Rec: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

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.)

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: “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor

Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com 2017-05-03, SF novelette

I’m impressed that this science fictional horror story doesn’t have one of those annoying “trigger warnings” prefacing it. It’s an intermediate-future tale of climatic disaster which has resulted in a few weird folks clinging to an unpleasant life in what used to be the inland (now ocean-front) Southeast. Fortunately, things go downhill from there. In all seriousness, what could have been a dreary, dull “cli-fi” tale becomes a gripping, transporting tale of vivid, energetic horror, largely centered on a somewhat rubberized science of very fast evolution. Rather than preaching “Quit screwing up the environment,” this story is a story first and foremost, which leaves the reader saying, “Holy $#!^, man, let’s really quit screwing up the environment!” My only quibble with the story is that, after being quite deliberate and explicit, it has an oddly rushed and almost coy ending, at least comparatively. But even that is still fairly effective and the whole tale is quite an experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks intensely disliked this but, if it sounds intriguing at all, give it a try. (To be fair, I should note that the story doesn’t initially read too much like horror and it does create a very interesting trio of main characters, so has things that will appeal to general speculative fans… and which make the horror all the more effective.)

[I was going to post this and finish up Tor.com‘s May offerings yesterday but my ISP screwed up my internet connection for over a day. Technology willing, I will get caught up soon.]

Rec: “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel

The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, Tor.com 2017-03-15, SF short story

There’s not much to say to summarize this tale. In a future age of neurals, a novelist of pen and paper and self-typeset books who has a terminal condition travels to Ardabaab to work on his last novel while awaiting death. He meets the personification of youth and hope and talent in “Fish,” a young girl who becomes his muse and illustrator and typesetting assistant. All of this goes to answer the question about why and how we persist in doing the things we do.

It’s irrelevant but I can’t help but notice the oddity of reading this, which may well have been written on a word processor, on a webpage.

It’s unpleasant, but to get the quibbles out of the way, the dying author’s writing (given in alternating italicized sections) seemed oddly worse than the rest of the story, being more mannered and flowery. The girl is implausibly innately talented for a real character vs. a symbol. Most importantly, I find it hard to believe we will “wiki” in the future any more than we “gopher” today and that anyone will be from Google Base any more than they will be from AOL Orbital. A similar problem is exemplified by the locals offering the protagonist “braino and neur-grafts and celebrilives.” Everyone from Cordwainer Smith to Bruce Sterling can write lines almost like that but which have an elegant ring of native sfnal authenticity which this lacked.

All that is fundamentally insignificant, though. The characters are likable or explicable and the two main ones have a charming sort of plausibly implausible chemistry. The story is just the right length, with just the right pace (leisurely, but not slow, with an ever-present sense of the ticking clock), and comes together beautifully in the end with some emotional and thematic weight. Basically, other than stumbling over some of the odd diction mentioned above, this was a delight to read.

Rec: “Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss

Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss, Tor.com 2017-03-09, novelette

A woman in the present investigates the murder of her great-great-grandmother who was part of a “freak show” as a “living dryad.” (She actually had an extremely bad (and non-fictional) skin condition.) The story is told through narration in past and present as well as by means of sometimes nested letters, book excerpts, and other sorts of things (such as a box of evidence at a police station), producing the effect of looking through a scrapbook or mementos and family heirlooms which is basically what the present-day protagonist is doing.

If you need this story to have a revelatory twist, you’ll likely be disappointed as the whodunnit is pretty clear early on. Perhaps more problematically, this story’s vegetable love grows more slow, as Marvell might have it. However, while I value pace more highly than most readers, even I found the backstory, foreground, phrasing of the tale, and strokes of characterization sufficient to keep me involved. Perhaps the most problematic issue is that this is basically a mainstream story (and closer to SF if anything, despite being billed as fantasy). Unless I missed it, nothing supernatural happened and nothing scientific was projected though the story was reasonably scientific in both medical and criminal terms. All that’s particularly “made up” are the plot and characters, as in any fiction. But, much like Apollo 13 is sometimes lumped in with SF because “a space movie equals a science fiction movie,” so this “feels” a bit like SF and a bit like fantasy, so is “of interest” to the field. And, speaking of movies, I feel like anyone who enjoyed The Elephant Man would enjoy this story. There are so many similarities that this story could be dismissed as “derivative” but I feel it would be fairer to say it was partly “inspired by” the story of Merrick (who is name-checked in this tale). Finally, another of this novelette’s better features is its humanist theme which is certainly clear but handled reasonably lightly. While the heroes and main villain conform to today’s standards, the story does not settle for simplistic praise or condemnation (when it has more reason to than many stories) but remains true to its universal theme.

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)