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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Monday, February 25, 2008

sf short story reviews pt 5
"By Fools Like Me", Nancy Kress (Asimov's, Sept 2007)

Kress almost always has a solid idea behind her stories and this is no exception, evoking a post-apocalyptic society where trees are so rare as to be sacred, there is too much carbon dioxide in the air, the weather is harsh and unpredictable, there are terrible dust storms and never enough rain, and people eke out a meager existence just trying to keep alive. A elderly woman narrates the story, she's old enough to vaguely remember what things used to be like, and her memory is further enhanced when her young granddaughter Hope finds a cache of books, a forbidden item in this age because of their unnecessary use of the precious trees. A religion of sorts has evolved around the community's tenuous relationship with nature, and something like reading books can be explained as the harbinger of destructive weather. Needless to say the books are too tempting to be ignored, but things go badly for the grandmother such that even Hope turns on her as she is too young to understand what is reality and what is superstition. Kress juxtaposes these conflicting emotions within several of the characters very well in a short space, and the resolution is anything but uplifting, there's something fairly basic to be said here about how easily myth can become fact and how it affects human interactions. Kress never seems to get nominated any more, but I still like her stuff quite a bit.

"Cafe Culture", Jack Dann (Asimov's, January 2007)

Sort of continuing with the same theme is this seriously provocative, disturbing story in a near future New York where suicide bombers have taken root and are a common occurrence. Told from shifting points of view between Leo, whose wife has recently left him for another woman and he's not taking it very well, and Dafna, his cleaning lady who has just helped her son martyr himself and is now planning to do the same. Taken by surprise when Leo comes back early, Dafna is found out and Leo sends her away but keeps the bombing jacket she was about to use for himself. It's a creepily plausible future where the U.S. is no longer insulated from the routine bombings seen in other countries, and while they are still primarily the province of religious fanatics, Dann seems to be saying that given the means and the motive, there are a lot more potential suicide bombers in western civilization than we'd care to think about. The title also plays upon people's adaptability, that even the most horrific events can be eased into the routine and life goes on. Not exactly uplifting, but definitely food for thought, and very well presented.

"Verthandi's Ring", Ian McDonald (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)

This is certainly a beautifully told if generally incomprehensible story, par for the course from McDonald but out of his normal milieu. Where he normally revels in the exotic details of future scenarios derived from non-western cultures, here he takes on a vast Stapledonian interplay of post-singularity life that has permeated the galaxy, and what happens when two vast but opposing factions go to war. The names of the enormous tentacled entities embroiled in this conflict are mellifluous (Scented Coolabar, Rose of Jericho), and the eponymous ring is a string superstructure within the galaxy that holds the key to resolve the conflict, although not in an optimal way. McDonald has also borrowed a page from Ken MacLeod in coming up with elaborate names for his starships (i.e. "We Have Left Undone that Which We Ought to Have Done"). The rich level of detail McDonald comes up with forces you to struggle with most of the sentences until you can try to at least categorize enough of his made-up nouns to figure out what he is talking about. The amount of imagination necessary to come up with something like this is staggering, and the fact that he can translate it at all to the printed page in such a way for it to make the least amount of sense is equally impressive. As with most of his stories, it's all about impressions, and a general sense of the unknown and unknowable in a future stranger than mere mortals of the here and now can comprehend. It all tends to dissipate rather quickly once the story is over, but it's a dizzying read.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

sf short story reviews pt 4
"Saving Tiamaat", Gwyneth Jones (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)

Jones puts a novel's worth of background into this story about two ambassadors from a war-torn planet, Baal and Tiamaat, who are being hosted by the narrator Debra in a giant converted asteroid. While humanoid, the two aren't human, and the strong class hierarchy of their planet comes to the fore when Baal hunts down and kills one of his fellow KiAn in some sort of bloodlust. The incident is smoothed over, but ultimately Debra's real job has to kick in an Baal meets his demise, for reasons that aren't really clear, it would seem to have something to do with his compatriot Tiamaat being the preferred representative, but she turns out to be controlled by the same natural forces as Baal. Anyway, Jones sets up the politics of the situation, the interaction between alien races, the setting on board the station, the personalities of the characters, and every other little detail as though she were going to invest a lot more time in the story than what you end up with. The richly thought-out setting impresses, but there's very little confrontation driving the plot, and since the motives behind the pivotal action are somewhat circumspect, the story ultimately doesn't have the impact it could have had.

