Ed.: Rhonda Parrish

I’m starting to feel pretty bad about this one. Several months ago, Ms. Parrish contacted the blog with a request to review her newest anthology, Metastasis. I’m still surprised that anyone beyond my mom and a few friends read this blog, let alone actual industry people, so I was flattered to get the email. The book seemed a bit glum though, since all of the stories are about cancer. Still, the email pointed out that most of the money made by this book will be donated to cancer research, which is certainly a cause worth getting behind. I wrote back and said I’d be happy to take a look. Then, real life at the Two Dudes exploded, all blog projects fell behind, and I am still digging out of the rubble. So, to Ms. Parrish, my humble apologies for knocking this out a few months late.

Within the last year or so, I get the feeling that cancer, always a large and scary bugbear, became more personal for the community. Between Jay Lake’s public battle and Iain M. Banks sudden passing, prominent genre voices are talking about cancer in terms of the SFF world, rather than just a disease that probably afflicts someone we know. In fact, Jay Lake was heavily involved with Metastasis, contributing a story and an afterword. The other authors are the usual mix of well known names and emerging talents, many of whom have some connection to the disease. Several of the stories were dedicated to those lost from cancer, others were written by people suffering from it themselves.

I confess to being apprehensive going into the book. There was no way stories would be anything but depressing, and there was the omnipresent risk of situations degenerating into Important Life Lessons, or possibly Redemption. (These are not guaranteed to be bad, but require a certain light touch that is all too often lacking. It is far too easy to just be Nicholas Sparks.) Indeed, the first few stories were pretty dark. Then a funny thing happened. Well, maybe not so funny, since the change is pretty obvious when the “speculative” part of speculative fiction takes over. Happy ends are still scarce, but when cancer changes from an overwhelming shadow to a spur for creativity, people come up with some pretty fascinating ideas. There are alien invasions, other dimensions and universes, identity warping cures, ghosts, and enough dark fantasy to shake a stick at. (Maybe that should be a quarterstaff, since, you know, fantasy and all.) There are also, once, puppets. Many of the stories had an Apex-y feel to them, in terms of the off-kilter view of the world.

I’m not very good at writing up anthologies. I say this every time I do, but that still hasn’t changed. They don’t fit neatly into the narratives I like to impose on the genre, so I am left with saying something like, “Stories A, B, L, and R were pretty neato. There were some others that didn’t work for me, but not everyone will agree,” which is not helpful to anyone. That said, I most enjoyed the stories that, surprise, engaged with science fiction. Multiverses, aliens, and blaster battles will always grab me harder than supernatural stuff, witches, or feelings. I was impressed that the authors were able to take a single idea, cancer, and tell so many different stories about it. Themes like “the apocalypse” or “new space opera” are open-ended enough to tell an infinite number of stories, but a disease seems to limiting. Not so in the hands of a confident and competent writer. I tip my hat to these people for coming at the topic from so many different angles and making me think so many different ways about it.

Rhonda Parrish has collected all the necessary details on her homepage, with additional thoughts, interviews, and news readily available. Metastasis definitely deserves broad exposure, and not just because it’s a way the community can help others. That is initially why I read it, of course, but the stories in the book deserve to be told, and deserve to be read. This one goes out with a Two Dudes recommendation.

SF Villains

SF Villains

With Nathan over at Fantasy Review Barn whipping out Dark Lords for last week’s grand tour of Fantasyland, it seemed appropriate to revisit a few favorite villains of science fiction. The Dark Lord trick doesn’t work as well for SF, especially Hard SF, but there are still a few memorable Bad Guys (or groups of Guys) out there. List making is complicated by a broad tendency in SF, or at least the SF that I enjoy, to either substitute some sort of exploration, puzzle solving, or engineering conundrum for a Bad Guy, or to present things in a hazily defined, opposing force but not really evil kind of characterization. Further, while a few entries here fit with the Dark Lord theme, SF much prefers the Alien Invasion to a single evil entity. Thus, this list covers a bit of both. If anyone else out there wants to make a similar list, I’d love to see it.

Darth Vader (Star Wars) – If I made this list without Lord Vader, they’d be coming for me with torches and pitchforks. Deservedly so, as he pretty much owns the original trilogy, mowing down admirals and tossing Emperors like rag dolls. Vader scared the crap out of childhood me and remains compelling, even in spite of the prequels.

