Thursday, July 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Cory Doctorow

Yesterday was Cory Doctorow's birthday. So in slightly belated recognition, here's a collection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction -- some of the most intelligent, politically engage, and technologicall intriguing SF of the past couple of decades.

Locus, September 2002

Black Gate, by contrast, avowedly tries to publish more traditional adventure-oriented fantasy. The fourth issue, for Summer 2002, features a number of stories that fit that description just fine. The best story, though, is Cory Doctorow's "Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)", a post-holocaust tale, and straight SF, not fantasy, but I'm not complaining. A group of people are scratching out a living by scavenging the ruins of a "dresdenned" city. The narrator is a trumpet player in a casual band that represents the closest thing to real community around. When a young woman shows up and tries to get the locals to start growing plants instead of scavenging, there is some surprising resistance. The characters are well-drawn, and the central issue thought-provoking, though I thought the resolution unconvincing.

Locus, November 2002

The online newsmagazine Salon has long showed interest in SF, so perhaps it's not surprising that they have published an SF novelette: "0wnz0red", by Cory Doctorow, posted August 28. It's a fine story, too, pretty much in Bruce Sterling territory, about a software engineer in a decline after his best friend has died of. Then his friend shows up alive, indeed, in excellent health. It seems he has been treated so that his autonomic functions are under software control, to his body's benefit. But the feds want to keep that stuff under wraps ... I liked it.

Locus, January 2003

The December offering from Sci Fiction begs comparison with "Junk DNA", if only because both stories are collaborations by writers noted for madcap near future extrapolation. "Jury Service", by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, concerns a man who is selected to serve on a "jury" evaluating, for safety and utility, some tech downloaded from post-singularity, all the while worrying about a bio-hazard that seems to have infected him. The plot is twisty and interesting and frenetic, and the heart of the story, the depiction of wacky future tech and social adjustments to that tech, is neat stuff.

Locus, March 2003

Finally, the online newsmagazine Salon has published another fine story by Cory Doctorow. "Liberation Spectrum" (posted January 16, 2003) crackles with speculation. A "mobile multinational" pushing "cognitive radio" faces deep internal stress after there attempt to wire a Mohawk reservation and free them from the national telecommunication monopoly is resisted by the Canadian feds. The speculation is interesting technologically, and interesting sociologically, and the personal aspect (focussed on the corporation's founder and CEO) works as well. It's often funny, and also moving. And in many ways it's reminiscent of a Campbell-era Analog story, but 21st Century style, post-Bruce Sterling style.

Locus, February 2004

DAW's "monthly magazine" of themed anthologies offers a reliable if seldom exciting source of new SF and Fantasy. 2003 closes with Mike Resnick's New Voices in Science Fiction: 20 short stories by new writers (variably defined: from complete unknowns like Paul Crilley to well-established writers like Kage Baker and Susan R. Mathews). For the most part the stories seem more promising than outstanding. A high point is Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross's "Flowers From Alice", a very clever story of posthuman marriage with a delightful ending twist.

Locus, August 2004

I mentioned Emswhiller's story from the second issue of Argosy, dated May-June. I think the magazine is successfully straddling genres according to its apparent ambition. Besides the Emshwiller story there is a fine mystery by O'Neil DeNoux, a nice humorous Lucifer Jones piece from Mike Resnick, and a very enjoyable wild pair of novellas from Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Their 2002 Sci Fiction novella "Jury Service" is reprinted, followed by a brand new story, "Appeals Court", that follows directly from the first. Our hero, Huw, carrying an Ambassador from the post-Singularity "Cloud" of uploaded intelligences, makes his way willy-nilly to a much-changed U.S. There he finds primitive Baptists, petroleum trees, a hypercolony of flesh-eating ants, and another Church promoting lots of sex. And he hasn't escaped Judge Judy either ... Like the first story, it's full of whipcrack smart satire and wild speculation – fun stuff. [These became a novel, The Rapture of the Nerds.]



Locus, April 2005

Infinite Matrix was more or less missing in action last year, but so far this year it is in fine form. Perhaps the most talked-about short story of the year to date is Cory Doctorow's "i, robot". Doctorow is doing a series of stories re-examining SF classics from his contemporary political viewpoint. "i, robot" considers Asimov's robot stories (more The Caves of Steel than I, Robot, I thought) as well as George Orwell's 1984. Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg is a detective in Toronto, raising his daughter alone after his wife defected to Eurasia. UNATS (North America) is engaged in perpetual war with the rest of the world, while trying to maintain "Social Harmony" by coercive means including restricting genetic engineering and robotic development (such as true AI). One day his daughter disappears, and Arturo tries to track her down, ending up in a tangle of loyalties – his wife may be involved, as well as scary advance robots, and on the other side the less than pleasant folks from "Social Harmony". I think it's a fine story – better than 2004's "Anda's Game" – my only quarrel is that while the depiction of the dystopian situation in North America is only too plausible, the depiction of the fairly utopian alternative in Eurasia is sheer wish-fulfillment. Still – a very thought-provoking work, well worth the notice it has received.

