Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: THE LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by M.R.Kowal – from Tor.com

In this particular case, I was already familiar with Ms. Kowal’s writing, having read and greatly enjoyed her fantasy series the Glamourists Histories, but this was unknown territory for me: a short story and a science-fiction themed one.  I must say beforehand that it was the very best short story I read for my Sci-Fi Month posts, and the one that touched me more deeply, showcasing Ms. Kowal’s deep sensibility and skill as a writer.

Elma used to be an astronaut, the first and more famous woman astronaut: she now lives on Mars, as mankind has found the way to colonize other planets of the Solar System. She pines for the days when she could travel in space, but she’s now sixty-three, well past the age when an astronaut can be sent on missions, and moreover she cares for her husband, suffering from a degenerative illness that will soon take his life.

When she is offered one last mission, one that will imply a one-way journey to establish a sort of beachhead on a newly-discovered Earthlike planet, she is torn between the desire to touch the stars once more and her duty and deep love toward her husband Nathaniel.  The way in which she expresses her quandary comes across as more effective because of the starkness of the words, not in spite of it:

I wanted to get off the planet and back into space and not have to watch him die. Not have to watch him lose control of his body piece by piece. (…)  And I wanted to stay here and be with him and steal every moment left that he had breath in his body.

Another fascinating side of the story comes from the subtle statements about the role of a woman in what is traditionally considered a man’s job: there are a few remarks about the way Elma’s work was presented, with a slant on appearance and glitz rather than skills and competence.

I was there to show all the lady housewives that they could go to space too. Posing in my flight suit, with my lips painted red, I had smiled at more cameras than my colleagues.

To call this story ‘poignant’ would be a huge understatement: what makes it so much more touching is that M.R. Kowal never resorts to easy drama or saccharine-laden sentiments, but rather shows Elma’s quandary in simple strokes, and yet manages to present the situation in all its difficult sides, ending with a moving, emotion-laden sentence that I’m not ashamed to admit moved me to tears. And that does not happen often…

Follow the link and read this beautiful story, you really owe it to yourselves.

My Rating:


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Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 Review: HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

18306114Alastair Reynolds is easily one of those authors I tend to read sight unseen, because he’s always able to sweep me into these complex, galaxy-spanning stories that never fail to appeal to my sense of wonder. House of Suns is indeed one such story, and without doubt it’s the best one I’ve read until now, both for narrative scope and for sheer entertainment value.

Shatterlings are post-human individuals, clones of their progenitors who created hundreds of copies of themselves with the purpose of traveling far and wide across the galaxy, gathering information that is shared among members of a given Line at meetings that take place at appointed times.  Shatterlings are very long-lived and able to increase that augmented life-span to millions of years, through techniques of suspended animation and cryo-freezing that help them overcome the tedium of long treks through interstellar space.

Purslane and Campion are two such shatterlings from Gentian Line, the House of Flowers, who have entered into a forbidden association: flaunting the Lines’ rules they travel together and have become lovers, and at the beginning of the story they are also late for Gentian Line’s meeting, which will certainly result in censure from their peers.  This circumstance, however, proves quite fortunate for them because on approaching the system where the meeting is being held, they discover there’s been a massive attack on Gentians and that only a handful of shatterlings survived the massacre, some of which the two lovers are able to rescue, heading toward a safe place where the survivors will regroup.

If the story takes a little while to gather speed, once this event is brought to the table the pace increases exponentially from the investigation of the reasons for the attack to the brutal interrogation of some captured enemy agents; from the crushing loss of a murdered Gentian shatterling to a breathless interstellar chase that will turn out to be a journey of discovery, both of unsuspected information and of very unpalatable truths.  The events are narrated from three points of view, those of Purslane and Campion in the present and that of Abigail Gentian, the founder of the House of Flowers, from the past, this one in a series of flashbacks that give the backstory of the Lines in bits and pieces.  Other interesting players are represented by a few of the Gentian survivors the two meet on Neume, the planet where the refugees have fled to, and the Machine People: sentient artificial beings like Hesperus – who has been held in stasis for thousand of years on a planet visited by Campion and Purslane – and Cadence and Cascade, two mysterious synthetics who have befriended the Gentian refugees.

Abigail Gentian is a fascinating creature: artificially stalled in childhood for over 30 years, she describes her life in a huge, planet-spanning and constantly changing house where she lives alone but for her tutor, the household robots and her mother, with whom she infrequently interacts through video communications, when the woman is able to overcome the mind-breaking paranoia she fell victim to. Abigail’s only companionship comes from the visits of a boy from another influential family: the two share a strange love/hate bond that finds its more intricate expression while playing with Palatial, an interactive game giving the two of them roles in a medieval-like adventure that can become far too immersive, to the point of losing one’s identity and memories.    Despite these fascinating details, Abigail’s character remains elusive throughout the novel, as do those of Campion, Purslane and other Gentian shatterlings, a fact that robbed some of the enjoyment from the experience.

