Friday, April 24, 2020

Birthday Review: The Other Nineteenth Century, by Avram Davidson

This is slightly belated -- Avram Davidson would have turned 97 yesterday. Gosh, he was a wonderful writer! I've previously covered a couple of his Ace Doubles, and I've posted a survey of his novels, and a review of The Avram Davidson Treasury, so here's a very short bit I wrote for my blog some long while ago about another posthumous collection, The Other Nineteenth Century.

[On reflection, I've regretted posting that rather casually tossed off old blog entry, and I've produced a more thorough review here:

Review of The Other Nineteenth Century.]

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Bruce Sterling

I can't believe I haven't done one of these birthday review collections for Bruce Sterling yet. So here we go! This is a collection of my reviews of his short work from my Locus column. Happy Birthday -- Bruce Sterling turns 66 today.

Locus, September 2002

Bruce Sterling's short story "In Paradise" (F&SF, September) is a fine romp, extrapolating a bit from our current "Homeland Security" measure. Felix is a plumber who falls for a beautiful Iranian woman he sees at the airport, and with the help of a high-tech Finnish cellphone he manages to seduce her. Their whirlwind romance is interrupted when it turns out to have political repercussions. Where then is freedom or paradise in a high-tech, security obsessed, world? Sterling has an answer. A fun story, and oddly romantic (as Sterling often is – perhaps in contrast to his reputation), though it lacks the extrapolative snap of Sterling at his most characteristic.

Locus, January 2003

Another fun piece from the January Asimov's is Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling's "Junk DNA", a story fully as frenetic as we expect from that duo.  Janna Gutierrez is a half-Vietnamese, half-Latino woman sometime in the next few decades, who more or less randomly enters into business with a Russian immigrant who wants to market a pet based on human junk DNA, particularly the pet owner's own DNA. Before long they are dealing with a big corporation's takeover attempt. How much sense this all makes is questionable, but the story is a fun romp. 

Locus, January 2005

Bruce Sterling's "The Blemmye's Stratagem" highlights the January F&SF. Hildegart is a nun who runs a far-flung commercial venture in the Middle East towards the end of the Crusades. Sinan is an Assassin, and at one time Hildegart was one of Sinan's wives. They both work for a mysterious entity called the Silent Master. As the story opens, they are called to their Master once again – they assume simply to receive instructions and to be given another dose of life extension elixir, but in fact something rather more important is going on. The story is by turns cynical, cynically romantic, scary, moving, and fascinating. An award contender, I would think. And at Sci Fiction in December we find Bruce Sterling's "Luciferase", a funny story about a male firefly looking for love, and finding it in a rather dangerous place.

Locus, September 2005

I also liked Bruce Sterling's "The Denial" (F&SF, September), about a husband and wife in an Eastern European town some centuries ago, whose lives are changed by a terrible flood. Indeed, the wife seems to have died in the flood – but to have somehow come back to life. The husband's attempts to deal with his changed wife lead him to an unexpected revelation.

Locus, January 2007

The cover story for the January F&SF is a new novella by Bruce Sterling, certainly a welcome sight. That said, while “Kiosk” is an interesting story, it seems a bit unfocussed – it doesn’t quite work. It concerns an aging Eastern European war veteran, sometime a few decades in the future, who operates a small shopping kiosk which becomes the center of a revolution of sorts when he obtains a black-market “fabrikator”, which can make a duplicate of most anything out of nanotubes. It seems the authorities have all read “Business as Usual, During Alterations” and A for Anything, so they are concerned about such a machine’s impact on the economy … but in the end, information wants to be free. The ideas here are certainly worth exploring – but the story doesn’t really grapple with them – more interesting, really, are the colorful characters – but they don’t really have a story of their own.

