Thursday, July 31, 2014

Short Fiction Reading Spree - Recap Part II, Stories 26-50

As promised, here is the second part of my short fiction reading spree recap:

Day 6

These stories are all from 2014, by writers I didn't know, and appearing in magazines I hadn't touched in days 1-5.

# 26) "The Food in the Basement" Laura Davy (Apex #62 Jul 2014)
Not normally a fan of vampire stories, but this one won me over. The telling is sparse, almost to the point of detachment, which brings out the horror of the situation that much more effectively. The setup reminded me a bit of John Fowles' The Collector.

# 27) "What Needs to Burn" Sylvia Anna Hiven (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #152 Jul 2014)
An effective story efficiently told. Things move fast, and keep on moving. Wild West sort of setting with some fantasy elements thrown in. A reader comments that it brought Firefly to mind, and I can't disagree. That's sort of the "flavor" I got too.

# 28) "The World Resolute" E. Catherine Tobler (Strange Horizons 14 July 2014 )
Short and poetic. Somewhat of a mood piece. Liked it.

# 29) "Always Forever Now" Drew Rhys White (Ideomancer June 2014)
Meditative and thought-provoking story. The author mentions the influence or evocation of Karen Joy Fowler in the story comments and I can see that. I appreciate that adult relationships were handled in a subtle, sophisticated way, and that the speculative element was nicely blended with the story's human interest.

# 30) "A Gift in Time" Maggie Clark (Clarkesworld #92 May 2014)
The story was well-written and offered plenty of historical verisimilitude. There was good attention to detail, and a classic tragic-ironic ending. I didn't feel particularly close to the main character, though, and so the story's fine qualities didn't combine to move me or make me care about his unrequited love as much as I would have liked.

The last two stories included two different brands of time-travel, but other than that no real "theme" emerged from this batch.

Day 7

Again, these stories are all from 2014, by writers I didn't know. I solicited recommendations regarding stories in Daily Science Fiction and Anatoly Belilovsky pointed out the J. S Bangs story to me. I'm glad he did--I quite liked it.

# 31) "Gauntlet" Shedrick Pittman-Hassett (On Spec #96 Spring 2014)
Barb Galler-Smith was kind enough to send me this story, which was nice, since it let me dip into On Spec for this project (I don't otherwise have access to the magazine). This is what I tend to think of as effectively constructed, rollicking science fiction. Strong, visually rich set-pieces, likeable characters, and a brisk pace. Nicely done.

# 32) "The Heresy of Friar Travolo" J.S. Bangs (Daily Science Fiction Jul 11 2014)
I like math, and this story did a great job in its treatment of Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry. I think this is a fine example of a narrative that works primarily to expose the reader to a new idea, and presents it in a respectable fashion (i.e., sf as learning device), because the human element is still compelling. Have a weakness for Middle Ages settings too, which worked in the story's favor.

# 33) "Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned From the Trade Summit Incident" Annalee Flower Horne (F&SF July/Aug 2014 CC Finlay issue)
Clever and well-constructed. I never really warmed to this story's tone, though, I have to say, and since it relies so heavily on tone, that hampered my enjoyment of it.

# 34) "Five Tales of the Aqueduct" Spencer Ellsworth (F&SF July/Aug 2014 CC Finlay issue)
Loved it. I literally reread it again right after reading it the first time. Coincidentally, I recently watched Chinatown for the first time, so the subject of water irrigation and aqueducts in southern California was already lingering in my consciousness. But what makes this work is the fascinating way Ellsworth spins out the narrative in completely unexpected directions, expertly manipulating scale and metaphor to convey strange ideas and unlikely juxtapositions in each of the five micro-tales. Reading this story was thrilling. Also, I think I may have a thing for catfish science fiction stories (an anthology I'd love to see): a few scenes in I was reminded of Tim Pratt's study in grief and redemption, "Bottom Feeding" (Asimov's, August 2005), which was one of my favorites that year (though other reviewers didn't think quite as highly of it).

# 35) "Jump, and I'll Catch You" Michelle Ann King (Daily Science Fiction Jul 25 2014)
An interesting idea, but its treatment didn't quite win me over. I think this was largely because early on in the story we encounter the following sentence: "There meant the place where our new friends lived" (bold is mine). The use of "our" made me think this would be a first-person narration, but I didn't see any "I"s, etc. in what followed, so I found myself struggling to understand the point of view, and that was distracting.

I'm looking forward to going back and reading more stories from the special issue of F & SF edited by Charles Coleman Finlay. I realize there's going to be a mix of styles and subjects; from the two stories I sampled, one set me on fire, and the other left me a little cold. But if there are any others that deliver an experience even close to that of Ellsworth's, I'll consider myself a satisfied customer.

Day 8

I decided to do a little different on this day and read the first five stories in Reach for Infinity. This anthology, edited by Jonathan Strahan, was published in 2014, and since its stories are all original to the anthology, they all qualify as 2014 stories. Strahan has a fantastic track record as an editor, I enjoy hard sf, and it was my birthday, so I thought, "Why the heck not?"

