“Ponies”, by Kij Johnson (tor.com)

http://www.tor.com/stories/2010/11/ponies

This very short story involves a group of girls who own girl-sized, pastel-colored, winged unicorn ponies, primarily as a token to a rite of passage into the “in” crowd.  Johnson tells the story in parable form, none of the girls are named except for the protagonist, and there’s a certain dreamy/nightmare approach to the prose.  In order to be accepted by “TheOtherGirls”, Barbara confers with her pony Sunny about which of 3 characteristics she most wants to keep, her wings, voice or horn.  The girls require her to remove the other two in order to be accepted into the group.  Barbara and Sunny don’t realize until too late that the other ponies have their own rites too.  While I guess you could say there’s some lesson in here about the cost of conformity, and how either different groups may have their own rules, or that the rules are arbitrary, or contradictory, or whatever, the story isn’t really long enough to make that kind of a point with any sort of depth.  If this tale has any staying power, its in the juxtaposition of the reader’s identification with Barbara and the image of mutilation of My Little Ponies.

Hugo nominees announced

There’s the usual amount of excitement and head-scratching around this year’s Hugo nominees, announced yesterday.  I think I set a new record this year for trying to read as many different potential nominees as possible before the voting deadline (and even continuing somewhat afterward), and it helped a little, but in the short story category, where a single vote has the most influence, I came up empty.  So let’s run through the fiction categories.

Best Novel.  Two obvious candidates made the list, China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, both of which got wide notoriety in a variety of venues.  I was somewhat surprised that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream didn’t get a bid, although it was maybe too new to the US/Canadian market for enough people to have read it, but his work usually makes the ballot and he is after all guest of honor at this year’s Worldcon.  Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock should probably be no surprise, as it is an expansion of a novella nominee from a couple of year’s ago, and he’s Canadian, like a good chunk of this year’s voters since last year’s Worldcon was in Montreal.  Likewise Robert Sawyer’s Wake, as usual not a great crticial success (and not on the Locus recommended list) but always popular with the fans, and while he’s Canadian too he probably would have made it anyway.  Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest finish off this category, both were recommended, with the former making the Nebula ballot too, so no big surprise for either.  Based on demographics, reviews and name recognition, other books I thought might make the cut besides Robinson’s include Iain Bank’s Transition, Dan Simmons’ Drood, and Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe.  I enjoyed Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky enough to nominate it, but I didn’t figure enough other people would agree for it to make the ballot.

Best Novella.  Since there aren’t too many choices in this category, it’s a little easier to handicap this one.  Ian McDonald’s track record made “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” a shoo-in, along with Stross’ “Palimpsest”.  What are the odds of having two nominees in two different categories with the same name?  I was a bit surprised that James Morrow’s “Shambling Towards Hiroshima” made it, I always enjoy his work and it got my vote but I guess it wasn’t overtly political or blasphemous enough to keep others from picking it too.  “Act One” by Nancy Kress was another good story from last year’s winner in this category, so no big surprise there.  John Scalzi’s “The God Engines” didn’t make the Locus list but it was published so late in the year maybe they didn’t consider it to make the cut.  It’s by all accounts a bit of a departure for him, which from my point of view is a good thing.  Lastly is Kage Baker’s “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s”, like the Scalzi a Nebula nominee and another small press chapbook, but this one is already out of print, making me wonder how many voters actually read it.  Baker sadly died of cancer just a few months ago, but had been nominated in the past and had enough of a consistently high body of work that this shouldn’t just be a sympathy vote.  Contenders which didn’t get the votes include Michael Flynn’s “Where the Winds are All Asleep”, which I liked enough to nominate, Greg Egan’s “Hot Rock” (thanks for nothing to his fellow Australians), and Paul McAuley’s “Crimes and Glory” which was picked for both the Horton and Dozois Year’s Best anthologies. 

