Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

As a grown man, I find myself occasionally dipping into the recent decade’s flood of YA genre fiction.  While I’m not always sure that the term ‘YA’ is being used along common lines (i.e. it seems a lot of books marketed for adults should be considered YA), the fact remains, as a youth I would have thoroughly enjoyed much of it.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is classic juvenile adventure updated for the 21st century.  Though a bit jaded, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle has the right pique of humor and teenage male worldview.  And still others—Pratchett, Pullman, Gaiman, among them—write with sentiment and appeal I can easily see my younger self delving into, not to mention recommending to my children when they are old enough.  My most recent dip into YA is Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner (2011).

Planesrunner the first in the Everness trilogy, we meet Everett Singh walking down a busy London street with his father Tejendra, who is one of the world’s top physicists.  In the flash of an eye Tejendra is kidnapped, and Everett is left alone, holding a mobile phone.  Smart enough to remember to take photos of the black Audi as it drives away with his father, he meets with the police before heading home to re-think the incident.  No time to adjust, however, a strange email arrives quickly therafter, containing an unheard of thing called an infundibulum.  Seemingly a map to parallel worlds, it isn’t long before Everett is drawn into realities he never knew existed—a group of shady characters that want him for reasons unknown chasing him every step of the way.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review of Bridging Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

The series a success, the 2016 release of Bridging Infinity (Solaris) ups the count of editor Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity science fiction anthologies to five. Driving a strong, hard sf agenda for this volume, in the introduction Strahan drops big names in galactic scale imagination—Clarke, Asimov, Campbell—before moving on to the focus of the anthology: “Is solving problems still integral to science fiction? Do we still believe problems are solvable?”. Such an outlay would seem to make the reviewer’s job easy: does the author tackle a significant issue facing mankind with the tools of extrapolative science while using the techniques of fiction to best advantage? Let’s see…

Bridging Infinity features fifteen stories from a wide spectrum of science fiction authors, from well-known (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, etc.) to lesser-known (An Owomoyela, Thoraiya Dyer, and Karin Lowachee), those who’ve been around a while (Pamela Sargent, Robert Reed, Gregory Benford, etc.) to those not (Charlie Jane Anders, Ken Liu,e tc.) male to female, British to American to beyond, and even a few collaborative efforts (Tobias Buckell & Karen Lord, Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, etc.). If anything, the anthology is variegated from the authorial perspective. In terms of content, there is likewise a variety, from previously established story settings (Reed’s Great Ship, Allen Steele’s Coyote universe, and others) to new settings, far to near future, Earth-based to solar system scenarios, and real-world to purely fictional concerns.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

Quietly but noticeably to the so-inclined, elements of the visual arts have formed parts of China Mieville’s fiction.  Monsters and monster stories forming the lion’s share, hiding in the interstices are uncanny things like the flexible streets of “Reports of Certain Events in London” and the Borges’ influenced imagos of “The Tain”, the intangible crosshatching of The City & the City and the floating icebergs of “Polynia”.  Sometimes an accent and sometimes a set piece, surrealism has been a key artistic informer to Mieville’s fiction to date.  But nothing has to appeared yet like 2016’s The Last Days of New Paris.  Lion’s share and interstitial resident, Mieville fully immerses himself, and thus the reader, in the artistic form.

Outlay to 20 th century French surrealism in an alternate history WWII setting, The Last Days of New Paris portrays a 1950s scene wherein a group of bohemiam artists in Paris have accidentally set off an S-blast—a shockwave of surrealist force—that has brought to life imaginings hitherto limited to paint and canvas. Reactions to the explosion differing, some, like the character Thibault, try desperately to escape the queer, ethereal, and sometimes horrific manifestations now appearing on the streets.  The Nazis, who still occupy France, have walled off Paris in an attempt to contain the blast, all the while trying to harness the power of some of the more demon-like manifestations.  And still some people try to capture the chaos.  The American photographer Sam is as much fascinated by the manifestations themselves as she is in documenting them.  Coming into to contact with Thibault, the pair end up doing their best to spoil Hitler’s plans for S-blasted Paris.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

A lot of novels over the years have dealt with the subjectivity of existence.  Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and its perpetual lack of resolution. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, and its exploration of the tricks memory and thought play on self-perception.  Camus' The Stranger and its expression of absurdity in realist form.  Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and its portrayal of the disillusion of the illusion of teleological certainty.  Adding his name to this who’s who list of superb talent is Jeff VanderMeer and his Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy, of which Annihilation (2014), is the first volume.  Fitting snugly into the tiny niche between comprehensible and incomprehensible reality, and thus making for an uncomfortably pleasurable reading experience, Annihilation presents an extremely human story ripe for the more disparate, 21st century possibility for differing perspectives.