I freely admit I came to this anthology with very high expectations. In a few instances less-than-stellar sentences (yes, I'm picking on this stuff at the sentence level) turned me off more than they normally would have. I expect elite performances from elite writers, and anything less is frustrating.

# 36) "Break My Fall" Greg Egan (Reach for Infinity ed. Jonathan Strahan)
The Egan, I have to admit, was a disappointment. Good idea and interesting situation. But I've read 25+ Egan stories and would place this somewhere in the bottom quarter, simply because the premise/physics wasn't nearly as abstract/out-there as other times, and to me that provides less justification for some of the character flatness. Curious to think what Greg Egan expert Karen Burnham makes of it.

# 37) "The Dust Queen" Aliette de Bodard (ditto)
Solid work, well-crafted--but it seemed to lack the more realistic scientific handling of the other stories, and what I kind of gleaned (maybe incorrectly) was supposed to be anthology's approach.

# 38) "The Fifth Dragon" Ian McDonald (ditto)
I thought McDonald's story was excellent. Very strong voice that pulled me in right away and kept me reading; reminded me of early John Varley, as did the story's focus on sex. I think this story perfectly blended the human and scientific/extrapolative elements. In a brief exchange on Facebook, both writer Sandra Odell and writer/editor Gardner Dozois singled this one out from the first five, and I can see why. I'll be going back to reread it at some point to better observe who McDonald achieves his effects.

# 39) "Kheldyu" Karl Schroeder (ditto)
After the McDonald this may have been my favorite, because I thought the science was really interesting, and the thriller/spy dynamics provided a nice change of pace from the other stories. Diverting and thought-provoking, without being as deep or moving as the McDonald.

# 40) "Report Concerning The Presence of Seahorses On Mars" Pat Cadigan (ditto)
Not a lot to say on this one. It was good, but it took me a bit to get into, and the tone (or perhaps it was the ratio of description to exposition) seemed to shift a bit abruptly towards the end.

Day 9

After reading 35 stories by writers I didn't know during days 1-7, and 5, on day 8, by writers I did know, I decided on a different kind of indulgence for day 8. There are some writers one likes that are so prolific it's almost a full-time reading job keeping up with their output. Robert Reed is one of my favorite short story writers, and he may qualify. To catch up with what he's been up to (or some of it, anyway), I set out to read five of his 2014 stories--a little Robert Reed festival!

# 41) "We Don't Mean to Be" (F&SF Jan/Feb 2014)
Far-future space opera meets theology/mythology. Nicely handled, and I liked the alternating viewpoints, but found the ending a little arbitrary. Then again, maybe that was part of the point.

# 42) "The Principles" (Asimov's Apr/May 2014)
Alternative history novella in which the alternate history may be the most interesting aspect of the story. Don't get me wrong, I felt the characters were well-depicted, but I didn't become particularly invested in the protagonists' situation.

# 43) "Time Travelers Wear Disguises" (Daily Science Fiction April 11 2014)
A standout for me. In a way, it reminded me of Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question", one of my all-time favorite stories. Common elements include central AIs (Multivac and Majesty--hmmm, two "M"s) that operate, largely unobserved, on vast timescales. And which are revealed to have the ability to remold reality--for themselves and for everyone else.

# 44) "Blood Wedding" (Asimov's Jul 2014)
Violent (meaning, blood-soaked) weddings instantly conjure Kill Bill for me, which, I realize, has nothing to do with this story (though it turns out there's a superficial connection, at least, in that both stories start with the wedding and then flash back to the events leading up to it, before continuing with post-wedding events). I enjoyed the tech aspects (such as body modifications and cyborg parts, uplifted or engineered animals) and the somewhat melodramatic character backgrounds.

# 45) "wHole" (Clarkesworld Jun 2014)
Far-out road trip, and I'll just leave it at that!

This group of stories consistently show that Robert Reed continues to push at the boundaries of short form science fiction. During the last few years he has demonstrated, for example, that it is possible to write a really effective piece with, say, twenty point-of-view characters and plenty of discontinuities in space and time.

Reading this batch of stories I got the sense that his work has evolved into something more abstract. A kind of performance art, almost, as though Reed has subsumed the standard sf tropes, kidnapped and assimilated them so completely that what he spits out looks like sf but is in fact something quite different--and intrinsically postmodern.

I use that word not to bandy about a much-abused (and maligned, it seems) critical term, but because of several specific narrative strategies and thematic preoccupations I see cropping up in these stories (and other recent ones) by Reed.

To summarize, I'd describe his storytelling as aggressively self-destabilizing. It's hard to read more than three paragraphs without running into an instance of the storytelling voice second-guessing information that it has just been imparted, or offering a playful twist that sheds ironic light on what seemed a straightforward revelation, or explicitly contradicting it in favor of some other "truth" that, in turn, faces imminent dethronement. Nothing is as it appears, and it isn't as it appears for very long either; soon it's something else entirely, and that also isn't as it appears.

