Review of “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale,” novelette by Rajnar Vajra

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779This novelette was published in Analog, 07/08-2014.

Emily Asari, Micah Cohen and Priam Galanis are Exoplanetary Explorer cadets. They get into a bar fight, and as punishment are denied the standard training mission and required to assist with dismantling the Abreathon World camp before abandoning the planet. The team there has identified electronic communications equipment on some of the lifeforms, but after lengthy efforts have been unable to establish communications. On the ship headed to Abreathon, Priam asks to have the team’s reports in order to attempt to salvage the project. The mentor takes this poorly and allows them to have the reports, but threatens ejection from the corps if they are unsuccessful. On Abreathon, Priam shows that the intelligent species actually rides inside the animals thought to be intelligent. These snake-like creatures trigger a trap that kills the team’s guide and badly injures Micah and Priam. Emily manages to establish communications and the three are commissioned with the rest of their class.

This story is the best of the “hard” SF I’ve read for the Hugos, well-written, interesting and entertaining. It was a bit strange at the end, where the writer leaves Emily sitting and staring at the little snakes and then jumps to the commissioning ceremony. I’d have preferred more threat and a dramatic eleventh hour inspiration. Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Journeyman: In the Stone House,” novelette by Michael F. Flynn

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55327_girl-writing_mdI’m continuing my reviews of the Hugo nominees. This story appeared in Analog, 06-2014.

Teodorq sunna Nagarajan and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles are headed eastward in the World when they find someone has built a great stone house to control the pass through the mountains. They hide to check it out, but are captured by a woman with a crossbow and caged in the stronghold. After questioning, they are conscripted into the kospathin’s troops and given sword training. Teodorq’s enemy Kel has also been captured, and both know a contest between them is coming. The kospathin’s Wisdom shows them relics of a space ship, and they tell him about finding a fallen shuttle with a “ghost” named Jamly who talked to them and asked them to find starmen’s villages. As the training goes on, Kel takes his chance on attacking Teodorq, but misses. The kospathin sets up a contest where both draw blood, satisfying Kel for the moment. It appears they will be sent to fight other forces eastward, which is fine, as this was the direction they were traveling. Teodorq resolves to continue looking for the starmen’s villages.

This novelette also reads like part of a novel, and events don’t resolve. However, this episode is fun and interesting to read, as the writer has spent some time on humor, characterization, description and world building, including a very readable jargon. Sammi is a real card. Three stars.

Review of “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” novelette by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779This novelette appeared in Lightspeed, 04-2014.

Gravity reverses so that things fall into the sky. Even the moon is pushed away so it goes into orbit around the sun. People and things fly off into space. Toby has just broken up with his girlfriend Sophie, and the upturned world seems to be symbolic. Toby saves his girlfriend’s goldfish Bubbles and Dawnie, a little girl from a swing set near his house. They set off to deliver Bubbles, tied together with a rope, clinging to things and seeing various other survivors of the disaster. They stay a while with two women who are making a rope ladder to explore the universe. Dawnie leaves with the women and Toby goes on and finds Sophie. When they fail to patch things up, Toby becomes Bubbles for a moment, trapped in a Seven-up bottle. Going to the bath to get aspirin for Sophie, Toby finds her dead lover. He takes Bubbles to a nearby hanging lake and sets him free. Watching Bubbles, Toby realizes that up and down is just a matter of perspective. Headed home, he stops at the women’s house and climbs down their rope ladder into nothingness.

I like the allegory here. It’s something mostly shutout of this year’s crop of nominees. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a young Dutch writer and the translation doesn’t quite make this into smooth, contemporary English. The slight awkwardness is a shame, as it’s a very well-done story. Four stars.

Review of “Championship B’tok”, novelette by Edward M. Lerner

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FeatherPenClipArtThis novelette was published in Analog, 09-2014.

Uranus’ moon Ariel hosts a settlement of exiled “Snakes,” aliens who have fought with humans over a starship but been defeated. B’tok is a strategy game. A series of accidents damages both Snake and human mining ships and facilities. Carl Rowland, the administrator in charge of dealing with the Snakes, becomes suspicious that some ploy is afoot. He is returned to Earth after a failed attempt to identify possible alien “interveners” interested in restricting both Snake and human technology. Meanwhile, the Snakes have been working to create a robotic army. Once Rowland is out of the way, Snake leader Glithwah sets out to recapture a starship.