Locus, August 2007

The online magazines have not been silent either. I finally caught up with Subterranean’s Spring issue. Bruce Sterling’s “A Plain Tale from Our Hills” is a subtle sketch of a post-catastrophe future, told in Kiplingesque fashion about a wife’s brave effort to keep her husband in the face of an exotic woman’s affair with him. It is of course the stark details of this deprived future, quietly slipped in, that make the story powerful.

Locus, November 2007

Eclipse One is yet another strong original anthology from Locus Reviews Editor Jonathan Strahan. Highlights include a truly odd story from Bruce Sterling, “The Lustration”, about an isolated planet on which the inhabitants have built and maintain an entirely wooden, world-spanning, computer. The protagonist realizes that something strange is happening with the computer, and ends up in a society which guards a terrible secret. The story is in one way almost too strange, but in the end successfully ponders a central SF question

Locus, February 2009

Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling have lots of fun with the end of the universe in “Colliding Branes” (Asimov's, February). Bloggers Rabbiteen Chandra and Angelo Rasmussen have learned that for either mystical or physical reasons the structure of the universe is collapsing. So they head for Area 51 (sort of ) to witness the end as best they can – and to have some “pre-apocalypse sex”. Post, too, as it, rather sweetly, turns out.

Locus, June 2009

The March-April Interzone features a Bruce Sterling story – not that he was ever gone, but Sterling seems “back” this year, with a new novel and now “Black Swan”, gritty and savvy, with a journalist lured across multiple timelines, chasing wild tech not to mention a revolutionary version of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Locus, September 2009

And Bruce Sterling offers a clever fantasy about an Italian auto executive encountering the devil – or something like him – in “Esoteric City” (F&SF, August-September). The story is fun, original – certainly worth reading, but at some level it struck me as insubstantial.

Review of Subterranean 2: Tales of Dark Fantasy (Locus, May 2011)

Another story I particularly enjoyed comes from Bruce Sterling. “The Parthenopean Scalpel” concerns an assassin who has to flee the Papal States after the too clumsy success of one of his assignments. In exile he falls in love – but a certain Transylvanian intervenes. The story rides on the well-maintained voice of the main character, and the backstory of Europe in the turbulent middle of the 19th Century.

Locus, June 2012

Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington offer The Future is Japanese, which collects a number of SF stories about, in some sense, a Japaneses future, as well as a few stories by Japanese SF writers. ... From English-language writers, I liked Bruce Sterling's “Goddess of Mercy”, a characteristically smart and cynical story set on a Japanese island ruled by a Pirate Queen where a woman comes to negotiate for the freedom of a political agitator;

Locus, January 2014

A Bruce Sterling story showed up in Dissident Blog, "N'existe Pas", not really SF but certainly involved with SFnal ideas, so that it seems worth bringing to Locus reader's attentions. It's a somewhat comic story about privacy and the lack thereof, set as a conversation in a Paris cafe between a paparazzo and his brother, a spy (a double agent, indeed), as they await the rumored arrival of the Prime Minister and his newest mistress, while discussing the nature of their similar businesses, and of privacy and surveillance in the modern digital age, eventually involving an American spy and a Syrian woman and an actress who was also previously the Prime Minister's mistress ... nothing much really happens but the story is intellectually interesting and quite funny.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Theodore L. Thomas

Theodore L. Thomas (1920-2005) is probably best known in the SF field for his novel with Kate Wilhelm, The Clone (expanded from Thomas' short story reviewed herein.) He was a chemical engineer and patent lawyer, and he is also known for a series of four stories examining SFnal notions from a patent lawyer's view, written as by "Leonard Lockhard", because the first of these stories ("The Professional Look") was written with another SF writer/Patent lawyer, Charles L. Harness, and the pseudonym combines their two middle names. He was born on this date, so following is a look at a few of his short stories, based on reviews I did of the old magazines they appeared in.

Review of Space Science Fiction, September 1952

Finally, Theodore L. Thomas's "The Revisitor" is set in the near future after a test has been developed to determine everyone's capacity and abilities. The story tells of a mysterious person taking the test and proving to be a "Number One" -- i.e. perfect in everything, more or less. He embarks on a project to create life ... The meaning is a bit obscure, signalled only at the end by the title and a reference to a lot of progress in the past 2000 years.

