Movie Review: Arrival

This has been a weird month – I rarely see as many theater movies in several months as I’ve seen in this one. So here’s another of my cutting-edge movie posts. Not only has everybody probably already seen this one, also, but even I saw it last weekend and am only writing it up now. Arrival is based on the brilliant Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and I wanted to re-read that before talking about the film. It just took me a week to do so. It doesn’t really change much of my impression of the film, except to underscore how expanded, yet thinned, the adaptation is. (This post covers all sorts of thematic issues from both the story and the movie and focuses on all sorts of details but I don’t believe any climactic plot elements or big surprises are spoiled.)

(Edit: Actually, to be on the safe side, if you haven’t read the story, then I guess maybe this is a spoiler of a review. If you haven’t read the story, it doesn’t spoil that because there’s no “big twist” and, if you have read the story, then the film can’t have any “big twist” to spoil but, I guess, if you aren’t familiar with either, then the movie is supposed to have that twist. Again, I don’t think it helps to treat it as a twist but, still, to be on the safe side, maybe skip this review until seeing the movie (which this review does conclude is worth doing).)

Arrival begins with the aliens arriving, naturally enough, and it is a remarkably well done sequence taken by itself. The sense of strangeness colliding with normalcy has a feeling of, “Yes, this is how it might happen. How it might feel.” I don’t know that the sequence is really necessary, though. It certainly wasn’t to the story as it wasn’t in it. Further, while it is fascinating in its way, it is also a slow moving sequence which sets the pace for the whole film. I don’t know why science fiction movies seem to come in almost nothing but two flavors: popcorn-movie action and speed using science fantasy and comic book elements and “the proverbial good science fiction movie” which somehow manages to be somewhat slow and boring. You’ve got your Star Wars movies, your Marvel movies and whatnot and then you’ve got 2001, Contact, and others, including this. So that’s one thing the movie gets quite wrong in an adaptive sense and in an intrinsic sense. Chiang’s story is quiet but not really slow. This movie is, despite sometimes being flashy and noisy. Chiang’s story is quite focused and small in a character/scenery sense, while it’s gigantic in a conceptual sense. The movie preserves some of the concepts but adds a bunch of international politicking and intrusive soldiers and generally spends a lot of time on things outside the main core of ideas.

Another thing that’s odd about the movie is that it actually demands quite a bit of an uninitiated audience in the sense of playing with time and the narrative in a way that may not be readily understood. Yet part of the core of the story was the linguistics and that is basically heavily abridged for cinematic convenience, especially in a key part when the protagonist and the aliens basically start talking like they’re native to each other.

A final small, but severe, problem is that, while many participants may be up for awards, I sure hope the sound editor is not (unless it was a problem with my theater). Much of the movie’s dialog was very hard to hear.

Aside from those two or three gripes, however, the movie does at least keep its eyes on the story’s prize. The movie is about language and time and causality. It is about a man, a woman, and a child. It is about humans and aliens. It keeps at least hints of all the essential things. The things it adds, while sometimes somewhat “Hollywood,” are somewhat plausible and not entirely at variance with the core. The things it modifies stay essentially true to the story. It’s hard to say without spoiling but one thing the movie modified actually tremendously improved on the story: let’s say the specific reason for why deciding whether or not to have a child might have been difficult. Other modifications, such as the barely different heptapods and their slightly different writing and the interface between the humans and aliens, are quite interesting and look really good. Even if the alien ships and the method of entry is kind of silly, I felt a genuine thrill and sense of wonder at that point. And the actors are quite good. It amazes me when I recollect that I probably first saw Amy Adams in a bit part on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer – look at her now.

In sum, I didn’t quite love the movie and I don’t quite understand what seems to be the overwhelmingly positive response its gotten from out-of-genre circles but it is worth seeing. I would still prefer to read and re-read the story, though. And there is something extremely… I’m not sure if it’s ironic or apropos… but something odd about this story being the first thing of Chiang’s to be adapted to film. The story (like all literature) is very much like the Heptapod B language: you can read its last line before its first, skip around within it, focus on any part of it. Whereas movies are very much like ordinary human languages (and lives), moving in time from point A to point B with little certainty of what’s to come next and little ability to catch up with anything you’ve missed (unless you get it on DVD). So, in a sense, the story is about translating into the worldview of Heptapod B and uses a congenial medium and the movie sets itself the audacious task of doing that in an antithetical one. Given that, it does a pretty good job.

