Monday, February 28, 2011

Asimov's January 2011

Short Pieces markedly better than long ones.
Killer Advice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: 2

Two Thieves by Chris Beckett: 1.5

Short Stories:
Interloper by Ian McHugh: 3.5
Ashes on the Water by Gwendolyn Clare: 3.5
Dolly by Elizabeth Bear: 3
Visitors by Steve Rasnic Tem: 2

And two poems, rising as high as "meh"+ and sinking as low as "meh"-.

Ian McHugh's "Interloper" is far and away the standout story of the issue. I didn't blow me away, but it was the most exciting, most interesting, and probably second most thoughtful.

"Ashes on the Water" by Gwendolyn Clare was a very short, heartwarming tale of mourning in water-scarcity future India.

Elizabeth Bear's "Dolly" is the only other story I enjoyed, being an Asimov Detectives-And-Robots homage. It's funny and philosophical, but ultimately feels too familiar. Still, this is probably the most thought provoking story, and while I didn't love it, it is still worth reading.

I actively disliked all the other stories, which were much longer, making this issue a waste in terms of pagecount. Read the three short stories in the bookstore, or from a subscribing friend, or when they get anthologized later.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ashes on the Water

Short Story by Gwendolyn Clare

A young woman mourns the death of her sister in a water-scarce India where every river is guarded by men with guns and razorwire. The desert is encroaching on what was once verdant farmland. But she wants to scatter her sister's ashes into the river so they can float down to the sea, as is tradition. The caper becomes complicated, and eventually comes to the solution I'd guessed at from the beginning, before our character decided to take a quicker but more dangerous option.

Not an exciting story, but concise enough that it doesn't drain the reader. Clare does an excellent job of fleshing out this future India in so few pages, and the narrator grows from the experience, finding purpose for her life and no longer wanting to spend it chasing after her sister. At first, I thought her plans at the end seemed rather obvious, but I realized that the point isn't that these were astounding ideas, but that she finally had enough hope for the future to plan for it. Direction in life and hope create a positive feedback loop, once she was done mourning. Sweet, simple story.

3.5 out of 5.


Short Story by Ian McHugh
Text available free online.

Barnstable's circus act travels through a post-apocalyptic Australia, owned by big mining companies and decimated by "Interlopers": strange creatures that bleed through from another dimension, possess people, and spread like a plague. The circus is really a circus, but also acts as a cover for Barnstable and his crew to find people vulnerable to being used by Interlopers to open the way into our world. These people are shipped off to a government-run facility and no one thinks about it much until it turns out one of the Candidates is the strongman's child.

A fast paced, short piece where McHugh rapidly builds up a world and an elaborate system of defending that world against an extra-dimensional threat. Exciting but also thoughtful. Well worth the time, although the ending seems more sentimental than is reasonable and the first page or so is muddled with all the character and world introducing going on.

3.5 out of 5.


Short Story by Steve Rasnic Tem

The most bland, boring one-word title in an issue full of bland one-or-two-word titles. There is only one title I like in this issue, but this is perhaps the most accurate: it precedes an awfully bland, boring story.

Two parents go to visit their son in cryosleep. Then they talk to him and leave. The only suspense is wondering when an obnoxious woman on the bus will shut up, why exactly the son is in cryosleep, which we aren't told until well into the story, despite the parents obviously knowing, and what obscure rules they worry they might be breaking. Basically the only drama is artificial or irrelevant.

The conversation could have been more interesting but it ends up just coming across as bland to me. The musing on parental advice is likewise old hat. And the whole thing is too long on top of all that boring.

The central idea isn't original, but the way the mother deals with it toward the end is both interesting and sweet. I just wish we'd been allowed to know what rules she worried she was breaking, so we could stop wondering about that and pay more attention to the way she bent them. It is hard to have a clever circumvention of the rules seem clever when you don't tell the reader the rules you got around until the last page.

2 out of 5 cryogenically frozen kids dream of wasting their time in more exciting ways.


