Kirk, You Ignorant…

Today I had coffee with Subrata, Cliff and Whump and as we usually do we were geeking out about various things. The conversation turned to the Mirror Universe two-parter toward the end of Enterprise, “In A Mirror, Darkly”, which Cliff hadn’t seen. So I described the premise, and eventually got to mentioning my favorite part:

“And we get to see Scott Bakula in Kirk’s slut uniform!”

A great thing about my friends is that they all know exactly which outfit I mean when I say that.

Doctor Who, Season Two

My thoughts on the second season of Doctor Who.

We finished watching the second season of the new Doctor Who series. As I did for the first season, here’s my ranking of the episodes, from best to worst:

  • School Reunion
  • The Girl in the Fireplace
  • Army of Ghosts/Doomsday
  • Tooth and Claw
  • Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel
  • The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
  • New Earth
  • The Christmas Invasion (technially part of season one, but I saw it as part of season two)
  • The Idiot’s Lantern
  • Fear Her
  • Love & Monsters

Overall I was disappointed with this season, especially in comparison with the first season. There were several episodes which I thought were really quite poor (the last three in the list), and most that were either pretty shaky (“The Christmas Invasion” had some cute moments, but didn’t make a lot of sense) or seemed just rather routine (“Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel”). Fundamentally, I think the problem is that the stories strive to be creepy or suspenseful without having a solid plot. It’s situation-based plotting: “How can we get to the point that our heroes are about to be killed by a Christmas tree?”, or “How can we have people actually be sucked into a television set?”

David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor: I think he’s fine, although I don’t think he’s nearly as good as Christopher Eccleston was as the Ninth Doctor. Eccleston really grabbed the role and made it his own: Different from his predecessors, with his own visual look, and convincingly coping with PTSD following the Time War. I don’t think Tennant comes out looking as good, and his manias and eccentricities remind me of both the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy Doctors. Of course, it could just be that the writing wasn’t as good, and so the lead character didn’t feel as strong. Then again, Eccleston did have a really hard act to follow.

Okay, on to the episodes. Spoilers ahead:

As with “Dalek” in season one, “School Reunion” is the clear winner of the second season, and not just because it has Sarah Jane Smith in it (although she is my favorite companion of the original series). Although the emotional tension between the Doctor and Rose has never been a big seller of the series to me, retconning in Sarah’s crush on the Doctor, and her devastation when he abandoned her and never came back was just marvelous, and using her as a cautionary tale for Rose was equally clever. It’s an emotionally powerful story with a happy ending, as well as a treat for fans of the first series, to see Sarah Jane and K-9 again.

“The Girl in the Fireplace” is one of those stories whose plot doesn’t make a lot of sense (everything seems to work out just conveniently enough to hang a plot on), but it gets A’s for atmosphere and central tension: A woman in 18th century France has occasional visitations from the Doctor throughout her life, even as she is menaced by frightening-looking androids. Her attachment to the Doctor from these brief visits is very well drawn, and the episode as a whole has a wonderful sense of pyrrhic victory.

I was looking forward to the return of the Cybermen, but was kind of disappointed in it. The first two-parter (“Rise/Age”) was a decent adventure, but I was baffled by why the whole parallel-world angle needed to be introduced, since the Cybermen were a part of established continuity for the Doctor. The season-ender (“Army/Doomsday”) explained it: It was a convenient way to write out the whole supporting cast, and, I admit, a rather clever way. Plus it gave us the added bonus of answering the old question of what would happen if the Cybermen ever faced the Daleks (answer: The Daleks are seriously badass). And I admit that the appearance of thousands of Cybermen at the end of “Army” was very chilling.

(But: Raise your hands if you thought that the Genesis Ark would open and the Master would step out. I did!)

The other two-parter (“Planet/Satan Pit”) started off really strong (“What the heck is going on here?”), then kind of petered out (“Oh, it’s a Really Big Monster story and an excuse for the Doctor to pontificate to himself”). While I appreciate the effort to recapture some of the Tom Baker-era horror sensibilities (this one reminded me of “Planet of Evil”), I think bringing the devil into it and having the plot hinge on the Doctor making not one but two leaps of faith really undercuts the story. (And you know when I’m comparing you unfavorably to “Planet of Evil” that you’ve got some problems.)

In-between all these big productions, “Tooth and Claw” was a pretty good monster episode in Victorian England, with some terrific dialogue and an interesting teaser for the season’s running theme of the Torchwood Institute.