"A Small Room in Koboldtown", Michael Swanwick (Asimovs, April-May 2007)

This story puts forth an interesting premise, where the living and the dead operate on more or less equal footing, solving a murder gets to be a bit of a challenge. Told as a basic formula detective story, a body, missing its heart, found in a locked room, etc., the detectives have a ready-made suspect but immediately poke holes in the obvious theory and go looking for the real story. The victim is a professional pit boxer, which distinguishes itself from regular boxing in that the fights are always to the death, and his career record was 3-2. Once this bit of information is revealed, the idea that the dead don't necessarily stay dead make for some interesting possibilities with whodunnit, and the detectives solve the case without much further ado. The basic setting of this story where this sort of thing can happen is alluded to but not really explained, as this is a standalone part of a novel, but the general idea is clear enough that further details probably don't matter too much. Swanwick has a plot and he knows where he's going from the beginning, a much more linear story than what you usually get from him, nothing too deep, but an entertaining read.

"Always", Karen Joy Fowler (Asimovs, April-May 2007)

This quiet, nicely done story concerns the town of Always, an outpost in the Santa Cruz mountains during the 1930's run by one Brother Porter, who attracts various people that are intrigued by his promise of immortality. Basically a cult, but not really religious, the narrator arrives with her boyfriend while still in their twenties, and describes the daily routine in a matter of fact way as she adapts to the idea of living forever and basically knowing everyone you're ever going to know and what they do all day every day, to the point that she mostly stops responding or talking to people because there's nothing new to react to. The town lives off of the passing tourists and seems to be largely unaffected by the outside world, even as World War II comes and goes. Brother Porter ultimately meets an ignominious end at the hands of one of his subjects, and eventually people start to drift away until only the narrator is left, with nowhere in particular to go but not necessarily sad about it either. There's not a big point being made here or anything, and it's not even really sf, since the promised immortality is more of a state of mind than anything else. Fowler doesn't let the normal sf trappings get in the way of her little tale, and in this case that's just fine.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

sf short story reviews pt 3
"The Lustration", Bruce Sterling (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

This is a very weird story and not what I would expect from Sterling, although I can't recall reading much of his recent work. His setting appears to be a world that is completely made of wood, or at least everything in it, including computers, is made of wood. The image at the beginning of the story is of a man pouring metal into a tree trunk rotted with termites, fashioning some sort of sculpture for which people pay money to view. This seems to being him to the attention of a holy man, with whom he has a long socratic dialog about how some telescope has been found to be beaming out information to the rest of the galaxy (this world has broken away from the galactic plane and exists within its view but alone). The gist of the conversation seems to be about how things got this way and how to stop it, although they eventually conclude that they should not only continue to let this telescope continue but to bring up several more to do the same thing and let the chips fall where they may. The end. Not quite sure what to make of this one, Sterling puts forth some well-wrought imagery but this long-winded back and forth between the two main characters doesn't seem to go anywhere and I for one, once it's all over, can't see what he was on about.

"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?", Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)

This entry is on the shorter side for a short story but still manages to cram in a novel's worth of plot, in fact it could be mistaken for a summary of a novel. MacLeod starts off with a chase scene which seems only tangentially related to what follows, but the authorities are after the nameless narrator, who ends up either being exiled or volunteering to travel a zillion lights years to a remote colonized planet called Wolf 359, which is the end result of a failed corporation that was trying to start the colony. They've since set themselves up to model the original Earth society, he discovers, and for reasons that aren't made clear decides to uplift them in order to conquer the local planetary system and ultimately turn the tables on the Empire that spawned them. As usual with MacLeod, the plot points go by quickly and the conflict is described in the same tone as everything else, such that it's difficult on one reading to make out exactly what's going on. There's the makings of a good yarn in here, but the prose is a little too circumspect to make it work.

