mataglap -- an Indonesian word meaning "dark eye" or, probably, "dilated eye." It is an indication that someone is about to go berserk and start killing people at random. Used in Walter Jon Williams' novel Aristoi as the name of a berserk form of nanotechnology that devoured the planet.
You can e-mail Mataglap SF at email@example.com
Friday, July 28, 2006
novella nominees part 1
"Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press; Fantasy & Science Fiction September 2005)
There is no magic in this story, or if there is, it's more of the Clarkeian variety that is indistinguishable from technology. And who are the beginners in question? Link doesn't answer that either, so while the title may set up a standard fantasy milieu, what she delivers is anything but, rather a hodgepodge of disparate ideas thrown together to keep the reader guessing from beginning to end. The story mostly follows a group of five teenagers (told from the perspective of someone who knows them but who never interacts with anyone in the story). One of them, Jeremy, is taking a trip to Las Vegas with his mother, who just inherited a phone booth and a drive-up wedding chapel from an aunt. His father is a writer and a kleptomaniac, who feels guilty after writing a fictional story featuring his son that ends up killing him off. Jeremy and his friends are all obsessed with a tv show called "The Library", which features an ongoing set of characters like a soap opera, but you never know when it's going to be on, or who any of the actors are playing any of the parts. They are starting to wonder if maybe the show is really happening. The story seems to set up the idea of an infinite regression, hinting that the teenagers may either be fictional themselves, or else playing out their own tv show without realizing it. Jeremy can even talk to the Library's recently deceased hero, Fox, or someone who purports to be him, by calling that phone booth in Vegas that now belongs to them. There's a lot going on in here, Link expertly weaves a spell through all the various events and characters that has you totally off kilter without being willfully obtuse, as though there really is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, but she's not telling. The story doesn't provide enough clues to draw obvious conclusions, but leaves you feeling intrigued rather than annoyed, or else with your head spinning too much to notice.
"The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald (Asimov's June 2005)
Once again McDonald plunges the reader into a seemingly alien setting that this time turns out to be near-future Nepal, where the title character tells her own story of how she was selected as a young girl to be a goddess based on her ability to witness disturbing or violent acts without reacting negatively. Mixed into this traditional practice (which is still observed in real-life Nepal) are some genetically and technologically modified ruling class including a young prince whom she is eventually arranged to marry after the goddess thing doesn't work out as well as people had hoped. McDonald hits the right tone in telling this story from the girl's perspective, where she can describe what people are saying but can't necessarily comment on it because she is too young to understand, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. The story jumps ahead a few years at a time, but still ends with the girl (who I don't think is ever given a name) at a relatively young age, trying to get back to Nepal and using her newfound upgrades to give medical advice and help fix a truck. With each advance in the story, the girl's maturity grows, and her ability to relate what is happening around her grows with it. This is not my favorite type of story, but McDonald creates a vivid and certainly unusual backdrop for the action. It's not hard to follow, he gives you no clue as to where the story is going, I suppose at the end its been about a journey of discovery, a sheltered young girl forced to adapt to the outside world, but while she may have learned from the experience, the reader may not feel the same. This is typical of McDonald's work, pretty to listen to, some arresting imagery, but in the end all you have are impressions, and they tend to fade sooner or later.