Speaking of Torchwood, I was troubled by how it was presented: Given that it was set up in answer to the Doctor, is ostensibly opposed to alien activity on Earth, and is over a hundred years old, it seems to clash rather badly with the presence of the Doctor-friendly organization UNIT in Doctor Who continuity.

The rest of the stories I thought were either unremarkable, or poor. I would like to say that I appreciated the spirit of what they were trying to do in “Love & Monsters” – not entirely unlike the Doctor Who novel Who Killed Kennedy in its portrayal of how the Doctor is perceived from outside his own adventures. I found the sitcom-like set-up of the story to be extremely bland, and the narrator, Elton, to be too goofy to be likeable. And the kicker at the end to be downright nauseating. A promising idea, but the story really went wrong at every turn, and it was the sort of story which was going to be a delicate balancing act from the get-go. Yick.

I was pleased with the handling of writing out Rose, although it’s sad that her Mum gets to have a happy ending and she doesn’t. (Although, if there is another Doctor in that parallel world…) I didn’t think the series really relied on the romantic tension between the Doctor and Rose, and I was glad it rarely became more than a vague undercurrent.

So all in all, the season felt like a step backwards. Ultimately, I think the problem was with the writing: Some uninspired or ridiculous stories, and not enough attention to premises that made sense. I also admit I’m eager to see the Doctor spend a little time away from Earth (only two stories in the season fit that bill). Here’s hoping season three will be better!

Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Review of the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and emotional book about a couple who are drawn together because of, and stay together despite, a crippling science-fictional condition one of them possesses. It has its flaws, but I can genuinely say that it held my attention all the way through (and despite its length it’s actually a pretty fast read), and that I’ve kept thinking about it for days after finishing it.

Henry DeTamble is the man with the condition: From time to time he unwillingly disappears from wherever he is and reappears at some other time and place. Nothing comes with him – he arrives naked – and he has no control over when it happens or where he ends up. He has a tendency to travel to places near where he was in “normal time” at that point in time, or near where his wife Clare was, and he typically travels into the past, although not always. Henry’s condition is genetic. His parents were both musicians, although his mother died when he was young and his father was disconsolate from that point on, leaving Henry largely on his own, growing up among American punk culture in the 1970s and becoming a librarian in the 1980s. His condition can be life-threatening, as appearing stark naked in some locations without warning (say, in the middle of a freeway) can be quite dangerous. Henry is a running freak, since, as he points out, his survival frequently hinges on his being able to run faster or longer than other people.

His wife, Clare Abshire, is the daughter of a wealthy family in Michigan. She meets Henry for the first time when he appears in a field near her house when she is six years old, and they become friends during his irregular visits throughout her childhood. Henry, on the other hand, first mets Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, when she runs into him at the library. She of course knows a lot about him, while he’s extricating himself from a bad relationship and has never seen her before.

The novel is the story of their romance, and how they each cope with his condition: Henry’s problems are obvious, but Clare has to deal with his regular disappearances, not know where he’s gone, how long he’ll be, or what condition he’ll be in when he returns. The story is narrated by Clare and Henry each, in the present tense, and with sections detailing the date and their respective ages at the time (important due to Henry’s travels). The first half of the book focuses on Clare meeting Henry, and Henry meeting Clare. The second half concerns their married life and destiny.

Niffenegger has pretty cleverly worked out the timeline of Henry and Clare’s lives, and everything holds together in a consistent fashion. She does a fine job of addressing the paradoxes of time travel, positing a universe in which the past cannot be changed, nor can the known future, and the characters discuss this philosophically from time to time. While she keeps things simple by not having the characters lie to each other (at least, not to purposely try to change things), the intellectual character of Henry’s condition works well and is rewarding.

The book seems mis-named, however, since the story is really more Henry’s than Clare’s: Henry is a more fully-realized character, he’s the one who is more squarely in danger, and his reactions seem more visceral and believable. Clare always seems like a bit of a tabula rasa, an extension of Henry but not a lot more than that. She’s an artist, but that has almost no impact on the story. While The Time Traveler’s Wife implies that the book is about how Clare deals with Henry’s condition, it’s really about how Henry deals with Henry’s condition, and how he tries to shield and protect Clare, and help enrich her life despite his handicap. This is not to say that Clare is selfish or unlikeable, she’s just not as well-drawn as Henry.

