Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trying to Stay Dead

Short Story by Richard S. Crawford.
Read for Pseudopod by Steve Anderson

Medicine mixed with philosophy has led to the procedure to remove one's sense of self. The vast majority of the human population have become philosophical zombies, and are happy about it, rather they claim they're happy about it. It's a nice idea but it doesn't really go anywhere. It reminds me of a thought experiment more than a piece of horror fiction.

I did enjoy the author's use of changes in POV to indicate self-awareness/lack-of-self. That was easily the most fun and exciting part of the story to me. But stylistic tricks can't support a story on their own, even if they are good and even if the story is founded on good ideas. I still found it a tad dull. I'm glad it gave me something to think about, but it didn't really scare me or make me feel much of anything. Mainly because the narrator was a whiny little bitch, as the woman toward the end points out. He just wants to be happy and stop existing, he doesn't have much in the way of fear or regrets or drives or anything. He's almost a zombie in the first place, so the change isn't that severe. I'd probably have liked the story better if there was more self-awareness in the protagonist to start with, or if he'd had regrets, or if it was indicated that at least someone did.

2.5 ontological mutations out of 5.

An earlier version of the story was published on the author's website in 2008, but the Pseudopod version is better written, not to mention the narration makes the stylistic trickery of the story work better.

The Cord

Short Story by Chris Lewis Carter
Read for Pseudopod by David Michel

Cordyceps fungus has gone from parasitizing ants to humans, and has spread throughout the world. People find themselves climbing to high places, and spreading spores to their communities as they die. This is the story of one such man, and the neighbor who runs out to try to get him down.

The central twist wasn't that hard to see coming, but it did take me a bit. What I liked most was that the infected man couldn't figure out what was going on, even when it should have been obvious. This was definitely creepy, and a great SF conceit for a horror story. I do have a weakness for fungus though...

That said, it isn't as good as William Hope Hodgson's Voice in the Night, which Pseudopod published earlier this month. Maybe an unfair comparison but it's hard not to make it. And my inner biologist got a bit annoyed with the philosophizing about nature regarding us as a big enough threat to give us a parasitic fungus. A) we have all sorts of fungal diseases already, including mind-altering ones, B) nature/evolution is not an intelligent force. These just take away from my enjoyment without adding any elements of horror. Maybe it's my Lovecraftian predilections, but an uncaring universe seems scarier than an intelligent one.

4 fruiting bodies out of 5.


Short Story by Bruce Blake
Read for Pseudopod by Brian Rollins

An abused teenager begins taking out his rage and isolation by torturing and murdering a drifter found in his father's shed. Complications arise for the budding serial killer while trying to dispose of the body (parts).

Honestly the most painful part of this story wasn't Tim's violence or sadistic pleasure in it, it was hearing about how his father and brother treated him. The story isn't as splatterpunky as it could be, which is for the better, although a lot of it is focussed on the mechanics of brutal murder. But the true horror here comes from the fact that I find myself empathizing with the psychotic kid. The story is written with no implied moral judgments or soul-searching. The kid just does what he does, and you can sort of see why. Of course torturing and killing people isn't a rational answer, but if you can feel the kid's pain, you can see what drives him, and drives him to take it so far. He's completely powerless and friendless and he has no way to express how much he hurts. I can't help thinking he could have grown up to not kill people, despite his obvious issues, if he'd had a brother or mother who helped him stand up to his dad, instead of making things worse. It reminds me of my favorite Fringe episode in recent memory, in a good way.

4 sympathetic serial killers out of 5.

Originally published online by the author, no longer available as of October 2011.

Friday, October 28, 2011

We Were Wonder Scouts

Short Story by Will Ludwigsen
Free Audio from Podcastle (Narrated by Christopher Reynaga.)
Originally published in Asimov's, August 2011

Our protagonist is telling a story of his 1920s youth to the campers at Camp Manticore. As a boy, his father couldn't stand imagination or reading of fiction. So the narrator joins The Wonder Scouts, a fictional organization run by the real life Charles Fort. I like their oath:
On my honor, I will do my best
To confound the expectations of society,
To observe the super-consciousness in all is workings,
To seek independence in body, in intellect, and in spirit.
Not content to merely talk about ghosts and UFOs and portals to other worlds, the Wonder Scouts plan a trip to the Adirondacks, where several young girls have vanished in the past few years. Possibly abducted by Little People, possibly fallen through some sort of spacetime vortex. The answer isn't at all what they expect, but our narrator himself sees something the others don't. Maybe it was his imagination, or maybe it was something a little bit magical.

