Thursday, March 31, 2016

Speculiction grows legs...

Ahh science fiction book lists, the guilty pleasure of any bibliophile.  Agree, disagree, learn, laugh...  But with so many available, what to do when somebody requests one of you?  I recently found myself in this situation after a request from  I decided to go random, or at least semi-random.  See here for the result. (One may even find a picture and short bio of the yeti.) Interestingly, after perusing the site, I noticed that esteemed colleague and friend of Speculiction From Couch to Moon also has lists featured on (here and here).  Even more interestingly, it would seem our friend also decided to go random.  And just even more interestingly, Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon appears on both our lists, which must mean it's a good book.  Go read it if you haven't.

*Note - Image heedlessly pilfered through google. Contact me if it needs to be removed.  Viewer statistics can easily prove I am in no way profiting from it... 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review of The Beyond by Jeffrey Ford

David Lindsay’s 1920 Voyage to Arcturus is a quiet classic of fantasy.  The story of a man who is transported to the eponymous planet, he finds himself walking a kaleidoscope land where the sky can be purple, mountains rise and fall like the wind, and the people he meets have such esoteric thoughts he can only take stabs in reply as to their ultimate coherency.  Saving his best for last, the concluding volume of Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, The Beyond (2001), spins Lindsay’s story darker and weirder, tying itself back into the main ideas of the preceding two volumes, The Physiognomist and Memoranda, to create a strange, kaleidoscope voyage of its own.  The Beyond as imaginative and conceptually deep as contemporary fantasy series gets these days, it confirming the trilogy’s status as among the contemporary best.

Memoranda a ninety-degree turn from The Physiognomist, looking ahead to The Beyond the reader has no hope of guessing what comes next—despite the lead-on in the final paragraphs of Memoranda.  Abandoning the second dimension for the third, Cley and Misrix’s adventures in the wilds beyond the Well-Built city are mythic in mode but 100% Weird in style.  With the trusty hound Wood by his side, Cley carries on his hunt for Arla, the woman fixed in his mind, while Misrix, gleaning through the rubble of the Well-Built City, attempts to reconcile the demon and human inside himself and civilization.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review of The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

Along with having one of the most unique titles in science fiction’s history, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of the genre’s significant novels.  Though written in Dick’s quirky hand, it nevertheless digs at the meaning of existence and sentience in a world where AI is so similar to human intelligence as to seemingly render the difference moot.  The subject material potentially deep, it’s no surprise subsequent writers have picked up on the premise, developing it in new directions.  One such novel is 2016’s The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese (St. Martin’s Press).  Just not sure whether the development is a progression or regression… 

Private investigator Blake Fowler and his eccentric partner Erasmus Keane have just been called to the research firm Esper for assistance with a most bizarre case.  A sheep, one of a very large breed and of special biological significance, has been stolen.  Uncertain where to kick off the investigation, the pair start by interviewing employees who had access to the animal.  In the process of questioning the people, they are interrupted by one of the world’s most famous soap opera stars, Priya, who claims her teddy bear is trying to kill her.  It being post-collapse Los Angeles, Fowler and Keane blink, but agree to take on her case as well.  Developments quick in coming in the sheep case, the pair soon realize they are working on one and the same problem; indeed something is lurking beneath the leary gaze of sheep.

Review of Night's Master by Tanith Lee

There are a lot of reasons myth continues to fascinate humanity—the characters, the lingering moral and cultural value, the occurrence of the supernatural, the nostalgia, and others.  It’s fair to say the core humanity inherent to the tales is another strong reason why.  Myths simple stories when viewed from the outside, once penetrated they reveal many central characteristics that make us human.  Written in 1978, Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master possesses precisely these elements—despite not being set in a world not of this Earth.

Technically a set of interwoven stories, Night’s Master nevertheless has aspects common throughout.  Aspects that slowly aggregate into a whole, chief among them is Azhrarn, Prince of Demons, and ruler of the underworld.  Humanity his toy, he wrecks destruction and heartache on a whim, but is likewise fascinated by mortals.  The opening story telling of his thieving of a mortal boy from the green, sunny overworld, their fate unfurls in classic, mythopoeic fashion.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Review of Last Call by Tim Powers

A deck of playing cards is a mainstay of modern society.   For as ubiquitous as board games have become, playing cards are still the standby.  But we take them for granted—because it’s easy.  The numbers 2 through 10 are a universal aspect of existence with an obvious relationship.  King and queen also have an easily recognized relationship, and few question their place at the top.  The joker is, well, the joker—as crazy-wild as can be, and the ace is the ace: a lowly one or number one—trumping them all.  But the jack?  Who is he, and how did he get mixed in?  Why not a knight or vizier?  Seem more relevant.  And the one-eyed jack...  This is the legacy explored in Tim Power’s fantastical Last Call (1992).

