Overall, this collection of "constellation"-themed stories is OK, and none rate more than three stars in my opinion.
"A Heritage of Stars" - Eric BrownOverall, this collection of "constellation"-themed stories is OK, and none rate more than three stars in my opinion.
"A Heritage of Stars" - Eric Brown - This one starts out well enough about a near-future where aliens have given humans immortality and how that might affect the relationship between two people. Brown drops the ball, however, ending the story with a sappy, feel-good resolution that could have been much more interesting.
"Rats of the System" - Paul McAuley - This is an episode from a time when humanity is divided between interstellar colonies established after AIs took over Earth and humans who have made those AIs gods and are bent on destroying the infidel. (The AIs apparently take no notice of this, going about the galaxy doing their inexplicable things. On the plus side, they're good enough to leave human-colonized stars alone and only work with uninhabited systems.) The story in itself is good. McAuley is an accomplished writer and I've enjoyed what I've read of him but this feels like a chapter in a longer book and leaves the reader hanging.
"Star!" - Tony Ballantyne - A tale about a human who wants to be a star and the AI who helps her out.
"Lakes of Light" - Stephen Baxter - An episode from Baxter's Xeelee future history.
"No Cure for Love" - Roger Levy - An elliptical tale about a man who may or may not have caused civilization to collapse.
"The Navigator's Children" - Ian Watson - A decent story about a future where humans have learned that we're all part of a simulation (a la The Matrix) and the navigator of the title - who has serious issues with children and dolls - inadvertently reconfigures reality.
"A Different Sky" - Keith Brooke - A tale of alien abduction.
"The Fulcrum" - Gwyneth Jones - This story reminded me of Frederik Pohl's Gateway books.
"The Meteor Party" - James Lovegrove - Except for meteors, there's nothing particularly SF about this story. Instead, it's a meditation on the place of humans and their worries compared to the universe.
"Written in the Stars" - Ian McDonald - This is another story that raised some intriguing ideas but ultimately left me wanting more. In this future, astrology works - people receive daily horoscopes that guide their lives, and one day the hero of our story gets the wrong one.
"The Order of Things" - Adam Roberts - Competently written if not overly memorable tale about a future ruled by a theocracy that believes its God-given mandate is to make the world conform to its ideas of what He wants - both physically and mentally.
"The Little Bear" - Justina Robson - This is a story about quantum mechanics, teleportation and alternate worlds.
"Kings" - Colin Greenland - This is an allegory based on the Three Wise Men of the Christian Bible.
"Beyond the Aquila Rift" - Alistair Reynolds - I enjoyed this story the most. Humans have discovered and are using an alien network of (what may be) wormholes to colonize our nearby stellar neighborhood. Occasionally, however, a mistake occurs and a ship finds itself far from its intended destination. This is a story of a crew that finds itself a long, long way from home.
Not a bad collection but not one that stands out. If any of the authors mentioned above are favorites, you might want to check this book out (and I mean that literally; I wouldn't lay down money for this)....more
A decidedly "bleh" homage to Sherlock Holmes, which reaches a nadir of unreadability with "The Startling Events in the Electrified City." I couldn't fA decidedly "bleh" homage to Sherlock Holmes, which reaches a nadir of unreadability with "The Startling Events in the Electrified City." I couldn't finish the story and thought of giving up on the collection entirely.
I persevered, however, and the remaining stories weren't too bad. Just not "too good."
Except for one story, "The Last of Sheila Locke-Holmes," which has nothing to do with Holmes but is about a young girl dealing with her parents' marital problems, and quite good.
And I will mention one more story - "The Adventure of the Concert Pianist" - to say that it shamelessly steals the murder plot from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, except there's no insane monk....more
I came across Ben Stroud’s short-story collection on the New shelf at my library a couple of weeks ago. The title caught my eye - Byzantium. I am a byI came across Ben Stroud’s short-story collection on the New shelf at my library a couple of weeks ago. The title caught my eye - Byzantium. I am a byzantinophile to no small degree, and sad indeed are the years 1071, 1204 and 1453 in my eyes*. The titular title does take place in the Eastern Empire on the eve of the Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt (7th century AD); however, the rest of the stories range all over and there’s no especially Roman theme to the book. And the rest of the stories are pretty good. There’s a bloodlessness about them, a dispassion, that prevents me from whole-heartedly endorsing Stroud but there are at least two here that I would give four to five stars.
