Thursday, April 29, 2010

Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2010

Apparently artificial intelligence themed issue which seems to be fairly average in quality.
The Anunnaki Legacy • novelette by Bond Elam
A planet is going to be used for mining in spite of strange “worms” living on its surface. There is also a wreck of an ancient alien space ship orbiting the planet. A pair of researchers get a only a few days to find out if there are anything worthwhile on the surface of planet, and after that the mining of the planet will start. I wonder why it is so necessary to to dismantle planets for the raw materials, surely there would be asteroids with much lower gravity wells usable for raw materials? Also, the “company men” are so evil caricatures, that they are practically twirling their mustaches. The story was okay as such, with slightly less black and white characters it might have been clearly better. ***
Cargo • shortstory by Michael F. Flynn
The story happens in a postapokalyptic future where a tribe of humans live near an abandoned city. All science and books are forbidden and the punishment for third error (involvement with any scientific matter) is death by stoning. An older uncle is reminiscenting a tale his mother told, and is trying to find a young male who is on the brick of the “third strike”. Okay story, uses the old cliche of postapokalyptic future where all technology is forbidden. It seems to go too far - it is hard to understand that after a catastrophe all technology and book would be forbidden, even those which are essential for survival. ***+
Space Aliens Taught My Dog to Knit! • novelette by Jerry Oltion and Elton Elliot
Tall tale a out man who believes that a huge conspiracy is withholding evidence about aliens in earth and their base on the far side of the moon. Story goes to more and more preposterous, and I was expecting some sort of trick ending. It didn't exactly come, and the ending wasn't entirely satisfactory. ***+
A Time for Heroes • shortstory by Edward M. Lerner
A video game tester is play-testing the newest and best virtual reality gaming simulator there is. He plays and plays and slowly starts to wonder a few things. Why he has no recollection of entering into the simulation, and why he has no knowledge how to get away from it? He is part of the simulation, of course. ***1/2
Heist • shortstory by Tracy Canfield
A heist where a computer AI tries to escape a mmorpg where he was born. Interesting use of Finland as a place where AIs might escape to. By the way, you can't tell from a Finnish phone number that it is from "a Helsinki suburb" as the area codes don't go to that detail - and very few people probably will have land lines anyway in 2020; as fairly few, mainly only middle-aged and older people have them anymore even at the moment. Not too bad story anyway, probably the one I liked most in this issue. ****-
At Last the Sun • shortstory by Richard Foss
A research group who is exploring an oxygen starved and dead area of ocean finds something new. Well told short story in with nice tone and style. Sf content is fairly light after all. ***1/2
Connections • novelette by Kyle Kirkland
Future where the government is very centralized and has banned everything even remotely harmful, and a secret opposition is trying to influence things. There are retraining camps for those who get caught. And there is a guy who has gotten killed, who was into AI-research, whose AI says he was murdered. There seems to perhaps too many plot-lines with not entirely connected details going on. The plots come together somehow in the end, but not entirely satisfactorily and logically. The story might have been better with a few less details or in a clearly longer form. ***-

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The story happens in a future Thailand in a world where genetic plaques have transformed much of the food crops inedible or extinct. Genetic manipulation has been able to keep some of the food production running. Much of the food production is done by “calorie companies” which sell food, and also plants which are usually programmed to give just one harvest, so that new seeds must be bought every year. The calorie companies are also ready to almost anything to get their hands on seed banks which contain pre-catastrophe seeds. Those could be utilized for new resilient food plants which would mean more profit.
The story is told by several different viewpoint characters. One is American business man running a spring factory, and working for a calorie company. Another is his Chinese secretary who has a few hidden agendas; another is a Jaidee, a leader of a corrupt militia force, “white shirts”. The name character, and the most interesting character in the book, is The Windup Girl, Emiko, who is a Japanese secretary/courtesan who has been left back by earlier Japanese trade mission. She is gene modified and programmed human, whose skin is so soft and smooth that it doesn't contain any sweat pores and so any heavier exercise overheats her. To overcome that, she needs a glass of ice water. The author’s grasp of thermodynamics is on par with his grasp of other aspects of physics and science.