Best Novelette.  So far so good, but things start to break down a bit when we get to novelettes.  It’s not that unworthy stories were nominated, but they were chosen over ones that you would expect had better chances. Let’s first cover the ones that got left out.  I read seven candidates based mostly on their anthology ratio, and the only one to make the ballot was Peter Watts’ “The Island”.  Another Canadian, true, and also the only novelette to make all four Year’s Best anthologies, so even his recent legal troubles probably didn’t have much of an effect one way or the other.  Two novelettes by his countryman Wilson were ignored, “Utriusque Cosmi” and “This Peaceable Land”.  John Kessel’s “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” was more of a long shot, as was Damien Broderick’s “This Wind Blowing and this Tide”, although both stories were picked for two Year’s Best books.  Stephen Baxter always has a shot and “Formidable Caress” was a good high-concept sense-of-wonder story, but not enough for this time around it seems.  Triply anthologized to no avail were Bruce Sterling’s “Black Swan” (languishing in Interzone) and fan-favorite Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s “Mongoose” (from a horror anthology). 

So besides Watts, a few of the other nominees were well regarded enough to make multiple lists even though they came from various sources.  Paul Cornell must be thrilled to have a writing Hugo nomination for “One of our Bastards is Missing”, also picked by the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer anthologies.  Nicola Griffith’s “It Takes Two” was by many accounts the best thing about the Eclipse 3 anthology.  And Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape”, while a lesser known name, also got a couple of anthology picks and another story of hers from last year is on the Nebula ballot.  That leaves Stross’ “Overtime”, left off of every list including Locus but the cult of the personality prevails and I’m sure is still worth reading, and an Interzone story by someone named Eugie Foster called “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” for some reason, which made the Nebula ballot and nothing else, but he still has the last laugh. 

Short Stories.  Here I sit left in the lurch once again by the final short story list, which ignored every one of the 12 stories I read including all the ones I voted for.  This is the only fiction category with five nominees, and only one of them made a Year’s Best anthology or the Locus list, and that was “Spar” by Kij Johnson, a nominee from last year.  “Spar” is also on the Nebula ballot, as are Locus wannabees but double nominees “Bridesicle”, by Will McIntosh, and “Non-Zero Probabilities”, by N.K. Jemisin.  Hugo voting rules indicate at least one Mike Resnick story must be nominated, and this year it is “The Bride of Frankenstein”.  Lastly is Lawrence Schoen’s “The Moment”, from an obscure anthology and seeimingly completely out of left field, but we’ll take a look and see what the deal is.

So who got snubbed for short fiction?  Number one is probably Geoff Ryman’s “Blocked”, picked for three Year’s Bests but maybe too literary for the Hugo crowd?  Doubly anthologized but still ignored were, from the magazines, “A Story, With Beans” by Steven Gould, “As Women Fight” by Sara Genge (as worthy a contender as any of the others that made it), “Erosion” by Ian Creasey and “Before My Last Breath” by Robert Reed, along with online and anthology candidates “Edison’s Frankenstein”  by Chris Roberson,
“On the Human Plan” by Jay Lake, and “Bespoke” by Genevieve Valentine.  Mostly not household names, but neither are the ones who actually ended up on the ballot.  And while I didn’t think Jim Kelly’s “Going Deep” was one of his better efforts, it still made the Strahan Year’s Best and could have gotten in just on the author’s reputation and the story’s visibility. 

So I’m glad I didn’t invest in Galileo’s Dream when I didn’t need to, and I’m even happier that I didn’t pay big bucks for the British edition of the Tales of the Dying Earth anthology.  The novel nominees all look worthy, although I’m a bit worried about Palimpsest, sounds like a lot of stuff I don’t particularly like to read.  Novellas are mostly in the bag already, hoping the Baker story turns up online soon.  Having read a reasonable cross-section of un-nominated shorter fiction, it will be interesting to see not only how the actual nominees fall out but how they measure up against the higher profile stories that got left behind.  Worldcon is late, so there are four whole months to get through everything, maybe I’ll even have time to peruse the work of the some of the Campbell nominees.  Now that would be a first.

“Shambling Towards Hiroshima” by James Morrow

(published by Tachyon)

Published as a short novel, Morrow’s latest work follows on from his more accessible style in which he engages the reader with some wry, quirky characterizations plunked down into a unique situation that is very real to them but somewhat allegorical or satirical to the rest of us.  Here he’s absorbed much of what there is to know about low budget horror and monster movies of the golden age of filmmaking, with a number of cameo appearances by real people, including James Whale, who directed the first iconic Frankenstein movie.

