I'm thankful to not be the only one giving this two stars. I don't mind going against the crowd (I've hated The Empire Strikes Back since May of 1980,I'm thankful to not be the only one giving this two stars. I don't mind going against the crowd (I've hated The Empire Strikes Back since May of 1980, so I have experience with that), but not praising the work of a young lady whose life was tragically cut short seems particularly churlish.
As I was reading the short stories, all I could think was that they sounded so ineffably New Yorker-ish to me. You know the type of tales I mean: plotless and somewhat pretentious, hinting at great truths but not actually hitting the mark. Character sketches and nothing more.
There's a lot of that here.
I don't hold it against her. She was in her late teens and early 20s when she wrote these. She wears her immaturity openly and I think if she had lived she would look back at her early work of twenty or thirty years earlier and laughed at the faux seriousness of it. There's a lot of death on display, which I'm sure many will see as ironic or precognitive, but really it's just the putting-on-airs of a precocious writer. Death is srs bzns after all, and dealing with it in literature is how one signals one's seriousness.
Where she really shines is her essays. Not the school valedictorian-esque one she became posthumously famous for and gave the collection its title, but the one titled "Even Artichokes Have Doubts," where she questions why so many Yale graduates go into consulting rather than pursue their dreams. Instead of aping the style of others, she is starting to find her own voice there, and I'd like to think she would have circled back to that sort of writing. That essay is her most Rory Gilmore moment.
She also seemed to have a budding interest in science, and it would have been nice to see someone with her enthusiasm develop further in that direction. Her essay about whales beaching is factually incorrect and overcome by woo-woo silliness, but the seeds are there. Pondering the death of the sun billions of years hence fits into her fascination with death, but she's groping for scientific understanding to make sense of her world. I think she would have gotten there someday.
In that spirit, I'll leave you with this mind-bending notion: the universe is infinite but information isn't. What that means is that somewhere out there all of the information that comprises each of us, and comprises each of our lives, as unique as we like to believe we are, that information, that pattern which comprises the essence of us and our world and our history, is repeating itself. There is another Earth out there which is identical to ours in every detail. Identical history, identical yous, identical mes, identical usses.
The implication being that we don't need to invoke parallel universes for there to be somewhere out there that the pattern is not precisely the same. Somewhere in the infinite universe Marina's boyfriend didn't fall asleep at the wheel and she wasn't killed. Somewhere out there she's still writing....more
The writing in these stories is fine, with Johnson's typical laconic approach, but the mysteries, such as they were, left much to be desired. I was alThe writing in these stories is fine, with Johnson's typical laconic approach, but the mysteries, such as they were, left much to be desired. I was always way ahead of the characters, even Walt himself, because the writing is SO laid back you just want Johnson to get on with it already.
Spoiler for the first story: (view spoiler)[I'm pretty sure Johnson stole the idea from a news story, because the kid who robbed the diner gets caught because he actually filled out an application first, and there was a similar "dumb crook" story about a guy who filled out an application at a bank before robbing it. I suspect a couple of the other tales had similar seeds, so it's impossible to credit Johnson with an over-abundance of creativity here. (hide spoiler)]
Walt really comes across like a slowpoke in a number of these tidbits, too. It's not a good idea to let your character down like that. But overall the writing is decent and you get a nice sense of place, which is all I'd wager most Longmire fans want.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This themed collection of stories is quite well done. The stories are placed in four groups: Wartime Systems (behind-the-lines or behind-the-scenes tyThis themed collection of stories is quite well done. The stories are placed in four groups: Wartime Systems (behind-the-lines or behind-the-scenes type of stories), Combat, Armored Force and Aftermath.
If we're using SF as a telltale for the zeitgeist, which actually works pretty well (for instance, look at all the global warming stories done in the 1970s and 1980s before it really got onto the radar of the general public), then the things we have to look forward to are institutionalized warfare, PTSD as part of everyday life and religious extremism of all stripes sweeping across the planet.
Women soldiers seem to rule the day, as well. I think the majority of these stories featured women as the protagonist, which is a sea change. Considering that the week I'm writing this (last week in November, 2014) there have been numerous stories about the US Marines testing women soldiers for acceptance into their ranks as well as stories about institutionalized harassment of women in the military, this aspect feels timely to me. Of course, other nations have had women serve in combat roles for generations, and the US is behind the curve on this, but I live in America so it feels fresh to me.
Overall the stories are terrific, and only starts to drag near the end. But that's actually true of real life, isn't it? Combat is very exciting, but dealing with the day-to-day realities of living with the consequences of battle are not. You've got to clean up, you've got to manage with less, and you have to care for those who have been wounded by war. Not just the soldiers but also those left behind.
