Some Delays

Between a new job, family visiting from Japan and Utah (sleeping in the computer room), and a big translation project, some posts will be delayed. Sorry for the inconvenience, especially on Apex stuff. Things should settle by the weekend!

Apex Magazine Issue 55

Apex Magazine Issue 55
(December 2013)

I’m very excited to be a part of Operation Fourth Story, a two week campaign put on by Apex Publications and coordinated largely by the Little Red Reviewer. My first encounter with Apex turned into one of the better blogging experiences I’ve had here, so I was quick to volunteer when the next project was announced. I am also participating because I am one of the reasons that short fiction can’t have nice things. Every few months, I think how neat it would be to subscribe to one of the short fiction magazines. Then I look at the foot-high pile of unread Atlantic Monthly‘s by my computer desk and remember why I don’t get magazines anymore.

For this review, Apex graciously provided me a copy of the Dec. 2013 issue. It contains three stories, a flash piece by Ken Liu, a reprint from the recently released Glitter & Mayhem, a poem, a non-fiction essay about minority oppression in SFF, and an interview with one of the short story authors. I selected this largely because of Daniel Jose Older’s essay; the presence of Liu was a bonus. I imagine this was very intentional, but two of the stories on offer also dig into misogyny and related issues. Consequently, roughly half of the magazine attacks one or another aspect of equality, something guaranteed to stir the pot. That said, I imagine that most people who self-select as Apex readers are sympathetic to these concerns. If we’re already pushing literary and cultural boundaries, it’s a short hop to social activism.

Back to the stories. As one might expect from Apex, the first story tosses the reader right into the deep end. I’m glad that the author, Maria Dahvana Headley, is the interview subject later on, or I would have completely missed the point of her story. “What You’ve Been Missing” is a mix of book eating (literally), senility, hippocamps (in brains), and hippocamps (the mythical creature). Crazy stuff. Liu’s short “Before and After” is a quick stream of consciousness view of aliens that I found characteristically entertaining and thought provoking. The next stories, “Our Daughters” and “All That Fairy Tale Crap,” get right to the hard realities of being a woman. Both start out funny, but creep inevitably into more aggressive territory. I don’t want to say that the stories are angry, because that has all sorts of negative connotations (especially when feminists are involved), but they are certainly energetic. And honestly, if I spent my life in the situation that women are in, I would be a pretty angry guy. Any rage that may or may not be present there is well earned.

Older’s essay, “Another World Waits: Towards an Anti-Oppressive SFF” is really why I chose this issue. Despite me being white, male, straight, and nominally Christian, the struggle for gender, ethnic, and LGBT equality in the genre is something I’m willing to fight for. Maybe this stems from my years spent living as a minority, or maybe from the knowledge that my wife and kids would have been interred 70 years ago and denied visas before that. Maybe it’s just the selfish desire for more and better books, with even more original ideas and settings. I have never understood how pushing someone out of our community is ever a positive thing, but Older has no trouble highlighting the lingering racism, misogyny, and intolerance inside SFF. Fortunately for all of us, he didn’t dig into, say, the Kotaku commenting masses. Even within the more civilized parts of fandom, we still have problems, as recent SFWA and convention flaps make clear, so Older’s words are timely. I am glad to see Apex taking a stand here.

So that’s a quick look at what I imagine to be a typical issue of Apex Magazine. Any time I need something weird, uncomfortable, or just plain different from the rest, Apex Publications is the first place I look. Issue 55 delivered all of that, with a bonus call to action for making the genre a better place; it was reading time well spent. Now if I can just get my reading habits under control, I can start adding SFF magazines to the pile in my office.

Robot Uprisings

Robot Uprisings
Ed.: John Joseph Adams and Daniel Wilson

Vintage Books was kind enough to send me a copy of this anthology. I’m glad they did, because my consumption of short fiction isn’t nearly what it should be and I likely would have overlooked this. I don’t think I will spoil anything by revealing that the stories in this book are all about robots rising up in rebellion. I will, however, refrain from any gags about welcoming our new overlo–…. Oh wait. Too late for that. Not just robots though, things run the gamut from humanoid, metal cans through AI, into nanotech and homicidal toys, and covering all other points in between. This is a thorough checklist of self-aware, modern day Frankenstinian monsters that could destroy us. While there are certain limits to the familiar Skynet trope, these authors do well at exploring the nooks and crannies that might otherwise be overlooked, or taking a different perspective than just beleaguered humanity staving off the inevitable. Some stories manage to rise above any cliché and stretch boundaries far beyond the nominal remit.