"Inside Job" by Connie Willis (Asimov's January 2005)
Haven't read a Willis story in a while, this one doesn't disappoint, although she doesn't exactly break any new narrative ground either. Two people, Rob and Kildy, work together to debunk various types of paranormal phenomena, but run into trouble in trying to figure out the angle behind a channeler named Ariaura, who is supposed to be channelling some ancient diety named Isus, but whose expensive seminars are gradually being interrupted by the ghost of H.L. Mencken, who doesn't believe any of it. Willis has internalized every scrap of information about Mencken ever conceived, as is her usual m.o., although she tends to embue Rob with more foreknowledge of Mencken's life than anyone could possibly have. The story takes a more leisurely pace than Willis's usual style, there is only one plot going on, so the characters have time to do other things and no lives are in danger. What's interesting about this setup though is how it calls into question the nature of belief. Rob and Kildy know they're dealing with a charlatan, but they can't prove it unless they can catch her displaying a gap in her knowledge of Mencken. But they have trouble doing it, and come to realize that even if they do, that still doesn't constitute proof, because there could be legitimate reasons that Mencken wouldn't be able to answer one question or another. Rob even suspects for a time that Kildy is in cahoots with Ariaura and has set up the whole thing. Fortunately the paranoia angle proves short-lived, and in the end nobody is sure what really happened, was Mencken for real or not? Willis doesn't preach, but the idea of "extraordinary evidence" as a means of convincing someone to change their mind on something is convincingly challenged.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
novelette nominees part 2
"TelePresence" by Michael A. Burstein (Analog July/August 2005)
Ten years ago Burstein's first published story, TeleAbsence, was inexplicably nominated for a Hugo. It told the story of a school age boy, Tony, who was able to hack into the virtual reality private school that he otherwise couldn't afford because of his desire for learning. A decade later, it's time for a sequel, a longer story where Tony is all grown up and is now the main proponent of the technology of "TelePresence", the shared virtual reality that is being marketed now to the public school system of California, in order to make the advantages of the experience available to everyone. The new story follows the standard Analog formula, setting up a mystery where the system suddenly goes bad and kills a couple of students, and Tony takes up the hunt to find the source of the problem before he loses the big sale to the most populous and influential school system in the country. The resolution at least avoids the computer virus angle, but doesn't really come up with something that much more interesting, but in the end it who or what was behind these deaths is a bit lame and seems not to really be the point. Instead you have a long diatribe about the shortcomings of the standard educational system and how TelePresence is far superior, complete with testamonials from former students, including one of Tony's old classmates. There's also an extended epilog where Tony goes to the cemetary to visit the grave of the teacher who had such an influence on him. Burstein has cornered the market on "education sf", as opposed to educational sf, and really rhapsodizes over both the dichotomy between a teacher's calling and their lot in life. While it's certainly sincere and pushes all the right buttons in the right order, and is certainly short on the typical Analog clankiness, the story doesn't really rise above your average, didactic Analog story.
"I, Robot" by Cory Doctorow (The Infinite Matrix February 15, 2005)
This story is part homage to, part refutation of its namesake (the Asimov collection, not the original Eando Binder story, or the Will Smith movie). Doctorow perfectly captures the tone of an old-fashioned sf story, replete with the stilted dialog and noirish rapid-fire crime-fighting prose, but the similarities end there. The author says he wrote this in response to Ray Bradbury's whining over Michael Moore's coopting of the title "Fahrenheit 451" for his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11". The idea is that many of the classic sf stories promote their premise against a backdrop of a well-meaning but totalitarian state, and Doctorow's intent is to try to depict what that would really be like, what kind of a society would there need to be for all the robots in the country to be made by one company. There's a healthy dose of current events to extrapolate from, where the US is the benevolent dictatorship, and the protagonist, Arturo, is a cop who has at his disposal any number of bugging, surveillance and tracking devices, including robot cops, to help him fight crime. When his daughter goes missing after skipping school, he puts the usual methods into play, but hits a snag when the robots he's dispatched stop responding. What he ends up falling into is an elaborate plot spearheaded by his ex-wife, who represents the country that has been at war with them for years, using their own brand of robot that doesn't subscribe to Asimov's three laws. Arturo is too entrenched in the system to bring himself to change sides easily, but by the end of story he's not too sure where his loyalties lie. Doctorow doesn't dwell on either the politics or the technology as much as you might think, you can take this story at face value and still be justifiably entertained. The robots are present throughout the story but are really just part of the fabric of the world that he's proposing, merely another tool in the government's basket of things utilized to keep us all safe from one another.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
novelette nominees part 1
"The Calorie Man"by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 2005)
This long novelette is bursting with ideas that can barely all fit into the required space, with a little more filling out this could be novel easily. The calorie man of the title is Lalji, something of a mercenary in a future where all the standard crops have been destroyed by various plagues and pestilence, and all that's left is some form of engineered grain that is simply referred to as "calories" and is proprietary to a few huge agriculture companies. The worlds supplies of energy would also seem to have been depleted, so that feeding this calories to draft animals or using technology advanced versions of primitive mechanisms like wind-up springs are the primary ways that people get around and get things done. Within this backdrop, Lalji decides to navigate a barge full of "unlicensed" calories down the Mississippi River, meeting up with a supplier named Bowman, who it turns out has a side-business of his own that he hopes will break the monopoly of the big conglomerates. The backdrop of this story presents a completely plausible yet frighteningly different future where suburbs have emptied out because there's not enough energy to transport people around, people sell energy at exorbitant prices to feed their families, and yet there's nothing to eat except the bland tasteless calories. This story jumps around a lot, the characters are a bit difficult to get a handle on, the alien nature of the future makes it more challenging to understand while trying to follow the plot at the same time, but it's a very original take on a very possible future, and given the amount of thought that's gone into it, it would be a shame if the author didn't use a few more stories to explore it a little more.
