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.

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.

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.

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson turns out another winner with this entry, building on the strengths of his previous novels to tell a story with all the sense of wonder you need, but while the science drives the plot the focus is really on the characters and their own reactions to the world changing around them. The eponymous Spin is the somewhat dubious name given to a barrier built around the Earth, pretty much instantaneously, which simultaneously blocks out the stars, controls an artificial sun and causes the relative time within to move much more slowly than the universe as a whole.

How does it work? Who cares, Wilson is never too hung up on the mechanics of his science, taking Clarke’s “indistinguishable from magic” dictum to spare us endless boring pages of future physics, which may upset the clanky hard sf crowd but is probably just as well. Instead the focus is on the viewpoint character Tyler, who has grown up in the shadow of his best friends’ rich family, movers and shakers who not only adapt to profit by the changed world but seek to understand what it all means. In that respect the characters are bit thick, it would seem that the prospect that the Spin is some sort of protection from something doesn’t really cross anyone’s mind, though it would seem rather obvious. The book covers a number of years through these characters’ lives, with more sense of wonder coming from the occasional probes sent up through the barrier to see what’s going on in the rest of the galaxy as the sun ages and the stars move around. There’s also an ongoing unrequited romance between Tyler and his friend Diane, who goes off to join a cult of sorts to make sense of the new order of things in her own way. When the true purpose of the Spin is finally revealed, it’s a satisfyingly complicated, stapledonian take on Von Neumann machines and both their origins and destiny.

Intercut with the main story are occsional chapters taking place in the future where Tyler and Diane are on the run from something and he’s going through a kind of metabolic transformation that’s both dangerous and debilitating. It seems unnecessary to do it this way, there’s no real reason to have much of these chapters at all other than to pad the book out, if they were all in their proper sequence at the end it would move the climax of the revelations of the Spin’s purpose too far from the conclusion of the book, and normally with this type of device the main focus should be on the later story, where here that is not the case. This keeps it from being perfect, but its still a great read anyway and I really like how Wilson keeps his story grounded in the characters’ lives and how they are affected by the dramatic changes in their perception of the universe and the status quo. As the pace of technological change continues to advance in our own world, we should similarly examine more how it affects us and our worldview as on the changes themselves.

Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

After a string of increasingly incomprehensible books that focused too much on politics at the expense of everything else, MacLeod’s entry this year is something of a throwback, a first contact story, or as the subtitle says, “a scientific romance”. In the future everyone has weird names, from the main human viewpoint character, the young girl Atomic Discourse Gale, to the generation ship she lives in, called “But the Sky, My Lady, the Sky”. Atomic maintains a blog where she divulges information to her fellow pilgrims on strange signals coming from the same star system they’re heading to colonize. This turns out to be the first encounter with another intelligent species, dubbed the Alien Space Bats, who have their own civilization and are aware that some unusual object is heading their way.

Things take a turn late in the book as the starship pulls up nearby to start their colonization process and the politics ramp up. The space-bat society makes use of a lower caste drone class, which are inadvertently uplifted by scientific nano-tech unknowingly released by the ship. This causes some unrest down on the planet, while back at the ship, Atomic and her pals born on the ship are old enough now to be considered indepedent colonists in their own right, but those who have been there from the beginning have their own ideas about what to do in this situation, and there’s a certain amount of double-crossing. MacLeod seems most interested in the inevitable conflict that arises when any two cultures first meet, not even so much between the cultures as within each culture independently. He captures well the arrogant, young-person attitude of Atomic, and the two main space-bat characters, Kwarive and Darwin, are amusingly congenial in translation, presumably they don’t sound quite so human in their own language, but MacLeod prefers to give them easily relatable emotions, motivations and interactions, they even think of themselves as human.

If there’s anything to gripe about here, it’s that in the end it all seems a bit thin, which can be said of other MacLeod books I’ve read. The story is much easier to follow than usual to be sure, so it makes for an entertaining read, but to some degree that serves to shortchange the amount of space to devote to the political and sociological implications that would seem to be the motivation behind the story. In the last chapter, years later, a sort of begrudging sharing of information has been worked out but the two races basically leave each other alone, which is probably the most likely outcome. It’s interesting that subsequent MacLeod books have not gotten nominations, this may be the closest he’s come to writing something both accessible and popular. There are always lots of ideas in his books, but they tend to suffer more from what gets left out than what gets put in.