Short Story by Elizabeth Bear

Roz is a detective in a futuristic police procedural with a fair tip o' the hat to Asimov, and a light amusing yet noir-ish style. Joking-Asimov meets Caves-of-Steel Asimov meets Raymond Chandler. With a faint touch of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Bear's narration here is interesting, several lines made me chuckle just a bit and several others were sort of sardonically poetic. The opening line itself is great, but also threw me off a bit as it doesn't match well with the rest of the story. The first sentence or two are from a different point of view than Roz's third person limited which the rest of the story is told from. I liked the line, but I'm not sure I like it enough for an abrupt viewpoint switch on page one.

I'm also impressed that Bear managed to use pulchritudinousness although it strikes me as weird for the character who says it, and there mostly to have one big word in the story. I don't think "le mot juste" when I see it here, which is generally what you save big obscure words for.

Also, a minor advance in cost efficiency of PCR is hardly the Nature headline I'd expect to be a point of interesting discussion in a world with robotic sex slaves, autopilot cars, and DNA reconstruction of suspects' appearance. It's downright jarring to see an advance that could be published in next month's Nature being used as an indicator of intelligence in this far future. Over-conservative technological advancement predictions are taken to a whole new level with that one.

But I shouldn't spend quite so much time complaining about one-line complaints for a story that held my interest overall. Roz is a well-rounded, complex female detective, avoiding both the standard female-cop tropes and the classic noir-detective trope with a girl's name. She has her own sexbot at home, complicating the moral dilemmas she has to deal with at work. And the very fact that she is a woman improves the story, since we start with the initial theme of men abusing their sexbots, and how smart do they have to get for that to stop being okay? It makes the argument more about sentience and less about gender, which is a good decision for this story, at this time in history.

The ground this covers is nothing new, but it is a take on some things I haven't seen presented quite this way before. The line between thing and person is explored through the line between murder weapon, victim, witness, and murderer. And the nice touch is that Bear's story points out, rightly, that it doesn't so much matter what the correct answer is. More important is how legal precedent, popular opinion in a jury, and profit-motivated corporate lobbying can twist the outcome and fate of everyone involved. This one held my interest all the way through, despite a few hiccups. But despite the good writing, it's too familiar to be memorable.

3 billionaire industrialists out of 5 get killed in the sort of room you hire someone else to clean.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Poetry Roundup: Asimov's January 2011

Five Pounds of Sunlight by Geoffrey A. Landis

Kittens are nice and like sunlight in several ways. An interesting comparison, but entirely based on being cutesy.

Retired Spaceman by G.O. Clark

Some nice rhythm in this melancholy bit about a kid who loved space, tried hard to be an astronaut, and looks back from old age regretting his failure to become part of the future he dreamed of. Best of issue, but not great.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Killer Advice

Novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Far too many characters arrive on a space station after their ship has caught fire and three passengers have been murdered. Then there is another murder on the station, and the prissy hotel manager and drunken station doctor team up with one of the ship's crew to solve the murder.

Not really the Agatha Christie bottled up murder mystery we're set up for. The reader has no information to help with the actual solution until the last two pages, and neither do any of the characters. The characters themselves are mostly broad types, although the central two are a bit more interesting. Viewpoints shift among a large number of characters throughout, which is interesting in that Rusch shows us that other people don't see certain characters the way they see themselves.

But most of the characters are barely fleshed out, all the viewpoints make us fairly certain none of those characters did it, leaving a whole mess of others we don't know or care anything about as the only suspects. We have almost no information on any of the passengers that aren't viewpoints at one time or another, so we can't really suspect or not-suspect them, or indeed care about them at all. Combined with not really caring about the viewpoint characters either, and the relatively nonviolent method of death, I didn't experience the least suspense while reading, and bordered on losing even my curiosity as to who dunnit or why.

It is a mystery whose specifics could only have happened on a spaceship or station, although, as with all things, the broader motives and situations are timeless. So I did find the SF justified, just not the length the story took without any clues or suspense. The very end was cute, with the fate of our central crewmember, hotelier, and beautiful, drunken lady-doctor, but it doesn't make the time spent worthwhile in my opinion.

