Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ll start by saying I dreaded reading this book, I could tell by the back cover blurb that this was not my thing and once again the Hugos are causing me to read a book I would otherwise blissfully ignore.  I had one false start where I just wasn’t into it, I even got my wife to read it so she could explain it to me, but then I never finished it myself so that conversation didn’t happen.  So three years later in a inexplicably divergent mood, I gave it another try and this time made it all the way through. 

And it’s not as bad as I thought.  While I was expecting pure fantasy, this book is somewhat grounded in our reality, and its really Valente’s own effluvient prose that steers the feeling of the story into a fantastical realm, not unlike some of your purpler 30’s pulp writers.  I shouldn’t sell her short, Valente is a much better writer and “prose stylist”, and most of the book is really free-form poetry, just beautiful to read.  But ultimately it gets in the way of the story she’s trying to tell, I understand its purpose for those scenes in a dreamlike state, but as I said some parts take place in New York, or Tokyo, or Greece, and a little more lucidity might have gone a long way. 

At the beginning and the end of the book we’re working with the same four protagonists, whose stories are mostly independent of each other, but they all have similar goals once they’ve made their initial journey to this city outside of reality called Palimpsest.  The palimpsest metaphor is obvious enough without naming the city after it, I’m not sure why that was necessary.  In fact the most interesting aspect of the book concerns the brief ruminations Valente indulges in about cities in our own world being constantly “overwritten” by the passage of time, and even long-abandoned places like Cavacalla (which I remember as the site of the first Three Tenors concert on tv) are repurposed for other places. 

The characters themselves, having once been to Palimpsest, have an obsessive need to get back.  In every case they’ve lost something in this world and see the other reality as a better place, although its not always a pleasant or an easy trip.  Again I’m not quite sure why; the protagonists are each given their unique real-world connection, but the prose style makes all their inner monologues sound too similar.  The distinctions are there, but they don’t come across very well as individual voices. 

Palimpsest the city, in the end, would seem to be a living thing, with the train system figuring in large part as its central nervous system, and even a character who is the embodiment of an electric train’s third rail, for some reason.  There are a lot of ideas floating around here, but to my taste it doesn’t measure up to China Mieville, who can take similar concepts and wordsmithing and make it work by linking them through a strong central narrative and adding an element of suspense and/or horror.  I can still admire her ambition, and the end result isn’t without merit, but it’s not something I can really enjoy.

“The Paper Menagerie”, by Ken Liu

 

Winner: 2012 Hugo – short  story

Winner: 2012 Nebula: – short story

Liu has appeared seemingly from nowhere to capture both the Hugo and Nebula award for this story, along with a bunch of nominations for other awards.  And it shows a tremendous amount of craft, what struck me the most about it was the seamless integration of a fantasy element into what otherwise reads like normal literary short fiction.  Jack is the first person narrator, growing up in the 70’s as the half-Asian child who is trying to come to terms with his racial identity at a time when he was very much in the minority, and grows to resent his Chinese mother who tries to make him happy but doesn’t speak much English or have much enthusiasm for assimilating into American culture.   The title refers to little origami animals that his mother creates which have the extra ability of coming to life, although they keep their paper-based limitations.  I was a little less satisfied with the ending, years later after Jack’s mother is gone he comes across a letter she wrote to him as a child, which should lay a huge guilt trip on him, and if fact would seem to have been written with that intent, but at the end of the story we don’t get any insight into his reaction, or lack thereof.  So I’m not sure then what was the point of such a long note, if he is truly unmoved by it why bring it to light?  But maybe the ambiguity is part of the point, he at least has some reverence and nostalgia for the remaining origami animals, as a connection to his own childhood as well as his mother.  Liu combines elements of his own background with a clear and economical writing style, resulting in a nicely done story, probably unfair to the other nominees that are more overtly genre, but sometimes a well-told tale will out.  It’s not one I would have singled out for nomination due to my own story preconceptions, but a worthy winner.

“Movement”, by Nancy Fulda

 

Read it here.

