Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Wrapping Up Short Fiction Month

And that completes short fiction month. I managed to read 31 stories this month and write about 30 of them. I didn't think I would manage quite that many so in that respect I am pleased with the result. I have noticed that it is much harder to write one after a long day at work though. The quality of some reviews are not what I hoped for. I did enjoy sampling work by so many authors, many of the new to me, this month. Maybe I'll do it again some time for a week instead of a month.

Here's the list of what I ended up reading.

Read:
  1.  Scales - Alstair Reynolds (2009)
  2. Folding Beijing - Hao Jingfang (2014)
  3. The Star - Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
  4. A Cup of Salt Tears - Isabel Yap (2014)
  5. Bloodchild - Octavia Butler (1984)
  6. Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh - Ian McDonald (1988)
  7. The Day the World Turned Upside Down - Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2013)
  8. A Salvaging of Ghosts - Aliette de Bodard (2016)
  9. Aye, and Gomorrah . . . - Samuel R. Delany (1967)
  10. Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death -  James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
  11. The Blind Geometer - Kim Stanley Robinson (1986)
  12. The Silence of the Asonu - Ursula K. Le Guin (1998)
  13. Neutron Star - Larry Niven (1966)
  14. Pelt - Carol Emshwiller (1958)
  15. The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov (2015) 
  16. The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh (1996)
  17. The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing (1986)
  18. All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela (2011)
  19. The Corpse - Sese Yane (2015) - No review
  20. Prott - Margaret St. Clair (1953)
  21. If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon (1967) 
  22. The Fish of Lijiang - Chen Qiufan (2006)
  23. Faster Gun - Elizabeth Bear (2012)
  24. Crying in the Rain - Tanith Lee (1987)
  25. In-Fall - Ted Kosmatka (2010)
  26. Walking Awake - N. K. Jemisin (2014)
  27. Blood Music - Greg Bear (1983)
  28. Elliot Wrote - Nancy Kress (2011)
  29. Old Paint - Megan Lindholm (2012)
  30. Reiko's Universe Box - Shinji Kajio (1981)
  31. The Long Chase - Geoffrey A. Landis (2002) 
I will be taking a break and skip next weekend. I probably won't be able to finish a novel before then anyway. Normal service will resume the second weekend of February.

Short Fiction Month: The Long Chase - Geoffrey A. Landis

For the final story in Short Fiction Month, I picked The Long Chase by Geoffrey A. Landis. His work is primarily short fiction of which I have read exactly nothing. This particular story originally appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2002 and was later reprinted in Lightspeed, September 2010. In a way, this story brings us back to the start of the month. It is a far future science fiction, in which post-human characters are in the spotlight.

A war rages in the solar system. When it is over, one miner out in the Oort cloud wishes to retain her independence. To stay out of the hands of the enemy there is only one option: leave the solar system. It takes several centuries to get a gravity assist from the Sun and swing out of the system. Soon, she realizes her attempt has been noticed. A centuries long chase through interstellar space ensues.

The story is written in the form of a series of log entries. Sometimes there are centuries between them, which nicely emphasizes the scale of the story. There is plenty of detail about the mechanics of moving through space, how fuel is necessary for braking as well as accelerating, and how missing a target can mean not seeing it ever again. Landis plays with scale by making the main character a machine the size of a grain of sand. The contrast almost couldn't be greater.

What I also found interesting about the story is that in order to escape, and that impulse goes very far back for the main character, she keeps shedding layers of humanity. Her body to begin with, and later more and more emotions and feelings. This stripped down intelligence pulls essentially the same trick to escape from the long chase. How much does there have to be left to make independence worthwhile?

The Long Chase is a very well written tale. I liked the style and non-linear way the story unfolds in particular. There is something strange about a story dealing with deeply human desires, expressed by a sentient machine in the hostile environment of interstellar space. It leads the reader to wonder how human the main character is, and what makes her human or machine. A good story to end the month with. Landis is on the to read list too.

Story Details
Title: The Long Chase
Author: Geoffrey A. Landis
Language: English
Originally published: Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2002
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 4,400 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Monday, January 30, 2017

Reiko's Universe Box - Shinji Kajio

Reiko's Universe Box by Shinji Kajio is one of the many translations in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's enormous anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction. The Japanese original was published in 1981 but not until 2007 did it appear in English translation. It is one of very few stories that have been translated. The introduction states that Kajio often writes humorous stories. This one must be atypical for him then. It is a rather sad tale.

A newly married couple receives an odd present. A box containing a miniature universe. The husband is not interested in it and puts it aside. As the months progress and the marriage deteriorates, the wife is more and more drawn to the box. She begins to study astronomy and soon begins to see stars, planets and comets in the interior of the box. Her husband, distracted as he may be by his work and his mistress, does not particularly like the change in his wife.

The marriage described in the story is a very sad one. The story is told from the wife's point of view. She said yes to the proposal more or less because he asked, not because she actually feels she loves him. The husband is occupied by building his career and their future. In doing so, he shamefully neglects his wife's present needs and wants.  It soon spirals into a cycle of indifference from her side and anger from his. They feed each other until a confrontation is inevitable.

The universe in the box holds wonder and fascination so obliviously absent in her marriage. The miniature universe develops as the marriage descends into two people barely acknowledging each other's presence. Then the two collide and one swallows the other in a burst of misunderstanding, anger and resentment. Where once she was a satellite around his star, her universe engulfs them both.

Reiko's Universe Box is full of beautiful but sad imagery.  It is a story that took me a while to process, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. The parallel between the emotional lives of the characters and the main star in the miniature universe, following the evolution of a star heavier than our own sun, is a very nice touch. It's a shame so little of Kajio's work has been translated, the English language world is missing out on some good writing here.

Story Details
Title: Reiko's Universe Box
Author: Shinji Kajio
Language: English
Translation: Toyoda Takashi and Gene van Troyer
Originally published: Japanese: Hayakawa SF Magazine (February 1981), English: Speculative Japan edited by Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis (2007)
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Old Paint - Megan Lindholm

These days, pretty much everything that is being published by this author, appears under the pseudonym Robin Hobb. Once in a while a story under the name Megan Lindholm appears. It doesn't seem likely that we'll ever see another Lindholm novel again, but some of the short fiction she writes just doesn't fit the epic fantasy Hobb is associated with. Old Paint appeared in Asimov's in July 2012. It has recently been reprinted in Clarkesworld. If you want to explore Hobb's work published under the Lindholm name, this story is not a bad place to start. It is probably closer to Hobb in style than many of her earlier Lindholm works are.