“Byzantium” – A few years before Mohammad’s followers conquer the provinces Heraclius had retaken from the Persians after 30+ years of war, the emperor fears the possible rebellion of a monk with a claim to the throne and sends a young courtier manqué to deal with the problem.
“East Texas Lumber” – This is about a ne’er-do-well slacker drifting through life, working at a lumberyard, bemoaning his lot but doing nothing to break out of his cage. The latter theme – the passivity of people – crops up a lot in these stories.
“The Don’s Cinnamon” – Takes place in pre-Civil War Cuba and concerns a “free gentleman of color” who, not able to find a traditional job, inadvertently becomes a Sherlock Holmes, solving otherwise inexplicable cases.
“Borden’s Meat Biscuit” – Another story set in the pre-Civil War Americas. Central America in this case. The protagonist and narrator is a white entrepreneur trying to make his fortune.
“The Traitor of Zion” – This story is about a dissolute young man who becomes involved with one of the millennial cults that flourished in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century.
“Erase” – One of the stories set in the modern era, this one is about an alienated boy.
“At Bequillas” (four stars) – This is one of the two stories that hit me on a visceral level. It recounts a brief episode in the life a failing marriage, and it spoke to my own as I recognized myself in both characters. Particularly in the self-absorption and small hurts we inflict on each other and our refusal to own up to them. Another thing that set this story apart was that Shelly, the wife, acts to change her life.
“Tayopa” – A story about a Mexican official sent to find a legendary Jesuit silver mine.
“Amy” (four stars) – Like “At Bequillas,” this story is about a failing marriage as told from the POV of the husband. This one hit even closer to home than the previous story. Probably – and I say this without pride – because I saw a lot of my (younger) self in the unnamed protagonist.
“The Moor” – An homage to Sherlock Holmes, this story is about an expat African-American who comes to Berlin and quickly makes a name for himself as a solver of unsolvable crimes; he even acquires a Moriarty-like arch-enemy and an “Irene Adler” to spend an all-too-brief time with. (There’s an intimation that the protagonist is the narrator from “The Don’s Cinnamon.”) It’s also a comment on how “the black man” is viewed by the majority white culture both then and now. And it’s those contrivances that make this story less interesting than it might have been but it’s still well-written and – if you’re a Holmesian – fun.
In fact, all of these stories are well-written and interesting but – as I wrote above – most are written without passion. Or without any authorial passion coming through the words. I can recommend this collection with confidence but I don’t think these stories are memorable or that Stroud is a “magician” as the book’s editor notes in his hyperbolic “Introduction.” Stroud might indeed be all that but it’s not evident here.
* I refuse to be an enabler. If you want to know why those three years are particularly tragic, LOOK IT UP!...more
First, I want to thank my GRF Ben for his review, which prompted me to finally – finally – read Nancy Kress. She has been on my radar for years now buFirst, I want to thank my GRF Ben for his review, which prompted me to finally – finally – read Nancy Kress. She has been on my radar for years now but I’d never felt enough gumption to check her out, despite (perhaps, because of) the rave reviews.
Now that I’ve read her, I can see why she has such a fan base. She writes well; she writes intelligently; and despite the hard SF themes in most of the stories here, she pulls off the near-unheard-of feat in the genre of creating “people” in even the fluffiest of stories.
But…I’m not carried away by her. I’m definitely going to read more of her stuff in the coming year but she hasn’t jumped to the top of the reading list.
I’ll leave you to read Ben’s review for the usual insightful synopsis of the short stories collected here. Below, I’ll just comment on a few that made a lasting impression on me:
“Computer Virus” – This is a well written piece about AI but I’ve encountered the theme before - (view spoiler)[we’re the real killers (hide spoiler)]. This is one of the better articulations, however.
“Shiva in Shadow” – This is a story about an expedition to the galactic core. The crew of the ship, two scientists and the captain who has to make sure they can work together without going insane, are downloaded to a probe that will do the actual research. What made the story interesting was how the crews (despite the fact that they were exactly the same personalities) reacted so differently – one mission ending in tragedy, the other in triumph.
“First Flight” – Easily the worst piece in the collection; even Kress dismisses it as an inane bit of fluff in her afterword.
