Anthologized novelettes 2014

Of the 3 major year’s best anthologies, 3 stories made it into two of them:

“The Hand Is Quicker”, Elizabeth Bear (The Book of Silverberg) – Horton and Dozois
“Shadow Flock”, Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough) – Strahan and Dozois
“Collateral”, Peter Watts (Upgraded) – Horton and Strahan

20 stories from the Locus list were included in one of the anthologies:

Horton:

“A Better Way to Die”, Paul Cornell (Rogues)
“The Magician and Laplace’s Demon”, Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 12/14)
“Petard: A Tale of Just Deserts”, Cory Doctorow (Twelve Tomorrows)
“Skull and Hyssop“, Kathleen Jennings (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 12/14)
“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i”, Alaya Dawn Johnson (F&SF 7-8/14)
“Schools of Clay”, Derek Künsken (Asimov’s 2/14)
“Wine”, Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld 1/14)
“I Can See Right Through You”, Kelly Link (McSweeney’s #48)
“Heaven Thunders the Truth”, K.J. Parker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 10/2/14)

Strahan:

“Tough Times All Over”, Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)”, Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest)
“Kheldyu”, Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Tawny Petticoats”, Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com 5/28/14)
“The Devil in America”, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com 4/2/14)

Dozois:

“The Rider”, Jérôme Cigut (F&SF 9-10/14)
“The Fifth Dragon”, Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“Thing and Sick”, Adam Roberts (Solaris Rising3)
“The Colonel”, Peter Watts (Tor.com 7/29/14)

2014 E Pluribus Hugo nominees – Novelette

The novelettes most likely to have been nominated for the 2014 Hugos in a non-puppy year (based on final nominating statistics) are all available online.  The Crosshill, Emrys and Wilson were on the Locus recommended list, and beat out better known authors who mostly were published in print magazines or anthologies.  The Crosshill story is in Horton’s best of the  year collection, and Wilson’s story made Strahan’s best-of collection.  Dozois didn’t include any of these.

Best Novelette

The Magician and Laplace’s Demon by Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 12/14)
The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com 5/14/14)
The Day the World Turned Upside Down by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Lightspeed Magazine, Apr 2014)
Each to Each by Seanan McGuire (Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014)
The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com 4/2/14)

2014 SF novel reading list – update

Read:

Work Done for Hire – Joe Haldeman
Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu
Lockstep – Karl Schroeder

Reading:

The Memory of Sky – Robert Reed

Will try to read by year end:

Shipstar – Greg Benford & Larry Niven

Read the first in the series, Bowl of Heaven

The Causal Angel – Hannu Rajaniemi

Would need to read first two books

Lock In – John Scalzi
Echopraxia – Peter Watts

Would need to re-read Blindsight first

The Peripheral – William Gibson

Want to read but probably won’t have time before starting in on 2015 books:

War Dogs – Greg Bear
Ultima – Stephen Baxter

Actually a 2015 book in the US

Cibola Burn – James S. A. Corey

Read Leviathan Wakes but have a few others in between to catch up on

Afterparty – Daryl Gregory
All Those Vanished Engines – Paul Park
Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer
Dark Lightning – John Varley

Something like the fifth book in a series?

My Real Children – Jo Walton
Revival – Stephen King
Beautiful Blood – Lucius Shepard
The Doubt Factory – Paolo Bacigalupi

Probably go for Water Knife instead

Empress of the Sun – Ian McDonald
A Darkling Sea – James Cambias
The Memory Garden – Mary Rickert

World of Ptavvs, by Larry Niven

My summer reading goal this year is to get through all 11 of the Larry Niven books published by Ballantine in the mid 70’s.  This includes the Hugo-winning Ringworld, plus a few short story collections.  Everything in these books takes place in his “Known Space” series, a loosely connected set of stories written over a period of 10+ years (with many more that came later) recounting the interactions between a number of sentient species that are subjected both to Niven’s droll sense of humor and his sense of scientific rigor.  I’m not sure that up to this time anyone else had attempted this on this scale with such a broad shared universe, but for many years thereafter it was the standard model for SF writing.