We Have Fed Our Sea by Poul Anderson

Part of the ongoing criticism against the Campbell era in Astounding centers on his insistence on a positive view of space exploration and of man’s undoubted primacy over aliens. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t publish depressing stories, maybe “The Cold Equations” being one of the best known examples. Anderson’s novel is equally bleak, an uplifting ending doesn’t really offer enough counterpoint to the overall nastiness of space, but it goes a long way from the Doc Smith type of space adventure and I think gives a good indication of where things were heading in hard SF. In book form this was published as “The Enemy Stars”, but this is a bit misleading (not that the original title is that great either). There is no enemy other than physics (again like The Cold Equations) against which Anderson pits his four protagonists with varying results.

In Anderson’s future, space travel to the stars is doable but takes years, and trips to the outer planets take centuries. Instead of perfecting FTL travel, this culture has developed the ability to instantaneously transport people and materials between two points in space, as long as the equipment to receive them is at the other end. This device, which from our modern perspective would seem to be more improbable than FTL travel, is on the spaceship heading towards an interesting star in space, and every so often a new crew is beamed aboard and the old crew returned. The story follows the recruiting of the newest crew, four men of varying backgrounds and discplines who have different reasons for going, or in some cases don’t want to go but do anyway.

Anderson knows his physics and emphasizes both the remoteness and isolation of space travel at this distance. Something goes terribly wrong and the ship is no longer able to communicate with Earth, so the astronauts have to apply their various skills to attempt to create their own transporting device and hope they can get it to synchronize with another one in order to have a chance of returning home. Ultimately they succeed, but not in the way they expected, and not everyone makes it back home.

Where the novel is only partially successful is in the contrasts between the four astronauts, the story isn’t long enough to get to know them that well, so it makes it a little harder to care about what happens to them, or to even tell them apart sometimes. The title comes from a line from Kipling, relating to exploration by sea and the high price in human lives it required. Anderson correctly anticipates the same level of sacrifice in space, seeing it as something of a necessity and an inevitability. The artifice of teleportation is an implausible alternative to equally implausible generation ships or FTL, but worth exploring for the variety of story it can provide.

Worldcon day 5

Last day in Denver, and let’s be honest there’s not a lot going on here other than your general outdoor activities. Still had a few panels to attend in the morning, including the one panel for the entire convention devoted to Doctor Who. Not that I’m who-centric or anything, but with two nominations in best dramatic presentation, you’d think there’d be a little more representation. But that’s ok, ostensibly the topic was who is the best Doctor, but naturally the conversation ranged around a number of who-related topics. Paul Cornell was in attendance, too, the only actual Brit on the panel, to add some credibility. The last real panel was with Nancy Kress, James Morrow and Harry Turtledove talking about what people a thousand years from now will remember about the twentieth century. This conversation also went all over the place, but since they’re all very opinionated it was a good discussion. I was hoping to get Ben Bova’s autograph after that, but he was a no-show at his scheduled signing, never did see any evidence of having rescheduled to an early time, but oh well, hopefully he’ll live a while longer. Now I have two more paperbacks of his that I otherwise wouldn’t have needed to buy here. I decided to forgo the last reading group session, this one on Methuselah’s Children, as it didn’t seem a suitable conclusion to the convention and that Hertz guy was getting on my nerves. Instead I stuck my head in a couple of other panels, including one about Heinlein’s hugo-winning years, and then that was that, another Worldcon wrapped up.

So it was a long trip, more like two trips back to back, with a clear dividing line during that long drive through southern Wyoming on Tuesday. Next year’s Worldcon is in Montreal, much easier to manage, and 2010 is in Australia, so we can skip that one entirely. Lots to get through after this trip, lots of ideas, hope they stick long enough that something comes of it.

Worldcon Day 2

It was day two of Worldcon, and today’s panels were a little more interesting, although even though I got a good night’s sleep I still passed out for a few minutes during one of them. First I spent some time in the dealer’s room and got a few paperbacks of Asimov and Silverberg, hoping to get the latter ones signed since the guy is 73 and I’m not sure how many more Worldcons we can count on. There are two dealers here who have cheap old paperbacks, and a couple of others who are asking $8 or $10 and up for most of theirs, some of which are admittedly collectable, but is The Alternate Asimovs really worth six dollars? Apparently yes, because that’s what I paid for it, I’ve been looking for it for a year and this was the first time I’d seen it.