The story concerns aging B-movie star Syms Thorley, who in the recent past is writing his memoirs from a hotel where he is a guest of a monster movie fan convention, receiving an award for his career achievements.  The narrative gives him the opportunity to reveal some secret history of his movie career while at the same time exorcising a few demons while he tries to decide whether to kill himself or not.  Morrow easily shifts forward between the present and the story Thorley is writing about, which concerns his duty during World War II in helping the government convince the Japanese that the US military was on verge of unleashing giant reptiles against their shores.  The G-men have the somewhat uncharacteristically humane idea that it would be preferable to convince the enemy of the destructive potential of this threat without having to actually deploy it, so they enlist Syms to recreate his reknowned performance as Gorgantis for a government-produced movie, directed  by Whale, which would then be shown to Japanese representatives as though it were evidence of the real monsters destroying a city.  Syms is bemused by the whole idea, but as an actor rises to the challenge.

Where Morrow seems to be going with this is contrasting this somewhat ridiculous secret project to the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, although Syms’ memoir doesn’t really spend too much time drawing parallels between them.  The movie is made (in fact it’s hardly even a movie at all as it seems to play out in real time to the Japanese emissaries as it is being filmed), the results are mixed, and the war plays out pretty much the way we remember.  The main dramatic moment comes when his archrival in the B-movie business tries to hold him hostage for the rights to what he thinks is a new movie monster, but it seems kind of pointless to the action, although it does illustrate a fateful turn in Syms’ career.  In the present story, Syms has introspective encounters with a hooker and a hotel bellhop, to whom he tries to give away the meager amount of worldy goods he has in his possession there. 

But in the end what the reader is supposed to make of this entertaining but somewhat aimless story is left open to interpretation.  If Syms is speaking for western civilization, then are we to conclude that his best effort to bring peace through intimidation was doomed to fall short, and that dropping the bomb was the “least bad” way to end the war?  In the present there seems to be more revisionist views of those events and whether destroying Hiroshima was really necessary, but one way to look at this book is that we were moving towards something on that scale of horror with some level of inevitability.  Unleashing the real giant reptiles carried some degree of risk too because there was no guarantee they could be completely controlled and end up turning on the rest of the world.  There’s also a certain sense of nostalgia here for this somewhat more innocent time where what we thought of then as horror depicted in the old movies didn’t really prepare us for what happened during World War II, and at the same time paved the way for all the post-war Japanese angst and self-doubt that manifested itself in decades of their monster movies.  Morrow ends up with a very worthwhile story, both humorous and poignant by turns and well worth checking out, even if the end result is a little more mellow than you might expect.

“Palimpsest” by Charles Stross

(Wireless, Ace)

The word “palimpsest” is one of those that sticks in your brain for its odd sound, even though you don’t remember what it means.  While it sounds like something you’d go see a dermatologist about, it in fact has its origins in the ancient Greek and Roman practice of reusing some sort of writing surface, eradicating the original script and replacing it with something else.  This has particular interest to archeologists because they of course are interested in what was there before, and go to great lengths to try lifting the original text off of the parchment or tablets or whatever they may be.

Stross takes a different tack, with a palimpsest referring to a period of time which is “overwritten” by someone going back and changing an event to make things happen differently.  The story concerns a young man named Pierce, who is going through a 20-year long training program as an agent of the Stasis.  In the far future, humanity has been able to engineer huge  cosmic interventions to keep their own species alive as the universe ages and starts to decay.  Through the magic of time travel, they’re able to disperse agents throughout human history to keep things in check, and to overwrite those periods that get out of whack, which seems to happen mostly because other people can also go back in time and meddle in things.  The Statis is the powerful agency in charge of this task, and it actually outlives humanity many times over, it is expected that civilizations will rise and fall and occasionally have to be reseeded from scratch and allowed to develop all over again over billions of years.

