Mataglap SF

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.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

SF short story candidates, pt 3
"Kin", Bruce McAllister (Asimov's 2/06)

This odd and slightly creepy story concerns a young boy named Kim (not to be confused with the title, although the similarity is duly noted) and his mission to find an alien hitman to prevent the government from terminating the birth of his sister in an age of strict population control. He finds one basically by confronting possible contenders one by one with the accusation of their being a hitman, until he finally comes upon one who really is. The alien is too savvy to actually do it, but he does confront the government official with a warning, and sure enough strings are pulled and Kim's parents get to keep the baby. The alien is more interested in how Kim came upon this idea in the first place, and comes to understand there is some kinship (hence the title) in how they view the world. In an short epilog several years later, the alien has died and leaves his vast personal fortune and cache of weapons to Kim and his family, and Kim can't wait until he can travel to where the weapons are stored, implying Kim's destiny may not be too far from that of his benefactor. A little farfetched, maybe a little too pat, but certainly with a distinctive tone.

"With By Good Intentions", Carrie Richerson (F&SF 10-11/06)

This Texas tall tale about the company hired to pave a road to hell is a modestly amusing but slight entry. The actual published title has an ellipsis followed by the word "with" crossed out, if that makes any difference. Sandoval paving company gets a big contract to build a 6-lane road, and in spite of a number of plagues that visit them along the way (bats, rattlesnakes, raining blood, etc.) they manage to get the job done with a minimum of disruption. Their reward includes one "get out of hell free" card for each worker. At the end, the crew boss asks their employer why he asked for a road that runs both directions, since presumably all the traffic will be one way, but there's no payoff, the question is left hanging. A cute little yarn, but not a standout.

"The Small Astral Object Genius", James Van Pelt (Asimov's 10-11/06)

The name of James Van Pelt is not currently counted among the greats of short sf, but this is a stand-out story about a boy named Dustin who spends all his free time playing at some gizmo called a Peekaboo that connects to his computer and is part of a global volunteer search for data on other planets in the universe. There is much debate over whether these Peekaboo's really do anything or if it's just part of a marketing hoax, but Dustin and his friends believe in it and log countless hours at the computer as it seeks random locations in space looking for other stars and planets. Those that they occasionally find can be printed out into pictures which serve as trading cards, part of the incentive for keeping up the search, and Dustin's particular obsession with hard-to-find planets give him the nickname that is the story's title. This plot by itself isn't so incredible, but what Van Pelt does to great success is play this story against that of Dustin's home life, his parents marriage breaking up, the isolation that he feels within the house, his strained relationship with his parents, and the juxtaposition of these elements with this seemingly futile and possibly fabricated search for other planets amongs all the vast emptiness of space. At the end, Dustin's Peekaboo makes a startling discovery that has the unexpected effect of breaking the ice in drawing his parents back together. Just a great, evocative, layered, original story that will probably get passed over in favor of something by Mike Resnick.

"The Age of Ice", Liz Williams (Asimov's 4-5/06)

The nice thing about a short story is that if you don't get it the first time, or were distracted while reading it and suddenly it was over, or any number of other mishaps that can diminish your enthusiasm, it doesn't take much time to go back and read it again. This one actually took three readings over two days before it came together, and the third time you had to wonder why it seemed so obtuse the first two times. This story is told in slightly stilted fantasy-type language, with almost no dialog, and although the details are given in sf terms, it still has the feel of a fantasy story. A woman comes to a hostile city looking for evidence of a rumored weapon. Her search focuses on the ruin of the library, but along the way she is taken captive twice by a group of "scissor-women", and twice encounters an adversary known as the "flayed warrior". She is able to download all the information from the library back to her own city, and the next day they've declared a truce, the end. This seems like a condensed version of a story from a much more fully realized setting, by itself it's not long enough to get your bearings to the point that you can really get into what's going on, but in an expanded form or as part of a larger narrative it would probably be more effective. But on its own terms, there's just not enough to hang onto.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

sf short story candidates, pt 2
"World of No Return", Carol Emshwiller (Asimov's 1/06)

