Wednesday, November 9, 2011

起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows)

Short Story by Zen Cho
Read for Podcastle by Tracey Yuen
Original text published at Strange Horizons, March 2011

A British Lion Dance troupe use their performances as a cover for secret ghostbusting missions. This is a warm, humorous ghost story, with lots of Chinese and Malaysian culture and some good comedic musings on why exactly magical lions enjoy cabbage so much. The ending is sweet, not really surprising, but nice. The value of this story is not in suspense, but in happy feelings and wry humor.

3.5 cabbages out of 5.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Blood Garden

Short Story by Jesse Livingston
Read for Pseudopod by Chris Reynaga

Fed up with his college friends' pedantic semantic arguments about about symbolism, Matthew wanders away from an analysis of a fictional poem, and as he wanders the streets at night, he wanders into the poem itself.

I've had many frustrating conversations of this sort myself, where argument over a definition prevents us from ever getting to the substance of the debate. The discussion and the frustration with other people's pedantry rings particularly true, but it's nice that the story flashes to Matthew's friends after he leaves, and shows us that they aren't complete tools.

Matthew feels isolated, fed up with his friends and left alone to deal with the death of his mother. He's jealous of his friends and their presumably cushier lives, he's angry, sad, and isolated. The magical, poetic garden in which he finds comfort is dark and violent and the images will haunt me.

I've felt what Matthew feels, the isolation and powerlessness, frustration with your friends and loneliness and rage. Livingston evokes these emotions so well, and I'm in love with the image of the garden. I only wish the poem he referenced were real. It's compared to Kubla Khan and the poetic description contains a long section from the end of Coleridge's poem, with "She was alone when she died" presumably interjected by Matthew to make the poem more fitting, and more sinister.

4 animals in the trees out of 5.

Kubla Khan or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.

Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Free online and in the public domain.

I like to play the amateur critic, especially with new stories that tend to receive few, if any, reviews. Kubla Khan has a Wikipedia page over 11,000 words long, with 162 citations. That's longer than many novelettes I review. I don't want to write a doctoral dissertation on this poem, and so I'm unwilling to engage in debate with nearly 200 years of critics, including T. S. Eliot. Read the Wikipedia page for in depth analysis. Or don't. But I do urge you to read this classic poem, and read it again if it has been a while. It's worth your time.

I'm blogging about it because I did reread it recently, inspired by Jesse Livingston's "The Blood Garden" over on Pseudopod. And I quite enjoy this poem, although it isn't my favorite. The imagery is my favorite in all of Coleridge's work that I've read (admittedly not as much as I'd like, but after the Big Three of Kubla Khan, Ancient Mariner, and Christabel I've never really been enthralled enough by his writing to keep reading much of it.) It's not just my weakness for the gothic, I like the rhythm of these poems better as well.

And that's really what my love of Kubla Khan comes down to. It opens all Romantic and green but the second and third sections achieve this breathless, frantic quality. The rhymes and rhythm are exciting. They get your heart beating. In a lot of ways, "Kubla Khan" reminds me of Poe's "The Raven" (I don't read everything in publishing order).

For what it's worth, I'm in the camp that counts "Kubla Khan" as a complete poem. Screw authorial intent, the poem climaxes and then gives us a haunting two-line ending, better than the endings of countless other complete poems. Coleridge is dead, it's no longer a work-in-progress, and he gave us a brilliant ending. I'm not convinced another 400 lines would have done anything but dilute it. Do yourself a favor and read or reread this today. It doesn't take long. And if you're alone, or don't mind looking like a crazy person, read it aloud.

4 pleasure domes out of 5.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Best New Horror

Short Story by Joe Hill

An anthologist growing tired of reading the same old crap finally finds a story that excites him. It's a welcome break from his downward spiraling life, and his quest to find the author and obtain the reprint rights becomes its own kind of horrific odyssey. The conclusion is left open, but I'm convinced he has found some new happiness in the horror, if only in the escape from depression and tedium.

A straight-up scary story, rather than a tale of childhood or sad ghosts, and one I immensely enjoyed. This story plays a lot off common horror tropes, but in a very knowing, metafictional way that I appreciate. I was actually a bit scared by the story-within-the-story, although that isn't the focus, and I don't think I'd like it as much as the narrator did.

4.5 out of 5 of everything is shit. This story is in Sturgeon's last 10%.

The Klepsydra: A Chapter from A Faunary of Recondite Beings

Short Story by Michaela Roessner

Lois Tilton points out some extremely valid problems with the linguistics in her review, and although not knowing what a clepsydra is seems odd for a professor interested in ancient greek, neither thing ruins the story for me. Mainly because it is still weird how the word breaks down, and it still breaks into the right roots (I think), the etymological mystery at the heart of the story is still intact, and I wanted to find the answer.

