Saturday, January 30, 2010

Spiders by Sue Burke

A father and his five-year-old son take a tour of alien flora and fauna in a forest on another planet. The parents have split and the father is interested in helping the boy learn about the world outside of the settlement where he lives with his mother. The story is sure-handed and perceptive on parenting issues. The variety and mystery of the flora and fauna is quite effective.

It’s unlikely that this story can be read now without reference to the movie Avatar (directed by James Cameron, 2009), a comparison the author can’t have intended. The plant life depicted in Avatar is beautifully done (one of the few strengths of the film according to SF Strangelove), yet this brief story surpasses it with ease, engaging special effects more powerful than any at James Cameron’s disposal: the reader’s imagination.

“Spiders” by Sue Burke first appeared in Asimov’s, March 2008.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Mitigation by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell

A rather ordinary caper story, it’s made distinctive by a post-global-warming setting. The objective of the caper is a seed vault in Svalbard, which contains extinct DNA. Along the way the reader observers a variety of efforts to reduce global warming.

“Mitigation” by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell originally appeared in the anthology Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, 2008) edited by Lou Anders.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Friday, January 29, 2010

Precious bodily fluids

On this day, 46 years ago, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1964) was released. It remains a landmark film and the name of this blog is intended to honor it.

President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers): Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!

General "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott): I told you never to call me here, don't you know where I am?... Well look, baby, I c-, I can't talk to you now... my president needs me!... Of course Bucky'd rather be there with you!... Of course it isn't only physical!... I deeply respect you as a human being... Some day I'm gonna make you Mrs Buck Turgidson!... Oh, listen uh, you go back to sleep hon, and Bucky'll be back there just as soon as he can... All right... listen, sug, don't forget to say your prayers!

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers): Do I look all rancid and clotted? You look at me, Jack. Eh? Look, eh? And I drink a lot of water, you know. I'm what you might call a water man, Jack -- that's what I am. And I can swear to you, my boy, swear to you, that there's nothing wrong with my bodily fluids. Not a thing, Jackie.

Links: Dr. Strangelove on Wikipedia and Internet Movie Database

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Message Found in a Gravity Wave by Rudy Rucker

The shortest story in the anthology, it strives for wry humor in how non-scientists think about science. Our underwhelming hero builds a gravity wave detector out of green gelatin in his bathtub and learns that our universe is doomed. There is more than a whiff of condescension, undoing the effort at humor.

“Message Found in a Gravity Wave” by Rudy Rucker, originally published in Nature.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Fixing Hanover by Jeff VanderMeer

The chief engineer of the Empire has sent himself into exile, uncomfortable that his inventions have been used to commit atrocities. He lives simply, incognito, repairing mechanical things at a seaside village. A broken mechanical man washes up on the beach and the village council leader demands that it be fixed.

The jealous triangle over a woman between the council leader and the engineer is convincing. The steampunk setting is sketched in quick strokes. The engineer’s own skills and effort are what lead to his downfall in a satisfying resolution.

“Fixing Hanover” by Jeff VanderMeer first appeared in the anthology Extraordinary Engines (Solaris, 2008) edited by Nick Gevers.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Glass by Daryl Gregory

A chilling portrayal of psycho-pharmacological experimentation on prisoners, an attempt to alter the brain function of psychopaths so that they experience bad things that happen to others as if it were happening to themselves. Merely thinking about doing something bad is enough to trigger the effect, dramatically changing psychopathic behavior. Such a powerful tool is easily abused.

The story is very brief. It’s strong as far as it goes.

“Glass” by Daryl Gregory was first published in MIT Technology Review
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

The Egg Man by Mary Rosenblum

Zipakna travels with genetically altered chickens that produce medicinal eggs that treat diabetes and a variety of other health problems. He comes from a wealthy Mexico to help the impoverished southwest of the United States, with the hope of finding his missing former wife.

Returning to the Paloma settlement Zipakna finds new members who grow illegal “pharma” sunflowers. What exactly the crop is intended to do, or why it is not sanctioned, is never explained. He meets a boy who looks surprisingly like his former wife.

The social entanglements are well done and it’s successful in evoking a sense of place. Neither of the important women in Zipakna’s life appears in the story, suggesting that this is part of a longer work.