I didn't see the ending coming! But then again, I couldn't possibly have, and I didn't really care to by the time we finally got there. Still, the writing moved along fast enough, there were traces of humor in the narration, and there was the one interesting character. So not a total loss.

2 out of 5 nuggets of murder advice are actually useful.

Two Thieves

Novelette by Chris Beckett

The titular two thieves, Pennyworth and Shoe are sent to Australia Last Resort, a penal colony where they get a decent, if boring, life and manage to get on the cushiest work detail. A bit of worldbuilding implies a sufficiently advanced society has fallen to become the lower-tech one we see in the story, but the technology justification actually makes less sense than magic to me here.

Anyway, they discover a bottomless pit of nothingness, blindly jump through it despite radiation and possible death good thing it turns out to have been a portal that still functions. The pair find some riches, and supposedly halfway learn a lesson about greed, although general prudence would be a step up.

These two imbeciles are so aggressively stupid and irrational it makes it impossible for me to sympathize. Part of it is that I can rarely sympathize properly with characters who are too dumb to live, and part is that this sort of behavior seems like it would be hard for them to be effective thieves. It seems at times like this wants to be comedic, which would forgive some of the above commentary (well not quite here, but it conceivably could), but the problem is it just isn't funny. I mean I'd have trouble accepting this plot as a comic plot too, but there seemed very little humor, besides one bit about anal gem smuggling. And it tries far too hard to drive the moral of the story home.

Finally, I couldn't stand the writing. It almost wanted to make me go back and look at some of Beckett's other stuff to see whether this was experimental. It hasn't ever leapt out at me before, so I think it was something different about his writing in this story. But it was just annoying this time around. Beyond the abundance of telling and minimal showing, there are lots of little long-winded asides in the narration. I get the impression they are supposed to be clever but they come across as cutesy and obnoxious. He may be trying to do Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or something, but this pair have none of the charm or cunning and Beckett's writing has none of the wit or pacing. I'm growing rather sick of pulp tributes in Asimov's, but I'm not docking points for it yet...

1.5 thieves out of 5, or 0.6 out of 2.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tying Knots

Short Story by Ken Liu
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

Soe-bo is an elder in an isolated Burmese village atop a mountain. They are subsistence farmers having a difficult time surviving due to increased droughts (climate change-related). Tom is a biotech researcher visiting from Boston, he sifts through ancient cultures for medicines and ideas.

A beautifully written, complexly political bit of present-day SF. Great scenery and ideas, exploration of other culture, and a lot to think about. And he gets the science right.
4.5 knot-books out of 5.


Tom is impressed by Soe-bo's ability to see how knots will change the shape of rope, developed because of the village's knot-based written records in place of writing as we usually think of it. The fictional system here is based on a few different ancient cultures. Anyway, Tom wants Soe-bo to help him with protein folding, which is more complicated than you'd think. An early part of the story that impressed my was Liu's explanation of the problems of computer modeling and protein folding. The science is very good in this present-day Science Fiction (in the fiction-about-science sense).

The story switches between the two men's viewpoints, characterizing each of them well, so you can see everyone's motivation and rationality. Events take a couple of surprising turns and lead to an ending that some will see coming (cynicism dependent), but doesn't reduce the impact any less. Initially a heart-warming story of cooperation and problem-solving, the story ends leaving me feeling both furious and sad (in a good way). This is a much more reasonable, measured, yet scathing take on some complex political issues than most stories addressing them tend to be. And some of these issues are tragically undernoticed.

Copyright and intellectual property, cultural invasion, exploitation, this is a story that could have happened today and just hasn't been leaked yet. Not so much near-future SF as present-day. Most significantly, the story takes a reasonable view of both the positives and negatives of genetically modified crops. None of the anti-science alarmism common to certain political extremes, but neither the blind defense of corporations unable to differentiate between helping people profitably and exploiting them. Overall, a suitably complex discussion of a number of important issues, told through the stories of an "illiterate peasant" and a clueless/self-deluding asshole of a scientist.


