Short story reviews from the 2009 best-of lists, Part 1

“Going Deep”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, June 2009)

Locus 2009 recommended list   Strahan Year’s Best

This is a somewhat depressing entry from the usually positive Kelly, who has somehow managed to get a story into every June issue of Asimov’s for 25 years in a row.  A young girl named Mariska lives on the moon, going through the last year of her schooling with a small group of actual people and interacting with some AI mentors and teachers.  It sounds like these kids have their destiny already determined as “spacers”, making years-long trips to explore distant planets.  In fact her clone-mother is off on just such a trip during the time of the story.  Mariska has a natural teenage rebellion to having her future prescribed for her and rebels the only way she knows how.  At the end, her mother comes back and they have a very inconclusive conversation, but basically Mariska has no free will because her mother has already manifested the traits that make her ultimately want to devote her life to traveling through space.  We’ve seen previous Kelly stories of people living in isolation dealing with the revelation of their role in the cosmos, so some of this is familiar ground.  There are some interesting themes at work here, but in this short space I don’t get the feeling that enough attention is paid to them to make the story stand on its own. 

“Before My Last Breath”, by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, October/November 2009)

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

Reed uses multiple viewpoint characters in short sections to evoke a first-contact story right in our backyard, where long-dead aliens are discovered buried in a coal mining area, first one, then several, and ultimately thousands.  As each succeeding character comes into contact with this ongoing event, they naturally question the motives and circumstances surrounding such a mass burial, and correlate that with their own vision of mortality, including a doctor who is dying of cancer and the US president who is involved in a breaking scandal. At one point you get the sense that these people’s lives might have been materially affected by their relationship to the aliens, but that doesn’t seem to be on purpose and Reed doesn’t make anything special of it.  The last section goes back to the aliens themselves, giving some insight into what their thought-processes were and how they got to that point, how they kept moving forward with their lives even as their Earth-bound colony was dying away.  A nicely evocative story, made more interesting by the narrative technique Reed employs and ultimately allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.

“Colliding Branes”, by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling  (Asimov’s, February 2009)

This story by two SF heavyweights promotes the rapture of the bloggers, that two popular website writers named Angelo and Rabbiteen, who have never previously met, are not only the first to be given information that the universe is about to end but then actually manage to survive it.  The blog stuff would seem to come from Sterling while the whole brane business is more up Rucker’s alley, in general this story tends to bear more of the stamp of the latter, in that these two characters team up to go on the road in search of a rumored escape through something called the Black Egg, at the mysterious Area 52.  The reader isn’t sure for a while whether the whole thing is made up, but as the story goes on the signs do point to the imminent destruction of the universe through the collision of two branes. In the meantime, the two protagonists have some pre-apocalypse sex and end up encoutering the mysterious Cody, a commenter who had originally given them the information.  The imagery of humanity as spermatozoa all heading towards this one “egg” is not exactly subtle, but still amusing.  This story’s combination of gonzo plot and end of the universe setting seems to be a popular combination in Hugo-nominated stories recently, making it a good candidate for this year’s ballot.

“Fast Times at Fairmont High” by Vernor Vinge

Hugo winner 2002

This novella follows two students Miri and Juan through a class project in a future where people’s integration with information and technology is ubiquitous and effortless.  Nothing in the story that I noticed seems to denote a particular point in the future, probably with good reason because the pace of technological progress seems to be so hard to predict.  So everything else about people’s lives, from the junior high-age protagonists to their extended families and friends, seems basically analogous to the present.  By telling this from the kids’ point of view, Vinge is able to show just how easily we can adapt to this type of “wearable” access to information and use it not only to enlighten ourselves but to provide a veneer to the world around us, as a kind of realtime “skin” on what you see to make it better or at least more interesting than it otherwise would be.

So far so good, Vinge even gives these kids potentially interesting families, particularly Miri’s grandfather William, who now inhabits a much younger-looking body after undergoing treatments to reverse senility.  He ends up tagging along with them on their trip into a city park, which is supposed to be mostly a survival mission to see how they can adapt to their surroundings with all this connectedness turned off.  But it also doubles as a different class project to investigate some sort of big-deal movie production that Miri has deduced is being conducted right under their noses.  For some reason, producing evidence that such a project actually exists will give them a high grade and some limited notoriety.

