May 312011
 

The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand is a lovely story. It is nominated for the 2011 Hugo for best novella and is (I believe) worth being on that list.
It is the story of three men–Robbie, Emery and Leonard. At one point (30 years before the story opens) all three had worked in the Smithsonian’s General Aviation Gallery. The curator, Maggie Blevin, had some rather odd ideas about the origins of powered flight. She documented these ideas in the self published “Wings for Humanity!” One of the ideas centered on a 17 second film clip of a powered flight of a vehicle called the Bellerophon flown by one McCauley. The clip showed the flight and crash of the air ship. In the clip there is a strange flash that precedes the crash. The partial destruction of this film clip presages the removal of Blevin as curator.
Now, 30 years later Robbie and Emery are recruited by Leonard to reconstruct the film clip and present it to Maggie, who is dying of cancer. Leonard has constructed a model of the Bellerophon–he bacame a model maker at the Smithsonian. Robbie has been muddling through life after his wife’s death from breast cancer. He’s been raising his son Zach as best he can with mixed results. Emery has been semi-successful after hosting a show somewhat like Mystery Science Theater 3000.
So, the three guys together with Zach and Zach’s friend Tyler head for Cowana Island, South Carolina, to re-film the 17 seconds.
That is the basic background of the story. There are some mysteries to find on the trip and I’m not talking about those. I will mention that Hand does a wonderful job with settings. Passages like the following provide us with great imagery:

He began to see palmettos among the loblolly pines and pin oaks, and spiky plants he didn’t recognize. When he opened the window, the air smelled of roses, and the sea.
“Hey.” He poked Zach, breathing heavily in the seat beside him. “Hey, we’re almost there.”
He glanced at the directions, looked up to see the hybrid passing him and Emery gesturing at a sandy track that veered to the left. It was bounded by barbed wire fences and clumps of cactus thick with blossoms the color of lemon cream. The pines surrendered to palmettos and prehistoric-looking trees with gnarled roots that thrust up from pools where egrets and herons stabbed at frogs.

I enjoyed this story quite a lot. Interesting characters, great imagery and a nice touch of mysterious background.

 Posted by at 10:57 am
May 272011
 

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky is the winner of the 2011 Nebula award for best Novella and is also nominated for the 2011 Hugo for best Novella.
We join the aforementioned Lady as she is riding out to scout an army of raiders for her queen accompanied by a dwarf. It is fairly quickly evident that she is a member of an intensely matriarchal society and she is a sorceress. It is less evident if she is quite human or not. Her humanness doesn’t have much bearing on the story as when she is done with her scouting, she is immediately murdered.
Being murdered doesn’t stop her from being the main character for the rest of the story. Her spirit is bound such that it can be summoned. The stories of the various summonings across ages comprises the bulk of the story.
That’s the background. The main thrust of the story is how The Lady deals with the changes of times, beliefs and summoners as time proceeds. Her original society is not just king of matriarchal, but utterly so. The women procreate as the Lady says, somewhat uniquely, “it was I who placed my hand on her belly and used my magic to draw out her seedlings; I who nurtured the seedlings’ spirits with the fertilizer of her chosen man; I who planted the seedlings in the womb of a fecund brood.” The “brood” are subservient females and the men are barely tolerated.
For the first couple of summonings, she deals with the aftermath of her murder. After that, the summonings are more widely spaced in time and culture. The Lady is not particularly willing to change her own beliefs as all of this happens.
The story was interesting and well written. I didn’t particularly relate to the character of The Lady. I could see the affect Swirsky was going for, but it didn’t really grab me as much as it seems to have others. But, it is worth reading and is a decent nominee.

 Posted by at 8:49 pm
May 272011
 

Troika by Alastair Reynolds is another worthy nominee for the 2011 Best Novella Hugo. The story starts with a man freezing in a blizzard along a road. He gets picked up by a snowplow and we gradually learn things. He has escaped from somewhere and people are likely coming after him. He was a cosmonaut and something about his last mission is why he was confined. He is in Russia and he needs to get to a woman in Baikonur.
Once he meets the woman we begin to learn some more details. The story is taking place around 2040 and around 2020 a mysterious object suddenly appeared within about one light hour of the solar system. Probes are sent and it is determined that the object is large and quite strange. It is arranged in shells of various materials. The Russians quickly call it a Matryoshka and that is the name than sticks.
The cosmonaut is part of a three person mission sent to explore the Matryoshka. We learn what happens as he tells the story to the woman in Baikonur. The nature of the object is decidedly odd.
The story is written in the form of an explorative mystery. We start out with very little information and gradually add to that. As we gain information, we also gain suspense in trying to figure out the object. I enjoyed the story, but the ending came somewhat abruptly. There are definite answers (and implications) at the end of the story, but it did feel a bit constrained by length.

 Posted by at 9:48 am
May 242011
 

The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang is the first of the works nominated for a 2011 Hugo that I will be reviewing. It is nominated in the Best Novella category. It is first because I happened to start reading it before I got my Hugo packet.
In The Lifecycle of Software Objects we start following Ana sometime in the not too distant future. Ana has just been hired as by software company. The mildly odd thing is that previous to this, Ana was an animal handler for a zoo. The reason behind this is that the company is producing digients–digitally evolved beings. Rather than attempting to program in intelligence, the concept is that a “genome” of sorts is created and the minds of the digients are allowed to grow over time and through interaction and learning–much like human children. Ana is hired as it is thought that her experience as an animal handler will be useful in handling the digients.
We also follow Derek–a graphic designer at the same company.
It is fairly quickly apparent (at least to me outside the story) that the digients aren’t really just pets. They develop personalities and communication skills much like human children.
The story continues to follow Ana and Derek across a number of years. Between chapters there is often a cut forward of a year or two. We see their own digients grow and develop and the feelings of Derek and Ana towards their digients grow also. They engage in debates with other digient “owners” on the proper handling of their digients and whether they should be given a pseudo legal status as corporations.
As a meta aside:I’ve never particularly understood why people have difficulty accepting the idea of artificial intelligences as deserving of the full set of rights to which humans are accorded. I’m a fairly straightforward behaviorist on this–if something acts like a person then you should treat it like a person. This treatment should include the granting of rights like, for instance, the right to not be enslaved. I suspect part of the problems stems from the same reason that some people have a difficult time even recognizing that other people are people. AI prejudice is just another kind of racism.
So, as we proceed in the book I found myself perturbed by the actions of some of the people/companies Ana and Derek dealt with and sometimes with Ana and Derek themselves. There is some good discussion comparing Ana and Derek to parents and when their digients are formed enough to go off on their own. There is also good discussion on rolling back the digients. Since digients are fully digital with snapshots, they can be rolled back, copied, suspended or abused in virtual space.
In this book, Chiang has done a good job at a close up and non technical look at some of the issues AI brings to the human world. It is well written and (if you haven’t thought about AI) may provide some insights. It flows along at a pretty good pace.

 Posted by at 10:27 am
May 242011
 

The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi was a lot of fun to read. It has a beat, you can dance to it. In the first chapter we meet a state department negotiator. He is negotiating with an alien species that has a kind of scent based auxiliary language. The negotiator doesn’t particularly like the aliens and has decided to derail the talks. Trying to be covert, the negotiator has a device implanted into his lower intestine that mixes pre-loaded scents with his own “emissions” to produce insults. He proceeds to utilize this device during the course of a days talks. So, assault via a covert fart device–what’s not to like?
The title of the book is an obvious call out to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Scalzi’s not one to stop there, however. In order to make up for the fart incident (not so covert after all), the aliens are demanding that Earth provide them with a particular type of genetically modified sheep called — The Android’s Dream. The sheep is also an electric blue color. This request is complicated by the aliens needing the sheep for a coronation in a few days and the fact that someone has been killing off known herds of the sheep.
The State Department assigns Harry Creek to the task of finding a sheep. Harry has a number of unique talents. He has been somewhat floating through life after a rough stint in the military, but he is prepared. I’m not going to say how he is prepared as that would give away some pleasant surprises. Suffice it to say that we get some interesting enforcement of the title theme.
Android’s Dream has action, snappy dialogue, humor and some clever twists–a good fast read.

 Posted by at 9:03 am
May 232011
 

I downloaded my Hugo awards packet (~900M) this weekend and loaded it onto my iPhone so I can read everything before the voting deadline. The ballot closes July 31st, 2011. Whew, I’ve got some reading to do. By the way, I plan on doing a post on each of these as I read them.
Ahh, what is the Hugo packet you ask? Well, if you are a registered member (even supporting at $50) then the the publishers of the works have provided DRM free versions of nominated works and related items in a nice downloadable packet so that you can read everything (even things you might not have been inclined to.) The packet includes:
Eight full novels of nominated works:

  • Blackout by Connie Willis (pdf)
  • Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  • Feed by Mira Grant
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  • I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells (Campbell nominee) (pdf, rtf)
  • Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia (Campbell nominee) (pdf, rtf, epub)
  • Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Campbell nominee)(pdf, prc, epub) And an excerpt of Zoo City
  • Novel excerpts from Lev Grossman–Endgame, Magicians(Campbell nominee)

Five graphic novels:

  • Fables: Witches by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
  • Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse by Phil and Kaja Foglio with colors by Cheyenne Wright
  • Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot
  • Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel by Howard Tayler with some colors by Travis Walton
  • The Unwritten, Volume 2: Inside Man by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Best Novella — RTF/PDF/EPUB/MOBI formats

  • The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010)
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
  • The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All New Tales, William Morrow)
  • The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s, September 2010)
  • Troika by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines, Science Fiction Book Club)

Best Novelette — RTF/PDF/EPUB/MOBI formats

  • Eight Miles by Sean McMullen (Analog, September 2010)
  • The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s, June 2010)
  • The Jaguar House, in Shadow by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, July 2010)
  • Plus or Minus by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, December 2010)
  • That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)

Best Short Story — RTF/PDF/EPUB/MOBI formats

  • Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed, June 2010)
  • For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s, September 2010)
  • Ponies by Kij Johnson (Tor.com, November 17, 2010) (Nebulla Winner)
  • The Things by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, January 2010)

Related Works

  • The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg
  • Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
  • Excerpt from Robert Heinlein Vol 1 by William H Patterson
  • Links to Writing Excuses Season 4

And a bunch more short stories and examples of artists works and …

All in all a lot of good stuff. Remember, these are provided as a courtesy by the publishers for the convenience of Hugo voters. If you like something, please do buy it.

 Posted by at 2:54 pm
May 162011
 

Accelerando by Charles Stross is a fantastic book. In Accelerando Stross tackles a whole slew of interesting problems. From what is the “Singularity” to what is the reason for the Fermi paradox, Accelerando abounds with questions and the answers to those questions (within the universe of Accelerando at least.)
The book begins sometime in the fairly near future. We meet Manfred Macx, who is wearing a network, sporting VR shades and throwing off patents to an open source foundation. In other words, he’s an uber-geek. We’ll follow the tribulations of three generations (gen 1 = Man) of the Macx clan as the main protagonists of the story. As we meet Man he is contacted by an AI that wishes to escape Russia and that turns out to be based upon uploaded lobster neurons melded with a primitive networked AI system. Things accelerate from there.
Eventually we will meet Man’s daughter, Amber. Amber is on the run from her domineering mother Pamela (a free-lance IRS agent after Man’s back taxes and Man). Amber seeks her fortune in the moons of Jupiter as a slave to a virtual corporation until she reaches her age of maturity and can get out of Pamela’s reach. Eventually, she sends a party of virtual explorers (including a copy of herself) in quest of an alien router system about three light years away.
There is also Man’s cat Aienko. Aienko is an artificial cat that is continually upgraded throughout the story. This has interesting consequences.
Surrounding the story of the Macx’s is the story of the approaching singularity. The short version of the singularity is the point at which technological progress becomes so advanced that the outcome becomes impossible to predict.
As the compute power available in the solar system continues to expand (that is one metric that the book keeps track of as the story progresses) eventually a tipping point is reached and in order for more growth to occur, the planets of the solar system (inner to outer) nee to be dismantled to form a Matrioshka brain. A Matrioshka brain is essentially what you get when you use all of the available excess matter in a solar system form a vastly interconnected computational network. This device exists as a series of spheres about the sun inhabited by uploaded and AI minds. Eventually these minds are no longer comprehensible to human beings who try to remain identifiably human. A good quote expressing this is:
“The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” (Eliezer Yudkowsky)
In the book, one answer to the Fermi Paradox is that much of the galaxy is filled with Matrioshka brains. Light-speed delays limit the growth of Matrioshka brain civilizations to their solar system. Basically, if you go very far from the central computing environment, you fall too far behind your peers. Think of it as twitter addiction gone mad. The Matrioshka brain civilizations then become essentially a trap for their evolved consciousnesses.
As I mentioned earlier, there is also an alien wormhole based router network that shows some hints towards other forms of advanced civilizations.
Accelerando is a wild ride full of interlinked concepts. It was a ride that I thoroughly enjoyed.

 Posted by at 3:35 pm
May 132011
 

Peter Watts first came to my attention via a post to Making Light describing his run in with US border patrol guards. You can read the whole story on his blog, but basically on December 8th of 2009, he and a friend were stopped while crossing a bridge on the US/Canadian border. Peter is a Canadian and was returning home from a SF convention. The guards immediately began searching the car. Peter tried to ask what was going on and was promptly pepper sprayed and confined in a chilly room for a night. Then, of course, they charged him and ultimately convicted him in Michigan on Friday March 19 2010. The charge was “failure to comply with a lawful command”, although it was never really apparently clear which command he didn’t comply with. This was a felony, so he isn’t allowed back in the US.
While following all of this, I made the happy discovery that Peter can write. He writes really good cutting edge hard SF. He’s got a PhD in marine biology and an imagination to back that up. I haven’t met him in person and since he can’t come to the US, that will get put into some far future occurrence. But, from all reports (and from his blog) he’s a really nice guy. Go read his stuff. Last year he won the Hugo for Best Novelette: “The Island”, Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2; Eos). So, that was good and things were looking up.
Then, in February 2011, he “got hit with a serious case of necrotising fasciitis (more luridly known as “flesh-eating disease”).” This has been ongoing and he posted many interesting pictures on his blog. Go and look. He’s had the presence of mind to take pictures along the road to recovery and clean the gaping 10 inch wound. On his blog post yesterday after three months of recovery he show’s us first and final pictures of his own removal of the last staples after the skin graft. Then he tells us: “And after all this invalidity, my fitness and stamina have gone to shit; I ran a measly two miles the day the staples popped, managed three the day after that, and would have gone for four today if my calves hadn’t wussed out and got all stiff and sore overnight.”
If being able to run three miles after nearly having your leg eaten is wussing out, and for enduring a twisted version of a judicial process and for winning a Hugo, I say that Peter most certainly qualifies as a Badass Superhero Science Fiction Writer. (By the way, go read his stuff.)

 Posted by at 9:36 am
May 102011
 

DougAndSteve

Doug and Steve in College

Here’s a fun picture from the college days at ISU from around 1984. Every spring room pictures and then posted on a (physical) bulletin board (an early form of Facebook) would be taken to make it easier to find people. Someone would write clever sayings underneath each one. For some reason Doug (my roommate) and I decided this was the most representative of us. The sacred idol statues came about as a desire to find trinkets/curios from odd places.

 Posted by at 2:50 pm
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