Niven’s first novel is “World of Ptavvs” from 1966, an expansion of an earlier story.  The title highlights one of the first things you notice about Niven’s work, his odd naming conventions for alien planets and species.  The reader is routinely introduced to names beginning with consonants that don’t go together (tnuctipun being my favorite, just don’t spell it backwards), or free-associating from literature or folklore (bandersnatchi).  Did he spend days and weeks wrestling with just the right name to call these individual alien races, or did he just use the first word that popped into his head?  I suspect the latter, but I could be wrong.  While the made-up names are jarring, they’re at least consistently pronounceable, which isn’t always the case with other writers.

While the Known Space series spans a reasonably concise timeframe of a thousand years or so, this book has its origins more than a billion years prior to that, when the thrints rule the galaxy, and have an outpost on early Earth where they grow some yeast-based substance they use for food.   Kzanol (more leading consonants) loses control of his spaceship and goes into hibernation expecting to crash into Earth and be revived by the staff of the outpost, but he ends up at the bottom of the ocean until he is discovered and revived by humans long after the thrintun species has died out.   Much of the book deals with the relative telepathic abilities of the various characters, Kzanol can use mind control quite easily, where the first human he encounters (whose name is Larry, an interesting choice for the author) has a modest ability to communicate with dolphins.  In the 50’s and 60’s telepathy was a common trope of science fiction in everything from Sturgeon to Fred Brown to Dune and everything in between, you tend not to see nearly as much use of it in current SF I think as people realized there was no basis for it actually ever coming to pass.

Kzanol uses Larry and one of his co-workers to hijack a spaceship to get him to Neptune, in order to find his own ship and retrieve some equipment that would allow him to take over Earth (having realized he’s the last of his kind so there’s no point in going back home).  It was a bit confusing to me why he takes over Larry’s mind and escapes in one ship while at the same time he himself follows in another ship, I understand why having access to Larry’s knowledge is useful, but it seems they could have all traveled together.  While in transit, which takes a while, Niven doesn’t spend much time on the main characters and instead switches to a number of other characters trying to figure out what’s going on and organizing a pursuit.  Throughout the book, which has no chapter numbers or titles and is just broken into scenes through the use of a squiggle between paragraphs, Niven will introduce a new character with a brief backstory and then put them into some action which may take a while to come round to advancing the main plot.   He does it enough to notice it as a stylistic method, I’m curious to see if it continues into subsequent books.

The Ptavvs are a slave race of the thrints, and since Kzanol’s intent is to enslave humanity that makes Earth the world of the title, which is a nice touch.  The book is reasonably short and very readable, the characters are almost entirely men (for various reasons human population is tightly controlled and women seem to have to focus on their childbearing potential above all else), and Niven does an admirable job of keeping all his ideas at the forefront while still keeping the book entertaining.  A few key points are probably rushed a bit, when Niven stops to wax poetic for a minute its actually an image worth savoring, maybe moreso because it doesn’t happen that often.  But his obvious intent is the story he wants to tell, and with such a potentially large canvas to work from Niven keeps his focus on the necessary details and produces a worthy novel, first or otherwise, and a good introduction to Known Space.