This is where things start to wander around a bit.  I can’t help but think that Vinge started this story with some good ideas but no specific notion of where they would lead, and maybe that’s part of the intent, since the focus is really on these early “post-human” adopters and what living in that sort of environment would be like.  The main part of the story consists of Miri, Juan and William wandering through the park, looking for evidence and coming upon some sort of underground warren populated by mice that may or may not be real, presumably evidence of this movie project but at the same time both the reader and the characters are unsure as to what the project is, what role the mice have in it, and after the adventure is all over whether they’ve really discovered anything or not.  But maybe that’s just a device, because while all this is going on Juan is basically cheating because he’s been taking some sort of pill that boosts his ability to see connections between information. Vinge implies the next step beyond access to information will be the ability to process it efficiently, since thei more information you have the more you have to rely on intuition and non-linear thinking to put it together in useful or unique ways.  They’re also using some kind of semi-organic cameras developed by a friend of Juan’s, which helps them infiltrate the mice den, essentially expanding their access to information in ways that were previously impossible.

These are all interesting ideas and extrapolations of technology that doesn’t really seem that far removed from where we are already.   But the story just kind of peters out at the end, we don’t get the sense that the kids have been significantly altered by their experience, in some sense they’re too young to appreciate the leap they’ve just made, it’s just another day at the park, so to speak.  And what William gets from the whole episode I have no idea, but he’ll turn up again in Rainbow’s End with his own set of problems.  Vinge said in some sense this was a coming of age story, but I don’t see it, Juan maybe has some better perspective on his “performance enhancing drug” at the end, but nothing particularly profound or even insightful.  In the final analysis, they’re still kids, their final projects are over and summer beckons.

And why choose a title that draws a natural connection to the ’80’s movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” anyway?  Now that story was definitely a “coming of age” in the sense of several different viewpoint characters all faced the end of their high school careers with different emotions and challenges. In the movie, the “fast times” could be said to allude not just to everyone driving fast cars and focusing on getting stoned or laid, but to the accelerated sense of the passage of time as they lurch from the limited responsibilities of adolescence into full-fledged adulthood.  In this novella, maybe there was a similar intent at the outset, but I don’t get the sense that Vinge came anywhere near that kind of transformation with his characters.  His “fast times” are just the accelerated pace of living that embedded information access will allow us in the future, but those who grow up with the technology won’t necessarily notice anything fast about it, it’ll just be the status quo for them.  This may be implicit in the story, but I don’t know that it is necessarily the point Vinge wanted to make, the reader would seem to be left to draw his or her own conclusions.  While this novella won the Hugo, I suspect it won more as an affirmation of the ideas Vinge put in the story, since the general Hugo-voting audience would be among the first in line when this particular future inevitably comes to pass.

Century Rain, by Alastair Reynolds

BSFA nominee 2005

After several successive largish volumes of baroque dystopian space opera with a hard astrophysics slant, Reynolds tries something marginally different by combining a similar baroque dystopian background with a 50’s noir crime story set in Paris.  Floyd is the hard-boiled protagonist detective, hired to investigate the apparently accidental death of a young woman by her landlord, who is the first of many characters with motives which are somewhat hyperbolic in order to keep the plot moving.  But while this is all going on, a couple of hundred years in the future Earth is in ruins and the remaining humans have divided themselves into Slashers and Threshers, based on their feelings towards nanotech, which is basically how the Earth got the way it is now.  Auger is an archeologist of sorts who gets roped into a dicey project to retrieve the documents left behind by Floyd’s investigatee.  Because while the two stories are told in parallel they are in fact happening at the same time, Auger’s on the real Earth or what’s left of it, and Floyd’s in a simulation contained within what sounds like a Dyson sphere, where time stood still for a bunch of years until a portal between the worlds was opened, and some genetic mutants known as “war babies” have infiltrated and changed history to keep this contained Earth from developing space travel, so that they have enough time to muster their forces and destroy the entire planet.  For some reason.