Around 60 years into her writing career, this is Emshwiller's first story for Asimov's. Some of her recent entries in F&SF have been notable more for their obtuseness than anything else, but this story is a relatively straightforward tale that could easily have been modified to remove the sf trappings. The narrator goes by Norman, but he's really an apparently humanoid alien who's been living on Earth with his parents most of his life, trapped and waiting for rescue. When he's left to his own devices, he ends up befriending an old lady who lives alone and needs some help around the house, in exchange for keeping him away from the authorities, who aren't even aware of his extraterrestrial origins, they just see him as a bum. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, a relationship which Emshwiller deftly handles, along with Norman's conflicting feelings when his rescuers finally come to Earth, and he's now lived there so long he doesn't feel like he needs rescuing any more. There are some parallels to be drawn between elements of our own society and Norman's family, who shield him as much as possible from humans and human culture in an attempt to keep him focused on his own heritage and above temptation. Emshwiller leaves this unsaid, but delivers an evocative, thought-provoking story nonetheless.

"Nano Comes to Clifford Falls", Nancy Kress (Asimov's 7/06)

Nancy Kress often deals with the human side of radical technological or biological shifts, and this story falls into that familiar territory, with a heavy dose of Twilight Zone smalltown sensibility thrown in. Clifford Falls is the town in question, and they're far enough away from the big cities to be shielded from much of the upheaval that comes with the four new nanotech machines that the town receives, one for food, one for clothes, and two for anything else that anyone wants. The main character of the story is Carol, who doesn't pay much attention to the machines as she's too busy dealing with the aftermath of a recently departed husband and trying to raise her kids on her own. But she sees what happens as social order starts to break down, since people no longer have to work to raise the money they need to buy things. Suddenly there are no school teachers, so Carol takes it upon herself to start a small school of her own. Things go from bad to worse when two strangers break into her house, and those left in town realize they need to band together. They end up forming a commune of sorts, for their own safety but also to put some new rules around how to use the nano machines. Kress does a great study in a short amount of pages on how at least some parts of society manage to adapt to such sudden and world-shaking change, with the end result being not too much different from how they were before it all started. All that's missing at the end is the Rod Serling epilogue.

"Kyle Meets the River", Ian McDonald (Forbidden Planets, Peter Crowther, ed., DAW)

These days McDonald can take any premise or subject and turn it into a story about future India. This story reads like a Heinlein juvenile crossed with The Kite Runner, told from the perspective of a boy named Kyle who's living in the middle of a post-holocaust India in an enclosed community with his parents, who are helping get the country back together. He befriends a local boy and the main part of the story is how his friend helps Kyle escape from the enclave and see the "real" city, including a trip to the Ganges River of the title, where they see people bathing in the river and witness a sort of public cremation. There are several other unrelated scenes that lead up to this, and the fallout from his last adventure has potentially far-reaching significance for Indian relations, but none of these things really add up to much. As I usually find with McDonald's stories, they're well told, but his choice of this detached, dreamlike
prose ultimately doesn't leave much of an impression after the story is over. This is another example of a story that doesn't even necessarily need to be science fiction, apparently based on real-life living arrangements for foreign workers in Iraq, so while it's an interesting read and I may be in the minority, I get the feeling it won't have much staying power.

"Impossible Dreams", Tim Pratt (Asimov's 7/06)

This relatively simple story of Pete, a movie fanatic who stumbles across a video store from a parallel Earth where movies like The Magnificent Ambersons were made correctly, other classic movies feature different actors, and some movies exist that never happened in this reality. He befriends the store clerk, Ally, and desperately tries to figure out how to watch the movies on his home theater after discovering that not only are the movies different in her reality, but the formats are different too, as is the money he needs for the rental. Pratt does a good job of taking Pete from euphoria to despair as he exults over his good luck only to run up against one obstacle after another that prevents him from actually watching anything. While all this is going on, he's got even more problems, as the store only appears for a brief time every evening, and that window of opportunity is noticeably decreasing. Ally is just as much of a movie buff as he is, and of course the movies in our reality don't jibe with what she knows either. The ending is a bit predictable, but otherwise this is a nice, small-scale story that would make a good short film of its own, in this or any reality.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

SF short story candidates, pt 1
The Hugo nominees are due in a few weeks, and I'm going to try to vote for the short story nominees this year, as this category is often decided by a few votes and is too often populated with sub-standard stories. The Locus list of the best short stories for 2006 includes 45 entries, which I'll try to survey as much as possible before the deadline.