The story lurches forwards through Pierce’s own career in training, at one point he has a wife and kids and then a few scenes later they no longer exist and Stross doesn’t dwell on how it happened.  The author also interrupts the narrative a few times for poetic descriptions of the life of the universe, starting with the one we’re familiar with and then branching out from there as things change.  Pierce crosses paths multiple times with his former and future selves, as well as those of his fellow agents, and the complexity of the task to which Stasis has him assigned causes him to eventually seek out an insurgent group known as the Opposition.  But even that isn’t what it seems, and at the end Pierce is faced with the notion that in spite of always bumping into all these other copies of himself, he may just be able to still exercise free will in the present after all.

There’s a lot going on in this story, it’s probably not long enough to really flesh out all the ideas Stross has floating around, but at least here everything is focused on the central idea, and maybe by keeping it at this length Stross avoids the pitfall of over-explaining (or else going off on too many tangents) and keeps the narrative concise and if you can’t keep up well then that’s your problem, go back and read it a few more times.  Besides all the cosmic intrigue and long-view cosmology, there’s also a love story in here and some commentary on how any powerful organization, even one that outlasts human evolution a zillion times over, will eventually grow corrupt and decay.  The plot makes just enough sense at a superficial level to hang together and keep the reader involved, forcing you to pay attention before everything shifts out from under you all over again.   Stross has put a complex story into an enormous canvas and made it comprehensible enough to follow along, you don’t even get the time to appreciate just what a broad structure he’s taken on.  Never one to back away from audacious storytelling, Stross outdoes himself here with what has to be one of the best, and certainly most ambitious, stories of the year.

“Act One” by Nancy Kress

(Asimovs, March 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best

Nearly 20 years ago, Nancy Kress wrote a story called “Beggars in Spain”, which is probably still her best known work.  It was expanded into a novel, which was even more popular than the story, and that was expanded into a trilogy, which pretty much played out the premise and overstayed its welcome. But the premise was compelling while basically simple, dealing with genetic modification that precluded the subject from the need for sleep.  Kress was particularly interested in the social and political ramifications such a breakthrough would have on the world, and how it affected the lives of the “sleepless”, who had this enhancement inflicted on them by their parents in vitro, without the courtesy of being asked whether they wanted it.

So now here we are with “Act One”, which is covering some of the same ground.  This time the genetic modification is to enhance the empathic receptors in the subjects, making them extremely attuned to other people’s feelings.  Because this is an expensive procedure, these kids are generally from a privileged class to begin with, and grow up leading fairly sheltered lives. The modification doesn’t work the same way on everyone either, in one case twins have different manifestations, with one of them being basically sullen and insufferable to everyone. 

The story is told by Barry, personal manager to an aging actress named Jane.  Barry is also a dwarf, a condition which tends to come with a lot of personal problems and a giant chip on the shoulder.  His own personal life is a mess, estranged from his wife for having tried to genetically modify his own child so he would also be a dwarf, a process which didn’t work out as expected and instead caused profound behavioral problems.  Jane takes an interest in these children with the empathic “Arlen’s Syndrome” while studying for an upcoming movie role, and visits the institute that pioneered the procedure, a shady outfit called “the Group” which is straight out of 1970’s Doctor Who.   Sure enough, the Group has a larger agenda, and Barry and Jane find themselves caught up in it as the empathic modification gradually takes on a life of its own and changes the world, such that humanity up to this point has really just been going through the first act of its existence.

It makes me wonder where Kress is going with this theme, is it really inevitable that any major change engineered into human genetics will sooner or later affect all of humanity whether they want it or not?  If so it’s not a very good argument for the kind of research and experimentation that already exists.  But the prospects are certainly intriguing, and in this story the ramifications and the modification itself are more subtle and maybe more unpredictable than with the Sleepless.  I think one thing Kress likes to point out is how close we are in real life to that precipice where humanity has the power to alter its own existence through genetic tinkering, whether for good or for ill, on purpose or not, and how in different cases that might actually play out.  In the end we’re still human and life continues, but so many assumptions end up challenged or thrown right out the window that it’s a scary prospect for everyone, whether they see it coming or not.  Kress always gives the reader food for thought, and in this story presents some interesting juxtapositions of character and setting to bring the science into a more unconventional scenario, making for a unique mix and a memorable result.