Saw four panels today. The one I dozed off at was not necessarily boring, since it featured Stephen Baxter and Connie Willis, two people who are always worth listening to, talking about first contact stories and the infinite varieties thereof. Willis looks much grayer since last I saw her in Anaheim, but she continues to impress with how well read she is in the field, referring to plots of random stories by William Tenn and others that tied into the topic. Mike Resnick was the marquee name in a panel on pulps, focusing primarily on the sf pulps of the 30’s and 40’s, and told a few stories I hadn’t heard before.

Ben Bova was featured in a panel of people who knew Heinlein, also including the guy who wrote the Heinlein biography, Bill Patterson, who knows just about everything there is to know. Hadn’t seen Bova since he was guest of honor at the 2000 Worldcon in Chicago, he’s definitely looking old too, so after the last panel I went back to the dealer’s room and bought a couple of paperbacks for him to sign also, since unlike Silverberg he doesn’t come to Worldcons that often. Lastly, Sheila Williams was on a panel that was supposed to be talking about trends in SF publishing, but ended up kind of wandering around different topics.

Worldcon 2008

The first day of the Worldcon had finally arrived and for once we were already in the city and ready to get started. I got going so I could register before the first panels started at 11:30.

Although I arrived at the convention center and found the right line at 10:45, it was almost an hour before I was through registration. I have no idea why it took that long, there were maybe 30 or 40 people in front of me and once I got to the front I was given my materials in short order, but it didn’t bode well for the organization. This Worldcon won a close contest against other bids from Chicago and Columbus that were both considered more viable, I only picked Denver myself because it was the only one not on Labor Day weekend, which interferes with the kids school. It’s a completely volunteer-run event, so even though some groups do a better job than others of making you forget that fact, I at least am willing to put up with a certain amount of disorganization, and by and large things were ok. The convention center itself is vast, there was another convention going on in the front of the building that you had to walk through to get to the Worldcon stuff in the back. On Wednesday there wasn’t much in the way of signs, so it took a little more initiative to figure out where everything was, but I worked it out.

Something else in short supply at this year’s edition were big name pros. Several people you normally see at Worldcons like Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Benford were not in attendance, and several others like Fred Pohl and Robert Silverberg were present but kept a low profile. We’ve lost a few major writers recently, Jack Williamson, Arthur C. Clarke, Algis Budrys and Tom Disch, to name a few, but they weren’t regular attendees in recent years, so I’m not sure where everybody went. It was challenging in some time slots to find panels that had any significant number of pros that I wanted to hear beyond the usual NY/New England contingent that I see at Boskone and Readercon already. Most panels were populated either mostly or entirely of people I’d never heard of, and I feel like I’m fairly well-informed about who’s who in the field.

One interesting new twist with this year’s Worldcon was a series of panels focusing on specific books written in 50 years ago in 1958, advertised as a sort of reading group and publicized in advance so you could actually go out and read the books ahead of time. I got the one I was missing at Readercon a few weeks ago, but unfortunately the order of the panels wasn’t announced until this past weekend, so the book I’ve been trying to read all week while in the mountains of Wyoming was the last one on the agenda. But the first one for today was Blish’s “A Case of Conscience”, which I finished on the plane coming out last week. The group was organized and run by John Hecht, a man of many opinions who ran the discussion with an iron first and monopolized the better part of the conversation, such that the hour went quickly. About 20 or so people were in attendance, a respectable number I thought. I mentioned to him afterwards how my classics group had picked Asimov’s Foundation a few years ago and what a disaster that was since it was short on character and style, to which he strongly disagreed, so that conversation didn’t last very long.

The other panels I attended were sub-par. Wil McCarthy gave a short, vague talk (with no visual aids) on programmable matter, a subject that should have been more interesting than his presentation let on. Usually the Worldcon is good for a fair number of science-oriented panels, this was certainly true in Anaheim two years ago and Boston before that, but this edition didn’t seem to have much to offer. Later in the afternoon Elizabeth Moon and Larry Niven teamed up with GoH Lois McMaster Bujold and Robert Silverberg to talk about older protagonists in SF, which should have been more entertaining than it was.