Here's the first 5:

"In the Abyss of Time", Stephen Baxter (Asimov's 8/06)

Baxter in full Stapledon mode, outClarke-ing Clarke in his description of a quick trip through time to the end of the universe and back for the purpose of finding out which of the many theories about the future evolution of cosmology are correct. The story is told from the point of view of a reporter who is for some reason railroaded into coming along (rather than just being asked) on the first human trip into the far future with a couple of retired entrepreneurs with money to burn and an urge to explore. Susie the narrator throws up a lot, but survives the trip, with some vague particle physics driving the time machine that is probably what relegated this story to Asimovs instead of Analog. But beyond just going for the record of the longest elapsed time in the space of one story, Baxter wisely chooses to embue his characters with different motives for their actions, making them at least marginally interesting in their own right and not just the golden age cut-outs you would typically expect in this type of story. One of Baxter's more compelling short stories in recent memory.

"Eight Episodes", Robert Reed (Asimov's 6/06)

Reed masterfully executes a brief but complex narrative centered around a mysterious tv show, and the eponymous eight episodes that are the only ones broadcast. The show turns up out of the blue, develops a cult following in spite of telling a drawn-out, disjointed tale about a flawed scientist and his discovery of ancient visitors to earth. The conclusion reached is that the aliens that were out there have sent a message to humanity not to bother with interstellar space travel. But is what they're saying true, or do they just want to keep us where they can see us? The blurring between the show and reality comes to light later on, when the origins of the show come under more scrutiny and people start to wonder exactly who was behind its creation and its message.

"Chu and the Nants", Rudy Rucker (Asimov's 6/06)

The mind of Rudy Rucker is an unsettling place to be, and this story does nothing to diminish that notion. Chu is the young son of Ord, who somewhere in the future has helped to develop the nants, nanomachines that eventually run amok and start consuming the planet. Ord figures out first how to protect himself and his family, and ultimately how to reverse the entire process. That's about it, plotwise, what makes the story more compelling is the surreal attitude Ord and Chu have toward such fundamentally transforming technology. It would seem that Ord hasn't really thought through the personal implications of what has been unleashed until it is nearly too late, and his solution, a computer virus of sorts, requires allowing the nants to completely consume Chu in order to start its effect. Not a standout, but suitably weird.

"Life on the Preservation", Jack Skillingstead (Asimov's 6/06)

Relatively new writer Skillingstead impresses with this post-apocalyptic tale of a girl who tries to go back home again. Kylie returns to her hometown of Seattle, or at least the part that's been preserved under a bubble as something of a museum or nature preserve after the rest of the world is wiped out by aliens. The people who live there repeat the same day over and over and don't seem to know it. She meets a guy, develops a quick crush, he takes her back to his place, and there's some good conflict set up between her original reasons for coming there and the feelings that develop upon living inside this closed environment for a while. The few characters are well-realized and while the premise may be a bit of a stretch, it's told with enough conviction to overlook its shortcomings, with a nicely ambiguous ending.

"Tin Marsh", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's 8/06)

Swanwick reappears after an extended absence with an unusual story for him, one that actually has a plot and a purpose, and is relatively hard sf to boot. It features only two characters, a man and a woman who are prospectors on Venus. During their extended isolation on the planet's surface, they driven each other crazy, but their life-support suits prevent them from doing themselves or each other harm. Until an earthquake of sorts somehow allows the man, MacArthur, to chase his companion Patang over the face of the planet hellbent on killing her. It's only the discovery of the eponymous tin marsh during the course of this stalking, plus the realization that while he can hurt and terrorize he still can't actually kill, that causes him to regain enough sanity to accept a truce and allow them to be rescued with their new mother lode, which will make them both rich. Considering the drivel that typically gets Swanwick nominated anyway, this can't miss.

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