Review of Future Washington (Locus, January 2006)

Cory Doctorow's “Human Readable” opens as Trish, a lawyer, and her boyfriend, a scientist, visit the man’s family for the first time. On the way there, the emergent quasi-AI that controls traffic breaks down – the first, it turns out, of many such breakdowns. Trish becomes convinced that the extended network of tiny computing devices that is used for traffic control and other beneficial things is vulnerable to manipulation, and needs to be made “human readable”, even at cost to its efficiency. Her boyfriend is convinced that it works best if left alone – that occasional breakdowns are a small price to pay for the huge ultimate benefits. The story demonstrates (not quite convincingly, mainly because the tech is only handwaved in) that powerful interests can fiddle with the network so that, for example, rich people avoid traffic jams, while people on the outs with those in power constantly lose cellphone connectivity, and so on. Doctorow makes it more interesting by interweaving Trish’s love story with the political story. It’s good stuff, though I thought not quite outstanding. I note that on the surface it’s purely about the dangers and political problems of a near-future technological advance, but that it is also a pretty straightforward metaphorical look at the dangers and political problems of free-market capitalism.

Locus, October 2006

I didn’t find the second issue of the new online magazine Jim Baen’s Universe quite as involving as the first. Still, it features a very generous helping of stories and articles, many quite entertaining. I liked Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, a post-holocaust novelette in which a bio-engineered plague kills most of humanity, and for a brief time a group of computer geeks try to set up a new world order of sorts.

Locus, October 2008

And an exciting new source of online fiction has appeared: Tor.com, associated with the publisher of course. The first three text stories (there is also a graphic story) appeared in July and August, all from “hot new writers” in a sense, ages ranging from 37 to 44: Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Charles Stross. To which generation do these belong? I don’t know, but I do sense that they (perhaps especially Doctorow and Stross) feel that they are actively in dialogue with each other. The best of these stories is Doctorow’s “The Things That Make We Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away”, about a quasi-religious, nearly monastic, organization called The Order, the members of which are programmers who live communally. It seems utopian, but the protagonist learns some of the costs when he ventures outside to chase the source of an “anomaly” in the datastreams he monitors, and realizes who he has been working for (indirectly) and the effect of his work on ordinary people.

Review of Fast Forward 2 (Locus, November 2008)

Another of the bumper crop of new unthemed original anthology series has put out its second number. Fast Forward 2, unlike books from Jonathan Strahan and Ellen Datlow, is quite overtly an all-Science Fiction book. It also features no fewer than three collaborative stories. SF, probably in great part because of its commercial roots, has long featured a somewhat high proportion of collaborations, but three in one volume these days is unusual. In each case the partners are of broadly similar age and notoriety, suggesting that the contributions of each writer are likely about equal. The longest and most ambitious is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel. This is apparently a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model – otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation – at multiple levels – and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in – nor always understood – what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

Review of Life on Mars (Locus, May 2011)

Cory Doctorow’s “Martian Chronicles” is the latest of his stories taking their titles from classic SF, though the story itself doesn’t really react to or comment on Bradbury. It’s about a boy on his way to Mars, who is really good at playing a Sims-like game mimicking a business setup. He makes a couple of friends who take different roles in the game, and learns, in Heinleinesque fashion (complete with the Heinlein trick of winning arguments by framing the opposing position as you desire) to know better, and to understand what’s really going on at Mars, where the economy is supposedly modeled on the game he plays.

Locus, June 2014

Robot Uprisings is John Joseph Adams' latest project, teamed this time with Daniel H. Wilson. The theme is clear enough, and the stories as a set are a fine examination of variations on it, from a nicely varied set of writers too, both from within and without the genre. As with many themed anthologies, read all at once there might be a bit of a sense of too much repetition. But by and large this is a strong book.

My favorite story was a reprint that I missed on its first appearance in 2010. Cory Doctorow's “Epoch” is about BIGMAC, a “doomed rogue AI”, and his story is told by Odell Vyphus, the sysadmin who has inherited responsibility for BIGMAC. Apparently BIGMAC was something of a dead end – “there just weren't any killer apps for AI”. Now it's obsolete, and expensive to maintain, and Odell's boss wants him to kill the AI. Naturally BIGMAC finds out about this plan, and implements its own plan to save itself. The story is funny and intelligent and moving and believable – the same can be said for the characters. Very strong work.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Esther Friesner

Today is also Esther Friesner's birthday. Friesner is best known for her comic work, and that work is very funny indeed. But she also can be very affecting, as with her two Nebula winning short stories. here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction, most from Locus but also a review of a story collection, from 3SF.

