“Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com 2017-08-09, SF novelette
Adam Morris struggled up from nothing to become a big-time writer/creator in Hollywood before dying. This story’s protagonist is the new Adam: about 70% of the original’s consciousness sideloaded into a humanoid robot. The missing material is partly due to technological limitations and partly due to what the new Adam discovers were intentional “targeted occlusions.” Between a legal system that doesn’t recognize the new Adam as a person, angry descendants of the original Adam contesting the will, difficulty making a life on his own, and a sense that the original may have created a “director’s cut” of his life because of a very nasty skeleton in his closet, the new Adam is having a hard time. Full of questions, he becomes a sort of detective, investigating himself to find out what’s missing and why.
This novelette’s eleven sections, which are full of fresh, clever metaphors and expressions, keep the tale moving, seamlessly weaving in new information and complications and backstory. The main character is very well drawn, as are his loved ones and even the minor characters such as Sandra, the tech/handler. The only thing I could think to say against it, without risking spoilers, are that sideloads and edits have been covered frequently (though rarely as well). It’s a very skillful exploration of people through technology and possibly the best story so far this year.
(Digression: what odds? The flux of the web and my game of catch-up has resulted in reading consecutive stories by Vernor Vinge (from Nature), Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan (both from Tor.com). All are pretty big guns in my book and most live up to that here. I’ve already recommended the Vinge and now the Egan. This particular Baxter is more in the ballpark of an Honorable Mention, though. He might be given points for cleverly weaving together Mythago Wood (by Robert Holdstock, to whom the story is dedicated) and Wells’ The Time Machine and “The Crystal Egg” but it’s hard to find much in there that doesn’t seem to derive from the unlikely pair of Holdstock or Wells. And he might be given points for making such an interesting middle of a story but the opening runs in place for too long and the close is pretty predictable. Still, people who, unlike me, are fans of retro-pseudo-AltHist “SF” may like it a lot. And given all that, for me to like it as much as I did means the story’s strengths are very strong.)
“Legale” by Vernor Vinge, Nature 2017-08-09, SF short story
Here’s another short-short from Nature. This is a sequel to “BFF’s First Adventure” (which I also recommended at the old site, though reading it isn’t necessary to enjoy this one). In this, Bonnie Colbert is en route from Paris to New York and occupying herself with her very smart phone which she’s trying to turn into her personal lawyer when the plane starts to crash. Fascinating things are done with time and anthropic assumptions and then the vista widens still further, all in 920 words.
(Speaking of time, I believe there is one flaw in this story. One of the entities in it says something catastrophic will happen if they don’t adjourn in “50 milliseconds” but later says, “I just queried your Paris office” and the meeting seems to wrap up in time. But I think Paris and New York are almost two-hundredths of a light-second apart. (Later in the meeting, the same entity says “we don’t have time to wait for Paris” but they didn’t the first time.) But maybe if they just adjourn in five-hundredths of a second the numbers work out and they might still have enough time to do the real-world physics they need to do. But perhaps I’m wrong – either way, I’m not going to let it mess up a good story.)
Review of September/October 2017 Fantasy & Science Fiction
- “Hollywood Squid” by Oliver Buckram (humorous science fiction short story)
- “Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick (science fiction short story)
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.
- “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.
Review of Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, July 2017
- “Tree With Chalicotheres” by Vicki Saunders (fantasy short story)
“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.
“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.