As science fiction the book is a failure - practically everything having even remotely something to do with science or technology is laughingly stupid and wrong. I could write a long essay of the stupidities in this book. Starting from the fact that in energy poor situation the only alternative energy used is methane produced by compost (sic!) piles, and that is used apparently mainly for lighting. I wonder how much of the energy produced by burning methane is released as light? 1%? 2%? Springs which are wound by "mastodonts", apparently gene modified elephants, are used as another energy source. I find it hard to believe that it would efficient to feed giant animals to produce mechanical labour and save it in that form loaded in springs, instead of using the food as a direct source of bio energy. And there are a lot of other stupidities. When I decided to consider the book as fantasy, not as science fiction, it was tolerable. It is so sad that that author didn’t consult anyone who has any knowledge of alternative energy sources (or any technology or sciences), as I think that few of the errors in the book are really necessary to the plot, and could easily have been corrected. In that case this would have extremely good book, probably for someone who doesn't care about, or who isn't able to notice the stupidities, this IS extremely good book.

Now the book is "only" pretty good. The world and the characters are portrayed wonderfully and the plot is fresh, and it goes to some unexpected places. In one way this is disappointing, as there are so many wasted opportunities.

This is second of this year’s Hugo-nominated books I have read, from these two (another is Wake) this is the better one.

361 pp.

Galaxy magazine August 1953

Pretty nice issue with mostly good stories.

Mind Alone • novella by J. T. McIntosh
A young woman has been brainwashed to lose all her memories and she has been altered surgically to be completely unrecognizable, and them dumped to Venus. She is placed to an mental institute, and after she slowly regains some basic memories the intelligence officers start to investigate her. Has she been modified by rebellious colony world, Murrane, for some strange reason? Pretty good story, interesting. The ending doesn't really work, however. The ”end reveal” is illogical and not really interesting. ***½
We're Civilized! • shortstory by Mark Clifton and Alex Apostolides
The first human spaceship lands on Mars, and declares all Mars belonging for humankind. Even when there are intelligent Martians present. When there is the official reception for the heroes of Martian expedition, an alien space ship lands on Earth, and seems to annex the earth. Nice one. ***½
Diplomatic Immunity • novelette by Robert Sheckley
A classic story. The apparently unkillable ambassador of apparently hostile alien race is calling the colonizing team. How to get rid of him? Nice, not best of Sheckley, but good anyway. ***½
The Trap • shortstory by Betsy Curtis
A very old woman gets visited by a very persistent salesman, who has some very amazing beauty products. She is not at all interested, even though the products seem to make wonders. And the salesman seems to be strangely persistent... Not very surprising or logical premise, and the ending really sucks. (The old woman has invented with another scientist the secret of preventing aging – and they have a contract that when they die, the invention reverts to public domain, and the company wants them to live forever. After she has been renewed against her will she is perfectly happy with invasion of her privacy) **
Minimum Sentence • shortstory by Theodore R. Cogswell
Two criminals escape jail term by hijacking an alien space drive. They plan to escape by the faster than light ship, but everything doesn't go as planned. (The engine is just a time machine which can move back in time, so that long lived aliens get home in time. The actual travel takes decades) ***
Stamped Caution • novelette by Raymond Z. Gallun
A Martian spaceship crashes. An egg is salvaged from the wreck, and a Martian grows out of it. A few years later humans start an expedition to Mars, and they take to martian with them. Slowly the prejudices between two races are conquered. Pretty good story which preaches for tolerance. Pretty different in style than the stories which were common in Astoundings from the same time period, where the normal way was just to blow up everything alien. ****-

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Astounding Science Fiction November 1954

This is issue seems to confirm my suspicion that Astoundings from this time period are pretty unreadable. Apparently Dianetics and other pseudosciences had turned Campbell's mind to mush. Or most of the real writers had stopped submitting anything to him – most of authors (with exception of Algis Budrys) from this issue did write very little else than these stinkers. Luckily.