Roessner creates a new imaginary species, and manages to justify it both linguistically and biologically. It turns out to be a specialized species of Solifugid, if you're curious. The bits toward the end regarding the Pharos lighthouse seem silly at first, but they are justified later with the fate of the Alexandria Gardens caretakers. It still seems fantastic and maybe a bit silly, but by the end this conceit seems a lot more necessary and a lot less uselessly silly.

I am a fan of the academic tone of the whole piece, and the footnotes. I'm not sure I can deal with a minor character being named "Nepenthe Threnody" but for the most part I enjoyed this diversion into a land of academics much more fantastic and at least as fascinating as real life archeology.

3.5 Recondite Beings out of 5.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Buddy System

Short Story by Don D'Ammassa

A cautionary tale of computer systems destroying the world because we put too much faith in them. The idea of how they do this is a bit different, and good, but the explanation of what the computers do is complete gibberish and comes down to Magical Computers. And yet, there is a technobabble explanation anyway. Better to just admit it's practical magic.

I'm also not a fan of the fact that D'Ammassa names the character "Buddy" just so he can have a cutesy title/name for something. The titular computer system has no connection or thematic resonance in the buddy system we all had forced upon us for elementary school field trips. I don't mind cute names for things, but I like them to be relevant to the story or its themes. This story is called "The Buddy System" simply because it contains a System created by computer programer named Buddy.

And predicting elections with only 2 errors out of 1000 elections is absurd. The data doesn't exist for that quality of model. Maybe it only bugs me because I know a bit too much about polling data and election modeling, but it's one of far too many examples where the computers "extrapolate" data to a level of precision which simply can't exist. It's like he has never heard of Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.

My big conceptual problem is two-fold:
  1. You can't predict the future so accurately because unavoidable measurement error is often more than enough to decide between radically different results.
  2. You can't "Interpolate" entirely new, precise information from data that wouldn't be part of the same equation. You physically cannot calculate someone's face from an image of the back of their head.

I've picked more than enough nits here, but the point is, something annoys me about this story every few paragraphs, making it very hard to enjoy.

The author (or, even more improbably the computer programming narrator) is also biased against nerds and our ability to communicate or know things about the real world. Given the readership of Analog, this seems like a mistake. It also stinks of bad 80's movie cliche.

All told, this is an obnoxious computer-induced-end-of-world story which exists purely to say that carpenters are smarter than scientists and policy wonks. Thankfully, the carpenter-wisdom doesn't save the day, but it does wrap up the story with an over-obvious moral. The only redeeming factor is that the last couple pages are oddly gripping despite my annoyances.

2 magical computer algorithms out of 5.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Boxed In

Short Story by Marc-Anthony Taylor
Read for Escape Pod by Barry Haworth

A young boy makes money by letting rich kids "ride" in his brain. They get a thrill out of experiencing the unclean world outside the dome, breathing polluted air, even suffering from illnesses. The kid's sister acts as his pimp.

One day, a very rich girl offers to pay him an enormous sum of money for a ride with unspecified special conditions. She gives him a nice big infodump explaining history and what she wants, then he does it, with life-changing implications, and the story immediately ends.

The first time I listened to the podcast, I had to rewind. It's a sudden ending, not so much open as lacking in story. A long, flashback-filled history of the character and the world leads to a not very exciting adventure in which he has no agency, he's told to do something, does it, END. We never got to see any change in the character. He never made any difficult decisions, what he did can only improve his life, although that can't be said for others, but neither the character nor the reader is given time to think about any of the implications before the story is over.

Most of the action is caused by the two female characters, his sister, and client, both of whom are static and only appear through dialogue, although they are very much the puppetmasters, he is the unquestioning, unthinking puppet. The world is interesting, but nothing new, and the changes it is about to go through go entirely unexplored, as do the changes that led to the current state of affairs.

No character development, no adventure, no real plot. An overused setting where the rich are sealed into domes and the rest of the world is lawless post-apocalypse. Themes of rich versus poor and grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side are brought up, but nothing terribly interesting or new is said. The first 2/3 of the story are entirely character study of a boring, puppet-like main character, nothing interesting happening until the last 1/3 or so. Needless to say, I didn't like it.

I think what strikes me most is how much detail and time were spent on the character's largely-irrelevant childhood, only to wrap up the interesting non-flashback adventure/plot in one sentence.

1.5 domed delinquents out of 5.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Militant Peace

Novelette by David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell
Read for Clarkesworld by Mike Allen

Sergeant Nong Mai Thuy is a Vietnamese solider in the U.N. humanitarian invasion of North Korea. The idea is that U.N. forces have developed such a technological advantage over North Korea that they can invade and set up refugee camps without killing anyone.

Airships with powerful anti-ballistic laser defenses knock missiles and mortars out of the sky, walls for the camps are airlifted in and set up overnight, and Peacekeeping Soldiers wear suits of power armor, so they can usher enemy forces away, immune to small arms fire, and wreck all the abandoned artillery in their wake.

