Last day in LA

Last real day of vacation, tomorrow will be mostly on a plane and be three hours shorter than normal. I left the room at 9:30 this morning and grabbed another fruit frappacino and muffin at Starbucks on my way to the convention center, not something you’d want to make a habit of. I think I liked the tangerine better than the pomegranate. Just a few panels to see today, the first was two guys who call themselves the X Hunters, they go into the deserts around the air force bases of the southwest looking for debris from test planes that have crashed over the years. The air force has typically recovered the main fuselage years ago, but there is still plenty of stuff to be found, and they give it all back to the air force for its museum and for research. They went through a huge slideshow that covered every possible experimental plane, many of which crashed at least once, it was very interesting to see all of them and their various designs and purposes.

The next panel featured several members of the Cassini probe team, primarily I guess from JPL nearby. They had a short slide show and then went down the table variously describing their favorite moment, most anxious and most embarrassing moments on the project. You got the sense that they had been able to really bond as a team from all the time they’d spent together over the last several years, and since Cassini has been successful by and large there was a sense of accomplishment, with enough telemetry collected to keep them busy for quite some time.

The last panel featured an extemporaneous talk by Ray Bradbury, whom I’d only seen once before, at this very convention 10 years ago. He’s confined to a wheelchair now and doesn’t look or sound so good, going on 85 or 86 I think. He arrived 20 minutes late but got right up on the stage and talked for 40 minutes or so about his early days and how he got into sf and what it was like back then to be a science fiction writer. He said that as a boy in Waukegan Illinois he visited a carnival where he met a performer name Mr. Electrico who zapped him with an electric prod that made his hair stand on end and proclaimed “you will live forever”. He also spoke about taking the bus to New York from L.A. to meet a publisher who gave him the idea to assemble several of his Mars stories into a book, and while he was there they also came up with the idea of a fixup centered around the Illustrated Man, and he went home to his pregnant wife with $1500 as an advance, enough so that he could take the train instead of the bus. There was another huge line waiting on him for autographs afterwards, this is probably the last time I’ll ever see him, so it was kind of sad, but it was worth hanging around for.

In general, this convention was really good, very well put together, obviously the committee knew what they were doing, and the mix of programming was so vast and diverse that it seemed like you could only sample from some of the many tracks that looked intriguing in one form or another. It was good to see Ellison and Bradbury again, maybe for the last time, and McCaffrey for the first and probably last time. I didn’t see Fred Pohl, but he was supposedly there, and Ackerman, all the remaining members of the old guard (except Jack Williamson, whom I don’t believe I’ve ever seen and who may very well live forever), which is rapidly dwindling. You notice a significant difference in these people from 10 years ago when I first encountered them, and it will definitely be the end of an era when they’re all gone. The nature of sf back then allowed fandom to come into being, when the field was much smaller, there was much less distinction between writers and readers, and most people could keep up with all the significant work being published. Now the SF field is much more diverse and diffuse, spread out all over the country and indeed the world, and with the passing of the old guard, the multiplicity of writers coming into the field, all competing for a potentially dwindling readership, yet producing more books than anyone can possibly read, even in a subgenre of sf, plus the ability to keep connected through the internet, one wonders what the future of SF holds and whether a Worldcon in even 15 or 20 years will look remotely like what it does now. You definitely don’t see a lot of young people in the crowd, the vast majority are my age or older. A lot of newer writers come to conventions, but once established they seem to drift out of the picture and even out of sf, focusing on more lucrative pursuits or making the transition to mainstream fiction. A lot of other popular writers don’t interact with fandom at all. The generation behind the “old guard”, Martin, Resnick, Robinson, Willis, etc., still have plenty to say and are all friends as well, so that generation at least should keep things going as they are for a while yet, but what comes up behind them I have no idea. By all indications, Bob Silverberg will still be around, maybe he’ll take care of it.