Locus, April 2002

The April F&SF is very solid.  Several stories are comic – particularly notable being Esther Friesner's novelette "Just Another Cowboy", and Thomas M. Disch's set of brief Biblical retellings, "Torah! Torah! Torah!".  Friesner's story is set on a Texas ranch that has just been inherited by a scrawny boy who was raised in New York.  He and his shrewish aunt come to take possession, and the farmhands are naturally concerned for their futures.  But there is one very special farmhand … It's silly, quite entertaining, fun.

3SF, February 2003

By contrast Esther Friesner, it must be said, is fairly well known – at any rate, she owns two Nebula Awards for short fiction, and she has published any number of novels, many of them comic but some quite dark.  Here's a collection of recent work: Death and the Librarian and Other Stories.  It's an excellent display of her talents.  It includes her two Nebula winners: the title story, a moving piece an old woman who reads to a rather special group of children, and her encounter with death; and "A Birthday", a fierce and thoughtful story about the human costs of abortion – and of anti-abortion laws.  My other favorite here is "Chanoyu", a striking SF story interleaving a Japanese tea ceremony with slow revelations about the artificial person at the center of the story, and about its job harvesting genetic material.

This collection amply displays Friesner's range, with humourous and whimsical stories like "How to Make Unicorn Pie", fierce satire in "'White', said Fred", a highly poetic, magic realist story about the Spanish Revolution in "Love, Crystal, and Stone", an odd, clever, futuristic take on Alice in "A Pig's Tale", even one brand new story, "Ilion" (a September 11 piece).  At times the stories are over-sentimental, at times a joke is belabored, but overall, a fine collection.

Locus, July 2004

The July issue of F&SF is a special "All-American" issue, with all the stories on American themes. For example, Esther Friesner's "Johnny Beansprout" is a hilarious story of an alternative Johnny Appleseed, spreading not only bean sprouts but vegetarian dogma. The kicker is that the story is told from the POV of one of Johnny's adoptive relatives: Sawney Bean, with all that that name implies.

Locus, April 2005

At the March Asimov's, Esther M. Friesner's cover novelette, "The Fraud", features a penniless English gentleman, George Pengallen, investigating what must surely be fraudulent claims of a woman pregnant by a unicorn. But frauds abound – Pengallen himself is a deceptive man, as surely too are his lover and his new patron. Much is made of the fraudulent Mrs. Tufts, who claimed to give birth to rabbits. But somehow the woman's claims ring a but more truly. The conclusion is inevitably sad and cynical.

Locus, October 2006

I didn’t find the second issue of the new online magazine Jim Baen’s Universe quite as involving as the first. Still, it features a very generous helping of stories and articles, many quite entertaining. Esther Friesner’s “Benny Comes Home” is just very funny, about a boy in a post-WWII Jewish family who learns a lot of family secrets when a cousin finally comes home from the war, and another cousin deals with her family insisting she finally marry someone.

Locus, September 2007

Also in the August F&SF ... Esther Friesner is  entertaining, and quite clever, in “At These Prices”, in which a rather greedy hotel guest finds herself fortuitously pledged the service of a brownie. It seems the hotel has inherited the very inexpensive use of a whole group of magical creatures … and a misstep means that Ms. Franklin gets the use of the brownie. Which is unpleasant for him – but his friends are there to help.

In the online world, Helix for Summer features a strong set of stories, all by women. I preferred Esther Friesner’s sharply satirical “A Sacred Institution”, in which a slimy politician marries his dog but runs into trouble when aliens show up who demand that promises like marriage be kept – and who can enforce such demands.

Locus, August 2016

Now to some anthologies. Bryan Thomas Schmidt has a couple new books about, both a mix of reprints and originals. Galactic Games is a collection of sport stories, timed to coincide with the Rio Olympics. In this case the book is mostly originals, often dealing with attempts at interspecies sport, and (not always on purpose) managing to highlight the difficulties of fair completion between entities of a radically different physical makeup. Maybe the best take on that comes from Esther Friesner, in her wickedly funny tale of what happens when a representative of a very warlike species wants to be a cheerleader, “Pompons and Circumstance”.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley was one of the greatest SF writers of short stories, particularly funny short stories, though he was certainly capable of deeper work (even in the funny stories.) I read through basically all of his story collections a quarter century or so back, a very rewarding effort.His novels were never as good as his short fiction, but they were still reliably enjoyable.  He was born in 1928 and died in 2005, after falling ill while visiting Russia. He was named SFWA Author Emeritus in 2001, and award that was controversial in some quarters, because it was often regarded as a pat on the back for an accomplished long-time writer who "wasn't good enough for Grand Master status". Sheckley, it was felt (and I agree) was potentially a Grand Master, if perhaps not a slam dunk case, so the Emeritus designation seemed almost an insult, though Sheckley by all accounts was quite happy to be so honored.