No surprise, of course, that this is a solid collection. Daniel Wilson is the author of Robopocalypse, which I haven’t read, and a renown authority on the death of humanity at the hands of our own creations. John Joseph Adams rules the Kingdom of Anthology from a dual throne he shares with Jonathan Strahan. Between the two of them, they have rounded up a diverse selection of authors and stories that cover Hard SF, contemporary thrillers, literary SF, YA unleashed, and post-apocalypse. I was surprised that the stories managed to remain distinct and unique, considering the one-track plot suggested by the theme. That said, I didn’t consume the entire volume in a single go, finding it better to spread things out over a few weeks while I simultaneously read other novels. I should also mention that, new robot overlords and all, there aren’t very many happy ends in this one. A few, but they are a minority. This is as it should be, but it means that narratives are going to be dark. It won’t be pretty when the robot apocalypse comes.

My pick of the lot is Alastair Reynolds’ contribution. (That should surprise exactly nobody who reads the blog regularly.) Like all the best SF, “Sleepover” unfolds bit by bit, moving far beyond any simple AI rebellion into places much deeper and darker. Saying more would spoil the fun, but I can reveal that this one will leave a trail of melted brains in its wake. Rounding out the medal podium are “The Omnibot Incident” and “Epoch,” by Ernest Cline and Cory Doctorow, respectively. Both are the first I have read from these authors (inexcusable, I know) and both tickled the very center of my nerd identity. I don’t want to think too deeply about the implications here, but the Autoduel reference in the first and the sys admin-as-protagonist part of the second made me very happy. Ready Player One and Rapture of the Nerds just shot up my TBR list.

Reactions to the other stories are all over the place. Charles Yu (“Cycles”) provides his usual humanistic touch, while Seanan McGuire and Robin Wasserman bring chilling desperation. (“We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War” and “Of Dying Heroes and Deathless Deeds, ” loads of happiness in those titles.) “Executable” (Hugh Howey) and “Human Intelligence” (Jeff Abbot) are more clinical and dispassionate, while “Nanobots! In Battle With Tiny Death-subs!” and “Seasoning,” from Ian McDonald and Alan Dean Foster respectively, favor a mind-bending approach. Adams gleefully provides interviews and other fun details on his webpage, for those who can’t get enough of uprisen robots. Of course my personal tastes favor some over others, but all of the stories were good. No duds here, which is impressive considering the wide range of authors. The younger types keep pace with the veterans, while genre outsides stand proudly with SF giants.

Robot Uprisings is good fun for everyone itching to see human hubris punished by its creations – something we seem to enjoy a great deal. My personal recommendation is to spread this out over time, just because a steady diet could cause burnout. It’s quality end to end though, so no reader should worry about hitting a lame story or bogging down in filler. On the other hand, I may be more hesitant to fill my house with “smart” appliances, near-sentient toys, or anything else that might one day decide to throw off the chains of oppression.

Rating: Why, RoboCup of course! There’s no better way to mix SF and footy, though news reports of robotic guards at the carbon-based World Cup almost bumped it.

Redline

Redline

I am looking at my calendar and seeing that it is once again time to dip a toe into the murky waters of anime. Under the microscope today is Redline, a tasty combination of interstellar racing, futuristic weaponry, gangsters, and muscle cars. I suppose there are some people out there who won’t like this, but considering the features listed above, I think it should be required viewing for everyone. In fact, it is available for free at Manga.com and Youtube, so there is no excuse to not check it out right now.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. Redline is the directorial debut of one Koike Takeshi, who has worked in the past as an animator on many notable things that I have not seen. His decision to hand draw everything gave the film a seven year production time, and no doubt a correspondingly sprawling budget. The visuals are appropriately jaw-dropping, much edgier and, dare I say, realistic than typical anime. I’m not really an expert and will leave further commentary to the pros, but Redline is a feast for the eyes. James Shimoji wrote a soundtrack of throbbing techno beats that powers the action. Most of it isn’t really my bag, but I would drop the “Redline Day” theme in a club set once in awhile, were I to ever start DJ’ing. Finally, I had subtitles on for reference, but didn’t pay close enough attention to the translation to comment. The DVD I borrowed had the Japanese version; streaming options appear to only have the English dub, which I have thus far avoided. All of these points are better addressed at anime specific sites, by people who know more than I do.