Sadie is a young girl growing up in a poor distract of Tacoma, Washington. She lives with her mother and older brother on a small income. None of the niceties of 2030s living are for them. One day, Sadie's grandfather, who she doesn't know at all, passes away. Her mother had a complicated relationship with him but he has left her in his will. Besides some run down furniture, they inherit a car. It is old and hopelessly outdated but well maintained. Her mother decides to hang on to it.

I suppose the reason this story reminds me of Hobb is the technique she uses to tell it. A first person narrative, witnessed by a young girl with a limited understanding of the situation, related long after the events have taken place. It is basically the way she started Assassin's Apprentice (1995), the first book in her Farseer trilogy. What is distinctly different is that she doesn't heap nearly as much misery on her characters as what Fitz has to endure.

In the story self driving cars are an accepted part of life. The car Sadie's mother inherits is one of the early models. It can drive itself just fine and possesses (by our standards) sophisticated AI. Society wasn't ready for it though, and all sorts of restrictions were put in place to make sure a person with a license would have to do the driving. In hindsight, such restrictions seem ludicrous to the characters. A nice bit of social commentary given the developments in this field in recent years. Lindholm isn't blind to the risks though, and uses one particular risk to shape her plot.

In the end, Old Paint is not really about technology. The relationship between the mother and her father is the core of the story. By using a young character to relay the story, our understanding of that relationship deepens gradually. The car is just a piece of machinery, but one that comes with a strong emotional attachment. It is a story that ends with both an understanding of how an object can evoke such strong emotions and a feeling that things turned out for the best. It's a very satisfying read.

Story Details
Title: Old Paint
Author: Megan Lindholm
Language: English
Originally published: Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2012
Read in: Clarkesworld, Issue 112, January 2016
Story length: Novelette, approximately 10,000 words
Awards: None
Available online: Clarkesword

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Elliot Wrote - Nancy Kress

I have read quite a few pieces of short fiction by Nancy Kress. She seems most comfortable writing novella length pieces (to the point where many of her novels are three novellas put together) but there are quite a few short stories and novelettes as well. She regularly ends up on award shortlists with her shot work. This particular story did not get nominated and I can see why. It did not have the same impact some of her stronger stories had on me.

Eliot's father is a mathematician. A man of numbers, of reason, and of science. One day, he has a religious experience after seeing the image of Zeus on a strawberry toaster pastry. It upsets him to such a degree that he is admitted to a mental hospital. They offer him a treatment that will remove the memory from his brain. Elliot wants him to have this treatment, but since he is still under age, he cannot give permission. The only person who can is his aunt, who in many ways is the opposite of his father. Rationality plays no part in her decision, and this frustrates Elliot greatly.

What Kress does in many of her stories is explore the impact of some piece of science, biological, genetic, or in this case neurological, on an individual. In this case it is a procedure to remove memories. I have no idea if it is based on some real or proposed procedure. The description is so vague that I suspect it isn't. The human mind is still very poorly understood, and it will not come as a surprise to the reader that it has side effects. Elliot, who believes in numbers and evidence, has trouble accepting that people base decision on feelings or statistically insignificant occurrences. Elliot is pretty extreme in this, and that makes him a somewhat unlikely character.

What I did like about the story, is the way in which he keeps looking for the right metaphor for the human brain. It is a nice illustration of him grappling with something that is not understood, something that perhaps can't be understood. Where his father tries to capture god with numbers, Elliot tries to capture the brain with words. Where it drives one to give up, the other realizes the importance of the attempt.

There is a lot of potential in the story but for some reason the elements don't really fall into place. Where in Kress' best work, the consequences of a scientific discovery for the main character, or the society they live in, is central to the story, here it seems to be the nudge for the main character to gain insight in the way people perceive the world. The father who is actually undergoing the procedure and the change that comes with it, is of lesser importance to the story. His situation is probably just as interesting as that of the son however. Although I am having difficulty pinpointing it, the story leaves me with the feeling that Kress missed an opportunity somewhere along the way.

Story Details
Title: Elliot Wrote
Author: Nancy Kress
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed, May 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 4,700 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Friday, January 27, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Blood Music - Greg Bear

Blood Music is probably Greg Bear's best known story. It appeared in Analogue in June 1983 and won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novelette the next year. Bear expanded the story to a full novel, which appeared under the same title in 1985. The novel attracted quite a bit of attention too, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell and BSFA. The novel is regarded as a classic of the genre, so of course I haven't read it. Based on the novelette, I think I should.

One day, doctor Edward Milligan meets up with an old classmate Vergil Ulam. Edward has a good job as an OB-GYN but Vergil has chosen a different career. He went into research and got a job at a small company working on nanotechnology. Vergil was fired after some of the experiments he tried to hide from his employers were discovered. To salvage what he could, he injected himself with some of his creations. Now, he seeks Edward's medical advice.

Bear is known as a hard science fiction writer. In this story he certainly lives up to that reputation. There is quite a lot of science in this story. Given the rapid development of genetic research, these days this story might not have attracted quite as much attention. When you consider it is over thirty years old, it must have been revolutionary at the time. Bear dives into the world of RNA, cellular biology and micromachines. What he manages particularly well is helping the reader to wrap their mind around the difference in scale between molecular, cellular and macroscopic structures and how on even the smallest level there is a huge capacity to store information.

Putting aside the science for the moment though, the tale itself is not all that exciting. Because his experiments are deemed dangerous, a scientist decides to experiment on himself. You don't really need three tries  to guess how that is going to end. Edward knows this too, and yet for some reason, he holds back on sounding the alarm. Not, as it turns out, a terribly bright thing to do. Bear does a good job of portraying Edward's predicament, but I can't say I particularly liked the character. He is quite passive throughout the story.

The really hard science fiction stories tend to be hit-or-miss for me. While I usually appreciate the subjects, quite a few of them pay little attention to the actual craft of writing. I bounced right off the first Larry Niven story I read earlier this month. Interesting science in a poorly executed story doesn't do it for me. Blood Music does not provoke that response. It is a decently written story, with a great scientific concept and a rather formulaic plot. A Hugo and a Nebula seems like a bit more praise than the story merits, but it well worth reading and it did make me wonder how Bear built upon this novelette. The to read list is growing again.

Story Details
Title: Blood Music
Author: Greg Bear
Language: English
Originally published: Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1983
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Novelette, approximately 9,100 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula winner
Available online: Baen

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Walking Awake - N. K. Jemisin

Walking Awake is one of the original stories in Lightspeed's special edition Women Destroy Science Fiction. Jemisin is very successful with her novels at the moment, picking up a Hugo and a whole lot of nominations for other awards for her novel The Fifth Season last year. She is one of the voices calling for more diversity in the genre, something that has brought her in open conflict with Vox Day, one of the people behind the Rabid Puppies campaigns to influence the outcome of the Hugo Awards in recent yeas. As far as I am concerned she deserved a Hugo just for that.