Novelette by Yoon Ha Lee
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

This is superficially a space opera or military SF story, but it bears almost no deeper resemblance to such things.

Cadet Fai Guen, a.k.a. Lisse of Rhaion is from a world conquered by a galactic empire with hugely excessive force, wiping out roughly 1/3 of her planet's population. She has joined up with them, and then deserted to steal a powerful ship known as a kite.

With a ghost as her co pilot, she effectively rampages through the empire, planning on eventually being killed, but taking as many Imperial bases as she can with her. But when someone catches up with her, the confrontation doesn't go exactly as she'd planned, and several huge secrets are revealed. Nothing really works the way she thought it does, and we're left wondering how Lisse will deal with these new resolutions.

Tons to think about regarding the nature of revenge and war in general, the value of human life, collateral damage, and the old theme of shifting morality until you become identical to those you oppose.

Lee has a delightful and weird poetry to her descriptions in this story. Some are more literal, like the paper folding comparisons, but starfighters as kites, who open like flowers and similar descriptions impart a wonderful, natural strangeness not normally found in space opera. In fact, a lot of the description and prose in general reminds me of the language you see in fantasy, which makes it all the more interesting when it's in a space ship.

Deeper by far than most stories about war in space, with more interesting world-building, better description, better writing in general, and significantly deeper, more complex ideas.
4.5 out of 5, but only one candle.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

To Follow the Waves

Short Story by Amal El-Mohtar.
Read for PodCastle by Marguerite Croft

This is an okay story, but I'm not sure I agree with the insistence that it counts as steampunk. I'll try to judge it simply as a story, but I would like to make a larger post on this later. Maybe I can find time next month or so for a steampunk fortnight of reviews.

I just want to say in this post though, that it is tough for me not to be annoyed. The author and the editorial introduction both try a bit too hard to insist that this is steampunk. There is a steam automaton in the background of one scene that is irrelevant to the story. That is the ENTIRE SUM OF TECHNOLOGY in the story. They argue that "steampunk things are happening in other parts of the world" but I can't believe that matters. Just as stories which might as well take place at the grocery store do not become Science Fiction if you declare that said grocery store is located on a space station. It takes more than hydroponic tomatoes to make science fiction. And however we want to define steampunk, I think that it takes some amount of "steam" (a.k.a. anachronisticly advanced microprocessor-free technology) elements. (Punk is an altogether trickier subject, the term itself is widely abused.)

While cyberpunk is a sub-genre of attitude and philosophy as well as aesthetic, steampunk seems to be entirely about setting. Much like definitions of planets must either exclude Pluto, include far too many things to be useful, or be applied unevenly, a useful and fairly applied definition of steampunk must exclude some border cases. It seems unhelpful to classify anything with a zeppelin or a tophat somewhere in the story as steampunk. No technology is relevant or central to this story, all the elements work by plain and simple magic. I agree that steampunk need not be confined to Victorian England, but you can't just set something in the 1800s and declare it steampunk by theoretical (irrelevant) time period alone. And if we want to talk feelings, this story has a very magical, standard-fantasy feel. It has a lot in common with Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela, from a setting and feeling point of view, although that even feels more "punk" to me than this story.


Anyway, this is a kind of dull story about a girl who grows up as a jeweler who can MAGICALLY carve dreams into crystals, causing people to experience her crafted dreams at night. One day, she sees a girl with unusual, rebellious hair at a cafe, stares awkwardly at her for a minute, and then becomes weirdly obsessed with her. All the dreams she crafts seem to be about this girl she saw once. Crush leads to obsession here. Eventually all this obsessing has a very MAGICAL effect on the other girl, which brings the climatic confrontation with her.

Without revealing too much, the ending seems a little rapey to me. But the solution to rape is not "rape 'em right back." Tit-for-tat doesn't seem right with a rape-like scenario. On the other hand, who is to say it doesn't work in the story culture? But it left me feeling uncomfortable and the other girl seems exceptionally sadistic and empathy-free.