Movie Review: Rogue One

When I post about a story, it’s always spoiler-free. (Well, it has been so far – I haven’t decided about how to handle classic stories but there’d certainly never be spoilers without warnings.) This is about a movie, though, so I think I’ll do this in three sections. No spoilers at all, a normal description and discussion of non-spoilery parts of the movie, and then a spoiler-filled section. This is all academic because I’m probably the last person on earth to have seen the movie but I just have a thing about spoilers.

No Spoilers

For quite awhile early in the movie, I was very worried and not happy. However, things got better for me and I ended up enjoying it. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it.

Synopsis (still no critical spoilers)

The protagonist is the Scientist’s Lovely Daughter but this is done so well, I didn’t even think of her in that way until just now. She is the daughter of a scientist who has tried to escape the clutches of the evil empire, but has been found. They kill his wife and force him back to his vital work on the Death Star, while his daughter escapes. Years later, she is captured by the Empire but then gets rather forcibly abducted by the rebel Alliance and is initially not at all eager to participate. They need her because they want to contact a person who’s an even more radical rebel than they are and he happens to have been her foster parent. Since he has picked up a vital defector and he wants nothing to do with the Alliance, they think she’ll get them in the door. A Love Interest is assigned to handle her and they go off to meet the guy. In the course of this, they acquire a pitiful band of rebels, learn how the Death Star acquired its famous flaw, participate in much derring-do about quite a bit, and the relatively small movie surprisingly blossoms into a gigantic space opera sequence.

The original Star Wars was quite dark in its ways but was also quite light and had the wise old Ben, the innocent farmboy Luke, the beautiful princess Leia, and even the scoundrel Solo really had a heart of gold. Naturally, the Alliance were the Good Guys. In ways, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and numerous other things shared similar aspects. In these days of grimdark, everything gets the new BSG treatment and I was initially afraid this movie was going to do the same thing to Star Wars in a ruinous way. The scientist is a collaborator, the orphaned heroine is a cynic, the hero is an assassin, the Alliance is coercive and split with internal strife, and on and on. Even the cinematography seemed dark and a bit claustrophobic. So it had Star Wars things in it but didn’t feel like Star Wars or even much look like it.[1] By the time we began acquiring our ragtag band, though, I began to warm to the film. The “Jedi” and his machine-gun-blaster toting friend (why doesn’t everyone have weapons like that?) seemed like iconic, yet likeable, characters and the droid (who seemed half overly-like C3P0 and half-overly-diametrically-opposite to him) gradually became more rounded and likeable. In essence, it recaptured the initial delight of the fast banding together of C3P0 and R2-D2, Luke, Ben, Han and Chewie, and Leia in the first movie. Which raises the point that this movie frequently referenced the originals but much more adroitly (for the most part, with critical exceptions) than the heavy and constant referencing of The Force Awakens. Finally, while it would be hard for things to go much more differently, the main underlying point of the movie regarding sacrifice for the cause and the power of (the original) hope is very much in line with the original movie.

WARNING: Absolutely Total and Ruinous Spoilers!

Death. At least two aspects of death in this movie figure prominently and it’s perhaps ironic which bothers me and which doesn’t. This is a very unusual movie in that it returns to the darkness of its opening and kills off every single main character. But I don’t have a problem with it. It enabled the movie to put them in a situation most Hollywood movies would get them out of at the price of a complete destruction of suspension of disbelief. Here, they were able to avoid most of that. (The obviously not-dead Love Interest having been shot but returning at the precise moment needed to allow the Lovely Daughter to complete her mission is an example but is minor.) And their deaths are transfigured by their hope (and our knowledge) that the sacrifice is not in vain and does accomplish something wonderful. One might complain that the ultimate moment exactly repeats that moment in (I think it was) Deep Impact (and that it repeats itself – though perhaps appropriately – in that that’s how the foster parent died) but it’s an effective and well shot scene. So I was okay with the ending but could certainly understand it troubling some people (especially any movie execs who wanted to make a sequel of the prequel – but they’ll probably just make a prequel of the prequel).

The other aspect is more troubling. It seemed to me that they actually used clips from the original to produce the fighter pilots from it in this movie and I assume they are all alive or at least some of them may be. Either way, I felt like this was an excellent call back and really thrilled to it. It made perfect sense and was a small tasteful component to the larger action. The very large role given to Governor Tarkin was quite disturbing to me, though. Much like the dancing bear, being able to do it at all was amazing but it was not convincing, looking like some kind of animatronic replica. There was a tiny but hugely significant uncanny valley of wrongness. And though it was a final and shoulda-been-wonderful scene which featured Leia receiving the plans (and Carrie Fisher was alive at the time), the CGI of the younger princess was also not convincing and was disturbing. And that’s just the aesthetics. I’m not sure how I feel about the ethics and propriety of it all.