Granted, the shatterlings are Abigail’s clones, imbued with her memories, so it would stand to reason that there would be a sort of uniformity in the core of their personalities, but it would also stand to reason that each one’s accumulated experiences would add different layers to an individual’s psychological makeup, making every offspring different from his/her progenitor. Even their “voices” fail to carry any substantial differentiation: it took me a while to focus on the fact that Campion is male and Purslane female, since their alternating chapters “sounded” the same, at least in the beginning, when some reference to the other allowed me to understand who was speaking.  This lack of definition became worse when other Gentian survivors were introduced: other than their names, and a few individual leanings – like Betony’s desire to take over as lead, or Mezereon’s cruelty in interrogating the prisoners – there was no firm sense of differentiation between them.

Purslane and Campion’s relationship suffers from the same brand of indetermination: we are told they form a couple, that they are forced to edit their memories of the liaison before any Line meeting, to avoid being reprimanded for disobeying the rules, but we never perceive them as a couple until events separate them and Campion launches in a desperate chase to reach Purslane’s ship and rejoin his lover.  That’s the point where we are finally able to see the feelings they share for each other, how deeply they are rooted and what each of them is ready to sacrifice to insure each other’s survival.

Ironically enough, I thought that the more human, approachable character was Hesperus, one of the Machine People: the long imprisonment from which the two Gentians free him – or maybe some event prior to his incarceration – have robbed him of most of his memory, and there’s a gentle, almost child-like quality to his wistfulness about the loss, and the need to recover it, together with the purpose of his mission.  This gentleness, and his selfless attitude in helping out the shatterlings in several occasions, quickly made him my favorite character and the one I found more relatable than the flesh and blood ones.

Despite these issues, I greatly enjoyed the book because the questions examined throughout the story appear much more important than the characters moving through it. More than the inexorable rise and fall of civilizations, more than the political and economical maneuvering of the great Lines, more than the observation of societies born out of human colonization, some of which have even transcended human form, what really held my attention was the focus on knowledge and memory.  Knowledge seems to have become the galactic currency: no coin or precious metal hold the same worth as information, and the contents of individual “troves”, the stores where such information is collected, seem to have taken the place of bank accounts. And in the search of knowledge shatterlings can even take great risks, like Campion does, for example, when visiting the Vigilance, a sort of archive of enormous proportions, run by a forbidding, mysterious intelligence.

Memory, on the other hand, takes center stage during the whole course of the novel. The shatterlings store, edit and share the memories they have accumulated in their long lives, and are able to manipulate them – either to delete risky details (as Purslane and Campion do to hide their relationship from Gentian Line) or even to erase damning evidence, as the story reveals when survivors pursue the reasons for the attack on their Line.  Hesperus lost every memory of his past, of his mission, of the reasons for his presence in that portion of space, and lack of that knowledge renders him incomplete – and at times even makes him appear suspicious.

Memory is identity, and here it also becomes the defining quality of one’s personality: Gentian Line strictly enforces the erasure of a particular memory, that of a heinous crime perpetrated without intention, yes, but still will tragic repercussions, and that choice is seen as the erasure of guilt, of the consequences of that long-ago choice.  Does forgetfulness also imply forgiveness? This is the lynchpin on which the end revelation turns, and the partial answer that is given does not even start, unsurprisingly, to explore the issue.

Complex and fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging, House of Suns is the kind of novel that leaves me thinking about it even after I’ve reached the last page, and even though it ends in a quite abrupt manner, after slowing down the forward momentum reached until that point with some heavy exposition, it remains a very satisfying read. The kind of story that could no doubt gain from a re-read, and a highly recommended one.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: SPIDER THE ARTIST, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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Spider the Artist, by Nnedi Okorafor – from Lightspeed Magazine

In a not-so-distant future, the Niger Delta is exploited for its oil, pollution running rampant through crops, waters and people. In one of the many villages lining the pipeline lives Eme, whose only means of escaping the rigors of such a life is playing her father’s guitar.  The pipeline is protected against sabotage or simple theft of oil by mechanical, spider-shaped guardians, that people have started calling “zombies”: when a Zombie finds someone tampering with the pipeline, it kills in a brutal and gruesome way.  One night, as Eme is playing her guitar outside her home, one of the Zombies approaches her and listens to her music: it’s the beginning of a very strange, silent friendship that will have unexpected consequences.

The true horror of this story does not come so much from the terrible living conditions of the villagers, or the reports of mindless killings operated by the Zombies, that more often than not are unable to distinguish between thieves and saboteurs and mere children playing near the pipeline: these events, as terrible as they are, pale against the depiction of Eme’s everyday life, and the shock is not engendered by what she relates but rather by her quiet acceptance, the resignation that’s plain in her words and attitude.