I like the storytelling tone of the story, and the story within the story, and particularly the story that Fort told the narrator around a campfire, when the Scouts asked for a scary story. It's a bit scary, in a traditional ghost story sort of way, but it's also really, really sad. It's about regretting your lack of courage and curiosity, and the fear that maybe you aren't special, but other people are. I can see kids not getting excited about it as a ghost story, but that makes it more special as a sad adult story.

That's the real take-home message here: the narrator experienced something terrifying and dangerous, but he went back into the woods later in life, and he doesn't regret it. And maybe if he'd been afraid and stayed safe at home, or stayed with the group, he'd have been safer, but he'd have regretted not knowing. Curiosity is important, as is the courage to indulge it. And we can always hope for a more fantastic answer, somewhere out there.

4 cryptozoology merit badges out of 5.

Some Fortunate Future Day

Short Story by Cassandra Clare
Text reprinted free by Lightspeed

Airships and maglev trains, bunches of artificially intelligent clockwork robots, and hand-held time machines. Quite the obnoxious magical-but-with-gears-so-SCIENCE! steampunk backdrop. I find it a tad annoying because, for the most part, this story could work without the steampunk backdrop, and if you want to keep the obvious-but-still-creepy twist ending with Chekov's Time Machine, that's really all you need.

I know it was originally written for a steampunk anthology, and I like airships as much as the next guy, but it seems like we're cramming AI clockwork robots into everything lately, seldom for any good reason, especially given how hard they make suspension of disbelief. Or maybe I just think they're a particularly stupid trope. But they just bug me.

The story is competently written, and a bit creepy, which I like. But there isn't a hell of a lot to it, and much of the length is spent on fleshing out entirely irrelevant and uninteresting details about the standard steampunk world.

2.5 steampunk tea parties out of 5.

Originally published in Steampunk!
ed. Gavin Grant & Kelly Link

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Her Husband's Hands

Short Story by Adam-Troy Castro

The Army has found a great new way to reduce the number of deaths in a pointless but very deadly war. They preserve whatever bits of a person remain, and attach them to metal life support units with the last backup of their memory. Bob comes back to his wife as a pair of hands. And his hands have PTSD.

This is the story of a woman trying to hold herself together for the sake of her marriage, trying to decide if she can come to love the very different man that her husband became while he was at war. The fantastic premise highlights the absurd and hard-to-cope-with plight of the wife in an interesting way. The support group scene, in particular, is powerful, sad, and darkly humorous. I like how they both tell everyone they're all right, to avoid having to deal with other people "helping".

It was sad, and absurd, and makes some important points, but I did find the story a bit more dull than I'd expected. Not sure there is much of anything to do about this, he did capture the both husband and wife's anger, frustration, and grief. I do like the conclusion, but the whole thing just doesn't stand out as great to me, just good.

3.5 bits of husband out of 5.

Against Eternity

Short Story by David Farland

Old Man's War, but instead of uploading elderly soldiers to new human bodies, we're uploading them to mechs and spaceships. You are uploaded into one of these spaceships, and it gives you a shot at immortality, if you're rebellious enough to seize the chance.

The story is told in second-person, future tense, which gives events a sort of inevitable feel. I think future tense makes the whole second-person narration thing work much better, because rather than telling you what you did, it's telling you what you will do. Given that the story is set, presumably, within my natural lifespan, I don't mind it so much.

That said, it's a very short story, just this side of flash, and not a lot happens. As I implied by linking to a rather famous novel, this isn't something entirely new, although the story is simpler and more pacifistic than said book. Honestly, if it weren't for the second person narration, which I actually sort of liked her, this would be a very boring story. But it is short enough that you aren't wasting your time, and the POV is fun.