“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald

Cyberabad Days, (Pyr)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best

So, Mr. McDonald, we meet again.  I’ll say right up front this may be the most coherent McDonald story I’ve ever read.  It is completely intelligible, has a beginning middle and end, and even a plot, all of these qualities that much of his work, I feel, seems to lack. I must of course admit that while I’m usually left scratching my head at the end of a McDonald story, unsure of any tangible fact taken from the text, it nevertheless goes on to be nominated and often to win several awards.  Or maybe I’m just finally starting to get the hang of his style.  It helps that this story is set in the same future-India as several of his other recent nominated work, and it also helps that this story is half again as long as the novellas from those prior entries, giving him more room within which to work.  But those features alone would not supplant or obfuscate structure, or plot, or enlightenment, so there must be something else that brings it all together this time.

This mostly earthbound story concerns the narrator Vishnu, who is reflecting on his life story to some unspecified audience.  The title here does the reader no favors, the cat circus is merely Vishnu’s last career, he has cultivated a group of housecats who can walk nose to tail in a circle and can also walk on a tightrope.  His story begins with his parents, who met during a monsoon-induced flood.  Years later, India has broken up into several small republics, and the monsoons no longer appear, so water is in short supply.  But things haven’t changed all that much, Indian families still want the best for their children, and in particular want them to have more privileges than those of their neighbors.  So Vishnu is conceived as part of a cutting edge genetic modification process that not only allows his parents to select for intelligence, but also for longevitiy, giving him at least twice the natural human lifespan.  The downside to this is that he matures at half the rate of normal children, and McDonald does a nice job of highlighting some of the challenges and contradictions produced by this elongated childhood and adolescence, both for Vishnu and his immediate family.

Vishnu’s older brother Shiv is arguably brilliant also, without any genetic enhancements, but Shiv is largely ignored in favor of his gifted sibling and is justifiably jealous.  As they grow up, Vishnu really only interacts with others subjected to the same program.  For someone who is this brilliant, the normal pursuits of math and science aren’t that appealing, and Vishnu finds his main area of interest to be in politics, a supremely chaotic system which he understands enough to enable him to exert some level of control.  One of his friends, to whom he is arrange to be married,  just spends all her time creating complicated card games.  Eventually Vishnu grows disaffected with all of it and ends up spending most of his life just wandering around the country, observing and interacting with people.  There’s some food for thought there about the relative levels of intelligence and where the blessing/curse line may be and what really is important to people anyway.

Meanwhile Shiv has grown up and started his own company to develop nanotechnology that basically allows all of humanity to attain the singularity, effectively bypassing Vishnu’s own genetic enhancement with something even more profound.  McDonald again has some interesting insight into how this would work for Vishnu, set on a certain path from birth and then before it can really reach fruition seeing it eclipsed by the next generation’s own improvements.  So in the end maybe the cat circus has another meaning, from the viewpoint of uplifted humanity who are the cats and in what kind of circus do they find themselves?  Or maybe I’m making that part up, but while there’s plenty of introspection here, McDonald doesn’t supply any homilies or spell out any great wisdom, he just tells his story and lets the reader draw his own conclusions.  He has worked very hard and very thoroughly realized this non-western future society, giving it a density of detail and complexity that makes it seem more realistic.  It’s not what I would call a fun read, but it’s not difficult, and I don’t see anything else out there that’s anything like these stories that McDonald puts forth.  But it’s all starting to make sense, one of us is starting to coalesce with the potential merit and stature of this body of work, and I have a feeling it’s me.

“Wife-Stealing Time”, by R. Garcia y Robertson

(Asimovs, October-November 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Horton Year’s Best

A mildly provocative title reveals a more pedestrian story from the planet Barsoom, and I’m not enough of an ERB fan to know whether it’s supposed to be that Barsoom.  It doesn’t really matter, as the races and names introduced here borrow from American Indians, Scotland and the Middle East, so Garcia seems to just be having a little fun with the setting.  SinBad happens upon a girl named Pretty Bottom, the two of them being outcast from separate tribes for different reasons, and they team up to fight off some nasty predators and try to stay alive.  Although this isn’t Garcia’s fault, you can’t help thinking of the setting of the Avatar movie while reading this story, but I can’t say that it makes a difference one way or the other.

