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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Century Rain, by Alastair Reynolds
BSFA nominee 2005
After several successive largish volumes of baroque dystopian space opera with a hard astrophysics slant, Reynolds tries something marginally different by combining a similar baroque dystopian background with a 50's noir crime story set in Paris. Floyd is the hard-boiled protagonist detective, hired to investigate the apparently accidental death of a young woman by her landlord, who is the first of many characters with motives which are somewhat hyperbolic in order to keep the plot moving. But while this is all going on, a couple of hundred years in the future Earth is in ruins and the remaining humans have divided themselves into Slashers and Threshers, based on their feelings towards nanotech, which is basically how the Earth got the way it is now. Auger is an archeologist of sorts who gets roped into a dicey project to retrieve the documents left behind by Floyd's investigatee. Because while the two stories are told in parallel they are in fact happening at the same time, Auger's on the real Earth or what's left of it, and Floyd's in a simulation contained within what sounds like a Dyson sphere, where time stood still for a bunch of years until a portal between the worlds was opened, and some genetic mutants known as "war babies" have infiltrated and changed history to keep this contained Earth from developing space travel, so that they have enough time to muster their forces and destroy the entire planet. For some reason.
Reynolds is full of big ideas and he presents them with such conviction that it really doesn't matter whether they hold up or not, the important thing is that he believes they do, and he's smarter than me, so I'm more than happy to just go along for the ride. If anything this book is a little simpler than his "Revelation Space" type novels, it helps to have much of the story grounded in Earth's alternate past, and while there's still plenty of backstabbing future-politics raging between various factions which drives most of the characters' actions and interactions, it's not nearly as hard to follow as I've seen in his previous books. Once they meet and team up, Auger and Floyd of course have to fall in love, and during the course of the novel Reynolds throws them into one impossible no-win situation after another, such that they collectively use up more lives than a houseful of cats. In some respects it diminishes the excitement, because with only the two of them facing most of the action you know they're going to make it through, Reynolds might have been better served by adding a couple more main characters to the story. Most of the supporting cast are interesting enough, but again their motiviations seem circumspect, and in the case of Floyd's detective partner Custine I still can't figure out why there's a whole sub-plot about him being on the run from the authorities. And for all Floyd's likability, he takes the future shock of exposure to Auger's reality pretty easily, and it seems a little farfetched that he could infer from an intangible flatness to the sound of some jazz records that they contain coded digital messages.
I don't read much crime fiction so maybe this is a trope, but one could argue that Reynolds is purposefully introducing red herrings and diverging stories that don't go anywhere to keep you guessing as to what's really going to happen, and for that matter to more closely mirror what real life is like. But unlike Dickens at least, he doesn't tie up most of those loose ends, unless there's a sequel still cooking somewhere, which there certainly could be. And unlike Stross, the nano-techno stuff isn't the main focus of the narrative. Reynolds has a great way with metaphors, and his big science ideas are often so big that they've gone past you in favor of the next big idea before you've completely figured out the implications of it all. While he's all about sense of wonder, it's sense of wonder in a hurry, which I suppose is probably how Floyd is experiencing it, too much to take in as it happens, just keep going and file it away for later. The colorful similes and strong, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed female characters are just a couple of the more obvious ways Reynolds moves the plot along, the details of making people's actions seem logical or natural sometimes get short shrift. From most other writers I would find this irritating, but with this one I'll cut him some slack. Reynolds puts together an audacious set of ideas on a huge canvas, and ironically in this book at least he's holding back, focusing his story enough so you can at least have a chance of keeping up. It makes me want to read more of his books, both the ones he's written since and the ones I've already read, so you have to consider it a resounding success on that point alone.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss, by Kij Johnson
First published in Asimovs SF, July 2008
Here's an odd little existentialist story, more a collection of vignettes and observations surrounding Aimee and her 26 monkeys, who travel around performing at local fairs. The big finale of their act involves getting all the various types of monkeys into a bathtub, from which they abruptly disappear. No one knows how they do this, least of all Aimee, but they always come back over the course of the next few hours, usually with some interesting little objects. Aimee seems to enjoy this life, after having impulsively acquired the monkeys and all the trappings of the act from the previous owner, but she exists mostly in the present, she's not quite sure how she got to that point or where to go from here. The abyss could be the unknown dimension into which the monkeys vanish, or more metaphorically it could also be the emptiness from where the monkeys seem to be rescuing Aimee. Within a short space Johnson puts together an interesting glimpse into a larger continuity, and at the end you get something of a clue as to where the monkeys go when they disappear, and maybe even why. She presents the story in a series of 23 (why not 26?) numbered sections which are disconnected yet come together nicely to strike an appropriate evocative tone. Basically simple but with a larger purpose, which is exactly what a short story should be.