3 Aspiring spaceships out of 5.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project

Short Story by Brad R. Torgersen

A story with a done-before comedy plot, that then takes said comedy plot entirely seriously. Our hero operates a small radio station in the desert, with some extra financing from a reclusive millionaire. The rich man has built his own radio telescope and uses the radio broadcast to provide a more interesting signal into space. One day, the FCC comes knocking, and the protagonist's world is changed forever. It isn't quite as obvious as you might think, but only barely.

Besides the obvious problem in logic that Earth is already broadcasting plenty of material out into space and we don't really need privately funded enterprises to be noticed if any aliens are listening, what strikes me most is just how earnest this story is with a premise where the only originality to it is not being comedic. The writing is good, and the setting well drawn, but the idea is nothing special and the climax is about as anticlimactic as possible. And it doesn't even make any sense either.

2 FCC complaints out of 5.

The Sock Problem

Probability Zero Flash Fiction by Alastair Mayer

Cute ending, and a cute scene with the kid in the car, but I only liked the second half of this flash piece. The first half spent a lot of time explaining how motors work and how dryers are put together. I can't believe I'm saying this, but this flash fiction would be stronger if it were about half as long. I do like the phrase "it isn't Rocket Surgery." I'll be stealing that for personal use.

Tangential Nitpick: while I appreciate a Doctor Who namedrop as much as the next nerd, given the audience I think "The Doctor's TARDIS" would have sufficed instead of "Dr. Who's TARDIS". I'm not going to get into that debate here (1-4th & 9th Doctor credits be damned!) but I'd assume the readers of Analog are nerdy enough not to need the reference spelled out for them, especially at the expense of enjoyment for a pedantic subset of us!

2.5 out of 5 appliance repairmen think their job is rocket surgery.

The Last of Lust

Short Story by Jerry Oltion

Two sexy scientists working on identifying the Lust centers of the brain, and means for selectively turning it on and off, fall into a relationship. Then a group of religious zealots steal their research and engineer a plague that will rid the human race of lust. We get to see how this effects the main characters' relationship.

The science is idiotic, especially the idea that just because you can do something with microwaves, it's possible to quickly engineer an incurable superbug that infects 100% of the human poplulation, that will have the exact same effect biochemically. But I'm probably too annoyed about this, given that it's a story about people. Still, bad science doesn't have to be obnoxiously bad. It would have been more interesting and less facile to deal with a more varied and realistic bioweapon.

Anyway, science aside, the style of the writing is sort of dull and lacking any description beyond "this happened, and then that happened" for the middle portion of the story. Still, Oltion inserts little flashes of humor that made it fun, and much more enjoyable than it could have been. And the protagonist's relationship drama was interesting, especially with the surprising form of happiness he finds. But the greater extrapolation to the general population, and the conclusions he comes to at the end seem stupid, silly, and maybe a little sexist. Really, I'd have liked the story (although I wouldn't rave about it, there was definite humor in the telling), if it weren't for the diner scene at the end, which hurt my perception of the entire piece.

2 lusty lab assistants out of 5.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Church in High Street

Short Story by Ramsey Campbell

Really buoyed up by the ending. The first half is long, rambly, landscape description, and what seems to be a haunted-house set-up. But after the Strange Old Man warns our narrator off from the Haunted House, and our narrator ignores him and finds a Terrifyingly Crazed Diary, he goes to investigate the titular church, finds a passage descending into the underground (copying Lovecraft's motifs, not just his adjectives), things get legitimately strange.

There does seem to be a science-fictional explanation to how things work, which is nice. And the resolution is a neat way to have a happy-ish ending without breaking the rules that make the monsters scary (well, scaryish anyway), and at the last moment, Campbell snatches the hopeful part out from under us, and makes the terror seem delayed-but-inevitable rather than escapable. I like the ending, but not so much the rest of the story, although the central idea involving fungus-as-portal or whatever is pretty neat.