A nameless biologist, along with an anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist—all women—have signed up to explore the mysterious Area X along the north Florida coast.  The twelfth such expedition, the group at least feels secure at the outset knowing the atrocities of the early expeditions are a thing of the past.  Well prepared, they come with training, consumables, and a mandate: to pick up where previous expeditions have left off exploring, documenting and studying Area X.  Coming across what the others perceive as a tower but the biologist a tunnel, the group set up camp and begin their work.  Strange things happening in evening sessions with the psychologist, the group quickly fragments, however.  Exacerbating matters is the discovery of bizarre wall writing and even more bizarre iridescent spores.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review of Realware by Rudy Rucker

They thought it was over at two books and released the omnibus Live Robots. They thought it was over at three books, and released the omnibus Moldies & Meatbops. But they were still wrong: there was yet a fourth book to come in Rudy Rucker’s Ware series: following upon Software, Wetware, and Freeware is Realware (2000).

Three years since the publishing of Freeware, and a total of eighteen years since the publishing of Software, Rucker once again took his time, thinking of original material and interesting directions to take his robot-human-moldie scenario. Thus, point blank, if you’ve read the three books to this point (or the omnibus containing said three books, natch), then Realware is more of the same stuzzidelic, Rucker-licious stuff. Not a droning on or a plateau of conception, Rucker continues to push the limits and break fresh ground in clever fashion in his wacky wacky world. Reality, and the possibilities for reality that the aliens at the completion of Freeware brought, completely change things. Caught up and pulled in their own direction by it, the group of characters that has amassed in the series to date, return. Yes, the king of the cheeseballs, Randy Karl Tucker, is back to set the reader rolling in the aisles…

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood catches a lot of flack from the genre community for a quote regarding science fiction—“that it’s just a bunch of squids in space” (I paraphrase). Mainstream genre fans taking it as a shot across the bow, they react in different ways, from pointing out she misunderstands the fundamental definition of ‘science fiction’ to outright insults and refusals to read her work. While Atwood does have her own definition of what science fiction is, there’s no denying her attempt to clarify what is significant literature in the genre (no matter your definition) and what isn’t—an attempt to keep the bar high, as it were. Her 2011 bric-a-brac collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination helps to explain why.

Opening with recollections of her childhood reading and creative writing experiments, moving through reviews of classic sf, and closing on a miscellany of short fiction, In Other Worlds is as much a response to people who accuse Atwood of misunderstanding science fiction as it is a memoir of one person’s experiences with the genre—as fuzzy as its definition may be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories by C.M. Kornbluth

Rampant commercialism, news rendered to entertainment, fiction without substance, corporate greed, social class issues—these are some of the problems being discussed in the 21st century. Not in fact new issues, it seems the technological advancements of 20th century spawned a variety of opportunities that allowed human vice to manifest. Thus, while not all contemporary fiction is empty (indeed, one can still find literature attempting to address said issues), one can go back and find them being discussed in genre more than half a century ago. The mode satirical, look no further than C.M. Kornbluth, his 1959 collection The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories the reference point.