“Memorials”, by Aliette de Bodard

Asimovs SF, January 2014

It’s a shame this story has such a non-descript title, because there is quite a bit going on in here, it probably would have helped if I had read more of her previous stories as I gather many of them take place in the same universe.  As it is we get one corner of a particular planet, where the general populace is called the Rong but they seem to be second class citizens to another group known as the Galactics, who don’t figure much into the plot.  There was some sort of civil war and the Rong ended up exiled to this planet, but this is all backstory to the main character Cam, a young woman who performs shady business deals on behalf of three old women, known as “aunts” but more similar to Macbeth’s three wtiches.  There is a mausoleum called the Memorial, where the uploaded souls of the dead, known as the Perpetuate, live on, able to interact with those still living.  All the characters are women and all have Vietnamese names, and the relationships between them don’t necessarily match what they call one another, so it can be a bit confusing, coupled with so much backstory,  it took me a couple of reads to sort out the main plot, and I’m still not clear on several details.  There’s quite a bit going on here, maybe a few extra pages would have helped explain things better (to me at least), but de Bodard has a deep, varied and richly detailed setting on which to tell a story which perhaps doesn’t quite measure up to it, but is still engaging and potentially thought provoking.  Sort of reminds me of Ian McDonald.  So why call the story “Memorials”?  Other than just the building, she may be looking at how people regard or honor their dead ancestors, and the ways in which that can change once the dead can live forever in a virtual environment.   There’s probably more to explore there than the space the story is given, but I’d definitely like to read more of her stuff and sample more of this universe.

Destination: Void, by Frank Herbert

There’s a big jump from the submarine potboiler of 21st Century Sub to this book roughly ten years later.  Herbert is firmly entrenched in hard SF, with a generation ship full of hibernating clones setting off from Earth to populate a planet of Tau Ceti.  But the plot isn’t the most significant thing that’s been refined in the intervening decade. Bear in mind that Herbert had published Dune by now, with its inner monologs and shifting points of view and altered states of consciousness.  Herbert must have had a lot of notes left over from psychology papers that didn’t make it into Dune, since he dumps it all into this book instead.

After the masterpiece of plot, character, setting and mood that is Dune, this book comes across as a bit padded, or rushed, or both.  The premise mentioned above is solid enough (he went on to co-author a few sequels years later set in the same universe which were relatively well regarded), but the book reads like a play, or an old “base-under-siege” Doctor Who episode, since everything happens within the confines of the spaceship.  Not that much different from 21st Century Sub in that regard, he even has a woman on the crew this time, but while that first novel dealt with a series of mishaps and challenges that its crew had to solve one by one, here the heart of the conflict is laid out relatively quickly.  Previous spaceships have tried to make the same trip and all ended up disappearing.  The protagonists are awakened early from hibernation because the ship’s onboard computers and their backups all go offline, as though they had achieved some form of self-awareness and couldn’t handle either the challenge or the loneliness of such a protracted trip through space.

It’s left to these people, who mostly have goofy names like Timberlake and Flattery, to jury rig some sort of artificial intelligence that has enough of a level of consciousness that it can pilot the ship without suffering the same fate as the others.  Seems like a tall order given they’re already on the ship, and several of them are privy to information the others don’t have regarding their real circumstances and purpose. They can communicate back to Earth on a limited basis also, but that doesn’t seem to be very useful either.

What follows is over a hundred pages of ruminating about what is consciousness, the different forms that consciousness might take if it were developed artificially, and just how “conscious” are we humans in the first place?  Herbert seems to throw out a couple of red herrings only to debunk them immediately, as though he were parodying similar plot scenarios from the sf pulps and how they could be an easy out for the author (i.e. “we’re not really awake ourselves”, or “there aren’t really any other colonists in hibernation, it’s just us”).   Without much of what I could make out as an explanation, the end result is they arrive at their destination, which wasn’t necessarily supposed to have existed, in record time (as though the ship had the ability to “fold space”, like in Dune?), and the last bit about what happens to the ship computer once the colonists have something to colonize is a nice twist that definitely leaves the door open for more stories, which he eventually did.

What you have in the end with this book is Herbert being a little more didactic, writing a book that’s full of ideas about a particular topic but not enough of everything else to make it into a satisfying story.