This story has a fairly complex set up and ends very abruptly without resolution. This gives me the idea it might be part of a novel in work. It skips from viewpoint to viewpoint, but I don’t get much of a feel for any of the characters. There’s no description of the settlements or facilities. If they’re using grip strips for shoes to deal with low gravity, then how can someone eat salad out of a bowl? If you’re going to write hard SF, please be accurate. One star.

Review of “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, novelette by Gray Rinehart

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reading-clipart-6This novelette was published by Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014.

The human colony on Alluvium has been taken over by a lizard race called Peshari. Humans have revolted, but have failed to win back their autonomy. The Peshari limit technology use by humans, including that for medical purposes, and use remote observation units to monitor humans. Keller and Cerna walk into the lizard town and Keller asks a Peshari to make a memorial for him, but the Peshari refuses because Keller’s ashes won’t be a part of it. Worried about his friend, Cerna check with his ex-wife the doctor who refuses to give out info. Keller then confides that his nano protection has failed and he has developed cancer. Keller dies, but has made plans for burial rather than cremation, knowing this will curse the ground for the Peshari.

There’s a problem with world-building on this one. The initial Peshari attack and the subsequent revolts are described as bloody, but this looks like life as usual to me. The colonists have tablet computers, fabrication units, celebrate birthdays and holidays, but are not allowed long range communications or transportation. Why? I don’t get it. Plus, these guys could be working in the suburbs for all I can tell. There’s no difference in culture, outlook or behavior. The few characters we see are flat and the death is just a plot device. On the positive side, the idea of cursing the ground is pretty creative. One and a half stars.

Review of “The Plural of Helen of Troy,” novella by John C. Wright

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FeatherPenClipArtThis novella appeared in City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, published by Castalia House.

Jake Frontino is a 1940’s style noir detective in a city called Metachronopolis. The city is ruled by Time Wardens who can manipulate time, transporting famous people and things into the city apparently for their prestige value. Jake is hired by Jack Kennedy, future Time Warden, to save history’s most beautiful woman, either Marilyn Monroe or Helen of Troy, from himself. The story is told from the end to the beginning. Jake and Jack find Marilyn/Helen and get her to help set a trap for his older self. This works, and after a struggle, the older Jack is killed, leading to a time paradox. Then Jack hires Jake. Then Jack comes to Jake’s office and explains what he wants to do.

I’m not sure what to say about this one. My first reaction is that Jake is pretty sexist. I kept reading along, looking for some reason to write the character this way, but his attitude seems to have no socially redeeming value. Maybe it’s 1950s Marilyn that has triggered the whole thing. Other than that, the story structure is pretty messy and the physics unsupported in any way. Wright resorts to things like a “forgetting helmet” and similar gimmicks to carry the plot. Apparently this is from a collection of related stories, and maybe it would make more sense in context. On the positive side, the idea is very creative and the writing style is very smooth and readable. One star.

Review of “Pale Realms of Shade,” novella by John C. Wright

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Edward LearThis novella appeared in The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House.

Flint has been a “twilight” detective, one of a partnership that deals with mystical elements. Now he’s a poltergeist, a ghost angry about his murder. We get glimpses as he skips through space and time, scenes where he talks with his wife Rory, his business partner Sly, tries to confess to a priest. Eventually we find that his wife has murdered him for the insurance money and has taken up with his business partner. He is called by someone named the Fixer who offers to release him from the world. Fixer offers him an opportunity to kill Sly, but Flint realizes this will send himself to hell—not Sly. He flees, and the Fixer screams after him that he can never rest until he has finished with the business of life. He goes in search of Christ and finds an archangel who asks him to confess his sins. Flint takes a hard look at his life and realizes his problem is that he has tried to possess his wife. The angel tells him where to find Christ, and he goes off in search of Him.