Worldcon marathon

Today was a big day for panels, although doing six in a row is something I can’t seem to handle any more, plus you have to eat and I hadn’t really spent that much time in the dealers room. The first panel dealt with Heinlein, since next year will be his 100th birthday and the Heinlein foundation or society or whatever it is is about to publish a huge biography of him, and they’re holding a special conference next summer in Kansas City. The biographer was on the panel, along with Connie Willis (this year’s Worldcon Guest of Honor, who I seemed to keep missing up til now, although she was in plenty of things), and a couple of other people. Heinlein makes for an interesting study as the sf community would hold him up as their first great literary champion, although his influence in the field is probably strongest through the “juveniles” he wrote in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. His main literary claim to fame would have to be centered around Stranger in a Strange Land and Moon is a Harsh Mistress in the ‘60’s, but most everything from Number of the Beast on was self-indulgent crap. He also espoused a number of crackpot social and political theories, and one of them, some “polyamory” group called “Living the Dream” was represented in the front row and handing out flyers, as though if you like Heinlein and think he was an important writer beyond the genre that means you’re a good candidate for joining a group sex club.

I skipped the next panel to spend some time crisscrossing the dealers room, picked up the latest copy of Interzone plus the one with the Dominic Green Hugo-nominated story from last year from Interzone themselves. Since the magazine has changed hands its gone all slick and looks more like SF Age, hopefully the added production costs won’t kill it after 200-plus issues. One dealer had a huge number of paperbacks for sale cheap, and while I found some I wanted I didn’t have my PDA with me, so I didn’t buy anything until I’d had a chance to go back to the room and get it, and by the time I got back they were even cheaper, so I got a dozen or so. Also got the Tachyon Press edition of Kelly’s “Burn”, another nominee of which I only had the online copy. Grabbed some overpriced lunch at the convention center cafeteria while some guy was doing a magic show, then it was on to the next panel.

The next panel was not a panel at all but a stand-up act by the one and only Harlan Ellison, whom I don’t believe I’ve seen in at least 5 years. He’s 72 now and quite portly, sporting a Bobby Knight red sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, which he also wore to the Hugo ceremony this evening. Ellison spent the first several minutes practically 10 feet away from me by virtue of ignoring the stage and standing on the camera stand in the middle of the room. Mostly he was ranting about how he likes to insult people equally, looking and sounding more like Don Rickles than I’ve ever seen before. But after some of that he made his way up to the stage and took a few questions from the audience, each one prompting an answer in the form of a story that took at least 20 minutes with several sidetracks along the way. The longest had to do with a publisher that he tortured for not reverting rights to one of his books because of a contract dispute, from sending bricks in the mail postage due to hiring a hitman to finally mailing him a dead muskrat. He also said (and reiterated at the Hugo’s) that this would probably be his last convention. While he didn’t elaborate at the talk, later he said that not only was he getting old himself, but so many of his friends within fandom had died in the last several years that it was getting too depressing. I can’t think of anyone who comes close to taking his place, there are some with the ego, but none who are equally caustic and entertaining to go with it.

After the talk was over Ellison announced he refused to go down to the signing area in the back of the main hall to sign books, and would sign them right outside the door of the conference room, which he proceeded to do for at least a couple of hours, creating a huge line of people that blocked traffic in that area for most of the afternoon.

The next panel was to discuss the works of Connie Willis, with Pat Cadigan (who I don’t think I’ve seen before), Gardner Dozois, Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson and Bob Silverberg, and with Ms. Willis herself showing up shortly after it began and ending up spending most of her time up in front of the panelists. Since she was there, it was more of a lovefest, but the speakers made things entertaining, there was no consensus on which were her best stories and books nor on the ones for which she would be remembered. Even if she weren’t there, you can’t imagine anyone saying anything bad about her. After that was a panel with Alistair Reynolds, Robert Sawyer, John Barnes (who I don’t remember seeing before, although he looks remarkably like Greg Rucka), Greg Benford and Allen Steele, talking about the hard sf renaissance, a topic that has been done to death in the last few years since Hartwell and Cramer’s anthology, but I was there for the panelists more than the topic anyway. From these writers, who would all be considered hard sf of one form or another, there was much skepticism as to whether hard sf had really gone away, and if indeed there had been a renaissance starting in the late ‘80’s as Hartwell postulates, could you still consider it to be continuing this many years later.

