“This Wind Blowing, and This Tide”, by Damien Broderick

Asimov’s April-May 2009

Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best    Strahan Year’s Best 

A somewhat pretentious title, taken from a Kipling poem, sets the tone for a poetic story typical of Broderick, whose short fiction seems to be fairly sporadic but is always worth seeking out.  This time around the setting is Titan, where an ancient spaceship has been uncovered, inexplicably sealed in some sort of bubble and covered with living flowers.  That’s the most arresting image, and the story basically unfolds around it.  The ship was discovered thanks to a clairvoyant named Sensei Park, who has had images of this very discovery since he was young, and once his vision is borne out by reality, he is called to Saturn’s moon to assist the military in trying to make sense of it all.

Interwoven with this story are Park’s reminiscences of his son, who died under vague circumstances at an early age.  Park has the ability to cause things to happen without even thinking about it, and at one point another specialist in the arcane is working up an image of what the alien pilot must have looked like.  His own impression of the ancient race shows them as related to the dinosaurs, but Park somehow corrupts that image to that of his own son, which causes both of them to become violently ill.  Broderick is playing around throughout the story with parallels between Park’s loss and that of the alien pilot, speculating the circumstances under which this ship could have met its untimely fate.

What is particularly interesting about this story is how Broderick uses the central theme to speculate on the Fermi paradox, the notion that if other intelligent life exists then why is there no evidence of it.  Park has at hand a long list of potential reasons, and this discovery and first proof of extraterrestrials both narrows the list and opens up more questions, since if aliens could come this far, why did this one ship make it to Titan and no others?  At the end, Park does his part to help the survey team break through the seal and the flowers are released into the atmosphere of Titan, one last evocative image to engage the reader from a very poetic, original effort by one of the more underrated writers of our era.

“This Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe”, by Robert Charles Wilson

(Other Earths, Nick Gevers & Jay Lake, eds.)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best    Horton Year’s Best 

The lead-off story in this anthology of alternate history stories deals with the Civil War, probably the most common period of history for meddling in this sub-genre.  But Wilson doesn’t go the obvious route where the South wins the war, but instead takes the premise that the war was never fought, a compromise was reached and slavery gradually disappeared anyway due to industrialization and international pressure.  And while that may be good for all the soldiers who didn’t have to become soldiers, it wasn’t so good for the African-Americans, who still deal for years afterward with segregation, open hostility and, worst of all, government-sponsored internment camps.

It’s to one of these former camps that an educated black man named Percy takes the narrator as his assistant and photographer.  They’re warned that the area is no longer safe but no one has any specifics.  As it turns out an elderly former resident named Ephraim is still living there, trying to preserve one particular building where his son had written all over the walls the names of as many fellow detainees as he could.  These people are all now dead and forgotten, and Ephraim feels their memory can only be preserved at all as long as this one small building still stands.

Percy reveals he had received a letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe, who in this timeline never became famous because she couldn’t find a publisher for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  She reveals to him a vision of what would have happened if there really had been a Civil War, and while as horrible as that may have been it would have represented a definitive end to slavery and allowed everyone to move on to a new way of thinking more expediently.   In some respect this may be Wilson’s response to some revisionist historians who see the Civil War as avoidable and ultimately unnecessary, those who try to cast it in the same light as our involvement in wars of the last ten years.  But he also comments through his narrator that undeclared wars can be just as bad, if not worse in the long run.  Wilson provides plenty to think about from this story, with a worthwhile use of the alternate history conceit, and he lends it enough originality within a focused, personal narrative that makes this a worthy contender from an author who can do no wrong lately.

“Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance”, by John Kessel

(The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds.)
Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best    Horton Year’s Best 

Kessel works outsidie his normal areas of interest in this engaging space opera spy story, set in the far future where humanity has died out and been recreated somehow by somebody.  The protagonist is a monk from a planet called, for some reason, Helvetica, who is sent by the gods (represented by the voices in his head) to steal  the only copies of a set of five famous plays, for the purpose of holding them ransom in exchange for the freedom of his planet.  Kessel hits the ground running, so to speak, from the first couple of paragraphs, jumping right into the heist story and subsequent chase off planet by the authorities.  Along the way he calls for backup in the form of Nahid, a woman whom he’s able to call back to life and who is more trained as a fighter.