2012 Hugo nominee – short story

2012 Nebula nominee – short story

A story this short and with such a non-descript title is in danger of being overlooked before it is even read. Much like when reading poetry the reader has to make a conscious effort to devote the time and space to focus on the story to make sure he is giving it the proper attention.  With these conditions, however, this story is very rewarding and thought-provoking.  Told from the point of view of teenager Hannah, who is afflicted with “temporal autism”, a greatly heightened sense of the passage of time, Fulda goes for several different points from the opening, drawing the reader in immediately so that you’re engaged in the story right away.  First is the ongoing debate over whether “curing” things like autism is good for the patient or not, in this story, from several years in the future, it’s a potential experimental treatment with no guarantee of success that Hannah’s parents are considering.  This will make her “normal”, but at the cost of taking away her special ability and perception of reality.  This ties into the next point, that the technology we use as a means of either escapism or controlling our environment are in fact artificial means of achieving what something like autism may already be doing, perceiving the world in a heightened, specialized and personal way that may be hard for others to understand.  This includes not just virtual games and social media, but the hilarious example of Hannah’s own father, who wears a laser-equipped mosquito zapper, which the mosquitos have already evolved to avoid, such that it mostly now only annihilates dust mites.  And while this arms race of greater immersion in virtual cognition has its detractors, such as Hannah’s grandparents who long for the simpler time when kids all played together around one tv game console, Hannah also finds solace in dancing, which has not fundamentally changed, and yet is different every time she does it.  Fulda takes substantial scientific and moral essay questions and encapsulates them succinctly in her characters and their thoughts and interactions, all in a couple of thousand words, really an impressive piece of work.

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, by Kij Johnson

Winner: 2012 Hugo Award – Best Novella

Winner: 2012 Nebula Award – Best Novella

Nominee: 2012 Locus Award – Best Novella

The title of this story describes exactly what it delivers, a quiet unassuming tale of Kit, a government official who is assigned to a rural area to oversee the construction of a quarter-mile suspension bridge.  The bridge is needed to bring two parts of the faraway Empire together, but it isn’t a river or other body of water that separates them, but rather some form of semi-solid mist, which is patrolled by legendary creatures known only as the “Big Ones”.  Transportation across the mist has previously been provided by ferrymen, including Rasali, whom Kit meets immediately upon his arrival and then of course ends up carrying on a relationship over the five years or so that it takes to construct the bridge.

Johnson sets the right tone and pace to this story, but in the end I’m not sure if it all has much of a point.  The mist is implied to have some sort of water underneath it, so why not just have it be a river instead of mist at all, other than to make it more “fantastical”?  The locals are surprisingly welcoming to Kit considering his job is to completely change their way of life, and it doesn’t seem to occur to him until well into his relationship with Kasali that he is effectively putting her and the rest of her profession out of business.  Kit also feels personally responsible for any casualties that are a result of the bridge construction, even though everyone who works on the bridge gets paid and does so willingly.  The Big Ones serve no other purpose than to make the mist crossing more perilous, they only claim one victim during the course of the story, and that happens offstage.

So while this story sets up an interesting tableau with a well-defined setting and some decent characters, there’s really not much conflict, it feels like the first couple of chapters of a larger story.  There is some attempt to draw parallels between the physical bridge building and the societal connections facilitated by those who build it, but it’s not very convincing.   Overall a pleasant story, I just wish there was a little more to it.

Locus award nominees

With every year, the Locus Award nominees look more representative of the field than the Hugos, particularly in the shorter categories.  But while there are no sparkly vampire stories here, it’s worth noting that there are still no novelette or short stories nominees from the big 3 magazines.  What the heck happened?

SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Caliban’s War, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Redshirts, John Scalzi (Tor; Gollancz)

FANTASY NOVEL
The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Drowning Girl, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc)
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Hide Me Among the Graves, Tim Powers (Morrow; Corvus)
The Apocalypse Codex, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK)

YOUNG ADULT BOOK
The Drowned Cities, Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown; Atom)
Pirate Cinema, Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen)
Railsea, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Dodger, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Catherynne M. Valente (Feiwel and Friends; Much-in-Little ’13)

FIRST NOVEL
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)
vN, Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot US; Angry Robot UK)
Seraphina, Rachel Hartman (Random House; Doubleday UK)
The Games, Ted Kosmatka (Del Rey; Titan)
Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson (Grove; Corvus)

NOVELLA
“In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns”, Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s 1/12)
On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (Immersion)
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
“The Stars Do Not Lie”, Jay Lake (Asimov’s 10-11/12)
The Boolean Gate, Walter Jon Williams (Subterranean)

NOVELETTE
“Faster Gun”, Elizabeth Bear (Tor.com 8/12)
“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, Pat Cadigan (Edge of Infinity)
“Close Encounters”, Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
“Fake Plastic Trees”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (After)
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Rip-Off!)