2.5 Tomb-Herds out of 5

Monday, October 17, 2011


Short Story by Erik Amundsen
Text and Audio free from Clarkesworld

Our protagonist wrangles a herd of ponise, IN SPACEEEEE. By 'ponies' we mean semi-sentient, self-reproducing, evolving spaceships, that feed on debris, using it for fuel, and to occasionally make more ponies. By 'barn' we mean mothership, and by 'saddle' we mean cockpit.

It's Cowboys in Space taken in a much stranger, more original direction than usual. I like the world that has developed, with all the western slang, but it does seem a bit contrived, and there isn't much in the way of story or theme here, beyond "Hey, look, Cowboys!" The problem is caused by random bad luck and a jerk-ass pony. And then it is resolved arbitrarily easily. Still an interesting idea and a very neat setting.

3 pony penis guns out of 5.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Husband Steinn

Novelette by Eleanor Arnason

Signy bought a house in rural Iceland so she could have peace and quiet to work on her novel. But various dead animals show up on her doorstep, courtship gifts from a troll, and she realizes peace is hard to come by. Signy ends up befriending the wife of the unfaithful troll, and is drawn into a meeting with the troll queen regarding Iceland's public works projects driving trolls and elves from their homes.

The best thing about this story is the wry, fairy tale writing style. Especially in a story about women laughing off their men to deal with the very modern problem of habitat conservation. The second best thing is the original bit of Norse mythology Arnason invents about Loki inventing the apple corer.

Although the style had nothing to do with Dunsany, he's the writer I couldn't stop thinking of at the end of the story, with the procession of trolls and other mythological creatures fleeing their homes. Something about the past fleeing from human encroachment and mystery leaving the world. Any comparison to Dunsany is a good thing from me.

3.5 trolls out of 5 enjoy cookies.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Man Who Bridged the Mist

Asimov's October/November 2011 CoverNovella by Kij Johnson

Construction story turned love story. Kit is the architect sent by the empire to build the first bridge across a corrosive river of some sort of mist dense enough to sail a boat across. Rasali operates the ferry which Kit's bridge will put out of business, if she doesn't die an early death to one of the giant "fish" living in the river first.

More than just romance against an intriguing fantasyish SF background with 19th century-level technology, Johnson makes a mega-construction project interesting without any of the predictable disasters, terrorist plots, or over-the-top human drama. She makes a better story by focusing on just the normal difficulties of large-scale construction, and a quiet character-study of the architect himself.

Lots of obvious thought about how the bridge changes the town and the townspeople illustrates the deeper theme: how the bridge changes Kit himself. By the end of construction, I think he's more capable of happiness than he was before, but he's certainly not on the path he originally imagined for his life.

The story is aptly titled, it's all about Kit, but the rest of the novella: the world around him, the townsfolk, the details of construction, the mystery of the mist and the Big Ones living in it all provide a fun background for a character-study of a mildly-unhappy man who builds big things.

4 Medium-Large Ones out of 5.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The High Priest

Short Story by C. Deskin Rink
Read for Cast Macabre by R.E. Chambliss
With Additional Voices by Abigail Hilton and Bob Eccles

Story Review (Audio Review Below)
This horror tale of the homicidal madness of a grieving mother is the sequel to Ankor Sabat, reviewed here last year. I saw a lot of promise in Ankor Sabat, but ultimately had to downgrade it a few points despite enjoying it. So of course, this review is heavily in comparison to the prior story. Another Clark Ashton Smith/Lovecraft pastiche. More action heavy this time, and I think a bit more overwritten. The first story's writing was delightful but two instances in this story particularly take me out of it:
"The nightmares brought with them images of a cyclopean black castle or fortress, flung up against blacker mountains and glimpsed always beneath a boiling glacial sky. The castle's jagged tiers piled atop one another, terrace upon terrace, battlement upon battlement, until its highest spires and minarets clutched at the very heavens themselves."
"Then, a hemorrhage of shadows split over the throne. The shadows waxed in depth until, slowly, surely, they took on a positive quality. The bells went silent, the figures abased themselves upon their bellies, the shadows congealed. There, sprawling upon the throne, a titan of carrion flesh, a colossus of rotten planets, a gargoyle of the death of stars, Ceocetep, the High Priest."
You can see the talent here and I do love some of the descriptions but through much of the story, Rink uses three descriptions where one would do. I don't mean only that this is not Hemingway-like prose, but there are some places I swear Lovecraft would have used just one adjective where Rink piles them on. It is distracting, and I think more pronounced here than in Ankor Sabat. I think he was going for the waves of big words and poetic imagery that wash over you in such stories as Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear". But Rink slows down his own action too much in a few places, and repeats himself.

