Sunday, March 31, 2019

Birthday review: Stories of Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald turns as old as I am today (as he does every year). He's another of my favorite contemporary writers. My favorite of his novels is not as well known as most of his other novels, this is Ares Express. I've reviewed that here already: Ares Express review. Anyway, here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction from Locus, but beginning with a post I made of a story that is sort of a precursor to Ares Express.

Blog post about "The Catharine Wheel"

I noticed that Ian McDonald's first published story, "The Catharine Wheel", seemed to be related to Ares Express (probably my favorite McDonald novel).  It was published in the January 1984 issue of Asimov's, which I have, so I fished out my copy. And then of course I read the rest of the issue.  "The Catharine Wheel" is the story of the last run of the Catharine of Tharsis, the big train that also features in Ares Express, and also the story of the decision of Kathy Haan, the tortured girl from Earth who operates Martian "manforming" equipment remotely, to kill herself on Earth while her mind is uploaded into the Martian equipment, so that she will never have to return.  Thus she becomes St. Catharine of Tharsis. It's a good story, but I think Ares Express is better.  In the book the trains are well established -- I don't think there will be a "last run", and Catharine becomes Catherine, and details of Kathy Haan's life are changed.

Locus, November 2002

"The Hidden Place", by Ian McDonald (Asimov's, October-November) is an impressive novelette. Fodhaman is a sort of nanny to Prebendary Shodmer, the envoy of the Clade, a starfaring civilization which has contacted the world Fanadd. Shodmer is at the same time a six-year old girl (in a cloned body), and an adult, programmed with the mind of Clade member. Fanadd us unusual in that people are almost always born in twin pairs, and the twins grow up with a telepathic link, and generally live together their whole life, marrying another twin pair, etc. The setup recalls Ursula Le Guin both by its exploration of an interesting and different human society based on a biological change, and by the back story: many worlds have been seeded by humans in the past, and are slowly recontacted, somewhat as in Le Guin's Hainish civilization. Fodhaman must deal with enforced separation from her twin, with the difficult situation of Prebendary Shodmer, both personally and politically, and with questions of loyalty: to her nation, her world, or all of humanity.

Constellations review (Locus, March 2005)

Ian McDonald contributes my favorite story here, "Written in the Stars". This is set in a world where astrology seems literally true. People get horoscopes several times a day, and plan their lives by them. Banbek Shaunt (a curiously Vancean name) is a functionary in the Distributions and Deliveries department of the Astrocratic service. His current worries include his daughter's objections to the man the stars have said is right for her, and a horoscope that predicts trouble for him at work. But his worries reach a different level when he receives an incomprehensible horoscope. It turns out to be another man's, and he decides to visit this other man, who is of all the shocking things an astronomer. This warm and humanistic story is at heart about freedom in a deterministic world – and, perhaps, about the origins of determinism.

Locus, June 2005

The other standout in the June Asimov's is Ian McDonald's "The Little Goddess", about a Nepalese girl selected to be a goddess, and as such raised in isolation in a palace. Only by the intervention of a sympathetic servant does she gain any knowledge of the outside world (the story is set in the next few decades). When, inevitably, her reign is over, she is abandoned to a fractured future India. The shortage of women (caused by sex-selection of children) gives her one marketable quality – the potential to become a wife. But another future complication – genetically enhanced rich people – leads to a distressing choice of husbands, and the heroine is forced to a dangerous alternate way of making a living – ferrying illegal AIs to another Indian state. The story is a sort of pendant to McDonald's Hugo-nominated novel River of Gods, and it offers a fascinating look at an intriguing and plausible near future.