SHORT STORY
“The Deeps of the Sky”, Elizabeth Bear (Edge of Infinity)
“Immersion”, Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld 6/12)
“Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 8/12)
“Elementals”, Ursula K. Le Guin (Tin House Fall ’12)

Years best anthology scorecard

Looking at the Hugo nominees for this year and cross referencing them with what was chosen for the 3 big year’s best anthologies we find:

No Hugo-nominated novellas were included.  While there isn’t room to print all of them, usually a couple make the cut.

Two of the five Hugo-nominated novelettes were included

“Fade to White”, by Catherynne Valente  – in the Strahan
“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Pat Cadigan – in the Dozois

All three of the Hugo-nominated short stories were included, all in the Strahan anthology.

So clearly Jonathan Strahan has his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, or something.  I should point out that none of the 4 Grant/McGuire nominations made it into a year’s best.  Draw your own conclusions there.

Meanwhile Amazon lists Hartwell’s Years Best 18 as being published on December 10, which seems a little late for covering 2012 and a little early for covering this year, so something is going on there.  It’s jumped from Harper to Tor and from mass market to trade, so previous editions may become hard to find, brand new anyway.

 

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is my first encounter with Cherie Priest, and comes with a lot of advance notice and even the Locus award.  It would seem to promise a specific experience, with its steampunk setting (and cover, and title for that matter), but what it delivers is something else entirely and, for me anyway, a big disappointment.

Now alternate history for me is mostly a waste of time.  i can’t say i’ve read a lot of it, but what i have read seems to indulge in the differences in history and then tell a story that could just have easily been told either in a completely fictional setting, or in the real history that its trying to alternate.  But i’ll make an exception for steampunk, since there at least you have the trappings of a mechanized culture that never made the jump to technology as we recognize it now.  This works better in a visual medium, where you can see all the gears and dirigibles and what not,  in a book you need to keep describing things to remind people of the setting, but it can be done.

In Boneshaker you have both alternate history and steampunk, where some infernal machine opened up a rift under 19th century Seattle that released some noxious gas, forcing the city to be evacuated and completely walled off.  Zeke is the rebellious teenager, raised by his mother Briar, who decides to sneak into the city to find out the true story about his father, the inventor who unleashed the fog that turned Seattle into a no-mans land, populated by zombies.

This is where I start to lose it, because this story doesn’t really need zombies, it just seems like it was convenient to throw them in for marketing purposes.  Sure, they’re not called zombies, but that’s what they are, the fog has turned those left behind into shambling unthinking creatures of darkness who prey on those who haven’t yet succumbed to the gas.  Zombies can be fine in their place, if they’re presented as a real death-dealing menace, and if some likeable characters are tragically transformed into more zombies during the course of the story.  But neither of those things happen.   After Zeke goes missing, Briar goes after him, a well-timed earthquake  cuts off their escape, and so various ragtag groups of dirigible pilots and tavern keepers so forth are enlisted to help keep mother and son alive and try to bring them back together, and to both foil the evil schemes and determine the true identity of the evil Minnericht.  While the “rotters” are a nuisance, too much of the book is spent running away from them for seemingly no other purpose than to postpone the revelations as to what really happened to Zeke’s father and delay mother and son’s inevitable rendezvous.

Priest provides plenty of action, even if much of it doesn’t have any real consequences and instead seem like levels in a video game.  Even though there are airships and one character has a mechanical arm and everyone has to wear goggles to avoid the effects of the fog, I wouldn’t offer this up as a convincing example of steampunk.  The dialogue seems a bit stiff, too, everyone talks like they’ve read too many comic books.  This story was designed and written for a specific audience, in that respect it succeeded admirably, with enough praise to spawn further books.   But I doubt I’ll be reading them, for my taste one alternate history zombie steampunk graphic novel is enough.

The God Engines, by John Scalzi

I wasn’t sure what to make of this novella at first, it’s sort of science fiction, but within the trappings of a hyper-religious society who must both display consistent and underwavering faith in their god while at the same time enslaving other, presumably lesser gods that somehow power the starships they command.  But I wouldn’t really call it fantasy, the intent seems to be to take the “sufficiently advanced technology” aspect of fantasy as a given without really providing any basis other than faith for how it works.  Tephe is the ship captain who is sent on a special mission by his religious order to a planet where he comes face to face with the true nature of his god, and as you might expect it’s not pretty.  Scalzi provides some visually bloody and compelling scenes, as well as a convincingly evoked terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath, but mostly gives us something outside the normal Heinlein pastiche that he is known for, opting here instead for some kind of Blish or Zelazny mashup of science and superstition.  While the fantastical elements of how the gods manifest their powers is presented in such a way that it could have some basis in science, the characters don’t think of it that way.  There’s a lot of backstory here that is glossed over, and the way this setting is presented and how Scalzi ends it leads me to believe he wasn’t planning on returning to this universe any time soon.   Certainly not what I was expected, and I wouldn’t want to read a lot of it, but Scalzi is to be commended for trying something different and by and large succeeding.