Review of Future #28

Theodore L. Thomas's "Trial Without Combat" (9000 words) is another didactic story in nature. In this case the villain is religion. An agent of the Federal Bureau of Control is stationed on a distant planet, charged with guiding it to civilization in subtle ways. Unfortunately, the bleeding hearts/meddlers/whatever back on Earth have decided that simply assassinating the bad guys won't do. (In the story, this anti-assassination view is presented as a ridiculous stance on the face of it.) So our hero must work more cleverly, especially if he wants to get back to Earth in time for his baby to be born. (This is an enlightened future society, so naturally all the women are pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen ...) What's the problem? An oppressive religion, one in particular that has begun engaging in simony. And what's the "subtle" solution? Get arrested for heresy, and in the trial, convince the religious leaders that they are wrong by arguments so sophisticated any sophomore will be glad to use them! And use your handy-dandy force field plus personal spaceship to fend off trouble. A stupid stupid story, kind of a low rent knockoff of Everett Cole's Philosophical Corps.

Review of Super Science Fiction, August 1957

"Twice-Told Tale", by Theodore L. Thomas, is also silly -- an obsessed scientist has determined that space is curved and that a starship can travel around it in 15 years. Everyone scoffs at him. But he gets funding from the Queen -- no, Madam President -- of Castile -- no, Brazil -- and he takes a spaceship -- no, THREE spaceships ... and of course he is proved right. You really don't want to know -- well, you already do know, I'm sure -- what the spaceships were named. (I also did some math. His ships are stated to travel 4*1028c -- so in 15 years they would go some 60,000 light years. THAT is enough to go around the universe?????)

Review of Fantastic, January 1959

Theodore Thomas’s “The Clone” is a somewhat well-known story, later expanded, with Kate Wilhelm, to a novel of the same title. The title creature is not what we would now think of as a “clone,” but rather a spontaneously generated life form, created in the sewers of a Midwestern city that appears to be Chicago, that feeds on anything it encounters, including people.

It’s pure SF horror (with an obvious ecological theme), and it drives from its open to the necessary dark conclusion, mostly by exposition.

Review of Fantastic, February 1964

The other short story is a short-short from Theodore L. Thomas: “The Soft Woman,” a horror story that I confess I didn’t quite get, about a man who encounters a beautiful woman and takes her to bed — with, to coin a phrase, unfortunate effects. Here Thomas was too subtle for me, I suppose — was this revenge from a briefly mentioned previous lover?

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Birthday Review: Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories, by James Patrick Kelly

Today is Jim Kelly's birthday. Last year on this date I did one of my Locus review collections. This year, instead, I'll republish something from Tangent, where I got my start reviewing short fiction!

Review Date: 31 March 1998. This review first appeared in Tangent, issue 20/21, and is copyright 1998 by Richard R. Horton.

Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories, by James Patrick Kelly
Golden Gryphon Press, 1997, $22.95
ISBN: 0965590194

Reading a collection of James Patrick Kelly's stories, I am struck most forcefully by his range. The stories in Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories include cynical cyperpunkish adventures, gentle romantic stories, mainstream character explorations, and pure, idea-driven SF, and Kelly can wax passionate, lyrical, comedic or satirical as needed.