I pretty much liked this one until it got preachy at the end. It’s written in the 1940s noir detective style, with the added effect of the “twilight” business and the poltergeist. Wright has done the same thing here that he’s done in the other stories I’ve read, which is to throw around too many archetypes, name-dropping elves, fairies, saints and angels. A little of this is good, but more is not better. Two and a half stars.

Review of “One Bright Star to Guide Them,” novella by John C. Wright

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55327_girl-writing_mdThis novella was published by Castalia House.

Middle-aged Tommy comes home from the pub where he has celebrated a promotion that will mean he has to leave Brighton and move to London. When he gets home, he encounters Tybalt, a black cat that he remembers from childhood. Tybalt gives Tommy a silver key and tells him he is needed again to fight the forces of evil. Tommy makes the decision to do this and sets out to find the playmates that went with him on those childhood adventures to mystical lands. Richard has gone over to the dark. Sally is afraid to leave her house, but gives him a shard of magic mirror. Penny is dead, but has left him a magical book and a letter on how to use it. Armed with these and accompanied by Tybalt, he sets of for Somerset to steal the Sword Reforged from the local museum. Tommy gains the sword and sacrifices Tybalt. The sword ignites and he banishes the Knight of Shadows. Tybalt comes to him reincarnated as a magnificent lion and tells him he is the newly anointed Wise Old Man. Tommy uses the book to open a gateway and leaves for distant worlds.

This feels derivative. The sacrifice and rebirth of Tybalt come right out of Chronicles of Narnia. Wright is very facile with archetypes, but maybe too much so. There are just too many of them here. The way they’re tossed around feels shallow, and most of the action takes place off stage. Also, the author mixes Christian and pagan figures in a way that doesn’t quite make sense to me. On the positive side, it’s a smooth, easy read, well-written and interesting. It has something to say about the importance of dreams and how people need them as they get older, too. Two and a half stars.

Review of “Big Boys Don’t Cry,” novella by Tom Kratman

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FeatherPenClipArtHere’s another review of a Hugo nominated novella published by Castalia House.

Maggie is a Ratha armored fighting vehicle (tank), and she is reminiscing about when she had a human crew that she loved instead of drones. She prays for them, but silently so no one will notice and send her for a radical debugging. Her experiences on the battlefield are interspersed with passages from a military history text. After an ambush, Maggie is severely damaged and feels agonizing pain. A human salvage crew arrives to dismantle her, and officials bicker about the sale of parts. Maggie’s memories expose graft, cruelty and corruption in the humans she has served, and at the end of the story, she responds to this.

This is a long piece, and full of battle details that slow the reading for me. On the positive side, the author has spent some effort in world-building, and the historical information includes politics, economics and strategy that give it extra dimension. This is two SF war stories in a row where an AI has exhibited human-like perspectives and emotions. In this case the builders use pain to implement operant conditioning in the training of the war machines. Although the central memory core is sealed off, Maggie accesses it at the end. The capacity for pain and emotion is what gives the story a sentimental kick, but I’m not sure this is supportable for building and programming an AI. Still, I like the results. Three and a half stars.

Review of “Flow,” novella by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779This story was published by Analog, 11-2014. A bastion of traditionalism, Analog has four nominations this year. You can tell they are basking in the glow. All four are posted on their website. On to the review…

Rist is from the Tharn Lands. He is on an adventure, as he has caught a ride with a berg-crew that brings icebergs downriver from the Cold Lands to the Warm Lands where they sell them to city dwellers for a bag full of coppers. When they arrive at their destination, the city-dwellers catch the berg with a net of wonderful fabric and the crew gets off, spending some time in the city before starting home. Rist encounters many wonders, such as blue sky, pulleys, dogs, a temple and buxom females. He gets a pier man to help him steal some of the wonderful fabric, and the man is caught and executed by the priests. They come after Rist, too, but he escapes and discovers a new world in a valley downriver.

This is well-written but the mountain of detail about elements strange to Rist and mostly familiar to any Earth human means the story moves very slowly. It could easily have been much shorter. We see a possible Earth-influenced culture from an alien perspective, but Rist comes across more as an ignorant human than an alien. The system of writing is the only serious world-building that takes place, and there is some distance calculation with shadows. The only question the story asks is how the priests can be so cruel to their own kind. That means it’s not especially thought-provoking. Two stars.

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