The story is set in an establishment which caters to the Masters. These long lived individuals are capable of taking over human bodies, and as long as they change before the human host dies, they can live for centuries. The bodies they wear, are the product of a careful breeding program. The honour of serving the masters that way is only reserved for the finest specimens. Sadie is flawed. She has taken on the role of caregiver, taking care of the next generation of hosts for the Masters. Slowly she is beginning to realize that serving the Masters may not be the honour she was taught to believe in.

The main theme of the story is oppression. The Masters are obviously not quite what they appear to be, and serving them most certainly is not an honour. They are vain, wasteful and view humans as a resource. The Masters are powerful however, and Sadie is not. The story goes on to detail how Sadie finds out the true nature of the Masters, and how a powerless, flawed and scared person such as herself can challenge them anyway.

Another point this story makes, is that oppression is of our own making. The Masters did not create their slaves, humans created the masters and in doing so enslaved their offspring. Oppression cannot just be fought, it can be prevented from occurring (or reoccurring, the story is set in the future) if one is avoids dehumanizing even one's enemies. "All the monsters" one of the characters says, "were right here."

Walking Awake is a story with a powerful message. One that isn't delivered with any great subtlety. That was definitely something the anthology could use. It is, after all, among other things, a statement against sexism in publishing and the science fiction fandom. People who do not appreciate so much politics in their fiction will probably not like this story. I'm pretty sure it will draw very mixed responses from readers. I liked the story and I think the message needs to be heard. Given the ongoing Hugo mess and other events in the genre, a bit more directness might be just what the progressives of science fiction need.

Story Details
Title: Walking Awake
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,000 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Short Fiction Month: In-Fall - Ted Kosmatka

Ted Kosmatka is not a prolific short story writer. Only fifteen or so short stories appeared in the last decade, along with three novels. After The N-Word and The Divining Light, In-Fall is the third one I read. It originally appeared in Lightspeed in December 2010. The story is a brief tale that explores both the implications of Einstein's theory of general relativity, as well as those of absolute religious beliefs. The way Kosmatka presents them, they are not radically opposed views.

A boy and an old man face each other on a ship falling towards a black hole. The man wants information the boy is unwilling to provide. When rough questioning has failed, another strategy is called for to convince a true fanatic.

Kosmatka makes some interesting observations about the ease in which ever more densely populated areas can be attacked with relatively easy means, and yet result in a huge number of casualties. He takes it a few steps into the future, but recent terrorist tactics have shown exactly what he means.

That is not the main idea behind the story though. A real fanatic, so Kosmatka reasons, is hard to defeat because death will see them to paradise. What if, by using time dilation effects, you could deny them whatever afterlife they were hoping for? The story ignores this question, but does not lead to the conclusion one might expect.

In-Fall is a brief tale but, under a rather brutal plot, does include a lot of food for thought. It is one of those stories where a science fiction concept allows the author to explore a human topic from a different angle. It is very effective. Given the subject, it might not be everybody's cup of tea, but I thought it was very well done.

Story Details
Title: In-Fall
Author: Ted Kosmatka
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed, December 2010
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 3,500 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Crying in the Rain - Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee was a prolific British author of novels that moved all over fantasy, science fiction and horror. When she passed away in 2015, I looked into her bibliography for WWend.com and added a lot of her work. Until now I have never read any of it though. Her most prolific and commercially successful period was in the 1970s and first half of the 1980s. Crying in the Rain appeared at the tail end of that phase of her career. It originally appeared in 1987 in the anthology Other Edens edited by Robert Holdstock and Christopher Evans. As far as I know it is not connected to any of Lee's other work.

In a toxic post-apocalyptic world, a young girl lives with her mother and younger siblings outside the dome that shelters the wealthy from the worst of the hostile environment. One day her mother takes her into the dome. It is a day she has seen coming for quite a while. She will be sold to one of the rich men in the dome. Her mother groomed her for this moment for years. The experience will make the young girl see her mother's harsh ways and strict upbringing in a different light.

This must surely be the saddest story I read in ages. In a few short pages Lee creates a bleak world where life is short, and often ends in a painful death. It does not contain an explanation for what happened or even very many details of the every day life of the main character. The author still managed to convey enough of the girl's world to make it completely convincing and thoroughly heartbreaking.

The choices her mother makes for her are horribly unfair. Her looks will be enough to allow her to have a comfortable, although probably still short, life. Which is more than the mother has herself. Prematurely aged, she is in a hurry to see this task completed. Her methods are calculating and cruel, and the relationship between mother and daughter strained. It is the best of a bunch of poor options however. The daughter's gradual realization of what was done for her and the shift from fear, caution and sullen anger to respect and even affection are what really make this story tragic.

The way Crying in the Rain was written makes it a downright painful read. The reader cannot fail to respond to the tragedy that unfolds on the pages. It is a brilliant exploration of how far the will to survive will push a person. Mix in the tendency of children to look back on their parents' decisions with more understanding than they felt when the decisions were made for them, and you end up with a very powerful story indeed.

Story Details
Title: Crying in the Rain
Author: Tanith Lee
Language: English
Originally published: Other Edens, edited by Robert Holdstock and Christopher Evans (1987)
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Faster Gun - Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear's interest in the old American West did clearly not begin with her novel Karen Memory (2015). The novelette Faster Gun appeared in 2012 on Tor.com and can still be found there. In it, she describes events around Tombstone, Arizona in the fall of 1880. As is usual with Bear's writing, it is a mix of genres. Apart from the obvious western setting, there's a science fictional element as well.

Doc Holiday owes Jonny Ringo money and he can't pay. Against his better judgement, he agrees to take a party consisting of four women and a man to the crashed metal monstrosity that lies just outside of town. It turns out to be more than a sightseeing trip.

What always amazes me about Bear's work is how she seemingly effortlessly adapts her vocabulary to the story she is writing. This story is told from Holiday's  point of view and it all fits. The lingo on horses, guns and tuberculosis, told in a voice that reflects a bit of the education he enjoyed.

AlthoughFaster Gun is an alternative history, there are quite a few historical references in the story. Holiday's story is, as far as witness accounts from the time can be reliable, well documented. The timing is right, Ringo is also a historical figure. Holiday was once accused of murdering him although in all likelihood he didn't. Like she would do in Karen Memory, Bear takes a historical character and gives them just a little twist.