Reynolds is full of big ideas and he presents them with such conviction that it really doesn’t matter whether they hold up or not, the important thing is that he believes they do, and he’s smarter than me, so I’m more than happy to just go along for the ride.  If anything this book is a little simpler than his “Revelation Space” type novels, it helps to have much of the story grounded in Earth’s alternate past, and while there’s still plenty of backstabbing future-politics raging between various factions which drives most of the characters’ actions and interactions, it’s not nearly as hard to follow as I’ve seen in his previous books.  Once they meet and team up, Auger and Floyd of course have to fall in love, and during the course of the novel Reynolds throws them into one impossible no-win situation after another, such that they collectively use up more lives than a houseful of cats.  In some respects it diminishes the excitement, because with only the two of them facing most of the action you know they’re going to make it through, Reynolds might have been better served by adding a couple more main characters to the story.  Most of the supporting cast are interesting enough, but again their motiviations seem circumspect, and in the case of Floyd’s detective partner Custine I still can’t figure out why there’s a whole sub-plot about him being on the run from the authorities.  And for all Floyd’s likability, he takes the future shock of exposure to Auger’s reality pretty easily, and it seems a little farfetched that he could infer from an intangible flatness to the sound of some jazz records that they contain coded digital messages.

I don’t read much crime fiction so maybe this is a trope, but one could argue that Reynolds is purposefully introducing red herrings and diverging stories that don’t go anywhere to keep you guessing as to what’s really going to happen, and for that matter to more closely mirror what real life is like.  But unlike Dickens at least, he doesn’t tie up most of those loose ends, unless there’s a sequel still cooking somewhere, which there certainly could be.  And unlike Stross, the nano-techno stuff isn’t the main focus of the narrative.  Reynolds has a great way with metaphors, and his big science ideas are often so big that they’ve gone past you in favor of the next big idea before you’ve completely figured out the implications of it all.  While he’s all about sense of wonder, it’s sense of wonder in a hurry, which I suppose is probably how Floyd is experiencing it, too much to take in as it happens, just keep going and file it away for later.  The colorful similes and strong, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed female characters are just a couple of the more obvious ways Reynolds moves the plot along, the details of making people’s actions seem logical or natural sometimes get short shrift.  From most other writers I would find this irritating, but with this one I’ll cut him some slack.  Reynolds puts together an audacious set of ideas on a huge canvas, and ironically in this book at least he’s holding back, focusing his story enough so you can at least have a chance of keeping up.  It makes me want to read more of his books, both the ones he’s written since and the ones I’ve already read, so you have to consider it a resounding success on that point alone.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss, by Kij Johnson

First published in Asimovs SF, July 2008

Here’s an odd little existentialist story, more a collection of vignettes and observations surrounding Aimee and her 26 monkeys, who travel around performing at local fairs.  The big finale of their act involves getting all the various types of monkeys into a bathtub, from which they abruptly disappear.  No one knows how they do this, least of all Aimee, but they always come back over the course of the next few hours, usually with some interesting little objects.  Aimee seems to enjoy this life, after having impulsively acquired the monkeys and all the trappings of the act from the previous owner, but she exists mostly in the present, she’s not quite sure how she got to that point or where to go from here.  The abyss could be the unknown dimension into which the monkeys vanish, or more metaphorically it could also be the emptiness from where the monkeys seem to be rescuing Aimee.  Within a short space Johnson puts together an interesting glimpse into a larger continuity, and at the end you get something of a clue as to where the monkeys go when they disappear, and maybe even why.  She presents the story in a series of 23 (why not 26?) numbered sections which are disconnected yet come together nicely to strike an appropriate evocative tone.  Basically simple but with a larger purpose, which is exactly what a short story should be.

Read the story on Kij Johnson’s website

Lord Weary’s Empire, by Michael Swanwick

First published in Asimovs SF, December 2006

Those poor souls who don’t like to read fiction tend to claim, “Why would I want to read about something that never happened?”  Even moreso with science fiction, where you typically read about something that can’t or won’t happen.  So along comes Michael Swanwick, who out of his disturbed imagination pulls together bits and pieces of different tropes to create a world that has so many different antecedents that you can’t figure out why he bothers except to show off.   The milieu of this story is one he’s used in other nominated efforts, but every time he’s poking around in different corners.  It’s a mixture of elves and dwarves, underground cities, horses and motorcycles and subway trains, with throwaway references to things like Pepsi and Kawasaki that hint that there must be some connection to our own world, but whether now, past or future we can’t tell.