“The Gone Dogs”, by Frank Herbert

Here’s an interesting early Herbert story that posits the introduction of a virus that systematically kills the Earth’s entire canine population, not just dogs but wolves, coyotes, etc.  Herbert has been studying up on microbiology and even dabbles a bit in genetic engineering, as the scientist hero, Varley Trent, has to ring up his Vegan buddies (that is, aliens from Vega, not vegetarians) who know a thing or two about the subject and covertly sends them some puppies to see if they can figure out a solution.  Herbert seems to be having some fun with his premise, both in that crude earth-bound genetic tampering just kills off the coyotes rather than rendering them uninterested in killing sheep, that the virus can be transmitted through humans, and that the Vegan solution may save the species but won’t look much like a dog.  He injects the right amount of jargon, the pacing is pretty good and the story is pretty well focused, Herbert is well on his way to bigger things.

Half the Day is Night, by Maureen McHugh

My memory of  McHugh’s successful first novel, China Mountain Zhang, is now 20 years in the past, but what I do remember of it includes her resolve to tell a human story amidst an original and interesting mélange of future extrapolation involving foreign countries, future entertainment, and a certain amount of “alienness” right here on Earth.   This was well executed and well received enough to earn her a Hugo nomination, pretty good for a first novel.  Her followup a couple of years later then was Half the Day is Night, a longer and maybe somewhat more focused novel that still maintains many of the same characteristics.  Here she presents an indeterminately dated future where large cities exist at the bottom of the ocean, there’s a large amount of backstory that is left unexplored regarding how these cities came to be and even gained their independence, never mind the economics and politics of how they actually function.  Instead, McHugh focuses on just a couple of characters; Mayla, a senior loan officer at a Hawaiian bank who has lived in the underwater city of Caribe her whole life, and David, her new French/Asian bodyguard who comes there for the first time to start his new job.  There’s a decent sized supporting cast, one thing that McHugh does better than nearly everyone in SF is her attention to detail in making her characters distinct, real and believable all the time, pointing out their chronic aches and pains, their self-doubt even as they assert themselves, their ambivalence and confusion in times of crisis.  Each chapter switches viewpoint between the two protagonists, allowing the reader to get inside their heads in roughly equal measure.

The plot goes puts them through some political/financial intrigue that ends up with both of them independently on the run, and much of the second half of the book is devoted in their planning an escape from the quasi-totalitarian government, which involves acquiring bogus travel documents, since you’re miles underwater and can’t just grab a car and head out of town.  While the mechanics of this quest are well paced and compelling, an awful lot is left unsaid in the interest of keeping the focus on the getaway.   Why do Caribe and its neighboring city-state of Marincite really exist? How can they be so huge, with multiple levels each with their own artificial lighting?  McHugh puts us in this world presumably for a reason, but basically the same story could have been told if they were all living on an island.  And in terms of the main characters’ need to be on the run and attempt escape, it’s a bit vague why they feel the need to run, since they didn’t really do anything wrong and it doesn’t seem as if the authorities are really pursuing them actively anyway.

Reading this book nearly 20 years after it was published, it also feels a bit retro, which isn’t McHugh’s fault, but you can’t help but notice the lack of instant communication and ubiquitous access to information that we take for granted.  People still make anonymous calls from a public vidphone booth, and documents are still mostly paper.   This is an inherent danger in writing this kind of story, but it’s still very much worth reading and leads to a satisfying conclusion.  It’s obvious that a lot of care and craft went into putting this story together, while more backstory or more dependency of the plot on the setting would have been useful, it would have also likely expanded the overall size of the book.  McHugh focuses on the story she wants to tell, and produces a memorable, involving story.

“Looking for Something?”, by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert broke into the SF field with “Looking for Something?”,  published in Startling Stories in 1952.  Prior to that he’d been a newspaper writer and was good enough at fiction to have a story published in Esquire in 1945.  The online bibliography is thin, there are references to a couple of other non-genre stories in between, and that he also published under pseudonyms, but no evidence is given of what those anonymous stories were.  Like many writers of that era, he may have adapted an unsold story into SF to give that market a try, and meeting with success found that someone with his talents could get published as an SF writer more easily than as a conventional fiction writer.  This must have also aligned with his own interests in the inner workings of the mind, the meaning of consciousness, and environmental issues.