What follows is what I've written about his short fiction, a few reviews of late stories in Locus, plus a number taken from my "retro-reviews" of 1950s magazines. Alas, none of the stories I mention are among his best, such as, say, the fairly early "Specialist" or the much later "Pas de Trois of the Chef, the Waiter, and the Customer".

Astounding, March 1953

The only short story is Robert Sheckley's "Fool's Mate" (4800 words), in which two equally matched space fleets confront each other. It seems their computers have determined that the alien fleet has a tiny positional advantage which nearly guarantees victory -- but that neither fleet can attack since the act of attacking will ruin their position and guarantee failure. The standoff is psychologically devastating, until a man comes up with an idea -- use one of the gunnery officers who has been driven insane to control attack strategy. You see, the other side's computer will never be able to figure out a madman ... Cute, I suppose, but not terribly believable.

Science Fiction Stories, 1953

Robert Sheckley's "Ask a Foolish Question" (3600 words) concerns representatives of several different races finding a machine built by an ancient race called "The Answerer". The Answerer will answer any question -- but can lesser races ask a sensible enough question and understand the answer?

Space Science Fiction, September 1953

Robert Sheckley's "The Hour of Battle" (2200 words) is another human/alien war story, with a nasty twist. Humans have encountered evil telepathic aliens, who can take over people's minds and make them do anything. They have developed a telepathy detector, and a series of ships guard the Solar System, ready to destroy the aliens at the first sign of telepathic probing. But perhaps they haven't quite thought this through ... though what hope there really could be in such a situation I can't see.

Galaxy, August 1954

The short stories are "Subsistence Level", by Finn O'Donnevan (4500 words); ... "Finn O'Donnevan" is really Robert Sheckley. I'm not sure why he used a pseudonym for "Subsistence Level", which is fairly characteristic of his work of the time, though not one of his best stories. A young couple move to the asteroids to be pioneers, and they must live difficult pioneer lives: 5 hour work days!, plain eight course meals prepared by household robots, etc. Minor but acceptable.

If, September 1954

Robert Sheckley's "The Battle" (2000 words) extrapolates today's trends toward increasing automation of warfare to the Battle of Armageddon. OK, but mostly a punchline story.

Galaxy, October 1954

The short stories include Robert Sheckley's "Ghost V" (5300 words), the first (chronologically) AAA Ace Planet Decontamination Story. This is more straightforward than most Sheckley. The AAA Ace guys must solve the mystery of a planet where two groups of explorers have each died violently, despite no evidence of dangerous creatures on the planet. The solution is OK, but not great.

Galaxy, November 1954

Robert Sheckley's "The Laxian Key" (3500 words) is a AAA Ace story. Arnold's latest get-rich-quick idea is a "Free Producer", which can make endless supplies of something for nothing. Problem is, the something isn't worth much! It's mostly a joke story, with no real resolution, but it's pretty funny.

Galaxy, July 1955

Robert Sheckley's "Deadhead" (3000 words) is about a struggling scientific outpost on Mars, inhabited only by Ph.D.'s who are forced to do all the ordinary work, too. Every so often a stowaway "deadheads" to Mars, trying to escape tiresome Earth. The "deadhead" seems a very useful person, but regulations say he must be sent directly home. But the question is -- how did he get to Mars after all? The answer is a bit cute -- worth 3000 words, I guess, but nothing special.

Locus, September 2003

Weird Tales for July-August features a story by the wonderful Robert Sheckley: "The Tales of Zanthias". Zanthias is a leader of an unusual town of misfits, a town surrounded by monsters such as zombies, calibans, witches, ghosts, all of which he tries to keep away. One morning his wife is missing, and he looks for her -- and finds that he himself has a secret.

Locus, January 2004

Mike Resnick's latest DAW anthology reverses the conceit of an earlier book: this time we have Men Writing Science Fiction as Women. As with the previous book, the results are mixed. ... Also good is Robert Sheckley's "A Tale of the Oroi", a pleasant concoction of fantasy and SF in which a fairy from Ancient Greece encounters a time traveler from the 21st Century, with slyly presented, unexpected, results.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Best SF Short Fiction of All Time

I've been asked, a few times, to produce lists of my favorite short science fiction stories. I did that once (at least) on rec.arts.sf.written, and I did it for the Locus All Centuries poll. And my answer will probably change the next time I think about it seriously. But, just for documentation's sake, I wanted to record my answers from before.

First, here's an off the top of my head answer I gave on rec.arts.sf.written (gosh how I miss that community in its Golden Age!) in December 1999. The original question was "Ten Best Novelettes" (by which the poster (Jerry Friedman) meant "long stories" -- roughly speaking, novelettes and novellas.) Naturally I added short stories too.

