Linky Tunes (2017-07-31)

Rather than being inspired to post a link and throwing in a couple more or whatever has been the method for previous link posts, I actually bookmarked stuff that I thought was interesting from the 11th to now. This resulted in a lot more links and it might be a bit much to expect folks to read this whole thing (though you’re more than welcome to) but hopefully the headers and the shiny blue stuff will still let you find a thing or two that might interest you as well.

Also, a blog note: I’m behind on reading I need to get done for Tangent so I may be a little slow with the webzines at the start of this month but I’ll try not to be.

Politics

I don’t (and hopefully won’t) talk politics much because right-wing people think I’m a dirty hippie commie and left-wing people think I’m a racist sexist fascist and that’s not much fun for me but there have been a lot of articles recently on a subject dear to my heart and I want to pass them on.

Gerrymandering

I don’t care what wing you are, if you’re a little-d democrat and little-r republican, you surely understand that every citizen must count and every elected official must be responsive and that therefore all must fight gerrymandering as one of the greatest evils that can be perpetrated on a democracy. Whether you’re a Democrat in Maryland or a Republican in North Carolina, you should join with those outside your parties in condemning this and even voting against your party if your legislators persist in the villainy of gerrymandering (whether for racial or party or any other reasons). No American should want a one-party system (like Psoviet Russia and China) even if they think “their side” is going to be that party. Somehow many Americans seem to have gotten the idea that, if they aren’t happy all the time, they must be unhappy and need to wreck stuff until they are. But there’s a word for a person who gets everything his way all the time: “dictator.” The only people happy under dictatorial systems are those who agree with the dictator 100% of the time and don’t happen to get on his bad side anyway. Democracy, when functioning, means no one ever being completely happy but most people being mostly happy most of the time.

The articles I’m linking to mostly focus on my state of North Carolina but they’re applicable anywhere democracy is being subverted.

The most striking point in “NC elections don’t ‘look regular’ – and haven’t for a long time” (beside the colorful moonshiner story) is that 9% of the state representative and 0% of the national representative races in NC (the ones decided by districts which can be gerrymandered) were competitive in a state where senatorial, gubernatorial, and presidential races (the ones decided statewide) are regularly within single points (the last governor’s race being decided by a few thousand votes (0.2%) out of millions cast).

And so you say the fox ate your chickens? Well, we’ll fix that by putting the fox back in the henhouse, as these two articles detail:

And these two articles say the judges are not amused.

That sort of thing tends to make one feel hopeless but, on the other hand, there are things like this opinion piece: “I’m Republican, but N.C. legislature went too far“. It captures what can go wrong in irresponsible governments but provides hope that it can be corrected when people put state and country (and simple justice and good sense) ahead of party.

Two Other Notes and a Segue

Speaking of party, the fact that the “Democrats split with Jefferson and Jackson” gives me a chance to smack them as well as the Republicans. If they don’t want to be associated with the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a prime mover behind the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the founder of the University of Virginia, a benefactor of science and exploration (and, oh, by the way, a two-term President who doubled the size of the country), then I’m sure glad I’m not associated with them. But, then, Jefferson’s better angel did make him say, “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in any thing else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all,” so he’d probably be glad not to be associated with them, either.

To return to the idea of “responsive” politicians, here’s an example of where it’s completely broken (and note the influence of money – especially special interest money – extra-especially out-of-state special interest money – corrupting both the citizens and their representatives): “Lawmakers Strike Back Against Voter-Approved Ballot Measures.”

So. That’s my course of vegetables for this blog post. Remember, boys and girls, gerrymandering is bad. Your nation and state are more important than your party. Now on to some heaping helpings of a variety of desserts.

History

My favorite articles from The History Blog since the last one I noted:

Science

Now for some cool science, some of which is bittersweet (to say the least) but still neat in scientific terms.

The first post is just interesting.

The next two are yet more examples of how subtle and ever-decreasing the value of ne (the number of worlds suitable for life in the Drake equation) is. There are still innumerable galaxies and there are innumerable stars in each of those galaxies so it still seems like the odds are (literally) astronomical that we’d be alone but, the more we learn, the more the odds that we are seem to be approaching equality.

I’m repeating the last two from File 770 because that reminded me that, while I’ve linked to The History Blog before and it is a great blog, I’d somehow neglected to link to my very favorite blog, Centauri Dreams. These are very good posts on a great contributor to our progress toward interstellar flight.

Science Fiction

Hard SF at Rocket Stack Rank

Finally, to move from the science to the fiction, Rocket Stack Rank has an interesting and extremely number-crunching piece on the state of Hard Science Fiction in 2016. My problems with this piece are that it partly counts words vs. stories, its list of most important magazines is debatable, and the numbers after a certain point refer only to “recommended hard SF” which automatically makes it all even more subjective than it has to be and doesn’t actually address the state of hard SF generally. That said, it is obviously quite a labor of love and very interesting and I applaud the focus and effort.