The collection beginning innocently enough, the potter Efim Hawkings is rooting through fields behind his house when he comes across a body in a tank, suspended in animation. Apparently the result of a bizarre accident at the dentist many years prior, the man, John Barlow, is welcomed to the future, and immediately introduced to the problem of overpopulation. A highly simplified version of Brave New World with a strong satirical twist, it is one of Kornbluth’s most celebrated stories, but perhaps not his best. A story with a very similar twist of fate for its protagonist as “The Marching Morons”, “Dominoes” tells of a greedy stockbroker and the lengths he goes to stay one step ahead of the market. Getting involved with time travel, he goes two years into the future to learn what’s best to buy and sell. He does pay for his knowledge, however—but not in a way most readers could predict.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

Most series, regardless of the number of volumes, run linearly. A single story stretched over numerous pages, the end of an individual volume is just a convenient waypoint to starting the next. This is certainly one of the reasons why Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias/Orange County trilogy is so unique. Like an apple tossed in the sky and shot with arrows from different sides, he presents three futuristic perspectives to one region. The Wild Shore a post-apocalypse society re-building itself and The Gold Coast an autopia of hyper-commericalism, no one could predict what scene the third arrow through Robinson's SoCal apple, Pacific Edge (1990), would present, except that somehow SoCal would be involved.

Pacific Edge indeed portrays a near-future, Southern California scenario. Surprisingly utopian (not a utopia), however, it is one only slightly shifted from our own reality. That small shift the key, Robinson posits the dissolution of major corporations into small entities and the return of major resource management to government (water, electricity, fuel, etc.). That’s it. By dissolving the big, multi-national corporations, money and profits stay local, and by returning major resource control to government, less commercial and more humane decisions regarding usage and planning are made. It should be stressed that Robinson is not in the game of utopia building, rather in utopia striving. Openly stating utopia is an impossible ideal, he puts his money where his mouth is by imagining simple, possible changes, then exploring them fictionally to see what benefits might be derived in comparison to the present system.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a wonderful piece of journalism recounting the civil conflicts in Spain prior to WWII.  Detailing the plights of the communists, marxists, fascists, anarchists, nationalists, and the conservative and liberal sub-units each consist of, it provides a fascinating view into how complex political ideologies can be in practice.  The Spanish civil wars something little discussed globally in the years since, they have become almost a footnote to the world war erupting soon after. Another politically complex conflict nearly elided by time is the happenings in the Free State of Fiume in the years directly following the first world war.  Likewise a milieu of anarchists, liberals, fascists, etc., the small region was a hotbed of human political interest for a short period of time, and almost as a natural expansion, military tension.  The 1920s simultaneously blustering for the wonders of the future modernism seemed to promise, it was wild times in Europe.  Satirically glamorous, Bruce Sterling's Pirate Utopia (2016, Tachyon) captures a comically refined view of the proceedings as only Bruce Sterling can.

Pirate Utopia presents a view to the short history of the the Republic of Carnago (stand-in for the Free State of Fiume) through the kaleidoscope of Futurism—capital ‘F’.  The scene motivated by the horrors of WWI and the burgeoning achievements of science, it was a time people dreamed big politically.  Utopia a believable possibility, Carnago is Sterling’s staging ground.  Presented as something of a silent film, the story features intentionally madcap heroes and villains, generals and poets marching toward ‘utopia’.  Lips moving silently as dialogue appears, arms gesticulating overtly, and all moving at 1.5x normal speed—the blips and scratches of light are almost visible on the celluloid, even as subversive films like Buster Keaton’s The General motivate the politics sluicing beneath the surface.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review of An Unreliable Guide to London ed. by Kit Caless & Gary Budden

There is a handful of world cities that even though a person may never have been, there are enough novels, news events, magazine articles, history texts, and various other forms of media available that a person feels like they know the place.  And London is for sure one.  Most everyone in the Western world knows Big Ben and Sherlock Holmes, red phone booths and the Queen, double-decker busses and the Thames, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace.  But what of the unknown streets of the vast city?  What of the neighborhoods and everyday places not seen in crime novels and fashion magazines?  And what of the little secrets, even if a step or two beyond reality, that linger in its nooks and crannies?  Featuring twenty-three stories, An Unreliable Guide to London (2016, Influx Press) gives a glimpse of such places, and is one of the surprise anthologies of 2016.

Divided into the compass points: west, north, south, and east, An Unreliable Guide is a bric-a-brac account of London’s locales and people rarely, if ever, seen in the news or fiction.  Generally written in quality prose, the stories cover material from local legends to quotidian street scenes, surreal wishes to existential quantity.  Most stories only a few pages in length, the overall result is a patchwork of architecture and style, culture and society that feels more like what London really is.  Or least I guess so; I’ve never been there.