In this future, these plays are considered central to cultural identity, but are not allowed to be published or have performances recorded.  When the controlling authority chooses to have the plays performed, it downloads the information into the actors minds and then removes it afterwards.  I’m not quite sure why this level of control is necessary, or why if they’re so valuable there’s only the one copy, but the monk is able to hijack them into his own mind, thereby removing them from their central storage at the same time.  If you buy that, then the rest of the story hangs together, since he is doing this as an agent of his religious order, but when it comes time to deliver the goods to his superiors, he starts to wonder what their motives really are and if he’s doing this for the right reasons.

This is a good yarn, well-paced and with a few central characters that have some depth to them in spite of the focus on the action and intrigue necessary for this style of story.  Kessel knows how to deliver, even against his own comfort zone, and produces an engaging result, setting up an intriguing political conflict that he could return to in future stories.

“Utriusque Cosmi”, by Robert Charles Wilson

(The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois &  Jonathan Strahan, eds.)
Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best    Strahan Year’s Best 

The Latin title, from what I can tell, means “both worlds”, a reference to a treatise by English philsopher and cosmologist Robert Fludd, or more specifically an illustration in that work depicting man positioned between the earth and the heavens.  This image is referenced by the narrator of the story, Carlotta, who alternates between first person narrator and a viewpoint character viewing her younger self.  If that sounds complicated, it is, but there’s a lot to take in with this story, so bear with me.  Carlotta exists in a bodiless sentient energy state after being “raptured” along with half of humanity by a swarm of space travelling consciousness known as the Fleet.  The Fleet have rescued humanity just moments before its ignominious destruction at the hands of an unknowable force known as the Invisible Enemy, which does this sort of thing throughout the cosmos.

As Carlotta, who is only a teenager when Earth is destroyed, adapts to her new existence with the help of an avatar named Erasmus, she and some others decide to experience life on a larger scale by only waking up from statis periodically, something apparently known as a saccade, a term also used in the Peter Watts story, “The Island” in this same anthology.  She tells about her experience and also how the Invisible Enemy is gradually destroying the Fleet.  At some point at the end of the universe she has been allowed to go back and appear to her younger self before all this occurred to offer advice, because she remembers that happening the first time.  But instead Carlotta witnesses what really happened to her parents while she slept that final night, and either her memories are incorrect or she has altered the past, although the end result is the same.

Wilson juggles a lot of elements in this story to great effect, he’s got the whiz-bang cosmology that he’s been known to employ, but at the same time telling a disturbing backstory of a young girl’s family self-destructing.  The complexity of telling two parallel stories in different tenses around the same person actually seems to make sense in this context, and there are ruminations not only on post-singularity humanity but what happens when there are other species with us in the singularity, with all it’s religious connotations, and then he turns that upside down by posing an even greater gestalt consciousness that outlives the universe itself.  Hardly space opera, although it takes place mostly in space, but this is some mind-blowing stuff by an author who with every new story never stops expanding his reach and surprising his readers.

Steal Across the Sky, by Nancy Kress

I’ve always liked Nancy Kress’s work, I think she almost always hits the right combination of an interesting science premise taken from current research and characters whose lives are changed by that science.  This book continues in that mode, although the balance is weighted more in favor of the characters.  Told from multiple viewpoints, the story concerns the Atoners, Earth’s first encounter with an alien species who have already shown up and made things happen when the book begins.  They don’t reveal themselves to humans, but ask for volunteers to travel out into space to other planets which they colonized thousands of years ago with genetic material taken from Earth at the time.  But something happened back then, and they won’t say what, the Atoners want the volunteers to figure it out through their interactions with these alien races with whom we share a common ancestor.