Here's what I posted.

__

Here's my list, which extends to 12 authors and 14 stories (so sue
me!):
(I've put it in my best guess at chronological order of publication)
"... and Now the News" by Theodore Sturgeon
"The Dead Past" by Isaac Asimov
"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
"The Sources of the Nile" by Avram Davidson
"Starfog" by Poul Anderson
"Nine Lives" and "The Stars Below" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"The Second Inquisition" by Joanna Russ
"Green Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson
"The Last of the Winnebagos" and "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis
"The Originist" by Orson Scott Card
"Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan
"The Ziggurat" by Gene Wolfe
And a list for short stories (10 authors, 12 stories):
"Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith
"Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
"The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson
"The Man Who Lost the Sea" by "A Saucer of Loneliness" by Theodore
Sturgeon
"A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny
"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw
"The Milk of Paradise" and "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" by James
Tiptree, Jr.
"The Marvelous Brass Chess-Playing Automaton" by Gene Wolfe
"Out of All them Bright Stars" by Nancy Kress
"New Rose Hotel" by William Gibson
Oh, and a list of honorable mentions (this is so hard!): "The Star" by
Clarke, "Nobody's Home" by Russ, "Rat" and "Think Like a Dinosaur" by
James Patrick Kelly, "E for Effort" by T. L. Sherred, "The Star Pit"
by Samuel R. Delany, "Imaginary Countries" and "Winter's King" by
Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance, "Wall of Crystal,
Eye of Night" by Budrys, "The Crystal Spheres" by Brin, "The Other
Dead Man" and "How the Whip Came Back" and "Seven American Nights" and
etc. by Wolfe, "The Only Neat Thing to Do" and "And I Awoke and Found
Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" and etc. by Tiptree, "Why I Left
Harry's All-night Hamburgers" by Watt-Evans, "Starship Day" by Ian R.
MacLeod, "Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler, "All My Darling Daughters"
and "At the Rialto" and "Schwarzchild Radius" by Willis, "Stairs" by
Neal Barrett, Jr., "Great Work of Time" by John Crowley, "An Infinite
Summer" by Christopher Priest, "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven.
_____

And for the Locus All Centuries Poll, here's my submission, from 2012 for stuff through 2010: 
The Locus All Centuries Poll -- best SF/Fantasy novels and short fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries (separately) is ending just about now. Here's my votes (note that they change over time, and the order is random, and there are stories I missed!)


20th Century Novella:
1: "Story of Your Life", Ted Chiang

2: "Great Work of Time", John Crowley

3: "Green Mars", Kim Stanley Robinson

4: "The Blabber", Vernor Vinge

5: "Seven American Nights", Gene Wolfe

6: "The Star Pit", Samuel R. Delany

7: "The Last of the Winnebagos", Connie Willis

8: "E for Effort", T. L. Sherred

9: "The Originist", Orson Scott Card

10: "The Gold at the Starbow's End", Frederik Pohl

20th Century Novelette:
1: "Wang's Carpets", Greg Egan

2: "Fondly Fahrenheit", Alfred Bester

3: "The Second Inquisition", Joanna Russ

4: "The Sources of the Nile", Avram Davidson

5: "A Rose for Ecclesiastes", Roger Zelazny

6: "Starfog", Poul Anderson

7: "An Infinite Summer", Christopher Priest

8: "Nine Lives", Ursula K. Le Guin

9: "The Stars Below", Ursula K. Le Guin

10: "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Jorge Luis Borges

20th Century Short Story:
1: "Out of All Them Bright Stars", Nancy Kress

2: "The Man Who Lost the Sea", Theodore Sturgeon

3: "The Milk of Paradise", James Tiptree, Jr.

4: "Nobody's Home", Joanna Russ

5: "Light of Other Days", Bob Shaw

6: "Day Million", Frederik Pohl

7: "New Rose Hotel", William Gibson

8: "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain", James Tiptree, Jr.

9: "The Man Who Came Early", Poul Anderson

10: "Schwartz Between the Galaxies", Robert Silverberg

21st Century SF Novel:
1: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

2: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon

3: The Sky So Big and Black, John Barnes

4: Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

5: Ares Express, Ian McDonald

21st Century Fantasy Novel:
1: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke

2: Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin

3: The Light Ages, Ian R. MacLeod

4: The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

5: The City and the City, China Mieville

21st Century Novella:
1: "New Light on the Drake Equation", Ian R. MacLeod

2: "Magic for Beginners", Kelly Link

3: "A Billion Eves", Robert Reed

4: "The Engines of Desire", William Barton

5: "The Tear", Ian McDonald

21st Century Novelette:
1: "The Voluntary State", Christopher Rowe

2: "The People of Sand and Slag", Paolo Bacigalupi

3: "Lull", Kelly Link

4: "The Path of the Transgressor", by Tom Purdom

5: "Finisterra", by David Moles

21st Century Short Story:
1: "The House Beyond Your Sky", Benjamin Rosenbaum

2: "Three Days of Rain", Holly Phillips

3: "Pip and the Fairies", Theodora Goss

4: "More Adventures on Other Planets", Michael Cassutt

5: "Exhalation", Ted Chiang

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Matthew Johnson

Today is Canadian writer Matthew Johnson's birthday. He has published a couple of dozen stories, mostly in the decade between 2005 and 2014. I haven't seen a story since then -- I think he's been working on a novel. I see that there is a new story in a 2019 anthology -- I hope that means more are coming. I think Matthew is outstanding -- I've used a couple of his stories in my books, and I've enjoyed many more of them.

Locus, September 2006

Fantasy Magazine in its fourth issue continues to supply strong literary-oriented fantasy and slipstream. This time around I really liked Matthew Johnson’s “Irregular Verbs”, about a people supernally skilled in language, whose language is constantly changing, so that small groups, even couples, quickly evolve individual languages. One man loses his wife, and with it their shared language: a loss he cannot bear. So, against tradition, he tries to preserve it, in an unusual way. I though the story both moving and clever: reminiscent, actually, of many of the stories in Ursula Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Johnson distinguishes himself again with “Outside Chance” in the Summer On Spec, a convoluted tale of time travelers monitoring possible futures in an attempt to avoid disasters.

Locus, December 2006

There are three more strong pieces in December at Strange Horizons. ... Matthew Johnson’s “Heroic Measures”, which depicts an old woman (clearly, though never named, Lois Lane) and a very ill old man (clearly Superman, unable to die because of his powers, but otherwise infirm). Particularly moving, in an ironic way, is an encounter with another old man, significantly bald. Part of the fun of this of course is recognizing these familiar characters – but beyond that simple fun the story gains real power in making these characters, and their senescence, wholly believable.

Locus, February 2007

the other prize story at the March Asimov’s  is “Public Safety”, by Matthew Johnson, a fascinating and original alternate history set in a Nouvelle Orleans under French control, with France evidently still ruled by a Revolutionary government (including of course the Committee of Public Safety). The government insists on perfect rationality. The narrator is a part-Black policeman, assigned to what seem to be irrational crimes. In this case a threat has been transmitted – “She dies on the thirteenth” – which may be linked to a series of random bombings. He needs to find who the threatened “she” is, to begin with – and, it turns out, to end with. Johnson’s point is ultimately political, but reached via description of a colorful setting, and an interesting plot and main character. Very nice.

Locus, May 2007

The Winter On Spec has appeared – another solid issue of this now quite venerable magazine. My favorite story was the opener, Matthew Johnson’s “Lifebuoy”, which has a pretty neat central idea: cops are issued a “lifebuoy”, which allows them to abort an operation for ten minutes after it begins and return in time to the start. Karen is a detective who is in charge of a situation in which that fails – the ten minutes expire, and then her partner is killed. She is racked with guilt, but then comes the obvious question – why only ten minutes? Which starts to raise more questions, some of which are addressed as her investigations begin to cause problems for her.

Locus, August 2008

The first story at the August Asimov’s, Matthew Johnson’s “Lagos”, fits quite squarely within the constraints of the Mundane Manifesto. Safrat is a Nigerian woman who works as a teleoperator of remote equipment, such as vacuum cleaners for rich people. But she finds out that the telepresence network is being used for less savory reasons. The SFnal backgrounding of the story, even including the way Johnson parallels it with tribal magic, didn’t really catch fire for me, but the believable portrayal of the world’s poor, yet again pawns in the wealthier world’s system, was effective – and it seems very much a concern of much so-called Mundane SF.

Locus, December 2010

The December Fantasy Magazine features a strong story from Matthew Johnson, “Holdfast”. The setting is somewhat Norse in flavor. Irrel is a farmer, with a wife, a young son, and a daughter who wants to marry the young man staying with them, and perhaps move to the city. There are dragons, and magic, and war, and Irrel knows some magic, farm magic, which some denigrate. But the story – very quietly told – gently hints that his magic may be greater than many suspect – in a quiet, homebound way.

Locus, May 2014

“Rules of Engagement”, by Matthew Johnson (Asimov's, April-May), is a contemporary war story, about a trio of young soldiers who have been rendered medically unfit for active duty. The story is told on two threads … one covering a critical event during their service in Yemen, the other dealing with their various difficulties adapting to life back in the States. The Sfnal core is the brain adaptation they underwent, which includes behaviorally reinforced restrictions on use of force, plus ways around that … and which might, the story suggests, impact their behavior even when no longer active.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Birthday Review: Bad News, plus four obscure SF stories, by Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake was born July 12, 1933, and died on the last day of 2008. He was one of the great crime writers of the last half of the 20th Century, particularly for his comic crime novels, though he was also excellent in darker works. My favorite Westlake books were his hilarious Dortmunder novels. In his memory, on what would have been his 86th birthday, here's a look at one of his later Dortmunder novels, plus reviews of four early science fiction stories. (He was a modestly prolific SF writer early in his career, though usually not a very good one, until he left the genre rather publically, via an essay in the great fanzine Xero, blaming John Campbell for his disgust with SF.)

