SF short story reviews pt 6

“Magic with Thirteen-Year-Old Boys”, Robert Reed (F&SF, March 2007)

This story seems a bit uncharacteristic for Reed, exploring more overtly fantastical underpinnings of an otherwise mundane premise of a group of young boys who discover an odd collection of pornographic pictures stashed in an abandoned backpack in the middle of the woods. Told in a series of flashbacks by Ted, one of the now-grown protagonists, the present-day parts are a lengthy series of back-and-forth dialogs that don’t seem to do much other than make the story take up more space. The real story with Ted as one of the 13-year olds, mixes up the discovery and keeping it secret with the gradual realization that they recognize some of the people in the pictures, which leads them to figure out who is actually taking them, even though it hould be impossible for one person to have taken them all. Reed’s idea seems to be to juxtapose the magic inherent in sex from the perspective of young teenagers with real magic, neither of which they can really understand and probably can’t even completely distinguish. At the end, when they are confronted by the man behind the camera (as well as in front), it all gets a little creepy in more of the manner of a horror story. Everything appears to resolve itself, except one last shift back to the present allows him to end on an uncertain note. Definitely well executed, with some unsettling imagery you’d just as soon forget.

“Memoir of a Deer Woman”, M. Rickert (F&SF, March 2007)

Rickert has kept a low profile in SF circles and didn’t even really know anything about the genre when she started trying to sell stories. But they consistenly distinguish themselves as original and worthy of more attention. This story spins together several disparate ideas, a woman who hits a deer with her car starts to gradually turning into a deer herself, although the doctor’s diagnosis equates her condition implicitly with cancer. Instead of treatment, she joins a writers group. Eventually her husband mourns her death and seemingly disseminates her words on scraps of paper for others to find. The woman who led the writers group is compelled to find him and ultimately uses some of these words to write about herself. There’s a lot going on here in a short amount of space, but the story is always very readable and the fantastical elements and shifts in action don’t distract. Rickert raises questions without providing any answers, but her evocative narrative style wins you over anyway.

“Strangers on a Bus”, Jack Skillingstead (Asimov’s, December 2007)

Two strangers meet on a bus, and the man, Neil, starts telling the woman, Freya, about he can make up stories about other people and they actually become true. It’s sort of a gift he has, but he mostly does it out of boredom. There’s more than a bit of authorial imposition here as Skillingstead is playing around with the notion that writers, of which Neil is one, have this control over their characters, and can consequently know them better than real people, to the extent that the line between the two becomes blurred sometimes. Freya is very skeptical of the whole idea, but is taken in by Neil’s sincerity and eventually he has some impact on her own personal story too. The whole bus idea fits in well with this story, too, since on this type of long bus ride you can feel taken out of time and can engage in this sort of inner exploration and self-analysis either by yourself or with the person next to you. Skillingstead dramatizes how people-watching can be fodder for stories, and how if taken to an extreme the people being watched can take on a life of their own that may not have anything to do with their real lives. If they even exist at all. Some nice insight and well worth pondering.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

SF short story candidates, pt 4

“The Heart”, Neal Barrett Jr. (Cross Plains Universe)

This anthology of stories based in Robert E. Howard’s writings on the occasion of his hundredth birthday did not have enough standouts to get its own mention on the Locus list, but this particularly story made it, a different sort of take on the Texas tall tale without really having much to do with Howard other than its setting. The narrator goes to visit his old friend Harry Mack, who runs a sideshow in the middle of nowhere featuring “The Dead Man’s Heart that Lives”. He watches the show that describes the elaborate story of how this beating heart came to exist and why it can continue to beat outside of a man’s body. Later on he gets Harry to admit that it’s all a hoax after saying he did some research and couldn’t find any evidence that any of the characters in the tale ever existed. But the next day Harry says he made up the hoax story and that it’s all true. And then the narrator gets him to admit that some of it is true, but not the parts he thought. Even as he’s driving away he realizes that he still may not have reached the real truth. What’s clever about this story is how Barrett misdirects his narrator into thinking he’s finally uncovered the real story, only to be confounded over and over by new insights or information, to the point that he admits he can never know the whole story for sure, which is certainly true of many real-life legends and myths.

“Journey to Gantica”, Matthew Corradi (F&SF 1/06)

This low-key fantasy story is a children’s tale of a young woman named Adelia who finds herself literally outgrowing her surroundings, so she sets off on a long journey that takes her first to lands where she is a giant to the local people and then on to other places where she is no bigger than the insects. There’s a lot of simple allegory to this story, but it really seems to be pitched at a young audience, and it doesn’t wallow in heavy-handedness or get preachy. Ultimately she spends time working for a clockmaker and finds she’s good at it, and moves on once again only to end up back at her normal size and amongst her own village, even though she’s been travelling in one direction the entire time. The image of moving through a landscape that takes on different dimensions as she passes from one place to the next, without being sure if it’s the landscape that’s changing sizes or she herself, is an interesting one. The story is too short to be anything more than a basic fable, but it’s put together well and would make a good children’s book.

“Revelation”, Albert E. Cowdrey (F&SF 10-11/06)

Up until the last sentence this story could just be mainstream fiction, told from the viewpoint of a creative writing teacher who inherits as a student the patient of a psychologist friend who keeps having visions that the world is really a giant egg and that a dragon is going to break through any time. The patient/student, known by his first initial “U”, short for Uriel, sees recent natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis as harbingers of the imminent hatching. It turns out that U’s writing on this subject is actually fairly compelling, although Cowdrey goes a little too cutesy postmodern when the narrator suggests he submit it to Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF. The aforementioned last sentence is necessary for it’s chosen market I suppose, and indicates that U wasn’t completely crazy, but seems a bit perfunctory. I like how Cowdrey handles the interplay of the main characters and his chosen viewpoint character seems to make sense even though he’s more of an observer than the others. A well thought out, perfectly good story, but probably not award material.

“Killers”, Carol Emshwiller (F&SF 10-11/06)

Another dark dystopian Emshwiller tale, this one concerning an isolated town in a future where global warming has run amok and distant wars are being fought over the dwindling supply of water, but news of the conflict or anything else is hard to come by. All the men have left to fight in the war, there is no electricity, and the narrator is a woman who lives alone at the edge of town and comes upon a half dead stranger one night that she takes in and finds herself nursing him back to health. Although he represents some connection with the outside world, he isn’t very forthcoming with useful information, but even so she’s willing to keep him around. Until, that is, she thinks she sees him flirting with one of the other women, and after that his days are numbered. This kind of story is a bit of a throwback, it’s fairly lucidly told, I’m not quite sure what the point is that she’s trying to make, there’s not enough original going on to make it a standout on plot alone. Emshwiller leaves her opinion of her narrator ambiguous, is she weak to be taken in by this man, and isn’t she a little quick to judge at the end? The setting is evocative enough to support a larger story, but this isn’t it.

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.

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.

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.