The book focuses primarily on three of the volunteers who made up one of the teams.  Cam is a young, impulsive woman, Lucca is a rich Italian with some sort of sociology or anthropology background, and Soledad is a city girl who stays in orbit while the other two each investigate a different planet around the same system.  The races that Cam and Lucca encounter are very human-like but have developed completely alien cultures, and Cam in particular ends up dealing with a warlike group that is very ritualistic and seems to have little regard for human life.  Things end up in sort of a mess, and the Atoners secret is revealed in the process.  Everyone heads back to Earth, other groups having found the same results in a variety of ways.

The rest of the story deals mostly with the aftermath back on Earth for these “witnesses” who made the trip.  Their lives have changed dramatically as they are constantly hounded by the media for more information on what they saw, but the Atoners have basically clammed up and haven’t been heard from for months.   In addition the witnesses are threatened by extremist groups, some go into hiding or through a change of identity, and all are basically depressed and haunted by what they experienced.  Cam is able to make a career out of public speaking, evangeizing the Atoners “message”.  But most of the rest just want to be left along.  Finally after several months of this, Cam and another witness Frank head for the moon looking for proof of what they saw, while Soledad meets a nice guy who seems almost too nice and only has Lucca whom she can really trust.  At the end they discover that the Atoners had other projects in place, and the government basically has no control over humanity getting back what they lost.

This book seems more tightly plotted and planned out than much of Kress’ work.  There’s a certain religious element to the central discovery that is mentioned but doesn’t seem to get the attention you would expect.  And the actual science behind what they find is left up in the air too, there are a few theories, but no general agreement as to whether this is some form of telepathy or proof of the afterlife or something in between.  Instead Kress seems to be most interested in how these volunteer witnesses are completely wrung out by the experience, and for a stretch it’s a bit depressing because no one is really happy and there’s no good way for them to resolve their anxieties.  I suppose that is what ultimately leads them back to confront their experience and try to find some purpose in it all, since none is being provided for them.   In the end, what the Atoners can give back to humanity doesn’t seem like it will have that profound of an effect on the world, not as profound as knowledge of the Atoners themselves, which leaves you wondering a little bit what all the fuss was about.  This book seems to be primarily a study in humans encountering an alternate version of themselves that calls into question their and our own definition of what is human.  Definitely worth reading, with enough open areas left for a sequel, Kress delivers yet another well-considered and thought-provoking examination of where we come from and where we could be going.

“The Island”, by Peter Watts

(The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds.)
Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best    Horton Year’s Best   Strahan Year’s Best   Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best

I’ve only read one thing by Peter Watts before, his Hugo-nominated novel “Blindsight” from a couple of years ago, which was probably the most blow-your-mind, sense-of-wonder nominee in recent memory.  This novelette combines many of the same feelings, but in a shorter space, such that it all goes by so quickly I had to read it twice to make sure I understood it, and even then there are elements that it would seem were purposefully left out.  The narrator, who is supposed to be female but doesn’t really sound or act like one, is one of a small group of humans living on a generation ship that somehow oversees the construction of portals between worlds, although most of the work is done by self-replicating machines.  The implication is also that they’re building some sort “rail” or road through space as they go, maybe that’s just poetic license, otherwise it conjures up images of the Vogons building the Hyperspace Bypass.  This has been going on for a billion years, Earth has long since been consumed by the sun, and the human workers are only woken up when the ship’s sentient computer, known as “the chimp”, needs them.

The island of the title refers to the first alien presence they’ve ever encountered, a huge living bubble surrounding their next target sun, which they discover is signaling them to get out of the way.  The chimp doesn’t have the programming to deal with that kind of eventuality, and it even has created another human called Dix to help the narrator, although it’s main purpose seems to be to give the narrator someone to react against so she’s not just talking to herself the entire time.  As they approach closer to the island, the narrator has to figure out how to preserve the mission and the alien at the same time, while her fellow crew aren’t all that interested the dilemma and just want to finish the job.  The ending is left somewhat ambiguous, which given the speed at which they are traveling they hardly have time to react before it’s on to the next star system.