Start with the Hugo-winning title story. Michael is a human sapientologist assigned to Tuulen station, a wormhole hub operated by the dinosaur-like Hanen for human use. He guides the human travelers through the process of transmission, which involves a complete scan of their body, and its reconstruction at the receiving hub. Their "original" body is then destroyed, to maintain "balance", to prevent multiple copies of the same person from existing. A transmission problem causes a Kamala Shastri to have to wait to confirm successful recreation of her body at the receiving end: and after it works, Michael must kill her. But now he's gotten to know her, and anyway she's no longer quite the same person he transmitted. Michael's dilemma is agonizing, and, as has been well-documented, is in obvious response to a somewhat similar dilemma at the heart of the famous Tom Godwin story "The Cold Equations". But this story is subtler and better done: especially as it raises questions of identity and the nature of consciousness which echo similar questions in Algis Budrys' great novel Rogue Moon; and also because of the subtle reinforcement of the central questions throughout the story: as Michael and Kamala trade stories of youthful encounters with death, and as the (cold-blooded, of course) Hanen discuss immature Human attitudes towards "balance". A thought-provoking story, which raises intellectual and moral questions, and resolves them ambiguously, and which has said more to me each of the several times I've read it.

Kelly's early reputation was as one of the "humanist" side in the silly and mostly false '80s dichotomy of cyberpunks (Gibson, Sterling) and humanists (K. S. Robinson, Kelly). But several of his most striking stories venture into so-called "cyberpunk" territory. Included here are "Rat", a fast-paced and intriguing tale of a violent, decayed future, where the title character smuggles a large quantity of a fashionable drug into the US, and must try to avoid both federal agents, and the local middlemen who is trying to double cross; and "Mr. Boy", a long novella which is also part of his novel Wildlife. Mr. Boy is 25, but his mother keeps him somatically and emotionally at the age of 12 by repeated "gene twanking". His friends are a 13-year old boy who has been twanked into a dinosaur form, and an artificial intelligence his mother bought him as a companion/bodyguard. Mr. Boy's life begins to come apart when some illegal "corpse porn" is traced to him, and his understanding of his life is shaken when he meets a 17-year old "stiff" (read: untwanked) girl and starts to fall in love. The background details of the story are excellent, very Sterlingesque: Virtual Environment parties, his mother's chosen "twanked" form (Mr. Boy doesn't just live with his mother, he lives "in" her), smash parties, the mall franchise families, and so on. The main story itself is affecting, but a bit obvious: we know from the start just what Mr. Boy needs: to grow up.

Kelly's "sweeter" side shows in "Faith", about a newly-divorced woman who tries the personal ad dating route. Eventually she meets a man who talks to plants (and gets results). She needs to learn trust, or, as it were, faith. It is gently humorous and honestly romantic. An unexpectedly "sweet" story is "Monsters", a seemingly straightforward story about two misfits who work in a dry cleaners. The story takes a successful, almost magical-realist, twist at the end. Throughout the characters are sharply and closely drawn, and very affecting despite very real human weaknesses.

"Breakaway, Backdown" is another outstanding pure SF story. It's a monologue by a young woman who has just returned from a space station, addressing a younger woman who still dreams of space. It very affectingly depicts the real agony of making a choice which quite literally separates one forever from Earth. Kelly suggests, very economically, a convincing separate society of humans adapted for space.

The obligatory "mainstream" story is "Heroics" (which does have a suggestion of clairvoyant dreaming to qualify it as marginal SF). This is a moving look at an ordinary man who thinks of the choices he's made in his life, and can't convince himself that he isn't a coward. A series of dreams about a boat disaster and his failure to help the victims exacerbates his feelings. Finally, as we know will happen, the disaster occurs in real life. The hero's response is honest, and the ending is just ambiguous enough to raise questions in the reader's mind about the real nature of "heroism".

The other stories are similarly good, if sometimes slight. I'll briefly mention the most memorable. "Standing in Line with Mr. Jimmy", which echoes some of "Mr. Boy"'s concerns with independence, as a street-smart hustler, living on state maintenance, faces forced enrollment in a work gang, and considers the way out offered by a mysterious organization. The story's resolution turns on the value of depending on other people instead of free escapes, mechanical aids, or the government. "Pogrom" is a very pointed story about an old person in the next century, held responsible by young people for the decayed state of the world. It's an effective lecture, but unfortunately more lecture or screed than story. "Itsy Bitsy Spider" is a nice, quiet, look at a grown woman's encounter with her long-estranged father, now losing his memory and attended by an unexpected companion, herself.

