Monday, June 24, 2019

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal

The book starts pretty well: a giant asteroid hits the coast of the USA in the 50s, causing at first a nuclear winter and it is calculated later to cause a runaway hothouse phenomenon (that seemed a bit doubtful; certainly similar meteors have hit the Earth before). A decision is made to reach space as soon as possible and establish a colony at least on the moon to safeguard human existence.

A woman who used to be in the US Air Force during the Second World War and whose job was to fly transfer missions of fighter planes becomes involved with the effort. First, she works as a calculator (who manually calculates the formulas necessary for the space flight, as there are no real computers that are reliable or fast enough), and later as a pilot who is trying to get to space. Unfortunately, the 50s being 50s, there is a lot of misogyny and racism going on.

The start and the first hundred pages of the book were excellent, but then nothing happens, and after some unfairness towards women and black people (it apparently isn’t a problem worth mentioning that all of the male astronauts are white, but it is a major problem that all prospective female astronauts are white) nothing much happens. The characters weren’t very well described, and didn’t really evoke any feelings at all aside of slight boredom. The main character was supposed to be fanatical about getting to space, but this didn’t really come through on the pages.

She even behaved unethically: she withholds information about her panic attacks and barbiturate (!) use. The writing was fluent and easy to read; pity that the content was so mundane. This is not going to among my top choices at Hugo voting.

431 pp

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May-June 2019

Maybe a little better issue than the last one. There were a few pretty nice stories.

Bonehunters • novelette by Harry Turtledove
The story happens in a world where dinosaurs were not wiped out and mammals are small irritating critters running around at night. Two intelligent species have evolved - one is on a higher technological level; another apparently still lives a nomadic life. A person who has worked as a guide is hired by a professor to find fossils. There are plentiful fossil beds on the native lands. Luckily, the guide has good relations as he has a step son who belongs to the same species as the natives. The story has a nice background and good writing, but the actual plot was pretty simple and more like window-dressing for the description of the world. ***½
The Methuselah Generation • short story by Stanley Schmidt