Let's break it down:
GRAVES by Joe Haldeman, 5 stars -- this is a neo-classic short story by the master, concerning something being uncovered during the Vietnam War. (At first I thought the book was going to be all reprints like this, but the other 22 tales are original to this collection.) Although couched in terms of unleashing some supernatural something-or-other (it's not really clear what it is), this is pretty much a metaphor for PTSD. "Graves" is Haldeman at the top of his game, so it was risky of editors Gates and Liptak to put this first, as if throwing down the gauntlet. Fortunately the other stories mostly live up to it.
IN THE LOOP by Ken Liu, 4 stars -- This story is about the fog of war and how trying to minimize casualties never works. It's also about how PTSD affects not just the soldiers but also their families, resulting in a perpetual cycle that's potentially impossible to break. For the trifecta, he also has perpetual war. I've heard a lot about Liu but not yet read anything by him. I'm definitely looking forward to more. (I bough the collection Upgraded, which has one of his stories in it, so that'll be my next exposure to his work.)
GHOST GIRL by Rich Larson, 4 stars -- This could have gone in the fourth section, as well, as it deals with the aftermath of war and the way it twists people and cultures. Stories like this make you wonder why the hell we go to war in the first place.
THE RADIO by Susan Jane Bigelow, 5 stars -- Some really solid storytelling here with a couple nice twists which really help fill out the world's backstory. Bigelow manages to cram a ton of stuff into a short amount of space, which is a feat that always amazes me. This story has a proper beginning, middle and end, a plethora of characters with diverse motives and personalities, solid worldbuilding and, despite taking place on a distant planet with high tech warrior cyborgs and the like, still manages to be a commentary on the current situation here on Earth.
CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION by James L. Cambias, 5 stars -- This one is dark and scary. Talk about perpetual corporate-driven warfare! Oof. This is one of the few space-based tales here, and it's pretty much about how war and greed makes any peace we find transitory and illusory.
THE WASP KEEPERS by Mark Jacobsen, 4 stars -- Written by a veteran who is currently making the Middle East his entire life, this has the terrifying feeling of inevitability, as if this is how war is going to look in the not-too-distant future. Despite the advances in technology we're still going to have the same problems and make the same mistakes, we'll just do it for different reasons. Also, utter loss of privacy as a bonus nightmare.
NON-STANDARD DEVIATION by Richard Dansky, 4 stars -- This one is about an AI programmed for war games so we can make better soldiers. (view spoiler)[Like the classic 1983 movie WarGames where the computer learns that "The only winning move is not to play," the AI here comes to the same conclusion. Sadly, humans find a way to pervert that to their own ends to continue war. (hide spoiler)]
ALL YOU NEED by Mike Sizemore, 4 stars -- This was the first story that edged into the "literary" side of the equation, but managed to stay on my good side by being interesting and not overstaying its welcome. It also has a couple interesting characters which, although we've seen their like before, are intriguing enough to hang around with.
THE VALKYRIE by Maurice Broaddus, 3 stars -- This was the first story in the collection to talk about how religion extremism is sweeping through the Western cultures. The war here is against the heathens and atheists of Europe, as the righteous Americans come to deliver the message of God by the sword of the Lord. As someone who checked out of religion decades ago and has watched as seemingly-rational friends and family members become ever more radicalized, this is a terrifying future. The only reason I didn't give it 4 stars is because it felt a bit too extreme. But then I thought that about The Handmaid's Tale 30 years ago, and in some parts of America that thing is dangerously close to coming true, so who knows?
ONE MILLION LIRA by Thoraiya Dyer, 5 stars -- This is powerful stuff that feels like it could have taken place during the Siege of Stalingrad during WWII or could be happening today in Gaza. The sci-fi elements are completely secondary here, which isn't a bad thing, but it certainly makes its impact all the more devastating. Two snipers, the old mentor versus the former student, both the best at what they do, forced to make horrendous choices because of the stupidity of politics.
INVINCIBLE by Jay Posey, 4 stars -- I have Posey's novel Three in my to-read pile, and if the writing is like this, I'll enjoy it. This is uncomplicated, straightforward stuff but takes a look at PTSD in a new way that's only possible through science fiction. Even when soldiers appear normal to the outside and are able to function normally, they can still be hurting.
LIGHT AND SHADOW by Linda Nagata, 3 stars -- This is a nice companion piece to the Posey story, and coming right after it they almost feel carved from the same idea-marble: PTSD that we bury under layers of technology. In Nagata's story it's via an emotion-controlling skullcap, whereas we do it today through prescription mood stabilizers. it's not hard to see the metaphor here. I also have Nagata's novel First Light in my to-read pile, so it's nice to know I at least like her writing going into it.