Bad News, by Donald Westlake

A better vacation read might have been Donald Westlake's latest Dortmunder book, Bad News.  It's very fast moving, very funny, very clever, and very much a typical Dortmunder book, which is, dare I say, good news.  As those who've read previous books in the series know, the most common trope of the Dortmunder books is for Dortmunder and his gang to get involved in a crime which ends up having to be, in some sense, repeated, with different permutations, several times.  For example, in the very first one, The Hot Rock, they had to steal the same jewel several times. 

In this book, after the usual opening scene, John Dortmunder hilariously failing to get caught while failing to successfully complete a robbery, he finds himself approached by Andy Kelp with a unorthodox (for them) proposal. Andy has been hired by somebody he met on the Internet (Andy is always trying new technology, which Dortmunder hates) to help out in a certain enterprise -- they want them to dig up a grave and rebury a different body in it.  This isn't much to Dortmunder's liking, but the price seems fateful -- exactly the amount of money he had expected to realize from the stolen goods he was forced to leave behind the previous night.  After Andy and John complete the body switch, they foil the attempt by the villains Fitzroy and Irwin to cheat (permanently) their new helpers, and they get interested in a) figuring out what's really going on, and b) getting themselves a much bigger cut.  With the help of Tiny Bulcher, they are soon involved in the scheme, which I won't detail here because finding out is much of the fun. Also involved are Little Feather, an Indian from out West, formerly a Las Vegas showgirl, and their target is an Indian-operated casino in Upstate New York.  (Surprisingly many of the more recent Dortmunder books end up partly set in Upstate New York -- it looks like Westlake may have moved there, which might explain it.)  It's no surprise that the crooked casino owners have their own ideas, which involve several hilarious further iterations of the original "crime". 

It's all very funny stuff, and the various schemes are pretty much as clever as usual, though depending just a bit on sheer luck.  Wholly worth reading, as indeed is the entire series.  I'd put this particular entry somewhere in the middle range of the Dortmunder books, which means well in the upper range of books in general.

Science Fiction Stories, May 1960

"Travellers Far and Wee", by Donald Westlake, is also slight, a tolerable little thing about people apparently charged with driving around New York and New Jersey forever, with the duty of being those annoying drivers we all deal with.

Amazing, March 1961

Donald Westlake, of course, became a very famous crime writer, under his own name and his most popular pseudonym, Richard Stark. But early in his career he wrote a lot of SF, before breaking with the field, and more explicitly, John Campbell, in an essay in the fanzine Xero.

Westlake was never as good an SF writer as he was a crime writer. (Though who can say what he might have done later in his career had he stuck with SF. He did write a couple of SF/F novels later on.) “The Risk Profession” is probably my favorite Westlake SF story of those I’ve read, and likely it’s not a coincidence that it’s a crime story. Ged Stanton is a fraud investigator for an insurance company. He’s sent out to the asteroids to find a way the company can avoid paying a “retirement plan” to a asteroid prospector. The plans are issued with the intent that most of the plan members will die too soon to collect.

Stanton ends up on the rock where the claimant’s partner is preparing to stake a big claim – it seems the two of them hit it big, but the one man died in an accident before he could collect his money – but not before he could ask for a refund of his Retirement Plan, figuring he wouldn’t need it any more. Obviously, something is fishy – and Stanton indeed figures it out (hey, I figured it out too, from the start) – but there are some neat tricks in the whole setup, and a nice closing twist.

If, September 1961

The other novelette is by Donald Westlake, presumably shortly before his stormy departure from SF writing. (It is my view that Westlake's departure from the field was as much due to his not really being a very good SF writer (and a truly wonderful crime writer) than to the hidebound nature of SF and its editors, as he claimed.) "Call Him Nemesis" (10K) is amusing enough. A series of crimes are averted by mysterious means, linked by odd temperature fluctuations and the association of the word "Scorpion". Psi is involved, but the person doing it is the point of the story, and it's nicely revealed.

Amazing, November 1961

The cover story is a novelet, "Meteor Strike!", by Donald E. Westlake (12500 words). Westlake, who was born in 1933 and died in 2008, was one of the great crime fiction writers of our time. I am particularly fond of his comic capers featuring the thief John Dortmunder. Others plump for his darker novels about a criminal named Parker, written as by Richard Stark. Early in his career, Westlake published a fair amount of Science Fiction, before bidding a bitter farewell to the field in a rant published in the great fanzine Xero. Westlake complained about SF's conservatism, and particularly about John Campbell. Alas, I feel his argument -- which had some merit -- loses some force simply because, truth be told, Westlake was a pretty mediocre SF writer.