Read the story on Kij Johnson's website
Friday, January 15, 2010
Lord Weary's Empire, by Michael Swanwick
First published in Asimovs SF, December 2006
Those poor souls who don't like to read fiction tend to claim, "Why would I want to read about something that never happened?" Even moreso with science fiction, where you typically read about something that can't or won't happen. So along comes Michael Swanwick, who out of his disturbed imagination pulls together bits and pieces of different tropes to create a world that has so many different antecedents that you can't figure out why he bothers except to show off. The milieu of this story is one he's used in other nominated efforts, but every time he's poking around in different corners. It's a mixture of elves and dwarves, underground cities, horses and motorcycles and subway trains, with throwaway references to things like Pepsi and Kawasaki that hint that there must be some connection to our own world, but whether now, past or future we can't tell.
Lord Weary is a would-be underground kingpin who leads a ragtag band of various mythical humanoids, living in a vast underground network of tunnels and sewers beneath a city. The protagonist is Will, who stumbles into Weary's camp while on the run for some reason he doesn't completely understand. He ends up signing up to serve in Weary's informal battalion, and helps engineer a few skirmishes to steal some horses and lead a raid against some surface dwellers, with the ultimate goal of getting the boss to attain something known as the Obsidian Throne. For much of story you just go along for the ride, there's nothing too deep going on here, and then in the last few pages Swanwick pulls out the rug and calls into question the reality of everything and everyone you've just been paying attention to for the last 30+ pages. In spite of the fact that this world is such a hodgepodge of other realities, such that there don't seem to be many rules, Swanwick is still able to do an about-face and catch the reader off-guard. My overall opinion of the story suddenly went up dramatically at that point. Maybe it's just a gimmick, in that at the conclusion there's no significant lesson to be learned from all this, with or without the twist, but at least it shows he had a plan and wasn't just making it up as he went along.
Having said that, the story, to my taste, is a bit of a drag. I keep visualizing this cinematically, and it reads a lot like those awful post-apocalyptic biker movies where everything is shot kind of murkily and all the costumes are just scraps of whatever is lying around and all the characters look basically punked-out but otherwise alike and you watch without any idea what's going on or what is the motivation of anyone on the screen. In fact it's so similar that it makes me wonder if Swanwick watched the same movies and assimilated some of that into his punk biker underground elfworld. In a larger story you might get more subplots and more fleshed-out characters and a theme that fits best to this particular world. The story you have here is worth a read, but at the end I don't have enough bits to hang on to that will make it memorable.
First part of the story on Asimovs website.
Buy it at Amazon
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
The Walls of the Universe, by Paul Melko
Once John has realized his predicament and starts to focus on the device itself and how to find a way back to his own world, he does the sensible thing and looks up a university physics professor, although it takes several tries to be taken seriously. The author delves a little bit into the basic idea behind quantum universes to give the story a more science-oriented focus than if it were just written as straight "fabulist" fiction, but it's not enough that John Campbell would have bought it, and the progression from one universe to the next produces huge contrasts when it's convenient to the plot, followed by several nearly identical worlds in a row when that suits the next scene. But he offers a compelling variety of different versions of John's world, highlighting different variations so that both John and the reader can easily extrapolate just how many variations there could be out there. Melko has also thought of most of the primary pitfalls of jumps between worlds and how you could end up underground or embedded in cement, fortunately there aren't big enough variations in most of the universes where this becomes a common problem.
What's also interesting are the variations in the same person across universes, particularly John himself. While farmboy John is fairly meek by nature, he can be a bit of a hothead at times. This is nicely balanced by John Prime, where the impetuous side of his personality seems dominant, but occasionally he can lapse into a wistful nostalgia for home and family. In the end both versions find some kind of satisfaction with their chosen surroundings, although not what they initially would have thought or wished for. There's something to be chewed over after reading this story on the nature of causality and free will, not just for yourself but those around you, and those who came long before, and how it can ultimately affect just the one version of you that you know about.