(Skip to the next section if you don’t care about my story re-recommendations for or against.)

As far as the stories themselves, RSR ignores the ones that weren’t recommended by anyone and divides the recommended ones into those RSR recommended against and those it either didn’t or recommended favorably.

Of the ones RSR was neutral-to-positive on, I’ve recommended “The Art of Space Travel” but it’s only hard SF by omission – it omits all fantasy but doesn’t really include much science. Quite pleased to see “Chasing Ivory” recommended by Dozois but apparently he and I were the only ones.

I was indifferent to or mixed on “RedKing,” “White Dust,” “Something Happened Here,” “Those Brighter Stars,” “Induction,” and “Six Degrees.” Again, perhaps none are fantasy but they don’t generally make me think of Clement, Forward, or Egan.

On the ones RSR recommended against, I agree with RSR and disagree with Dozois/Horton on “Bridge of Dreams” and Dozois on “A Tower for the Coming World,” “Sixteen Questions,” and “Monuments.” I gave all those mixed to unfavorable reviews at Tangent.

However, one point of strong agreement with Dozois and disagreement with RSR concerns “Cold Comfort” which was one of my three favorite stories in Bridging Infinity. Another favorite (which seems not to have qualified as hard SF but, IIRC, was at least as hard as, e.g., “Bridge of Dreams”) was “Seven Birthdays” by Ken Liu. The third was one that may not have been recommended by anyone but me: “Mice Among Elephants” by Benford and Niven, which I admitted at Tangent was “[n]ot an entirely successful story” but “one that I really enjoyed.” So, admittedly, more of a “fun” rec than a “great story” rec, but I like fun.

Anyway – those are the ones it occurs to me to comment on. For the other stories, I either missed reading them or missed commenting about them if I have read them.

Ballantine’s “Best of” and Le Guin at Black Gate

Over at Black Gate, they’ve added some reviews of Ballantine’s “The Best of” series which, I think, is one of the best publishing achievements in SF history. Recently there have been at least reviews of the John W. Campbell and Cordwainer Smith volumes. For more, see the list at the bottom of the Campbell review or perhaps these (mostly relevant) search results.

Finally, if you’ve got the bucks and the inclination, Black Gate also informs us that Le Guin’s SF (Orsinia doesn’t count) has made the big time along with PKD and some 50s novels: “A Treasure Trove of Classic Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories from the Library of America.”

Tunes

And now for the tunes – one with one of the best comments ever… Continue reading

Summation of Online Fiction: July 2017

Aside from a two-part novella from BCS (which was just a flash away from counting as a novel), July was a relatively light month in the webzine world. The number of noteworthy stories is also light, but Clarkesworld continued its resurgence with a July issue that was probably even better overall than the June (though each had a standout story), Ellen Datlow picked another for Tor.com, and some other zines also contributed particularly good work.

In addition (and not unrelated) to the Clarkesworld streak, June’s preponderance of SF over F continued in July.

The numbers for this month were thirty-five stories from eleven prozines, of which I read thirty-two of 178K words.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

  • Fallow” by Ashley Blooms, Shimmer (May 2017), short story

I mentioned the Reed in the recommendation of the Kornher-Stace story. The McDevitt is a flash on environmental messes and overpopulation. The Grant is a kind of Egan-esque (or anti-Egan-esque) second-person tale with data stream people squirting around black holes except that it’s not supposed to be even better than the real thing.

Because Ashley Blooms’ story seemed so weird, I decided to look for anything else out there that would indicate whether this was an exception or a rule. Turns out she has two other stories and I was able to read “Fallow,” which gets a belated honorable mention. It indicates the weirdness could be a rule, though “Fallow” is a little more generically “literary” somehow and less boldly idiosyncratic.

Rec: “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, Tor.com 2017-07-19, SF short story

The world is ending, not with a bang, but a whimper. Or, as Susannah puts it, time is a torturer, drawing out its painful death. She, herself, has lost one child to a nuclear strike and another to a plague, and a husband to perhaps a broken heart. But she does have one project. It’s possibly futile or quixotic but definitely important to her, as well as to her financial backer. The four Martian colonies have failed, but they’ve purchased the last one and are using its AIs, robot, and supplies to construct a giant obelisk as a long-lasting token of humanity’s former existence. Some people on Earth object to this project and, when activity occurs on an ostensibly dead Mars which may interfere with the project, things kick into a higher gear as she fights to save her project from possible hackers. Then, without ever deviating from her core drives, things nevertheless change radically.