“Wetlands Preserve” – Easily the best piece in the collection (IMO). The ending immediately reminded me of two things. The first is Ted Reynolds’ brilliant short story “Can These Bones Live?” which is collected in Fifty Years of the Best Science Fiction from Analog, and which I would recommend without reservation. Here is the climax of the story, when the woman decides which race the Roanei should resurrect:
The second is Commander Adama’s valedictory speech in the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica, which I quote in full below because it’s just so good:
The cost of wearing the uniform can be high, but.... Sometimes it's too high.
You know... we fought the Cylons to save ourselves from extinction, but we never answered the question... why?
Why are we as a people worth saving?
Look at us. We tell ourselves we're noble, intelligent creatures. Children of the Lords of Kobol. But we'll still let people go to bed hungry because it costs too much to feed the poor... we still commit murder for greed or spite or jealousy... and we visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to take responsibility for what we've done.
Like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play god. Create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it wasn't really our fault, not really. It was the Cylons that were flawed.
But the truth is... we're the flawed creation. We're the ones that tried to manufacture life and make it serve us.
But you don't play God and then wipe your hands of what you've created. Sooner or later... the day comes when you can't hide from what you've done anymore.
A day of reckoning.
“Wetlands Preserve” asks the same question, and I’ll leave you to read the story to find out how Kress answers it.
Overall recommendation – Read the book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Recently, a friend sent me a link to a review in the LA Times of several of this year’s Best of…SF anthologies. The reviewer argues that the SF fieldRecently, a friend sent me a link to a review in the LA Times of several of this year’s Best of…SF anthologies. The reviewer argues that the SF field has become complacent and self-satisfied; there are few authors really pushing the boundaries or using the genre to explore things other media can’t. In his opinion, most of the stories in these collections are good enough in a technical sense but lack any desire to make the reader think. In fact, he thought the best story was James Tiptree Jr.'s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” a short story written 40 years ago and included in one of the collections in honor of Tiptree’s lifetime achievements.*
Based on the stories to be found in Tad Williams’ A Stark and Wormy Knight, the review’s author may have a valid point. There’s no particularly bad story. All are entertaining to some degree and all are very, very “safe.” Seeds of potentially good stories are here (cf., “And Ministers of Grace”), and – as always – Williams is a fine story teller but most are too predictable and by the numbers.
“And Ministers of Grace” – This story is about Lamentation Kane, an assassin for the theocratic world of Covenant, whose mortal foe is the hyper-rationalist society of Archimedes. “Lamentation Kane,” alone as a name, nearly makes up for any shortcomings in the story. The greatest of which is that it reads like a chapter in a larger work (which Williams as much as admits to in his “Introduction”). That and we have seen this kind of anti-hero before.
I mentioned “seeds” of good ideas. Some to be found in this story include Lamentation Kane, who has the potential to be an interesting character, if Williams can find the time to write a few more stories about him. Another is the brain implants that plague both societies. On Archimedes, it’s a continuous feed of targeted commercials and infotainment; on Covenant, it’s called Spirit and it keeps everyone safely on the heterodox path.
“A Stark and Wormy Knight” – The titular story of the collection is a typical bedtime story about a princess, a knight and a dragon but told from the dragon’s point of view. It’s cute, though the dragonspeak it’s written in can get annoying, i.e.:
“Mam! Mam!” squeed Alexandrax from the damps of his strawstooned nesty. “Us can’t sleep! Tail us a tell Ye Elder Days!”
“Child, stop that howlering or you’ll be the deaf of me,” scowled his scaly forebearer. “Count sheeps and go to sleep!”
“Been counting shepherds instead, have us,” her eggling rejoined. “But too too toothsome they each look. Us are hungry, Mam.” (p. 57)
It goes on like that but only for a mercifully brief 12 more pages.
“The Storm Door” – This is the best piece in the collection. It’s about what happens when the hungry ghosts of the Tibetan hells learn how to possess the dead. Very dark, and with no happy ending.
“The Stranger’s Hands” – You can see the twist coming from the first page but it’s a likable story about an “evil” wizard who inadvertently gets the power to grant wishes (at the expense of his mind) and the “good” wizard who can’t have that. It’s another exploration of the theme that the good guys aren’t always that good and the bad guys aren’t always that bad which informs much of Williams’ work.