WARHOSTS by Yoon Ha Lee, 1 star -- This was the weakest entry for me. It was too vague, too literary, too sidelong. Once Lee circles around to her point, you pretty much already get it, and the style didn't do anything for me.
SUITS by James Sutter, 3 stars -- I'm kind of torn by this one, almost giving it 2 stars, but the writing is good enough to warrant the extra star. i like the worldbuilding and the idea of using the genetically engineered mechanics as stand-ins for losing our innocence about war, but it felt almost the polar opposite of the Lee story, which was too oblique; here it's all surface.
MISSION. SUIT. SELF. by Jake Kerr, 3 stars -- This does a nice job of detailing the second-guessing nature of one's choices in war, but I didn't really buy into the main character's solution.
IN LOCO by Carlos Orci, 3 stars -- This is kind of interesting idea of a Europe devastated by a broken economy and extreme weather, but it almost felt like too much of a throwback to me. The contrast between high tech and primitive society works because of the way Orci has constructed it, and the reveals and turnabouts play together nicely. Maybe I should rate it higher, I don't know.
WAR DOG by Mike Barretta, 5 stars -- Another story by a veteran with religious extremism front and center. There's a lot of religion among the military guys I know, but this is getting scary. Barretta also throws in a second American Civil War just for fun. There are so many scary things about this story and I suppose if you really wanted to you could find a ton of themed parallels with today's world (biological warfare, PTSD, the political polarization of the US, gays in the military as represented by the titular character), but it works so well on its own that you don't even need to do that. I'd actually love to read an entire book set in this world, despite the fact I know it'd be depressing as hell.
COMING HOME by Janine Spendlove, 2 stars -- Argh, so close to being great! Another veteran entry, this one deals with the trauma of PTSD front and center and it's so good right up until the too-pat ending. If Spendlove had simply left out the little coda at the end it would've been far more powerful. Although she struggles with the present-day stuff of portraying the problems that plague a soldier's subconscious, Spendlove does set up the combat parts of the story nicely to get us there. If only it weren't for that dumb sitcom ending where everything is wrapped up by the end of the 22 minutes.
WHERE WOULD WE END A WAR by F. Brett Cox, 3 stars -- This is not exactly PTSD but more like getting used to combat. The tech of the transporter works as the metaphor for war changing you, so we can talk about how some soldiers become addicted to the thing that scared them most, not unlike the message in the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker.
BLACK BUTTERFLY by T.C. McCarthy, 4 stars -- The brutality of war is writ large here, but even worse is how we treat our returning veterans.
ALWAYS THE STARS AND THE VOID IN BETWEEN by Nerine Dorman, 3 stars -- Again, similar to The Hurt Locker in that we have a soldier who finds she no longer fits in at home and is unappreciated, despite the fact it's her paycheck that actually allows the home to function.
ENEMY STATES by Karin Lowachee, 2 stars -- When stories start veering too close to the literary my eyes start to glaze over. I was disappointed by this tale, since it hits the same note as Lowachee's excellent installment in Armored, but doesn't do it nearly as well. The characters are gay, I think, but it's not explicit. I don't see the need to be coy about this topic.
WAR 3.01 by Keith Brooke, 5 stars -- Big finish! This feels like what a real Information War would be like: over in microseconds and tailored to each person. Not just because it's set in London (but that didn't hurt), I'm rather reminded of The Who lyric, "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss/Won't get fooled again!" But they do. Kind of like falling for the most impressive phishing email ever. Also: religious war.["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"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Unlike those other mentioned stories, though, this one doesn't have zombies and unicorns facing off mano a horn-o, but is rather framed as the perpetual nerd meta-argument of "who would win?" It's a variation of "USS Enterprise v. Battlestar Galactica" or "Stormtroopers v. Redshirts" or "Alien v. Predator." (Oh, wait... we already have the answer to that last one: the audience loses.)
Here it's alternating stories between Team Zombie and Team Unicorn and we're supposed to chose. I guess. I'm not really sure what the point of the framing device was, aside from getting your friends together to write stories based on the blog mock-argument between Holly Black and Justine Married-to-Scott-Westerfeld.
Honestly, based on the "banter" between the two editors between each story (more like goofy trash talk that you can easily skip) and the title itself, I expected something a bit more light-hearted. Unfortunately, almost the entire collection is comprised of serious stories.
That said, there are plenty of quite good stories here. let's break it down:
The Highest Justice - Garth Nix 5 stars This story is misleading, in that it it is the only one with both a unicorn and a zombie in it, but on the other hand it also sets the tone of seriousness... and the fact that zombies and unicorns don't do battle. Nix is an author whose name I'm aware of but whose work I've never read. I should rectify that, as I thoroughly enjoyed this story. It is a complete tale with proper character delineation and a beginning, middle and end, with just enough hints at a larger backstory to keep you interested.