The End of Summer • novelette by Algis Budrys
An immortal man returns to earth and to hos home after long time away. The world is very static, nothing has changed in the years (or decades, centuries?) he has bee away. As people live so long they can't remember everything, and are using external device for memory storage. The premise is very good but unfortunately the story decays toward the end. It seems the author devised very interesting world but really didn't invent good enough plot to happen in it. The explanations for the premise were also fairly disappointing. Still, easily best story in the magazine. ***+
The Dip Stick • shortstory by William E. Bentley
A patrol spaceship apparently filled by total idiots meet an alien space ship. It takes some time for them to realize it is the first alien ship encountered by humans. It only has totally unfamiliar configuration, and is using totally unknown nuclear engines. After the elite crew has decided that the ship probably isn't a space pirate they start to think up reasons to blow up the ship. They have standing orders what to if any alien ship is encountered. They not to initiate any contact with it, and if the another ship doesn't initiate friendly contact, they are to destroy it. One wonders what happens if the another ship has similar instructions? Eventually the idiots board the alien ship, poke around with unknown technology, surprisingly manage to stay alive, and then blow the ship. I even wondered if the story was meant as irony, or as a humor piece, but it was so seriously written that that it apparently was meant seriously. Mind-bafflingly stupid behavior, pretty bad writing. *½
 Pilot's License • novelette by William T. Powers
An insecure guy is applying to training for space pilots. In spite of being badly over-age (and being an accountant, as that apparently automatically means you are stupid, cowardly weakling) he gets in. He is trying to live up for his father, who was a famous pilot until he made some mistake and crash-landed on a suburb. He is very neurotic, and really wants to succeed. He has spent ten years to learn everything about piloting spaceships that is possible from theoretic point of view. That is hard task as the ships apparently are designed by a bunch of lunatics, and controls are badly labeled with no fool-proofing whatsoever, and a single small mistake can, and likely will, destroy the ship. Most over the story is taken by mind-numbingly boring description of training, where an instructor who apparently (or more likely the author hasn't) ever taken part to any advanced physics lesson in the school, trains the extremely neurotic “hero”. (shouldn't there have been some kind of psychiatric evaluation?). Finally the guy proves to be excellent pilot, and baffles the instructor as he apparently is able the pilot the spaceship by instruments only (well, would there be any other possibilities in the real life?).The final twist is revealed in the end: apparently the “hero” is so presbyopic that he can't really even see the instruments, so he is doing “real” flying after all. (If he had so bad eyesight, how was he able to use ten years learning all piloting manuals by heart?) And he has lived to over thirty without ever noticing his bad eye sight, and the irresponsible doctor not only didn't prescribe glasses for him, or didn't tell him about it, but gave him clearance for piloting. The story would surpass all limits of stupidity, but the earlier one set them SO high that it is impossible task. *½
A Matter of Monsters • shortstory by Manly Banister
A group of “monsters” (humans suffering strange and unlikely medical conditions) are drafted to pilot the first space ship which travels to a nearby star. One guy suffering from bad green skin condition is magically cured from his condition by cosmic rays. He is starting to have second thought about leaving for the journey. And when they reach their destinations, there already are humans there as spaceship design has improved considerable during the years they have spent on their journey. The cured guy thinks about returning to earth with the more modern ship, but his comradeship with other monsters wins him over. Blah. Boring, forgettable story. **
Helper • shortstory by Irving Reich
A old professor of chemistry tries to teach the old science, when modern youth are not interested in that, as they are able to do everything they want through psionics. Could there be a combination of those two practices? Another proof that Campbell's mind really was mush at this time. Not as stupid as some of the other stories in this issue, but probably only because the story is so short there is less room for stupidities. **-