This first SF sale is a story within a story.  The inner, longer one concerns a hypnotist who during a routine performance of his ability develops the notion that there are certain recesses of people’s minds that are blocked to them, as though by an external force.  He works with a woman to try to unlock these hidden “instructions”, but they are so deeply embedded that she believes she’ll die if she even articulates them.  The framing story involves an alien bureaucracy whose job is to harvest something called “korad”,  a source of immortality, from humans and use it for their own society.  They worry that the hypnotist came dangerously close to discovering their mind control, and take steps both to have him given another profession, and to review their own procedures to keep this from happening again.

Herbert touches on a few ideas here with questioning what is the true reality, and whether our minds can hold secrets unbeknown to us, all very topical for the time in which this was written (PKD published his first stories in 1952 also), but somewhat tacked on to make this story into SF rather than just a psychological study of hypnotism.  Startling Stories had faded from its past glories by this point, but their diminished reputation also allowed them to publish less conventional SF.  Herbert is probably the last significant author to break into the field with this magazine, and he was in illustrious company, the same issue contained a short novel by De Camp and a story by Leigh Brackett.

Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert’s first novel has been published under three different titles.  The least common, “21st Century Sub”, would have given it an SF branding, since it was published in 1956, but its otherwise pretty bland.  This was the title of the first paperback version.  The title “Under Pressure” puts it more in the realm of mystery or thriller, de-emphasizing the science fiction element, which is after all not that prominent to begin with.  Interesting since this is the title under which it first saw print, when it was serialized in Astounding magazine.  The most frequently used title, “Dragon in the Sea”, a biblical reference that seems to bear only a tenuous connection to the story, makes at least by modern standards sound more like a fantasy novel.  But this is the title that was used in the first edition hardcover, and is used in current printings today.  These varying titles to promote the same thing show the inherent difficulty in categorizing this novel.

 

Everything Herbert published outside of the Dune universe must inevitably be compared to Dune.  Arguably no other SF writer has had such a seminal work come seemingly out of left-field, and been burdened so much by its success.  All of Herbert’s subsequent work that wasn’t Dune related was largely ignored, and even his subsequent Dune books were more controversial, as they became more introspective and less plot-driven.  So Dragon in the Sea is the only novel Herbert published prior to Dune, and gives us some sense of where he was looking for ideas before the Dune universe took over his career.

 

The year of Dragon in the Sea is approximately 2030, which makes sense when you consider that is about 75 years in the future from the time it was published.  This is sufficiently near future that technology, politics and human interaction are still recognizable.  The Dragon in question is the 21st century sub of the original title, a nuclear submarine (actually named “Ram”),  and an undercover mission to tap into enemy underwater oil fields.  This book was published only a year or two after the Nautilus became the first nuclear powered submarine.  I hadn’t really thought about it before as to why submarines needed to be nuclear powered, but the whole idea was a fuel source that did not require oxygen to burn.  This allowed the submarine to stay submerged for weeks at a time, which it only needed to do if it was sneaking around in places it wasn’t supposed to be. Russia has ended up with more of a nuclear sub fleet than theUS ever had, and as a result has also had the preponderance of sub accidents over the years.  But a futuristic novel set on a nuclear sub can take care of several story elements at once: the close quarters of working there, as well as a necessarily small cast (although a real sub has more than 5 people on it, I would expect); the whole nuclear thing, with the specter of radiation a constant threat; and then the espionage plot of skulking about the sea floor trying not to be noticed by the enemy.