Purity Test - Naomi Novik 5 stars This is the only genuinely humorous story in the bunch. It's just a fun romp. Unlike Nix, I do have a bunch of Novik's books in my to-read tower (actual tower, go look at my photos), and now I'm really looking forward to reading them. I enjoyed this one so much I read it twice.
Bougainvillea - Carrie Ryan 2 stars This is well-written, but it meandered so much and got lost in its "voice" that I grew quite bored with it. It's a typical post-apocalypse zombie tale with a YA element. I suspect most of these authors I haven't encountered before are YA folks. Here it's a teenager struggling with the limitations her father has placed on her life as he rules Curacao after the end of the world. Or something. The details faded almost immediately.
A Thousand Flowers - Margo Langan 3 stars This one might also have a zombie in it, I'm not sure. There's something about the prison we put ourselves in couched as a fairy tale with ghosts and a ghost unicorn and false accusations in order to keep the "official story" seemingly legit... it was well-told but I don't remember the details here, either. I would have given it a higher rating were it shorter and had a single point of view, I think.
The Children of the Revolution - Maureen Johnson 2 stars I'm pretty sure the idea here is that Angelina Jolie is going around the world adopting dead babies and then bringing them back to life via her weird Scientology-like religion. It's told from the point of view of an American babysitter hired to take care of a Hollywood superstar's kids for a single night out in the English countryside. The writing is quite good, but I felt the leaps in logic were a bit hard to swallow, even for a zombie story. There's clearly something wrong with the kids, so why did you do the one thing you were told not to do and go into the room?
The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn - Diana Peterfreund 2 stars Based on the title, I was expecting a romp. Instead it's actually a serious tale, with some metaphor about growing up and finding your own inner girl power. Or something. It's decent enough, but I really didn't buy the uber-clueless parents who completely miss a baby unicorn in their garage (yes, I know the rationale given is that there's a lot of clutter preventing them from parking the car inside, still.). When I get down to nitpicking on that level, you've lost me, frankly. It does have a funny passage, but it feels out of place here: "My arms tangle up, hugging myself to keep out the cold. But it's a warm spring evening. Nothing like last fall, with it cold gray skies, crisp leaves, bloodcurdling screams." It's okay, but it sort of just ends. I suppose it's the emotional peak of the story, but it feels a lot like she hit her maximum word count and quit.
Inoculata - Scot Westerfeld 5 stars Now, Westerfeld I have read before, thoroughly enjoying his take on vampires in the book Peeps. Here he's done the same thing to zombies, taking the familiar tropes and turning them 90 degrees, making them fresh and interesting. He does it again here with a story of the only four kids left in a group of survivors and how their way of looking at the world is different enough from the adults that it allows them to adapt. Unlike the metaphors of other writers here, this one shines like a beacon for me, making me feel smart rather than dumb, so I'd give him a sixth star just for that.
Princess Prettypants - Meg Cabot 3 stars This is a very YA story. It has the benefit of actually having a set-up, climax and resolution, but it's hamstrung by some clunky writing. You know how bad TV shows always have the characters call out their relationship to one another? "Hey sis, have you talked dad into seeing a doctor about his prostate problems in between the courtroom cases you're both handling since you've moved in with him?" Yeah, there's that sort of thing here. Which is unfortunate, because it actually does have a funny line later in the story when THIS character finds her inner girl power. (view spoiler)["You might want to rethink your decision not to hand over your cell phone to me, Spank. Or my unicorn is going to smash your face." (hide spoiler)]
Cold Hands - Cassandra Clare 5 stars I knew Clare's name but I didn't know why. I assumed Twilight since it wasn't Hunger Games. Turns out it's Mortal Instruments. And all I know about that is it was a movie which flopped. But maybe I should read one of her books if they're all as self-assured as this story. Another interesting twist on zombies, where people live in a town called Lychgate where the dead simply come back to life. This is our modern world, with cell phones and CDs (although what kid actually buys CDs these days?), just with the reanimated dead wandering around town. They don't eat people, they're just... back. It's implied the dead return because they have unfinished business, but the story focuses squarely on two 17-year-old lovebirds, one of whom is son of the Duke and will next run the place, the other his commoner girlfriend. I won't spoil it, but it's interesting and has the quality of leaving you satisfied with a complete story despite asking more questions than it answers.