Year’s Best Anthologies

Here in one place are the announced contents of this year’s crop of “year’s best” anthologies.  Haven’t seen anything from Hartwell/Cramer yet, but the other three have been announced.  I don’t see the Horton book on Amazon yet, but there are links to the other two, although they don’t come out for a while.  This is just a consolidated list, I’ll post a sorted version with sources shortly.  You’ll notice there isn’t much overlap between the three of them.

Gardner Dozois Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection

“Holmes Sherlock” by Eleanor Arnason
“Invisible Men” by Christopher Barzak
“In The House Of Aryaman” by A Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear
“Twenty Lights To “the Land Of Snow,” Michael Bishop
“The Girl-thing Who Went Out For Sushi” by Pat Cadigan
“Gods Of Risk” by James S. A. Corey
“Weep For Day” by Indrapramit Das
“Ship’s Brother” by Aliette de Bodard
“Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan
“Old Paint” by Megan Lindholm
“Nightfall On The Peak Of Eternal Light” by Richard A. Lovett And William Gleson
“The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo
“The Man” by Paul Mcauley
“Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas On Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, The Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley
“Steamgothic” by Sean McMullen
“Chitai Heiki Koronbin” by David Moles
“The Wreck Of The Charles Dexter Ward” by Sarah Monette And Elizabeth Bear
“Nightside On Callisto” by Linda Nagata
“Sudden” by Broken And Unexpected” by Steven Popkes
“Tyche And The Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Eater-of-bone” by Robert Reed
“The Water Thief” by Alastair Reynolds
“What Did Tessimond Tell You?” by Adam Roberts
“Ruminations In An Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh
“The Memcordist” by Lavie Tidhar
“Under The Eaves” by Lavie Tidhar
“Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn
“Fireborn” by Robert Charles Wilson
Jonathan Strahan The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 7

“The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times”, Eleanor Arnason
“Great Grandmother in the Cellar”, Peter S. Beagle
“Immersion”, Aliette de Bodard
“Troll Blood”, Peter Dickinson
“Close Encounters”, Andy Duncan
“Blood Drive”, Jeffrey Ford
“Adventure Story”, Neil Gaiman
“The Grinnell Method”, Molly Gloss
“Beautiful Boys”, Theodora Goss
“The Easthound”, Nalo Hopkinson
“Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw”, Gwyneth Jones
“Goggles c 1910”, Caitlin R. Kiernan
“The Education of a Witch”, Ellen Klages
“The Color Least Used by Nature”, Ted Kosmatka
“Significant Dust”, Margo Lanagan
“Two Houses”, Kelly Link
“Mono No Aware”, Ken Liu
“Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden”, Paul McAuley
“Swift, Brutal Retaliation”, Meghan McCarron
“About Fairies”, Pat Murphy
“Nahiku West”, Linda Nagata
“Let Maps to Others”, K.J. Parker
“Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls”, Rachel Pollack
“Katabasis”, Robert Reed
“What Did Tessimond Tell You?”, Adam Roberts
“The Contrary Gardener”, Christopher Rowe
“Joke in Four Panels”, Robert Shearman
“Domestic Magic”, Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem
“Reindeer Mountain”, Karin Tidbeck
“Fade to White”, Catherynne M. Valente
“A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones”, Genevieve Valentine

 