“The Egg Man” by Mary Rosenblum first appeared in Asimov’s, February 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain by Jason Sanford

Here the atmospheric imagery predominates. On a mud-ball world, wracked by storms of water and mud dumped by passing ships, a weather forecaster must warn her townsfolk of impending disaster. Torrential storms, mud flows, and sink holes threaten their survival. The homes are built vertically as they sink into ever increasing layers of mud. Excavating downward reveals childhood living spaces, and going further, homes of previous generations. The weather forecaster must cope with a wayward apprentice, and deal with small-minded town leaders and rules.

The story is more akin to a fable or a dreamscape. The rational explanations, when they arrive at the end, are paper-thin -- more intimations than fleshed out explanations. Still, the weather inducing ships, floods and flows, and sinking homes make for an involving story.

“The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain” by Jason Sanford originally appeared in Interzone, August 2008.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cheats by Ann Halam

A young brother and sister within a virtual reality environment encounter people who are violating the rules. It’s well done, with a couple of good revelations toward the end. The story stops short of exploring the ideas that it raises. It merely opens the door and leaves the rest for the reader to imagine.

"Cheats" by Gwyneth Jones, writing as Ann Halam, first published in the anthology Starry Rift (Viking, 2008) edited by Jonathan Strahan
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fury by Alastair Reynolds

“Fury” has the epic sweep of old-school space opera, a galaxy-wide canvas and 30,000 years of history. Since this is short fiction, it’s mostly suggested rather than detailed, and well done. An assassination is attempted on the galactic emperor. Clues are discovered. The head of security must travel across the stars to solve the mystery. The solution to the mystery is mostly handed over effortlessly, still it’s an interesting revelation, and it includes a surprisingly grotesque tidbit.

The sticking point is the ending, which doesn’t quite sit right. The security chief takes it upon himself to implement punishment for murder, yet that punishment amounts to a schoolboy prank -- poisoning the headmaster’s favorite pet.

“Fury” by Alastair Reynolds originally appeared in the anthology Eclipse 2 (Night Shade Books, 2008) edited by Jonathan Strahan.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

These Links are not Baroque

Lord of Light
Here’s a Guardian article by Sam Jordison that finds a connection between a failed attempt to make a feature film out of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967) and the so-called Canadian Caper that spirited embassy workers out of Iran in 1979-80. By the way, it’s a review of Lord of Light, which asks the question, “Is this book profound, or daft – or both?” SF Strangelove votes for both.

A New Gormenghast novel
Mervyn Peake’s wife and long-time collaborator, Maeve, wrote a fourth book in the Gormenghast series (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone) shortly after his death in 1968, according to the Telegraph. The manuscript was discovered recently by a granddaughter in the attic of her south London home.

John Clute on Galileo’s Dream
In John Clute’s first column at his new venue, Strange Horizons, he essays Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Galileo’s Dream. “Galileo is a stunning creation, a histrion utterly real to the eye, a porridge of sensation who turns on a dime into icon.”

Christopher Hitchens on J.G. Ballard
Calling him “our great specialist in catastrophe,” Hitchens, in an Atlantic article, celebrates Ballard’s bleak deadpan humor, his readiness to imagine a future without human survival.

Monday, January 18, 2010

N-Words by Ted Kosmatka

The “N” is for Neanderthal. In the future Neanderthals are brought back into existence using fossil genetic material. The narrator is the human wife of a Neanderthal man. As the title suggests, they encounter prejudice similar to African Americans and other people of color. It’s a theme that resonates strongly -- “anti-miscegenation” laws were still enforced in 16 states until they were ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1967. I suspect that the same sense of appalling injustice that those racist laws now evoke will soon be turned toward today’s unjust laws banning gay marriage. I digress.

The story is set at a high emotional pitch throughout, as the wife grieves for her Neanderthal husband who has been killed in front of her. The author makes his case too airtight by making Neanderthals superior in every way: physically, mentally, and morally. This undercuts what should have been a strong ending where the wife’s frozen grief thaws into anger.