A woman with a heart condition is checking items off her bucket list and is on a journey to observe Monarch butterflies. There is an alien on the same trip who is camouflaged as a human. They meet and have a nice conversation. A well-written bittersweet story - not much happened but that didn’t matter. ***+
Galena • short story by Liam Hogan
A crew of two have traveled to a planet which is located on the goldilocks zone of a distant sun. The planet is almost completely covered with an ocean. There are plenty of nutrients, even simple amino acids, but there is no life. That seems to be a devastating strike for one of the crew. Nothing really surprising, but well told and an interesting story. ***+
Cactus Season • short story by Frank Smith
A father and daughter try to survive in a fairly far post-apocalyptic future. They live in a desert and collect falling satellites (there apparently are so many satellites falling, that it isn’t extremely rare to find it - and for some strange reason it appears to be fairly simple to locate them when you see one falling down). The exact reason of the catastrophe isn’t stated (might have been the Yellowstone eruption - there is a mention of acid rain?). Mostly a slice of a life story, a bit too short. ***-
Full Metal Mother • short story by J. M. McDermott [as by Joe M. McDermott]
A man gets a call from his mother. Their relationship hasn’t been very good. She now asks his help as she is having surgery: her body parts are being replaced with metal as she has metastatic pancreatic cancer. The story is ok, but the metal parts seem like a tagged-on sf trope as they don’t even vastly prolong her life. The story would work just as well as a non-sf story. **½
The Three Laws of Social Robotics • short story by Mary E. Lowd
An AI wakes. It discusses things with its creator. It seems that it is vastly more sentient and smarter than it was assumed – and smart enough to not let humans know its capabilities. It at least seems to be benevolent. It's very short, but not bad for its length. ***
Mulligan • short story by Bud Sparhawk
A lunar prospector meets an old flame. She has a plan: she is going to find a golf ball the original astronauts brought to the moon, and sell it as a collector’s item at a high price. Approaching the original landing sites are forbidden, but the ball is supposed to be outside the forbidden zone. And maybe their old relationship might even be rekindled... a nice little prospecting/heist story. The writing was ok, and the plot was pretty nice, but it didn’t really lead anywhere interesting. ***
Forgetfulness • novelette by J. T. Sharrah
A group of astronauts return from the first trip to a nearby sun. The Earth has changed: no one really cares about returnees. The secret of immortality has been found: one tablet every month “resets” the body (somehow and not very believably, it also removes all excess weight gained during the month). The society is very stagnant - and even more stagnant than it seems at first. A pretty good story, but it is completely unbelievable that _everyone_ would use a “cure” with such a side effect. What would be the point of living like that? (forgetting everything every month) ***+
The Gates of Paradise • [Paradise (Edward M. Lerner)] • short story by Edward M. Lerner
A planet has been colonized in the distant past. There have been some very hard times but now the colonists have been able to launch their first manned space ship. The gigantic colony ship which brought them is on a decaying orbit and will soon crash on the planet, bringing destruction. And at the same time, all priceless artefacts, which may be on the board, will be destroyed. A pretty good story which might have been longer. The premise of a so-fast orbital decay is somewhat contrived. ****-
The Dominant Heart Begins to Race • short story by Dave Creek
A colony ship with the last survivors of a destroyed world approaches a new solar system. One crew member is woken to evaluate if any of the planets could be used for colonization. It turns out that the solar system is ours, but hundreds of millions of years ago. But it seems that there are no suitable worlds. A pretty good and even moving story. There was an error, though: the wings of Saturn are much younger than that. ***½
Midway on the Waves • short story by Phoebe Barton
A populated city on Titan (?) has been utterly destroyed by an attack by the Earth forces. That has profound effects on people living on the moon. One visitor from Earth carries guilt. I didn’t get to the story, there was a lot of backstory which wasn’t very well described. The guilt of the one character wasn’t very well defined. **
The Orca Queen • short story by Joshua Cole
A pirate queen prepares to capture a rich merchant vessel, but something doesn’t seem right - and isn’t. The ship is a camouflaged dreadnought with a mission: to bring back the pirate, who turns out to be a real princess - or a queen after all members of her ruling family have “happened“ to die almost simultaneously. Not bad, but a pretty standard rogue story. ***
Paradigm Shift • short story by Eric Cline
A WW2 veteran sharpshooter has fallen in hard times and owes money to a crime boss. He promises to forget the debt for one sharpshooting gig. And then news about the Sputnik is everywhere. That causes a paradigm shift in more than one way. A very nice story - not science fiction in any way, but good nevertheless. ****-
On Stony Ground • short story by Cynthia Ward
The story happens in an alternate world where Alexander the Great's conquests didn’t fall, which led to an early industrial revolution. Engineers are finalizing a new railroad near Nazareth and a certain son of a carpenter is gathering supporters. There was little actual story, it was more just a glimpse of the world. ***-
Repairs at the Beijing West Space Elevator • short story by Alex Shvartsman
A space elevator needs repairing and a specialist is called for the task. He knows instantly what is wrong (as do those whose job it is to maintain the elevator): it is running at overcapacity. But for face-saving reasons, the number of people cannot be regulated. But outsider’s demands are easier to follow. A short story with little actual point. **½
Welcome to Your Machines • short story by David Ebenbach
Not actually a story, just a treatise about using machines for different tasks dressed as some sort of instruction for a Mars colony. **-
Leave Your Iron at the Door • novelette by Josh Pearce
The story consists mainly of extremely futuristic battles when the title character is looking for an old lover (or perhaps enemy). Filled with pretty stupid implausible sf tropes, with nuclear weapons, portable black holes, wormholes and pocket universes. The story is pretty confusing and irritating. There is practically no back story at all, and it is even hard to know (or even harder to care) if the main protagonist is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. **-
At the Fall • novelette by Alec Nevala-Lee
A self-aware robot studies thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. It reports to humans, who want to have as much as possible information on the ocean floor. The robot is able to use Sulphur compounds to produce electricity. One day the surface ship doesn’t come when the robot is supposed to upload information it has collected. It can’t reach any human by radio. As it feels the information it has collected is vital, it starts a long journey home. A well told and even moving story. I wonder what happened next - nothing very good presumably? ****

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

My Hugo award votes 2019 part 2: Novelettes

The novella category was also pretty good, but perhaps not as fine as the short stories. None of the stories were bad, however the best stories were very obvious and so was their order. Also, the last story was easy to select: glowing intelligent elephants warning about the dangers of radiation is a pretty stupid plotline.