Along come a couple in a spaceship, the Islays, who are rich enough to have hired a guide to lead them on a big game hunt through this primitive landscape.  Naturally they are confident in their abilities and so you know they’re going to have problems.  The woman gets captured and Laird Islay ends up enlisting the natives to help him find his wife.  Simba the guide turns out to have his own agenda, but SinBad is able to work everything out just before Pretty Bottom’s husband appears to claim his wife.  Garcia sets up some interesting interplay between the different sets of couples and the different cultures, but the wife stealing part (not wife swapping, I keep reminding myself) seems incidental except as plot device, and after it’s all over you wonder what was the point he was trying to make.  A nice enough story, but to my mind it could have been either a little more epic or a little more thoughtful.

The City & the City, by China Mieville

Anything Mieville writes by definition will be interesting and he has yet to deliver a bad book, although his last nominee “The Iron Council” was a bit too circumspect for my taste.  Here he goes to the opposite end of the spectrum, delivering a basically straightforward murder mystery novel, and keeps the mellifluous-meter down a notch and gives the characters terse, Mamet-esque dialog, resulting in a concise package that doesn’t overstay its welcome or become self-indulgent.

The story is told by a detective named Borlu, who is handed a Jane Doe murder case that ends up being a lot more than he bargained for.  The setting is completely present day and within our timeline, with one notable exception:  Borlu lives and works in Beszel, a city that is also apparently a country, somewhere in the general eastern Europe area.  The conceit of the novel is that this city occupies the same physical space as another city/country, Ul Qhon, and the two co-exist through a state of mutual “unseeing”. Somehow the citizens of one city are able to ignore the people and structures of the other.  Mieville offers no explanation for how this came to be, or any details as to how it works, but it would seem by the end to be a real phenemenon, not just two populations pretending to ignore each other.  Can people from opposing cities actually pass through each other? Mieville never says, you get several hints that they have to dodge around things they “unsee” from the other city, and it would seem that the general layout of the cities is similar, although the buildings aren’t exactly the same or in the same place. 

The unlikelihood of this scenario makes for a somewhat complicated world to hold together, after all what’s to prevent people from just letting go and seeing both cities together?  Mieville addresses this by adding an agency known as Breach, whose sole job is to police both populations from crossing into the other city by any means other than through a normal border patrol area.  Again, how this group came about, what their motivation is, is never really explained either, and in this case a little more back story might have been useful.  But they enforce the separation with an iron first, people who commit a breach are either messed up for life or just disappear, and the looming spectre of their immediate enforcement seems to be enough to keep everyone in line.

Borlu’s mystery takes him through to Ul Qhom to work with an office on that side named Dhatt, who starts off wanting to help but soon finds himself in over his head and out of his league.  Borlu traces his murder victim back to a university where a small group of people are investigating the legendary existence of Orciny, a third city invisible to the others which actually controls everything and maybe also is the origin of Breach.  Mieville strings Borlu and the reader along through various red herrings, but does actually wrap up the side plots eventually, and while the solution to the murder gets him in to hot water with both cities and Breach, ultimately he discovers there is, as they say, both more and less to the entire escapade than he imagined.   I can expect a lot of people would be put off by the conceit of the two-city setting, or at least by Mieville’s disinterest in explaining it, but if you take all that as given and focus on what is actually in the story, he’s done an impressive job of creating a mystery that could only take place in this milieu, with a credible resolution and exactly the right tone throughout.   I was thoroughly impressed by this book and can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

“Where the Winds Are All Asleep” by Michael F. Flynn

(Analog, October 2009)

Flynn is an engaging writer who always comes up with original concepts for stories, with real characters and unique settings, and it seems each new story is completely different from all the others, no small accomplishment.  This novella has a lot going for it and is well worth reading, but it suffers a bit from an identity crisis.