The science fiction element in the story revolves around the crashed ship. The party Holiday accompanies wants more than to have a look around. Once they arrive, the story takes an almost surreal bend. Bear builds the tension like in a spaghetti western, but uses elements that warp the story into something unexpected. Faster Gun is a very enjoyable read if you don't mind a blend of genres.

Story Details
Title: Faster Gun
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Language: English
Originally published: Tor.com, August 8th. 2012
Read on: Tor.com
Story length: Novelette, approximately 9,700 words
Awards: None
Available online: Tor.com

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Fish of Lijiang - Chen Qiufan

The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan is another of the forty or so short stories listed on his website that Ken  Liu has translated from Chinese. It is one of the earlier ones. The English translation first appeared in Clarkesworld in August of 2011. The original is a few years older, it appeared in 2006. Liu included it in his anthology of Chinese science fiction Invisible Worlds, which is where I read it. Only about ten of Chen's stories are available in English at the moment, but Liu states in the author bio that he is working on a translation of one of Chen's novels. It is expected to be released later this year.

Stressed and exhausted from the corporate rat race, a management assistant is sent to rehabilitate in the city of Lijiang in the south-west of China, not too far from the border with Burma. He knows very well that he shows all the signs of an approaching burnout but sees this forced vacation as a failure on his part nonetheless. He has been to Lijiang before and notices how it has changed. The exterior of a commercial tourist trap hides a deeper secret however. When he meets a woman sent to the city to rehabilitate as well, he starts to figure out the real reason why he has been sent there.

This story is told from the first person. The main character is not in the best of moods. Besides feeling he has failed at his job, he is also disappointed in how the city of Lijiang  has changed. There is a series of comments on the way this cultural heritage site is treated as an amusement park. Some people would see this as criticism or a warning (as the story is set in the future) of China's policy in this area. Despite the dim view the main character takes, Lijiang seems like an interesting place to visit.

The situation he is in  is very recognizable to the western reader. Look around at work and you'll probably see a few colleagues who have run into this problem in the past, or are on their way there now. The science fictional element in the story is in the cause of the main character's problems. He is in essence used as a Guinea pig. His employer exposes him to a device that causes him to experience time in a different way. It makes him do more in less time but at a price. The way the main character responds to this revelation is where you can tell you are reading a Chinese story. Most western people would be outraged with being experimented on. This is not quite how the main character in this story responds. He heads back to his job for another round of compressed time.

I thought The Fish of Lijiang was an intriguing story, and one that shows great talent. Chen was in his mid-twenties when it was published in Chinese. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for that novel Liu is translating. Judging from this story, it should be worth reading.

Story Details
Title: The Fish of Lijiang
Author: Chen Qiufan
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Originally published: Clarkesworld Magazine, #59 August 2011
Read in: Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu
Story length: Short Story, approximately 5,000 words
Awards: science fiction and fantasy translation award winner
Available online: Clarkesword

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Short Fiction Month: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is a man with a reputation for writing excellent short fiction. He also wrote a lot of it. His collected short stories have been published in 13 volumes. A lot of his output was published in the 1940s and 1950s, well before the major science fiction awards were created. He did win a few with his later work. He even has a prize for short fiction, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, named after him. I don't doubt he has deserved his reputation but it can't possibly have been based on this story. To be blunt: this was the most disappointing read in Short Fiction Month so far. Why this novella was nominated for a Nebula is a complete mystery to me.

The story is set in a future were the sun went supernova. Fortunately, there was plenty of warning, and everybody who wanted to leave Earth could do so with time to spare. Many planets have been colonized and a record is created to keep in touch with each of these worlds. The main character of the story, find one that isn't listed. When the reason for this becomes apparent he has a difficult choice to make.

If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? was originally published in Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). To stick with the theme of the anthology, Sturgeon tackled one of the most widely spread of all human taboos: incest. There is a lot of progressive  ideas in the novella. The society of the planet the main character visits is utopia. Its inhabitants are wealthy, healthy and happy. They are free to do pretty much anything they please and as a result are able to satisfy all their natural (read: sexual) needs. In the afterword Sturgeon says he aimed to take a logical argument and a conviction based on it, one step further and see if it encourages people to reconsider their conviction. Which would have been fine if Sturgeon's reasoning was not so obviously flawed.

The character doing the explaining starts of reasonable. Human misery is not caused by sex or arousal but by the guilt attached to it. The link between sex and guilt has caused more suffering than I care to think about. Sturgeon certainly has a point there. Then he takes his step beyond and pins his whole case for ultimate sexual freedom on the question whether or not incest is morally wrong. What follows is a bunch of biological half-truths and falsehoods, mixed up with some dubious psychology that must have been derived from some of Freud's more questionable theories. The effect of unequal relationships and parental authority, and the potential to abuse these is entirely ignored. Jealousy and break-ups seem to be unheard of. The whole thing is so illogical, it is bullshit almost from start to finish. And yet the main character buys it.

Is it at least a well written story then? Not really. I like the prose well enough, but I came away with the feeling it was a bit padded. It takes the main character quite a long time to get to the point. Most of the first half of the story serves to show us how upset he really is, without actually moving the plot forward much. If I compare this to the way in which Samuel R. Delany deals with sexual taboos in Aye, and Gomorrah . . ., published in the same anthology, and the way that story triggers people to think about things like exclusion of people with sexual preferences outside the norm, I can only conclude Delany is vastly more effective. This story did not work for me at all.

Story Details
Title: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Language: English
Originally published: Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Read in: Dangerous Visions, Gollancz SF Masterworks edition (2011)
Story length: Novella
Awards: Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Not that I'm aware of

Friday, January 20, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Prott - Margaret St. Clair

Margaret St. Clair is one of the few women who managed to publish stories under her own name. Most of her work appeared in the 1940s and 1950s in various magazines. Later in her career she also produced a number of novels, four of which were published in Ace Doubles. St. Clair passed away in 1995 and her work is not receiving much attention at the moment. Based on this one story, that might be a shame. I have rarely read a 1950s science fiction story that has aged as gracefully.

The Prott are rumoured to inhabit deep space. No truly scientific documentation exists on them but there is a wealth of sightings. Enough to convince a researcher to take a space ship out where they are most likely to show up, and have a go at making properly documented observations. When he makes contact with them however, things don't quite go as expected. Soon, the scientist starts to slide from fascination to obsession.

This story was originally published in 1953 and generally science fiction written sixty years ago is laughably dated. The technology described in this story is as well. The digital age never arrived in St. Clair's future and it would have been nearly impossible to foresee in an age where computers were in the pioneering stage. Technology is not the focus of the story however. The main character and his interactions with the aliens are. His relationship with them and his personal feelings gradually change as the story progresses. It starts out with the optimism of 1950s science fiction but soon derails.