A couple of trailing notes: speaking of prequels, I am ordinarily very opposed to them. I like stories that move forward, advancing into the future and this is all the more important in SF. But, if you’re going to do a prequel, this is how it’s done. It focuses on what seems like an important but small part of the original and then magnifies it in a way that seems self-justified but which also (I think and hope) will enhance, rather than detract from, my enjoyment of the original when I watch it again, which will be very soon.

And speaking of flaws, in a negative way I want to see it again just to see if the part where they travel across the galaxy, find a spot of a planet, and a building in that spot, and a spot in that building, and follow each other one by one to that spot, is rationalized any better than I thought. (I’m speaking of when Love Interest was trying to shoot the Scientist and Lovely Daughter was climbing the building and Pitiful Band followed them all.) It seemed way too convenient in a The Force Awakens style where the rest of the movie seemed to avoid the worst of the “we forgive you” moments The Force Awakens asked us of us.

Still, I’m very glad to have seen it, wouldn’t mind seeing it once more in theaters (if I really hurry), and expect to get it on DVD just like the original trilogy and The Force Awakens.

[1] Edit (2017-02-03): Reading the Wikipedia article reminds that part of what threw me off in the beginning was the omission of the opening crawl and the changed music. It probably wasn’t  even so much that as that the opening music just didn’t seem very good. However, the music returned to its usual excellence and I forgot about that complaint. Another thing akin to this is the location text superimposed on the images at points throughout the movie which is a klutzy thing the other movies didn’t do. If we were on Tatooine or Dagobah, that’s just were we were and it was made clear by the movie itself. And somehow I forgot about the Yoda-as-pinball-in-the-prequels scene of Vader boarding the ship near the end. If you compare how he entered the ship in Star Wars and in this, it’s just two scenes you can’t square. But, unlike the silly Yoda scene, this was a friggin’ awesome scene, however inconsistent.

Rec: “Take Us To Your Chief” by Drew Hayden Taylor

Take Us To Your Chief” by Drew Hayden Taylor, Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016 (Strange Horizons, 2017-01-30), science fiction short story

Tricked. Tricked, I tell you! I wasn’t expecting Strange Horizons to release any more original fiction this month but, lo, they release a story today and it’s copyright 2017, so I read it. Then the author blurb I’d avoided until the end says it’s the title story of an already-published collection. So I look at the ISFDB and, indeed, it’s a reprint from 2016. So what’s with the copyright, SH?

But… it was a good trick. Because I enjoyed it and hope you do, too. I’ll spoil the opening to the, uh, point where it hooked me:

The men sitting on the couches in the middle of Old Man’s Point didn’t need the screeching of the cicadas to tell them how hot it was. The sweat on their foreheads and on the beer bottles gave them ample evidence. The sweat was cyclical: the more sweat on their foreheads, the more need for cold beer, which in turn became sweat in the humidity of the summer woods.

Old Man’s Point was located near the eastern shore of Otter Lake, named for an old man who used to stand on the bank and point at all the boats going by.

There follows a story very centered in place (though Otter Lake doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the Ojibway regions around the Great Lakes so I’m not sure where that place is) which yet goes pretty far afield when the alien spaceship lands. This is a first contact tale like (and unlike) many, many others but was crafted very well, paced superbly (and sedately) and just full of the quirky details I often love. A finer (and quieter) set of protagonists haven’t been depicted very often.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 3/Conclusion)

For previous installments, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

To the best of my figuring, Clarke, Dozois, Horton, and Strahan selected thirty-eight stories from the web for their year’s bests and those total 289,888 words by my software’s count. I’d previously read two and I’ve decided to pass on one but read the rest since late last month. Assuming the whole is equal to the web part, Dozois is still the king. But this post concludes the project with Horton and Strahan.