That said, I did rather enjoy the last Westlake SF story I read, "The Risk Profession" (Amazing, March 1961). But it was in part a crime caper piece, playing to his strength. "Meteor Strike!" is pretty dire. It's about a regular Earth to Moon transportation system, particularly a space station en route, and a regular delivery of something important to the lonely station orbiting the Moon. This particular flight includes three new spacemen, one of them a rather truculent young man, embittered by his flunking out of MIT. He's pushed himself to success ever since, but at the cost of being a prime jerk. This behaviour continues on this trip. So when a meteor unconvincingly hits the Earth orbiting space station (and embeds itself in its skin!), right where the precious cargo is stored, somehow this rookie is chose to assist in the repair operation. He does OK, of course, after some bad spots. And the suspense over the "cargo" is finally relieved -- it's entertainment tapes. Sigh. This is painfully earnest "hard" SF, overly complicated in a way to make it certain that many details will be embarrassingly wrong; and with a really badly strained character story behind it. You can see Westlake working hard to make his story serious -- to make the science plausible and the characters three-dimensional. But I think he missed the boat on both fronts. As I've said before, Westlake's decision to concentrate on crime fiction was definitely the right one.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Birthday review: Stories of Karen Russell

Today is Karen Russell's birthday. Russell is an exceptional writer, not associated with in-genre SF/Fantasy, but a significant amount of her work is definitely fantastika. I had hoped to use her story "Orange World" in this year's best of the year volume, but we couldn't get rights, likely because it's the title story of her new collection. She should have won the Pulitzer for her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, but instead of given it to a fantistacalish novel the committee decided to give no award that year. (The other finalists were an unfinished posthumous novel, and a novella that had first been published several years before. It was an appalling decision.) Normally I only do these Birthday reviews if I have at least five stories ... but I should have reviewed "The Bog Girl" a few years ago (I didn't because it's kind of ambiguously fantastical), and in the upcoming August issue of Locus, I do have a review of a very fine new story from the last issue of Tin House, "The Gondoliers". So, close enough for government work. Anyway, SF/F readers should be seeking out Russell's work. Here are four really good places to start:

Locus, March 2008

Zoetrope All-Story features a sure enough no-fooling vampire story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell, in the Winter 2007 issue. Two aging vampires rusticate in an Italian lemon grove. The man tells us his history, especially his lust for blood and the associated guilt, and his love for his companion – while she spends more and more time as a bat. The story is effectively literary: well-written, and character-driven, but it takes the vampire tropes seriously, and uses them in service of its character-based aims.

Locus, March 2013

The new Tin House has several stories in a fantastical vein, of which the best is a horrifying Karen Russell story, “Reeling for the Empire”, set in late 19th Century Japan, about women taken from their families to work in a silk producing factory – only to learn that their work involves producing the silk themselves, after drinking a special tea that changes them forever.

Locus, June 2014

One story that has got a lot of attention in the wider literary world (partly for its venue: its a digital only release from a new outlet called Atavist Books) is Sleep Donation, by Karen Russell. It deserves the attention on its own merits. A plague has swept the Americas – people are suddenly unable to sleep, leading inevitably to death. A treatment is discovered: those who can still sleep can donate their sleep to those who need it. Trish Edgewater is a volunteer for a “sleep bank”, using the story of her older sister, one of the first victims, to motivate new donors in to signing up. Complications arise – one of Trish's “clients”, a young baby, turns out to have particularly effective donations, which even sometimes cure insomniacs, but her father is concerned about the exploitation of his child. Another donor's sleep is infected with a terrible nightmare that drives some people to become “elective insomniacs”.  Trish herself wonders about her exploitation of her sister's story. The fundamental idea is in places preposterous, but Russell's extrapolations of the social impact are dead on, and the story examines our disaster-driven culture, perhaps our general “sleeplessness”, and the power of dreams very nicely.

Locus, August 2018

The New Yorker’s annual Fiction issue, themed Childhood, includes a striking Karen Russell story, “Orange World”. Like many stories from mainstream sources, it is using its fantastical material in service of a very contemporary story – the narrator is a woman pregnant for the first time, rather older than most first time mothers, and she is worried about her pregnancy, and her baby, and so she’ll do anything to keep him safe, including making a deal with a devil. Which is a real devil (if not THE devil), and preys on her horribly, until she finds a group for new mothers, which includes some women who have dealt with similar creatures. It’s funny and scary and dead honest – strong work from one of the best writers to regularly straddle genre borderlines.