A full day of panels are on tap for tomorrow.

Algis Budrys

I try to avoid having too many posts end up as eulogies, and Algis Budrys died several weeks ago now, but I’ll make an exception for him because he was one of the first sf writers who ever really grabbed me. I have specific memories of reading Rogue Moon in high school, and being fairly disoriented by its nearly 20-year distant imagining of moon landing combined with the cold war paranoia that served as a springboard for much of his fiction of that period. Right around that same time, one of the first issues of an sf magazine I ever bought had as the cover story his “Nuptial Flight of Warbirds”, another disorienting experience where the story starts out as a World War I era dogfight and ends up as a prefiguring of reality tv. I also acquired soon thereafter the Starblaze edition of Some Will Not Die, probably the first post-apocalyptic novel I ever read. Thanks to writers like Budrys, I realized there was much more to this whole science fiction idiom than I would have thought possible at age 15 or so.

His stories were characterized by lantern-jawed men of derring do and rapid-fire dialog, and I envisioned him as a good-looking, well-dressed older man with a quick eye and sharp wit, sort of like Ben Bova or John Campbell. Fifteen years later at my first Readercon, I finally got to see him in person, and was a bit shocked. He was old for sure by then, but disappointingly pasty and bloated, wearing shorts and white socks against the Worcester July weather, and he spoke with a breathy tenor voice that belied the attitude of his protagonists. But he was compelling to listen to and held an audience in rapt attention, so it didn’t take much to get over his appearance.

I think he was a regular attendee at Readercon until a few years later he was guest of honor, the same year he held that post at the San Antonio Worldcon if memory serves. At that Readercon, I found out the entire time I’d been at college in Evanston, he was living there. I had him sign a few books and told him if I’d known he was so close by at the time I would’ve spent 4 years working up the nerve to go knock on his door. Until I started going to conventions I never thought about where writers lived, I always just figured they were all in New York, but it turns out they’re everywhere. Phil Farmer lived in Peoria, for goodness sake, just a couple hours away from my home town.

At that convention the guest of honor interview was in a smallish room, and the line for signings wasn’t very long, even by ’97 all his work was out of print, although he was still trying to keep his magazine, Tomorrow, going, and republishing a lot of his own stuff there, both in print and on its primitive website. Joe Mayhew was doing the interviewing and didn’t ask very good questions, belying a lack of knowledge of Budrys’s work, but it didn’t matter. I specifically remember Budrys referring to his second novel, Man of Earth, as “one of the two or three worst books ever written”, and when asked why he stopped writing in the 60’s and went into editing, he said it was strictly because of the money. “I had four boys, and they were eating ten dollar bills for lunch.” His one regret was not winning a Hugo, Rogue Moon was nominated but didn’t win under suspicious circumstances (although it lost to Canticle for Leibowitz, hardly an unworthy alternative), and the book version of Hard Landing was disqualified because it had been previously published in F&SF, where for some reason it never got a nomination as a novella (west coast bias probably, that year’s Worldcon was in San Francisco). I also went to his reading, and got a chance to hear his prose in his own voice, and that’s still the voice I hear when I read it myself now and it seems perfectly natural. In line at the signing I was right behind Gordon Van Gelder, who had a first edition of False Night, which I didn’t acquire myself until a few years later, along with his one original hardcover, Michaelmas. Budrys, in addition to signing it, quickly went through the book to four or five specific spots and corrected the typographical errors. For the ’97 Worldcon NESFA Press produced a trade collection, for some reason called Entertainment, but it was story for story a re-hash of a previous collection. A few years later I acquired a bunch of his short stories in their first appearances in various magazines, but there is as yet no significant anthology of his work.

That might have been the last Readercon he attended, his health was deteriorating to the extent that it’s been several years ago already that I had read in Locus that he couldn’t travel any more. He typifies the sort of midlist writer who, once he stops writing sf, doesn’t have the staying power to remain visible to new readers and has to rely on the collective efforts of those who admired his work to keep him from fading into obscurity. I’ve been going to conventions long enough now that the list of writers I got to see but can no longer look forward to seeing again is getting to be nearly as long as the list of those who died before I got there. So I can’t eulogize everyone, it’s too depressing, but Budrys has a special place in the pantheon and deserves to be remembered.