The opening is somewhat reminiscent of Spider Robinson’s Callahan stories, a bunch of characters hanging around an Irish bar in the middle of the afternoon, wrestling with weighty matters like who sang the definitive version of “Mr. Sandman”.  In walks one patron’s niece, Jeanne, a nervous wreck with a story to tell that no one will believe outside of an Irish bar.  So far so good.  Jeanne is an experienced climber and also a scientist, and her story deals with the search for definitive proof of abiogenesis, that life on earth sprang from something that was not alive.  There are a few pages of dialog with the other patrons, hashing out these concepts before she launches into her tale, which takes up most of the rest of the story.

Jeanne signs on with a group of four young science-types, led by Luke, who’s obviously a genius but knows nothing about climbing and isn’t very good with people.  She’s brought on board more for her experiencing in navigating caves, which is where they’re all headed, looking for lifeforms that can only live in the extreme conditions of deep underground, mirroring the conditions of early Earth history.  So now we’re into a Jules Verne adventure, albeit with five distinct characters who Flynn embues with individual personalities and varying levels of interpersonal communications.

After much descending and exploring they start coming upon human remains in areas that they had thought people had never been, and it doesn’t appear that they died of natural causes.  The “extremophiles” they’ve been seeking take on the form of weird silicon-based life that, based on their theories, bridges the gap between primoridal soup and carbon-based life as we know it.  But before they can congratulate themselves things get nasty in a hurry, and the last few pages veer into horror movie territory, with a dose of H.P. Lovecraft and a requisite change in the explorers worldview as they realize not only what’s been living on planet Earth longer than us, but what’s really going on with plate tectonics.

So when it’s all over there’s a lot to like about this story, including that t’s a bit on the short side for a novella, but I wonder if expanding it a little would have helped give these different narrative sections their proper proportions.  Even with that I think the Irish bar seems a little out of place. It’s interesting that Flynn chooses to tell it this way, as a story within a story, since I’m not really sure what that accomplishes (the bar patrons don’t decide at the end to form a posse and go back to the cave, for instance).  So it comes out feeling like padding instead, a little too much exposition as dialog, among characters who really shouldn’t be that interested in the science behind the project.  But still a strong effort that engages the reader from the beginning and gives a modern vision of the old sf trope that there’s more going on beneath the Earth’s surface than we’re willing to admit.

“Formidable Caress” by Stephen Baxter

(Analog, December 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Strahan Year’s Best 

Not much big-name hard sf in the novelette category this year, but Baxter is always worth a read.  Unfortunately this story seems to take place within a larger narrative of his Xeelee universe, and I haven’t read any of those novels, so at the end it’s more than a bit unsatisfying.  This tale concerns itself with the life story of Telni, who grows up on a planet where people living in different areas experience time at different rates, and this protagonist is in the slowest zone, although there are ways to make time go even slower.  What’s left of humanity is being watched over by hovering mechanoid spheres called Weapons, which have a human tethered to them for communication purposes.

Neither of these things seems to be the point that Baxter is trying to work with, the title refers to a euphemism for a cosmic event that can threaten humanity.  Apparently they live within a galaxy that is rotating around another galaxy and every so often they pass through each other, with dramatic celestial consequences.  In Telni’s zone, he wouldn’t normally live to see this because of course it takes so long for each cycle,  but he interacts with people in other zones briefly.  The Weapon sees Telni as a potential savior of humanity, because the next cycle is expected to be particularly bad and Telni seems to have some sort of intellectual gift that will help them come up with a way to beat this cosmic catastrophe.

There’s some kind of uplift at the end of the story but it ends abruptly with a creepy “And then – “, sort of like the Hamlet episode of Monty Python.  I expect if you knew more about the details of the Xeelee universe then this would make more sense, up until that point it didn’t seem to require any special backstory knowledge, which makes the ending all the more confusing.  Baxter has taken the Vingean concept of different parts of the universe living at different rates and collapsed it down to a single system, and the  biology of planets that cross the paths of planets from another galaxy is also touched on, both ideas big enough for a larger narrative.  This story is fine on its own, I just wish the ending was more conclusive.