There’s any number of things to wonder about with this story.  The central unanswered question is how exactly did this ship come to be, since there were no previous alien encounters it would seem that humanity somehow built this elaborate expansionary mechanism but it’s never explained how or why, and so much time has passed since they launched that whatever came from humanity has long since evolved beyond them, although given the time scale you would think then they would have come up with a different process and this little crew would have long since been rendered obsolete.  And why call the alien entity “the island”, since there doesn’t really seem to be anything island-like about it, the narrator also refers to it as a Dyson sphere, which it is in the sense that it’s surrounding a sun but I thought the point of Dyson spheres was to capture enough energy to sustain a huge population?  If anything, the ship is the island, this little self-contained community of outcasts who have to work together and have nowhere else to go.  Watts raises more questions than he answers, there’s an inevitable sense of existentialism when dealing with human lives spread out over such a distance and timespan, but he also expertly handles the complication inherent in this kind of a story, providing conflict between characters  and computers and making the reader work a little bit to put it all together.  Interestingly, this is the only novelette nominee to be picked for all four Year’s Best anthologies, so it had a lot to live up to.  I’m not sure it completely delivered, but Watts has such imagination and skill that he produces a compelling story that gives you all the hard sf fix you could want.

Handicapping the short story contenders

Just a few weeks left until Hugo nominations close, and short stories are always the best category to vote for because there are so many possibilities, the subject matter is all over the map, and people have wildly differing opinions on which ones were the good ones.  So let me weigh in on what I’ve reviewed in the last week and what I’ll vote for based on that.

Locus recommended 62 short stories this year.  About half of those are in anthologies that I’m not going to buy or magazines that I can’t find, so those get the short shrift here.  Of that half, 15 of them were also included in one of the Year’s Best anthologies, and two of them were included in two anthologies.  Those 2 are:

“Edison’s Frankenstein”, Chris Roberson (Postscripts 20/21), in Hartwell/Cramer and Dozois
“Three Twilight Tales”, Jo Walton (Firebirds Soaring), in Strahan and Horton

Roberson maybe has a shot at a nomination, but he would have to get a vote from a high percentage of the readers of Postscripts, most of whom are probably in the UK.

So that leaves the half that are available, either online or through the major US magazines and anthologies, and I read 12 of those stories, trying to pick out the ones that had the best pedigree. 

If past years are any judge, at least a few of the nominations will come from the big three magazines.  From F&SF, and the only short story with 3 Year’s Best nods is Geoff Ryman’s “Blocked”, but it’s not a given to be nominated because it’s a little artsy and not as sfnal or otherwise goofy enough as your typical short story nominee, but you never know.  The other F&SF entries, Mirabelli’s “Catalog” has a shot, I really don’t think Kessel will make the cut, and I didn’t read Alexandra Duncan’s “Bad Matter”, which is on the Locus List but no Year’s Best anthologies. 

From Analog, which is usually good for one nomination in one category, Steven Gould’s “A Story, With Beans” got into two Year’s Bests, but I fail to see why.  I actually liked Richard Lovett’s “Excellence” better, but voters may see it as too derivative.  Hartwell/Cramer also picked non-Locus listers from Marissa Lingen and Eric James Stone, neither a name that should strike fear into the heart of any other potential nominee though.  Dozois liked James Van Pelt’s “Solace”, he’s written some worthwhile stuff in this category recently, so there’s a remote possibility there.

From Asimovs, which will no doubt get a couple of short story nominations because that’s the magazine people go to first, there were five Locus listers:

“Going Deep”, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s 6/09) (also in Strahan)
“Before My Last Breath”, Robert Reed (Asimov’s 10-11/09) (in Strahan and Dozois)
“Colliding Branes”, Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling (Asimov’s 2/09)
“Erosion”, Ian Creasey (Asimov’s 10-11/09)  (in Hartwell/Cramer and Dozois)
“As Women Fight”, Sara Genge (Asimov’s 12/09)  (in Strahan and Horton)

I actually liked “Colliding Branes” a lot, but I’m a big Rucker fan and I don’t think many voters are.  “Going Deep” was okay, but not among Kelly’s better efforts.  “Erosion” has a good shot, a nicely done story but not quite Hugo-worthy in my book.  The two that stand out here are the Reed and Genge stories, both good sf that should appeal to a significant number of voters.  Genge is not a well-known name, but that’s not necessarily a major impediment in this category.  The Hartwell/Cramer anthology veers the furthest from agreement with the Locus list, and picked four short stories from Asimov’s that Locus did not.  I didn’t read them yet, but two, by recent previous nominees Mary Robinette Kowal and Nancy Kress, have a shot at the ballot on name-recognition alone.  The other two, by Michael Cassut and Brenda Cooper, are less known, although Cooper had a novella nominated several years ago, but a short story nod for either seems a long shot.