(I kept finding it very odd that Henry is a big fan of the American punk rock scene, since I hate punk rock. But, oh well!)

The book’s plot is fairly straightforward, as it becomes clear that in 2006 something is going to happen, and the larger story concerns the couple living their lives as they head towards that time. But there are many episodes along the way which provide the real meat of the story: Clare falling in love with Henry as a teenager and trying to seduce him, Henry being overwhelmed by Clare when he first meets her, Henry meeting Clare’s family, Clare meeting Henry’s father, their marriage, Henry trying to find medical help for his problem, their attempts to have children. Many of these have some really clever elements to them: The wedding in particular is quite cool.

Despite Clare’s shortcomings as a character, the relationship between Henry and Clare is very powerful, especially since Henry is such an emotional character, deeply conflicted about many of his relationships, but wholly devoted to Clare. By the book’s final third, their love and their pain are both crystal-clear and fully drive the events which close the book.

I was disappointed in the ending, though. I think Niffenegger missed an opportunity to surprise and delight us in the ending, and thereby craft a better story. I’ll comment more about it after a spoiler warning down below.

Is the book science fiction, or fantasy? I say the former. While Henry’s condition has no scientific explanation, the spirit of the book is one of rational exploration of the bounds and ramifications of Henry’s condition. Well-regarded SF novels such as those of Vernor Vinge (Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon The Deep) have similarly-implausible premises, but take a rationalistic approach to working with them. More than the scientific nuts-and-bolts of the backdrop, I think that sort of attitude makes a book solidly science fiction, rather than fantasy.

Despite its flaws, The Time Traveler’s Wife really is a terrific read, a very good example of crafting a “high concept” story, and I think much more successful than its near-contemporary in “mainstream fantasy”, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It may not get my highest recommendation, but I think you’ll be glad you read it.

Spoiler comments about the ending follow:

Continue reading “Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife”

Charles Stross: Glasshouse

Review of Charles Stross’ novel Glasshouse.

Glasshouse is a nifty little book about memory and identity. Although it could arguably take place in the same future as Accelerando, there’s no clear link between the two other than references to the “acceleration”.

Our hero, Robin, wakes up after having some of his memory removed, apparently at his own wish. In the recovery environment, he hooks up with a woman named Kay, but soon finds out that someone seems to be out to kill him. So he opts to sign up to live in an experimental environment designed to simulate the society of the “dark ages” (i.e., the late 20th/early 21st century). Once there, he finds that it’s maybe a little true-to-life for his tastes: There are no wormhole gates (T-gates) between habitats, and there are no nanotech assemblers (A-gates) to recycle and create objects, or to back up your memories. Everything must be done through manual labor, and aside from a hundred or so other volunteers for the experiment, the habitats are all occupied by zombie humans.

All this would be an inconvenience if Robin didn’t quickly become convinced that the overseers of the experiment were running some sort of scam: They set themselves up as religious leaders, and enforce desired behavior by means of a point system, which is supposed to result in more money earned once the experiment is over. But there are some oddities in the experiment, and loopholes in its rule system, which convinces Robin that something is very rotten indeed, and he’s still not sure why he had his memory edited, quite who he was before then, or who was out to kill him.

As Paul Di Filippo observed in his review, Glasshouse consciously absorbs and reconfigures many elements from earlier books by other authors. I’m not very familiar wih most of the references, although I have read a little Cordwainer Smith and John Varley, but Stross puts his own stamp firmly on the story, with a sardonic wit and lively narrative that makes this a much livelier and more engaging story than Accelerando, even if it’s not the nonstop parade of fantastic ideas that the previous book was.

Perhaps the best thing in the whole novel is the backstory: Glasshouse takes place after the “Censorship Wars”, where A-gates were infected with a software virus which fractured humanspace by editing peoples’ memories when they went into an A-gate. Although it’s largely part of the backstory, the sort of fragmentations that occurred and the extremes to which people were driven still haunts several of our characters. No wonder some of them want to forget certain things!

Stross asks many good questions which only become possible when memory editing is possible, and this leads into the main theme of the novel: What is identity? Not so much who we are (although that’s an important question), but who we think we are. Is continuity of memory necessary? Are skills necessary? Relationships to specific people? Gender? Attitude? And does it really matter? If you’ve lost some set of those elements, but retain others, is it important that you remember who you used to be?