The Third Virgin - Kathleen Duey 4 stars I quite enjoyed this story, despite it not really having an explanation or ending, either. It's really more of a character sketch of a sentient unicorn who has regenerative powers, who eats people's remaining life force. Babies are best, naturally. It hates itself for doing this, but like an addict is compelled to continue despite numerous attempts to stop. After hundreds of years it finds a virgin who can possibly end its suffering and murdering. She does, but in an unexpected way. As far as I'm concerned, unexpected ways are best.
Prom Night - Libba Bray 3 stars This was a decent enough story about the months after a zombie plague. Apparently it's the kind that kills grown-ups, because all we're left with is a bunch of kids running an Arizona town. They don't seem too worried about any kind of deadline approaching as they age up, because their main concern seems to be throwing their senior prom, despite the fact most of the world -- and all the adults -- are dead. We follow two teenagers around in a police car as they act like the cops, basically mimicking what their parents would do. Sort of the opposite message of Westerfeld's story. It leaves on more of a cliffhanger, though, which gave me another sense of the author saying, "Whelp, max word count, I'm out." Just kind of wish it had gone somewhere, although I suspect a longer version would simply be longer, not better.["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"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
My ultimate take-away from this collection of stories is that there's nothing new to say about power armor. All you can hope for is really good writinMy ultimate take-away from this collection of stories is that there's nothing new to say about power armor. All you can hope for is really good writing of tales we've seen before. If you've never read stories about this sort of thing, this might be a decent introduction, but this is well-trod ground for long-time readers of SF.
Of course, the problem is that I'm measuring these stories against the best the field has come up with. Haldeman's The Forever War, heinlein's Starship Troopers and especially Gordon R. Dickson's novella "In the Bone", which deconstructs the powered armor story figuratively and, within the tale itself, literally.
That said, let's parse this sucker.
Foreword by Orson Scott Card. He says a bunch of obvious stuff, to the point where I thought, "Oh shut up, you idiot."
The Johnson Maneuver by Ian Douglas. This is a by-the numbers Military SF story with an interesting alien culture sweetening the pot of the typical "competent Marine versus incompetent paper-pusher". Well-written and a decent way to ease into the collection.
Hel's Half-Acre by Jack Campbell. Another by-the-book armor story by another veteran MilSF writer, this is predictable but well-written.
Jungle Walkers by David Klecha & Tobias S. Buckell. A near-future story that is informed by the realities of what actual conflicts are about. This is one of the better stories in this collection. The good news is that you can read it for free here at io9.
The Last Run of the Coppelia by Genevieve Valentine. This story is different from most in that the powered armor is semi-sentient pseudo-biological suits designed for aquatic work. It's hampered by some unclear action scenes, but the characters are nicely done.
Death Reported of Last Surviving Veteran of the Great War by Dan Abnett. This was just a lazy pseudo-obituary and should have been rejected.
The Cat's Pajamas by Jack McDevitt. One of my favorite stories of the bunch, this one feels like a classic Larry Niven story where the characters are presented with a problem that requires some out-of-the-box creative thinking. The power armor in this case isn't for military use but rather to protect against the beyond-extreme environment near a pulsar. Cats are cliche in sci-fi, but this one I really liked.
Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest Things by Simon R. Green. A character study more than anything else that offends my sense of justice. It feels very much in the vein of 60s New Wave stuff, but the unfair denouement aggravates me.
Power Armor: A Love Story by David Barr Kirtley. Despite the terrible title, this is actually a pretty decent character sketch about opening yourself up to love. The metaphor is a bit obvious in that the main character has sealed himself into his power armor because he is justifiably frightened of assassination and only true love can get him to "open up"... his armor. But the writing is good and dialogue is nice.
The Last Days of the Kelly Gang by David D. Levine. A true rarity: a science fictional steampunk story. This is one of two of these here and this is the good one, with excellent writing and terrific characters. It didn't hurt that I read this the week after returning from Australia, so the setting was fresh in my mind, but this could be set in the American West, too.
Field Test by Michael Stackpole. I'm not sure if this qualifies as Alternate History or Secret History, but the story takes place during the recent uprising in Libya, with a soldier using an experimental battlesuit to wreak havoc during Ghaddafi's fall from power. Great action scenes, fun characters, superb dialogue. This should be used to teach SF writers how to do infodumps that aren't annoying. You get everything you need to know about the situation while also learning about the characters and it flows together seamlessly.
Trauma Pod by Alastair Reynolds. A decent story that we've seen before (and will again in this collection) but the pieces fall into place readily enough. (view spoiler)[The titular pod is a robotic medic working to save a soldier's life, and eventually his consciousness merges with the pod's AI... or perhaps the pod becomes delusional that has happened. Reynolds leaves it somewhat open to interpretation. (hide spoiler)]
Contained Vacuum by David Sherman. This was a boring action bit that felt like a level in a mediocre space combat video game. It was probably inspired by Dead Space or something similar and it feels like it.