Moving into the online realm, there were five stories Locus recommended from Strange Horizons and another five from Clarkesworld.  I read one of them, Genevieve Valentine’s “Bespoke”, which both Horton and Hartwell/Cramer tapped, the only one of the 10 with two Years Best inclusions.  It’s a nice enough story, but probably not Hugo material.  Three others of the those 10 were picked for one of the anthologies, including “Spar” by 2009 nominee Kij Johnson, a possible contender.  The only other Locus-list story with two anthology bids is Jay Lake’s “On the Human Plan” from Lone Star Stories.  Lake has enough of a fan following to get himself nominated, but I won’t read the story unless it happens, since I have yet to read anything of his I understand, much less like.

Not much from the original anthologies that stands out, Gene Wolfe might make it for “Donovan Sent Us”, and a couple of the Year’s Bests picked non-Locus-list stories from the Solaris Volume 3 anthology.  Eclipse Three has a few major writers in Maureen McHugh and Karen Joy Fowler in this category, but opinion was strongly divided on their stories, so we’ll see what happens there.

Since this year’s voters will consist of larger than normal proportions of Canadians and Australians, due to the locations of eligible Worldcons, results could also skew to some lesser Canadian writer or a Greg Egan story that I’m not aware of.  None of the big name Canadian writers would seem to have written any short story length contenders this year.

So here’s what I’m going to vote for, not to say these are the ones that will make the ballot:

“Before My Last Breath”, Robert Reed (Asimov’s 10-11/09)
“As Women Fight”, Sara Genge (Asimov’s 12/09)
“Blocked”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF 10-11/09)
“Colliding Branes”, Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling (Asimov’s 2/09)
“Excellence”, Richard A. Lovett (Analog 1-2/09)

The first three have a good shot.  The other two could easily be replaced by an anthology story or something from the online zines.  But every vote counts, there’s usually no more than a vote or two separating fifth and sixth place, and I think this would be a worthy list to my taste.  Now on to the novelettes!

Short story reviews from the 2009 best-of lists, Part 4

“Catalog”, by Eugene Mirabelli (F&SF, February 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list      Horton Year’s Best

This story makes an attempt at straddling both SF and fantasy, starting with the latter, in a somewhat typical seemingly random series of improbably occurrences in centered around John, who suddenly finds himself taken out of his normal life and confronted with people and situations who don’t quite seem real, starting with a woman trying to sell him a fancy sports car.  Things get more confusing for him as he starts to correlate his new surroundings with his long-suppressed desire for a model he’s only seen in an L.L. Bean catalog.  He meets up with a brother and sister named after characters from Poe, who help him out until he sets out to find the catalog woman by moving to Maine.  Told in a series of 10 short scenes, the fantasy element is juxtaposed with the characters speculating on whether John is in fact from a parallel world, not quite bridging the gap to SF since none of this is ever explained, but still it’s an intriguing combination and something out of the ordinary, and even with a happy ending.

“A Story, With Beans”, by Steven Gould (Analog, May 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best    Horton Year’s Best

I’m not quite sure what to make of this story.  The eponymous beans are something cooked up by Kimball, something of a mountain tour guide who sits around the proverbial campfire with three young campers telling stories.  The hiking area is inside a zone that is infested with some kind of metal-eating nanotech bugs, which  are perfectly harmless to people as long as you aren’t between them and anything metal.  Fully half the story is taken up by the tale of “Left-for-Dead”, who stole his girlfriend away from her family.  The family sought revenge by dropping metal shavings from a plane into his town to attract the bugs and destroy everything that got in the way.  At the end you discover the relationship between this story and the guide, but beyond that I’m not quite sure what the point is, the story is so short there isn’t much room to expand on anything, and it took me a couple of readings to figure out what to pay attention to.  It’s a little slice of life, a tale within a tale, but not enough to sink your teeth into.