As Eme reports in the very first sentence of the story, her husband beats her, taking all his despair and frustration on her, and all she can do – besides passively accepting it all – is bear it day after day, almost not realizing that every desire for a better life is slowly dying.

No matter my education, as soon as I got married and brought to this damn place I became like every other woman here, a simple village woman living in the delta region where Zombies kill anyone who touches the pipelines and whose husband knocks her around every so often.

There is a form of quiet desperation (to quote from a Pink Floyd song) in Eme that reaches out from the pages and grabs at your soul with incredible strength. So it’s almost not surprising that she might find a kindred soul in a mechanical construct that seems to care about the beauty of music much more than the flesh-and-blood people around her do.

It’s a peculiar story, but a fascinating one, and I will need to explore this author further in the near future

My Rating:


Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 Review: EXCESSION, by Iain M. Banks (Culture #5)

12013This Culture novel was the most difficult and most puzzling in my experience with Iain Banks’ writing, so far, and still I am not sure about my feelings, if I truly liked it or not.  The novel was enjoyable, of course, and it also was a quick read, its momentum provided by the rapidly advancing plot, but still it seemed as if something was missing: certainly I did not feel as invested in the characters as I was with previous books, and this might be the reason for my faint dissatisfaction, considering that characterization was the strongest point of the novels I read before this one.

An Excession – or out-of-context problem – is an event without precedent and without predictable outcome: in this case it’s a mysterious black body suddenly appearing in space near the star Esperi, doing nothing, but still representing a menace, if nothing else because of its inscrutability.  The study of the Excession is carried out mostly by the Culture’s Minds – the vastly evolved artificial intelligences residing on huge ships, or in the orbitals: they appear here as the true movers and shakers of the galaxy, even more than humans who seem far less preoccupied with the strange phenomenon than their cybernetic counterparts.

In a way, this novel is about the Minds more than it is about the mysterious object at the center of the story: I already encountered some Minds in my previous “travels” in Banks’ Culture, but they never took center stage as they do here, and this gave me a new perspective on the Culture itself.  As a society that can offer its citizens everything they want, with easy and ready access to any kind of physical resource and where the word “impossible” seems to have no place anymore, the Culture might look like the perfect Utopia. The Minds have evolved to the point where they can build each other in a sort of mechanized parthenogenesis, and they are the true managers of society, while humans can freely pursue their diverse goals.

Minds are not coldly perfect, though: some of the human traits they acquired along the way surface through the messages they exchange with each other (one of the most enjoyable parts of the story), and these exchanges are both amusing and illuminating, showing how the degree of evolution the Minds reached has endowed them with the equivalent of a soul, besides their distinctive personalities.   The other side of this coin is that the Minds can also fall prey to human flaws, and errors: as the story develops we understand there is a conspiracy, brewed by a group of Minds, to start a war between the Culture and an alien civilization, so that the Culture might finally impose some more enlightened rules on the wayward Affront (I’ll come back to them in a moment…).

Here resides one of the reasons for my puzzlement with this novel, if not the main one: confusion. The huge number of Mind-ships’ names, most of them quite bizarre (like Not Invented Here, Shoot Them Later, Anticipation for a New Lover’s Arrival, just to name a few) made it difficult for me to keep track of who was who and what faction they belonged to. Much as I enjoyed their witty exchanges, after a while I gave up trying to keep them straight, and let myself go with the flow, in all probability missing some important clues. I thought more than once that maybe the author had given in to his own desire to showcase these amazing intelligences, and in so doing made life difficult for his readers…

Another point of contention with this story comes from the human characters: while I understand that the Minds needed to take the center stage here, I can’t accept that the flesh-and-blood people called into play are never developed as much as they were in the other books, and at times they look more like props than anything else. For example, Byr Genar-Hofoen, Culture envoy with the Affront, is recalled from his post and tasked to reach the ship Sleeper Service to retrieve the conscience of a person who was Stored there: along the way we are given Genar-Hofoen’s back story, and many details about his past liaison with Dajeil Gelian, who is the Sleeper Service’s only passenger and has been keeping her pregnancy in stasis for forty years. As the past they share is slowly revealed, it becomes clear that the Sleeper Service is doing all it can to help them reconcile their differences, and to overcome the tragic circumstances that brought on their separation. And yet, when the moment comes, it also seems to pass in a manner that’s way too subdued in respect of the huge anticipation that was built until then.

In the same manner, I’m still wondering what was the purpose of the young spoiled brat Ulver Seich, who is enrolled by Special Circumstances (the Culture’s equivalent of a secret service) to expedite Genar-Hofoen mission: much space is given to the girl’s self-centered character, and her dismay at the physical changes she undergoes to resemble Dajeil Gelian and therefore to better ensnare Genar-Hofoen. And again, it all boils down to practically nothing…  There is something I’m missing, I’m certain of it, but for the life of me, I’m unable to see what it is.