Rich Horton The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2013 Edition

“Sunshine” by Nina Allan (Black Static)
“Things Greater Than Love” by Kate Bachus (Strange Horizons)
“Twenty-Two and you” by Michael Blumlein (F&SF)
“In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s)
“One Day in Time City” by David Ira Cleary (Interzone)
“Scattered Along the River of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld)
“Heaven Under Earth” by Aliette de Bodard (Electric Velocipede)
“The Keats Variation” by K. M. Ferebee (Strange Horizons)
“The Castle That Jack Built” by Emily Gilman (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” by Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed)
“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia (Clarkesworld)
“Scrap Dragon” by Naomi Kritzer (F&SF)
“The Weight of History, The Lightness of the Future” by Jay Lake (Subterranean)
“Elementals” by Ursula K. Le Guin (Tin House)
“Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz” by Marissa K. Lingen (Tor.com)
“Two Houses” by Kelly Link (Shadow Show: The Bradbury tribute anthology)
“Arbeitskraft” by Nick Mamatas (The Mammoth Book of Steampunk)
“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” by Meghan McCarron (Tor.com)
“The Black Feminist’s Guide to Science Fiction Film Editing” by Sandra McDonald (Asimov’s)
“The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir (Weird Tales)
“Nahiku West” by Linda Nagata (Analog)
“A Murmuration of Starlings” by Joe Pitkin (Analog)
“Prayer” by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
“Four Kinds of Cargo” by Leonard Richardson (Strange Horizons)
“The Governess and the Lobster” by Margaret Ronald, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“The Contrary Gardener” by Christopher Rowe (Eclipse Online)
“Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar (Clarkesworld)
“The Bernoulli War” by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s)
“Under the Eaves” by Lavie Tidhar (Robots: The New A.I.)
“One Breath, One Stroke” by Catherynne M. Valente (The Future is Japanese)
“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genevieve Valentine (Lightspeed)
“Fireborn” by Robert Charles Wilson (Rip-Off)
“The Philosophy of Ships” by Caroline Yoachim (Interzone)

 

“Plus or Minus”, by James Patrick Kelly

 

Over 15 years ago Asimov’s published what has arguably become Jim Kelly’s most famous story, “Think Like a Dinosaur”, which went on to win the Hugo in 1996.  That story was widely recognized as a response or a commentary or a riff on “The Cold Equations”, one-hit wonder Tom Godwin’s even more famous story from the 1950’s in which a girl somehow stows away on board a spacecraft and has to be jettisoned in order to save the rest of the crew because the ratio of the mass of the ship to the amount of fuel is so exact that it can’t be adjusted for an extra passenger without killing everyone.  “Think Like a Dinosaur” doesn’t really involve equations at all, but posits nanotechnology that can instantaneously transfer someone light years away into a brand new corporeal form, but their original form has to be destroyed for reasons that are more spiritual than scientific.  The force of that story comes from its first person narrator, the tech operating the transfer machinery who must close the loop when the transfer malfunctions.  Both stories paint their protagonists into a moral corner from which they can only escape by violating their own ethics and beliefs for a higher moral imperative.

In this new story, Kelly seems to be skirting close to this idea again, but maybe with more philosophical intent than before.  Mariska is a young space monkey who has signed onto a boring multi-year stint on an asteroid mining ship to escape the yoke of her domineering mother, of whom she is a clone.  The rest of the crew is of a similar age except for Beep, a grizzled old timer who is not really in charge, since the ship basically runs itself, but has some level of seniority.  Still a hundred days from home, things go awry very suddenly when one of the crew members loses some large blocks of ice during a routine maneuver, such that there won’t be enough oxygen for everyone to survive the remainder of the trip.  Seemingly within minutes, someone makes the decision to sacrifice himself in order to decrease the amount of oxygen being consumed and save everyone else.  But it’s still not enough, Mariska takes matters into her own hands by going into hibernation, which carries its own risks, plus there’s no way to know just how much oxygen she can save as the level of hibernation is variable.  Hence the plus or minus of the title, the equation this time isn’t quite as cold because one key property is an unknown quantity and can only be defined up front as a range.

At the end, again somewhat abruptly, Mariska is rescued by a ship thanks to her estranged mother.  In some respects this story comes off as too short, there could be a little more time spent on the various life or death decisions that happen after the crisis, and Mariska’s shipmates could use a little more depth to allow the reader to care about them a little more.  There’s some interesting moral ambiguity here too that could use some additional exploration.  After all Mariska, in trying to save everyone, ended up saving only herself, sort of “The Cold Equations” in reverse, and even if she does reconcile with her mother, living with herself is going to be a difficult task.  The narrator of “Think Like a Dinosaur” can at least take comfort in the fact that he had to kill someone who should have been dead already, who in the eyes of the dinos was no longer really alive even though she was still breathing and talking.  But here as in Godwin’s original, the idea of redemption is left as an exercise for the reader, and it would seem that this time around Kelly’s protagonist can’t rely on the equations but must accept an element of chance, or fate.  Either way, in the end she must still face the consequences.