Monday, September 26, 2011

This Moment of the Storm

Novelette by Roger Zelazny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the invisible city?

Inside me?

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

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Signals in the Deep

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

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

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

3 alien starfish arrays out of 5.


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

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

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

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

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

3.5 wolf empires out of 5.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shadow Angel

Novelette by Erick Melton

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

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

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

3 sponge space futures out of 5.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Odor of Sanctity

Short Story by Ian Creasey

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

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

3 smelly saints out of 5.

Grandma Said

Short Story by R. Neube

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

3 UV lamp towers out of 5.


Short Story by Carol Emshwiller

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

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rambling:

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

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

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

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

4 lace collars out of 5.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Asteroid Monte

Short Story by Craig DeLancey

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

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

3 vicious herbivores out of 5.

The Chaplain's Assistant

Short Story by Brad R. Torgersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 praying mantes out of 5.

Therapeutic Mathematics and the Physics of Curve Balls

Novelette by Gray Rineheart

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

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

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

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

4 atomic fastballs out of 5.