While I understand that, in this universe, we may have jumped straight to Mars without ever returning to the moon and thus would have no infrastructure there, I can’t help thinking how a much better and even longer-lasting obelisk could be built on the moon. But that’s not really the point. (And I, unsurprisingly, don’t care for the possible symbolism of the obelisk in this story.) I also can’t help but thinking the ending sequence shows some strains of contrivance. It’s not preposterously rigged but it also doesn’t seem to flow with natural and necessary inevitability. And I certainly had to fight with an antipathy towards apocalyptic stories as a class because this one seemed to give off signals that it would be different from most of them. (It obviously rewarded that feeling.)

Those (partly irrelevant) quibbles aside, this was an excellent story. It was effectively dramatic (using the “lightspeed lag” to good effect, for example) and thematic (getting its point across in a way that, though it was clearly “getting its point across,” was plot- and character-driven, so aesthetically justified). I suspect I didn’t respond to it as emotionally (at least on certain “pressure points”) as some might but I did find it emotionally effective in terms of humanity in general and others might respond to it all. But it’s a tough story with fairly high idea-content at the same time so it’s thought-provoking and philosophical as well as emotional. As I say, to juggle all this with only a necessarily unappealing start and some strain in the end is quite an accomplishment.

Rec: “The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms

The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms, Strange Horizons 2017-07-17, fantasy short story

This is a damn weird story. A lot of people write a lot of normal stories and they’re good or they’re bad. And a lot of people write stories that try to be weird and aren’t very good. And a few people write stories that just are weird and can be very good. I read this story two or three days ago and have waffled about recommending it ever since. I’ve just re-read it and decided to go ahead. This story almost repels me and it will repel some folks but it’s just got something literally remarkable. So I’m remarking.

Addie and Ben’s mother died a long time ago. Their drunken dad abandoned them awhile after that and Addie has “tried to be everything to Ben, mother and father and sister” (and more). Then Ben moved away. Now their dad has died, too, and lonely doesn’t even begin to describe Addie’s feelings, so she gets Ben to come back for a visit while she implements a strange plan which gives us our story’s title. She’s had seances before (amongst her general, taken-for-granted witcheries) but now she’s going for a seance/golem combo. She’s got some things to say.

This whole center of the plot is ironically perhaps the weakest part of it. Addie gets Ben there without his knowing of her plans and telling him of them risks running him off. So why the plan? But I think (a) it has to do with the duration of Ben’s stay, making it more than a brief visit and (b) passions are not always logical and she needs to do this. There are a couple of lesser issues involving it not being initially clear to me that the fixation with bellies (aside from symbolism) wasn’t just another bizarre quirk but was related to their diet. And the dialog shift from dad to Ben was confusing but I think intentionally so. But, ultimately, I think the story hangs together and makes sense and is well-told. I especially love the perceptions of this story: Ben’s eye action during Addie’s discussion of the impurities of “cremains”; her talisman story; the whole passage on Monopoly but especially the bit about the racecar; the blackbird simile.

Basically, however strange and uncomfortable and disconcerting this story is, its tale of great loss and vast wanting is quite powerful. It kind of crawls up next to you as in a bed or bathtub and does weird things.

Review: Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Percival “Steve” Stevens is aboard the Inter-Plantetary Vessel Arcturus, as a “computer” who is checking on some navigational problems. These turn out to be the fault of some lazy “astronomers” who haven’t been correcting the position of their stations in the space lanes. That problem solved, he’s tasked with entertaining the daughter of the head of the Inter-Planetary Corporation. This turns out to be, not a little girl as he originally thought, but the young, intelligent lady golfer, Nadia. She and Steve, who is a burly swimmer/diver in addition to being a great scientist/mathematician, are a perfect match. He’s showing her the ship when, suddenly, he feels something amiss and learns that the Arcturus is being sliced apart by rays emanating from an alien ship. They end up in one of the many airtight sections of the ship which forms a little short-range ship of its own, but all are dragged off to Jupiter in the aliens’ tractor beams. Finally, Steve and Nadia make their break when the time is right and end up on a habitable Ganymede where they play Robinson Crusoe together and Steve must rebuild civilization from scratch in order to produce a communications device with which to contact Earth, turning into a Herculean Hephaestus. Meanwhile, Nadia also develops “amazingly in musculature” and becomes the huntress Artemis, bringing home the bacon (or “boiled warple,” anyway) while her man does his work at the base. With part of the necessary fundamentals complete, they go off to a comet for metals and meet the enemy again, but also a new group of aliens (from Saturn’s moon, Titan) who turn out to be human, like ourselves, but much mutated. Working together, the two strains of humanity manage to fight off the enemy and help each other out in other ways. Finally, Steve sends out the signal and can convey to “Tellus” (Earth) the knowledge of what happened, and what the IPV Sirius will face and how to soup it up so that it can deal with the alien challenge. At this point, the view shifts and the milieu recomplicates as more ships and races and angles of combat are introduced, culminating in the overwhelming appearance of the Vorkuls: generally isolationist flying snake-things of South Jupiter with their omnipresent motif of seven-pointed stars and mega-ships. Their planetary and space combat with the intrinsically violent North Jovian hexans (who have been our enemy all along) forms the climax (which humans helped trigger but don’t really participate in), followed by a more human-centered denouement.

