Friday, April 29, 2011

Tom the Universe

Short Story by Larry Hodges
Read for Escape Pod by Mat Weller
An Escape Pod original, text & audio free online

The singularity in Tom's brain has expanded to become the universe. Now he quite literally plays god, trying to set things up exactly as his life was, so he can have some petty revenge and/or save the universe from himself.

If you ignore the highly bullshit "science", and more annoyingly, the attempt to make it seem like it's supposed to be plausible, this is a neat story about how all the power and intelligence in the world can't make you more emotionally mature or a better person. The writing isn't bad, but the end is muddled and doesn't make all that much sense when you think about it. It wasn't awful, but nothing to recommend here.

2.5 brain branes out of 5.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son

Short Story by Tom Crosshill
Text and Audio published free, Lightspeed April 2011
Reading by Stefan Rudniki

A little boy in Russia, and his dog, are taken to be experimented on, to test the Quantum Mind hypothesis, and to see if a young enough child can learn to intuit quantum events, the better to operate some sort of quantum engine the Russians have invented.

The entire story is told by the child protagonist in letters to his mother, and the writing reminds me immediately of the earlier-this-year Lightspeed story, Postings From an Amorous Tomorrow. Here, as there, I'm not turned off by presumed manipulations of using a child protagonist in an unhappy story, although the cutesy elements of the writing sometimes intrude on the story more than I'd like, Zhenya has a unique point of view, which shifts through the narrative and focuses on things like his pet dog, rather than the scientific details. This is good.

There are some horror elements to this story, and I imagine it would be out-and-out horror if told from, say, the mother's point of view. But mostly it's about a poor, mistreated kid who begins to understand parallel universes and quantum probability.

It's a good read, but I recommend the Audio Recording, downloadable and streamable at the Lightspeed page. Rudniki does an excellent job with the misspellings and the Russian accent, and the whole story honestly seems better with his performance. If you have the choice, download the audio.

3.5 big fluffy gnome hats out of 5.

All That Touches the Air

Short Story by An Owomoyela
Published Free Online, April 2011 Lightspeed

When she was a little kid, our unnamed narrator saw a crazy man condemned to death, and thrown out to the ocean outside their colony, to be covered in a mist of tiny silver parasites, who took over his body.

The mist creatures are called the Vosth, and they are the dominant species on Predonia, although they come from somewhere else, just like humans. Humanity's treaty with them is more just what they declared upon realizing we were intelligent:
"All that touches the air belongs to us. What touches the air is ours."

Because of her childhood horror, seeing a man thrown out to become alien (which all the characters refuse to acknowledge, although the author obviously intends trauma to be a factor), the narrator is a germaphobe. Not so much worried about E. coli as about any possible contamination of the base by the Vosth, she refuses to take off her environmental suit except to shower, is obsessive about sterilization, and can't eat if she hasn't walked by the airlock to make sure it's still closed.

The story is about three changes in the protagonist. First, she learns to care about politics and inter-species relations, largely because a young girl named Endria keeps pestering her about the Vosth. Second, she learns to overcome her fears of the Vosth, and learn the empathy she wishes they had. Third, she overcomes her desire to hide emotionally and refuse to interact with any of the other colonists. All this against a background story of inter-species diplomacy.

Which sounds great, and it was a very interesting story, but I also found it strangely annoying in places, strange for such an otherwise well-written story. I absolutely sympathized with the protagonist, but saw the depth of her craziness, and the scary atmosphere (pun intended) was good enough for this to almost count as horror in places. Those were my highlights, now my problems:
  • The author goes to obnoxious lengths to keep the protagonist unnnamed, to the point where it distracts from my reading of the story when all the other characters refer to her as "citizen" or "you" and seem to actively go out of their way to avoid naming her (him?). I don't need all characters to have names, but distracting from the writing to avoid a name doesn't add anything to the story, and it does hurt a bit.
  • There is no good reason I can think of for Menley to be stripped naked and given to the Vosth at the beginning. It serves the story, but not logic. If they sentence him to death, I'd think it would be easier and safer, and generally more logical for all involved to just kill him and recycle him to feed the hydroponic plants, rather than waste the resources. And it's a particularly horrific way to go. It might work as an example if he were guilty of a real crime, but as his crime was being crazy and pooping on the governor's lawn, it just establishes the government as almost cartoonishly totalitarian, abusing citizens for shits and giggles rather than to instill fear or control.
  • "an expression like he'd been eating ascorbic acid." This line is just using science words to remind us that it is THE FUTURE. I can't imagine anyone saying they ate ascorbic acid. Eat a lemon or a bad-tasting vitamin supplement.

So the writing didn't impress me overall, but parts of it were excellent. The character development was masterful, but the political and government plot were idiotic. Overall, this was a story about an obnoxiously anonymous character who grows as a person, and has some interesting events happen, and some deep thoughts. Worth reading, and better as a whole than the nits I'm picking, but not award-worthy.

3.5 alien fog zombies out of 5.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees

Short Story by E. Lily Yu
Text & Audio free from Clarkesworld

A story that reads like a Chinese fable, but tells a story of the rise and fall of empires, subjugation, and revolution.

But the fantasy isn't just a straight centaur = black man allegory, the bees and wasps have interesting and unusual cultures of their own, and the discussion of their politics and governments made me chuckle several times at how appropriate or interesting an idea was, rather than think "Oh, just like American politics." I quite like the way insect life-spans actually matter to the cultural development too.