Last Call is the story of Scott Crane (aka Scarecrow Smith), the one-eyed adoptee of one of the greatest poker players ever to drift through the US’s casinos and poker tournaments in the early 20 th century, a man named Ozzie Smith.  Ozzie a superstitious guy, he warns Scott against playing in a wide variety of strange situations, one of which is over water.  But a son doesn’t always listen to his father, especially aged sixteen, and Crane, intrigued by the stakes being offered on a house boat on Lake Mead, heads out for an evening of gambling.  Feeling he walked away a winner, it takes some time to discover just how, in fact, he was a loser.  Crane’s world slowly cracking at the edges, his life gains only greater and greater subjectivity as larger forces at play are revealed.  It seems one can hazard more than money in poker.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review of This Census-Taker by China Mieville

After a three year break, genre favorite China Mieville returned to the scene in late 2015 with a collection of largely unreleased stories, Three Moments of an Explosion.  A step forward for Mieville, the collection shifted away from the (relatively) conventional arenas of horror and dark fantasy seen in his popular Bas-Lag and Kraken novels toward a more focused and mature side of his fiction.  With the release of This Census-Taker in 2016, the direction is confirmed.  A novella to be experienced as much as read, the darkness haunts without any ghosts or monsters.

The three-year break giving Mieville the chance to really bring to bear his talents, This Census-Taker shows a writer fully in control of his craft, something that could not always be said of his earlier verbosity—ahem, fiction; This Census-Taker simmers in deceivingly simple pain and beauty, on the page and in the mind, sucking the reader in.  About a boy living with an abusive father in the hills outside a town that barely survived the collapse of civilization, the shadows of Mieville’s forest loom without anything apparent blocking the light. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Culture Corner: Thailand, Bangkok

Let me get the soon-to-be-obvious out of the way first.  This collection of photos in no way comes close to representing the city of Bangkok.  More a look at the most popular cultural/tourist attractions, the reader will not catch any glimpses of everyday street life in Thailand's capital.  And this is my fault, mostly due to the circumstances of travel.  Where I normally have the hands free to snap away, walking the streets at my leisure.  This holiday I brought with me my eighteen month old son, which meant my hands were rarely free, and when they were, we had already arrived at our destination, i.e. temples, palaces, and other beautiful places, just not places that would give the reader a glimpse of quotidian urban life in Bangkok.  But enough humming and hawing, it is what it is:

The Buddha at Wat Arun...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Culture Corner: Cambodia - Siam Reap & Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a place I've always dreamed of visiting, and when we decided to go to Thailand, making a side trip to the ancient wonder was a no-brainer.  Who knows when I will be in that part of the world again? Despite that I now wish to go back and spend more time in the Cambodia beyond, the side trip was worth it.  Angkor Wat is everything I hoped it would be.  I hope these pictures do the place some justice, as well as give a little peek at the surrounds.

Where other passengers were picked up by buses and taxis at the airport in Siam Reap, this trusty steed awaited us - and our mass of luggage. Here yours truly is showing his best side (back to the camera), holding Adam as he sleeps.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Review of Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

Seeming to prize quality over quantity, Elizabeth Hand’s short fiction appears regularly in magazines and anthologies but not often.  Only a couple of stories published per year, each seems to receive special treatment.  The characters are fully nuanced, the prose sharpened to fit scene and mood, the structure rendered as conveyance, and touches of the fantastic nimbly inserted to give that little extra shine (or in some cases, shadow), thus offering the reader a complete product in each story.  Hand’s latest collection Errantry: Strange Stories captures everything published between 2007 and 2011, and is another strong example why the author is one of the best writing today.

There are some common themes which stretch their way through most of Hand’s stories, regardless long or short.  One of which is the idea of loss.  Perhaps the longest piece in the collection, “Near Zennor” tells of a man whose wife has just died of a brain aneurysm.  Going through her old boxes, he discovers fan letters she wrote to a since disgraced author of children’s books, the Englishman Robert Bennington.  After hearing a bizarre story from one of his wife’s friends about the writer, he decides to take a trip to England to visit the man’s home, and walking the heath and moorlands discovers just why the story was so bizarre.  One of the most classic, straight-forward stories in the collection, “The Far Shore” tells of a ballet dancer convalescing in a remote Maine cabin after permanently injuring his leg, and the strange person he finds laying partially frozen in the snow outside one day.  Escalating smoothly from realist to symbolism, the ending is nevertheless poignant.  To describe precisely how “Uncle Lou” involves loss would be to ruin the story, but suffice to say it’s about a young woman and her eccentric travel writer of an uncle who takes her on a most interesting escapade to a zoo one evening.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Culture Corner: Thailand - Koh Lanta & Koh Lipe

It wasn't so long ago I traveled with an analog camera, and before taking each photo had to gauge: "Is this worth the shot?  I have only thirteen left shots on this roll, and after that just two more rolls..."  But now we just snap away without thinking, and sort out the good from the bad later.  (At least I think a few people do; most probably have mobile phones and digital cameras full of unedited selfies...)  I've finally had a chance to sort through our hundreds, if not thousands of photos from vacation in Thailand and Cambodia, and am ready to pass along a few. For whatever reason, I think I'll work backwards and start with the islands of Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe where we spent the last ten days of our trip.  In the next few days there should be posts on Siam Reap/Angkor Wat and Bangkok.