“Bad Guy Factory” – This is a pitch for a comic book series about where the villains go to get training.
“The Thursday Men” – This is a Hellboy story originally written for the Hellboy: Oddest Jobs anthology. I’m not a fan of the “Hellboy” franchise in comic or movie form so the tale didn’t make a great impression upon me, though – like “The Stranger’s Hands” - it wasn’t a bad one.
“The Tenth Muse” – This is the second best work in the anthology. It may or may not take place in the same ‘verse as “And Ministers of Grace.” Covenant is mentioned but there is none of Archimedes, whose rationalist polity seems to have been replaced by the Confederation. It has the potential to be a really good story about first contact and communication between alien minds.
“The Lamentable Comical Tragedy (or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee” – This is an homage to Jack Vance and his “Dying Earth” stories, and as such it succeeds fairly well. Williams can’t always capture Vance’s tone (who can?) but he comes close and it’s a good story in its own right.
“The Terrible Conflagration at the Quiller’s Mint” – This is a short story set in Williams Shadowmarch world. Well told if unmemorable.
“Black Sunshine” – This is a draft script for a horror film about an experimental drug, the teen-ager who takes it, and the consequences for his friends 20 years later. The story idea is pretty well known and well used by now, and I can’t see it as becoming a particularly good movie.
“Ants” – This one reminded me of nothing so much as Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter.” Anyone who’s read that classic will understand the general tenor of the story.
I wouldn’t recommend buying this unless you’re a Tad Williams completist but there’s enough good stuff here to justify a library checkout, borrowing from your friend the TW completist, or picking up a copy for less than a buck at a library remainders table.
*I read the story when I was about 14 in the collection Ten Thousand Light Years From Home. Anyone who’s read this collection will understand what a powerful impact these stories can have on an adult reader; you can imagine what they had on a newly pubescent teen-age boy. On the other hand, I’m very glad my parents exercised no censorship on what I could read (except for the obvious stuff most parents censor like “Playboy”)....more
CAVEAT EMPTOR - This is not a review/commentary on the entire collection. Though I read many of the other stories in the anthology & enjoyed mostCAVEAT EMPTOR - This is not a review/commentary on the entire collection. Though I read many of the other stories in the anthology & enjoyed most of them, my primary focus was on Thomas Burnett Swann's "The Manor of Roses," whose existence was made known to me by Werner A. (thanks, Werner, you were right :-) in a comment on my review of Swann's Green Phoenixhere.
"The Manor of Roses" is a tale about three children (two boys & a girl) on the cusp of adulthood and the lady of the manor. John is the son of a Norman baron in early 13th century England, despised by his father because he'd rather study than join his father's retinue in a hunt; Stephen is one of John's father's villeins and John's closest friend (read "only friend"); and Ruth is a young, mysterious girl found by Stephen in the ruins of a Roman-era Mithraeum. Stephen has dreams of voyaging to Outremer and joining a Crusade. His discovery of Ruth and a final humiliation of John by his father prompt the trio to run off to London, where they'll take ship to the Levant.
(view spoiler)[Before they're even a day's journey from home, the boys are abducted by the Mandrake People, faerie-like inhabitants of the wood, who mistakenly believe they've killed one of their children. Ruth rescues them by bribing the Mandrakes with a bejewelled crucifix but incurs John's suspicions that she may be a Mandrake herself - a changling who's lived among humans long enough to pass for one of them. But John's paranoia may be a product of his jealousy as he sees Ruth coming between himself and Stephen.
Having escaped the Mandrakes, the children come upon the titular manor and are taken in by its mistress, Lady Mary, the widow of a Crusader, who has lost not only a husband but a son as well, when he hared off to follow in his father's footsteps but was cut down by a thief before he could even set sail. There follows a confrontation with Ruth over her real identity, and a revelation of Lady Mary's that isn't wholly unexpected but nevertheless gives the story a moral power it otherwise might have lacked. (hide spoiler)]
Swann resembles one of my favorite authors - Edgar Pangborn - in style and sentiment. Both authors' focus on themes of love, trust, friendship & faith, and the bittersweetness of life, without be preachy or self-righteous.
I left Green Phoenix sitting on the fence but in the face "The Manor of Roses," I'm putting Swann on my favorite authors list and will hunt down more of his work.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more