Aside from that, the action is a little too overwrought and goes on a bit too long, but it does help illustrate Rink's theme of cycles of violence and revenge begetting more revenge. I understand the need for descriptions of the violent action scenes, but they are the part of the story that drags the most. Bethany undergoes the interesting character change of becoming more and more driven by vengeance throughout the story, to the point that she will murder hundreds just to get at one woman. I love that Bethany rails against everyone who has wronged her, but when she finally gets what she wants, she helps the High Priest further, essentially out of gratitude toward him, while condemning her opponents to an even worse fate and telling herself she is sparing them. I enjoy her unsympathetic madness.

Also: the animal people have mechanized guns left over from a "Golden Age" which I take to mean these stories take place after our civilization has faded away and lower technology humans have been building up society again, but this time with the Elder Gods and magical beasts remaining in the forefront rather than fading into the underbelly of the world as they did in our age. I really like this idea, and it does add a neat extra layer to what would otherwise be pure fantasy. I, for one, welcome guns and trains in my horror/fantasy.

I have to say, I liked the writing and plot, the twist and the development of themes better in Ankor Sabat. But I'm going to give this story a slightly better grade. The reason is that this story is more consistent, and doesn't fall apart toward the end. It accomplishes what it set out to do, and that is worth something, although I think Ankor Sabat was aiming higher. I'd still recommend Ankor Sabat if you are going to read one C. Deskin Rink story, and perhaps this is a problem with a numbered rating system. This story was more consistently in the middle, while Ankor Sabat was both better and worse. Ankor Sabat's highs are what recommend it, the point grade also reflects the low point, and The High Priest doesn't have such a low point, but it's heights are less lofty. Still, if you like Ankor, listen to this. If you didn't, then don't. But I say read/listen to that first.

3 out of 5

Audio Recording Review
The thing that most surprised me, and initially put me off before I began to like it, is that this is almost an audio play. Not just a reading, there are different actors for different voices in the dialog, and an actual musical score, not just background dithering, but rising and falling music to coincide with the action of the story. The reason this bothered me at first is it is almost distracting. I like audio plays, but Rink's prose is dense, and prone more to the exposition through narration rather than through dialogue. The music and shifting voices provide some distraction from the actual text. That said, all the voice actors are very talented, they do a good job, and the music seems appropriate. You get used to it, and after a second listen, I think it is better this way, just surprising at first.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Faithful Soldier, Prompted

Short Story by Saladin Ahmed
Read for Escape Pod (Free Text and Audio) and Starship Sofa (Audio Only) by Rajan Khanna

Ali is a veteran of the great Global Credit Crusades whose wife is dying of a bioengineered disease spread by one side or the other during the war. Ali doesn't know which side is at fault, and it doesn't really matter, his wife is dying. He can't afford the expensive serum she needs to be cured, and soon won't be able to afford even to keep her alive.

Ali has given up all hope when he starts receiving strange prompts on his glitchy cybernetic interface, which usually just spits out demands that he report for uniform inspection or shop at Honest Majoudi’s. He isn't sure whether these are messages from God, or the beginnings of some sort of psychosis, but with no other hope, he sets off for Cairo at the prompts' direction.

Not so much a story of the physical journey as of Ali's need for something to believe in, a man willing to latch onto any hope that presents itself. He starts as a not very religious man and ends up sounding like a crazed fanatic, and noticing this change in himself.

I love the world Ahmed develops, frequently conveying volumes in tidbits of description and trivia about the war. Ali himself is quite the badass when it comes right down to it, but he finds himself powerless to save his wife from collateral bioweapon damage because he can't afford the exorbitantly priced medicine. The best thing is that 90% of the story actually takes place before, after, or between the lines of the actual narrative we read, and this is done quite deftly.

