Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review of Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

After finishing his landmark Book of the New Sun series in the 80s, Gene Wolfe branched out in a new direction; going from a science fiction/fantasy cum confirmation/subversion of epic fantasy, to ancient Greece and a soldier with a head wound that has destroyed his short term memory. Wolfe produced two novels that seemed like bookends on a simple but profound shelf of ideas.  Featuring Greek gods, a realistic presentation of life in the Greek archipelago more than 2,000 years ago, and a man coming to terms with a new perspective on life, Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete are a natural pair opening and closing an enchanted and enchanting window in the soldier Latro’s life.  It was thus something of a surprise when, seventeen years later, Wolfe produced a third Soldier novel, Soldier of Sidon (2006).  Some surprises are welcome, however, even if their genesis is only partially explainable.

Riverland calling him, at the outset of Soldier of Sidon Latro sets out on a merchant’s journey down the Nile with an old friend, Muslak, and some new friends.  One a river wife hired in northern Egypt for the journey, Myt’ser’eu proves delightful, yet mysterious female company.  But not as enigmatic as some of the other men, women, and creatures he encounters.  Egyptian deities just as perceptible as the Greek, Latro’s journey finds him meeting a jackal-headed men, a wax lady, and animals of dreams and nightmares—black panthers, snakes, and crocodiles among them.  People and gods still playing games with Latro, the beleaguered mercenary in semi-retirement must again attempt to peer his way through what he perceives and what his scroll tells him he perceived to make sense of what his eyes and heart tell him is reality.  A temple in the southern reaches of Egypt near Ethiopia purported to be able to cure his memory issues, once again Latro pins his hopes on his own will and the powers of the divine—even if they are of a human age older.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review of Coyote Rising by Allen Steele

Coyote, Allen Steele’s 2002 novel describing humanity’s first attempt at colonizing the stars, was a solidly written story of planetary exploration.  Mankind’s first steps awkward and uncertain on the new world, the narrative unfolded in terms of discovery and adaptation.  It also ended on a major surprise: the Collectivists on Earth had arrived to implement socialism on the desperately libertarian people who remained alive.  Working with the idea humanity has settled Coyote to the point day-to-day survival is ensured, the follow-up, Coyote Rising (2004), unfolds in terms of the political interplay between the two groups: the original colonists, headed by Robert E. Lee, and the Collectivists who landed after, lead by the imperious Louisa Hernandez.  Fireworks literally and figuratively closing the show, it’s an equally enjoyable if not more cohesive novel than Coyote that takes the freshly colonized planet to its next cycle of human existence.

Using the same narrative style as Coyote, Coyote Rising is, to its benefit, a series of short stories, novelettes, and novellas conjoined at plot to tell the story of the first colonizers fight against the oppression of the second wave. Starting small with the story of a middle-aged woman newly arrived on Coyote who must eke out existence on the outskirts of a dirty, fragmented society, afterwards minor events and seemingly small scale happenings escalate the situation on the planet to the point both sides end up in open war—the penultimate story a politically simplistic yet gripping telling of Coyote’s socio-political fate that features viewpoints representing all sides of the overarching story.  It pays off nicely.  Almost Keith Roberts-esque in his vectoring of these stories toward the underlying plot, Steele shows superb narrative control, allowing the character details, setting, and plot of each story to be individual yet ultimately focused on larger issues at stake on the planet, culminating in a satisfying conclusion. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Steampunk is an intriguing sub-sub-genre of fantastyka.  Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy, and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine are books that dig at the political and social ideas resulting from alternate technological versions of history.  But there is another side for which socio-politics are but another color on the palette of a more aesthetic, action-oriented experience.  Mechanical body parts, dirigibles, steam power, and a 19th century-esque setting are just some of the most recognizable tropes featured in Alastair Reynolds Terminal World, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Gail Carriger’s Soulless, and James Blaylock’s Homnculus.  Running with the visually-focused side, Cherie Priest’s 2009 Boneshaker touches the major points of steampunk with motherly sentiment.

Boneshaker’s first few pages start off a bit, well, shaky.  Opening on a historical synopsis, it tells of Leviticus Blue (great name) and his boneshaking machine that one day in the 1850s went mad and tore its way beneath the earth, managing to loot Seattle’s biggest banks in the process.  Rupturing veins of poison gas en route, a madness settled upon the residents in the resulting atmospheric milieu, a madness mitigated only by the construction of a massive wall around the city. The living and the living dead trapped within, those on the outskirts have been left to squeak by however they can, the entire region in tatters.  With the Civil War burgeoning in the south, the Pacific Northwest is primed to fall into chaos.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review of The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction ed. by Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois is well known for his The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies.  Roughly five-hundred stories having accumulated in the series as of 2005, at that time St. Martin’s Griffin asked Dozois to up the ante: to choose the best of the best.  Producing two volumes, the first being The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, the second The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.  (For the record, like the yearly anthologies, the best-of-the-best anthologies were also ice aged: The Mammoth Book of The Best of The Best New SF and The Mammoth Book of Best Short SF Novels, respectively.)