This is not just a story about internal and international politics and changes, it is also an examination of how outside influences can affect the conflict between countries. I won't spoil the story, but the fact that they are wasps and bees actually matters, as they exist in the real world, not some fantasy land where all the people are really wasps and bees. The story opens with this theme, with events being kicked off by a boy throwing a rock and the wasp nest, and it expands to become central to the story by the end. Oh, and I really like the fate of the bee-anarchists, it seems really appropriate, although I like their idealism.

3.5 bee-narchists out of 5.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hiding Place

Novella by Adam-Troy Castro

A sequel to a story I haven't read that doesn't read like it. I only found out this was a sequel at the end. References to past events clued in other readers, I'm sure, but they could have been background, and everything we need to know about the character is presented in-story, a nice change for series stories! And the narrator is a complex, interesting person. But that's about all the nice things I have to say about "Hiding Place", unfortunately.

Castro presents us with a very intriguing ethical/legal question, which, combined with the character of Andrea, made me think this might be an installment of Law & Order: IN SPACE! that I could finally get behind. It wasn't.

Castro asks what should be done if a man commits murder, admits it, and then ceases to exist by having his personality merged with with two innocent people into a hive-like consciousness. 2/3 of the people are innocent, but a murderer is getting away with murder! Sadly, Castro doesn't bother to answer this question, or leave us wrestling with an ambiguously unjust solution. He ties everything up with a neat little bow to avoid having to actually deal with the question at all. Were set up for deep thoughts, ethics, and legal arguments, and then denied an honest or thoughtful solution so we can have a non-ambiguous Hollywood-happy ending. It feels fake, over-convenient, and dumbed-down.

On top of that, parts of the story play out like a murder mystery to be solved after the fact, but this whole mystery ends up hanging on pronouns and linguistic technicalities related to pronoun-confusion when talking about multiple personalities. It feels cheap, again, and there is no reason for the witnesses to have to adopt the AbsoluteLiteralTruth to deceive the police instead of just, I don't know, lying. Oh, but it makes for a good mystery to solve on a linguistic technicality, so I guess that's a good reason.

Also, you'd think A SPACE STATION FULL OF LAWYERS would be better at picking up on subtle linguistic loopholes. It's pretty much what they do.

2 mind-linked lawyers out of 5.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Two Look at Two

Short Story by Paula S. Jordan

Sentimental, quiet story of an elderly couple who go walking in the woods with their dog and make contact with intelligent aliens. The ending feels a little drawn out, and the prose itself leaves something to be desired, stylistically, but a sweet little story if you can get past it.

2.5 first contacts out of 5 should involved border collies.


Short Story by Jerry Oltion

A weirdly science-accepting homeopathic doctor debates a CDC doctor, and they decide to do a double-blind trial to prove or disprove homeopathy once and for all. This is suspending a lot of disbelief already. Anyway, the trials show that homeopathy works, although perhaps not for the reasons traditional practitioners claim, and other real doctors label our real doctor a sell-out and a quack. His actual study is ignored and no one will publish the results even though they could be important to medicine.

I was amused by the faith healing bit at the end, but for the most part, this story didn't amuse much, and often felt like pseudoscience apologetics. I realize it is trying to be a humor piece and still make a point, but the answer makes so little sense it is hard to get past. It's worth noting that science still works, and quite well, in the world of the story, but it seems to harp too much on the idea of close-minded scientists not accepting evidence. I realize peer review can sometimes be a burden, but it is a good system, and the vast majority of "fringe science" really is quackery. It doesn't need to be lent false legitimacy by attacking the character of scientists who debunk it.

If you can't tell, the story was almost as much of a political rant as the review I wrote, and I don't agree with it at all, although Oltion is being original, and treats the main scientist fairly. To some extent, he's trying to make a point about accepting medical doctrine on faith and ignoring results, and that is a point that needs to be made, I just don't think you should do it by legitimizing actual quackery.

2 dilutions out of 5.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Day the Wires Came Down

Novelette by Alexander Jablokov

Arabella and Andrew are two bickering teenage twins, trying to find a gift for their father on the day before Arabella goes off to school, and the last day before the fun aerial-trolley system around the city closes down. While going about their errand, they witness several scenes in the personal life of their driver, and uncover a story from the glorious past of this rooftop trolley system.

The setting, and particularly the mode of transit around this early-twentieth-century world provide a very colorful backdrop, and are worked out in excellent detail. The imagery of various stops is well described. But I wasn't all that interested in any of the three stories, besides that they are well written. The whole thing seemed a bit long and boring. I did really enjoy getting to explore the world, but I'm not sure the kids' errand was the best way to tell the story Jablokov seemed to most want to tell.

I do agree with the author that this is not a steampunk story, despite the level of technology. And this makes me happy, because I'm getting a bit sick of steampunk, and a lot of the sillier tropes are the ones that always seem to show up. This story has no such predilection towards silly pseudo-Victorianism. Huzzah!

That said, the story was not interesting to me, forcing the piece to rely on awesome setting and quality of writing alone. Fortunately, these are both quite good, unfortunately, that only goes so far. I am looking forward to more stories in this setting, though. But for now...

3 cable cars out of 5.

P.S. I love the cover art, though it isn't entirely accurate; the full version can be found here. Check it out.