You Do What You Do by Tanya Huff. This is similar to Trauma Pod in that it explores what happens to people who interface too closely and too intensely with machines. Unlike trauma Pod, it is unambiguous about what happens, but is ambiguous about whether it's a good thing or not.
Nomad by Karin Lowachee. This is a cracking-good story about betrayal and death and moving on from losing the one great love of your life, using a post-apocalyptic powered armor gang warfare story as the framing device. This is the kind of story that would look good as a movie but wouldn't translate well.
Human Error by John Jackson Miller. Like The Cat's Pajamas this is a Nivenesque tale of being forced to find solutions to apparently insurmountable problems. In this case problems caused by a shipping error, where someone sent human soldiers power armor meant for starfish-like aliens... and it just so happens that they are facing a mindless glob of goo that eats everything in its wake, including entire planets. It's the good ol' "adapt, improvise. overcome" story that's so much fun in sci-fi.
Transfer of Ownership by Christie Yant. This story was particularly satisfying for me because it combines the outside-the-box thinking I like in stories as well as the sentient power armor tale with a genuinely satisfying ending that wasn't a "happy ending" but appealed to my sense of justice. It's almost as if Yant has perfectly (and intentionally) synthesized a number of the other stories in this collection.
Heuristic Algorithmic and Reasoning Response Engine by Ethan Skarstedt & Brandon Sanderson. I don't have anything good to say about this story. The aliens are uninteresting, the action is tedious, the dialogue some of the worst I've ever seen and it just stops. There's no ending. It's as if they got to the number of words they contracted to write and quit. This is an example of how not to write a story.
Don Quixote by Carrie Vaughn. This is the opposite of The Last Says of the Kelly gang. Really lifeless steampunk that just didn't work on any level.
The Poacher by Wendy Wagner & Jack Wagner. After two really terrible stories in a row, this one bounced back with a well-told story of a park ranger on a future Earth that's protected as a heritage site. The recent story of poachers poisoning over 300 elephants as well as other animals like lions in Zimbabwe with the aid of government officials really underscores how important this sort of thing is, and I'm all about rangers trying to protect fragile ecosystems from greedy little bastards.
The Green by Lauren Beukes. This is a horror story, plain and simple. It's depressing and sad, but also terrifically written. The ending is horrific but feels inevitable. Sadly, despite its removal from anything familiar by placing it far in the future on a distant planet, it speaks directly to the actions of so many heartless corporations today, which is what the best science fiction does.
Sticks and Stones by Robert Buettner. This story has a lighter tone than the one surrounding it which makes it feel almost like a comedy, but it, too, is a really well-done throwback to stories from the golden age of sci-fi. A little push-pull of Imperialism as well as Star Trek's Prime Directive is always good for a tidy little story. Again, it suits my sense of justice to give the good guys a fighting chance.
Helmet by Daniel H. Wilson. This is powerful stuff, of heroism and horror, human decency struggling to survive amongst brutal inhumanity. it works on both levels as science fiction and as commentary on current events in war-torn Anywhere. This story surprised me the most, because I totally hated Wilson's novel Robopaclypse, which I felt was a lazy version of World War Z.
The N-Body Solution by Sean Williams. This story was good in that it gives us a glimpse of how alien things can be, but the underlying "twist" is one that's been done before. (view spoiler)[The wormhole transfer station appears broken but actually works fine. What usually happens, though, is that the person on the transmitting end is killed by the machine and a duplicate is created on the receiving end. It's an old idea that has been explored quite a few times before. (hide spoiler)] It's a decent enough tale, but the familiarity of the pieces works against it, and the power armor aspect of it is rather incidental. ["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"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
There are some really great stories here about life aboard interstellar starships. The hook for this collection is that they're all scientifically posThere are some really great stories here about life aboard interstellar starships. The hook for this collection is that they're all scientifically possible. Which isn't as heavy as you might think, since the focus really isn't on the science. Plus the last two stories really don't have much to do with it.
The last story is by Mike Resnick and it doesn't belong here. It's a fanciful tale about a race through the solar system and the "real story" about how one ship disappeared. It really should have been rejected; I suspect he's here for name recognition.
That said, many of the other stories are so good that I wish they were full novels. It reminds me why I like short stories so much: cracking good tales that leave you wanting more. It's a shame the book ends with a whimper.
There are a few science essays which detail some of the ways we can travel interstellar distances. A few decades ago I would have found them to be value-added, but there wasn't a lot of new information contained in them. Which is really a commentary on the sad state of cutting-edge scientific inquiry in America more than anything else. However, if this is your first exposure to these ideas then they are well worth your time.