On the other hand, the depiction of the Affront, a neighboring civilization that is totally alien both in appearance and in outlook, and that looks like the Culture’s polar opposite, is one of Excession’s best features: imagine a race of floating octopuses, gifted (so to speak…) with congenital bad manners and the boisterousness of unruly students on spring break. And still that would be too weak a description: the Affront are by turns amusing and outrageous, the details we learn about their culture made me hate them, while their unabashed enjoyment of life made me smile with the tolerance reserved for rambunctious kids. I can see, with hindsight, how some of the Culture’s Minds saw such a danger in the Affront and its cruel values, so that they decided to start a war (something the Culture avoids studiously, preferring a more subtle integration) rather than risk a long-term contamination of its status quo.

Still, it’s not enough: I was fascinated by Player of Games; soul-wrenched by Use of Weapons; and poignantly affected by Look to Windward, but I could not summon any strong emotion with Excession, and it left me with a pervasive sensation of incompleteness, which feels very strange for a book by Iain Banks.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: THE EMPEROR OF MARS, by Allen Steele

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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The Emperor of Mars, by Allen Steele – from Clarkesworld Magazine

This story deals with madness, and the physical and psychological displacement suffered by space-faring humanity: the premise sees the early colonization of Mars, where the first human settlements are being built by enterprising adventurers.  As with modern oil-rig workers, those who accept a two-year stint on Mars – not counting the travel time, that’s limited to the periods when the planet is closest to Earth – do so knowing that their sacrifice will earn them a sizable amount of money with which to start a new life.

But outer space is an unforgiving environment, and the strangeness, the alien-ness of it all, can play tricks on the human mind: as the narrator says, there are many kinds of madness that can infect the unwary human – but the tale he relates is one in which madness is a saving grace.

Jeff Halbert is one of those hopefuls: young and driven by the will to gain enough for himself and his fiancée and their future together, he becomes quickly known for his good-humored dedication and appreciated by co-workers and supervisors – until tragedy strikes.  On Earth, his parents and fiancée – and the unborn child she carries – are killed in a car accident: when the news reaches Jeff, he’s only seven months into his 3-year stint and he understandably falls into zombie-like depression, until he’s assigned to an exploratory mission that also retrieves the old Phoenix probe.  Inside the probe, he finds an old DVD where the scientist of the Phoenix project uploaded a number of books and stories concerning Mars: losing himself in these old stories, many of which depict a planet that’s quite different from the one where Jeff lives and works, he builds a wall around himself and his pain, forgetting his day-to-day harsh reality thanks to a fictional dream-world.

To say I loved this story would be a huge understatement: what looks like a sad tale about loss and displacement transforms into something a reader of speculative fiction can relate to – the need to lose oneself, now and then, in a place other than the one we live in. And in the end, The Emperor of Mars becomes an uplifting story that shows how we can build something good, and lasting, from a painful beginning.

Quite recommended.

My Rating:


Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: PATHWAYS, by Nancy Kress

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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Pathways by Nancy Kress – from Clarkesworld Magazine

This is my second short story from Nancy Kress, the first one being included in the Dangerous Women anthology, and it reinforced my resolve about reading her longer works, since I do like her style very much.

Pathways is a story of deprivation: of means and education, of opportunities for bettering oneself and even of the drive to seek something better, something more.  Ludmilla Connors comes from a large family living at the margins of society in a depressed area, and the scant details about the outside world point to a dystopian background where the ruling government has banned most – if not all – kinds of scientific research.

Ludmilla’s family, and a few others in the neighborhood, suffer from an added burden: the great majority of the members succumb to a syndrome called “Fatal Familial Insomnia”, where lack of sleep brings behavioral changes, madness and death.  Going against the family’s whishes and public ostracism, Ludmilla signs herself in for an experimental treatment that will, if nothing else, bring some much-needed cash in the Connors’ pockets.

Shunned by her family, Ludmilla comes to live at the clinic, where the forced isolation brings her – ironically enough – in contact with the wider world, and she learns that there is much more out there than the closed confines of her reality have shown her: there is an Algernon-like quality to her journey that’s quite poignant and brings to light the extraordinary courage of this young woman, driven by desperation to make more of her life, and that of the people she cares about.

Very intense.

My Rating:  


Reviews

SCI-FI MONTH 2016

Better prepare because Winter is Coming! ooops, sorry, wrong quote… Let’s start again…

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SCI-FI MONTH is back again!  (ok, that’s better) 😀

The month-long celebration of all things sci-fi will start again in November, hosted by Rinn at RINN READS and by Lisa at OVER THE EFFING RAINBOW.  To know everything you need to participate, just go over at Rinn’s blog and read this post.  Then sign up, and have fun!

I certainly intend to…