The Shrike (Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons) – Only slightly less terrifying is Simmons’ Shrike, a spiked, inexplicable death machine that impales people on its infinite variety of sharpened body parts and leaves them alive and hanging. With Darth Vader, at least we know where we stand. The Shrike is a total mystery.

Jesus of Nazareth(10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights – Mitsuse Ryu) Other than, “He is a cyborg assassin,” it is really hard to describe Mitsuse’s Jesus of Nazareth to anyone who hasn’t read the book. I will just leave this quote without comment: “Siddhartha was acutely aware that as long as Jesus of Nazareth was alive, this could be a trap.

MorningLightMountain (The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton) – This is a transitional figure, as we move into alien invaders. MorningLightMountain is both a Dark Lord (of sorts) and an alien invasion, rolled into one. Whatever the other faults of the series, Hamilton’s choice for a villain is not one of them. At the moment, I prefer it to the ravening hordes in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, if only because it is a unique and distinctive alien creation.

Berserkers (Fred Saberhagen) – I’ve only read one Berserker novel, but will eventually get to more of a definitive “over matched humanity barely hangs on against xenocidal forces” saga.

The Inhibitors (Revelation Space series – Alastair Reynolds) – The whole universe Reynolds creates is one of my favorites in SF, what with the Glitter Band, Chasm City, Lighthuggers, and all the rest, but looming over it all are the Inhibitors. The scariest parts are when Reynolds switches to an Inhibitor viewpoint, as it casually and logically calculates the most efficient way to wipe out a solar system. (This may include dismantling gas giants to build a death ray that causes supernovae, just for maximum overkill.)

Kzin / Thrint (Known Space – Larry Niven) – So many Niven aliens, so little time. The Kzin are the basis for at least two other cat-like invaders, notably Wing Commander’s Kilrathi, The Thrint ruled the galaxy with psychic domination until finally overthrown in a rebellion that may have involved death ray shooting sunflowers and/or Bandersnatchi.

Thebans (Crusade – David Weber and Steve White) – While the baby-eating space bugs from sequel In Death Ground are suitably horrible, I can’t shake a fond attraction for the plucky Thebans. After all, hostile, sentient arachnids are a dime a dozen, but how often to we see an invasion from a bunch of fundamentalist turtles out to reclaim humanity’s soul? High drama for everyone.

Romans / The Hive (The Myriad – RM Meluch) – If we’re looking for the weirdest of the weird though, nothing I have read compares with the perils faced by Meluch’s good ship Merrimack. Not only are the American (!) Marines in space feuding with the simpering, Euro-socialist weenies of the League of Earth Nations, but both are opposed by a new, space-based Roman Empire. Yes, those Romans. Apparently they were in hiding all those millenia, just waiting for a chance to escape the shackles of Earth and re-establish their supremacy. But wait, there’s more! Now space bugs are invading, too! And, inexplicably, they can only be killed by swords during boarding operations. Add it all up and we have Marines and Romans, in space, wielding cutlasses to fight off ravening insects.

Ur-Quan (Star Control 2) – Saving the best for last here, the emotional core of arguably the best computer game ever rests with the Ur-Quan. Twisted by the self-induced pain required to throw off the rule of their own enslavers, the Ur-Quan become the very evil that they vanquished. For a game that wins so much acclaim for the humor (the Spathi!), the tragic arc of the villainous invaders lands a heavy punch. Fortunately for the world, an open source revision of the original game is available as The Ur-Quan Masters. No self respecting gamer should be without it.

Throwdown!: Time Traveling Botanists

Throwdown!: Time Traveling Botanists

In The Garden of Iden
Kage Baker
The Cusanus Game
Wolfgang Jeschke

Every once in awhile, I acquire two or more books with nearly identical themes and read them sequentially. (And by “identical themes,” I mean something more narrow than just exploding spaceships or men with swords and mighty thews.) This is almost always coincidental and inevitably leads to another (infrequent) Throwdown post. I believe this to be the third I have written, with increasing levels of thematic obscurity. Nobody is as surprised as I am that this time I have two books to compare about botanists who travel through time. Maybe there is an entire subgenre about this that I have previously missed, but I’m guessing that I won’t read another similar book this year.

First up is In the Garden of Iden, the opener to Kage Baker’s stupendously popular Company series. It is only the second Baker book I have read, but I already regret being so late to the party. Without knowing Baker’s reputation, I would never have picked up Iden, as the description of time travel and romance trips all sorts of alarm bells. I have mentioned before that I’m not really a fan of time travel (I think too much about the mechanics and get annoyed) and that romantic subplots make me grind my teeth (no good reason, but I’m just not into other people’s relationships). Adding insult to injury, the whole plot revolves around a character who studies plants, not physics or some other traditional Hard SF topic. I hated biology and got bad grades in it. Still, I trust Kage Baker to make it happen, as we all should.