The character in the story does not follow the pattern of the classic, lone astronaut faced with a challenge in space. Competence and ingenuity do not save the day at the end of the day. The main character slides deeper into obsession until he digs himself a hole he can't get out of. Alone, cut off from help, in the deeps of space, is not a good place to be when you bit off more than you can chew. I liked this story a lot. I think St. Clair might have been more popular if she had been writing today.

Story Details
Title: Prott
Author: Margaret St. Clair
Language: English
Originally published: Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1953
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction , edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

Thursday, January 19, 2017

No Review Today

I had scheduled The Corpse by Sese Yane for today. I did in fact read it last night. It is a very strange story. After almost a full day of reflection I still have no idea what the man was going on about. All I got out of it was that whooshing sound you hear when a story goes right over your had. So I have decided to skip today. Should you  be tempted to read this story, it can be found in the anthologies Terra Incognita (2015), edited by Nerine Dorman and The Apex Book of World SF 4 (2015), edited by Mahvesh Murad and Lavie Tidhar.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Short Fiction Month: All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela

An Owomoyela is another name new to me. I know absolutely nothing about Owomoyela, other than that se is from the US and prefers it if we use nonstandard pronouns. This is harder than it seems but I will try not to slip. Owomoyela's output to date comprises only short fiction. All That Touches the Air was first published in Lightspeed in 2011. It is a science fiction tale and is still available online. It's an interesting story. I have rolled the dice a few times in Short Fiction Month. This is one of those stories I'm glad I found.

Humanity has spread through the galaxy and colonized numerous planets. Not all attempts are equally successful. On one planet, they encounter a sentient and very dangerous species. An understanding is reached with them. The humans are allowed to stay in their closed habitats. The ones that touch the open air can be taken by the local species. A fate worse than death, or so some feel.

Structurally, it is a very well thought out piece. The tale opens with a scene where a member of the colony is deliberately exposed. The cruelty of the act and the impact it has on the main character who witnesses it, are not entirely clear to the reader right away. Owomoyela takes the time to explain the full impact of that event. By the end of the story, the leap the main character takes is clear. In a way we are back where we started, but looked at from another angle, the roles are reversed. It's very clever really.

The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of a character with some pretty severe mental issues. It reminded me of Emma Newman's novel Planetfall (2015). The character's fear of being exposed to air leads to some pretty strange behaviour. Fear of the alien species permeates the narrative. The author uses that to make the climax of the story an overwhelming experience.

The alien species in All That Touches the Air is suitably alien. They don't think in legal terms like we do. The understanding they reached with the human colony implies the threat that they could change their mind at any time and take them out. The relationship with the aliens is very much about power. They do not feel it necessary to demonstrate that power though. Once the main character overcomes their fear of them, the dynamic of power changes. The aliens realize this before the main character does. Power, not law or ethics, is the key to their behaviour.

I liked the way the story deals with fear and the power that can be derived from overcoming it. There is a darker side to the story as well though. Power is to be feared, a struggle to take over power from the aliens is considered the only way for the colony to survive. The main character doesn't think about it in those terms but both the colony government and the aliens take an almost Darwinistic perspective to the interaction between their species. They can't both occupy the niche of dominant species. Liberation of one, goes at the expense of the other. It is a well executed science fiction story indeed. I am impressed by Owomoyela's work.

Story Details
Title: All That Touches the Air
Author: An Owomoyela
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 7,100 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing

As some of you may know, my girlfriend is from Norway. I must to my shame admit that beyond Sophie's World my knowledge of Norwegian literature is sorely lacking. Much to my surprise I spotted a Norwegian story in The Big Book of Science Fiction when looking for more stories this weekend. Naturally, I included this in the list. Jon Bing passed away in 2014, but from what little I know of him, he was a big name in the Norwegian science fiction community. He produced quite a few novels and collections but not all that much appears to be available in English. This particular story originally appeared in 1986, both in English and Norwegian. Curiously enough, the name of the translator isn't mentioned.

On Bear Island, a remote place halfway between the North Cape and the Svalbard archipelago, a geologist is wintering on a scientific station. His sole colleague has fallen ill, and has died on the way back to the  mainland. It soon becomes apparent to the scientist this was no coincidence. An alien entity takes over his mind and uses him to conduct research. The Owl, as the scientist calls the alien, has weaknesses however. The scientist develops a plan to free himself of the alien.

The story is more about the atmosphere than the plot really. There is something claustrophobic about Arctic research stations, especially in winter. They are almost as bad as possessed space ships really. John W. Campbell realized this when he wrote Who Goes There? Bing captures the loneliness of such a place very well but not so much the paranoia that sometimes comes with these kinds of stories. The main character knows what is going on, even if he is unable to stop it.

The Arctic setting also shows up in the theme of light and darkness in this story. The alien is dubbed the owl, a creature of darkness, who takes over the main character during the long polar night. It implies, at least that is how the main character sees it, the alien is evil and must be fought. Only by staying in the Arctic during the long days of summer can he regain a measure of self-control and freedom. The main character is, as it were, rescued by the light.

The plot itself is very minimalistic though .One character, no dialogue, lots of atmospheric descriptions and the main character explaining what is going on does not leave much for the reader to wonder about. How reliable the narrator is, perhaps. We never get to see if his plan works out. The main character might well have been doing what the alien wanted.  Maybe that was what the author was going for. I ended up liking the story more for the setting and the language than for the plot.

Story Details
Title: The Owl of Bear Island
Author: Jon Bing
Language: English
Translation: Unknown
Originally published: Norwegian: Hadata? (1986), English: Tales from the Planet Earth edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull (1986)
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

Monday, January 16, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh

Next stop in short fiction month is The Cost to Be Wise by Maureen F. McHugh, another author whose work I'm unfamiliar with. She is probably best known for her novel China Mountain Zhang (1992), which won her a Tiptree, Locus, Hugo and Nebula Award. In the years since, McHugh has not been terribly prolific. Four novels and two collections have appeared to date. Her short fiction is well represented on the Hugo and Nebula shortlist however. Apparently McHugh chooses the quality over quantity approach. This particular novella appeared in 1996 and shows up on both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists.