Dozois consciously trying to avoid stories that had been re-printed innumerable times in other anthologies while maintaining a consistently high level of quality, the anthology he compiled covers all the names of the field one would expect, while not always the stories. What Dozois continues to do is spread interest within the sub-genres and micro-genres science fiction has to offer, resulting in a solid collection of short stories, from the genre’s mainstream to a handful somewhat beyond (but not too far).  (See the bottom of this review for a complete list of the thirty-nine stories Dozois selected.)  The following review covers some but not all of the stories, thirty-nine indeed mammoth.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review of “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” by Kate Elliott

Every person has different hopes, expectations, and criteria when meeting someone for the first time; each gesture, statement, expression, etc. is judged, consciously and sub-consciously, for that ever-critical first impression.  Reading the first few pages of a story by a writer you’ve never read before is not dissimilar; technique is critiqued heavier than normal.  My introduction to the work of Kate Elliott via her 2009 novelette “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” did not get off on the right foot—even left foot, for that matter.

A kicked-dead-horse setting, moral buttons the size of Kansas, no understanding of mood or tone, and some of the most unpolished prose I’ve encountered since Brandon Sanderson’s books, the nice little story laden with empty pleasantries and confirmed with a limp handshake did not lead to a good first impression.  The first page, let alone the first few pages, is eye-rolling material.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review of Engineering Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

According to Jonathan Strahan’s introduction, Engineering Infinity (2010) is intended to be a survey of the state of hard sf short fiction at the beginning of the 21st century. Specific writers targeted, indeed if one looks at the table of contents there are several (white males) known for their realistic extrapolation on theory.  Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Gregory Benford are four easily recognizable names in the sub-genre.  But there are a number of stories in the collection which must really suck their bellies in to fit through the doors of hard sf.  John C. Wright, Gwyneth Jones, Charles Stross, and David Moles are not authors that immediately pop into mind when the term is bandied about, and the stories they provided for the anthology are dubiously hard sf, at best.  But throwing taxonomy to the winds (where it probably belongs), Engineering Infinity remains a solid collection of stories.  No single story outshining the others or existing entirely in nothingness, it is also a highly consistent selection.

The two stories falling furthest on the hard sf side of the line are by the Canadians, Peter Watts and Karl Schroeder. “Malak”, Watts’ addition, is freighted.  Examining the morals of drone technology in warfare, he shifts the Middle East conflict a few years into the future where flying weapons possess semi-AI minds and are able to make some decisions in combat.  The remaining decisions, well, they are unfortunately still left to humans.  “Laika’s Ghost” is also a political/military influenced story, but this time in near-future Kazakhstan where an agent has been sent to investigate the bomb making capabilities—bombs worse than nuclear—of the post-Soviet culture still existing in the backlands.  Stuck traveling with a paranoid American looking for asylum from what he saw on Mars, the investigation unearths a lot more than just bombs.  Highly, highly reminiscent of a Bruce Sterling story, “Laika’s Ghost” is interesting for not being a Cold Ware redux, rather a look ahead at what the state of world agriculture, politics, space travel, and, unfortunately, weaponry, may be like in the former Soviet states.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review of City by Clifford Simak

Clifford Simak’s work puts such a debate into my mind: where to draw the line between good intentions and overly-simplistic outlay?  If writers were judged on the sentiment of their work and its relationship to humanity’s future, Simak would rank among the most concerned.  Much of his fiction, for example his major novel Way Station, caution us against short-sighted views and champion a mindset which has nature and universal respect at its core.  What greater vision could a reader ask for?  But there is also much of his fiction caught up in unsophisticated ideas that scan at a quick glance, but upon any deeper examination, crumble into plainness, mindlessness, even cheesiness.  City (1952), perhaps Simak’s most famous work, only heightens the debate.

