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 02, 2009

Glory, by Greg Egan
Egan's double nomination includes this tale in his usual domain of mathematical sf, of which he is the undisputed master and possibly the only participant. Who else would want to come up with stories centered around cool (as opposed to cold) equations and take the added challenge of making them interesting? In this entry, Egan doesn't get too bogged down in the math, so you can just appreciate the story anyway. This concerns a pair of aliens who have come from several light years away to integrate with another planet who are the remaining species after a much older race died out thousands of years before. This extinct group, the Niah, spent millions of years of their existence pondering mathematics, and achieved a higher understanding of complex equations than anyone else, but it didn't do them any good in the end since they all died out and the remaining species, the Noudah, could care less. The aliens know there's something to be found in the Niah's archeological remains, and their willingness to come all that way to find out first hand trigger the Noudah's own renewed interest in the same information, to the point that a power struggle erupts over who controls the Niah's artifacts. Egan puts together a contrast of cultures in a short amount of space, creating a planet that isn't the same everywhere. The story's beginning misdirects by spending the first few pages describing the physics that allows the alien archeologists to travel to this unnamed planet, but after that the details of the science take a back seat to more important aspects of the story. I think Egan does well in fitting his own style to the remit of this anthology and comes up with a very accessible and original story, hampered only by the forgettable title.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
Sturgeon was not a novelist, he really excelled with the single worked-out idea, although some ideas took longer than others to work through. This, his most famous novel and maybe his most famous story altogether (unless you want to count "Killdozer"), is really three novellas run together, an expansion of the story "Baby is Three", which is the middle one of the set. Since its that middle one that forms the crux of the whole thing, the other two parts are quite purposefully tacked on, and the whole thing doesn't completely hang together. In the first part, we meet "The Fabulous Idiot" named Lone, who seems to come from nowhere without knowing anything, but is eventually befriended and taken in by an old farm couple who have lost their own son, and through their tutelage he learns enough to take care of himself. Various other characters are introduced, most of them quite young and endowed with some special ability, either to control people's thoughts, or teleportation, things that take the place of normal abilities such that they are naturally unable to interact much with the rest of society.

As a result they eventually all come together in the middle section of the book, where they are living under the watchful eye of Miss Kew, who can't quite believe their special talents really exist but tries to raise them properly. This, the original story from which the novel is expanded, is the only part told after the fact in the first person by one of the older kids, Gerry, who now years later is telling this story to a psychiatrist. The upshot of it all is that what these individuals have together is a gestalt identity, offered up as the next phase of human evolution although it would seem to be an evolutionary dead end since they're such social misfits. In the last part, "Morality", the girl Janie is grown up and looking after an Air Force lieutenant named Hip who has forgotten everything about his past, and she gradually brings him out of it and gets him to understand what happened and what Gerry had to do with it. There's a fair amount of debate in this section on ethics and morality and how these are different for those with special or heightened abilities.

You can't help but feel Sturgeon read a psychology textbook and is regurgitating the interesting parts into these story ideas, but that should not diminish the seminal importance of this book as a primary example of taking the SF of the time into new directions, where the science is inside the mind and the future being proposed centers on the evolution of mankind. I think what holds it back a little is the obvious intercutting of different stories told in different ways, he might have been better served by either mixing them up more or more thoroughly rewriting and integrating the middle part with the others. Not my favorite Sturgeon, but still his usual poetic, thought-provoking self, and certainly a classic.

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Memorare, by Gene Wolfe
Say what you will about this story, you can't deny it's an original plot. The viewpoint character is a documentary filmmaker named March, although he goes by the nickname "Windy", who hops around the asteroid belt recording memorials contained within individual asteroids, set up either by the person being remembered or their relatives or followers. Depending on the budget and the intent, they range from modest crypts to elaborate robots and simulations, and some of them are even death traps, since apparently some of the dead want to leave a lasting impression. Along the way he recruits an old flame, Kit, to help with the narration. She brings along
a woman she's befriended who turns out to be March's ex, Robin, and she in turn is being pursued by her new husband, Redd, as they've had a falling out and he wants her back.

Everything comes to a head on one of those dangerous memorials known just as "Number Nineteen", where the characters, or at least March anyway, confront some past demons and gain some new perspective, and not everyone makes it out. There's a lot of disagreement between the characters over things that happened in their past, where everyone has his or her own recollection of events and doesn't see it the other person's way, thereby making individual memory an unreliable or at least inherently personal thing. Also, everyone has their own idea of "paradise" and of their own place in the world, and these memorials help to highlight the contrast between how a person wants to be remembered versus how they really will be remembered. I think that's the point, anyway, Wolfe isn't one to telegraph his message, and I can't say that in the end there's anything profound to be taken away from this story, but on its own terms he creates an interesting group of characters with a lot of baggage and depth, and certainly gives them a novel setting, so its definitely worth a look.

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