Glasshouse also studies how Robin adjusts to the artifical culture in the experiment, especially since he doesn’t know anything about his fellow citizens, or whom to trust, or how extensively he’s being monitored. His sharp-tongued descriptions of life in the dark ages are hilarious, even in the rather grim context. But it’s also an interesting cauldron which brings out the worst in some characters, and the best in others.

Overall, the novel is thought-provoking, tense, and a lot of fun, with a fully rewarding climax and resolution. Stross is able to manage some concepts which might otherwise run away with the story and makes it all believable as well as exciting. It might not be as ambitious a novel as Accelerando, but I found it more enjoyable.

Old Power, New Power

We’re watching bits of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on TNT today (right now it’s Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, as J.D. calls it), and I’m reminded of something that always seems a little odd to me about fantasy stories.

A basic element of fantasy seems to be a tendency to look to the past: In the past, there were great wonders (and great terrors), creatures with fantastic powers, but over time those creatures and powers have gone away or fallen by the wayside, and the remnants of those powers are known only to a select few. Often there’s a tacit understanding that even these, too, shall pass.

The Lord of the Rings (both the novel and the films) is rooted in this notion, the passing of the ages of greatness and the rise of mortal men. Tim Powers’ terrific novel The Anubis Gates also uses this as a fundamental principle of the plot. And a panoply of fantasy stories in between are full of quests for lost powers, or filled with characters who know of forgotten lore. But how often does fantasy depict the creation of great powers in what is presented as “the modern day”? Surely there are some, but they’re the exception, aren’t they?

What I find interesting about this is that this is very much at odds with our observation of how the world works: Technology and power increases over time, not decreases. While the ancients built pyramids and great walls, what’s remarkable about their accomplishments is not that they achieved them, but that they achieved them given the tools they had at hand.

Science fiction embraces the notion of improving technology, of course: Charles Stross’ Accelerando is merely an extreme example of this philosophy, but science fiction assumes that we, humans, are the creators of great wonders, and not that we’re simply trying to rediscover or recapture glories of ages past. Where science fiction does portray great dead powers, it’s more with an air of those powers having simply had a head start on humanity, not that we won’t get there eventually (or that we’re going backwards).

I suppose fantasy is rooted in myth and religion, which were shaped in days when humanity was trying to figure out how things came to be that not only it couldn’t understand, but it has precious few frameworks for trying to understand them. So it seemed like the world was shaped by great old powers which had faded into history. Whereas science fiction developed in the industrial age, when our frameworks for understanding the world had developed to the point that we could shape it and use it.

I think this is a fundamental difference between the two genres. I don’t know if it’s a major slice of why I prefer SF to fantasy, but I do read fantasy stories and think things like, “Why can’t humans figure out how to live as long as elves? Or create magical wonders like those that once existed? Why must magic fade into the past?”

Does this bother other readers of fantasy, I wonder?

Tim Powers: Three Days to Never

Review of the novel Three Days to Never by Tim Powers.

Tim Powers’ works can be a little hit-or-miss, and I found his previous novel, Declare, to be rather slow going. Happily, Three Days to Never is a shorter, more fast-paced book for which it seems like Powers has more fully mastered some of the tools he was working with in Declare, such as the spy jargon.

The book takes place in 1987, and revolves around English professor Frank Marrity and his 12-year-old daughter Daphne. Peripherally it also involves his sister Moira, his mysterious father Derek, his grandmother Lisa, and his even more mysterious great-grandfather. Frank receives a message from Lisa that she’s destroying the shed in the back of her house, but when he and Daphne arrive the shed is intact, albeit filled with gas fumes. Daphne purloins a videotape from the shed and watches it later in the day, where it throws her into a trance, and causes the VCR to burn up with the tape in it.

The tape, it turns out, is special, as was Lisa, who turns up dead hundreds of miles away. Two different groups are hunting a secret which Lisa has kept hidden since before World War II: A deep cover cell of Israeli Mossad agents, led by a man named Lepidopt, who has premonitions that he’ll never experience certain things again. And also a cell of Vespers, a supernatural cult which includes a blind woman named Charlotte who can see through other peoples’ eyes. The secret everyone is hunting is a device which involved both Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. The device is not strictly a MacGuffin, because it has a special power which is very much relevant to the story’s plot.