A particularly nice touch is that we still don't know whether the messages were sent by oddly tricky criminals, some godlike AI manipulating people from behind the scenes for reasons bigger than the scope of the story (my favorite), or an actual supernatural entity as Ali comes to believe.

And a note for the many people who miss the point of the ending, this line near the beginning is very significant:

"His thoughts went to her again, to his house behind the jade-and-grey marble fountain"

4 Nanohanced tigers out of 5 need no credit rating.

Originally Published in Apex Magazine #18

The Insurance Agent

Short Story by Lavie Tidhar
Read for Escape Pod by Christian Brady (Text & Audio)

"It was a bit of an unfair fight as Reagan was young, pre-presidency, circa-World War Two, while Nixon was heavy-set, older: people were exchanging odds and betting with the bar’s internal gaming system and the general opinion seemed to be that though Reagan was in better shape Nixon was meaner."
The story opens with this fun description of a boxing match. I just wish it had run with that concept, rather than immediately veering off into the pointless and surreal for surreality sake.

A bodyguard is hired as "insurance" for a god/alien/"Supernatural Entity". These aliens seem to be most of the figures who have gained any kind of following in our history, from Elvis to Jesus to Uri Gellar. The setting is neat, and we get two particularly vivid scenes described in a rather surreal world, but in the long run there is no plot that makes any sense, the main character is poorly developed and doesn't seem to have any reason to go along with these plans he doesn't understand, and as far as anyone besides "Kim" is concerned, there aren't really any stakes to this story, and the reader doesn't even know what they are for Kim.

Tidhar seems to be going for a theme of people fighting for their ideals and perhaps something about the level of stupidity of what kinds of ideals people will fight over, but not much comes through beyond a sense of vaguely mythological-style symbolism.

A pointless tour through rather neatly described scenery. 2 out of 5 gamblers bet on Reagan in that boxing match.

Originally Published in Interzone, 2010

Kill Me

Short Story by Vylar Kaftan
Read for Escape Pod by Mur Lafferty (Audio Only)
Text Available Free from Transcriptase

Kaftan sets up an extremely interesting world in which memory downloading and uploading into clones is possible, but due to "sanctity of life" legislation just dumb enough to be right up Congress's alley you can't have backups of yourself or otherwise more than one copy at any one time. Oh, and less plausibly with our current society, but I'm willing to assume society has changed, this allows for women to be hired out to get murdered, and then revived later, under the logic that this will allow psychopaths to vent some of those urges and not go after non-consenting women.

Our protagonist, Ada, is a professional masochist who owed a great deal of money to pay for her new body and upload after a car crash. Due to planned obsolescence, she has to buy a new body every few months, and they are too expensive to save up more than one or two in advance. In this way, the resurrection company has her in a kind of indentured servitude to be constantly murdered by psychos and brought back every few months.

Right here, Kaftan has a killer premise, and one I'd love to read a story about. Indeed, the opening third of this story is great. It establishes the messed-up ugly world, Ada's situation, and the fact that she doesn't mind her job all that much, although she doesn't really get off on it anymore. I'd have loved to keep reading about Ada trying to get out of her job, or to read about another woman who can't bear the work she has to do in order to keep herself in a new clone body every few months.

But rather than any of the several promising and interesting directions we're presented with, Ada gets a mystery client and Kaftan throws us for a sharp left turn that takes the middle of the story into a long, boring ineffectual let-me-tell-you-my-evil-plan rant, and the last half turns into a completely different, drawn-out, story of her general dissatisfaction with life. Kaftan is trying to tell a story here about gaining power by relinquishing it, hence the submissive BDSM references scattered throughout, but this only partially works. The ending is not very convincing, and it is trying to be profound. And the big evil plot doesn't actually make any damn sense when you think about it, especially considering it's nearly unenforceable nature.

I liked the world, I liked a lot of the options Kaftan set up, but I wasn't satisfied with the story she ended up building out of this world and character.