This novel is about 86,000 words and first appeared in three 1931 issues of Amazing before being published in book form by Fantasy Press in 1947. As Smith is mostly known for his Skylark and Lensman series, I was hoping it would be an unjustly neglected gem but its secondary status turns out to be fair. Those who are not fans of Smith or 30s SF or space opera would almost certainly have no interest in this while even those who are might not be fully satisfied with it. I enjoyed it, overall, but it has problems, mostly in the POV-shifts and time overlaps of the second half. Its main points deal with the “complementariness” of genders and multiple races of humanity (Martians, “Venerians,” and the people of the Jovian and Saturnian moons) and the idea of omni-competent people being pro-survival, being able to wage “a war of applied physics” (despite earlier saying that earth had united under one government “so that wars could no longer interfere with progress”). A further element in this war is that friendly interaction or isolationism each have their virtues but intrinsic aggression is unacceptable and must be met with greater, albeit momentary, aggression. For an urban American in 1931, some of the details in attitudes were remarkably “advanced” though they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with today’s ideologists. In this, Smith is much like Heinlein and, indeed, this is probably the book where Smith’s influence on Heinlein comes through most clearly. Much of the Steve-and-Nadia portion reminds me irresistibly of Heinlein.

In “Larger Than Life,” a 1979 essay on Smith, written at the request of Smith’s daughter (and the dedicatee of Spacehounds of IPC), Verna, on the occasion of MosCon I which was dedicated to him, Heinlein made the point that Smith was, himself, omni-competent, honest, hospitable, and “the perfect gallant knight” and that all this was “reflected in his stories.” He goes on to mention various attacks on Smith by the critics of that time and proceeds to defend his style (even dialog), love scenes, plots, and social values (Good and Evil, inequality of men (and women)). While the love scenes of IPC are certainly chaste and in keeping with the slang-filled general dialog, they’re actually not all that painful. The rest would certainly give some of today’s audience problems but Heinlein’s defenses are mostly reasonable. Smith actually does write proper English in a consistent and oddly effective way in narrative voice and his dialog may be “all x, no fooling!” but it contributes to a gee-whiz-bang feel blended with the, “Say, Bob…” old-style movie feel in everything from The Thing to even 2001. Heinlein gives Smith too much credit for plotting originality in terms of dynamics (and, in a different sense, the uneven plotting is my major problem with this particular book), but it is true that Smith basically invented the space opera and any critique of what came to be its cliches is, in Smith’s case, historically naive and backwards. As I touched on before, the social values are a curious mix. In 1931, they might have been seen as liberal and/or radical while, today, they would be seen as hopelessly incorrect. The hexans are not so much evil as just bad, like a plague of locusts, and the humans in all their strains are good as groups. Between those good groups, however, the question of whether they’ve diverged so much that they are no longer interfertile isn’t clear but interplanetary romance isn’t seen as acceptable by the hero. (The question as to whether this should be taken literally in science fictional terms or symbolically is also open.) Within these groups, men (and women) are not treated equally. The hero is better than the lazy navigational bums and certainly better than his enemies. While Nadia is smart, athletic, muscled, and hunts for their food and the two form a pair from the start, the hero is more mathematically and scientifically skilled than the heroine and the heroes certainly outnumber the heroines. There is also a question about whether Nadia will turn out to be a “spacehound” (able to handle zero-G and the general environment of space) or a “weight-fiend” (a landlubber), but she does turn out to be as spaceworthy as Steve or anyone else. These things will strongly affect those of any stripe who read SF primarily as social symbolism, although in different ways.

What most affected me were the “complementary intelligences” and “war of applied physics” concepts. For the first, the Tellurians (as Smith calls us), Venerians, and Martians work together to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts (as do men and women) and this motif is played out again when we meet the people of both the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. For the second, curiosity, intelligence, and an engagement with the actual physical world is seen as providing the keys to the kingdom. There is a remarkable blend of far-out super-science and nitty-gritty plausible engineering. There are wonderful perspective shifts such as a reference to the natives of Titan and their relation to Saturn’s rings and, of course, to Tellurians in relation to the various moonfolk. There are amazing set pieces such as the descriptions of the city and race of the Vorkuls and their war with the hexans. For people who respond primarily to such things and fun, super-science epics, Spacehounds of IPC may appeal.