"Art of War", Nancy Kress (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)

This is a decent story although a little hard to latch on to as it covers a good amount of ground in a short time. Kress's narrator is an navy captain named Jon Porter (who I swear is referred to as Seth early in the story) who comes to a planet occupied by Earth but the site of an ongoing war against the alien Teli. The Teli have looted much of earth's art treasures and stashed it hear in vast warehouses, and Jon is given the assignment of cataloging it all and to try to figure out why they took what they did and for what reason. Mixed in with this is some bizarre seizures that overcome him in moments of stress, and moments of stress brought on by his mother, who is an army general in charge of the base on this planet and who has always seen her son as weak because of the seizures. What Kress does well here is to take some odd alien behavior and give a good reason for it, in that the Teli are looking at human art to try to relate it to something that they themselves use art for, to use as a tactical advantage. Meanwhile the general is also assuming that the Teli think like we do, and as a result of this mutual misunderstanding the war drags on. Jon is able to draw conclusions about these art caches, but can't convince his mother of their significance, and at the end his research would seem to be for nothing. Maybe it's just because of the length of the story, but Kress's characters don't seem to stand out, the General in particular seems unnaturally shrill, so they hold back some otherwise good ideas an execution that keeps this from being a standout story.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

sf short story reviews pt 2
"The Drowned Life", Jeffrey Ford (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

This story would seem to be informed by either personal nightmare or a Twilight Zone marathon, an eerie, abstract account of a man named Hatch, stuck in a job at an HMO denying people's claims, with just as many problems at home. This metaphorical drowning takes on a life of its own, as he finds himself lost in an underwater world to where people seem to retreat when things aren't going well. He's not necessarily worried until a phone call for help from his grown son spurs a resolve to try and find his way home. The one person interested in helping him is revealed to have just him astray as revenge for one of those denied claims Hatch processed, but it gives him enough inner strength to contact his wife for help. But whether this is really happening, or does he just imagine it all, is left as an exercise for the reader, even up to the very end when his wife comes to take him home yet it doesn't appear that things are going to work out in his favor. Ford plays this type of evocative story well anyway, but this is a tour de fource of atmosphere and surrealism, played against a search for meaning and identity that seems to be a common thread among several of the stories in this anthology so far. Well worth a look.

"Electric Rains", Kathleen Ann Goonan, (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

Goonan's setting is prominent in this story, a post-apocalyptic future brought on by a domestic terrorist act that releases some unknown agent into the atmosphere that causes these electric rains, which have the ability to precipitate some sort of transformation in people exposed to them that will make them ready to be "uploaded", although this is never really explained. The viewpoint character is Ella, the young daughter of the terrorists, who with her grandmother is trying to stay alive on the east coast several years later, where order has broken down and there is no clear indication of whether the rest of the world is affected or not. At the beginning of the story her grandmother has died and Ella has determined to bring her to a predetermined burial place in Washington DC, and most of the rest is a series of flashbacks. Since this Faulknerian odyssey doesn't really involve too many pitfalls or confrontations, the focus would seem to point more to how the world got this way, but Goonan's lack of more details in how this act of terrorism was conceived and what the real consequences were supposed to be, leave this story somewhat hollow. But the imagery of the anarchic surroundings that Ella moves through is well drawn, the accumulation of detail around Ella's journey and her plight is very good, I just wish there was a little more specifics on how things got this way.