2.5 out of 5.

Originally Published in Helix, 2007


by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn
Read for Escape Pod by Dave Thompson (Text & Audio free)

Gary is mourning the loss of his wife, whom he made the choice not to keep alive in a coma after her insurance money ran out. By pulling the plug, he feels that he murdered his one true love and he has taken up drinking to self-destructive levels. He is on the verge of being fired from his simple security-guard-at-a-robot-operated-manufacturing-plant job and doesn't really care.

One day, Gary makes friends with a robot, MOZ-512, whom he decides to call "Mose". Mose is a troubleshooting AI, programmed to be think outside the box a bit in order to diagnose and solve problems on the assembly line. This programming has sparked a bit of curiosity in the robot, and he sees Gary's drinking as a problem that needs solving. This curiosity leads to many longwinded philosophical discussions that contain some improbable jumps for the robot, indicating an overly advanced AI for the company not to expect odd behavior.

Anyway, we get to ponder whether destroying a no-longer-useful robot is any better than euthanizing a human being, and maybe it is a bit worse. And then the robot becomes more human in it's morality than the company, and a touching but sappy resolution where Gary decides Mose is his second soulmate/best friend. It is a touching little story, a little overly saccharine, but not bad for Resnick.

My biggest problem, rather than the reality of what leaps of logic the AI can make, in that this is a retread of ground Resnick has covered before, and Asimov did a less sappy job before that. The writing is competent but not amazing, there is just a feeling that we've seen all this before. And more significantly, most of the philosophy seems a bit too old hat. Gary tries to make some points that seem like a man from the 1950's who hasn't read any Science Fiction before, a viewpoint I have serious problems with when you work in a robot factory.
"You can’t compare a robot’s value to Kathy’s. She was unique. "
He argues that robots are not unique and have no intrinsic value and are no different than toasters, basically, and has this argument with his best friend the robot. Gary is just too oblivious to take seriously, most of their discussion seems like introductory socratic dialogue on AI or musing over stuff that was old hat 50 years ago.

Not as insightful as it thinks it is, overly long and talky, but oddly heartwarming (damn you Resnick). Fun, but mildly annoying fluff. The real story here is the well-written friendship that develops and Gary's rehabilitation. A bit too long for all that, it would have fit better with a more interesting background plot or less overused subjects for discussion.

2.5 robots out of 5 can logic away the alcoholism.

Originally Published in Asimov's

Monday, October 3, 2011

Radio Nowhere

Short Story by Douglas Smith
Read for Escape Pod by Wilson Fowlie

A physicist can't let go of his dead wife to see the obvious love right in front of him. His particle accelerator experiments seem to be causing flickers in time, moments where he is in the past, and moments where the radio seems to be broadcasting messages from a lone survivor in an apocalyptic future with no stars or people left. Ignoring potential consequences for himself or the world, he wants to use these time flickers to prevent his wife from having ever died, which will of course undo his unrequited love's years spent being friends with him, and any chance of consummating her love.

A very human story of a man hung up on the past for far too long, and a woman who can't make him realize her true feelings, and can't get up the courage to be forward about it, remaining only his shoulder to cry on. The resolution is a key moment of personal growth for our protagonist, and that's really what I ask for in a story. I'm glad Liam finally reaches the acceptance part of his grieving process.

3.5 Jesus-ducks out of 5.

P.S. The Escape Pod forums are filled with complaints about various perceived plot holes, and I don't want to deal with those other than to say that I agree with the interpretations of the minority who argue that they actually make sense. Ziggy's emotional state in particular, and the fact that the lake wasn't there fifteen years ago. I don't think you can claim to hate a story based on thinking an arbitrary number of years is an excessive number and this story really stands on the merits of character growth backed up by spooky atmosphere.