Much of the book revolves around the love that Frank and Daphne have for each other; it’s unusual to see a strong familial father-daughter bond in fiction, it seems to me. Now, they do have a rather unusual – nay, supernatural – link, which plays into the story, but it’s still touching to see. A lot of Three Days is wrapped up in family: Frank’s relationship to his family, Lepidopt’s feelings for his wife and son and how his sense of duty keeps him in America, Charlotte being a woman without a family, who hates herself for her blindness and desperately wants to find a way to change who she is, but who’s stuck in her depressing little cult cell because she has nowhere else to turn. The book’s climax hinges on characters making decisions because they figure out how to do the right thing for themselves and those they care about, or they wilfully continue to do the wrong thing because they don’t care about anyone else.

And on top of all of this, Frank gets some disturbing information about his life which forces him to set his priorities in order.

As usual, Powers put his characters through all kinds of hell: Blindness, a maimed hand, emergency throat surgery, and all that sort of fun stuff. Sometimes his penchant for physical brutality seems eiither comical or disgusting, but it doesn’t go to either extreme here, because the stakes are high enough and the events seem to flow naturally from the plot’s situations.

And it’s chock-full of the neat ideas which often seemed to be absent in Declare: Frank and Daphne’s special connection, the strange videotape, the secret Lisa was hiding, another secret which can erase people from history, and a variety of lesser magics as well as the spy stuff that the Mossad agents and Vesper members practice reflexively. Lepidopt’s premonitions that he’ll never do certain things again after he does them is quite creepy, and Charlotte’s depression and he use of her remote sight are both starkly portrayed. Although none of the characterizations are particularly deep, they’re varied and vivid and help keep the book engaging.

The book’s climax is satisfying enough, although having spent most of the book expecting one of the characters to employ the secret Lisa was keeping, the way it’s used is unexpected and a little disappointing; the history of the secret was in some ways more satisfying. And the story could perhaps have used slightly more denouement.

Still, it’s a good return-to-form for Powers. Not quite as good as Last Call, but one of his better books.

Jack McDevitt: Seeker

Review of the novel Seeker by Jack McDevitt.

I’m a big fan of McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War (which was recently reissued), but I was disappointed in its first sequel, Polaris, and I’m equally disappointed in Seeker.

I think the fundamental problem is that the adventures of antiquarian Alex Benedict and his aide Chase Kolpath have quickly become fomulaic: Discover that at some point in the past something went mysteriously missing, slowly draw back the slender thread of evidence which has survived the years (or millennia) to the present day, and then unravel the mystery, usually with some present-day danger thrown in. In Seeker, the quarry is the nine-thousand-year-old colony ship Seeker, which was apparently stumbled on by some government surveyors, who died before they told anyone their secret. The Seeker was one of the first big colony ships from Earth, which left in the 27th century, and its value could be incalculable. Meanwhile, Alex and Chase have to contend with the surly owner of the relic which put them on the trail, as well as a secret foe who seems to want to kill them for mysterious reasons.

All three Benedict books have basically the same formula, so why does Talent work so well for me when the other two don’t? First of all, it’s narrated by Alex, who is a much more engaging character than Chase, who narrates the other two. Indeed, Alex seems like something of a heel when Chase talks about him, while he’s more sympathetic – and fallable for more likeable reasons – in his own voice. Second, the moral ambiguities that Alex uncovers in Talent‘s historical figure are more powerful and better drawn than we see in the later books. Lastly, Talent is a novel which changes the status quo of its hero and his world – a tough trick to plausibly pull off in three consecutive novels.

McDevitt’s strength is to present his settings with the proper sense of scale, the vast timeframes, the stature of the historic figures, the loneliness of abandoned or lost ships, stations and planets, the feeling of opportunities passed. He doesn’t get it all perfect (human civilization feels too contemporary to feel like it’s nine thousand years in the future, for instance), but it works well enough. He’s also good at writing a page-turner, with enough suspense and anticipation to make Seeker enjoyable.

But it feels like something’s missing, an essential weight to the story, or depth to the characterization. So, like Polaris, Seeker is merely light reading. A good change of pace from some of the heavy stuff I tend to read, but whether I’ll continue following Alex and Chase in the future, I don’t know.

Alastair Reynolds: Galactic North

Review of the short story collection Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds’ other collection published this fall, Zima Blue and Other Stories, is a good collection, but Galactic North is the shit, man!