"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle (Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 2005)
I haven't read "The Last Unicorn", my impression is that if you have, this story will mean something more to you, as it seems to pick up on certain characters in their dotage to see what happens to them, more as an epilogue to a longer narrative. But taken on its own merits, this is still an effective, well-told and clearly described story, given from the viewpoint of a young girl whose town has been terrorized by a griffin. After numerous knights have been sent by the king to deal with the problem and each has met his demise one by one, she takes it upon herself to go find the king and ask him to do something about it. Along the way she meets an old wizard and his female companion, who are also going to see the king, and they join forces. Now this doesn't sound terribly original even to the limited amount of fantasy I've read, but there's such affection for the chracters that you don't care, and Beagle doesn't get distracted with over-describing everything and sticks to the plot. They meet the king, who is a doddering old man at this point, but he agrees that something should be done and takes it upon himself to do it. The second half of story builds on the underlying unspoken tension that the king has no business taking on this challenge and that it will all end badly. The ending is somewhat expected but movingly told (GVG says it brought him to tears when he first read it), the pacing and structure are exemplary and the story does stay with you. Having said that, it's not the sort of thing I enjoy reading that much, but that's certainly not Beagle's fault, if this is your cup of tea, you'll probably love it.
"The King of Where-I-Go" by Howard Waldrop (SCI FICTION December 7, 2005)
Waldrop tells a semi-autobiographical tale in the first person of a boy and his sister growing up in the south in the '50's, and how their relationship changes when his sister contracts polio. Her case is not severe, so she is eventually able to walk again, and for maybe 80% of the story there is no sfnal element whatsoever. Years later as adults, she goes off to some shadowy clinic and communicates infrequently with her brother, who starts noticing odd things happening. There's a strong nostalgia element to this story, sort of a "Jeffty is Five" for the millennium, harkening back to one's boyhood and the things you remember happening and wish you either could've appreciated more or could've changed somehow. The ending is pure Twilight Zone, the past and future come together, and while it's not the most original effect it seems to work in this context, in the sense that the narrator gets what he wants, even though it causes everything to be different. I haven't read much Waldrop, I always got the impression he was a little more off the wall than this, but this story is very straight up and evocative, wistful in fact, presumably because this is a subject close to his heart and maybe a bit of wish fulfillment. Or maybe he's just a really good writer and this has nothing to do with anything in his own life. Either way, the story holds up on its own merits, but it's a bit of a throwback, there's nothing here to indicate it wasn't written 30 years ago. Something of a pattern with the Resnick short story nominee: straightforward tale of two people dealing with one's serious illness, which veers off into sf only towards the end.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
short story nominees part 2
"The Clockwork Atom Bomb" by Dominic Green (Interzone May/June 2005)
The lone UK entry in this category is a curious choice, although certainly a decent enough story. Green drops us into a complicated scenario in central Africa where the main character Mativi is the future equivalent of a UN weapons inspector, come to investigate some unexploded ordinance that turns out to be much more dangerous than anyone thought. The machine has been co-opted by the local government as a source of both energy and waste disposal, when in fact it is a miniature black hole that is on the verge of losing containment and sinking into the center of the earth, which would be a bad thing for everyone concerned. The author's ability to explain the physics without getting talky, while at the same time setting up dramatic tension and filling in the political details surrounding it, is very impressive, although an extra reading doesn't hurt to make sure you've got a handle on everything. Tucked away in Interzone where 99% of American fans would never see it, this story benefits from the preponderance of UK denizens from last year's Worldcon doing the nominating this year. While a long shot for a win, it's a story worthy of the extra attention the nomination can bring.