Lord Weary is a would-be underground kingpin who leads a ragtag band of various mythical humanoids, living in a vast underground network of tunnels and sewers beneath a city.  The protagonist is Will, who stumbles into Weary’s camp while on the run for some reason he doesn’t completely understand.  He ends up signing up to serve in Weary’s informal battalion, and helps engineer a few skirmishes to steal some horses and lead a raid against some surface dwellers, with the ultimate goal of getting the boss to attain something known as the Obsidian Throne.  For much of story you just go along for the ride, there’s nothing too deep going on here, and then in the last few pages Swanwick pulls out the rug and calls into question the reality of everything and everyone you’ve just been paying attention to for the last 30+ pages.  In spite of the fact that this world is such a hodgepodge of other realities, such that there don’t seem to be many rules, Swanwick is still able to do an about-face and catch the reader off-guard.  My overall opinion of the story suddenly went up dramatically at that point.  Maybe it’s just a gimmick, in that at the conclusion there’s no significant lesson to be learned from all this, with or without the twist, but at least it shows he had a plan and wasn’t just making it up as he went along.

Having said that, the story, to my taste, is a bit of a drag.  I keep visualizing this cinematically, and it reads a lot like those awful post-apocalyptic biker movies where everything is shot kind of murkily and all the costumes are just scraps of whatever is lying around and all the characters look basically punked-out but otherwise alike and you watch without any idea what’s going on or what is the motivation of anyone on the screen.  In fact it’s so similar that it makes me wonder if Swanwick watched the same movies and assimilated some of that into his punk biker underground elfworld.  In a larger story you might get more subplots and more fleshed-out characters and a theme that fits best to this particular world.  The story you have here is worth a read, but at the end I don’t have enough bits to hang on to that will make it memorable.

First part of the story on Asimovs website.
Buy it at Amazon

The Walls of the Universe, by Paul Melko

This story and author both came out of nowhere as a pleasant surprise.  A longish novella by an unfamiliar name would normally not inspire my confidence, but it was liked enough to get nominated, and it turns out with good reason for once.  Melko, who has written a handful of stories prior to this but none that achieved much notoriety, has put forth a well-plotted, well-paced, character driven exploration of a boy caught in an endless progression of parallel universes, actually parallel northwest Ohios.  John Rayburn is a farm boy who one day out of the blue encounters his double, who has somehow come upon a simple device to shift from one quantum universe to another.  Purists will quibble with the fact that the device’s provenance is never explained, which then means there is no indication of how it works or how it even came into John’s possession.  So maybe it’s a fantasy story then, except that when John the farmboy gives it a try he finds that John Prime wasn’t completely forthcoming with the machine’s limitations.  What follows are then two parallels stories, with John the farmboy trying to figure out how to get back to his own dimension or quantum universe or whatever you want to call it, and John Prime trying to make use of proprietary information gathered from other universes to get rich and hooked up with his childhood sweetheart.

Once John has realized his predicament and starts to focus on the device itself and how to find a way back to his own world, he does the sensible thing and looks up a university physics professor, although it takes several tries to be taken seriously.  The author delves a little bit into the basic idea behind quantum universes to give the story a more science-oriented focus than if it were just written as straight “fabulist” fiction, but it’s not enough that John Campbell would have bought it, and the progression from one universe to the next produces huge contrasts when it’s convenient to the plot, followed by several nearly identical worlds in a row when that suits the next scene.  But he offers a compelling variety of different versions of John’s world, highlighting different variations so that both John and the reader can easily extrapolate just how many variations there could be out there.  Melko has also thought of most of the primary pitfalls of jumps between worlds and how you could end up underground or embedded in cement, fortunately there aren’t big enough variations in most of the universes where this becomes a common problem.

What’s also interesting are the variations in the same person across universes, particularly John himself.  While farmboy John is fairly meek by nature, he can be a bit of a hothead at times.  This is nicely balanced by John Prime, where the impetuous side of his personality seems dominant, but occasionally he can lapse into a wistful nostalgia for home and family.  In the end both versions find some kind of satisfaction with their chosen surroundings, although not what they initially would have thought or wished for.  There’s something to be chewed over after reading this story on the nature of causality and free will, not just for yourself but those around you, and those who came long before, and how it can ultimately affect just the one version of you that you know about.