Short fiction has always been central to genre SF, and story collections are an important way of coherently preserving the best short fiction. But lately economic considerations seem to have made story collections marginal products for big name publishers. I was surprised to see that this is Kelly's first collection (save a brief four story book from Pulphouse): he is one of the best writers in the field, and in my opinion short fiction is his stronger suit. So it's nice to see Jim Turner, who also edited the Ian R. MacLeod Voyages by Starlight collection (which I also reviewed in that issue of Tangent) for Arkham House, providing in Golden Gryphon Press a new outlet for economically marginal but very valuable books like this one.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Resurrected Review: The Fortunate Fall, by Raphael Carter

I thought I was going to post a Birthday Review today, because I was looking through the ISFDB's list of 4/10 birthdays and I thought I saw Raphael Carter's name, and I said to myself, "I haven't seen any work from them in forever, but the two Carter stories I saw were awesome, so ..." Then I realized it was a different R. Carter! But I don't know Raphael Carter's birthday, so why not go ahead and post this review anyway? The book is certainly worth remembering!

Review Date: 12/20/96

The Fortunate Fall, by Raphael Carter

Tor, July 1996, $21.95 US

ISBN: 031286034X

This is really, really, good. Set in the 23rd century, the Russian narrator (Maya, making at least three major SF novels this year to feature a major character named Maya (also Holy Fire and Blue Mars)) is a telepresence "camera": she "witnesses" news events, or anything which could be a story, and her total impressions (sensorium, plus memories: the latter including implanted memories of research on the subject) are transmitted over the net to her audience, although the output is "screened" by another individual (a "screener") who is totally linked with the camera, and who apparently filters sensitive or personal material, and makes sure that the sensorium output comes through OK (red looks red, stuff like that). We slowly learn that Maya has a "past" which she cannot remember, because memories of it have been suppressed, and that that past is related to her love life. We also learn that her world has emerged in recent decades from the domination of a group called the Guardians, and that it is now bifurcated into the technologically advanced, but isolated, African continent, and to something called the Fusion of Historical Nations, which seems to be a shaky reestablishment of roughly 20th century political boundaries.

Maya's latest story is about some of the key events in the liberation of Russia from the Guardians. As she begins her story, her old screener quits and she gets a new one. This new screener is revealed to have quite remarkable abilities, and also seems to quickly fall in love with Maya, which is difficult for Maya to handle because her sexual emotions are suppressed. Maya and Keishi (the new screener) begin to investigate some details of the defeat of the Guardians, details which are for some reason potentially embarrassing to the "new world order". Staying one step ahead of the law, Maya travels across Russia and through the net in search of an interview with a man who has some secrets about the Guardians, their successors, and the nature of the world and the net.

Carter pulls off a number of exciting, brilliant things. The nature of this new world and its history are carefully and slowly revealed, along with Maya's own past, and the resolution is well integrated, the tragic ending is both a surprise and not a surprise, and is "earned".

The technological and social details of life in the FHN are wonderfully well realized. In many ways, this book is reminiscent of Sterling in the way future tech and future society are densely integrated with the narrative, and seem so possible. The terminology (Postcops, Weavers, greyspace, etc.) is intriguing, and is introduced in such a way as to seem natural (there are very few lectures), but also be part of the mysteries which are slowly revealed. The realization of the how "mindlink" technology might really affect the world, and also the images of cyberspace, are believable and original.

The prose is very good, mostly clean and elegant, not showy, but occasionally erupting in apt and memorable images. In addition, the story has true momentum: it makes you want to keep reading. This is a gift that not all good writers have, and it's a great plus.