Edit to add:
CHOICES by Les Johnson - A very good beginning to the collection, setting the tone that sometimes things break while in deep space, and frequently those broken things are people.
A COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Ben Bova - I really enjoyed this old school story about a stubborn man who knows what the right choice is and is determined to make it, no matter the cost. To win big you have to bet big, and the protagonist is just that kind of guy.
LUCY by Jack McDevitt - I loved this story. This is the flipside of the Bova story where the AI has a chance to go on one last adventure and metaphorically leaps at it.
LESSER BEINGS by Dr. Charles Gannon - This story really feels epic, with an interstellar spaceship used as an escape valve for a warring society. Every time someone loses a war, they take the ship to the next available system. The implication is that they are multiple generations -- and star systems -- removed from Earth, and as a result their society has mutated and stratified. Creating a completely new culture with backstory is something incredibly difficult to pull off, so I'm always impressed when an author does it in a short story. Excellent.
DESIGN FLAW by Louise Marley - This is a solid nuts-and-bolts working-class-spaceman story about a woman whose job is to inspect hard-to-get-to crawlspaces in spaceships because of her tiny size. Her diminutive stature comes partially from being naturally small and from growing up starvingly poor, which made her small. But small or not, she doesn't take guff from roughneck bullies, which causes her to make some tough choices. I discovered I'm slightly claustrophobic while having an MRI, so parts of this story were skin-crawlingly tense.
TWENTY LIGHTS TO THE "LAND OF SNOW": Excerpts from the Computer Logs of Our Reluctant Dalai Lama by Michael Bishop - A Buddhist colony ship funded by the Chinese eager to solve their Tibetan problem heads out for another solar system and the Dalai Lama dies en route. It is claimed he reincarnates in the body of a 7-year-old girl, who wants nothing to do with the responsibility. It's a nice tale of how she ages from 7 to 31 during the journey, with all the politics and dangers one might imagine in any group. I can't say much about the plot without spoiling it, but it's quite good.
THE BIG SHIP AND THE WISE OLD OWL by Sarah A. Hoyt - Another female protagonist, which is a nice trend, but this story felt a little too pat. Some of the things which happen do so just in time, the kind of coincidence which do stretch my willing suspension of disbelief. It's not a bad story, but when compared to some of the really good stories here it's a bit of the B team taking the field.
SIREN SONG by Mike Resnick - This story doesn't belong here either in terms of theme (going interstellar) or quality. This is the sort of disappointing trifle Resnick can do in his sleep, and I'm at a loss as to why it's included. This was a lame way to end an otherwise excellent collection.
Various essays - As mentioned above, the essays are almost certainly value-added to someone new to the game, with excellent summations of current thoughts, theories and designs. I didn't find they added much for me, but then I've been reading this stuff for 40 years now. that said, they are quite good....more
Patton Oswalt is probably most famous for voicing the rat chef in Pixar's Ratatouille or maybe the sitcom King of Queens, but the first time I saw himPatton Oswalt is probably most famous for voicing the rat chef in Pixar's Ratatouille or maybe the sitcom King of Queens, but the first time I saw him was at some dumpy little comedy club back in the late 80s or early 90s and I felt like I was the only one in the crowd who understood what he was doing.
This book is a lot like his stage show in that it's sometimes incredibly funny and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable yet always incisive and just a wee bit twisted. It's impossible to tell which stories are true and which are made up (although I'm pretty sure the one about the vampires turfing over a street corner is absolutely not false), but ultimately it doesn't really matter, because either way you're going to be entertained.
The title essay sorts geeks into their respective niches: are you a zombie, spaceship or wasteland? I can't describe it without giving it away. I guess ultimately I'm a spaceship searching for a zombie wasteland. I just want to start over, control my little part of the world and go for some sweet headshots....more
This excellent collection of short stories are basically variations on the theme of alternate timelines, framed as dreams Albert Einstein has while woThis excellent collection of short stories are basically variations on the theme of alternate timelines, framed as dreams Albert Einstein has while working as a patent clerk. The sheer variety is impressive, and they are each thought-provoking in their own way....more
The Man-Kzin Wars series has been my favorite escapist literature since the first one debuted 25 years ago. Some of the books in the series have beenThe Man-Kzin Wars series has been my favorite escapist literature since the first one debuted 25 years ago. Some of the books in the series have been brilliant, some terrible, but overall they've been quite entertaining. This volume is decidedly on the "really good" end of the spectrum. there are some annoying things, such as the witless dolt who proofread the thing, changing the multiple instances of "hangar" into "hanger" and the flash of "lightning" to "lightening." That sort of intern-level laziness aggravates me. Overlooking those lapses, though, shows a really fine collection overall.