There’s a lot to like about this story, it focuses on a small cast and it doesn’t go on too long, and while the story ends satisfactorily there is still plenty more to tell (in fact Melko has since expanded this into a novel).  Parallel universe stories were always thought to be too complicated for Hollywood to handle, but with recent releases like Star Trek having major success, I would have to think there’s a screenplay of this being shopped around now.  It doesn’t break any new ground stylistically and the premise seems obvious in retrospect, but Melko makes it work with very readable prose that makes this a worthy Hugo nominee.

Inclination, by William Shunn

First-time nominee William Shunn puts forth this intriguing short novella, probably nominated more for its potential than for what it actually ends up with, but still a very readable story in its own right.  In some indeterminate future there exists a massive space station, home to two million workers who’ve been there enough generations to evolve into their own quasi-socialist society, although still with plenty of have-nots.  Among that group is the protagonist, a 15-year old named Jude who grows up in a very strict religious community who mostly shun (pardon the expression) all the trappings of modern living, which include rampant body modifications.  But this community, the Guild, are the underclass, poor and in debt to the station management, so Jude’s father Thomas sends him to work out among the “Sculpted”, exposing him to a series of lifestyles Jude barely knew existed, with of course the admonishment not to stray from his luddite faith.

Within the station is an interesting set of dynamics that can only be touched on within the confines of this story length.  Shunn is more interested with his young hero’s coming of age, which is mostly a very conventional set of unfamiliar feelings about his sexuality, his relationship with his father, his devotion to his faith but at the same time being tempted by the other side.  The title stems from the Guild’s worship of the Builder and the six classical simple machines, including the inclined plane, which these followers view as a path towards enlightenment.  But Jude’s path takes a less fundamentalist turn once he’s encountered and starts working closely with the Sculpted.  While he’s essentially been brainwashed since birth to disavow what he sees and hears, the appeal of how the other half lives and their seeming ease with it all still has its allure.  Central to his crisis of conscience is the opportunity to make more money for his Guild, if only he agrees to a small body modification that allows him to live in vacuum for short periods of time. 

The revelations come fast and furious at the end, and you ultimately get the sense that this was really just the prologue to a larger story about Jude showing how he rose above his humble origins.  Shunn doesn’t directly take on religion, but there would seem to be quite a bit of prodding within the text at the stifling nature of dogma, and the notion of keeping the outside world at bay for the greater good of the community.  But for a novella-length, it seems those issues aren’t really explored enough, such that the plot, straightforward as it is, comes across as rather conventional.  For such a vast station, the drama is played out with a very small cast, and it’s missing some sense of the overall scope of the artificial world in which the characters live, which after all is the only world they know.   In the end, this story is a reasonably good read that hints at plenty of material from which to build an epic, but by focusing instead on a mostly conventional plot the reader ends up with something that’s not as memorable as it could have been.

The Djinn’s Wife, by Ian McDonald

Anyone who has browsed around on this site knows Ian McDonald is one of my least favorite writers, but it’s not necessarily his fault, and of course he has many admirers who think enough of his work to get just about anything nominated that has his name on it.  So here we have this story, set in the same universe as “River of Gods”, which I still haven’t been able to bring myself to read yet, but it doesn’t really matter.  In a future Delhi, the human residents share the city with the semi-mythical djinn, which are some kind of nanobot AI that seem to still manifest themselves in human form occasionally and have actual names and responsibilities.  The story focuses on Esha, a traditional dancer who becomes entangled with one of those djinn named A.J., and ultimately they get married.  Needless to say there are some insurmountable problems of coping with each other’s daily lives and habits, and Esha as it turns out can’t really cope, to the point that she plots against her husband.