Locus, June 2006

Asimov’s for July features a long novelette from Ian McDonald, “The Djinn’s Wife”, set in the same future India as his wonderful novel River of Gods and last year’s excellent Asimov’s story “The Little Goddess”. Both of those became Hugo nominees, and “The Djinn’s Wife” has a chance as well. An older woman tells a story about a beautiful dancer who married a djinn. But human/djinn relationships never turn out well. So is this a fantasy? No, for the “djinn” here is an AI, capable of interacting with people’s phones/PDAs (or “’hoeks” in the story’s idiom) to project images, talk, and even make love. The backdrop is the water war that was central to River of Gods. The dancer and her AI lover are from the two rival countries, Awadh and Bharat. Their love affair is played out against the backdrop of that coming war, and of threats against the continuing existence of high-level AIs, and inevitably one or the other or both will be tempted to betrayal. It’s a strong and moving story driven by both human problems and by intriguing SFnal ideas. I did feel, just a bit, that its impact was lessened for one who has already read the novel: but it remains a first rate piece.

Galactic Empires review (Locus, June 2008)

Finally, best by far is Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”, which as Dozois’s introductory material notes has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade – a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different “aspects”: completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey – or the aspects he has become – play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity – it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful. One of the stories of the year.

Fast Forward 2 review (Locus, November 2008)

Ian McDonald returns with yet another of his tales of future India. “An Eligible Boy” is trying to attract the attention of any sort of woman in a culture in which sex selection has led to an overabundance of marriageable men. The central SFnal aspect is an AI assistant who helps the young man present himself to women. But the women, of course, have AI help of their own. And the AIs may have motives, too … The human center of the story is rather subdued, as we are always noticing the involvement of the main character’s roommate in things.

Life on Mars review (Locus, March 2011)

Finally the best two stories come from Ian McDonald and John Barnes. McDonald’s “Digging” has something of the flavor of his Martian novels, particularly Ares Express, in telling of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, part of one of several families working on digging a huge hole in Mars, a short of shortcut to terraforming at least a bit of the planet. Tash is invited to accompany her revered “In-Aunt” Mihala on a trip to the top of the hole, where she unexpectedly is pressed to deal with an emergency – and ultimately, to deal with a traumatic change in her family’s circumstances.

Locus, January 2014

A different slant comes in Ian McDonald's “The Queen of Night's Aria” (Old Mars), in which an over the hill singer is touring a Mars which Earth has invaded in revenge for a Wellsian Martian invasion. The singer's tour takes him dangerously close the to front, and an unexpected fan. The story is near farce at times, and very well told, through the voice of the singer's accompanist.

Locus, June 2014

Other good stories in Robot Uprisings include Ian McDonald's “Nanonauts! In Battle with Tiny Death Subs”, in which a self-absorbed remote operator of nano-machines tries to pick up a woman with tales of his battles to save the President from bad nanotech. A nice mixture of humor, a look at a dark side of nano-enhancement, and a subtle closing twist.

Locus, May 2015

Ian McDonald's “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” (Old Venus)
is a nice take on the traditional Victorian adventure story, with the hero (heroine, in this case) exploring untrodden places. The title Countess is a widow (of a rather bad man), and also a noted artist, of papercuts of flowers. She has come to Venus with her companion (and presumed lover, though with Victorian restraint such details go unmentioned) the Prince Latufui, ostensibly to make papercuts of the Venusian flora, but it seems more likely to track down her rascally brother, perhaps to solve the mystery of the theft of their family's valuable jewel, the Blue Empress. The story is, then, something of a travelogue, and a lovely one: the flora she records by the by are intriguing, the politics revealed, and the history of Venus (including a very early colonization from Earth!) is fascinating, and the Countess is a wonderful character.

Locus, July 2018

And finally, a novella from Ian McDonald, Time Was. This is told by Emmett Leigh, a used bookseller with an interest in history, who comes across an old book of privately printed poems with a letter from a WWII soldier inside. He begins to investigate, finding curious evidence of the presence of the soldier, Tom Chappell, and his lover Ben Seligman, in other conflicts at widely disparate times. We get glimpses of Tom and Ben as they first meet, and Emmett gets involved with an earthy Lincolnshire woman with a tenuous link to Tom and Ben. Are Tom and Ben immortals? Or time travelers? And by what means? The story is sweet and interesting and becomes something even more impressive as Emmett becomes more and more entangled, less of an observer. This fits the “time-slip” genre, beloved by non-SF writers – I was reminded just a bit of Robert Nathan’s wonderful Portrait of Jennie.

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