It collects Reynolds’ short stories set in the universe of his cycle of novels starting with Revelation Space. It’s almost a primer of how his future history developed, featuring several pivotal events mentioned in the novels, as well as a few characters who either appear or are alluded to there. The collection actually almost works as its own standalone story cycle, which is pretty neat since it wasn’t written that way.

Reynolds’ basic strengths are his ability to create and describe places that feel truly alien, or at least deeply disturbing, and his flair for suspense and horror. For instance, “Nightingale” features the hunt for a war criminal onto a dormant automated hospital ship, which is about as frightening an environment as one can imagine: What exactly do you think a hospital ship needs to be like in order to care for the injured during a war? And on top of that it’s dark and potentially airless, and was run by an artificial intelligence whose mental state is anyone’s guess. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that eventually it will. And then when it does, Reynolds twists the knife in an unexpected and hideous way. While essentially a haunted house story, it’s gripping stuff.

Reynolds also explores the nature of humans who have been modified into something unusual. The first story in the sequence, “The Great Wall of Mars”, concerns the Conjoiners – humans who have formed a technological group mind – and the opposition they face from the rest of humanity, who are afraid the Conjoiners will absorb everyone else into their fold. In contrast to the common thinking about posthuman experience – which is often portrayed as unknowable or at least weirdly alien and antithetical to the human experience – Reynolds explores the thoughts and motivations of these nascent posthumans, drawing them as all-too-human, a sort of enlightened cult. The story’s protagonist, Nevil Clavain, arrives among the Conjoiners as a negotiator and learns that they are playing a deeper game than anyone had suspected.

Similarly, “Weather” takes place in a damaged lighthugging starship, and provides some insight into the mysterious Conjoiner Engines of the novels, and another oblique glimpse into the lives of the Conjoiners themselves. It’s basically a short character drama, but it illuminates the backdrop considerably.

There are two other stories which provide a glimpse of the early days of Reynolds’ future history: “Glacial” is a mystery about a dead – and unexpected – human colony, and lets us visit with some friends from “Great Wall” again. “A Spy in Europa” is a rather brutal spoy story which descends into horror. It’s not as polished as “Nightingale”, but it sheds some light on another faction in the setting, the Demarchists, who walk a fine line between heaven and hell, but of course are as fallible as all the rest of us.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” concerns the legacy of those early Demarchist days, and the dangers of obsession, as its titular figure is obsessed with collecting creatures from around the galaxy and showing them off to his peers, and is interested in acquiring one special creature in particular. It contains echoes of Reynolds’ novel Chasm City (my favorite of his novels), but has its own unique sense of foreboding and terror. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” sort of story.

The volume wraps up with the title story, which follows its characters on a chase far into the future, while humanity is otherwise threatened by an implacable foe. I can see what Reynolds was aiming for here, with characters living for millennia through time dilation, focused (more or less) on their specific goals, but I had trouble connecting with the characters or believing in their motivations over such a long time frame. I found the nature of the foe to be a little hard to swallow, too. The story is okay, its grand scope making it an interesting curiosity, but it feels more like a writing exercise for dealing with lengthy timeframes, which comes into play in the novels. Still, I liked it more than the other story in the collection, “Dilation Sleep”, which is a pretty straightforward “things are not what they seem” yarn. To be fair, Reynolds’ afterward suggests that it was written earlier than the other stories in the book.

But very few short story collections hit home runs every time, and Galactic North does much better than most in that regard. There are stories here to delight, provoke, horrify, and wonder at. It’s outstanding, and it reminds me (once again) that Reynolds really is one of the very best writers of science fiction working today.

Elizabeth Moon: The Speed of Dark

Review of the novel The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

  • The Speed of Dark

    • by Elizabeth Moon
    • PB, © 2002, 369 pp, Del Rey Books, ISBN 0-345-48139-9

There’s probably a great science fiction novel out there about people with autism, but I don’t think this is it. The Speed of Dark takes place in the near future, where autistic people received treatment to help them to function better in society, and eventually autism can be fully treated in infants. The book’s protagonist is Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged autistic man who received the former treatment. He is part of a group of autistics who work at a large company, and he has non-autistic friends, especially the people in the fencing group he’s part of.

The novel is very low on what I call “ideas content”, meaning there’s little that’s different in the book’s world from the real world, and thus it seems barely to qualify as science fiction (or even fantasy). The treatment that Lou received is really only a plot device to make him functional enough to relate his story, but then, there are high-functioning autistics in the real world, so it’s not much of a leap.