Horton’s eight solo selections are overwhelmingly fantasy and, even when they’re SF, they’re fantasy. Chaz Brenchley’s “In Skander, for a Boy” starts well with a salty seaman narrating his tale of his rough, virtuous home and the decadent big city to which he sails and paints a picture of what could almost be a neighbor of Lankhmar but then basically undoes it all in an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. Kameron Hurley’s “The Plague Givers” seems more interested in its four genders and invented pronouns than the story seems to require but narrates some action pretty well, if only I could care about the characters enacting it. “Plague” hunters fight plague givers while magical talismans and alligators abound in this swampy tale. There’s a dose of humor in Helena Bell’s “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” and A.T. Greenblatt’s “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters.” The Bell is a surreal bit about an abandoned boy, eternally at camp, and the play he and his girlfriend practice, and his dragon’s egg. A free-association of whimsy that has its quirky, funny moments. Greenblatt’s is about a modern, tweeting, unheroic adventurer showing us how to face a dragon in postmodern fashion. Again, not a very strong story in most ways but not without its humor. Perhaps the strongest of these fantasies is “Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son” by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan which may draw much of its strength from being a retelling of a fairy tale (precisely which one I can’t recall) involving the princess spinning incessantly to deal with her grief and causing her kingdom to be overgrown by impenetrable vegetation. The hero (who reminds me somehow of the elf who wanted to be a dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in terms of his “leading nebbish” character) is interested in saving her in this utterly sexless tale.

Moving into things which might not strictly be fantasies, Jason Sanford’s “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” (from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue) is a posthuman “might as well be magic” coercive environmental sermon though it is uncomfortable with its coercion. Again, it ends in an unsatisfying way even if arguments can be made for its in-story logic. I’d previously reviewed “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley which is another “indistinguishable from magic” tale. Finally, while seemingly the most grounded, Paul McAuley’s “Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” is basically a space western in which the big bad railroad company sets up a telegraph station the townspeople take a disliking to and about the mayor’s and sheriff’s efforts to keep order. Of course, it’s a radio telescope to be used for SETI and does have an interesting argument for why this could be useful even after first contact has been made but it ultimately feels like an interstitial chapter in a fixup rather than a story in its own right.

Moving to Strahan’s eight solo choices, his are all fantasy (except one mainstream piece) and a pretty strong bunch they are, overall. The only two I really didn’t care for were his two selections from Uncanny. E. Lily Yu’s “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” makes me wonder why it’s hard SF that routinely gets criticized for poor characterization as these seem like fantasy cutouts placed before a sketchily rendered background in this tale of a good witch, a knight, a femme fatale, and a dragon or three. Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is a Weird Western that, by contrast, seems over-elaborate and somewhat confusing but seems to have some good aspects (creative phantasmagorical imagery and an interesting mood) which are completely buried in the mistake of second-person present tense narration. “You turn your head and spit a brown, dusty gob into the dirt. You hope she doesn’t notice the fur and tiny bone fragments caught in it. ‘Who do you take me for?'” Apparently she takes you for me, dude, but I’m not spitting any gobs anywhere.

Two more were okay. Charles Yu’s “Fable” is not fantasy but has a man talking to his psychiatrist with fantasy imagery. It’s emotionally effective at times and there’s nothing really wrong with it beyond it not being speculative and not really seeming like a “year’s best.” Swirsky’s famous/infamous “Dinosaur” was the same “emotional, mainstream, but with imagery” story, but better. Delia Sherman’s “The Great Detective” is a steampunk fantasy with AI robots and ghosts (in and out of dolls) as well as a bizarre origin story and isn’t my cup of tea but, as a stylistic exercise, it was pretty good.

In “honorable mention” territory, Joe Abercrombie’s “Two’s Company” is a funny and entertaining tale of a female Fafhrd and Grey Mouser making love and war against and with an apparently famous character from Abercrombie’s other works and the two groups of people who don’t want any of the three wandering freely. It just doesn’t feel especially significant, though. Theodora Goss’ “Red as Blood and White as Bone” is nine-tenths superb with slight flaws and one-tenth flawed. The initial tale of the orphaned servant girl and the “princess” she lets in from a storm is very effective and then the WWII-era stuff bolted on at the end is thematically apt but the wrong length (either too long for a coda or too short for a second part) and destroys the mood. The first part was really good, though. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” has a really excellent style which is fairly elaborate but never trips over its own feet in an action tale about a shapeshifting fox and a mecha pilot. (This is another from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue but true science fantasy is more fused while this is an SF and F mashup.) It would be an easy recommendation except it is also shaky on the dismount. The blatantly spelled-out non-ending basically makes the entire story feel like an excerpt or serial installment where, without really changing a thing, the ending could have been more implied and would have made a much better story to me. But this, too, for the bulk, was really not my kind of thing but was really good.

The Strahan story I was thoroughly delighted with, though, was Alice Sola Kim’s “Successor, Usurper, Replacement.” (Extra credit to Strahan for pulling this from outside the usual haunts as I’d never have seen it otherwise and I’m really glad I did.)