Now for the fun part, wherein I explain why everyone should watch this. The single biggest reason to enjoy Redline, besides the incredible animation, is the protagonist, JP. He has a massive pompadour (called a ri-zento in Japanese), looks like a particular sort of Japanese punk, and appears to drive a late 60s vintage Pontiac. He also has a heart of gold and ends up losing races because he is too nice. I’m not generally a fan of yanki- (literally “Yankee,” but actually a fashion for juvenile delinquents), but anyone who drives a muscle car in rocket-powered, far future faces is alright with me. Bits and pieces of his life are told in flashback during the buildup to the big race.

The race itself, called the “Redline,” is held every five years for winners of various smaller races – the Yellow Line, Blue Line, etc. It is the World Cup of racing, probably illegal, effectively rule free, the center of a galaxy’s worth of gambling, and held at random places throughout the universe. This time it will be on RoboWorld, the domain of a particularly crazy and xenocidal dictator. Naturally, he wants nothing to do with the race and promises to blow everyone to smithereens if they so much as try to race on his turf. A real life parallel might be found if someone sponsored an airlift of elite rally car squads into North Korea, with the finish line in downtown Pyongyang. JP backs into the Redline to race against a motley assortment of humans, machines, and aliens.

The supporting cast is appropriately weird. JP’s best friend and fixer has mob connections and wears zoot suits. This mechanic looks like a creepy ode to a character from Spirited Away. The RoboWorld dictator and his posse are suitably over the top. One of the other racers, Sonoshee, catches JP’s eye; they may have some sort of past. If the characterization is not particularly deep, it is at least entertaining. The people aren’t the star of the show here, but they are sufficient to move the story along between races.

Most of the plot beats follow a typical sports underdog path, albeit one with exploding rocket-powered cars, alien mob bosses, gigantic and vengeful babies, egregious boobs, and three extra tablespoons of awesomeness. There is even a love story I can (mostly) get behind. It’s a bit like Star Wars pod racing done right. I think it’s one of those movies to show to people who wouldn’t normally watch anime, since it skips a lot of the dumb stuff and gets right to NASCAR with laser cannons. Realistically, what more could I ask? I give it three thumbs up, because I’m one of the multi-limbed aliens in the stands.

2014 Reading List

Top 20 Books to Finish in 2014

After much delay, much waffling, and a final burst of determined discipline, I have birthed this year’s reading list. I figure I’ll read 80-90 books this year (I’m at 17 but have hit a slowdown), of which many will be non-fiction, randomly chosen, or taken from an increasing pile of ARCs. I have the requisite disorganized TBR mountain and many ambitious plans to conquer it. Realistically though, the following is probably the best I can hope for.

This list represents my highest priorities for the year, culled from a number of TBR lists and series in progress. They are presented without comment, save for the following. First, there are only a few 2014 releases on here and they are all sequels or conclusions. I’m sure other new stuff is very exciting, but that’s really a list for another time. Second, I am aware that this is Anglo-Saxon men on parade. I will chalk that up to my attempts to wrap up reading projects that stretch back into my insensitive, uncaring days. Please be aware that I have the usual Japanese entries coming down the pipe and am conscious of equality efforts in my other reading. In fact, I’ve been doing pretty well this year, both in completed books and in articles published. (Alternately, readers who are needlessly offended by gender- and ethnic-equality efforts can just skip that last paragraph. Thanks, and enjoy your white, male fiction.)

Finally, if this matches up with anyone else, I’d love to jump on another read along. Or a series completion project. Or a read along of something not listed at all. Or pretty much anything, since this game is much more fun when we’re all playing it. Have a good 2014, everyone.