After that I went back to the dealer’s room to finish up shopping and came back to the Marriott to have some dinner at Pizza Hut right in the hotel (turns out they have their own Starbucks here too and I’ve been going to the one in the Hilton across the street). Spent a little time in the room before it was time for the Hugos. They’d opened up the auditorium well in advance so there was no need to stand in line to get in, and in fact where I sat on the far right, up close to the front, didn’t ever really fill up, although there seemed to be plenty of people there. Connie Willis was toastmaster, and they dispensed this year with trying to do any sort of skit or production number and just let Connie be Connie, which involved a running gag with Bob Silverberg through the entire evening where he was trying to take over as MC. It was nice to see Forrest Ackerman not only getting the Big Heart Award that he helped found but that they were going to rename the award after him. He came out on stage under his own power, using a cane to prop himself up, looking a bit gaunt, but still alert. He turns 90 in a few months. Betty Ballantine got a special Hugo award, she’s well into her ‘80’s and still looks great, and later on Mr. Ellison himself got a special Hugo, which he tried his best to be gracious about, in spite of being up there in sweat pants. I was glad to see the “Empty Child” episode of Doctor Who got Best Dramatic Presentation in the short category, too bad Steven Moffatt wasn’t there to pick it up in person. Also nice to see David Hartwell get a Hugo after all these years, I think he held the record for consecutive losses. There’s some talk afoot of splitting the Best Editor category into two so that the less-visible book editors can be voted on independently of the magazine editors, who otherwise always win, I don’t know if this will change that or not.

For the fiction categories, I only voted on the two shorter ones and neither of my picks won. David Levine, who’s looking scarier every time I seem him, won for short story, this is always the popularity contest category, and if anything he proved he has more friends than Mike Resnick, who usually just dials it in but I thought this year had written a better story. Surprisingly Margo Lanagan, who had far and away the best story of the bunch, didn’t win in spite of the buzz around her effort. For novelette, Peter Beagle won for a very well-written, well-crafted if slightly sentimental story, I liked the Bacigalupi story better but I can see how this one would’ve been more popular with more people. For novella the guest of honor/mistress of ceremonies herself won her umpteenth Hugo, not one of her best efforts in an otherwise strong category (I would’ve picked Magic for Beginners). And for best novel Robert Charles Wilson finally got some recognition for his career with “Spin”, a perfectly good book and probably his best, breaking the fantasy lock on the best novel category from the last few years. I probably would’ve voted for it although I would have expected Accelerando to win. They managed to wrap things up by just after 10pm, but people will still be complaining in tomorrows panels about how late they stayed up partying tonight I’m sure.

A day at Disneyland

Today was the day to go to Disneyland, so we got up and got going earlier than we otherwise would have, considering how late things went last night. Spent the morning there and by 12:30 or so it was time for me to take off back to the convention for the afternoon, so I left Beth and the kids and went back to the hotel to gather my stuff. For the convention, LASFS has published a collection of original stories based around the old Tom Corbett Space Cadet show, which I’ve never seen. Originally Tom Corbett himself was doing to be a guest, but he died several months ago (as did the fan guest of honor, Howard Devore). If I was Connie Willis I’d be a little jumpy. What was nice was that they arranged a signing featuring all the authors at the convention who wrote or edited for the book, all in one package. The line wasn’t terribly long but went pretty slow since a multiple-signers line is only as fast as the chattiest author (read: David Brin). Besides Brin, Mike Resnick, Nancy Kress, Greg Benford, Harry Turtledove, David Gerrold and a bunch of others were there, and I got them all except for Larry Niven, who had to leave to go to his next event before I got that far. So it was pretty much an hour by the time I was done going through the line, worse than any of the rides at Disney, but at least it was inside. I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was pushing 2:30, but I went to the next panel, which was a talk by Anne McCaffrey, whom I’d never seen before. She’s 80 years old and doesn’t move too well, but still sounded totally together and just talked extemporaneously for a while telling stories, then took some questions from the audience. I ate my lunch (a sandwich from the 7-11) during the panel.

Before the next panel started it was my last chance to vote on the site selection for the 2008 worldcon. For the first time in a while, there were 3 candidate cities on the ballot: Chicago, Columbus and Denver. I would have to expect that Chicago will win, but I voted for Denver, both because it’s somewhere other than Chicago and Columbus, and because it was the only bid that was not on Labor Day weekend, which is a feature I kind of like. Worldcon bid voting is very cliquey and people get all worked up about convention hall specs and the solidarity of the bid committee, instead of just picking a city that sounds nice. The only exception to that is if there’s a non-North American bid, which will almost always win no matter what the competition, but then hardly anyone will actually attend it. I’ve never figured that out.