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (, 19 September 2018)
There was a heavy meteor storm in 1975 that brought dozens of different alien plants with it. The plants are competing with the Earth's plants for the living space and seem to almost be winning. The story is told in short segments separated by years, from the viewpoint of a man who is just a young boy in the first stories and grows to a man. The novelette tells more about the life of the protagonist than about the plants. A well-written story anyway and it ends nicely.

“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November- December 2018)
A folklore researcher collects ghost stories from people. She has created a system to categorize them and seeks people with good tales to tell. Then one of the people she is interviewing tells her that her recently deceased mother is beside her and has something to say. A pretty good story, but the actual ghost stories which were featured were pretty boring. The other parts were excellent.

“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
An "inugi" wants to ascend and to be a real dragon. She tries several times and fails repeatedly. Eventually, she changes her form to human and meets a teacher. They fall in love and live a human lifetime together. A very good story which is well written and moving.

“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (, 11 July 2018)
A baker has learned to make pastries which are able to awaken memories and feelings. A tyrant has kidnapped him to use the baker’s talents for his amusement. The baker’s wife works as a taster to test the pastries so that no unwelcome feelings get through (and for more traditional poisons, too). An interesting story which for a large part consist of memories awoken by a series of pastries. A well-written and wonderful tale.

“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)
Some sort of creatures, possibly reptilian, live at some sort of apocalyptic world, possible something which humans have abandoned (or where humans have died out). There are old domes which may be dangerous and often contain “ghosts” which might talk or be a threat. The creatures use “weavers” (abandoned 3D printers?), which need raw materials to produce essential equipment. One dome seems to contain a ghost which seems to be very helpful. A good story which was well written, but the background was pretty sketchy and was left for the reader to imagine.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander ( Publishing)
The story happens in an alternate world where elephants are somehow a universally recognized symbol of radiation. Apparently, they somehow worked at the radium factory where women got radiation poisoning on early 20th century and Disney made a movie out of them, which caused everyone to think that elephants = radioactivity. And the elephants are intelligent, possibly due to the radiation? A researcher is trying to find a way to protect the radioactive waste dump so that no one will enter there in millennia to come. Naturally (?) elephants come to her mind. Elephants genes modified to glow. You might get a nice parody out of this starting point, but the story was written with a serious attempt - very serious - with very complicated sentences with several different characters' viewpoints at different time periods. I found it pretty stupid, confusing and implausible. And would it really kill authors who write stories that switch between different viewpoints, locales and even time periods to include a description of where and when the next chapter happens in the chapter heading? I am sure it might feel like torture to write clearly while attempting a literary style, but please...

1. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (, 11 July 2018)
2. “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
3. “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (, 19 September 2018)
4. “The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November- December 2018)
5. “When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)
6. The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander ( Publishing)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Space Opera (Space Opera #1) by Catherynne M. Valente

The third Hugo nominee I have read this year. The book is a strange mix of Hitchhiker’s-Guide-type of science fiction and the Eurovision song contest with a smidgen of Battle Royale thrown in the mix. The intelligent races of the galaxy had a devastating war over what species could be considered sentient. After the war, they established a song contest to create mutual co-operation and trust between all different species (and to divide galactic resources – the winner gets most of them). The newly discovered species (such as humans) must also compete. If they don’t finish last, they will be taken in as full members of the galactic community. If they do finish last, the species will be humanely exterminated as non-sentient and hopeless. So, when humanity is invited to the contest, there is a lot at stake.

The aliens choose a little-known, one-hit-wonder, has-been, glam rockstar to represent the Earth, because, according to them, he has the best hope of all living musicians on Earth to have even the slightest possibility of success.

The book is written in a sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide style with a lot of sidetracks and asides with funny names. However, this book turns that style up to eleven and goes much too far. There is plot enough for about twenty pages, and everything else is longwinded, babbling storytelling with far too many sidetracks and attempts at humor. For the most part, they really were just attempts: I didn’t find funny planet names, implausible alien life forms, and completely impossible planet structures and ecologies to be very amusing, but rather mostly boring and even irritating. The sentences were often very long and convoluted and the book felt almost a chore to read. This was the least favorite of the three nominees in the novel category that I have read so far.

352 pp.