Visions of Paradise

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Year's Best Science Fiction (26th volume), part one

Like most anthologies, I expected to find stories which fell into my comfort zone along with those which fell outside it in Gardner Dozois' 26th Year's Best Science Fiction (which contains stories originally published in 2008). But unless Dozois is stacking his strengths in the beginning, this collection was really outstanding from the outset.

Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” is a SETI story set around two brothers’ sibling rivalry. One brother Wilson is part of a project set on the far side of the moon which has received a one-second message six thousand light years away near the core of the galaxy. The message is repeated once a year, as if it were being sent by a rotating lighthouse-type signal. In the second message more data is compressed than in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The storyline about the signal illustrates Baxter’s strength as a writer, scientific extrapolation which blends into philosophical extrapolation. The climax of the story takes place in the passage

We don’t know anything about what they look like, how they live–or even if they’re corporeal of not. But they are old, vastly old compared to us. Their cultural records go back a million years, maybe ten times as long as we’ve been human...But they regard themselves as a young species. They live in awe of older ones whose presence they have glimpsed deep in the turbulent core of the galaxy.

If that paragraph excites your sense of wonder, then Baxter is the writer for you. While personal interactions are his weakness, the brothers’ sibling rivalry does not interfere with the thought processes at the heart of the story.

Soon thereafter came Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler.” My dislike for near-future dismal sf is fairly well-known, but I still enjoy Bacigalupi’s version (along with Cory Doctorow’s stories) while I rarely finish other writers’ stories of that type. His characters are generally not the amoral low-lives which dominate much of this sub-genre, but people with positive values and an optimistic view who are surviving as well as possible under the worst circumstances. Plus he is a good story-teller, which overcomes a lot of other negatives in his worldview.

“The Gambler” is about our current media age, in which people are obsessively fascinated by celebrities and their lives, while having virtually no interest in “real” news stories which impact their standard of living as well as the future of our world. The story’s narrator is a refugee from a dicatatorial takeover in Laos who works for a news agency. But while his co-workers’ stories are earning multiple thousands of hits per hour, his “important” stories are garnering virtually no public interest. His boss gives him an ultimatum: either increase his hits or he will be fired and, as a result, deported back to Laos.

This is a story about selling out: shouldn’t anybody stand up for principles? The story’s highlight is a scene in which the narrator meets a fabulously popular pop singer who is also a refugee from Laos, and how she tries to help him in spite of himself. Strong, thought-provoking stuff which is very enthralling reading.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s “Boojum” is a space opera about a pirate ship which is actually a living entity (known as a boojum) which eats merchant ships which are seized by the pirates. What starts out as an exciting adventure soon grows into a human interest story as the protagonist, a junior engineer named Black Alice who worships the ship, discovers how the crew actually convinces the boojum to follow their orders. On the heels of Bacigalupi’s story, this is another story about following one’s principles which I enjoyed very much.

Next came Alastair Reynolds’ “The Six Directions of Space,” which begins as a tale of espionage as a secret agent from a huge galactic empire visits one of its outer worlds where the government’s control is not as tight as it would like it to be, so the agent falls into the clutches of a mostly-independent warlord who treats her more like an enemy than an ally.

The tale of espionage becomes a story of first contact from the point of view of a repressive totalitarian state and ultimately veers into a tale of parallel universes in which different groups have built galactic empires: Mongols in one, Moslems in another, Nestorian Christians in a third; but other universes have non-human empires whose brutality make the human ones almost acceptable. This is a fascinating look into the many-worlds which cries out for sequels.

And then came Ted Kosmatka’s outstanding “N-Words,” a story about racism, but not the type its title might lead you to believe. The “N” referred to are neanderthals who have returned in the same manner that dinosaurs returned in Jurassic Park, but the neanderthals turn out to be considerably different than anthropologists have surmised. The reaction they stir in some people is unsurprising, but totally reprehensible. The story’s last line is a classic and worth the entire story.

After this outstanding start, I expected a let-down, but there are many other good stories in this volume. Ian McDonald’s “An Eligible Boy” is set in his vision of near-future India. I read different authors for slightly-different reasons: some are storytellers, some excel at characterization or world-building, others create great scenes but are not so good at stringing them together into a full-fledged novel. I read McDonald primarily for his background world. His milieu is always full and breathing, so you cannot help but feel a part of it. The plot of this story is a bit more developed than usual, making it one of the better stories in the collection.

I generally read Robert Reed because of a combination of his background world (especially, but not exclusively, in his Great Ship stories) and the strength of his individual scenes. As if he realizes the latter is his strength, “Five Thrillers” describes the future of the human race in five separate scenes, each containing the same main character, a near-superhuman named Joseph Carroway who is not only present at some of the crucial moments in history, but shapes most of them. As expected, this story has great scenes, although it does not quite hang together as a fully-developed story.

