Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Best Short Novels 2006

I enjoy reading Best-of-the-Year anthologies, and I love novellas, so Jonathan Strahan’s annual Best Short Novels 2006 is must reading for me. Reading the book is easy pleasure, but writing its review is a bit more difficult, since all the stories in the book must be considered in part on two criteria: are they worthwhile reading, and do they deserve inclusion in a “best of the year” volume? All of the stories in this book succeed on the former basis, but not necessarily so on the latter. Of course, some of that is due to the editor’s taste being somewhat different than the reviewer’s taste. Strahan obviously enjoys clever writing and near-future development rising out of current technological trends, both more so than I do myself.

Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” excels at showing a future India, but the plot is disjointed: the main character becomes a goddess at age 5, draws blood at age 12 due to an unfortunate accident and loses her divinity, is put into a bride pool where she marries an immortal who at age 20 resembles a baby of half her age, flees and becomes a smuggler. While the novella is somewhat pointless as a story, it certainly succeeds in its glimpses of the future and its energy never weakens.

Harry Turtledove’s “Audubon in Atlantis” examines an alternate world in which Atlantis is a continent lying between Europe and America, which is called Terranova there. Apparently Columbus reached Atlantis and it serves the role of America in our universe. As befits the title, the story is concerned with Audubon’s search for near-legendary animal life, specifically the giant gooselike honkers. The story has some nice scenery, with an expected ending, but it is not really a story as much as a fanciful travelogue.

Cory Doctorow’s “Human Readable” is a political drama in the near future concerning human rights in the face of encroaching technology. The technology is a bit overwhelming, not so much part of the story’s foundation as its sole raison d’etre, but it is still readable overall.

“The Policeman’s Daughter,” by Wil McCarthy, is a legal story about the individual rights of uploaded copies of humans. The setup is nicely-done, as two complementary storylines weave together, but there is little attempt on the part of the author to have the main character actually struggle to solve his twin dilemmas. Things just kind of happen routinely without any conflict.

By far the best story in the book is Jeffrey Ford’s masterful “The Cosmology of the Wider World,” whose plot summary, like much of the best f&sf, sounds almost ludicrous: Belius is a farmboy who was born a minotaur because his mother had been terrified by a bull during her pregnancy. The story combines two simultaneous plotlines: one deals with Belius growing up, learning to deal with his difference and the reaction of other people to him; the other concerns Belius as an adult living in some alternate “wider world” inhabited exclusively by intelligent animals. Belius has problems coping in the wider world, some of them arising from his loneliness, and others from his determination to write a cosmology of the wider world.

The story combines parts pathos, philosophy, romance, Shakespearean tragedy, even slapstick humor, into a whole which is definitely more than the sum of its parts. This is one of the finest stories I have read in several years. I thought Ford could never surpass “The Empire of Ice Cream,” but I believe he has done it with this story.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Absolution Gap

Absolution Gap is the concluding volume in Alastair Reynolds’ Galactic North trilogy (the earlier two which were reviewed here on 8/16 and 8/27). Almost immediately at the novel’s outset I was impressed again, as I was at the start of Redemption Ark, at Reynolds’ ability to create exciting new scenarios that seem totally unrelated to the previous novel, yet ultimately flow naturally into it. Each successive novel in this trilogy begins with new outbursts of creativity, preventing this trilogy from being a “same ol’ same ol” sequence of comfortable familiarity.

Absolution Gap begins with three scenarios which are explored in alternating sequences:

1. An explorer named Quaiche discovers an uninhabited world whose moon Hela contains a strange nonhuman bridge which, when Quaiche tries exploring it, attacks him with hidden defenses

2. a century later Hela is the home of one of the strangest religions ever developed in sf as caravans of cathedral trains travel across its surface at a speed slow enough that observers lying on the roofs can keep the planet itself constantly in view

3. the survivors of the war in Revelation Space have settled on a planet which itself is now under attack itself by the “wolves”

Some of the characters from the previous two novels return, including Khouri, Clavain, Scorpio (who has grown from a human-hating pig to one of the leaders of the colony settled by the survivors of the space war) and the captain of Nostalgia for Infinity who by now has evolved into a mostly nonhuman entity.

New characters include Khouri’s daughter Aura, Quiache himself who is the prophet of the new religion on Hela, and Rashmika, the viewpoint character in that latter sequence on Hela.

I found more visual sense of wonder in Absolution Gap than in either of its predecessors, especially a scene in which one caravan passes through an immense canyon, and another scene when Nostalgia for Infinity lifts off from the planet where it has been the past two decades.

Reynolds did fall a bit into the same trap he created in Redemption Ark by having one sequence which was more horror thriller than serious, but where those sequences were largely irrelevant in the prior novel, in this instance it was one of the most important scenes in the novel, the climactic confrontation between Clavain and Skade. Fortunately it was only one weakness in the midst of lots of good, thought-provoking and exciting stuff.

Throughout the novel Reynolds manages to keep sucking the reader in deeper and deeper with new surprises that meld well with everything that happened before: the “shadows” hoping to cross into our universe; the skrimsuit; the attempt by Quaiche to take over Nostalgia for Infinity.

The novel’s pace quickens as Quaiche’s caravan reaches the bridge and attempts to be the first cathedral to cross over it successfully almost simultaneously as the struggle to rescue humanity from the Inhibitors reaches its climactic moments.

The Galactic North trilogy may not be great literature, but it is a grand adventure filled with sense of wonder, a wild and colorful milieu filled with fascinating characters, all partaking in a series of plots which move as inexorably as Quaiche’s caravans towards fascinating conclusions. Anybody who loves classic sf adventures should love this series as well.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Science Fiction Matching Quiz - Answers

Here are the answers to last week’s quiz. Now admit it: How many of the 20 did you get correct? ☺

David Selig / Dying Inside
Enoch Wallace / Way Station
Susan Calvin / I, Robot
Paul Atreides / Dune
Nicholas Van Rijn / The Man Who Counts
Kirth Gersen / The Star King
Conrad Nimikos / This Immortal
Louis Wu / Ringworld
Danny Boles / Brittle Innings
Damon Konstantin / Downbelow Station
Lorenzo Smythe / Double Star
Robinette Broadhead / Gateway
Maya Toitovna / Red Mars
Cordelia Naismith / Barrayar
Genly Ai / The Left Hand of Darkness
Martin Silenus / Hyperion
Lorq Von Ray / Nova
Patera Silk / Book of the Short Sun
Charlie Gordon / Flowers for Algernon
Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez / A Case of Conscience

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Science Fiction Matching Quiz

Match a first name in Column 1 with a last name in Column 2. Then select the correct story title containing that character from Column 3. Solutions will appear in a blog in the near future.

Column 1: First Names

Column 2: Last Names
Van Rijn
Von Ray

Column 3: Story Titles
Book of the Short Sun
Brittle Innings
A Case of Conscience
Double Star
Downbelow Station
Dying Inside
Flowers for Algernon
I, Robot
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Man Who Counts
Red Mars
The Star King
This Immortal
Way Station