Sunday, June 26, 2011

Home Is Where the Heart Is (Flash on the Borderlands VIII)

Flash Fiction by Bint Arab
Narrated for Pseudopod by Marshal Latham

The third and final love-related flash fiction: this time it's familial. Starts just after 13 minutes in.

Mothers can be such a hassle. Teddy brings his back from beyond the grave, but like many mothers, she isn't easily satisfied. The ending is the best part of this story, so it's good that it doesn't waste any time getting there. A bit light, but a suitably creepy finish.

3 empty nests out of 5.

Pieces (Flash on the Borderlands VIII)

Flash Fiction by M.C. Funk
Narrated for Pseudopod by Donna Lynch

The second piece of love-themed flash fiction starts about 7 minutes into the podcast.

A brilliant analogy for an abusive relationship. Absolutely horrifying; I love the way the narrator still loves him, and the way he says he loves her as he takes our narrator apart. The genius here is that both the supernatural foreground story and the real-world relationships it represents are great horror stories in their own right, and they are combined into a tight little 5-minute story. I never knew "I love you" could be such a horrifying last line.

5 not-so-inner demons out of 5.

In Memoriam (Flash on the Borderlands VIII)

Flash Fiction by Matthew Chrulew
Narrated for Pseudopod by Philippa Ballantine

The first piece of love-themed flash this month, this is a mean little revenge fantasy about a widow's vengeful way of remembering her husband and his killer. It's almost too simplistic and straightforward. It is creepy, but not surprising or unusual. The woman's dedication is impressive, but seems a little over-the-top to me.

2.5 bad drivers out of 5.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Short Story by Genevieve Valentine
Published free in Text & Audio at Clarkesworld

Valentine opens and closes this story with a with something between a thesis statement and a rallying cry.
Inevitably, eventually, you started to care.
The story follows two thieves embedded in deep cover at the Seed Bank in Svalbard. They work for some sort of idealistic underground organization in a dystopian future where the seas have risen so high they're swallowing up cities and a Global Coalition works to keep member states isolated and subjugated. The Global Coalition moves in to take over new countries when flooding gets too bad and when it does, it sells seed banks, coal mines, and anything else to big companies. (I like that the biggest corporate threat in this world is called MediaVox rather than an oil or engineering type company.) Anyway, it seems seed banks get mishandled and shut down by these companies and the Coalition and the protagonist is there to steal some of the seeds before it's too late.

But his partner isn't a true believer, she likes birds, but is just in the seed business for the money. The story is really her story, observed by her partner as he frets about seeds and the state of international politics, he watches her decide what principles she really supports.

Valentine is urging readers to wake up and give a damn, but the message comes quietly, against an evocatively described background of a very hot future. I would have liked to see more detail, ideology of their organization, but it's a thoughtful story.

4 bird of paradise seeds out of 5.

Monday, June 13, 2011

All the News That's Fit

Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

Darta and her mountain village get all their news when Flimm, a sort of traveling reporter, hikes several days from the nearest town to bring it to them. But it's been a month since Flimm showed up, and they worry that he's dead, so Darta sets out to find him.

Much of the story's length is spent on Darta realizing how isolated and backwards her village is. She marvels over the size of draft horses, and strange clothing and whatnot. This is the sort of thing, and I find myself writing this weirdly often, that would be boring from most writers, but Emshwiller makes it charming and fun.

Anyway, besides Darta's big adventure, this is really a story about what happened to the newsman, and about who has the right to decide what other people are told or not told. Is it better to preserve innocence, or let people make up their own minds how much they want their own innocence preserved? The world is really much different than Darta, and thus the reader, are lead to believe.

I tend to agree with Darta, and I'm absolutely thrilled the story averted the ending I expected. It says much more, and is much more interesting that way. Not that I should expect any less from Emshwiller, but I'm just too used to authors who aren't quite so good.

3.5 tinniest dogs in the world out of 5.

The Cold Step Beyond

Novelette by Ian R. MacLeod

Bess of the Warrior Church stands in a clearing every day, waiting for the monster she has been sent to kill. Her order are responsible for sealing holes in the universe and killing monsters and spacetime anomalies thus created. Bored of practicing her quantum physics inspired swordsmanship while waiting, she befriends Elli, a girl who likes to watch Bess practice. Bess' encounters with Elli change her entire perception of her purpose and the novelette ends with Bess much more aware of her own past, and not sure what she'll do with her future. A sort of already-adult coming-of-age tale, with a post-human-ish swordswoman.

I enjoyed the revelation of the whole situation toward the end. I had mostly guessed halfway through, but I was just wrong enough to make the whole resolution deliciously neat. The Cold Step Beyond refers both to a difficult sword technique, Bess' step beyond her original understanding of things, and a spoilery third meaning. Bess' church order reminds me pleasantly of a medieval knightly interpretation of the organization from Charles Stross' Palimpsest. And that's a good comparison to force me to make.

4 chitin-covered warrior women out of 5.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kiss Me Twice

Novella by Mary Robinette Kowal

A science fiction mystery/thriller, but so much better written than I've unfortunately come to expect from that genre combination. The science fiction is important. Not just vaguely justified enough to be a Kristine Kathryn Rusch mystery, but actually integral to the plot. Two separate crimes rely on the science fictional technology of this world, and it's also key to the action climax. These events simply could not play out without AIs and a central computer coordinating surveillance cameras and databases for the police.

And actual SF social/political issues are addressed! Is it dangerous how much the police have come to rely on technology to do so much of their work for them? How might AI civil rights play out, given the types of jobs we'd invent AIs to handle? What are the dangers of big, centralized police databases? These aren't all heavy themes of the novella, but they are all addressed, and one of them is a rather big deal.