Charles Coleman Finlay’s “The Political Prisoner” begins like a straightforward political thriller about a sudden coup d’etat on the world Jerusalem by one department of the former government which inadvertently sweeps up an undercover agent of that very department and sends him to a prison farm along with hundreds of other men who either worked for the overthrown department or else were totally innocent. When the protagonist arrives at the prison camp, he is forced to work and live with a group of aliens who are despised by most humans and have been imprisoned purely for reasons of prejudice. Basically the story is about the trials and tribulations of political prisoners, and it works effectively on that level.

Maureen McHugh’s “Special Economics” reads like a contemporary political dark satire since I found very little in it that really makes in science fiction, but it was still an effective warning on how Chinese companies might be (are?) using the new capitalistic economy to trap their employees in virtual slavery, and how ineffective the government has become to prevent it.

To be continued...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fiction websites.

While print magazines devoted to science fiction are slowly fading away–even the “Big Three” have circulations nearing 20,000 and less–online fiction venues are growing. And while there does not seem to be a successful format for making a profit yet, the online zines have been very successful as far as quality of fiction and average number of hits.

According to Locus’ annual survey, the more popular online zines are averaging between the same 20,000 readers per month on the low end, with as many as 300,000 per month on the high end!

From my perspective, there is currently a “Big Five” of online science fiction websites: started out as a print magazine intended to publicize the Subterranean line of books. Several years ago they transferred the entire zine online, complete with cover, fiction, podcasts and nonfiction. One feature of this zine that makes it somewhat unique among online publishers is that it publishes novellas and novelettes, while most other venues restrict themselves to short stories (which is weird, since space is obviously not a problem online, as it is in print zines). The current quarterly issue has 7 stories, including an audio story by Elizabeth Bear, and other stories by Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven, Mike Resnick, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Jay Lake. is a bi-monthly zine very similar in format to Subterranean, combining fiction, podcasts, and nonfiction. You have the option of browsing by issue contents, or by category (if you wish to only look for fiction they’ve published, for example), which is a convenient feature. Their authors are perhaps not as famous as those of Subterranean, but the quality is equally high. They have had stories by Yoon Ha Lee, N.K. Jemisin, Eric Brown, Robert Reed, and 2 of last year’s short story Hugo nominees. is a bit more confusing to follow since it has no dedicated contents page, but rather links scattered all over their home page for fiction and nonfiction both. Fortunately, fiction is listed across the top and links to a contents page of all fiction published, so it is easy to find. Also, as has become common in this web-centered world, rather than have its issues posted in their entirety (as in Subterranean and Clarkesworld’s models), publishes stories irregularly, so you need to check the site every few days. That being said, they feature a lot of excellent fiction by top writers (including two of last year’s Hugo-nominated novelettes). Scanning down their contents, I see John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, Kij Johnson, Terry Bisson, Michael Bishop, Eileen Gunn, Bruce McAllister, Robert Charles Wilson, Michael Swanwick, Harry Turtledove and Charles Stross. is a relatively new magazine which posts stories, podcasts and features regularly, a la, but then collects them all as monthly issues. Recent issues have had fiction by Julie E. Czerneda, Cat Rambo, Orson Scott Card, Tanith Lee, Ursula K Le Guin, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, Robert Silverberg and Stephen King. While the three previous zines were all related to book publishers, and were considered “loss leaders” to attract new readers to their books, this zine seems to be more dependent on attracting income somehow, so while I have enjoyed it so far, I wonder about its long-term future. is perhaps the longest-running online magazine, publishing weekly issues which each generally contain a story, a nonfiction article, and a handful of reviews. Its authors are not as famous as those of Lightspeed and Subterranean, but it is still of an overall high quality. Like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, you can link to all the fiction published if you wish, where you will find stories by John Kessel, Lavie Tidhar, Carol Emshwiller, Vandana Singh, Theodora Goss, Tim Pratt and Cat Rambo.

There are many other online fiction sites, ranging from Lightspeed’s fantasy companion ( to Abyss & Apex (, Gigantosaurus (, and the ambitious Daily Science Fiction ( which publishes a story per day. But there is only so much reading one person can do, so I pretty much limit myself to the “Big Five” listed above.

If you start visiting the above sites, you may never have to pay to read a piece of short science fiction again. Happy reading!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Galactic Empires, vol. 2

Another sf reviewer recently commented on his blog that while he enjoys modern science fiction, part of him misses the sense of wonder and big ideas of the 1950s and 1960s in magazines such as Galaxy and IF. I agree with him completely. While I would never stop reading new sf, and mostly enjoying it, I also enjoy reading sf of 40-50 years ago as well.

Apparently, Brian W. Aldiss felt much the same way in the 1970s when he edited a series of reprint anthologies of traditional sf mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. Part of that series was two volumes of Galactic Empires. The two volumes were short enough that today they might have been published as one 600 page volume. The two books feature many well-known SF writers. Volume One (which I reviewed here in November, 2008) had novelettes by Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov (the original “Foundation”), Clifford D. Simak and James White (one of his Sector General stories). Volume Two has novelettes by John D. MacDonald, James Blish, Harry Harrison, Poul Anderson and F.L. Wallace. There are also several short stories, the best being by Mack Reynolds and a typical Fredric Brown punchline ending.