What about broader themes? Here's a few recurring ones:

  • History is built on coincidence, misunderstanding, contrivance, and misinterpretation. This has been around in Reed's work for a while (see, for example, "Killing the Morrow" or "Past Imperfect", which that deal with the ephemeral nature of the past) and continues to be intensely explored. 
  • Every scale you use to try to understand something is simultaneously vast and infinitesimal compared to some other equally valid scale being used elsewhere/elsewhen by some other entity. Most of these stories use the words "trillions", "billions", "quadrillions" and so on multiple times. And they're not being used to suggest exaggeration, either--they're meant literally.
  • All knowledge and understanding is makeshift and temporary. Not-knowing speeds up in the future.
  • Endless possibilities, and the inevitability that all of them are true or co-exist in some manner. This means that all decisions are subject to reinterpretation, that everything can be second-guessed, and so on. It manifests through multiple-worlds theory and dovetails with the previous two themes.
  • Self-deception. Has Reed, I wonder, read Robert Trivers' The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life or maybe Herbert Fingarette's Self-Deception? Because though present in earlier Reed stories, self-deception seems to have become a more central concern now. Consider, for example, "Time Travelers Wear Disguises".

Ethan Robinson, in his close reading of Reed's "Mystic Falls", provides an excellent, in-depth discussion of some overlapping issues and observations. His analysis is considerably more detailed and thoughtful than my scattered comments here, so I recommend you check it out.

Day 10

I asked for authors to recommend stories by themselves or anyone else, and the first five responses I received generated the below list of stories, all by good people.

# 46) ''Mind Locker'' Juliette Wade (Analog July/August 2014)
Take vintage William Gibson and Pat Cadigan, add in a little Strange Days for seasoning, and you might get something like "Mind Locker". Wade certainly does a thorough and consistent job with her invented slang and plausible tech, leading to an immersive reading experience. Her characters are also nicely individualized in neat, small ways. And the story moves at breakneck pace, with short (often one-line or even one-word) paragraphs. As with other propositions of this type, one must work a little to enter the "story space", but I thought the effort was worth while. I don't know that all of the terminology was equally successful for me (for example, I got a kick out of "group synch", but felt like "VR fighters" was too quaint/retro). And I enjoyed the impoverished slice of future society Wade created. I'll admit, part of me wishes she'd gone further, in terms of violence and sex, not because they're intrinsically interesting elements, but because I feel they would have been dramatically relevant.

# 47) ''Two Things About Thrand Zandy's TechnoThèque'' Greg Bossert (Journal of Unlikely Cryptography February 2014)
A fun, quirky, post-cyberpunkish story, with plenty of inventiveness and attitude. Delivers on its title. I liked the female protagonist, and I found the ending worked well. The action and mystery elements were also adeptly handled.

# 48) ''That Other Sea'' William Ledbetter (Escape Pod January 2014)
Nice worldbuilding in this story, in which the setting largely determines the character's alien-ness and also shapes their beliefs, as it should. The story kept me intrigued all the way through, despite the occasional slight tendency to repeat information (for example, "If that happened, his warren associates would eventually pull him back up" and then a few paragraphs later, "He knew his associates would pull him up"). I also thought the descriptions were quite good and liked how an early reference to legend wasn't a throw-away line, but actually served a purpose.

# 49) ''A Paradise of Wasteland'' Adrian Simmons (Heroic Fantasy Quarterly February 2014)
I don't read a lot of sword and sorcery, or anything close, really, so I approached this story with some trepidation. I'm happy to report that I needn't have worried. Simmons' story does have a lot of familiar sub-genre elements, sure--but the writing is colorful, and the attention to detail (for example with animals and foods) carried me through. I liked the desert backdrop. One of my favorite Majipoor stories by Robert Silverberg is "The Desert of Stolen Dreams"; though very different in subject matter and approach, I found the desert setting here to be similarly evocative.

# 50) ''Code Blue Love'' Bill Johnson (Analog July/August 2014)
An enjoyable example of a hard sf story that fuses AI with medical drama, with an ending I found a bit sudden. The author clearly has done his homework, given the level of detail he provides--hopefully his personal experience with the subject matter is limited. While I found the story thread about aneurysms compelling, patches of the writing felt a little prosaic ("Hell, we're going to die anyway," a character says, and then a few lines later a different characters says, "Hell, it's a lot better chance..."; or the repeated use of adverbs such as "slowly"). I'm glad Bill pointed me to his work. In looking up his previous credits I see he won a Hugo award  in 1998 for "We Will Drink a Fish Together" and will definitely look that one up.

So concludes the short fiction spree, in which I read 50 stories in 10 days. I'll likely post some additional thoughts over the next few days, including my top 5 or possibly top 10 from these 50.

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