The next panel was the annual “killer B’s” variety show, featuring Bear, Brin and Benford, with special guest Vernor Vinge, whom I don’t think I’ve seen since the ’96 Worldcon. The topic was the “bullets” we don’t see, i.e. things that could either impede or destroy a society or civilization that we haven’t thought about yet. Sometimes when these guys get together, Benford acts as the referee while the other two try to out-pontificate each other. This time they were more serious more of the time, Brin as usual did most of the talking and didn’t have much to espouse that he wasn’t already talking about the last time I saw him a couple of years ago.

After that was a surprisingly interesting panel considering the relatively trite question of “Can SF change the world?” Brin was on this too, along with Cory Doctorow, Sean McMullen and the founder of Craigslist, moderated by Cecilia Tan. Brin would have it that SF can change the world but we need to elevate the rest of the public that isn’t paying attention to it. Doctorow felt that more people than ever were engaged in SF, it just was taking on new forms, particularly with young people and online gaming and anime, etc. While the two of them weren’t necessarily diametrically opposed, Doctorow took exception to some of Brin’s pearls of wisdom, and Brin got kind of defensive, sniping a little bit back at Doctorow. The general tone of the discussion ended up on a bit of a downer, but it was still food for thought just because there was obviously different opinions on the question and what to do about it.

After that last panel it was back to Disney to meet up with the family, although it was after 7pm by the time I got there. Now tomorrow they’re off to Legoland, which seems ambitious although I suppose its no different than going back to Disney for another day. Since Legoland is a ways away from here, I’ll be spending the day at the con, there’s still plenty of people to see and stuff to buy.

Sox win! Sox win!

First full day of the convention for me, everybody slept in and didn’t really eat breakfast.

Meanwhile, I was at the convention, where I saw some worthwhile panels. G. David Nordley gave a talk about the requirements of interstellar travel, what technologies would work and which wouldn’t, and how long approximately it would take to develop the missing pieces to do it. After that he was in another panel with Alistair Reynolds, Greg Benford, Walter Hunt and Sheila Finch about aliens, and what sort of aliens we might find (after we build the interstellar travel, or if they get to us first). I don’t usually go to too many writing panels, but there was one with Sheila Williams and a few others talking about how to rise above the slush pile and get your work noticed the first time. Then I saw a panel with the always entertaining Gardner Dozois (whom I haven’t seen for a few years), the always somnambulant Charles Brown and a couple of others go through all the Hugo fiction nominees and give their own votes and handicapping who they thought the winners should be. I was happy that they by and large agreed with my own assessments, and those where we differed I could concede (such as the McDonald story, which I’m sure is fine, but just not my favorite type of story). Brown was totally trashing Burstein, not just his two nominees but his general abilities as a writer, and none of the other panelists felt obliged to disagree. The last panel was a talk by Kim Stanley Robinson about the literary device of managing the pace of a story and how different authors would either write an entire novel covering one day (citing Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses), or one that covered much of the life of the universe (such as Stapledon). He had recently help uncover a brief correspondence between Stapledon and Virginia Woolf, who apparently read The Star Makers and was impressed by its ideas, such that her last novel, which I can’t remember the name of, touches on some of the same themes. It was a great, though-provoking lecture, which was surprisingly well attended, too.

There was still one time slot to go, but we had other priorities. I met up with the rest of the family back at the hotel and we were off to Angels Stadium to see the Red Sox. Josh Beckett pitched a solid game into the 7th, then was replaced before he fell apart by Timlin, with Papelbon coming in at the end for the save. Got to see Big Papi hit a solo homer for the first score of the game. It came down to the wire, final score, Red Sox 2, Angels 1.

novella nominees part 1

“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press; Fantasy & Science Fiction September 2005)