Since some parts read a bit like erotica or a bad romance, I am happy for the dark turn towards the end. It made things a bit more interesting.

2.5 out of 5, not an impressive story, but not as anger-inducing as my post might imply if you disregard genre arguments and just take the story as a story.

The Bear In The Cable-Knit Sweater

Short Story by Robert T. Jeschonek.
Read for PodCastle by Cheyenne Wright, with echo effects.

The story opens with our narrator surrounded by an army of tutu-wearing circus bears in a colosseum filled with fairies. Fortunately, we then flash back to see how he got there. It all started when his boyfriend disappeared one morning...
The entire story is an extension of a lame pun, bears vs. bears.

A story of rising up and standing up for yourself against (extremely bizarre) oppression. But really, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Basically just a long vehicle for a really really weird premise, based on a pun. The story begins and ends with an enjoyably absurd image, but it could really use a little more... well anything. Not a whole lot of character development, or plot, or setting, or anything. And as I said before, this is about as straightforward as you can get while still not making any sense.

Still, it does end on a neat image, and Wright's reading was fun and funny.
2 tutu-clad bears out of 5.

Terrible Ones

Novelette by Tim Pratt.
Read for PodCastle by M.K. Hobson

The focus in this story is the Furies of Greek mythology, currently living in the modern day Bay Area. The harmful old ladies eventually come into contact with Zara, a classical theater actress and part time dominatrix, and that's when things get weird. Actually, the story opens with Zara being stalked by a Greek Chorus, singing foreshadowing for the story, so it starts off kind of weird too. And since this is Tim Pratt, we get to the exciting, (tragic?), thoughtful ending with a good deal of humor.

But just when you think you know how the story ends, it goes in a completely different, and superior, direction. Zara isn't just some random actress, she is particularly well-suited for the strange role she finds herself playing. Some knowledge of Greek plays could increase your enjoyment of this, but I mean reading one or two and having a passing familiarity, a Classics degree is not required.

Funny, thoughtful, and a completely different moral than you'd expect. This is a great story, with some fun similarities to the Greek drama it is about and a lot more humor than you'd think from a story largely about vengeance. Zara herself is a great character, and has the desirable quality of being the only character for which the story would work.

4 out of 5 people lie to themselves, and need others to lie to them sometimes, too.

Before the Uprising

Flash Fiction Short Story by Katherine Sparrow.
Read by Jen Rhodes
PodCastle Original (Text on the forums)

Pretty much substance free, but nice, dream-like imagery and an interesting rhythm. It says something that this sounds like one of my more ambivalent poetry reviews than my short fiction reviews.

Basically, women rising up against the oppression of the patriarchy, vaguely, with lots of bikes and not much meaning or emotion, despite the word pictures.

A stellar reading though, Jen Rhodes is a reader I'm looking forward to hearing again.

2 greasy bike escapes out of 5.

Balfour And Meriwether In The Adventure Of The Emperor’s Vengeance

Short Story by Daniel Abraham.
Read for PodCastle by Paul S. Jenkins

The titular characters are two British spies in 1919 London. The are hired for "special" assignments, in this case, it appears a Lord has released a mummy into the city. In tracking it down, they uncover a Jewish conspiracy to protect the world from a terrible, steampunk danger. And with a few daring action sequences and some help from a beautiful Jewish woman who is as capable as they are, they attempt to save London.

A note about the setting. I really like it. This is the sort of story on the hazy boundary of Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, and in such a way as to bring up debates about what does and does not constitute "steampunk" as well. The end of gaslight London and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is an interesting setting to start with, but we add a Stargate-like ancient Egyptian discovery, and some robotics that didn't exist, and wouldn't quite work in the real world (I consider fantasy robotics fantasy, but some insist that makes it Science Fiction). The Jewish conspiracy based on actual mythology is a pretty neat idea, and there are some excellent action setpieces.