In the Sckarline colony, they believe only appropriate technology should be employed. Nothing that is not sustainable or cannot be replaced from local materials is used in their everyday life. One day, off-worlder anthropologists come visit the colony. For Janna, one of the few colonists to speak any English, it is a break from the monotony of her life . When a local clan shows up in search of booze, things get quickly out of control. The price for their way of life turns out the be very steep indeed.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this story. It is a well written tale to be sure. There is a fine bit of worldbuilding in it for example. We are introduced to the colony through the eyes of Janna, who is well aware of the outside world but has never actually seen it. To her the colony is home. McHugh doesn't use her to spoon feed the reader the details of their life. What details we need come through the questions of the visitors and a bit of reading between the lines. That aspect of the novella was handled very deftly.

Janna is a bit of a sullen girl. She has a poor relationship with her mother and is clearly not satisfied with her life. The outsiders fascinate her in a way. They show her glimpses of what life could be without their reliance on only appropriate technology. The generational conflict and Janna's hopes and wishes for the future are not really developed in the story however.

The fate of the colony is the main concern of the author. Here, the plot turns brutal. I'm not entirely sure if this is what the author intended but what the story essentially shows is what will happen to those who cannot or will not defend what is theirs. There are all sorts of historical parallels to be drawn here. History is littered with the acts of those that feel power entitles them to take what they want.

What bothered me about this novella was not so much the tale itself, I can admire McHugh's craftsmanship, but more the feeling that I had been reading a few chapters in a longer story. There are so many open ends and so many unexplained motives in the story that it really does not work all that well as a novella. It is a well written piece but ultimately a bit unfulfilling. I think I need to find myself a novel by McHugh. That might be more to my taste.

Story Details
Title: The Cost to Be Wise
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Language: English
Originally published: Starlight 1, edited by Patrick Hayden Nielsen (1996)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Novella, approximately 19,000 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Small Beer Press

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov

Other than that he is from Bulgaria I know very little of Haralambi  Markov. He has published only a handful of stories thus far. The Language of Knives originally appeared on Tor.com and was later reprinted in The Apex Book of World SF 4. The story is somewhere between fantasy and horror. It is beautifully written but pretty gruesome. Probably not everybody's cup of tea.

A father and daughter are performing the death rites for a great warrior. To send him of to his gods, his body is baked into a cake in an elaborate ritual. While they perform the ritual and deal with their personal grief, old hurt between the two of them surfaces.

The setting of this story seems mythological. The deceased warrior performed all sorts of heroic acts, battling mythological foes. When I read that kind of fantasy in the short form, I always get the feeling that there is a lot more to the setting than the story is showing me. It didn't bother me as much as in other fantasy shorts though. Worldbuilding is not what the author is concerned with.

Another thing we never find out is who the narrator is. The story is told from a second person point of view, which Markov uses very effectively to show the tension between the demands of the ritual and the strong emotions the characters are experiencing. The author keeps a bit of distance from the characters, just like the characters have to keep their grief at bay for the duration of the ritual.

Markov is not shy about describing the grisly details of the ritual. Caring for the dead is usually no pleasant task but this ritual takes it very far. It makes you wonder what kind of gods would demand such an offering. Again, the author creates a huge contrast, this time between the love and tenderness implied by the act of caring for a dead loved one and the horrific nature of the act itself.

When the dam does burst, the climax of the story proves very powerful indeed. The need for the characters to understand each other, to share their grief and to come to terms with the other's choices in life.

The Language of Knives is a powerful story, one that swings between extremes. It is a story in which prose and perspective are used to emphasize this and as such, it is a well written tale. Whether all readers will appreciate having their buttons pushed quite so forcefully is doubtful but this story shows Markov is a talented author. I understand he is working on a novel at the moment. I for one, am curious to see what he can do in the long form.

Story Details
Title: The Language of Knives
Author: Haralambi Markov
Language: English
Originally published: Tor.com, February 4th. 2015
Read in: The Apex Book of World SF 4. edited by Mahvesh Murad and Lavie Tidhar (2016)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 2,700 words
Awards: None
Available online: Tor.com

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Short Fiction Month: What Do I Intend to Read? - Part 3

Running out of stories so I guess I should add some more.

Read:
  1.  Scales - Alstair Reynolds (2009)
  2.  Folding Beijing - Hao Jingfang (2014)
  3. The Star - Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
  4. A Cup of Salt Tears - Isabel Yap (2014)
  5.  Bloodchild - Octavia Butler (1984)
  6. Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh - Ian McDonald (1988)
  7. The Day the World Turned Upside Down - Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2013)
  8. A Salvaging of Ghosts - Aliette de Bodard (2016)
  9. Aye, and Gomorrah . . . - Samuel R. Delany (1967)
  10. Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death -  James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
  11. The Blind Geometer - Kim Stanley Robinson (1986)
  12. The Silence of the Asonu - Ursula K. Le Guim (1998)
  13. Neutron Star - Larry Niven (1966) 
  14. Pelt - Carol Emshwiller (1958)
Still to come:
  • The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov (2015) 
  • The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh (1996)
  • The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing (1986)
  •  All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela (2011)
  • The Corpse - Sese Yane (2015)
  •  Prott - Margaret St. Clair (1953)
  • If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon (1967)

Short Fiction Month: Pelt - Carol Emshwiller

Ever since encountering a story by Carol Emshwiller in John Joseph Adams' anthology Wastelands I have felt I ought to read more of her short work. In the years since, I have somehow managed to read two of her novels but to avoid any collections. Quite an achievement when you consider most of Emshwiller's output is in the short form. She has had a remarkably long career. She was born in 1921 and her first stories started appearing in the 1950s, her publications continue until quite recently. Pelt is one of the older ones. It first appeared in 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted several times. Most recently in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

A faithful hunting dog is running ahead of his master in search of prey. The world is new to them, full of strange, exciting smells of creatures that would make excellent additions to his master's collection of trophies. Then he hears a voice that asks him: "Little slave, what have you done that is free today? Remember this world, Do something free today. Do, do."

The plot of this story is not overly complicated. At the end of it the message is loud and clear: hunting for trophies is wrong. What makes it interesting is how Emshwiller uses perspective to tell her tale. She is acutely aware of what each character knows and what it tells the reader. The story is written from the point of view of the dog. His view on matters is very limited. He can hear the locals but not really communicate with them. He also doesn't quite understand the question or why it is important.

The, one would assume, more intelligent master on the other hand, does not hear the locals and has to figure out what they mean and want solely from their actions. Together, the reader has a fuller understanding of what is going on. The master for instance, is left with fear bordering on panic which, when taken into account what we know from the dog's point of view, is understandable but not necessary.

The slave/master dynamic - or predator/prey dynamic, Emshwiller seems to consider them much the same thing - reminded me of her novel The Mount (2002). This novel has the human as slave instead of the master though. It is a subject she clearly has a lot to say on.