Iden isn’t quite as funny as Anvil of the World, but it is still a jolly read. Not that serious and depressing things aren’t happening, because this is Reformation England and of course life is brutish and short, but the story bounds happily along anyway. That seems to be the way Baker is, which is just fine with me. The history is covered (I assume) accurately, but with a light touch – no painful infodumps or clumsy summaries. It probably helps that the time period and locale are familiar to many of us, but not having to hack through a text book just to understand what is happening speaks volumes of Baker’s efficiency and skill, especially considering that she is introducing two civilizations, a bit of future history, a time travel system that doesn’t eat its own tail, and a host of characters, all in just a few hundred pages.

Finally, while the book can stand on its own, this is one of those that really begs to be a series. Iden is wholly self-contained, but Baker has folded in enough thematic material to fill multiple volumes. The time travel mechanism is plausible, the characters are built to last (literally and figuratively), and with thousands of years to work with, there isn’t much threat of exhausting things. The position that the titular Company creates for itself raises questions that Iden declines to address, despite it being completely satisfying as is. Having read books whose sole purpose is to set the stage for sequels, I can’t overstate how pleasant it is to deal with an opener that is content to deal only with the moment. That may be the book’s biggest strength, though it is one among many.

I don’t remember why or when The Cusanus Game entered my TBR list, though I suspect the influence of either The Coode Street Podcast or something on Regardless, I saw a copy on a recent excursion to a previously unvisited library branch and snapped it up. (That same day at another branch, I checked out Iden.) Cusanus is a 2005 book by Wolfgang Jeschke, apparently a prominent SF author and editor in Germany. I hadn’t heard of him before the 2013 publication of Cusanus, though it looks like he has at least some short stories available in English. I hope Tor puts some muscle behind Jeschke, as he seems like the sort of author (and Tor the sort of publisher) that could make a push for more translated SF.

In my SF world, aliens always invade America and giant monsters always flatten Tokyo. It is nice to read about Europe, for once, even if that Europe is a pretty awful place to be. Not because of socialism, good health care, and strong labor unions though, but because somebody pushed the “Oops” button on a nuclear bomb or plant and turned much of Germany and Poland into glass. Adding insult to injury, climate change took the worst possible path in Jeschke’s future, leaving what’s left of Europe awash in refugees from places that are now either under water or turning into deserts. Into this steps the Catholic church, who ishiring scientists for a mysterious project that is supposed to save Europe.

It just so happens that the main viewpoint character is a botanist who, oddly enough, gets to travel through time. She too tromps around Medieval Europe, contending with many of the same issues as Baker’s characters: religious conflict, witch burning, and a budding scientific world view. Jeschke employs an ingenious time travel mechanism for this, involving waves that roll back and forth through the multiverse, carrying potential travelers along for the ride. Where Baker deals with one immutable timeline, Jeschke allows for a multiverse of countless parallel realities, albeit one that allows many of its universes to shrivel and die in a bid to keep some form of order. There may or may not be intelligences outside of time that are using these time waves to bring about some ultimate purpose, though things are quite vague.

Of particular interest in Cusanus is the European viewpoint that carries beyond just the setting. Die hard fans of the USA may not appreciate the author’s bland dismissal of our great nation. (I minded not a whit.) The weight of history is ever present, though its pressures change depending on the region. Italy is never far from its Renaissance glories, while Germany and France remain in the shadow of war. I was particularly fascinated at the fears of resurgent Nazism, something that seems close to the surface in other books I have read from the Continent. Race relations in Europe are every bit as fraught as they are in North America, but with very different dynamics in play; readers sensitive to this will find much of interest.

I wish I had gotten to this book a bit earlier. I have no idea what the rules are for translations, but Cusanus would have been on my Hugo ballot for 2013, had I submitted one. It is heavy reading, with a pace and characterization that will turn off some readers. It is also crammed full of ideas, world building, and commentary on hot topics like climate change, nuclear energy, and race relations. With the right push from certain factions of the community, Cusanus is a book that could generate serious, if slow burning, buzz. It has everything I look for in SF and delivers an original, brain twisting, story. I will understand when some people bounce off, but must give a strong recommendation to fans who want to be challenged when they read.