Story by Tina Connolly

A teenage girl moves in with her aunt and starts at a new junior high school. She quickly integrates into a social group, and pursues a boy for social advantage. She does such a good impression of Mean Girls that her witch of an aunt decides to teach her a lesson and gain a little respect. Unfortunately for our protagonist, I didn't mean "witch" idiomatically.

A story about teenage girls, for teenage girls, the lesson learned at the end was a bit heavy-handed although it was believable. There is plenty to enjoy here even if you aren't a teenage girl, but it isn't subtle, and there really isn't that much plot to work through. This isn't nearly as good as Connolly's Turning the Apples in Pseudopod, but I may well be nominating that for best of the year over there, so it's sort of a high standard to set. 3 out of 5 goat costumes are more real than you'd think.