Science fiction from the 1950s is usually not my taste. Emshwiller approaches the genre from an angle that made her stand out though. Not in the sense that won her much recognition from the fans of hard science fiction or space opera that dominated the scene at that time, but from a wider audience that appreciated the more literary qualities of her work. She may well be one of science fiction's best kept secrets. An author more people ought to read. One of these days I will really get that collection I have been promising myself for almost a decade.

Story Details
Title: Pelt
Author: Carol Emshwiller
Language: English
Originally published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1958
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Neutron Star - Larry Niven

One of the nice things about short fiction month is that I get to read new authors without having to commit to a whole novel. Niven is the fourth this month I haven't read anything of until now. Bit surprising given the number of science fiction novels I consume. Niven is known as a hard science fiction author and has been active since the mid-1960s. Neutron Star is one of his earlier stories and won Niven his first Hugo. It was published in 1966 in If, which at the time had Frederik Pohl at the helm. When I read this story I feel it is more of a John W. Campbell kind of science fiction. It makes one wonder how it ended up in If.

Beowulf Shaeffer is in trouble. The company he worked for folded, leaving a huge amount of salary unpaid. Shaeffer decided to not let his creditors know about this by keeping up his spending, digging an ever deeper hole for himself. One day, he gets approached with a financially tempting offer. An exploratory mission to a neutron star. Unfortunately it seems to be a suicide run. The star has killed explorers before. Shaeffer is not in a position to refuse though.

Neutron Star is part of Niven's Known Space universe and Shaeffer, introduced in this story, is a recurring character. Why Niven thought it was a good idea to keep him, I will probably never understand. This must be the most nonsensical story ever to win a Hugo.

Let's start with the good news before I get to the nonsense. Neutron stars were theorized to exist in the 1930s but by the time this story was published, the only observations of one were unconfirmed. In 1966, this was cutting-edge astronomy. So much so that Niven felt it necessary to infodump an explanation of the concept midway through the story. The description of the neutron star seem sound. Some of the physics is apparently a bit dodgy. He has admitted the trick Shaeffer pulls to survive would not actually have worked, but most people wouldn't have known it.

While the science is what one might expect from a hard science fiction story, the writing itself leaves something to be desired. The prose is, lets be generous, unremarkable. The main character is a lazy, slippery and greedy idiot and Known Space itself seems to be full of contradictions. Faster than light travel is possible, but sending a probe to check out the neutron star instead of wasting another life apparently is not. Physics, even the Newtonian kind, seems to be beyond some of the space faring cultures. How could one build a space ship but not understand a phenomenon like tides, which occurs everywhere where one body exerts force on another?

In the decade after the publication of this story, Niven won a shelf full of awards and wrote numerous works in Known Space. I guess it must have been popular back then. If they have aged as gracelessly as this particular story, I don't think I want to read any of it. Without the context of other Known Space tales, there is little to this story beyond a bit of interesting science. It is, in short, not a very encouraging first encounter with Niven's work.

Story Details
Title: Neutron Star
Author: Larry Niven
Language: English
Originally published: If, October 1966
Read in: The Best of Larry Niven  (2010)
Story length: Novelette
Awards: Hugo winner
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Silence of the Asonu - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Silence of the Asonu is probably not one of the best known stories by Le Guin. It wasn't nominated for any awards I'm aware of and has not been reprinted much outside Le Guin collections. The story originally appeared in Orion in 1998 under the title The Wisdom of The Asonu. All subsequent publications exchange wisdom for silence. In 2010 it was reprinted in Lightspeed where it can still be read for free.

The story describes an alien people who, as adults, are almost entirely silent. While younger Asonu talk quite a lot, older members of the species can go years without uttering a single word. This silence is fascinating to many people and the Asonu soon become the objects of intense study.

There is a lot of humour in the story, especially at the expense of people reading all sorts of things into the Asonu silence. Some see them as good listeners for instance.
Others follow their Asonu guides or hosts about, talking to them  continually, confiding their whole life stories to them, in rapture at  having at last found a listener who won’t interrupt or comment or  mention that his cousin had an even larger tumor than that. As such  people usually know little Asonu and speak mostly or entirely in their  own language, they evidently aren’t worried by the question that vexes  some visitors: Since the Asonu don’t talk, do they, in fact, listen?
Their silence makes them appear wise to some. People approach them with a religious reverence and their every word is considered a pearl of wisdom. Some go to extremes not to miss the few words that are being spoken. Under all that mocking are a couple of very serious messages though.

The human tendency to fill in the blanks if someone does not speak for themselves is one of them. Le Guin takes it one step further by mentioning an incident in which the silence of the Asonu is considered a justification for a horrible crime. Le Guin in effect points out that not having a voice, leads those that do to not take your needs, desires or feelings into account. Replace Asonu with the name of any random marginalized group and you'll see her point. Another point the story makes is just as sad really. Apparently it is very hard to accept that not everybody has the same desires. To not speak is seen as concealment, a snub, an insult, something to be cured. If we cannot accept difference within our own species this really does not bode well for any alien that might cross our path.

The Silence of the Asonu is a little gem. Both a humorous tale and a call for more empathy, it packs a lot into a short text. It must have flown under the radar the years it was first published. This is easily as good as some of Le Guin's award nominated short fiction. As far as I am concerned, this is recommended reading.

Story Details
Title: The Silence of the Asonu
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Language: English
Originally published: Orion (1998)
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 2,500 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Blind Geometer - Kim Stanley Robinson

This novella has a complicated publication history. It originally appeared as a limited edition chapbook in 1986. An abridged version appeared in August 1987 in Asimov's.  The story was later revised and expanded from the original edition for publication in Tor Double #13. The collections the novella was published in afterwards contain the third version. Ironically, the magazine version, which Robinson thinks is the least of the three, won the Nebula in 1987.

A blind mathematician is asked to study some geometric drawings by a colleague who regularly takes on jobs at the Pentagon. The drawings mean little to him but the colleague arouses his suspicion. The woman who has made the drawings intrigues him however. He decided to continue with the investigation and is soon drawn into a game of lies and suspicion from which it proves nearly impossible to extricate himself.

As with many of Robinson's stories, the main character of The Blind Geometer is a scientist. It shows in the way he thinks. Much of his thoughts are given over to geometry, a theorem by Desargues in particular. This is apparently the bit that the Asimov edition trimmed. A decision I can understand at some level but also makes the story less... Robinson I suppose. His writing is just not the same if he can't elaborate on some bit of science. Math, I will admit, has never been my strong suit but that doesn't stop me from following this story.