Originally Published in Campus Chills
Text for sale by Author for $0.99

Midnight Blue

Short Story by Will McIntosh
Read for Escape Pod by Paul Haring (Text & Audio Free Online)

Extremely fun world in which White Picket Fence America has been transformed by spheres which convey superpowers to whomever absorbs them. More rare spheres contain better powers, and since they appeared 2 generations ago, most of them have been used up, and today superpowers are a commodity only the rich can afford. Jeff is bullied by his rich classmates who love to show off the trivial little powers their parents have bought for them (Better Sense of Taste!, Good Whistler!). One day Jeff finds the rarest sphere of all, no one knows what it does but bulletproof, flying millionaires want to purchase it from him.

A sweet, fun little childhood story. I love the world McIntosh develops, but I'm a little torn on the ending. It is extremely heartwarming, but I feel like it takes away any of the negative consequences for Jeff's decision. I like the initial depiction as both options had pluses and minuses, but Jeff ends up all positive, and this rings a little false for me. I guess it does fit better with the hopeful, magical, nostalgic mood of the piece, but I prefer consequences.

3.5 superpowers absorbed, out of 5.

Originally Published in Asimov’s

Union Dues: Sidekicks in Stockholm

Novelette by Jeffrey R. DeRego
Read for Escape Pod by Stephen Eley (Text & Audio online)

Dark comedy about a Superman-like hero in a hostage situation. But the hostage taker is a villain called "The Chairman" who is mainly just upset about corporate greed and wants to use the ransom demands to force the various big and corrupt companies to undo some of the harm they did. He is a crazed extremist, they are a bunch of particularly exploitative CEOs and the Chairman's political lectures are softened by meta-commentary and opposing viewpoints presented by the hostages. DeRego isn't a fan of big business, but he isn't giving a one-sided lecture about it either.

The best thing is everyone's amazement at how little Adam Smasher understands of economics and politics. The whole debate basically goes straight over his head. At the end, dark political humor goes out the window for a just plain dark ending as Adam has to make a decision about where he stands on the debate.

I don't agree with Adam's decision, and I suspect none of the hostages, terrorists, or most people reading this story will either. Which is what makes it a great one. We don't have to agree with the hero or like his decisions, but it is great fun coming to understand how they get to that point. Even more fun for being such a deconstruction of the superhero hostage situation. DeRego and others have done superhero deconstructions before, and I've liked some but not all of them, but this is my absolute favorite such story I've ever read.

4 out of 5 supervillains have the floor, goddamnit.

Leech Run

Short Story by Scott W. Baker
Read for Escape Pod by Alasdair Stuart (Audio & Text free online)

A very cinematic feel. It's neat, but at times the point-of-view is frustrating. We mostly follow Captain Titan as he investigates a disappearance from among his contraband human cargo. 'Leeches' are human mutants who are shot on sight aboard ships and seem to have few rights planetside. They are particularly dangerous to transport due to the ability to drain all power from a ship's systems, and Titan provides the rare service of smuggling them.

But throughout the story, Titan always knows twice as much as the reader, despite being the point of view character. On one hand, we are informed of his emotions and reasons for doing some things, but reasons for other things are kept entirely hidden, certain actions not mentioned until after the fact (The story climaxes with a bit of "Oh, I did that ten minutes ago"), we are never allowed to see or know half the things we ought to for fair storytelling. Baker is playing games with the reader, distorting the narrative and point of view to keep a big surprise hidden until the halfway point. This annoys me even more in literature than it does in film. Even if we don't know the character's key bit of backstory, we should at least see what action he takes and get to see him acting as if he knew the thing he knew, instead of hiding so many facts from readers.

Anyway, it is a pretty engaging bit of mystery and space-operatic suspense. World-building and tension are high in the first half, with fun characters bantering and acting smugglery. And the ending is good, except that the sudden reveal of what Titan knew all along makes his escape a bit of a cop-out and his previous actions seem not-that-smart. And again, the final climax is neat, but resolved by way of deus-ex-I-did-this-offscreen-ten-minutes-ago-and-now-you-see-how-smart-I-am-via-flashback.

Narratively, a few points really really annoy me about this story, and I'm not always the biggest fan of Space Adventure stories anyway, but the setting, Leech powers, banter, and high tension take it up to another level, after I'd knocked it down a bit from neutral, it evens out to being just below average.

2.5 Energy-sucking Space Pirates out of 5.