One of the things I've always enjoyed about Larry Niven's Known Space books is that they generally don't take themselves too seriously. There's always the wry viewpoint which underscores everything. The best of the Man-Kzin stories capture that. The most brilliant example occurs in the very first volume with Dean Ing's story "Cathouse." That really set the tone for everyone following. However, here we have the Alex Hernandez tale "At the Gates" which fits right in with that same style. It's a fine line to walk and many authors aren't as successful at it, but when they hit it, everything is golden. Known Space is a lot like Star Trek: lots of fun, but short on continuity of scientific believability.
Misunderstanding by Hal Colebatch & Jessica Q. Fox -- Colebatch is probably the most-active veteran of the M-K Wars. His stories have been all over the place for me, and this is one of the weaker ones. It's a bit *too* silly for my tastes... well, more than a bit. It's downright goofy. I don't know Fox's work, so I have no idea how much influence she had on the story. This is the weakest tale of the bunch.
Two Types of Teeth by Jane Lindskold -- I quite liked this story, primarily because of the pay-off of the title. It's about a Kzin POW and the woman tasked with studying him. There's some stuff about Helsinki Syndrome and politics, but this is one of those tales which feels somewhat canonical. (Many of the M-K stories aren't canon, according to Niven, but he's only talked about a couple.) Even without knowing about the larger aspects of Known Space a reader can easily follow this straight-forward story.
Pick of the Litter by Charles E. Gannon -- This novella is the longest of the bunch and the heart of the book. A special taskforce captures a bunch of Kzin kits who are then raised in captivity during the early years of the Wars so humans can study them. they 9and we) learn a lot about Kzin biology and psychology, as well as the recent history of Earth and the internal conflicts caused by shifting from a neutered Golden Age of peace to a war footing against a ferocious enemy. It's interesting in and of itself, but I also like how it fills in gaps in the M-K backstory about how humans learned to exploit Kzin emotional tendencies and physiological responses.
Tomcat Tactics by Charles E. Gannon -- This is pretty much a sequel to the previous story. Much of it is the pay-off to the various bits of knowledge gleaned over the 25 year span in "Pick of the Litter." It's also a cracking-good war story. These two stories really feel like Gannon has done his homework from previous volumes and has slotted his tales expertly into them, obliquely referencing things which happened in other volumes concerning the planet Wunderland. Plus all of his dates feel right. If they ever update the Wunderland War volume, these need to go with it.
At the Gates by Alex Hernandez -- As I mentioned, this is the stand-out tale of the bunch. It truly captures the flavor of the classic tales of Known Space as written by Niven: it's a cool adventure with daring, smart protagonists who have a sort of amused viewpoint of the world. The only thing I didn't care for was that the main Kzin character, Healer-of-Hunters, refers to having eaten a pet Pug as a young kit. That was just unnecessary. Pugs are such pleasant, happy-to-meet-you dogs. Now, Chihuahuas on the other hand... (And I mean "the other hand" literally: looking at my left hand as I type this, I can see the deep gouges left from my Chihuahua as he mauled me while I attempted to remove a tick. My Pugs wouldn't have done that.)
Anyway, we finally get to find out what happened to Angel's Pencil, the human spaceship which first encountered the Kzin way back in 1966. (1966 our time, not Known Space time. That's how old this universe is that Niven has created.)
Zeno's Roulette by David Bartell -- I'm not sure what to make of this story. It's really good and feels quite a bit like the previous one, but it really amps up the stakes by evoking many of the heavy hitters in the Known Space universe: the Puppeteers, the Slavers and the stasis boxes. In mercenary Flex Bothme (a pseudonym) Bartell has created a character the equal to the likes of Louis Wu, the hero of the Ringworld books, but there's something sinister about him and not quite complete. It's a good story, but again it went to a dark place more than once. I'm not against that but... maybe it was just jarring after the Hernandez story.
Bound for Paradise by Alex Hernandez -- This ties in with "At the Gates", pointing to bigger things to come with the descendants of Angel's Pencil and a new direction for the Known Space universe. Providing Niven lets it stand as canon, of course. This is brief and direct, almost a coda for everything that's gone before.
One of the things I've always liked about Niven's universe is the names of his spaceships. Instead of boring names like "Intrepid" and "Endeavour," he's always given them fanciful names: Angel's Pencil and Hot Needle of Inquiry. We've got some good ones in this volume, too.
Human ships: Catscratch Fever Euclid's Lasso I Love Lucy Pick of the Litter Alaric Sun Wukong