There is no magic in this story, or if there is, it’s more of the Clarkeian variety that is indistinguishable from technology. And who are the beginners in question? Link doesn’t answer that either, so while the title may set up a standard fantasy milieu, what she delivers is anything but, rather a hodgepodge of disparate ideas thrown together to keep the reader guessing from beginning to end. The story mostly follows a group of five teenagers (told from the perspective of someone who knows them but who never interacts with anyone in the story). One of them, Jeremy, is taking a trip to Las Vegas with his mother, who just inherited a phone booth and a drive-up wedding chapel from an aunt. His father is a writer and a kleptomaniac, who feels guilty after writing a fictional story featuring his son that ends up killing him off. Jeremy and his friends are all obsessed with a tv show called “The Library”, which features an ongoing set of characters like a soap opera, but you never know when it’s going to be on, or who any of the actors are playing any of the parts. They are starting to wonder if maybe the show is really happening. The story seems to set up the idea of an infinite regression, hinting that the teenagers may either be fictional themselves, or else playing out their own tv show without realizing it. Jeremy can even talk to the Library’s recently deceased hero, Fox, or someone who purports to be him, by calling that phone booth in Vegas that now belongs to them. There’s a lot going on in here, Link expertly weaves a spell through all the various events and characters that has you totally off kilter without being willfully obtuse, as though there really is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, but she’s not telling. The story doesn’t provide enough clues to draw obvious conclusions, but leaves you feeling intrigued rather than annoyed, or else with your head spinning too much to notice.

“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald (Asimov’s June 2005)

Once again McDonald plunges the reader into a seemingly alien setting that this time turns out to be near-future Nepal, where the title character tells her own story of how she was selected as a young girl to be a goddess based on her ability to witness disturbing or violent acts without reacting negatively. Mixed into this traditional practice (which is still observed in real-life Nepal) are some genetically and technologically modified ruling class including a young prince whom she is eventually arranged to marry after the goddess thing doesn’t work out as well as people had hoped. McDonald hits the right tone in telling this story from the girl’s perspective, where she can describe what people are saying but can’t necessarily comment on it because she is too young to understand, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. The story jumps ahead a few years at a time, but still ends with the girl (who I don’t think is ever given a name) at a relatively young age, trying to get back to Nepal and using her newfound upgrades to give medical advice and help fix a truck. With each advance in the story, the girl’s maturity grows, and her ability to relate what is happening around her grows with it. This is not my favorite type of story, but McDonald creates a vivid and certainly unusual backdrop for the action. It’s not hard to follow, he gives you no clue as to where the story is going, I suppose at the end its been about a journey of discovery, a sheltered young girl forced to adapt to the outside world, but while she may have learned from the experience, the reader may not feel the same. This is typical of McDonald’s work, pretty to listen to, some arresting imagery, but in the end all you have are impressions, and they tend to fade sooner or later.

“Inside Job” by Connie Willis (Asimov’s January 2005)

Haven’t read a Willis story in a while, this one doesn’t disappoint, although she doesn’t exactly break any new narrative ground either. Two people, Rob and Kildy, work together to debunk various types of paranormal phenomena, but run into trouble in trying to figure out the angle behind a channeler named Ariaura, who is supposed to be channelling some ancient diety named Isus, but whose expensive seminars are gradually being interrupted by the ghost of H.L. Mencken, who doesn’t believe any of it. Willis has internalized every scrap of information about Mencken ever conceived, as is her usual m.o., although she tends to embue Rob with more foreknowledge of Mencken’s life than anyone could possibly have. The story takes a more leisurely pace than Willis’s usual style, there is only one plot going on, so the characters have time to do other things and no lives are in danger. What’s interesting about this setup though is how it calls into question the nature of belief. Rob and Kildy know they’re dealing with a charlatan, but they can’t prove it unless they can catch her displaying a gap in her knowledge of Mencken. But they have trouble doing it, and come to realize that even if they do, that still doesn’t constitute proof, because there could be legitimate reasons that Mencken wouldn’t be able to answer one question or another. Rob even suspects for a time that Kildy is in cahoots with Ariaura and has set up the whole thing. Fortunately the paranoia angle proves short-lived, and in the end nobody is sure what really happened, was Mencken for real or not? Willis doesn’t preach, but the idea of “extraordinary evidence” as a means of convincing someone to change their mind on something is convincingly challenged.

novelette nominees part 2

“TelePresence” by Michael A. Burstein (Analog July/August 2005)