So as far as it goes, the plot doesn’t really cover anything particularly original, but as we know from McDonald’s other writing that isn’t his point, he’s come up with a richly detailed exotic future full of foreign words and place names that are rattled off without explanation, with a whole political subplot in the background around two competing regions fighting over whether a dam gets built or not.  In the midst of all this high-stakes intrigue, this small personal story gets played out, and in some respect affects the course of history, so there is that element.  Also, McDonald would seem to have taken as a point of departure the notion that swarms of self-aware nanobot AI are the real explanation behind the mythical genie (i.e. djinn), and they seem to be something that has always existed and not just created by humans.   Esha is stubborn and independent minded enough to get herself married to one, but as a reader you can’t really see why she would, and she obviously hasn’t thought this through as it doesn’t take long for her to realize that A.J is, for all his human trappings, alien in the extreme.

Unlike many McDonald stories, this one has a linear, comprehensible plot with a beginning, middle and end, which should be a good thing, but I feel once again like it fails to live up to the backdrop that he has so meticulously assembled around it.  By making the story easily related to and following a more conventional narrative, you can’t help but focus your attention more towards plot and away from setting, but since the plot is kind of thin, I find the end result unsatisfying.

“The House Beyond Your Sky”, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum’s story takes place towards the latter end of the universe, where some sort of post-human priest named Matthias is tinkering with a number of individual worlds in various stages of creation. A pilgrim, representing the “old ones” who created him, comes to visit, having heard of his efforts to create a brand new universe, in which they are very interested as the current one is dying. Parallel to this are brief vignettes from six-year old Sophie, inhabitant of this new universe, who is caught in the middle of a violent argument between her parents. Matthias is able to fend off the pilgrim’s attempts to take over by retreating into Sophie’s teddy bear, at the same time providing the little girl with some extra resolve to try to make things right.

There’s a lot going on here in a very short amount of space, this story is really a prose poem in its use of language to describe setting and mood. Rosenbaum very deftly juxtaposes the medieval aspect of priest and pilgrim with their actual embodiment as essentially computer-based lifeforms. I won’t pretend to understand what the author is trying to say here, I suspect given its poetic structure you could take this several ways, but he’s mostly poking at the corners of metaphysics and the idea of how sentient existence can relate to a series of bubble universes. Certainly ambitious, nicely evocative, maybe a little pretentious, but in this short form you have the opportunity to read it a couple of times and at least get a sense of wonder out of the story and the author’s unorthodox imagination.

True Names, by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow

Two previous nominees team up to deliver a story that manages to be way out there and yet deals primarily with a small cast of characters. What these characters are, despite their human names, emotions and speech patterns, isn’t entirely clear, they would seem to be parts of some sort of cloud of replicated intelligences, with tentacles and gills and yet behaving more like a group consciouness or swarm of nano-machines, you can’t really tell if they’re biological or just pretending to be or they just think they are. This difficulty in establishing the form of the characters obviously detracts from the story they are living out.

There would seem to be a world of consciousness called Beebe, living off a comet somehow, who have some long-standing grudge against a similar organism called Demiurge. These two are at odds until they find the need to unite against a common enemy called Brobdignag, which apparently just wants to devour everything in its path. Parts of the larger entities, with their own names like Alonzo and Nadia, conceive somehow a new entity called Firmament just for the purpose of taking on Brobdignag, centering around a planet called Byzantium. The good guys prevail, for what its worth.

I have managed to miss Rosenbaum’s previously nominated stories, nothing personal, but my guess would be he’s the one with the more poetic, colorful expository sections. Presumbly Doctorow, based on my encounters with his other work, provides much of the dialog and a lot of computer references. These serve to help bring the story more down to earth (not Earth, just to comprehensibility), but they can be sort of jarring too, such that the tone of the story seems inconsistent from one section to the next (and there are a lot of sections). There are some interesting concepts floating around here with these swarms of sentient group organisms or nano or whatever the hell they are. Beyond the basic plot is some ulterior quest to discover the secret of determining whether this is all a dream and if so then whose? But after a very long slog you can’t be quite sure what the fuss was about, since the characters are obviously not human even if they want to be or think they are. Why are there sockpuppets in the story? What if anything does this have to do with Vinge’s “True Names”? These two worthy writers have come up with the makings for a fascinating milieu, but the plot they choose to expand upon is not worthy of the setting, at least in the amount of space they’ve chosen to use. The ingredients for a great story are in here, but this isn’t it.