"Mrs. Zeno's Paradox", Ellen Klages (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

This little vignette is only a few pages long, but is an amusing enough idea in a sort of Rudy Rucker-ish way, where two ladies, Midge and Annabel, get together for lunch and end up sharing a brownie for dessert, which they continually split into smaller and smaller pieces until they've violated the laws of physics and the universe implodes. The idea being derived from one of Mr. Zeno's paradoxes, that any measurement can be infinitely divided and thus can never be achieved. As the subdivisions of the remaining halves of the brownie get smaller, the ladies are forced to use more precise and elaborate tools, yet which they are always able to pull out of their handbags as required. The breeziness and matter-of-fact approach Midge and Annabel take in carrying out their dividing duties give the story some charm, making for a fun diversion if not Hugo award material.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

sf short story reviews
It's that time of year again, let's see if I can have a positive effect on the Hugo nominations for short story. Since I can't read everything, I'm focusing on those stories recommended in the Locus best of the year list, and that aren't in some small press anthology. Except for the seven in "Eclipse One", which I just picked up this weekend at Boskone. Here's the first 3:

"Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse", Andy Duncan (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

With a title that stands alone, this story throws together several disparate ideas to great overall effect, although with no significant sfnal element. To begin with, we have the hapless Father Leggett, who has been called in by a concerned mother to see if he can do something about her young daughter Mary. Mary has adopted a pet chicken and discovered that it can walk backwards, and named it Jesus Christ, through an association with some biblical reference about chickens. The priest isn't sure what to make of the situation, can't seem to talk the girl into using a different name, and ends up somewhat obsessed with the image of that chicken. Duncan calls up a few questions about the nature of belief, relating this episode to all those sightings of the Virgin Mary in various ordinary objects. In the end, he fast forwards to years later to reveal that Mary is in fact a famous author, although I'm not sure why. The few characters are very well drawn, with some nice imagery in between, and enough obfuscation to compel multiple readings, making this probably the best Duncan story I've read.

"The Last and Only, or Mr. Moscowicz Becomes French", Peter S. Beagle (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

Last year's novella winner comes back with a story much more to my taste, again without much of an sf element, told more as a fable about the eponymous Mr. Moscowicz, a college librarian and France enthusiast, who gradually finds himself turning into a Frenchman, to the point that he starts to forget English and can't tolerate his fellow Americans. No one knows quite what to make of the situation, those who attempt to speak to him in French are subject to even greater scorn, his job and his very nationality are in jeopardy, although no one can say for sure why. Ultimately Moscowicz's best course of action is to move with his wife to France, who welcome him with open arms and treat him like royalty. But as it turns out even the French aren't French enough to suit him, and his constant haranguing at first puts people off, but eventually opens a dialogue that makes even the natives doubt their own qualifications to aspire to the true meaning of being French. Beagle takes a fantastical idea and follows it through in practical terms, taking the position that people exposed to this behavior would ultimately learn from it even if their first reaction is to scorn or ignore. That may be open to debate, but the fable aspect of this story gives it the manner of a parable, and there is enough here to inspire discussion and take sides, which makes it a success on its own terms.

"The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large", Maureen McHugh (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

This story is told as a nonfictional magazine-type article, with the authorial voice explaining her detective work and process of interviewing as she describes the case of a boy, William, who suffered traumatic amnesia. This happens when two "dirty bombs" are detonated in Baltimore while the boy is on a class trip in the city, causing him to become separated from his family and disappear for five years. McHugh supplies plenty of details of how this type of amnesia works, how rare it is, and cites a few other presumably real case studies of other amnesia victims. William's mother seems to be intent on finding her son, but we don't get the sense that she took it beyond a personal search, even after the emergency is long over. This story is on the short side, and the characters are only quoted briefly, so it's difficult to get much of a feel for them. There's some potential in here for a broader investment in the premise, the estrangement of a mother and her son due to amnesia would seem to have more potential, but given what McHugh comes up with, I can't really tell what the point is she's trying to make. McHugh excels at this type of evocative interplay of ideas, but in the end it's a bit unsatisfying.

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