Four friends in a writing group get together immediately prior to a storm. When a fifth person shows up, things get strange. While this is a story that works in basically every way, the style/tone/perspective is superb. I’m very likely to love any story that can describe the aftermath of the power going out and a moment of sitting in the dark like this:

Then everyone remembered that they had their phones and one by one they appeared in the dark as busts glowing delicately blue in a far-future museum, the unspecified museum they were trying to make it into with their writing, as stupid as that sounded and whether they admitted it to themselves or not, because it wasn’t as if their jobs or families or stations in life or beauty or kindness or cruelty would get them there.

Then a drinking game is initiated in which they all tell stories about themselves, all of which are quirky and interesting, even – perhaps especially – the story that doesn’t get told. This also serves as an excellent signaling of what lies ahead in terms of pacing before the final section where it gets weirder still. I love that it’s in third-person, past tense and that the narrator sounds like a sixth character who would fit right in. I love the fact that this is utterly mainstream except that (a) it’s not at all stuffy and (b) it’s completely a fantasy, with a couple of wonderfully casually handled elements, the second of which is the snuffleupagus in the room. I love the understated darkness to the whole thing. The “ha ha, only serious” aspects. Go! Read! Enjoy!

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1)

I’ve finished reading the stories with multiple “year’s best” appearances as listed in Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016. My reactions pretty thoroughly undercut the gist of Year’s Bests and My Recommendations, that gist being that I was on the same page with the big editors with just a couple of reasonable exceptions.

It’s not that I hate the stories (I actually like a surprisingly high percentage of them) but that I don’t love them and wouldn’t have recommended very many. At least, I don’t think I would have. Given that I come at these stories as “bests” there is an assumption that someone thought they were good which is a bias in favor of them coupled with a higher chance of unfair expectations and disappointment which gives them an extra liability. It’s hard to say what my reaction would have been if I’d encountered them in the wild.

First, my idiosyncrasies: I didn’t read the de Bodard as I seem to have some blind spot there (at least with the Xuya stories) that I’ve experienced often enough to cause me to give up. And I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Tidhar story but have come close enough to keep trying but this one wasn’t especially close. I much prefer Dickinson’s SF to the fantasy story from this list. The three or so Miller stories I’ve read have been about the same, though this one probably was the best but seemed derivative of a derivative (Miller via Watts via Campbell). The Campbell and Watts were sufficient.

As mentioned in the second post linked above, I didn’t recommend the Gilman when I read it last year, but its pick (by Clarke, Dozois, and Strahan) is explicable to me. (Even so, that doesn’t much affect the irony of preferring the stories two editors selected to those three or four editors selected.) The Valentine was perhaps in Gilman territory and the DeLancey was good, but read like an excellent episode of a TV show more than a great story.

I’m not sure if I would have recommended Nina Allan’s “The Art of Space Travel (Dozois, Strahan) but I certainly would have thought about it. Stories published as science fiction which have titles like this and turn out to be about the head of housekeeping of a hotel wondering who her father is tend to really disappoint and annoy me but Allan had previously caught my attention for her somewhat oblique stories and this is another one of those. It is a long story and has relatively little action, yet reads quickly. The protagonist is compelling (her blindness to the obvious strains credulity but Allan doesn’t seem to be hiding it from the reader and it would obviously look different to the protagonist) and the story is about a sort of space travel, ultimately, and in a broad way. All in all, I’m glad I read it, so I suppose that’s a recommendation.

Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War (Dozois, Horton) is also in that borderland of good/honorable mention/recommendation. Taken literally, as actual capital “S” science fiction, this is quite a silly story. Two societies of apparently basically the same species in the same part of a world have just concluded a war. One of them is telepathic and the other is not. If you swallow this premise for its metaphorical purposes, you get a very nicely done story about a non-telepath and a telepath who had been each others’ prisoners at various times during the war. During one of these times, the telepath had learned chess from the other. The game and their situation is then exploited for its thematic richness. Again, not an action-packed riot of hard SF adventure, but an interesting tale.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Mika Model (Dozois, Strahan), however, is certainly recommended. Sexbot stories are nothing new and this is a very brief handling of the subject but idea- and emotion-packed concision is a virtue to me and this additionally has a rather extraordinary event near the end. My only problem with the story is that, no matter what you think of the status of the robot regarding her sentience, liability, or crime, there is a crime the other main player in the story should have been charged with, but I can’t get into that without spoilers. Either way, it’s a very effective dramatization of a very interesting issue.

