Jagannath

Jagannath
Karin Tidbeck

I’m going to make a hash out of this, but I have to give it a go anyway. Most of what I write about is both quality and engages with questions that I find interesting. (Politics and economics, for example, or the Singularity, or exploding spaceships.) Some of what’s left is bad and begging to be mocked. Both of these are easy to write about; words practically flow onto the page like the mighty Amazon River once I get going. Other books though, are a bit like that quiet kid back in high school who looked perfectly normal, but once in awhile would say something completely out of the blue that made everyone think, “Wait, is (s)he ok? That was brilliant, but is one of us going to suddenly turn up dead one morning at his/her hand?” Jagannath is exactly that book.

In more mundane terms, Jagannath is a short book of short stories, thirteen of them in 134 pages. Tidbeck is from Sweden, so one might compare this book to a Volvo, if the Volvo were beautifully constructed, delicate and graceful, with all sorts of innocently sinister tics and quirks, and without those big mother headlights in front. On second thought, Jagannath is almost nothing like a Volvo; something tells me that Ikea and meatballs are also comparison non-starters. The stories are, however, often based on Scandinavian folk tales and maintain the dislocated feel caused by exaggerated days and nights that come with the seasons in that distant clime. I’m not exactly in midnight sun territory here, but it is far enough north that I can see the psychological changes that follow the early nights of winter and the long, long days in summer. The connection between endless nights and twilights and the weirdness in the stories is sometimes overt, sometimes implied, but almost always present.

I think that my favorites of the collection are the opener, “Beatrice,” and “Brita’s Holiday Village.” I would be hard pressed to explain why these stand out more than the others, since the collection as a whole demonstrates a consistent level of quality. All of the stories worm their way into the reader’s subconscious, causing random flashes of ghostly weirdness. Nothing in the book qualifies as a taut, page-turning yarn; instead the stories move elegantly from reality into something very strange, leaving the reader with a furrowed brow and a, “wait, how did we end up here?” The effect is rather like someone looking at a seemingly charming Edward Gorey picture and saying, “Well this is cu… hey! Is that bear eating the children?”

So far, I have only made comical (offensive?) Scandinavian caricatures, without offering much in the way of analysis or critical appraisal. Sadly, things aren’t going to get any better, because Jagannath defies easy categorization. The only other comparison I can make is to Mozart’s chamber music: transparent miniatures of impeccable craftsmanship that, if not always to my taste, are well worth an in-depth study. Hopefully that is enough to convince everyone to check out what will likely be a touchstone collection of 2012.

Rating: Let’s go all the way with Sweden and this particularly insane goal against Brave England.

Short Story Straight Dope – April 2012

Short Story Straight Dope – April 2012

The Internet has done wonderful things for consumers of SF short stories. We don’t know how well this works for publishers and authors, but there is a wealth of free fiction going up all the time and we’re not going to turn that sort of bonanza down. When the mood strikes, we will round up some of the best stuff we’ve read, provide links, and say a word or two about the choices.

Shipbirth – Aliette de Bodard
Shipbirth is not your father’s science fiction. As a Nebula nominee, it’s been getting a little more press lately; not all of the reviews are glowing. I won’t name any names, but some critics are utterly baffled by this one. Considering that the story involves Aztecs in space ( AZZZZTECS IN SPAAAAAAACE!) while someone is literally giving birth to a giant brain that will control an FTL spaceship, a little confusion is understandable. I liked it, but I’m already a fan of the author, who never hesitates to publish something completely off the beaten path. Everyone should read this, and do so with an open mind, but I don’t think anyone’s feelings will be hurt by yet another, “I just don’t get it.”

The Shadow War of The Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue – John Scalzi
While we’re on an awards kick, how about this Hugo nominee? Scalzi himself sums it up better than I ever could here. Yes, it’s Scalzi, and I’m sure plenty of people out there don’t like him because he’s ubiquitous, but this is just brilliant. It’s everything that irritates me about fantasy in a single page, it’s an April Fool’s gag, and now it’s on the Hugo ballot. I really hope it wins and The Establishment poops itself. Nothing but good fun all around. Any readers out there having a bummer of a day, read this. It will help. I suspect that, like funk, it also has the power to remove, if you know what I mean.

The Sigma Structure Symphony – Greg Benford
This is also at Tor.com, which, despite being a fearsome monolith, manages to provide some pretty great stuff. This story is part of the Palencar Project, a series of stories written to fit a painting by John Palencar. (Hit the link for a longer description and other stories.) Benford’s story was a nice corrective to some recent stuff I’ve read, because I’ve had a hard time nailing down quality Hard SF. For whatever reason, a lot of the stuff I’ve found online has been either depressing, elegiac melancholy, a penetrating look at the human condition that just happens to have SF trappings, or a depressing, elegiac, penetrating look at the human condition of melancholy that just happens to have SF trappings. Fortunately, Benford provides the equivalent of a juicy science fiction steak here: aliens, math, scientists, The Future, and Bach. Couldn’t be better.

Nomad – Karin Lowachee
This story went up a couple of days ago at Lightspeed, which I should subscribe to but don’t. It’s from a collection that just came out called Armored, all stories about battle armor, power armor, fighting suits, and whatnot. Lowachee takes a different approach and tells the story from the point of view of the armor itself. Fortunately, the armor is just as sentient as the wearer in this case, so it’s not some dumb, contrived attempt to humanize an inanimate object. The story is a fairly straight-ahead motorcycle gang revenge tale, in a vaguely post-holocaust setting where the motorcycles have been replaced by AI-powered battle armor. And yes, I say that with a complete lack of sarcasm.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees – E. Lily Yu
More award nominees, this time for both a Hugo and a Nebula. Yu’s story is available from Clarkesworld and is every bit as awesome as the title implies. I guess one would have to classify this as fantasy, since the animals talk and it doesn’t really seem to be in the future. It also takes place in China, which is more interesting than Dayton, OH, but I say that as a white guy who isn’t remotely interested in the state of Ohio. Also, the country of origin really doesn’t matter in a story about map-making insects with imperialist designs. It’s kind of a universal, transcendent theme.