Extrapolating upon the direction Simak perceived society and technology to be moving post-WWII in the US, City is a series of eight stories (nine, depending on the version) presenting a chronological sequence of views of said extrapolation.  Positing humanity incapable of getting out of its own way, he portrays a future wherein dogs, after a jump in sentience, rise to the peak of civilization—not through the deft use of cunning or brute force, rather by stepping into a vacancy afforded by humanity’s mismanagement of its own affairs.   Self-interest and poor decisions deflating civilization, in an ironic utopia it’s canines who bring peace to Earth.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Non-fiction: Review of Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane

Journey to the West, one of the ‘four great novels of the Chinese canon’, is most often attributed to Wu Chengen.  Author and title requisite for fiction these days, most take for granted that indeed, he is the one who penned the story.  Wu is, in fact, the person who collected, collated, fit, polished, and presented in finished form the myriad pieces of the magnificent tale of Sun Wukong, Sanzang, and their quest for the holy sutras.  The original story having undergone thousands of iterations by street corner storytellers, the result is a narrative that holds its history in episodic rather than escalating form.

But this simple transition in the evolution of storytelling in China, from oral to written tradition, is but one minor—and late—step in the history of storytelling as a whole.  Before street corner storytellers were bards, and before bards, shamans, and before shamans simple gossip over the campfire—thousands and thousands of years of human culture and existence covered in this simple statement.  Tracing story and myth all the way back to its roots, another observation can be made in the manner in the evolution of stories: humanity’s subservience, or lack thereof, to nature.  From the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, Neolithic to the Bronze, Iron to the Information Age, humanity, an idea in this context identified by the West, has shifted its stance on the power of the Earth and its inherent forces.  Where once gods inhabited every rock and shadow, it was whittled down to a pantheon, and from the pantheon, distilled into one ruling god, and from one god to the belief mankind holds its fate in its own hands.  Science fiction the mode of discourse which most obviously represents the latter, we are left with scraps and tatters of what remains of the former.  Enter Sean Kane’s Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1998).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review of Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod

Ken Macleod’s The Star Fraction, despite the throwback genre name, was a politically variegated take on near-future science fiction with a view to the solar system and humanity’s evolution at large.  The three books in the Fall Revolution series which followed, linked fractally at best, expanded the novel’s ideas into the far-future—wormholes, A.I., post-humans, colonies on other planets, and ultimately into a The City and the Stars statement.  Located more toward the sophisticated end of the science fiction spectrum, they are something unique for their detailed politics and technical and social concepts which accompany.  Not trusting their audience, when Tor rolled out the series in the US they chose the most accessible, identifiable work among the four books as the first offering.  Thus, when completing the Fall Revolution series and looking for a new direction, Macleod opted to take the same route as American publishers.

Cosmonaut Keep (2000), opening volume in the three-book Engines of Light series, continues to mix politics into its storyline and work with near-future to far-future settings, but does so with a retro-sf sensibility.  One storyline cyberpunk-ish in its initial outlay but developing into a classic conspiracy theory on a space station, the second is even more recognizable for its love triangle, aliens, and setting on a world far, far away but with corporations, castles, aristocrats, etc.  Macleod lowering the denominator from the Fall Revolution series, the result is a novel (and series) of broader aim and appeal that jettisons sophistication in favor of accessibility: Cosmonaut Keep, and the Engines of Light trilogy, is space opera—Ken Macleod space opera, but space opera.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

2015 Hugo Award Nominations *wince*

As has become an annual tradition here in Speculiction’s peanut gallery, there is a certain amount of pleasure taken in laughing at the foibles of the Hugo Award.  The 2015 situation too ripe to stand idly by, let the bombardment commence anew!

To be clear and open up front, I am neutral.  The peanut gallery standing to the side by default, I don’t have a vested interest in seeing the Sad Puppies or SJWs take the Hugo crown.  Their rhetoric is as amusing as it is sad.  What I do have a vested interest in is the field of speculative fiction as a whole, what is recognized as ‘good’, and the role the Hugo plays in this. This, in truth, is the reason for the following admission: 