The most striking feature of this story is how Robinson deals with the character's blindness though. The story is written from a first person perspective so Robinson can't describe what the main character sees. He relies much more on auditory and sensory input to convey what the character experiences. Robinson uses lots of music in his tale for instance. Including a reference to Keith Jarret's The Köln Concert which I happened to have listened to last week. He likens voices to instruments in an orchestra, is acutely aware of timbre and tension, and of course the mathematics behind acoustics. It enables him to detect a lie from the way words are spoken. There is an explanation of how not being able to see can be an advantage in higher dimension geometry. Try to picture a shape in four or more dimensions and you'll soon tie your brain in knots.

There is one particular scene in the book where this way of processing information from the senses is portrayed in a very dramatic fashion. I have no idea if this is anywhere close to how a person blind from birth would experience the world, but it certainly works to convey his mood at that point in the story. He seems very aware of the difference between a person with vision and himself. I couldn't entirely escape the impression that the writer trying to wrap his head around how a blind person would approach a certain situation seeps through here and there.

If you enjoy Robinson's novels, you will most likely like this novella. It contains many of the elements that crop up in his novels. I quite liked this particular story but I do think his writing works  better in the long form. While I liked The Blind Geometer for the science and how the character goes about his business, I was less impressed with the spy element of the story. It feels a bit under developed. The motivation to involve him is made clear, but who exactly wanted information from him is not. I suppose that is not really what the story is about, but it could have used a bit more attention. It is still well worth the read though, I would even say it is not a bad introduction to Robinson's writing either. If his work piques your curiosity this would be a good place to start.

Story Details
Title: The Blind Geometer
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Language: English
Originally published: The Blind Geometer (1986)
Read in: The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010)
Story length: Novella
Awards: Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominated
Available online: Not that I am aware of.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death - James Tiptree, Jr.

Another famous writer in science fiction of whom I have read absolutely nothing. Tiptree is well known in the genre for hiding her true identity for so long. The debate about whether she was a man or woman caused several well known figures in science fiction to embarrass themselves. Robert Silverberg in particular will be remembered for it. The revelation that she was in fact a woman raised some eyebrows back in 1976. From what I know of her life it was an extraordinary one, right up to the moment of her passing. Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death originally appeared in the Stephen Goldin anthology The Alien Condition  in 1973. I read it in the Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! If anybody deserves to be in that issue it is Tiptree.

The story is written from the point of view of an alien just awakening from a cold winter. He has grown since he last saw the sun and he is ready to face the next stage in his life. He soon realizes that the world is growing colder and that his species is locked in a violent lifecycle called The Plan. He comes up with his own plan to break out of the cycle.
l
There is not a human in sight in this story. The alien Moggadeet is the only character and his views are ... wel, alien. It shows up in how he sees the world, how he narrates the story, how he discovers the details of his lifecycle. It doesn't make for easy reading. The main character exclaims rather than tells the story.
Excitement, enticement, shrilling from the sun-side of the world. I come! . . . The sun is changing again too. Sun is walking in the night! Sun is walking back to Summer in the warming of the light! . . . Warm is Me—Moggadeet Myself. Forget the bad-time winter.
It is fitting though. The story is an experiment in form as well as a tale about alien biology.

Between the lines of the narrative, the details of his ecology become clear and the conclusion, for anybody who knows anything about arachnids, should be obvious. Considered in that light, Moggadeet is not all that alien. To write him from his perspective without overly bold anthropomorphisation is quite an achievement. He may not have broken the cycle of life and death that governs his species, but there is a kind of contentment in the climax of the story that is hard to imagine from a human point of view. My first taste of Tiptree's writing is an interesting one. I guess another name just got added to the to-read list.

Story Details
Title: Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death
Author: James Tiptree, Jr.
Language: English
Originally published: The Alien Condition, edited by Stephen Goldin (1973)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,700 words
Awards: Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominated
Available online: Lightspeed

Monday, January 9, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Aye, and Gomorrah . . . - Samuel R. Delany

This particular story originally appeared in what must surely be the most famous anthology in science fiction: Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967). In it, Ellison attempted to break away from established science fiction and, whether or not you agree with his selection, it did turn out to be very influential in what we think of as the New Wave today. I have only read a few of the stories in this anthology but Aye, and Gomorrah . . . was definitely something different.

Some time in the future a group of astronauts - or spacers as they are referred to in the story -  is living a kind of life most people can only look at in awe. They travel the solar system to work on the grandest projects. It comes at a price however. They receive such a large dose of radiation in space, that rather than to try and shield them from it, their bodies have been adapted. It isolates them from the rest of humanity in ways that are not always easy to deal with.

This story is about human sexuality. A topic close to Delany's heart. Delany is gay and was, at the time this story was written, in the middle of a complicated marriage with the poet Marilyn Hacker. The sexual revolution may  have been washing over the US at that moment, it can't have been an easy life. Although the main character's position is different, some of Delany's personal experience as someone not conforming to the sexual norm must have made their way into the story. The main character is a Spacer and asexual. He, that is how he started out, never went through puberty, has an androgynous appearance and no sexual desires. That doesn't stop other people from wanting him though.

Delany does two things in this story that quite radically break away from golden age science fiction and what I think of as John W. Campbell science fiction. It removes the aura of competence and dedication from astronauts and replaces it with something a lot less glamorous. These astronauts have been changed before they could possibly oversee the consequences of their chosen career for the rest of their lives. It is a very dubious practice, that does  point out one of the major obstacles to manned space travel. You can feel the unease of the main characters when he is among regular humans. Everybody seems to be uncomfortable with it. I think this story would have had a snowball's chance in hell in the magazine market just for that aspect of it. But Delany is not done yet.

What the story also does is explore human sexual preferences that do not fit in the norm of sex within matrimony for reproductive purposes, or even more widely accepted ideas of romantic love. Sex and desire are described as urges that will not be denied, even if it makes the person experiencing them unhappy. What the situation the main character ends up in implies, there is no actual explicit scene in the story, is sex as one way traffic. The motivations of the various characters to go along with it will make a lot of readers uncomfortable fifty years after the story was published. Which should give you an idea of how 'dangerous' this story really was.

The way Delany uses loneliness, the desire for companionship and sexual fetishes in this story make it groundbreaking. It is one of those stories you really should read to understand the development of the genre. If Ellison was looking for controversy, then that is exactly what he got with this story. I'm not surprised at all he made it the parting shot of the anthology. It is, there is no other way to put it, a brilliant piece of work.

Story Details
Title: Aye, and Gomorrah . . .
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Language: English
Originally published: Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Read in: Dangerous Visions, Gollancz SF Masterworks edition (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 3,700 words
Awards: Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominated
Available online: Strange Horizons