“N-Words” by Ted Kosmatka first appeared in the anthology Seeds of Change (Prime Books, 2008) edited by John Joseph Adams.
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Best Movies of 2009 sort of

My proviso is that there are several 2009 domestic movies I would still like to see and don’t get me started about how hard it is to find current foreign films.

Best Movies of the Year: The Hurt Locker and Bright Star (tie)

The Hurt Locker (directed by Kathryn Bigelow) -- If you are looking for a film about the Iraq War or Middle East issues, this is not that film. This is a movie about the psychology of soldiers under stress, focusing on three men in a bomb disposal unit. The amount of tension the story builds is remarkable. It’s a masterful character study that takes its time, peeling back one layer at a time.

Bright Star (directed by Jane Campion) -- (A brief SF Strangelove review). Pictured are Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne and Ben Wishaw as John Keats.

Also recommended: A Serious Man (directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen), Fantastic Mr. Fox (directed by Wes Anderson), Up in the Air (directed by Jason Reitman).

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie of the Year: Moon

Moon (directed by Duncan Jones) -- (A brief SF Strangelove review). Pictured is Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell.

Recommended with reservations:
Star Trek (directed by J.J. Abrams) -- Enjoyable if you can ignore the plot problems.
District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp) -- (A brief SF Strangelove review).
Avatar (directed by James Cameron) -- See it for its visuals. (A brief SF Strangelove review).

All four of these supposedly forward-looking science fiction films seem dated: Moon’s concern with cloning, Star Trek’s basis in 1960s television, District 9’s rewrite of Alien Nation (1988), and Avatar’s rewrite of Tarzan (1912).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Scarecrow’s Boy by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is one of the best short fiction writers in the science fiction genre and this story does not disappoint. The main character is the scarecrow, an obsolete household robot, left outside to keep the birds away. The reference, of course, is to The Wizard of Oz. Here Swanwick subverts the idealized version of childhood, especially prominent in the film version, with a gritty, troubling future.

Two childhoods are examined: the boy running for his life who the scarecrow decides to help, and the boyhood of the scarecrow’s actual owner. The scarecrow has watched his owner grow from a fun-loving innocent youth to a depraved, ruthless adult. The scarecrow must decide to which boy he owes his loyalty.

As with many Swanwick stories it can be read on more than one level, here both as a tightly wound suspenseful thrill ride and as a darkly humorous tale. When the scarecrow utters the line, “We are as God and Sony made us,” it lifts the story to a mordantly funny tone that won me over completely.

“The Scarecrow’s Boy” by Michael Swanwick first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Strange Horizons 2009 in Review

There’s a lot to like in the Strange Horizons’ overview of 2009: diverse voices citing a diverse group of science fiction related books and movies. Some of the books predate 2009, reflecting what reviewers read in 2009. Niall Harrison summarizes:
... the most popular fiction books in this year’s Strange Horizons best of the year round-up were, first, The City & The City by China Mieville, second, In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield, and third equal, Ark by Stephen Baxter and Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman.
Also receiving repeated mention: nonfiction On Joanna Russ edited by Farah Mendlesohn, young adult novel Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge, and feature film Moon.

I have some catching up to do, which I always say about this time of year.

The Strange Horizons overview makes an interesting comparison with Jeff VanderMeer’s Amazon Top Ten Science Fiction and Fantasy for 2009.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The House Left Empty by Robert Reed

In a future of Self-Governing Districts where central government has withered away to powerlessness, two old friends deceive a delivery man into leaving a package at an empty house. The relationship and dialog between the old friends is well observed and it’s the best part of the story. The contents of the package turn out to be meaningful, symbolic of interstellar space program that no longer exists.

Telling science fiction readers to get misty-eyed about the lost opportunity of a government space program is preaching to the choir. The story is well done, sure, but it’s a little too obvious, a bit too on the nose.

“The House Left Empty” by Robert Reed first appeared in Asimov’s, April/May 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oblivion: A Journey by Vandana Singh

The structure of “Oblivion: A Journey” is a fairly routine revenge story. What lifts it out of the ordinary is fine writing and an interesting Hindu background.

Vikram, seeking revenge for the deaths of his family and his world, chases the mass-murderer Hirasor across a far flung series of decadent or barely habitable planets. Along the way Vikram sacrifices everything that was once important: his gender, his sexuality, his relationships -- nearly everything that made him who he or she was -- as he turns himself into a single-minded killer. The ending offers just enough resolution to the story to be quite satisfying.

