Thursday, May 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Geoff Ryman

Today is Geoff Ryman's 68th birthday. He's a consistently provocative and original writer, with tremendous range. Here's a selection of my reviews of his work, for Locus and one taken from my year end Recommended Reading post, from before I was reviewing for the magazine.

2001 Recommended Reading

Three novelettes from F&SF really impressed me.  Geoff Ryman, in "Have Not Have" (April) shows us a woman in a remote Chinese village using her knowledge, her connections, and the villagers' lack of knowledge to forge a living for herself as a sort of "fashion expert". She is presented almost cynically, but we come to feel great sympathy for her. Then the idea of a universal net connection (via direct brain interface) is broached -- obviously this will completely change things for Mae in particular, and the rest of the village too. No answers are offered -- just the picture of one woman, a good if compromised woman, at the hub of a change she may not survive. This is a very fine, very quiet, effective story.

Locus, September 2003

Interzone for April leads with a strong story from Geoff Ryman, "Birth Days". The hero is a gay man born just prior to the development of a genetic screening test for homosexuality. As a result he is part of the last generation, it seems, in which gays will be a normal percentage of the population. He becomes a scientist, and one of his projects is a drug which will "cure" homosexuality even in adults. But this seems a betrayal, and he next works on something quite different -- a means by which men can bear children, without even a female ovum. Ryman takes the implication of this tech to the extreme (beyond where I could believe it, actually). But throughout it raises worthwhile questions -- even if one might disagree with the in-story answers. (For instance, it seems to imply that homosexuality is "justified" once it becomes possible for gays to bear children -- I shouldn't think that necessary!)

Locus, October 2006

The gem in the October-November F&SF is Geoff Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)”, set in very near future Cambodia. A young woman grows up isolated, and very rich: she is Pol Pot’s beautiful daughter, but she is obstinately na├»ve about her father’s legacy. She finally meets an interesting young man, who jumps to just the wrong conclusion about her mysterious past. She must come to terms with this man’s expectations, and with the expectations of the myriad tortured ghosts her father left behind. From an unexpected angle, the story manages to convincingly portray Cambodia, and to bring tears in its evocation of plight of Cambodia’s ghosts.

Locus, August 2008

Geoff Ryman and others stirred up a fair bit of controversy a couple of years ago with the so-called “Mundane Manifesto”, calling for a fairly rigorous sort of SF: eschewing implausible and perhaps tired tropes such as FTL and time travel, and insisting on fully imagined futures, not just the present writ large (or writ small with just a single change). Looked at that way – as a positive effort for a rededication to a certain SFnal discipline – it was a very promising effort. Looked at more negatively, as a rejection of SF that didn’t fit what the promulgators weren’t currently interested in (on grounds that seemed at times stridently moralistic), it was, as I said, controversial. That more carping tone seems to have been abandoned (was abandoned fairly early, I think), and what remains of the Mundane Manifesto is quite interesting, as shown in the June Interzone, a special issue guest-edited by Ryman, Julian Todd, and Trent Walters.

Perhaps the best story, not entirely surprisingly, is from Ryman himself. “Talk is Cheap” is set in a seemingly fairly near future, but a quite significantly changed one. The narrator is a Walker: he spends his days on his feet, gathering information about the environment. People seem to have always-on links to a future net, mediated by something they call a Turing. The narrator makes contact with someone else, named Jinny, a Doctor, and he is very interested in her, for all the old reasons. A couple of days pass, as we are introduced to other aspects of this future social system – such as the categorization of people by their social needs: the narrator, for example, is a Dog. And too we see just the beginnings a potential relationship. It’s dense throughout, always new – just what Ryman calls for in his introduction.

Locus, February 2009

The new site is rounding very nicely into form. Two recent outstanding stories are “A Water Matter” by Jay Lake and “The Film-makers of Mars” by Geoff Ryman. ... Ryman’s story is clever fun, built around the discovery of very early, shockingly realistic, films of Burroughs’s Mars books, as a film buff tries to understand how such things could be – before encountering the even stranger truth.

Locus, October 2009

This is F&SF’s big double issue (October-November), and there’s a lot here. ... Geoff Ryman, in “Blocked”, mixes several odd ingredients intriguingly: a Cambodian casino manager trying to become a man while alien invaders drive humanity to some sort of virtual existence.

Locus, October 2011

The September-October F&SF has a very strong story from Geoff Ryman, “What We Found”. It’s set in Nigeria in the near future, and tells of a young man growing up with a more brilliant (it seems) brother and an abusive father and a beaten-down mother. In parallel threads we learn that he has become a noted biologist. His younger life goes from bad to worse, as his father loses his government job and his brother loses his mind – but his adult self is discovering links between genetics and nurture that he finds terrifying. This is a story with a real if modest scientific background that motivates a moving examination of character (in that way a bit like an earlier 2011 F&SF story, Carter Scholz’s “Signs of Life”).

Locus, November 2013

Two other stories excited me in the September-October F&SF. Geoff Ryman's “Rosary and Goldenstar” is a curious alternate look at a young Shakespeare and two of his best known minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. It's subtle, and beautifully written – able to stand without shame with the greatest of all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern retellings, Tom Stoppard's tour-de-force Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Here, Shakespeare is staying with Thomas Digges, who welcomes visitors from Denmark, and along with John Dee they discuss Tycho Brahe, Copernican astronomy, heresy, politics, even sexuality (in a hidden way) – a striking piece.

Locus, March 2016

Stories for Chip is a festschrift celebrating 2015 SFWA Grand Master Samuel R. Delany, one of the greatest SF writers of all time. It’s a suitably diverse mix of SF and fantasy, non-fiction and fiction, women and men, queer and straight, numerous nationalities, and writers from within and without the field. My favorite story is “Capitalism in the 22nd Century; or, A.I.r”, by Geoff Ryman, which tells of two sisters from Brazil, and a plan to escape on a starship … but more centrally, it’s about the two sisters’ relationship, and about their interactions with the A. I.s that, perhaps, rule this future world. Tremendously intelligent SF.

Locus, January 2019

Geoff Ryman's "This Constant Narrowing" (F&SF, October-November) is headed by a content warning, and the story does manage to be legitimately challenging, legitimately discomfiting. The narrator is an Hispanic man from Southern California, and the story opens with him being shot, then "rescued" by another man, and we realize that this is a world, reminiscent of Philip Wylie's The Disappearance, in which all the women are gone, and some men shoot others to claim them for sexual services. We learn more about his life, before the women disappeared, and his earlier friendship with a black cop. But things keep "narrowing" -- the black men gone, and Asians, and so on... There's a message here, or perhaps there's just a plea to think about the way we seem to be treating "others" -- from all sides. Ryman is consistently able to provoke thought about subjects we sometimes avoid.

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