Seeing Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe first hand, it's apparent why there are so many tourists traveling to Thailand.  They're gorgeous.  I would consider Koh Lanta the more relaxed island (restaurants, bars, with little centralized development) and Koh Lipe the more active (it has numerous local options for snorkeling, diving, and kayaking whereas Koh Lanta's require travel.)  You could snorkel off the beach in Koh Lipe, but not Koh Lanta.  But again, both were beautiful, and myself, my family, and the extended family I traveled with loved everyday, every meal, every sunrise, sunset...

This (the white building between the turquoise and rattan) was our hotel on Koh Lanta.  It was great.  In the day the ocean was a stone's throw away, and in the evening, after the kids went to sleep, we could relax at the restaurants nearby without worrying as our doors were in plain sight the entire time, the stars overhead.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

A long time coming doesn’t seem to quite sum it up.  His first short story appearing in 2002, fourteen years and more than eighty stories later, Ken Liu’s first collection finally hits shelves in 2016.  The delay is to the point that when things were finally settled, editors were able to compile a collection of which two-thirds is either an award winner or nominee.  More a best-of than a representative sample of a certain period of work, for those waiting and waiting for Liu’s lauded short works to appear in one place, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (Saga Press) is finally here.

The short stories collected in The Paper Menagerie trace many lines, from exercises in imagination to pure science fiction, sensationalism to didacticism, but most often cling to Liu’s cultural heritage, Chinese, and most often Chinese culture in the context of other culture or cultures.  The title story “The Paper Menagerie” finds Liu playing the pity card on the last hand, but playing it with respect, or at least a real world correlation.  The story of a boy born to an American man and Chinese woman, the resulting culture tension plays itself out in poignant, and at least initially playful terms, toward its emotional if not manipulative conclusion.  “Good Hunting” is a story set at the turn of the 20 th century.  A time when China too was transitioning into the industrial age, it tells of a traditional Chinese ghost hunter and the evolution he witnesses and undergoes in technology around him.  Another morally simplistic story, this one moves in unexpected, steampunkish directions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review of A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Ahh, the risk one takes walking the utopia tightrope.  Many have walked before, and it’s unsure anyone has made it all the way to the end without falling off.  Aldous Huxley’s Island is unique; Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plux X asks some great questions; Iain Banks’ Culture books look at the psyche of utopia in interesting fashion.  And there are innumerable other works presenting some form of utopia.  But it seems fair to say none have successfully convinced the world their idea is workable.  Joan Slonczewski in her 1986 A Door into Ocean nevertheless tries to have a hand.  Does it successfully walk the tightrope?  Perhaps hand over hand…

A utopia imagined along gender/socio-economic lines, A Door into Ocean sets an all-female pacifist society that collectively shares information against a male-dominated society that isolates information based on its value for trade potential much lke the present-day West.  The Sharers inhabiting the ocean-moon Shora, their world comes into major conflict with the nearby planet Valedon when a galaxy faction tasks the Valedons with takeover.  The Sharers non-violent, they are pushed to extreme lengths to protect their planet.  But at the cost of giving up their principles?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu

I was going to consign my review of Ken Liu’s 2011 novella “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” to a few concise sentences in my review of the collection in which I first encountered it, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. The story (if it can be called that), however, incited such a variety of reactions in me, positive and negative, that I decided to try to work my thoughts out in a little longer format.  An attempt thereat, follows.

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is a story about the atrocities Japan committed upon China in WWII.  Human experimentation, vivisection, torture, slaughter of civilians, unlawful imprisonment, rape—the whole eight yards (save genocide) define the Japanese program in China in the 1930s and 40s.  Having lived in China for some time, I can attest to the fact every year, when Japan holds its ceremony at the monument honoring soldiers who died in WWII, China (or perhaps just the Chinese government?), get indignant if not insulted when little to no acknowledgment of the violence and cruelty leveled against China by those very soldiers are mentioned.  Liu of Chinese descent, the novella likewise indicates his interest in finding some sense of justice over the matter. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review of Distraction by Bruce Sterling

There were times listening to George W. Bush speak that one might have considered his position as leader of the world’s most powerful country a joke.  The Monica Lewinski/Bill Clinton scandal was a joke.  Media flooding a story far less significant than the Balkan War, strife between Israel and Palestine, American jobs moving overseas, and other issues at the time, it called into question where American priorities lay. And Barack Obama, as inspired an orator he may be, seems to have little control over the ongoing environmental, economic, social, healthcare, and domestic policy problems plaguing the US, the middle class sinking ever closer to the lower - the system, dependent on lobbying, perhaps even more fouled than the position.  With voter turnout slipping each election, faith in the American political system to solve it’s nation’s issues seems to be fading.  Has it become a farce?  Bruce Sterling’s 1998 Distraction would posit ‘yes’.  And it has some damning, if not cynically humorous evidence, to prove it. 