“Donovan Sent Us”, by Gene Wolfe (Other Earths, ed. Nick Gevers & Jay Lake)

 Locus 2009 recommended list   Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best

This seems like an untypical Gene Wolfe story, from an alternate history anthology and taking place in a post-World War 2 reality where the US never entered the war and Germany overran all of Europe.  Needless to say our non-interventionist policy didn’t work out too well for the UK, and in occupied England an American agent von Steigerwald is infiltrating an SS camp looking for a fugitive Winston Churchill, who may have been captured or may be in hiding.  Wolfe spends a seemingly inordinate amount of time with this agent alternately threatening and cajoling the Nazi’s, with a lot of his transliterated phony German accent that gets a bit tiresome after a while.  When Churchill finally turns up, von Steigerwald relays a proposition from the US government, the Donovan of the title who may have some analog in our reality but I’m not enough of a WW2 buff to know for sure.  Churchill has his own ideas, evincing that unwavering British “carrying on” that served them well in the real war, but apparently that’s not what the Americans had in mind.  The story is basically one extended scene, very powerfully told, what holds it back for  me is my usual “so what” attitude to alternate history stories.  But my prejudice is overcome somewhat by Wolfe’s use of characters taken from our reality, and a vivid portrayal of a scarily possible alternative.

Short story reviews from the 2009 best-of lists, Part 3

 “Bespoke“, by Genevieve Valentine (Strange Horizons, 7/27/2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best    Horton Year’s Best

 This is a nice little vignette from an author I haven’t heard of before, telling the story of Petra, who works in a clothing shop for people who need period attire for their trips back in time.  While there seem to be rules around time travel, they aren’t always followed, and occasionally the present gets altered as a result.  Suddenly one day there are no mice, and another time the planet is overrun with butterflies.  Valentine uses the image of stepping through a layer of dead butterflies in the story, as it follows Petra and her boss Simone, who try to help these so-called Vagabond travelers.  The pair take pride in their work and workmanship, but can’t quite see what all the fuss is about, the notion of traveling into the past they claim has no appeal to them personally (plus it’s very expensive).  Valentine does a nice job of presenting the premise through a tangential point of view, rather than diving into the Vagabond story directly, and playing around with the changing the past in interesting ways that aren’t quite as dramatic as “A Sound of Thunder”.  An original take on a familiar trope, definitely worth checking out.

“Erosion”, by Ian Creasey (Asimov’s, October/November 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best    Dozois Year’s Best

This is sort of an odd story but certainly original, concerning a man named Winston who has recently undergone genetic modification to make him suitable for space travel and colonizing a distant planet.  On his last days before he leaves Earth he takes a walk along the beach and has a conversation with a sort of hologram named Katriona, who seems to have Tourette Syndrome for some reason.  Later on during a storm his foot becomes trapped under a rock and in Aron Ralston style he has to go to extremes to free himself.  The nature of his new “exo-skin” and other modifications means this isn’t quite as drastic as it would be for a normal person, but there’s some parallels to be made there about how he is gradually shedding his humanity in favor of technology (there’s that singularity again) and the erosion of the coastline where he grew up and now spends his final hours before heading to the stars.  Winston ponders the question of whether in both cases this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Creasey does a nice job with putting all this together and gives a well-defined sense of place also, I’d be interested in reading more of his work.