"Tk'tk'tk" by David D. Levine (Asimov's March 2005)
Levine turns up in Asimovs for the first time after turning in solid stories and a couple of previous nominees from the more fantasy-oriented publications. This entry takes an odd premise, or at least one you wouldn't see outside of the 1950's, where Walker, an Earth salesman of inventory control software of all things, goes to an alien planet to sell his wares and has an awful lot of trouble adapting to the natives culture and their way of doing business. In truth the aliens wacky protocols and sudden business holidays doesn't stray much from any third world country here, and meanwhile everyone is trying to take advantage of Walker and rob him of his material posessions, either through trickery or just plain thievery. Although he ultimately meets with some success, the difficulties he encounters causes him to question the purpose of why he was doing it at all, such that he ends up "going native", which is not what would've happened in the '50's, I wouldn't think. This twist is a surprise, not least because it happens rather abruptly, but ultimately you can sympathize with Walker and how as a lone representative of Earth, he is much more likely to be affected by the aliens than the other way around. There's a strong element of gentle humor in this story, too, particularly in the epilog. Maybe not the best story of the year, but worth reading.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
short story nominees part 1
"Seventy-Five Years" by Michael A. Burstein (Analog January/February 2005)
Burstein gets two nominations this year, including this lightweight entry that I think must be tangentially related to Analog's anniversary, since it appears in the 75th anniversary issue and has the word "seventy-five" in the title. Schmidt's editorial in the same issue refers briefly to the span of time and how he just made it into the editor's office before the 50th anniversary back in 1980. The story also uses as its premise the passage of time, in the sense of how it's not what it used to be. I assume this is a real law Burstein references that allows census records of specific individuals to be made public after 72 years, the law being so old that the assumption was the person would almost assuredly be dead by then. The story details a conversation between a Massachusetts senator 100 years in the future and his ex-wife. The senator wants to extend this time limit to 75 years, and his ex has figured out why. If you're thinking that doesn't sound very exciting, well it's not, but the point being made has more to do with the mutability of ethics laws and how they can have far-reaching consequences beyond the initial controversy that may surround them (for one, the Massachusetts angle is played upon for the gay marriage thing in the story). The prose is a bit clunky, heavily reliant on dialog that sounds a bit forced at times, not on the Locus list, not an award-winner, but a decent idea imaginatively executed.
"Singing My Sister Down" by Margo Lanagan (Black Juice, Allen & Unwin; Eos)
Lanagan came out of left field (or more precisely, Australia) two years ago and created a huge buzz with a book of short stories that I don't think had been published previously. As I understand it, they mostly deal with aboriginal or African settings (I would've thought she was black herself, but she isn't), and this story, the first in the book, was thought by many to be the best. Spectacularly well-told, the story details the emotions of a family whose grown daughter is being put to death by standing in a tar pit until it swallows her up. The other members of her family are required to sit around her on mats and talk to her as she slowly sinks into the tar. Her crime, killing her new husband with an axe, is only mentioned obliquely, his family is there too, watching with many others from outside of the pit. Told from the perspective of the younger brother, Lanagan strikes an authentic note with the dialog and general patois and rhythm of the prose that makes it so convincingly "aboriginal". Technically this isn't really sf, while there's no direct reference to an established culture that practices this method of justice, it could really happen, I would think, it's a more plausible society than Jackson's "The Lottery", which could be considered a direct antecedent. This story puts forth a unique idea in a unique way and stays with you, all the hallmarks of a story worthy of an award, I think it's the one to beat.
"Down Memory Lane" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's April/May 2005)
Also not a Locus nominee, this story spends most of its 8 pages as a conventional tale of an elderly couple coming to grip with the wife's onset of Alzheimers, the meetings with doctors, the gradual deterioration of her memory. Told from the point of view of the husband, it does a credible job of conveying the bond between the couple even as her illness takes hold, and how despondent he is over his inability to do anything about it. The challenge comes in the last quarter of the story, when he takes matters into his own hands by seeking out a clinic in Central America that is apparently soliciting subjects to test a potential cure for dementia by first giving them something that causes the same effects as the real thing. Why exactly they do it this way instead of using real sufferers of the disease is not explained, and because the story is told in first person, it necessarily veers into "Flowers for Algernon" territory as the narrator gradually loses his cognitive ability. You could say it has a happy ending, but since it's not the copout of a miraculous cure, it can only be the opposite. This was a decent story from the perennial nominee, I'm not sure if the choice of first person ultimately works, maybe the doctor's POV would've made more sense, but I'm sure Resnick tells it this way for a reason, in a way putting you into the head of someone who has made the choice to temporarily lose his memory, and by the end is blissfully unaware of that choice or that his memory isn't coming back.