Intelligently deconstructing the system one satirically-edged scene at a time, Distraction looks at the intersection of commerce and science through the lens of American politics.  The joke out in the open, a renegade governor tries to gain political and economic power with cutthroat means while the president fosters a cold war with the Netherlands as an excuse for invasion and voter satisfaction.  Caught in the middle is Oscar Valparaiso.  A spin doctor—and a successful one, the politician whose campaign he just managed was elected senator.  Relaxing in the armored tour bus on the border of Texas and Louisiana just days after their victory, Oscar looks ahead to his next job and getting back to Boston to see his girlfriend.  But when the girlfriend leaves him for a gig in in the ongoing Cold War and the rambunctious governor of Louisiana throws more than one wrench in Oscar’s plans for a new career, the wheels, as they say, come off the bus, and Oscar’s life heads off on a wild ride of late 21st century American politics and science.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review of I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

The appreciative Discworld and YA reader has read with delight, humor, and head-nodding understanding the adventures of Tiffany Aching and her erstwhile protectors, the Nac Mac Feegle, as they live and learn on the Disc.  Rescuing her brother from the Queen of the Fairies in The Wee Free Men to her ill-advised first kiss in Wintersmith, we have grown alongside the girl from the Chalk as she becomes a witch.

Now aged sixteen, I Shall Wear Midnight finds Tiffany as the Chalk’s only practicing witch.  Dealing with all problems—physical, domestic, and farm-related—she must also deal with her neighbors’ developing prejudices toward witches.  Trouble brews when the Baron dies under Tiffany’ care.  His staff accusative, Tiffany is forced to go to Ankh-Morpork to inform Roland of his father’s death and attempt to remain on the right side of justice.  Running into all sorts of witches she’d never met before in the big city, she likewise makes a new enemy, the soulless Cunning Man.  The Nac Mac Feegle tagging along, chaos erupts when Tiffany finds herself in jail, forcing the teen witch to the extent of her wits to be true to herself.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Review of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 4 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

At its fourth volume, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (2010) appears to be in for the long haul.  Featuring many stories by writers featured in previous volumes—Kelly Link, Ellen Klages, Peter Beagle, James Patrick Kelly, Andy Duncan and several others—Strahan has been consistent enough to give readers something they can generally depend on.  Many newcomers to the series as well, however, Strahan likewise keeps the mix varied, and in the process so too the range of tales, to produce an anthology quietly as good as the previous volumes.  Whether or not one agrees they are the best of the year is, of course, subjective, so best to simply enjoy as an anthology of good stories from 2009.

Volume 4 opens with “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith.  Philip K. Dick in erotic mode, it is the story of a young business woman who is sent to Atlanta to secure a new contract.  Ending up at a strip club for the wining and dining, she’s in for a major surprise.  Effectively personal, the denouement remains a bit fluffy.  Jo Walton’s “Three Twilight Tales” opens with: "Useless, that's what you are," the girl said. "Why, I could make a man every bit as good as you out of two rhymes and a handful of moonshine.”  A spot of traditional fantasy fun in which the man calls the woman’s bluff, the story offers little more.  Successfully setting aside his southern drawl for a more contemporary voice, “The Night Cache” by Andy Duncan tells of a clerk at Yarnes Ignoble bookstore (yuck yuck) and the most interesting encounters with a customer she has one day, and the geocaching adventures she has after.  Duncan renders a poignant tale of romance in humorous style—not an easy feat to pull off.  Describing a space ship’s encounter with a vast aura of stars, “The Island” by Peter Watts borrows from the playbook of J.G. Ballard for its investigation of the human mind under duress, but is the author’s own for the sf sensawunda.  One of Watts’ more evocative pieces.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

And we're back...

After two and a half weeks in Thailand and Cambodia, Speculiction is up and running once again!  As usual during long distance flights, I took the opportunity to watch films, something I don’t normally do.  Traveling with a one-and-a-half-year old, however, viewing times were limited to the moments he was asleep, as otherwise my imagination was being tested not by images and sound but by finding ways for a little ball of energy to expend itself in a tiny space without knocking over the cups, shouting in the ears, pulling the hair, and otherwise disturbing fellow passengers.