“As Women Fight”, by Sara Genge (Asimov’s, December 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Strahan Year’s Best   Horton Year’s Best

Here’s something right out of Le Guin, a society where married couples can switch sexes.  The children sound more like hermaphrodites, but in the adults it seems to involve actually taking over each other’s bodies, which can only be done after some sort of ritualized contest.  But where Le Guin would typically use this as a backdrop to a long pointless story that had little to do with the societal conceit presented, Genge is much more interested in how this plays out in people’s lives, doing so by following Merthe, a man who has recently swapped with his wife Ita and his having trouble adjusting to the traditional male responsibilities, plus less tangible things like the children are now less naturally drawn to him.  There’s marital troubles with one of his friends, and Merthe tries to help but Ita is very suspicious of his motivations.  For most of the story he is convinced he’d rather go back to being a woman, but when given the opportunity at the end he finds it’s not that obvious of a choice.  The author chooses this one particular storyline but there would seem to be more to investigate and explore in this society and how their behaviors inform our own. In the end, Genge convinces the reader that this is a world worth writing about.

Short story reviews from the 2009 best-of lists, Part 2

“The Motorman’s Coat”, by John Kessel (F&SF, June/July 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Strahan Year’s Best

This little Twilight Zone-esque parable is set in the Czech republic, where an antique dealer is presented with the opportunity to buy the eponymous coat, an artifact of an earlier age of Czech history for which he has to pay a huge amount but has expectations that he can turn it around for a substantially higher price, solving all his financial problems.  Things don’t quite work out the way he expected, and in the end he has nothing at all to show for his efforts.  And that’s about it, Kessel gets just the right tone to go along with the plot, somewhere between a Gogol story and one of Grimm’s fairy tales, with that eastern European feeling to the characters and the background.  There’s nothing wrong with this story, but I don’t find much in it that would make me want to recommend it either, this is a bit atypical of Kessel’s other work, unless it’s the start of a new trend, since this follows on from last year’s mash-up of Frankenstein with Jane Austen.  But there’s no paranormal romance here, so in the end I’m at a bit of a loss to appreciate what was the point.

“Blocked”,  by Geoff Ryman (F&SF, October/November 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Dozois Year’s Best   Hartwell/Cramer Year’s Best   Strahan Year’s Best

This longish short story is presented as a dream by the middle aged narrator living in Southeast Asia, and certainly is told in a dream-like state. He describes how he married a woman with four young children and how they are in the process of evacuating Singapore because of an imminent alien invasion.  The marriage was a result of reaching a station in life where he needed to have responsibility for something, but the evacuation brings all that into question, and he’s torn between his obligations and his instinct to just walk away and take his chances.  The details of the invasion aren’t really Ryman’s area of interest, in fact the narrator at one point questions whether there even really are aliens at all, which seems to upset the people around him.  But the author brings together some vivid imagery of his Asian setting, which he seems to have gravitated towards in a few recent stories now.  The title seems to refer to the narrator’s sense of needing to move forward in life, but not necessarily in a linear path or the path that is expected of him.  Lots to take in from this story, although it’s not at all difficult to follow, Ryman is one of the best at using prose that propels the reader forward, but with plenty of detail and a detached, retrospective tone that adds up to a compelling overall package.

“Excellence”, by Richard A. Lovett (Analog, January/February 2009)

This modern retelling of Flowers for Algernon tries to head off any comparisons by referencing its famous predecessor outright, or at least the movie version, although not by name.  But the parallels are loose enough that this take stands on its own.  Lovett has updated the protagonist to a middle-aged long distance runner who never could quite compete at the highest level in his younger days and always regretted it, never really making anything else out of his life.  He knows what he is getting into, and unlike with Keyes’s story it’s not intelligence he’s offered but the opportunity to test a drug that can restructure his muscles to what they were in college.  In theory with the amount of additional experience he now has plus the body of a much younger man, he should be able to clean up in competition and achieve his unrealized dream of making the Olympics.  He also knows that the process is temporary and ultimately debilitating, but he goes ahead with it anyway.  Needless to say it doesn’t quite all work out the way he expected, and along the way he re-evaluates just what those goals were about, and sees that maybe he didn’t have it so bad after all to do even as well as he did the first time.  I can’t say there’s anything revelatory in that realization, and for an Analog story I’m surprised that the science required to achieve this transformation isn’t really focused on that much, but I think there’s a nice complementary relation here between the subject and the subtext, with enough food for thought to make the story worth reading.