“Oblivion: A Journey” by Vandana Singh was first published in the anthology Clockwork Phoenix (Norilana Books, 2008) edited by Mike Allen
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away by Cory Doctorow

In a dystopian future police state there are so many rules that everyone is guilty of something. Isolated from the rest of society by a wall, a group of techno-monks, the Order of Reflective Analytics, live a near utopian existence. The story draws on sources including Anathem by Neal Stephenson and George Orwell’s 1984. It is darker than Doctorow’s recent novel Little Brother. “The Things That Make Me Weak ...” presents a future that has descended so far into paranoia that it is perhaps irredeemable. No new ground is covered. It’s a skilled example of its kind.

“The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” by Cory Doctorow originally appeared at
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Friday, January 8, 2010

Top 10 posts from 2009

Below are the most popular entries, by pageviews, for the Strangelove for Science Fiction blog. The blog was started August 6, 2009.

  1. Why Best Picture Oscars are like a Broken Clock -- 46
  2. The Windup Girl -- 38
  3. Toward Better Hugo Award Winners -- 34
  4. Anathem -- 32
  5. Early Influences -- 27
  6. Year’s Best SF 14 -- 22
  7. More on Mindfulness -- 21
  8. Reno in 2011 -- 16
  9. Martian Time-Slip -- 15
  10. The Doctor is In -- 14

Having worked at a newspaper (over 100,000 daily circulation) and later having been in charge of several websites (over 100,000 pageviews per day) these blog numbers are thin. Even these numbers are suspect, since it appears that Google Analytics includes the blog owner's pageviews. It filters out numerous web crawlers, which is helpful. Still, it may be an interesting measuring stick for future years, so I offer it here. I invite readers of this blog to join in the discussion by posting comments.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Traitor by M. Rickert

This story is like a piece of broken glass. It’s beautiful, it’s written with great clarity, and it has an edge to it. Still, it is a fragment.

The focus of the story is a mother and daughter. (Spoilers ahead.) The mother, we learn, has used the daughter to deliver bombs, and now the mother has prepared her to be a suicide bomber. The focus is so tight on the mother and daughter it’s like a photograph with no depth of field. The background of the story is completely fuzzy. There is no context, no moral judgment. The story has power, yet I find myself expecting something more.

"Traitor" by M. Rickert originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Like the previous story, this one is compressed -- very compressed. Here it is successful.

Jettisoned are most of the things a genre reader might expect in a short story: dialog, a cast of characters, action, etc. Instead, it is simply a first-person meditation about life and thought, where the reader is left to piece together a picture of the unusual narrator and his situation.

The miniature world recalls Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” (1941), although in this telling it is an apparently “godless” universe, Sturgeon’s deity being merely a human, manipulating tiny sentient life.

Chiang’s narrator is a scientist who rigorously deduces the danger his world is in and examines his own anatomy in an attempt to confirm his theory. The scene of his dissection of his own brain, and metaphorically his dissection of his own ability to reason, is thrilling.

This story, short as it is, opens out in all directions. It manages to address the nature of consciousness, life, and death. For the scientist narrator this process of investigation and insight is the very purpose of life.

Those who have read Chiang’s other fiction will not be surprised to hear that this is a masterful story, deservedly winning the best short story Hugo a few months ago at the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal.

“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang originally appeared in the anthology Eclipse 2 (Night Shade Books, 2008) edited by Jonathan Strahan
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents

Monday, January 4, 2010

Boojum by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

This is a future pirate story with a few inversions. Instead of a ruthless man, the captain is a ruthless woman. Instead of a ship, the crew live inside an enslaved void creature called a boojum.

The story and characterizations are overly compressed. In longer form the plot events and people’s relationships could have had room to breathe and time for better development. Still, there are a few good details: swearing the loyalty oath to the captain includes slicing your thumb with a razorblade and dripping blood on the organic deck so that the ship knows the crew. The compactness of the story leads to reading it as pastiche, whether intended or not.

“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette first appeared in the anthology Fast Ships, Black Sails (Night Shade Books, 2008) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents