Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

 An excellent collection of wonderful stories. 

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate • (2007) • Novelette by Ted Chiang

The story happens in Bagdad at the heyday of the Islamic caliphate. A trader encounters a market man who has exquisite items at his booth. He shows a portal he has designed which takes you to another time and tells two stories of who people have used the portal. He warns the merchant that the past is set, there is nothing you can do to change the present. But there is something the merchant really wants to explore at his past. An excellent story is written in poetic, wonderful “Arabian nights” style of language. *****-

Exhalation • (2008) • Short story by Ted Chiang

A species of apparently mechanical creatures live in a cave, where the ceiling is so high it cannot be seen. Everything is powered by pressurized argon, which is produced by vents at the cave. The pressurized gas is stored on aluminum “lungs” which are changed when needed. *****

The Lifecycle of Software Objects • (2010) • Novella by Ted Chiang

A story about AI pets which must be trained carefully (at least as carefully as “normal pets”). At first, they were a popular fad, but when the amount of training needed becomes obvious, most people gave up on them. But a few were so fond of their pets that they kept training them for years. Slowly, the pets got better and better - to at least some degree, but even the software environment on which they run has become so obsolete that it only exists on a private server. Updating the engine modern standards would cost too much for those few who still have “pets.” They get an offer from a company that could pay for the transfer, but that would compromise the principles of those who still spend most of their time with their virtual at least semi-intelligent pets. A well-written story, but then the ending is a lot worse than the beginning, a little sharper and faster ending might have worked better. ****+

Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny • [Thackery T. Lambshead] • (2011) • Short story by Ted Chiang

An eccentric scientist creates a robotic nanny which could be trusted not to steal anything and take care of infants tirelessly. After an initial boom, they soon became unpopular. Later, his son tries to return his father’s reputation and raises his own son using only the device. The results are predictable though. A nice story which is written in the style of a historical article. ****-

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling • (2013) • Novelette by Ted Chiang

People have been using life recording devices for a long time. It has been very hard to access them though. Now, a new program, which enables pretty comprehensive search faculties, is being introduced. A man is testing the software and examines his own memories - do they correspond with reality? A story of how technology shapes self-perception. Which is true - what really did happen or your conception and memory of the event? Interspaced with the modern (or future) story is a tale of how writing changed or almost changed tribal life in Africa. A good story, but at places, especially at the end, feels more like a pamphlet than a "real" story. ****-

The Great Silence • (2015) • Short story by Allora and Calzadilla and Ted Chiang [as by Ted Chiang]

How can we find extraterrestrial intelligences when we can’t find or recognize non-human intelligences at the Earth? A story (or pamphlet) about an intelligent parrot species. A very short story that could be considered to be more of an opinion piece than a story.  ***½

Omphalos • Novelette by Ted Chiang

The story happens in a world where there is irrefutable proof of creation: If you go back enough, you can find ancient trees where there are no growth rings, seashells have smooth contours until they start to show seasonal variation, and the oldest mummies, which can be found, have no navels and their skeletons show no sign of growth zones. All stars there are have been cataloged, no new ones have been found in centuries, even with better telescopes, and they are all alike. The existence of God is something no one doubts, and everyone knows that the world and humans are something God has planned. But then there is new research, which shows that everything everyone has always "known" isn’t exactly what it has been believed, and it might be that there is no such thing as a God's plan after all - at least not for the Earth and humans. The story is told by letters written by a young female archeologist. The writing was extremely good. There were no explanations offered: Apparently, did the world really function that way and it was created by a god? Or was it a computer simulation? *****

Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom • Novella by Ted Chiang

It is possible to buy a ”prismn,” which is a device that splits realities when it is activated. It enables you to change information, and even communicate through videos with your alternate self. As time goes on, the probabilities diverge, and changes cumulate. There is a limit to how much information can pass through before the prismn becomes useless. A con artist uses prismns for nefarious purposes with the help of a woman who has a troubled past. There is a prismn which they want, as it is a possibility for a great profit. The concept of the story is very interesting, and the story takes its time to evolve - it is done very well. The conclusion is moving and very well done. An excellent story, but I don't really see why you would want to discuss with your alternate self - what good would come from that? If you do worse than your ”alternate,” you feel bad, if you do better, you feel bad for your alternate version... So, whatever happens, you don’t feel good. *****-

352 pp.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

A well-known book which I put on my reading list as it was mentioned in a positive way is the book edited by Jo Walton, An Informal History of the Hugos.

The premise of the book is fascinating: there is a strange artifact on the moon, which apparently is more than three-dimensional. It is hard to see and understand and going inside will kill you - at least if you don’t follow the exact protocol which can only be discovered by trial and error. And making an error always means death. Fortunately, a device for instantaneous travel can be used for making copies of people. For some strange and convenient reason, the memories of the dead copies are retained by the new body. Unfortunately, the act of dying makes everyone go crazy and even catatonic. The researchers find a daredevil who apparently has a death wish, and he commonly does stunts which might very well kill him at any time. It turns out that he is able to survive death. (Finding this man, before any real plot starts, takes about half of the book). The premise sounds very interesting, but the actual science fiction story takes about six pages of the book. Everything else is spent while very irritating characters discuss with each other, flirt and compete for attention. And all that in a very, very dated way. For example, according to a female character, one man is very strange as he treats women as humans. And apparently that isn’t all good. The book was a chore to read, so dull that I have rarely seen anything like that and it was really, really dated. One of the worst books I have read in a year or so.

188 pp.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September-October 2020Publication Record # 789770

 A fairly good issue, a bit above average, I believe. 

Mimsy Were the Borogoves • (1943) • novelette by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett]

This is one of the all-time classics. I read this story before — decades ago — and I was surprised by how many details I remembered. Two kids find a crate sent from the distant future. It is filled with learning toys that begin to teach them a new kind of thinking that may evolve the children into something else. Even some 80 years later, it is still a good story. The only downside was a far-too-long lecture by a psychologist.  ****+

 Minerva Girls • novelette by James Van Pelt

Three girls have always been friends. One is very smart in theoretical science, one is brilliant at making stuff, and the third has access to a practically limitless cache of electric parts at her father’s junkyard. At least one of the girls will move after the summer and their friendship might end. What to do? Go to the Moon, of course. Together they manage to invent and build an inertia-less gravity drive. It's a fun story that was well written; it felt very much like a Heinlein juvenile (one of the good ones). The plausibility wasn’t very high, but considering the style of the story, that wasn’t a problem. **** 

City • short story by Joel Richards

A successful businessman lives in a city where anyone might shift to an alternate reality at any time. He has just shifted to an alternate reality where he finds himself even wealthier than before. He contacts former lovers and friends to see whether they know him. It is a nice background for the story, which is quite well told, but it's more a sequence of vignettes than an actual tale with a cohesive plot. ***+

Where There's Life • novelette by John Vester [as by John J. Vester]

Humans are studying Mars while the last Martian creatures are trying to find water from deep below ground. Water has been running out (I wonder where the deep water is going, as it isn’t prone to evaporate like surface water). A comet is going to hit Earth, which would leave the Martian colonists stranded and alone; some even consider returning to Earth (Why? To die there?). One human encounters the Martian creatures and brings them to "normal" pressure and temperature — surely that couldn't harm them! The story is based on huge coincidences and criminally stupid actions. Not very good. **

The Chrysalis Pool • short story by Sean McMullen 

 A young man who enjoys running alone sees a beautiful, naked water nymph in almost any body of water he runs beside. A psychologist tries to analyze what is going on with a portable EEG scanner (and the tech who built the apparatus installed a camera as well). Will the camera capture the nymph? OK story, but the details of the EEG don't make much sense. ***

 A Skyful of Wings • short story by Aimee Ogden

A seed ship is on its way to drop a carefully calculated selection of Earth species when it suffers a malfunction and cannot make the stop — but it can still drop the seedling pods (I'm not sure how it would work with speed differences). The crew has one chance: they must drop some species and travel hibernated in pods. Apparently, every animal species has just one pod (doesn’t make much sense from the redundancy point of view). An OK story, more than a bit hurried. ***-

 Going Small • short story by Jacob C. Cockcroft

Earth is going to be destroyed by a giant meteor. Humanity has built a very tiny ship with a powerful AI with robotic capacity containing human embryos and is going to send it to another solar system. The AI is a bit bored during the travel but the ship arrives safe and sound. The narrative is just a description of events, more or less — which doesn’t even really make sense. Why build just one ship? It is not as though there were not sufficient resources to build more than one — and after the ship design was proved to be viable, such ships could have been built by the hundreds. Also, why not turn down the “clock speed” of the AI for the duration of the travel? ***

 Casualties of the Quake • short story by Wang Yuan

A man travels back in time to before the earthquake that killed his son. Can he alter the events? If so, what are the consequences? It's an OK, bittersweet story. ***

 The Home of the King • short story by Dan Reade

A reporter interviews a famous boxer who has reskinned — that is, transferred his mind to a new, healthy body. The story examines his background, the reporter’s background, and dives deep into what reskinning means for sports in general and boxing in particular. It's a boring story that was written as though boxing were an honorable and admirable pursuit instead of a barbaric thing which should have been outlawed decades ago as something which normalizes violence. **½

 Seeding the Mountain • novelette by Maggie Clark [as by M. L. Clark]

Nanotech has malfunctioned at several places in the world and they are at least partly under quarantine. One place is a mountain in Guatemala. People living nearby are trying to survive even if some strange and dangerous things are happening. I didn’t get into this story; the writing was thick and hard to read, and the characters seemed to discuss things endlessly. It felt far too long. **+

The Writhing Tentacles of History • short story by Jay Werkheiser

 Future descendants of squids dig up strange fossils of a mammal that looks like it walked on two feet, which doesn’t make any sense to them. It's an interesting society with fascinating creatures. Surely there would be massive amounts of physical remains of humanity — glass and ceramics are very resilient. ***

The Boy Who Went to Mars • short story by Mary Soon Lee

The son of a billionaire has lived without any real contact with his father. The father is establishing a Mars colony and asks his son to join it. The son is good in science and engineering, and really wants to join, but he isn’t keen on being with his absentee father. Eventually — at his mother's urging — he relents and goes to Mars. It's a pretty good story, even though it is too short and gives only glimpses of what happens. ***½

The Treasure of the Lugar Morto • short story by Alan Dean Foster

The archeologists are after a fabulous treasure. The find in under the remains of an apparent shopping mall: an untouched seed bank full of seeds which are unmeasurable valuable in a post collapse world. An ok story. ***

I, Bigfoot • novelette by Sarina Dorie

A bigfoot whose name is Bigfoot is interested in humans and goes on a scavenger expedition to the suburbs. He is especially interested in National Geographic magazines featuring Jane Goodall. He helps a young runaway who is almost raped. The leader of his tribe is not happy about the contact with humans. It's a pretty nice warm-hearted story. However, the psychology of the bigfeet is practically exactly human, which felt pretty strange. ***½

Draiken Dies • [Draiken] • novella by Adam-Troy Castro

Continues (and finishes?) an earlier series of stories. A retired spy has been chasing the spy organization that had once used him. Now his female companion has arrived on a planet where the organization has its headquarters. The spy organization captures her, fills her with truth serums and monitoring equipment, and asks where her companion is. She tells them that she killed him. Why? What is her angle? She can’t lie, so she apparently really killed him — but why come to the planet where the risk of capture is extremely high? Like most of the rest of the series, it is a very good story, smoothly written and exciting.  ****-


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Reijo Mäki: Vares ja kaidan tien kulkijat (Vares #7)

Luin pitkästä aikaa Vares-sarjan kirjan. Ei ehkä olisi kannattanut, sillä tämä osa oli selvästi sarjan heikommasta päästä. Vares matkustaa Pohjanmaalle selvittelemän teinitytön murhaa. Tytöltä oli leikattu sydän rinnasta ja hänet oli haudattu matalaan hautaan kirkonkylän vanhalle, käytöstä poistetulle, hautausmaalle. Kuolintavassa on yhteneväisyyttä paikkakunnan noitalegendaan – onko tämä sattuma? Paikkakunnalta on lähtöisin uskonnollinen liike, joka käytännössä pitää kunnassa valtaa; oluen myynti on kielletty, moraalia vahditaan tarkoin ja poliisitkin ovat herätysliikkeen jäseniä. Vares ei tähän porukkaan ihan sulavasti solahda joukkoon ja päätyy lopulta jopa paikalliseen mielisairaalaan. Tapahtumat sinällään olivat ihan vetäviä, tosin äärimmäisen epäuskottavia monella tasolla (ei perusmielisairaalassa joskus 80-luvulla (?) mitään pikkulapsia hoidettu, eikä iso laitos ollut yhden tohtorin yksityistä temmellysaluetta). Kirja oli myös kielellisesti jotenkin paljon jäykempää kuin myöhemmät osat - Vareksesta itsestään puhumattakaan, hänessä ei oikein tuntunut olevan samanlaista sielua kuin myöhemmissä osissa. Hänen käyttäytymisensä oli monesti todella typerää ja ajattelematonta. Ei tule kiirettä seuraavan osan lukemisen kanssa.

The private detective from Turku is visiting a small, very religious community where a young woman has been murdered and her heart has been removed. After many colorful but hard to believe events, our private Dick (in two meanings of the word) of course solves the case, but only after being committed to a mental hospital almost killed a few times. An early installment in the series, not very well written, and even the main character is strangely soulless and very stupid and a private Dick lead by his dick. 

384 pp.