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

One of the classics of science fiction. Hugo award winner. One of Heinlein's best known works. But is it any good when read today? Well, lets say this way: 60000 words were cut from this book before it was first published. If another 60000 were cut from the book, then the result would probably be pretty good book.
This book tells about Valentine Smith, a human child who has been raised by Martians, and as such isn't familiar with human norms and habits. By some very contrived plot twist he is supposed to own the whole Mars and is also by another hard to believe plot point he is the inheritor of everyone of the whole perished first human expedition to Mars, who all by another convenient plot point were very rich. As a result Valentine is extremely wealthy, and first is almost “swept under a rug” by government. When he gets that sorted out, and has explored earth and its customs for a while, he founds a religion which mainly seems to speak for brotherhood of all men and for sexual freedom.
The book has far too many discussions and rants about various subjects (which sometimes have little do do with the main plot) from worthlessness of modern art to religion. The world where characters are supposed to live is an undated future, but everyone seems to have very American norms and those norms are very fifties like. Yeah, there are cosmetic changes, but the main things (the place of women in society, attitudes towards nakedness and so on feel ridiculously old fashionable)
The portrayal of women is really bad and irritating, even from a male reader's point of view. A woman character is really liberated,when she notices that the most important thing in the world is to look beautiful and strip for men. Also, according to Heinlein's character, 95% of all rapes are woman's fault. And all women should be ready to have sex with all men in the “inner circle”, but homosexuality is something “wrong”.
The book is really past by its sell-by date. The basic idea is very good, and writing as such is pretty ok. By cutting some of the more ridiculous ranting conversations and some of very sixties style of moral norms this might be very good book.

438 pp.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2010

Fairly nice issue. Read as a e-book version from my Iphone during lunch hours.

Helping Them Take the Old Man Down • novelette by William Preston
A former member of a team which was fighting against "bad guys" is drafted to find their former leader, "the old man" very little is told of him, but it seems that he is a kind of superhuman who doesn't get old. As such well written and nice story, but I wonder if there is some background I missed -earlier stories or something – as the background as such felt a bit too open, or not too defined. What was the team? Why was it fighting against crime? How? ***½
Centaurs • shortstory by Benjamin Crowell
Two teenagers living on asteroid belt have an adventure together. Well written, but otherwise fairly simply story with a strong YA-feel, could be from fifties if it hadn't had a few fairly innocent sexual scenes. ***+
Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising • shortstory by Derek Zumsteg
Aliens trying to travel on Berlin's subway without paying, and one zealous ticket inspector who wants to prevent that. Dry humor, but felt like a piece of some larger work. ***-
The Speed of Dreams • shortstory by Will Ludwigsen
8th grade student writes a science fair paper about the speed of time in the dreams. She is able to estimate time by measuring the length of the dreams her dog has. The story is well written,but goes somewhere I wasn't expecting, and somewhere I am not sure I was comfortable with.
Blind Cat Dance • novelette by Alexander Jablokov
Relationship troubles in the backdrop of future where animals are genemodified to not notice anything human. The main protagonist is looking after the animals, and is tending the ecosystem. There some parts in the story which are pretty interesting, but I didn't really care for the relationships which were the main part of the story. Probably it is just me. Those parts which didn't deal with that were nice. ***-
The Tower • novelette by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A group of historians is traveling back in time to history of London. Unfortunately one of their group has fallen ill, and they must take a last minute replacement. As usual everything doesn't go according to the plans. Pretty similar in presentation than those time travel books by Connie Willis. Just so much better than anything by Willis. Most of her characters are more or less bumbling idiots, these characters in this story felt alive, smart and believable. A story I really enjoyed. ****

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Analog Science Fiction and Fact May 1998

Only three stories in this issue. Serial The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski takes a lot of space. I probably won't be reading it.

The Human Touch • novelette by H. G. Stratmann
”Free” hospital treatment by the lowest bidder. Done mostly by robots. Very poorly trained robots. Ironic and funny story, a bit overlong for something which is essentially a rant for poor healthcare. ***-
Yellow and Orange Blues • novelette by Amy Bechtel
”Little Monsters” story. This time one of the ”monsters” has fallen ill, again. Our vet has to find the cure. Fortunately he gets a new assistant who doesn't seem to be daunted by anything minor. As usual pretty good and entertaining, well written story. ***½
The Sword Unswayed • novelette by Stephen Goldin
An alien has been murdered. The main suspect is a human female, who was planning to make a ”pornographic” book with him. The book would have caused an outrage – a book what is written about eating! And eating together! A detective tries to find out who killed the pervert. Maybe a bit overlong story. ***