sf short story reviews pt 3

“The Lustration”, Bruce Sterling (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

This is a very weird story and not what I would expect from Sterling, although I can’t recall reading much of his recent work. His setting appears to be a world that is completely made of wood, or at least everything in it, including computers, is made of wood. The image at the beginning of the story is of a man pouring metal into a tree trunk rotted with termites, fashioning some sort of sculpture for which people pay money to view. This seems to being him to the attention of a holy man, with whom he has a long socratic dialog about how some telescope has been found to be beaming out information to the rest of the galaxy (this world has broken away from the galactic plane and exists within its view but alone). The gist of the conversation seems to be about how things got this way and how to stop it, although they eventually conclude that they should not only continue to let this telescope continue but to bring up several more to do the same thing and let the chips fall where they may. The end. Not quite sure what to make of this one, Sterling puts forth some well-wrought imagery but this long-winded back and forth between the two main characters doesn’t seem to go anywhere and I for one, once it’s all over, can’t see what he was on about.

“Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?”, Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)

This entry is on the shorter side for a short story but still manages to cram in a novel’s worth of plot, in fact it could be mistaken for a summary of a novel. MacLeod starts off with a chase scene which seems only tangentially related to what follows, but the authorities are after the nameless narrator, who ends up either being exiled or volunteering to travel a zillion lights years to a remote colonized planet called Wolf 359, which is the end result of a failed corporation that was trying to start the colony. They’ve since set themselves up to model the original Earth society, he discovers, and for reasons that aren’t made clear decides to uplift them in order to conquer the local planetary system and ultimately turn the tables on the Empire that spawned them. As usual with MacLeod, the plot points go by quickly and the conflict is described in the same tone as everything else, such that it’s difficult on one reading to make out exactly what’s going on. There’s the makings of a good yarn in here, but the prose is a little too circumspect to make it work.

“Art of War”, Nancy Kress (The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds., Eos)

This is a decent story although a little hard to latch on to as it covers a good amount of ground in a short time. Kress’s narrator is an navy captain named Jon Porter (who I swear is referred to as Seth early in the story) who comes to a planet occupied by Earth but the site of an ongoing war against the alien Teli. The Teli have looted much of earth’s art treasures and stashed it hear in vast warehouses, and Jon is given the assignment of cataloging it all and to try to figure out why they took what they did and for what reason. Mixed in with this is some bizarre seizures that overcome him in moments of stress, and moments of stress brought on by his mother, who is an army general in charge of the base on this planet and who has always seen her son as weak because of the seizures. What Kress does well here is to take some odd alien behavior and give a good reason for it, in that the Teli are looking at human art to try to relate it to something that they themselves use art for, to use as a tactical advantage. Meanwhile the general is also assuming that the Teli think like we do, and as a result of this mutual misunderstanding the war drags on. Jon is able to draw conclusions about these art caches, but can’t convince his mother of their significance, and at the end his research would seem to be for nothing. Maybe it’s just because of the length of the story, but Kress’s characters don’t seem to stand out, the General in particular seems unnaturally shrill, so they hold back some otherwise good ideas an execution that keeps this from being a standout story.

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