Ten years ago Burstein’s first published story, TeleAbsence, was inexplicably nominated for a Hugo. It told the story of a school age boy, Tony, who was able to hack into the virtual reality private school that he otherwise couldn’t afford because of his desire for learning. A decade later, it’s time for a sequel, a longer story where Tony is all grown up and is now the main proponent of the technology of “TelePresence”, the shared virtual reality that is being marketed now to the public school system of California, in order to make the advantages of the experience available to everyone. The new story follows the standard Analog formula, setting up a mystery where the system suddenly goes bad and kills a couple of students, and Tony takes up the hunt to find the source of the problem before he loses the big sale to the most populous and influential school system in the country. The resolution at least avoids the computer virus angle, but doesn’t really come up with something that much more interesting, but in the end it who or what was behind these deaths is a bit lame and seems not to really be the point. Instead you have a long diatribe about the shortcomings of the standard educational system and how TelePresence is far superior, complete with testamonials from former students, including one of Tony’s old classmates. There’s also an extended epilog where Tony goes to the cemetary to visit the grave of the teacher who had such an influence on him. Burstein has cornered the market on “education sf”, as opposed to educational sf, and really rhapsodizes over both the dichotomy between a teacher’s calling and their lot in life. While it’s certainly sincere and pushes all the right buttons in the right order, and is certainly short on the typical Analog clankiness, the story doesn’t really rise above your average, didactic Analog story.

“I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow (The Infinite Matrix February 15, 2005)

This story is part homage to, part refutation of its namesake (the Asimov collection, not the original Eando Binder story, or the Will Smith movie). Doctorow perfectly captures the tone of an old-fashioned sf story, replete with the stilted dialog and noirish rapid-fire crime-fighting prose, but the similarities end there. The author says he wrote this in response to Ray Bradbury’s whining over Michael Moore’s coopting of the title “Fahrenheit 451” for his movie “Fahrenheit 9/11”. The idea is that many of the classic sf stories promote their premise against a backdrop of a well-meaning but totalitarian state, and Doctorow’s intent is to try to depict what that would really be like, what kind of a society would there need to be for all the robots in the country to be made by one company. There’s a healthy dose of current events to extrapolate from, where the US is the benevolent dictatorship, and the protagonist, Arturo, is a cop who has at his disposal any number of bugging, surveillance and tracking devices, including robot cops, to help him fight crime. When his daughter goes missing after skipping school, he puts the usual methods into play, but hits a snag when the robots he’s dispatched stop responding. What he ends up falling into is an elaborate plot spearheaded by his ex-wife, who represents the country that has been at war with them for years, using their own brand of robot that doesn’t subscribe to Asimov’s three laws. Arturo is too entrenched in the system to bring himself to change sides easily, but by the end of story he’s not too sure where his loyalties lie. Doctorow doesn’t dwell on either the politics or the technology as much as you might think, you can take this story at face value and still be justifiably entertained. The robots are present throughout the story but are really just part of the fabric of the world that he’s proposing, merely another tool in the government’s basket of things utilized to keep us all safe from one another.

novelette nominees part 1

“The Calorie Man”by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 2005)

This long novelette is bursting with ideas that can barely all fit into the required space, with a little more filling out this could be novel easily. The calorie man of the title is Lalji, something of a mercenary in a future where all the standard crops have been destroyed by various plagues and pestilence, and all that’s left is some form of engineered grain that is simply referred to as “calories” and is proprietary to a few huge agriculture companies. The worlds supplies of energy would also seem to have been depleted, so that feeding this calories to draft animals or using technology advanced versions of primitive mechanisms like wind-up springs are the primary ways that people get around and get things done. Within this backdrop, Lalji decides to navigate a barge full of “unlicensed” calories down the Mississippi River, meeting up with a supplier named Bowman, who it turns out has a side-business of his own that he hopes will break the monopoly of the big conglomerates. The backdrop of this story presents a completely plausible yet frighteningly different future where suburbs have emptied out because there’s not enough energy to transport people around, people sell energy at exorbitant prices to feed their families, and yet there’s nothing to eat except the bland tasteless calories. This story jumps around a lot, the characters are a bit difficult to get a handle on, the alien nature of the future makes it more challenging to understand while trying to follow the plot at the same time, but it’s a very original take on a very possible future, and given the amount of thought that’s gone into it, it would be a shame if the author didn’t use a few more stories to explore it a little more.

“Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle (Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 2005)
I haven’t read “The Last Unicorn”, my impression is that if you have, this story will mean something more to you, as it seems to pick up on certain characters in their dotage to see what happens to them, more as an epilogue to a longer narrative. But taken on its own merits, this is still an effective, well-told and clearly described story, given from the viewpoint of a young girl whose town has been terrorized by a griffin. After numerous knights have been sent by the king to deal with the problem and each has met his demise one by one, she takes it upon herself to go find the king and ask him to do something about it. Along the way she meets an old wizard and his female companion, who are also going to see the king, and they join forces. Now this doesn’t sound terribly original even to the limited amount of fantasy I’ve read, but there’s such affection for the chracters that you don’t care, and Beagle doesn’t get distracted with over-describing everything and sticks to the plot. They meet the king, who is a doddering old man at this point, but he agrees that something should be done and takes it upon himself to do it. The second half of story builds on the underlying unspoken tension that the king has no business taking on this challenge and that it will all end badly. The ending is somewhat expected but movingly told (GVG says it brought him to tears when he first read it), the pacing and structure are exemplary and the story does stay with you. Having said that, it’s not the sort of thing I enjoy reading that much, but that’s certainly not Beagle’s fault, if this is your cup of tea, you’ll probably love it.

“The King of Where-I-Go” by Howard Waldrop (SCI FICTION December 7, 2005)

Waldrop tells a semi-autobiographical tale in the first person of a boy and his sister growing up in the south in the ’50’s, and how their relationship changes when his sister contracts polio. Her case is not severe, so she is eventually able to walk again, and for maybe 80% of the story there is no sfnal element whatsoever. Years later as adults, she goes off to some shadowy clinic and communicates infrequently with her brother, who starts noticing odd things happening. There’s a strong nostalgia element to this story, sort of a “Jeffty is Five” for the millennium, harkening back to one’s boyhood and the things you remember happening and wish you either could’ve appreciated more or could’ve changed somehow. The ending is pure Twilight Zone, the past and future come together, and while it’s not the most original effect it seems to work in this context, in the sense that the narrator gets what he wants, even though it causes everything to be different. I haven’t read much Waldrop, I always got the impression he was a little more off the wall than this, but this story is very straight up and evocative, wistful in fact, presumably because this is a subject close to his heart and maybe a bit of wish fulfillment. Or maybe he’s just a really good writer and this has nothing to do with anything in his own life. Either way, the story holds up on its own merits, but it’s a bit of a throwback, there’s nothing here to indicate it wasn’t written 30 years ago. Something of a pattern with the Resnick short story nominee: straightforward tale of two people dealing with one’s serious illness, which veers off into sf only towards the end.

short story nominees part 2

“The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green (Interzone May/June 2005)

The lone UK entry in this category is a curious choice, although certainly a decent enough story. Green drops us into a complicated scenario in central Africa where the main character Mativi is the future equivalent of a UN weapons inspector, come to investigate some unexploded ordinance that turns out to be much more dangerous than anyone thought. The machine has been co-opted by the local government as a source of both energy and waste disposal, when in fact it is a miniature black hole that is on the verge of losing containment and sinking into the center of the earth, which would be a bad thing for everyone concerned. The author’s ability to explain the physics without getting talky, while at the same time setting up dramatic tension and filling in the political details surrounding it, is very impressive, although an extra reading doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve got a handle on everything. Tucked away in Interzone where 99% of American fans would never see it, this story benefits from the preponderance of UK denizens from last year’s Worldcon doing the nominating this year. While a long shot for a win, it’s a story worthy of the extra attention the nomination can bring.

“Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine (Asimov’s March 2005)

Levine turns up in Asimovs for the first time after turning in solid stories and a couple of previous nominees from the more fantasy-oriented publications. This entry takes an odd premise, or at least one you wouldn’t see outside of the 1950’s, where Walker, an Earth salesman of inventory control software of all things, goes to an alien planet to sell his wares and has an awful lot of trouble adapting to the natives culture and their way of doing business. In truth the aliens wacky protocols and sudden business holidays doesn’t stray much from any third world country here, and meanwhile everyone is trying to take advantage of Walker and rob him of his material posessions, either through trickery or just plain thievery. Although he ultimately meets with some success, the difficulties he encounters causes him to question the purpose of why he was doing it at all, such that he ends up “going native”, which is not what would’ve happened in the ’50’s, I wouldn’t think. This twist is a surprise, not least because it happens rather abruptly, but ultimately you can sympathize with Walker and how as a lone representative of Earth, he is much more likely to be affected by the aliens than the other way around. There’s a strong element of gentle humor in this story, too, particularly in the epilog. Maybe not the best story of the year, but worth reading.

short story nominees part 1

“Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein (Analog January/February 2005)

Burstein gets two nominations this year, including this lightweight entry that I think must be tangentially related to Analog’s anniversary, since it appears in the 75th anniversary issue and has the word “seventy-five” in the title. Schmidt’s editorial in the same issue refers briefly to the span of time and how he just made it into the editor’s office before the 50th anniversary back in 1980. The story also uses as its premise the passage of time, in the sense of how it’s not what it used to be. I assume this is a real law Burstein references that allows census records of specific individuals to be made public after 72 years, the law being so old that the assumption was the person would almost assuredly be dead by then. The story details a conversation between a Massachusetts senator 100 years in the future and his ex-wife. The senator wants to extend this time limit to 75 years, and his ex has figured out why. If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound very exciting, well it’s not, but the point being made has more to do with the mutability of ethics laws and how they can have far-reaching consequences beyond the initial controversy that may surround them (for one, the Massachusetts angle is played upon for the gay marriage thing in the story). The prose is a bit clunky, heavily reliant on dialog that sounds a bit forced at times, not on the Locus list, not an award-winner, but a decent idea imaginatively executed.

“Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan (Black Juice, Allen & Unwin; Eos)

Lanagan came out of left field (or more precisely, Australia) two years ago and created a huge buzz with a book of short stories that I don’t think had been published previously. As I understand it, they mostly deal with aboriginal or African settings (I would’ve thought she was black herself, but she isn’t), and this story, the first in the book, was thought by many to be the best. Spectacularly well-told, the story details the emotions of a family whose grown daughter is being put to death by standing in a tar pit until it swallows her up. The other members of her family are required to sit around her on mats and talk to her as she slowly sinks into the tar. Her crime, killing her new husband with an axe, is only mentioned obliquely, his family is there too, watching with many others from outside of the pit. Told from the perspective of the younger brother, Lanagan strikes an authentic note with the dialog and general patois and rhythm of the prose that makes it so convincingly “aboriginal”. Technically this isn’t really sf, while there’s no direct reference to an established culture that practices this method of justice, it could really happen, I would think, it’s a more plausible society than Jackson’s “The Lottery”, which could be considered a direct antecedent. This story puts forth a unique idea in a unique way and stays with you, all the hallmarks of a story worthy of an award, I think it’s the one to beat.

“Down Memory Lane” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s April/May 2005)

Also not a Locus nominee, this story spends most of its 8 pages as a conventional tale of an elderly couple coming to grip with the wife’s onset of Alzheimers, the meetings with doctors, the gradual deterioration of her memory. Told from the point of view of the husband, it does a credible job of conveying the bond between the couple even as her illness takes hold, and how despondent he is over his inability to do anything about it. The challenge comes in the last quarter of the story, when he takes matters into his own hands by seeking out a clinic in Central America that is apparently soliciting subjects to test a potential cure for dementia by first giving them something that causes the same effects as the real thing. Why exactly they do it this way instead of using real sufferers of the disease is not explained, and because the story is told in first person, it necessarily veers into “Flowers for Algernon” territory as the narrator gradually loses his cognitive ability. You could say it has a happy ending, but since it’s not the copout of a miraculous cure, it can only be the opposite. This was a decent story from the perennial nominee, I’m not sure if the choice of first person ultimately works, maybe the doctor’s POV would’ve made more sense, but I’m sure Resnick tells it this way for a reason, in a way putting you into the head of someone who has made the choice to temporarily lose his memory, and by the end is blissfully unaware of that choice or that his memory isn’t coming back.