When people ask what I enjoy reading, there is a part of me that winces before I say: speculative fiction.  One of the main reasons for this shame is the Hugo.  The writers and books awarded the Nobel, Man Booker, Pulitzer, etc. are like vast, glorious suns compared to the cave squabble of titles ‘science fiction’s most preeminent award’ often recognizes.  A Nobel Prize winning book is normally something a person can be proud to say they’ve read.  The 2015 Hugo’s caliber of fiction is literally incomparable.  To be more blunt, Kevin J. Anderson is not a writer a respectable person can, with a straight face, say is among the top five novelists in speculative fiction in 2015.  I mean no personal offence to Anderson; he’s pursuing a career, like all of us.  But the fact the man publicly and openly advertizes himself as someone to contact should you ever want to see your first media success converted into commercially viable fiction says a lot about the underlying integrity of his work, and by default the Hugo for putting him on the ballot.  (The fact his actual writing is perfunctory at best is another thing.) To him fiction is the art of making money, not literature.  And just to prove how neutral the peanut gallery is, Ann Leckie may have gender issues sprinkled on her space opera muffin, but she too has thus far shown more interest in mediocrity than producing a sophisticated work capable of examining gender or any other issue in truly substantial fashion. It’s therefore embarrassing to count myself amongst a community which allows such writers to be lofted to such heights.  Readers of literary fiction simply do not worry about this.  (They have more detailed, intellectual quibbles.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Numbers sometimes speak louder than words, so rather than open my review of editor Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9 (2015, Solaris) with some trite intro, here is the statistical breakdown:

Percentage of stories by authors making at least their second appearance in Strahan’s ‘best of’ series: 75% (highest of all volumes to date)
Percentage of stories by authors making at least their third appearance: 64%
Percentage of stories by authors making at least their fourth appearance: 39%
Percentage of stories by authors making at least their fifth appearance: 18%
Percentage of stories by authors making their seventh appearance: 4% (one story, in fact: Kelly Link has appeared in seven of the nine volumes)*

I don’t mind repeat inclusions.  It’s perfectly plausible that a given writer has written several high quality stories over the past decade.  The question in my mind, however, is: does such a list truly represent the current state of short speculative fiction?  Has the editor really gone out to pound the pavement, gotten to know the back genre corners and haunts of underground authors who are writing quality fiction but not yet in the spotlight, and compiled a list of the best of 2014 regardless of author?  Or has he just gone with old faithful?  I know Strahan is working within limitations most readers may not be aware of—legal clauses, reprint restrictions, author rights, sales expectations, etc.  Nevertheless, given such a high volume of repeat inclusions, I lean toward the idea these are favorite authors, and therefore not wholly representative of 2014 in short speculative fiction.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review of "Mortimer Gray's History of Death" by Brian Stableford

A wise man once said that nothing is certain in life but death and taxes.  Science fiction creating scenarios which put an end to the certainty of the former (more often than the latter, it seems), extended life and immortality are commonly used tropes of science fiction.  But they are less commonly examined tropes of science fiction.  More often a means of disguising the immense lengths of time necessary to travel across space or a splash of virtual life eye-candy to alter perspective on existence, there are a limited number of genre works that peer deeper into the mortality of death in the immortal future.

With such an introduction and such a title, one might expect Brian Stableford’s 1995 “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death” to be a morbid discourse on murder, funeral rites, war, suicide, entombment, etc., moving forever downward into the gloomy depths of despair.  Such is not the case.  Stableford’s tone may be consistently staid, yet the tale eases forward with subtle dynamism; Gray’s History is as much a survey of the man’s research as it is his personal life and thoughts regarding mortality in the context of biotechnical advance.  It thus instead makes for a beautifully nuanced sociological discourse.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Review of Pelquin's Comet by Ian Whates

One of the significant differences between science fiction and realist fiction is the sense that the possibilities of sf are so much grander.  Genre writers taking advantage of the four dimensions as a playground for fiction in a variety of ways, from the temporal extents of Olaf Stapledon’s works to the microworlds of Madeline D’Engle, no sub-genre, however, may utilize the possibilities more than space opera.  Arguably the core of science fiction, it’s been in existence almost since the beginning, and there are no signs of its disappearance anytime soon.  Carrying the torch in the 21 st century is Ian Whates’ Pelquin’s Comet (2015, NewCon Press).

Knowing that a major stash of alien artifacts lies unclaimed, Pelquin, Captain of the freebooter Pelquin’s Comet, heads to the major financial center of New Sparta to find a sponsor in order to make a run at the loot.  An Elder artifact in hand, he succeeds in convincing one of the credit officers to extend a line of cash his way, but not without a compromise.  Forced to take on a representative of the bank (the mysterious alien toting Drake), Pelquin reluctantly agrees to the terms and sets his small crew to gearing up the ship for the trip.  Exiting New Sparta, however, a surprise attack occurs.  With projectiles flying the Comet gets off the ground, but not without its chief mechanic Monkey getting badly injured.  And he’s needed.  The jump into RzSpace going smoothly, once inside the other dimension, however, a problem occurs with the motors, an emergency landing needed.  Babylon the closest planet, it’s there the Comet heads and the Captain’s plans for an easy loot grab really start to spiral out of control.