The fact that the story is told from a viewpoint looking back on an adventurous youth is a nice frame, but by the end of the story turns out to actually be important. More than a mere framing narrative, it provides some context and additional insight that might be missed otherwise. This frame makes for a creepier, more ambiguous ending, which serves to make the overall story that much more interesting.

I can't say they were especially well-characterized here, but I do look forward to more adventures of Balfour and Meriwether (this is the first). The long title, heroic duo, reference to earlier unwritten adventures, and pulp-action-fantasy feel remind me of Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz and that isn't a bad comparison. Enjoyment of the two stories probably overlaps a lot, although I prefer that one, I can imagine it going the other way. Both are pretty good.
3.5 steampunk scarabs out of 5.

Originally published in Postscripts #19: The Enemy of the Good.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Rejiggering the Thingamajig

Short Story by Eric James Stone
Read for Escape Pod by Kij Johnson (text also online)

A delightfully silly little piece about a vegetarian, Buddhist, modified T-Rex who has to help some AI's fix the teleportation network if she wants to get home. But they have trouble explaining advanced technology to organic beings, giving her a mission statement roughly equivalent to the title.

Bokeerk (the dinosaur) gets to the thingamajig with some help from a sentient, trigger-happy gun, and then finds herself teaching Buddhism to an alien intelligence. Fortunately, it takes to Buddhism rather well, because the entire conclusion of the story (basically a Deus Ex Machina), relies on it not wanting to cause harm to any living being.

Over-the-top silliness in a science fictional frame, this story achieves what it is going for, but leaves something to be desired in the ending. Still, it is lightly amusing, exciting, and about as far from cliche as you can get. I'd recommend this to children, or people who want to kill half an hour after a long day.
3 dino-Buddhists out of 5.

Originally published in Analog

On a Blade of Grass

Short Story by Tim Pratt
Read for Escape Pod by Matt Weller, text also online

A disgraced parasitologist walks into a bar, and gives a science fictional hypothetical. And that is the entire story.

Okay, so actually humanity is involved in a slower-than-light generational space war, but that is informed off-screen action. It really is just the guy talking to the bartender the entire time. The idea is neat, but it is just that. A neat idea based on some admittedly neat science we already know. Not an actual story here. And sadly, no examples I'm not familiar with off the top of my head.

2.5 out of 5 because it is a neat idea, he got the science right, it's blessedly short, and the dialogue is snappy as always from Pratt.

Originally published in the Subterranean Press Newsletter

Schrödinger’s Cat Lady

Short Story by Marjorie James
An Escape Pod original, text and audio reading by Mur Lafferty free online.

Eleanor is an animal control officer sent to investigate complaints of a woman having too many cats. As you might guess from the title, determining exactly how many she has gets to be a bit complicated. Largely Eleanor just goes to the lady's house, sees a bunch of weird shit and physics jokes, leaves, comes back, leaves, and then we get a totally out-of-nowhere conclusion. Different in tone from the rest of the story, but also events out of nowhere, and a resolution to a problem out of nowhere with no real resolution to the main problem.

This was light, nerdy fun, with a surprisingly dark twist, but it left me unsatisfied. Amused but unsatisfied.
3 cats out of 5 might be able to walk through walls, but only those who read Heinlein.

Angry Rose's Lament

Short Story by Cat Rambo
Originally published free online in Abyss & Apex
Read for Escape Pod by Mur Lafferty

Paul Rutter is a negotiator for a third-string interstellar corporation, who has to seal a major deal with an alien species. The Solin are a race of brain-eating space-wasps who have chosen to deal with Rutter's RecoveryCo instead of any of the major corporations, and it could be their big break.

RecoveryCo is a company founded by a group of recovering drug addicts, and failure by Paul could cause his friends to slip back into their old ways. Apparently the drug has a 90% relapse rate. There is some very interesting world building here, a lot of density in very few pages. The world is almost like an aggressively capitalist version of Brin's Uplift Universe. Not with uplifting local species, but with new races ending up indebted to the older ones. But humans are the dominant species in this civilization.

Anyway, Paul finds himself facing an impossible choice. More than just large benefits and losses, it is a choice where Paul has almost none of the relevant information. Angry Rose, a pilot who initially explored the planet tells him the Solin are dangerous, they seem to have plausible explanations and Paul has no way to confirm either party's statements. More importantly Paul doesn't know what will really be better for his friends and the company. He eventually makes a choice, but we are left unsure of whether it was the right one, for him or for anyone else.

That is the real strength of the story, Paul doesn't know anything for certain, and neither do we. The central situation is well set-up, and Paul is clearly the ideal person to tell the story. I'm inclined to agree with his choice, but I can see the other side as well. Mur's outro is fairly insightful on this story, and her reading is good. I definitely recommend the podcast version given the choice. This is a story worth thinking about the implications of.
4 space-wasp brains out of 5.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Poetry Roundup: Strange Horizons January 2011

Cold War Champions: Bobby Fischer and Yuri Gagarin Descend to Earth by Mary A. Turzillo

Comparison between two different types of Cold War hero. A lot of overlap between the two, but the poem left me lukewarm. To much just factually stated, not quite enough resonance. And I admit, Fischer's death as a "descent to Earth" is underexplored, but a neat idea to compare with a space mission.

Merlin by Lorraine Schein

I quite like the rhythm and neat rhymes of this one. Merlin is obsessed with time and clocks and his lack of control and limited knowledge. A nice take on the character, and a nice poem.

The Skin Walker's Wife by Lisa M. Bradley

Whole poem is the course of a woman having sex with a random guy, and thinking of her body-stealing husband who she has trouble actually recognizing anyway, after he has been away getting a new body. Maybe she should stop spending her whole life waiting for him to come back to her again. A tad more graphic that it needs to be, but the supernatural, absent husband is an interesting, if obvious, metaphor for the more normal type of absent husband.

Dark Matter by Timons Esaias

Hatred, bigotry, authoritarianism, and blind adherence to tradition will always be with us, no matter how many times science or reason try to push them back. Told through the weirdly bigoted astronomy commentary of the narrator's great-uncle. Neat way to make an important observation.

Shoe by Robert Borski

The Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe thinks about how much she loves her children in the giant shoe that fell off a giant, perhaps in the vicinity of a beanstalk. Neat images making the nursery rhyme more grounded, but not a whole lot here.

Dark Matter and Merlin are the obvious standouts; I'd give the edge to Merlin as Best of Issue, but only by a hair. I have to say, this being my first time reading Strange Horizons' poetry, that it is MUCH stronger than the typical Asimov's issue. Here's to hoping that is a trend, not just an outlier.

The Third Wish

Short Story by Joan Aiken
Reprinted at Strange Horizons

Mr. Peters gets out of his car and rescues The King of the Forest who is stuck in a thorn bush. The king grants him three wishes and warns him "don't blame me if you spend the last wish in undoing the work of the other two." There is a certain genre-savy and wry humor to the whole exchange, and Aiken gets our expectations of such stories out there in the open from the start.

This is a fairy tale about a man with simple desires, who has read enough such stories to know to be careful. It is a rather simplistic tale, with no real obstacles, but it is short and provides a little lesson about happiness. What I'm most surprised by, and happy about, is the ending. Given extra weight by the title, Mr. Peters' decision about the third wish is surprisingly wise and convention-breaking.

For a story written in 1955, written for children (I think), this really holds up quite well as a fairy tale. I admit it is a genre I don't generally like, but this was surprising and not quite what I expected.
3.5 swans a-swimming out of 5.

A much more in-depth review of Aiken's work was written for Strange Horizons a few years ago, worth reading if you are interested in her other work.


Short Story by Stellan Thorne
Free from Strange Horizons

Greyling is an older detective who one day has to investigate an angel for a robbery. Angels walking around with big wings and perfect skin seem to be rather commonplace in this world. It initially strikes me as a noir-detective story inspired by Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." And frankly, that mode, which is maintained for the first 2/3 of the story or so is one I'm happier with than where this ends up.

But then, rather than just expanding on Greyling's barely-suppressed rage and despair issues following the pre-story death of his partner, we have the angel stalking him because it suspects he is suicidal, moreso because of him. The ending is nicely open, and the story is perfectly concise. I liked the description and especially Greyling's dark characterization. But I could have done without the informed existence of the Christian God (weird comment about an angel story, I know) and without the "you must be saved" tone of the last bit.

At least we don't know how things end, and can suspect that Greyling is still miserable, not magically saved. I'd have preferred a less hard-to-follow climax and not the sudden change in plot and tone toward the very end, but this was still a pretty good story. Perhaps a bit to opaque about the cause-and-effect of the whole incident though.

A bit of description that particularly stands out is the use of "nacreous" to describe the angel's wings. While it is perfect for the kind of lustrous rainbow-white he is getting at, at the same time, it seems like a darker word in this context because of the closeness to "necrosis". I initially read this wrong, and it has a nice extra layer there. Le mot juste.

3 out of 5 viewers think "Robbed by an Angel" would have been a better premise for a TV show.

Trivia: the title refers to a type of feather, but also means a type of gear, as I think is referenced several times in the story, from the description of a lighter to Greyling's place in the police system. A nice title.

The Space Between Stars

Short Story by Cassandra Clarke
Free from Strange Horizons

A scientist at a top secret facility (Area 51?) reminisces in the second person about his non-sexual friendship with a Vegas showgirl. 2,640 words before anything happens, and then only 650 or so words of actual story. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know whether to be thankful this wasn't longer (as I could barely finish it as is), or whether to wish there was more to it, because after the first 3/4 of the story were out of the way, it wasn't bad, and maybe that could have continued. I'm really not sure.

Anyway, nothing happens, but it turns out that for a too-unexplored-here-to-differentiate-from-cliche story reason, the scientist will never see the girl again and can't go to Vegas anymore. But he wants to impress her even though he won't be with her. Not much character development from the narrator or girl, and there are no other characters. Not much character from those two to speak of anyway. The end has an interesting apocalyptic feel, but nothing is done with it except one nice image that isn't focused on enough.

Nothing to it. Not only will I forget I read this before to long (despite it taking a very long time for the wordcount), but there is really almost nothing to say about this one. Blah humbug.
1.5 small, cheap windchimes out of 5.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Source Decay

Short Story by Charlie Jane Anders
Free from Strange Horizons

Jeremy is trying to break up his friends-with-benefits arrangement with Tara, and devote himself to his girlfriend Roberta. Tara makes this harder than she has to by being willfully delusional and overly attention seeking. I can't reveal much more without spoilers, but this is a comedic story that is decently funny with a good bit of a satire of modern media and historical revisionism.
3.5 women out of 5 are locked in an eternal struggle over one, kind-of-douchy guy.


So the telephone-game as conduit for comedy isn't anything new, and while the comedy aspects of this story amused me, the social satire and historical commentary are what I really appreciate. Our tendency to continually revise old myths and stories until they have little or no bearing on reality, while insisting they are probably more true-to-life is a fairly common comment, but what I like here is that the initial "true story" was so far from reality in the first place. Who cares about the revisions and political agendas appended to classic stories when the best source material we have is so far off to begin with?

Our cultural love of voyeurism and "reality" that really does need those quotes around it doesn't get enough satirizing. Sure, everyone comments that "reality TV" is stupid, opium-for-the-masses and meaningless, but it is far too rare that someone points out how seriously we still take it as a culture. Sure, the ending of the story is over-the-top, but the middle has some excellent bits, and the ridiculous earnestness-with-no-self-awareness of most of these reality shows needs to be made fun of. As well as the people who care deeply about which constructed-for-TV personality wins some arbitrary competition, and yet can't be bothered to care about any real issues. Anders isn't entirely original here, but hits points too-infrequently hit, and is sufficiently amusing to make this worthwhile satire. Not a favorite, but a definite recommendation, and a good start to the year for Strange Horizons.