And Kowal writes a much more enthralling mystery/thriller than I've become used to. Her novella is filled with big, perspective altering plot twists. The whole case changes direction a few times, and the feel of this structure reminds me much more of the noir detective stories it invokes, rather than the standard mystery novel. I also get the feeling I associate with Philip K. Dick novels, like the floor just dropped out from under me. Kowal isn't weird enough to truly remind me of Dick's writing, but the plot twists hit me almost as hard. This twistiness is impressive, I'd love to see more SF mysteries from Kowal, rather than the fantasy she seems to be focussing on (not that it isn't good fantasy).

The Mae West references flow fast and furious, but actually tie into the plot, rather than just being flavor, as I worried at first. Although they are mostly flavor. I also like that one minor character is referred to only as "the thin man" a few times. Anyway, this is well worth the large number of pages it takes up, and I hope to see more novellas like this, rather than the usual long, boring murder mysteries where the SF is incidental and the author doesn't play fair with the reader. Throughout, we know as much as Huang does, and can sometimes beat him to a conclusion. This is fun. Read it.

4 Mae West quotes out of 5.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Novelette by Alec Nevala-Lee

A medical mystery, wrapped in a murder mystery, against a backdrop of deaf linguistics and Japanese folklore. Hakaru is assisting in research into a new sign language which has developed in an isolated community with an enormously high rate of deafness. At first I was expecting a tale of linguistic research, or maybe politics when a councilman tries to shut down the research. But then the councilman is murdered, and the tale takes a turn for the strange.

The Kawataro is a water spirit, translated as "river boy", known for causing mischief. Nevala-Lee changes the appearance and behavior of the spirit a bit to suit the story he's trying to tell, but given the variability of folklore from place to place, it's believable. As the name of the story would tell you, it plays a major role in the story.

And aside from a biology-related infodump toward the 3/4 mark, this reads much more like a horror/mystery/fantasy than an Analog hard-SF story. Which is a nice change of pace in the magazine, and shows that Nevala-Lee knows how to stand out from the crowd.

The novelette goes through another sharp change toward the end, after an exciting chase scene it shifts to a sadder, more sciency story and wraps up with a nice resolution to the intellectual mysteries and plenty of bittersweetness for the characters.

I loved the science here, and the well-told story. And my girlfriend-who-doesn't-really-like-Analog enjoyed the hell out of it too. It read a bit like a horror story, a bit like a mystery, and a bit like hard SF. I always appreciate this sort of mix when it pops up in Analog, which is sadly not as often as I'd like.

The second sudden change was a bit too much out of nowhere, and I wish we hadn't been kept in the dark about what Hakaru saw toward the end of the chase. It felt not entirely fair to the reader, and made the subsequent infodump a bit more jarring and out-of-place. But aside from this one page of writing, I enjoyed the story and couldn't stop reading. More like these from both Analog and Mr. Nevala-Lee!

3.5 fish-monsters out of 5 carry knives.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Take One for the Road

Short Story by Jamie Todd Rubin

Our narrator moves in next to an old astronaut from a manned landing on Mercury. The story is this astronaut's slow reveal of what happened to the astronaut who died on Mercury's surface, interspersed with musing on his own cancer, suicide, euthanasia, and murder. The question of "when is it acceptable to take a life" isn't answered, though we're given plenty of food for thought.

I quite liked the quiet storytelling carried through the big reveal and into a maudlin final scene. The big surprise is unexpected, but is sort of trivial and academic. And that might be the story's weak point: I don't really care about the central mystery. I appreciate it as a character-study of an old man with cancer, and I want to hear the end of the man's story, but I don't really care what the end is. He made an interesting moral judgment, but I think the fact that the other astronauts are barely characterized and vaguely unlikable really takes away from any emotional impact of the old man's mission.

For the most part, I liked the writing itself, particularly the awesome metaphor for how difficult it is to orbit mercury. But there where roughly three awkward, misplaced metaphors for each good one. The main character is not an astronaut, and is oblivious to space travel enough to be unaware of a past mission to Mercury.
"... finishing off his bottle and jettisoning it like a spent rocket into the plastic bin to one side of the porch. It clanked softly against its empty siblings, each one a mission of exploration and discovery."
I might not mind this if the astronaut were the narrator, but our space-oblivious narrator, in a future without manned spaceflight feels really bizarre and awkward writing things like this. A short, thoughtfully quiet story. I liked it, but it wasn't a favorite.

3 retired astronaut beers out of 5.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Stone Age

Short Story by Alastair Mayer

A story that reads for much of its eight pages like it should be set in the Stargate: SG-1 universe. An archeologist finds a pyramid in a jungle on an alien world, and hopes it will prove his theories of ancient-but-not-geologically-ancient alien astronauts. This universe is known to have been colonized by "Terraformers", who went around making lots of planets, including Earth, all similar to each other. Down to transplanting mosquitos around the galaxy. But the idea that a more recent species, ten thousand or so years ago, flew around the galaxy is considered completely crackpot for some reason. Although humans are flying around the galaxy right now, and finding square pyramids on nearly every planet.

At the mention of possible flying pyramid-ships in space, I couldn't help rolling my eyes, and I almost put the story down there. It was pretty clunky up to that point, in dialogue and exposition. But then Dr. Daniel Jackson Dr. Hannibal Carson has his hopes dashed by tomb raiders jumping his find and things get more interesting. The tomb plot makes the bulk of the story, and my sympathy for the crackpot scientist really increases by the end. The ending is more-or-less happy, with Carson managing to save some evidence from his find even as he loses most of it.

This story is a bit slight, in character, plot, and ideas, but the world-building is good, and the clunky writing improves in the second half. It actually held my attention pretty well, and was short enough I think it was worth my time for the neat archeological find and snappy second half.

2.5 ancient alien astronauts out of 5.