Finally, there’s Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays (Dozois, Horton). It’s a story about aliens who arrive on Earth and don’t want to blow us up or steal our resources or even invite us into a galactic federation. They just want to have sex with us. Problem is, they are really, really ugly. But, after our ad exec protagonists succeed in their job to “make ugly sexy,” it turns out the aliens are pretty sexually satisfying, too. This has apocalyptic ramifications (in the nicest way).

My reading of this was a comedy of errors. I went to this story directly, so didn’t realize it was part of Lightspeed‘s “People of Colo(u)r” issue. While I know there is a Steven Barnes and there is a John Barnes who both write science fiction and one collaborates with Niven and I have a couple of books by the other, I can never keep them straight for some reason and thought Steven Barnes was John Barnes until I got to the author blurb at the end. (And the errors may still not be over: I get at least some aspects of the punning title but have never read or seen Fifty Shades of Gray so, if there are any important allusions to that in this story (beyond the bondage references), I’ve missed them.)

I tend to read (or want to read) the science fictional aspects of SF much more literally than seems fashionable. So I just read this story as a wildly conceived, briskly told tale of one of the stranger alien invasions ever and enjoyed it immensely. The ad execs reminded me of Pohl and Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants, the ugly aliens and the efforts to make them acceptable reminded me of Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe. The blurb eventually informed me that Steven Barnes has written for television which may help explain the lack of faux literary pretension and the vigor of the dialog and storytelling, though this story is far more than your average TV fare.

So then I got to the end, saw the author blurb, and realized one mistake, then read the “Spotlight” interview and it told me that the story was written “for a non-white audience” and was supposed to depict “the sickness of being human and trying desperately to fit in with a dominant culture.” Some of that further puzzled me until it dawned on me that this may have been from the PoC issue so I looked and, indeed, it was. In retrospect and knowing that this was for an ideological issue of a magazine, I see that there were all sorts of racial references in the story and that they should apparently have greater weight than I realized but, even on a re-read, I still see many things in the allusions and symbolism that don’t fit and/or are offensive if they do. To me, if the aliens have to symbolize anything, they’d better serve as corporations which, after all, are the ugly things advertisers sell and which provide the products we “need” and which wish to dominate all things. Either way, as a didactic piece it becomes much less interesting and more problematic as a story but is still obviously loaded and interesting (however much one may agree or disagree with it). As a story, it’s much more interesting and enjoyable to me. And, again, either of those ways, it’s certainly a fascinating and provocative something that shouldn’t be missed.

(This doesn’t really fit above or bear mentioning, but it bothers me (and, given my recent Elvis birthday post, that should come as little surprise). The lead alien calls himself “Elvis” and it’s explained that the aliens learned about us by picking up 50s television broadcasts. There are innumerable SF stories involving Elvis so I just took it as one of those quirks. My only problem with the story, on a first reading and apart from the “transmissions” cliche itself, was that the alien Elvis was depicted as wearing the rhinestones of 70s Elvis. While the aliens certainly could have continued to follow his career through the transmissions of Aloha from Hawaii and beyond, this was never made explicit and it still gave the appearance of an error in the story. Beyond that, if we’re to take this story as a racial metaphor, then the alien’s being “Elvis” could be more significant than I initially supposed. If anything, in racial terms, Elvis could work as a symbol of interracial harmony. Yet now I have the disturbing feeling that he may have been intended as a symbol of the current meme of “cultural appropriation” which I wouldn’t appreciate.)

An interesting thing to me about these four stories is that, while Horton and Strahan picked two each, Dozois is the only editor common to all four. Also, while I often like a lot of Clarkesworld stories (and really hate an occasional one) Clarke is the only one who picked none of these (or any twofer story). Next up will be the stories that only appear in one anthology, so we’ll see if those trends continue or change.

Edit (2017-01-21): Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Tangent’s 2016 Recommended List Is Up

The Tangent Online 2016 Recommended Reading List is the result of a year’s far-ranging reading by the combined effort of nineteen reviewers. It has to be one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind and I hope folks will check it out. Congrats to the authors, editors, and to Dave and my Tangential colleagues.

(I always feel kind of bad about the people who have the misfortune of being reviewed by me because I’ve never given anything more than a somewhat random single star because I have a hard time differentiating “recommendations” – you could almost read all my recs as two or three stars instead of zero or one.)

P.S. I don’t do twitter, myself, but those who do should check out the newly reactivated Tangent twitter account now known as @tangentreviews.