But Mai is having trouble sticking to the training, when people shoot at her, it's hard for her to dismiss them as not-a-threat, and when the peaceful war doesn't go exactly as planned Mai has to face the old killing-for-the-greater-good dilemma.

This is mostly an idea story, and the most interesting/modern part is the branding of the war effort, the reliance of advertising, and the fact that consequences have to be considered not just in morality or war-effort terms, but in terms of how it will play in the media and how the public, and advertising sponsors, will view any given action.

An interesting idea, well written with decent excitement.

3.5 corporate logos out of 5 on the body armor.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Still Small Voice

Short Story by Ben Burgis
Originally Published by Podcastle, reading by David Rees-Thomas

A story revolving around King James I, the King James Bible, and the Popish Recusants Act, in an England where executions are carried out via dragon, the American colonies have magic, and the Church of England's main beef with the pope is whether you are limited to five wives, or can go all the way up to six.

A new heresy has sprung up among some members of the court, instead of five gods, they think there are only three. James' bastard son has to figure out what's going on at court, witness the birth of English atheism, and help save his friend from execution.

The main theme here is that people have a right to knowledge, but the more knowledge they have, the more choice they have, and rulers can't dictate what choices people make once those people are better educated. But they'll often try. I quite liked the metaphor of knowledge as an unchained dragon.

I liked the story, it was an unusual alternate history, an exciting story, with some interesting themes on religion and freedom of religion. Nothing I haven't seen before, but admittedly shorter, with more dragons. The ending was fun and adventurous, if maybe a bit too easy.

3.5 gods out of 5.

The Killers

Short Story by Ernest Hemingway

Two mob hitmen hang out in a diner, waiting for the man they 're going to kill to come in for dinner. In a very spare, minimalist story, Hemingway examines how people get caught up in the affairs of others, some people don't want to get involved, others want to help and find their help unwanted. Most people are just resigned to their fate and don't seem interested in fighting it, just letting things happen as they will. It's an uncomfortable observation for me, but I suspect it is uncomfortably true of most people in real life as well. It's quite a comic story, but I also found myself on the edge of my seat.

A good story, oddly page-turner-y, but not my favorite from Hemingway.

4 menu items out of 5 aren't available until dinner.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Library of Babel

Short Story by Jorge Luis Borges

The universe (which others call the Library)...
Those are the first words of Borges' story "The Library of Babel, which starts off mostly thought experiment about an infinite library which contains all possible books, and therefore most books are nonsense since they are just random assortments of letters without meaning. Of course, there may be languages in which those combinations of letters make sense.

But what really makes this a story is that it becomes, through description of the mostly meaningless books, about the people, the infinitely populous race of librarians, who may soon become extinct through suicide. They search for meaning in the library (and therefore life), they form civilizations, inquisitions, and religions based around finding the book that is an index of the library. Of course, there must also be many more books that look like indices, but are mostly or completely incorrect.

So what is the point? The narrator is kept going by vain hope that there is order in the chaos, that it is only incomprehensible because our lives are finite.

5 shelves per wall, forever.

Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel

Short story by Shaenon K. Garrity
Published free by Strange Horizons
Carol and I were librarians at an infinite library where roughly 72% of books are Moby-Dick. Our library contains, within in its stacks, every edition of Moby-Dick that ever has been or will be or could be published. So does the main Library, of course, but at our branch the probability of coming across one of them is much higher.
This story was awesome. I can't really summarize it other than to say two librarians are trying to keep their infinite branch library from closing down, and mostly just exploring the concept. I suggest you read The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges before reading this, if you haven't it's one of those stories you really should read anyway, available here. Borges' story is brilliant, and this is essentially hilarious Borges fanfic. Garrity doesn't have the existential depth of Borges, but she adds more comedy, and explores her conception of the Branch Library somewhat differently. I loved it.

4.5 editions of Moby Dick out of infinitely many.

How Maartje and Uppinder Terraformed Mars (Marsmen Trad.)

Short Story by Lisa Nohealani Morton
Text and Audio from Lightspeed

In a rare turn of events, I thought the audio hurt the story, rather than helping it. Not that I liked it much either way, but the reading emphasized the kiddie tone that bothered me in the story.

This is a folktale/creation myth for the terraforming of Mars, told by a little girl in the moon (Phobos) and hideously simplistically unlikely the way folk creation myths tend to be. Which I wouldn't mind so much, but for the central conceit that the folksy stuff involves rocket ships and nanotech. It's more incongruous than I can deal with, and not really in a good way.

The repetition of lines is just how you'd expect in a simple myth told to children, but we are not children reading this, and it sort of grates. It isn't a neat enough idea for me to get past that.

Cutesy without being interesting.

2 Marsmen out of 5 know better.