The book spends most of the first half portraying the basic nature of Lou’s life, which gets repetitive rather quickly. It’s revealed that there is an experimental treatment for adult autistics that could make them normal, and the book walks a balancing act regarding whether Lou will be forced to have the treatment, and whether he would even wish to do so. (The book plays the usual semantic games with whether or not autistics are “normal”; I use the term “normal” here simply as a shorthand for “not autistic”.)

Moon is a very good writer in her smithing of words and her ability to evoke emotions, and Lou is a likeable character. But ultimately I just wasn’t interested in the portrayal of the life of an autistic man in-and-of-itself (it wasn’t nearly as interesting as, say, reading Al Schroeder’s journal – now defunct – and his accounts of his two autistic sons, for instance), and beyond that there wasn’t much to the story. I think it would have been a much better novel had the treatment itself been the central element of the story, and focused exploring that transition in greater depth, but it barely merits an afterthought. The Speed of Dark could have been a much more expansive and challenging piece of work, but I thought it ended up being a fairly mundane novel with an unusual protagonist.

(The Speed of Dark was the November 2006 selection for Kepler’s Books’ speculative fiction book club.)

Alastair Reynolds: Zima Blue and Other Stories

Review of Alastair Reynolds’ short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories.

Reviewing short story collections is hard, even when it’s a collection by one of my favorite SF authors. Reynolds in fact has two collections out this fall, of which this is the first.

Reynolds’ forte is telling atmospheric stories – often with strong philosophical underpinnings – which nonetheless qualify as hard science fiction. His stories therefore are usually pretty heavy stuff, but no less enjoyable for that. He works the edge of the “posthuman” milieu which has become popular these days, although he often write straight-up space opera.

My favorite story? Maybe “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, which takes place in a universe with wormhole travel among stars which humanity has taken advantage of. The wormholes seem to end at the edge of the Aquila Rift, but of course the universe doesn’t end there, so eventually someone ends up going beyond it, by accident. This story I think perfectly encapsulates the sense of otherness which is often present in Reynolds’ stories, and the sense of loss that seems to come with being immersed in the other.

Reynolds tends to write a lot of far-future space opera, and two stories in here occur in the same such universe: In “Hideaway”, a small remnant of humanity is on the run from the cyborg creatures which have taken over the species. Their backs to the wall, they end up in an unusual star system which tantalizingly contains the seeds of escape. It’s followed up with “Merlin’s Gun”, concerning the hunt for a weapon which might be used to defeat the enemy. Both tales leave some story elements hanging – deliberately – but it’s the setting and characters and their approach to their dilemmas which is what drives the stories: How far will you go in the pursuit of your goals, and what are you willing to pay to achieve them?

Reynolds provides illuminating afterwords to each story, and he observes that the future of reporter Carrie Clay is perhaps a rather nice one to live in. In “The Real Story”, she interviews the men (?) who first stepped on Mars, decades after they accomplished the feat. It’s a neat little tale of ambiguity and – again – sacrifice and loss. In “Zima Blue” she interviews the foremost artist of her age, and learns something about art, humanity and memory. Reynolds turns the neat trick of taking what seems (to me) like a trite central idea and dressing it up into a rather elegant story.

The story that perhaps best shows Reynolds’ penchant for grandiloquent explorations of the nature of the universe is – naturally enough – “Understanding Space and Time”. It begins as a “last man standing” tale of loneliness verging on madness, and ends on a too-large-for-mere-words scale of understanding reality. Both parts of the story are interesting, although not fully successful, to my mind. It’s quite a page-turner, however.

Of course, not all the stories grabbed me – not unusual for a science fiction collection. I think sometimes the atmosphere overwhelms the story, or maybe is the whole point of the story, and the piece doesn’t come together for me. I think this was the case in both “Enola” and “Angels of Ashes”, for instance. On the other hand, “Signal to Noise” is a straightforward character yarn about (just barely) parallel worlds, but I found it rather routine. None of these were bad, but they were a few notches below the stories above.

The limited edition contains one more story written specially for this collection, which is pretty annoying since I don’t have the limited edition. Hopefully “Digital to Analogue” will be collected in another volume sometime.

Zima Blue is a better-than-average short story collection, and if you enjoy Reynolds or like dark space opera, then it should be right up your alley.