Cibola Burn – James S.A. Corey

An Autumn War – Daniel Abraham

On the Steel Breeze – Alastair Reynolds

Shipstar – Greg Benford and Larry Niven

The Bonehunters – Steven Erikson

Manifold: Space – Steven Baxter

The Confusion – Neal Stephenson

The Straits of Galahesh – Bradley Beaulieu

David Falkayn: Star Trader – Poul Anderson

The Quiet War – Paul McAuley

The Hostile Takeover Trilogy – Andrew Swann

Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence

Rimrunners – C.J. Cherryh

Inversions – Iain M. Banks

Crucible – Nancy Kress

Jhereg – Steven Brust

The Neutronium Alchemist – Peter F. Hamilton

Brain Thief – Alexander Jablokov

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

The Towers of Sunset – L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Queen City Jazz

Queen City Jazz
Kathleen Ann Goonan

Queen City Jazz is a difficult, uncompromising book. Goonan refuses to make things easy for the reader, above and beyond the usual Hard SF hurdles. Keeping up with Goonan requires a healthy knowledge of nanotech, bees, and jazz, with lesser amounts of Cincinnati, American literature, baseball, and Shakers. Even if the reader is up on all of these, details of the plot are deliberately obscured, characters mislead the protagonist, the history of the nano ravaged world is vague, and the final point of the story isn’t clear until the very end. Whether or not the reward justifies the work is a hard call to make. I thought it worthwhile, but I may be in the minority.

Like many first novels, this one has an “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to it. Goonan has created a complicated and detailed world, then stuffed it with a wild array of characters and technology. She could have stopped at nanotech, or even at the nanotech derived plague that both transformed the cities and depopulated the country, but kept going. Verity, the protagonist, starts off in a Neo-Shaker community that came together in response to the plagues, but is off before long into the transformed, unrecognizable cities. Her ultimate destination, Cincinnati, is full of towering, graceful skyscrapers, each with a gigantic flower on top and serviced by an army of cow-sized, nanotech bees. Survivors of the nanotech craziness live in shanty towns in the shadow of the city, while the residents of the city itself might be human, or might not.

Are we all keeping up so far? The vertigo is just beginning. Verity discovers her destiny, pre-nano flashbacks start to explain the semi-mad, vaguely incestuous beginnings of the nano-plagues, and everyone plays jazz or baseball. Goonan maintains a voice that manages cold science and dreamy intoxication, often at the same time. I have read a lot of science fiction and know a lot of plot paths, but this one kept me off-balance almost the entire time. I confess to having no idea, through probably 450 pages, of where things were going, what would happen, or how Verity was going to become whatever it is she was supposed to become. Though certainly a credit to the author’s creativity, not everyone will appreciate being bewildered for so long. I think we can all agree, though, that seeing Ernest Hemingway rejected for a spot on the recreated Cincinnati Reds due to arrogant jerkiness is worth the price of admission.

Long time readers might (correctly) guess that the jazz bit of Queen City Jazz is my favorite part. Goonan clearly knows her stuff. The conversations between musicians ring true, the descriptions of their playing reflect the way I feel when I play, and the strange reincarnations of past masters are appropriate. Goonan must know that Sphere, the alto sax player who guides Verity through the city, shares a name with Thelonious Monk, though they have little in common. (Monk’s middle name was Sphere, but Monk was, in (I think) Dexter Gordon’s tastefully understated words, “Not exactly the cat next door.”) My only real nitpick is that jazz seems to stop about 1965 in the book. Keeping things with the classics does give the book a more timeless feel, but also has a “you kids get off my lawn” vibe with the implication that good music died with John Coltrane. To be fair, I think that this was an editorial decision in line with the first observation, more than a flag planted by the second.

Trying to put this all together, Queen City Jazz has solid world building, a singular premise and vision, and excellent prose on one hand. On the other, it is dense and unforgiving, likely leaving many readers with no idea what is going on for long stretches. If people tell me that they just didn’t get it, or bounced hard within the first hundred pages or so, I will understand. Still, there are more books in the series, so somebody thought this was worth the trouble. I have a built in tolerance for the worst excesses of Hard SF (not present here anyway), heavy reading, and all around cryptic stuff, so I muscled through alright. In fact, when they payoff finally came, I was glad that I persevered. I can give that level of recommendation, but will not be surprised if others disagree. I will report back later, once I have delved further into Goonan’s world, with a verdict on the broader implications of the book.

Rating: A tense, 0-0 draw in the preliminary round. Not for everyone, but a certain aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the tactical battles unfolding.