The book falls slightly short in a couple of areas (mere quibbles, really). Much of the second half of the book is a long narrative by the interview subject, and this method of telling the story seemed to me to create a bit of disconnectness. The story really has two protagonists, Maya and Voskrosenye (the interviewee), and their stories are well integrated, but still there is a slight slackening in that the two stories (Maya's personal one, and the story of the nature of Maya's world, which is mostly told through Voskrosenye) don't quite end in synch. Also, the Guardians are a bit stock as villains (though to be sure they are not the only villains). And I thought Maya's original crime was, well, not likely to be such a crime in the 23rd century. But I could be wrong about that.

This book really provokes thought. One virtue is that much is implied and never told, and we have a sense of a whole fascinating underpinning to this world (such as what the African culture is really like) which is hinted at but not explained. Also, the main themes of guilt and personal responsibility are well handled, and there is some very good stuff about the nature of love, and the nature of love on the net, or in Cyberspace, or whatever.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Belated Birthday Review: Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald's birthday was back on March 31, but things have been a bit wild around here, and I didn't get around to posting this until today.

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

A review by Rich Horton

Ian McDonald's last novel, River of Gods, was in great part a portrait of future India, and so it is easy to view his new novel, Brasyl, as a portrait of future Brazil -- after, a country which is in some ways reminiscent of India, in its size, crowds, jungles, huge cities, and staggering diversity. While being at the same time wholly different. And to a certain extent I suppose that is true -- but only to a small extent. Brasyl ends up being about its SFnal idea more than anything -- that idea being the "we are a simulation running on a computer" one, with the variation being that the computer might be a quantum computer, which opens up parallel universes as part of the simulation.

It is told in three strands, divergent in time, and set in different major areas of the country. One is present day, and set in Rio de Janeiro, and focuses on Marcelina Hoffman, a producer of sensationalist reality TV. The second is set in 2032, in São Paulo, and focuses on Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, an entertainment entrepreneur -- for example, his current project is a pretty girl who can keep a soccer ball in the air forever. The third thread is set in 1732, mostly on the Amazon, and focuses on Luis Quinn, a Jesuit "admonitory" sent to bring a renegade priest back to the fold.

Marcelina's new project is a TV show, timed to coincide with the 2006 World Cup, which will put the goalie who let in the losing goal in the shocking loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup on trial. But she finds her plans sabotaged -- by someone who seems possibly to be her! She is a bit of a mess herself anyway ... and scary as it is, the eventual notion that there are other worlds to which one might even travel becomes almost alluring.

Edson has a large family, and one of his brothers is a criminal. In trying to get him out of trouble, Edson meets a beautiful quantum computer specialist, Fia Kishida. But quantum computers are proscribed tech, in this future of pervasive surveillance, so Fia is a dangerous person to know -- and after a while Edson is wanted himself, and on the run, with a different version of Fia -- and they too are looking to cross universes.

And finally Luis Quinn, in company with a French scientist, Robert Falcon, travels up the Amazon to deal with Father Goncalves, who has been converting Indians to Christianity and enslaving those who won't convert. Between the slavery, and Goncalves' odd version of Christianity, and his apparent desire for personal power, he is a pretty bad guy. But a powerful guy too, and Quinn is forced to try to find a tribe rumored to have great predictive powers, based on ingesting a frog's secretions. Of course, these powers turn out to arise from perceiving the many possible worlds all at once ... and Quinn gains these powers himself.

So on all three threads, the notion of parallel worlds, and travel between them, becomes central. And there is an action plot deriving from conflict across these worlds. I was reminded of Leiber at times, and of course of a certain Robert Charles Wilson novel too. It's a pretty good novel, very colorful, with imperfect but involving characters. It didn't quite work as well as River of Gods to my taste -- I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps the overarching theme didn't quite convince me. Perhaps some of the cute touches, like the 18th century characters speculating (with the help of a sort of Babbage machine) in very 21 century terms on things like the universe being a computer simulation, turned me off a bit. But these are minor quibbles -- this is a fine novel, well worth your time.