 

Herbert puts all of these elements to good use, starting with a convincing command of submarine technology.  I have no idea whether any of the submarine controls he describes exists, or ever existed, but there’s no reason to doubt his descriptions.  Obviously from a 1950’s point of view there are no computers controlling anything, so the complex mechanical nature of the submarine means there is always a lot to keep track of, and any number of things that can go wrong, and the point is made clear that anything that goes wrong on a submarine is potentially fatal.  There are many things about working on a submarine that I hadn’t thought about, such as a certain amount of pitch and roll as the sub navigates through the sea, as well as the different currents it can encounter at different depths that can affect its navigability.  In many respects, the book is really a series of crises that the submarine crew must deal with, many of them having to do with either eluding detection by enemy subs and/or dealing with radiation leaks or the bends.  Herbert doesn’t worry too much about conveying a sense of claustrophobia, there is too much for the crew to do.

 

The plot involves an illicit retrieval of crude oil from enemy territory, which is stowed in a giant bladder that the sub tows back to its underground port.  The part of the story where this actually happens doesn’t take up that much space; Herbert doesn’t seem that interested in the mechanics of portable underwater oil drilling, probably because its not that plausible.  But also its because this isn’t really the plot anyway.  The newest member of the crew, Ramsey, has been sent by the Bureau of Psychology to determine who on board is a secret agent, and at the same time psycho-analyzing the captain, Sparrow, to determine how submarine commanders function.  Herbert’s own interest in psychology is plainly evident as a result, and this prefigures Dune as well as elevates the story beyond a basic submarine thriller.  Most of the text is dialog, and while you don’t get into every character’s head there are definitely some indications of Herbert’s signature devices of internal monologue, including thinking one thing and saying another.  There are only two other crew members, Garcia and Bonnett, as the fifth member, Heppner, is found dead of radiation poisoning shortly after the mission begins.  So the number of possible suspects for the enemy mole is fairly small, but Ramsey seems more interested in keeping his own ulterior motive secret than in determining who the mole really is.

 

One failing of this book has to be that the characters are too undifferentiated.  Given the level of psychological insight Herbert brings to the story, this seems to be just because of his own inexperience.  All the pieces are there, and by the end of the story you know who is who, but there could have been a lot more done with them.  This is not at all unusual in SF of the 50’s, but somewhat surprising given what was to come in Dune.  75 years in the future, there are still no women on the sub or anywhere in the military command structure.  The 50’s also reflects on the author’s attitude towards radiation, as something that is deadly only if you don’t get treated for exposure quickly enough, otherwise its just a nuisance.  One crew member is given multiple blood transfusions to flush radiation from his system, while at the same time receiving a shot of morphine to ease the pain (wouldn’t the morphine get transfused out with the blood?).  In less dire circumstances they just take shots to offset the radiation’s effects, and expect to feel unwell for a few hours or days.

 

Most of this is merely unfairly judging the book by today’s standards.  What’s really interesting about the characters centers on their overtly Christian religious beliefs, something you rarely see in novels of this era.  Herbert postulates that these people who must live so much of their lives in constant survival mode must need a strong religious underpinning to get them through, and part of Ramsey’s findings involves trying to play up this religious conviction for the sake of future missions.  It seems that submarines must operate at least in some part on faith, so the more faith a crew member has the better.

 

Herbert also plays around with the notion of sanity, questioning what it means to be sane, whether a submarine captain can be considered sane by conventional standards, and whether a submarine is essentially its own reality where different qualifications are required that don’t correspond to the normal world.  He also tries to make connections between the submarine leaving its underground port and the act of giving birth.  Both of these ideas are interesting, but not really developed or resolved enough in the end.

 

The secret agent is ultimately revealed, without much foreshadowing that I could see, although his motivations are disappointingly pedestrian.  Herbert only plays around with the prose style in one section where Ramsey has been exposed to radiation, but I’d hardly call it New Wave.  In the edition I read, there are no chapters at all, just one continuous narrative; I’m not sure I agree with that decision, as it makes the constant succession of crises seem a bit monotonous after a while.  But on the whole this is a very compelling story, not too long, with a small cast that makes it easy for the reader to fit right into the submarine setting, with just enough psychological insight to keep it interesting both for its own sake and as a precursor to Herbert’s most celebrated work in Dune.