There's a lot to like about this story, it focuses on a small cast and it doesn't go on too long, and while the story ends satisfactorily there is still plenty more to tell (in fact Melko has since expanded this into a novel). Parallel universe stories were always thought to be too complicated for Hollywood to handle, but with recent releases like Star Trek having major success, I would have to think there's a screenplay of this being shopped around now. It doesn't break any new ground stylistically and the premise seems obvious in retrospect, but Melko makes it work with very readable prose that makes this a worthy Hugo nominee.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Inclination, by William Shunn
Within the station is an interesting set of dynamics that can only be touched on within the confines of this story length. Shunn is more interested with his young hero's coming of age, which is mostly a very conventional set of unfamiliar feelings about his sexuality, his relationship with his father, his devotion to his faith but at the same time being tempted by the other side. The title stems from the Guild's worship of the Builder and the six classical simple machines, including the inclined plane, which these followers view as a path towards enlightenment. But Jude's path takes a less fundamentalist turn once he's encountered and starts working closely with the Sculpted. While he's essentially been brainwashed since birth to disavow what he sees and hears, the appeal of how the other half lives and their seeming ease with it all still has its allure. Central to his crisis of conscience is the opportunity to make more money for his Guild, if only he agrees to a small body modification that allows him to live in vacuum for short periods of time.
The revelations come fast and furious at the end, and you ultimately get the sense that this was really just the prologue to a larger story about Jude showing how he rose above his humble origins. Shunn doesn't directly take on religion, but there would seem to be quite a bit of prodding within the text at the stifling nature of dogma, and the notion of keeping the outside world at bay for the greater good of the community. But for a novella-length, it seems those issues aren't really explored enough, such that the plot, straightforward as it is, comes across as rather conventional. For such a vast station, the drama is played out with a very small cast, and it's missing some sense of the overall scope of the artificial world in which the characters live, which after all is the only world they know. In the end, this story is a reasonably good read that hints at plenty of material from which to build an epic, but by focusing instead on a mostly conventional plot the reader ends up with something that's not as memorable as it could have been.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
The Djinn's Wife, by Ian McDonald
So as far as it goes, the plot doesn't really cover anything particularly original, but as we know from McDonald's other writing that isn't his point, he's come up with a richly detailed exotic future full of foreign words and place names that are rattled off without explanation, with a whole political subplot in the background around two competing regions fighting over whether a dam gets built or not. In the midst of all this high-stakes intrigue, this small personal story gets played out, and in some respect affects the course of history, so there is that element. Also, McDonald would seem to have taken as a point of departure the notion that swarms of self-aware nanobot AI are the real explanation behind the mythical genie (i.e. djinn), and they seem to be something that has always existed and not just created by humans. Esha is stubborn and independent minded enough to get herself married to one, but as a reader you can't really see why she would, and she obviously hasn't thought this through as it doesn't take long for her to realize that A.J is, for all his human trappings, alien in the extreme.
Unlike many McDonald stories, this one has a linear, comprehensible plot with a beginning, middle and end, which should be a good thing, but I feel once again like it fails to live up to the backdrop that he has so meticulously assembled around it. By making the story easily related to and following a more conventional narrative, you can't help but focus your attention more towards plot and away from setting, but since the plot is kind of thin, I find the end result unsatisfying.
Saturday, January 02, 2010
"The House Beyond Your Sky", by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Rosenbaum's story takes place towards the latter end of the universe, where some sort of post-human priest named Matthias is tinkering with a number of individual worlds in various stages of creation. A pilgrim, representing the "old ones" who created him, comes to visit, having heard of his efforts to create a brand new universe, in which they are very interested as the current one is dying. Parallel to this are brief vignettes from six-year old Sophie, inhabitant of this new universe, who is caught in the middle of a violent argument between her parents. Matthias is able to fend off the pilgrim's attempts to take over by retreating into Sophie's teddy bear, at the same time providing the little girl with some extra resolve to try to make things right.
There's a lot going on here in a very short amount of space, this story is really a prose poem in its use of language to describe setting and mood. Rosenbaum very deftly juxtaposes the medieval aspect of priest and pilgrim with their actual embodiment as essentially computer-based lifeforms. I won't pretend to understand what the author is trying to say here, I suspect given its poetic structure you could take this several ways, but he's mostly poking at the corners of metaphysics and the idea of how sentient existence can relate to a series of bubble universes. Certainly ambitious, nicely evocative, maybe a little pretentious, but in this short form you have the opportunity to read it a couple of times and at least get a sense of wonder out of the story and the author's unorthodox imagination.