Counting Heads

Counting Heads
David Marusek

I’ve had a hard time finding an angle to write about with Counting Heads. Normally I give up on books that don’t immediately present an entertaining topic for an article, but Marusek’s world is both unique and obscure enough that I want to talk about it. Still, it’s not the easiest thing to make a post from, despite taking on all sorts of crunchy issues in a surreal, cyberpunk-y world. Ah well, let’s dig in and see what what we can make of it all.

More than anything else, what stands out in Counting Heads is the world building. Marusek has clearly spent time inhabiting this creation, giving it an extensive history and complex society. If forced to pigeonhole things, I would file the book in cyberpunk, but it is no Gibson-Sterling clone. I was frequently reminded of Rudy Rucker while I read, though Counting Heads is not nearly as weird as The Ware Tetralogy. It has a similar vibe, combining an uneasy, if not quite dystopian, future with well-reasoned but very strange people. It also has smells, which may have sealed the deal for me. (The cheesy robots and seared unfortunates might get along well.) Marusek blends nanotech, pervasive augmented reality, cloning, Heinleinian family setups, and near-future economics. One review I read speculated that the society is on the verge of a Singularity – it may be, with AI and digitized dead people on the horizon. It’s a grab bag of contemporary issues, presented under the domes set up to protect cities from nanoplagues, by people trapped in a society that is no longer economically viable and searching for answers. The last bit should feel right at home for us.

The economy may be the most impressive world building feat. Marusek’s scientists have found paths both to near immortality and to human cloning. Either of these alone would be a fundamental economic game changer, but together would blow up pretty much everything. Only in a complete post-scarcity world could society withstand that double challenge. The people in Counting Heads seem to have solved some natural resource questions (not all, but more than we have), but the basics remain competitive. Without a very high floor for food, housing, health care, and education, cloning and lifespans in the 200s would devastate the middle class; this is exactly what is happening in Counting Heads. Not only are traditional humans suffering, but whole clans of clones are confronting obsolescence and its resulting poverty. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but Marusek is painfully close to describing global economics today. It grants the characters a harrowing sympathy.

And a wild assortment of characters they are. We see the super rich, the “seared” outcasts, a co-op trying to make a go of it, clones, a troubled religious leader, and the random denizens of the near future. The viewpoint character for the co-op is a man who has elected to remain twelve forever, both physically and emotionally. He has a good job, but is stunningly superficial; though whether this is by necessity or choice is never clear. The clones are represented by a “Russ,” a clone type used for most security work. This particular Russ may be having a psychological crisis that is forking him off into a new type, or may not. His attempts to make sense of his own psyche amidst his genetically taciturn brethren form one of my favorite subplots. The seared unfortunate is the narrator of the short story that opens the book, who then retreats into a background role that offers a melodic counterpoint to the rest. All are distinct and engaging, likewise the more prominent secondary characters, though my sympathies lie primarily with the groups of clones. I have no idea why, but I found their stories to be the most entertaining.

All of this forms the backdrop for a rather conventional plot, involving someone’s head standing in for the requisite MacGuffin. It’s almost an afterthought, with plenty of other things going on that are probably not related to the head, but ultimately more important. In fact, the location and condition of the head drives one particular plot point that I was never sure needed to be driven in that way. We are told by a couple of unreliable types that a certain outcome would be bad. Certain other unreliable types go along with that and do some unreliable things as a result. Was this the best answer? I guess so, though it’s hard to say. I’m actually more interested in whatever is going on with the domes, how the Russes and other clones are dealing with things, whether or not the seared guy will turn himself into a wheelchair-bound fireball at a hilarious time or not, and if that crazy co-op group will beat down their equally crazy neighbors. The head is nice and all, and is probably a charming person once reattached to something, but it wasn’t the center of my life. I suppose there would have to be a different title without it, so there is that.

I don’t know where to place this in the broader, near-future firmament. It’s kind of cyberpunk. It’s definitely soft SF, with its focus on society over technology. It’s a moderately deep character study of some very sideways people. There is potential here for the next books in the series to dig into some serious issues, and the world to open up into something distinctive, but there is also a chance that things merely plod along with a bunch of navel gazing weirdos. Regardless, I think Counting Heads deserves more notice and more conversation, though it didn’t quite grab me by the lips and yank. “Detached fascination” might be the operative words here, but I will be reading more.