In spite of his reputation as part of the literary end of the sf spectrum, in these volumes Aldiss shows a predilection for traditional adventure stories, running the gamut from simple pulp adventures to more thoughtful stories. But what is never lacking in any stories in these two volumes is high concepts and sense of wonder.

John D. MacDonald is well-known for his Travis McGee mysteries, but he is an underrated sf author who appeared regularly in genre magazines in the 1950s and wrote two acclaimed novels Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies. His novelette “Escape to Chaos” has a tangled plot which he manages to untangle in the end. The third son of a tyrannical galactic emperor rebels against him and, although greatly outnumbered and beaten in almost every battle, manages to escape almost miraculously each time. It turns out that a group of advanced beings overseeing what we now call the “multiverse” (a term developed by Michael Moorcock) has decided the emperor needs to be overthrown and his son is the one to do it. But when they eventually decide that too many miraculous escapes is counterproductive, and order the female agent assigned to the rebel to let him die, they inadvertently open a can of worms which causes more trouble than they imagined.

James Blish’ short story “Beep” is a fairly well-known story about the development of an instant long-range communication device (similar to Ursula K Le Guin’s later ansible) and how one of its side effects proves more important than the original intent. This story, like much by Blish, is very slow-paced and consisting primarily of dialogue, but it was a gripping, satisfying story nonetheless.

Mack Reynolds was not a major writer, but a reliable journeyman who always understood the true nature of humans and the real foundations of their civilization. In “Down the River,” a spaceship lands and an emissary of a galactic empire informs all the world’s leaders that his empire has traded possession of Earth to another empire for other considerations. The leaders protest that they had no idea we were supposedly “owned” by other aliens and what gives them the right to “trade” us anyway? What happens next is both chilling and absolutely true, but I dare not say more lest I give away the story’s considerable impact. This was my favorite story in the book.

Harry Harrison’s “Final Encounter” details the adventures of a mismatched exploration team which believes it has finally made the long-dreamed of discovery of a truly alien race. This story is typical Harrison, well-plotted and intriguing.

Poul Anderson had novelettes from early in his career in both volumes. Both stories show some of Anderson’s strengths, although they are also simpler than much of his later works. “Lord of a Thousand Suns” shows the influence of Planet Stories and Leigh Brackett’s science fantasies in its tale of a member of the galactic empire fighting against powerful insurgents trying to overthrow it. He discovers the remnants of an ancient civilization far more advanced than humans, but which destroyed itself in a similar war against insurgents. However, some of their artifacts are more powerful than any human weapons, if he can only reach them and learn how to use them in time. What he finds is much more than he had bargained for. Fun stuff.

F.L. Wallace is a forgotten writer who did some very good stuff in the 1950s. His story “Big Ancestor” bears a resemblance to Harry Harrison’s story in that it tells of a group of scientists in the future seeking the alien race which hundreds of thousands of years ago apparently seeded numerous planets with the ancestors of humans who have been found on numerous worlds. Similar to “Final Encounter,” what they find is both more and less than they expected.

This was a fun volume, with more thoughtfulness than might be expected from its title and intent. I hope to seek out more Aldiss anthologies in the future.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Online Fanzines

Do any of you remember the good ol’ days of the 1960s-1980s where many fanzines were actually devoted to science fiction? That is not particularly common anymore. I read quite a few zines regularly, but precious few of them have much emphasis on f&sf.

But that is not a problem since there are many websites and blogs devoted to f&sf, and several of them update fairly regularly. So here is my periodic updating of websites/blogs which I find good reading for serious f&sf fans. They are in roughly descending order regarding how frequently I check them. I check this website every day, since it is a comprehensive daily listing of what’s currently available online. It categorizes its links as Free Fiction, Interviews & Profiles, News, Articles, Events, and More Fun Stuff. In addition, it contains video clips, book reviews, tables of contents for upcoming collections/anthologies, and a fascinating feature Mind Meld in which a cross-section of writers/critics/fans discuss various topics. [I confess that I am a bit prejudiced here, since I have been asked to participate in several Mind Melds myself.] If there is any indispensible f&sf website, SF Signal is it. I also check this website daily, but its contents are not as valuable as SF Signal, nor is it updated as frequently. It is primarily a news site, similar to its parent Locus Magazine, but it also has links to various news items and reviews online. This is strictly a review site, updated twice-monthly. It is probably the most consistent location for new reviews. It also lists recent releases in books, media sf, and graphic novels. This is a weekly sf zine, offering a mix of new fiction, articles and reviews. It is one of the oldest, most reliable online zines, and its format seems to be a role model for many new online zines. This is a long-running website devoted to reviews of short fiction, both zines and books. While it has occasional blips of inactivity, it is still a worthwhile source for reviews. This is Don D’Ammassa’s review site. Since he is one of the most prolific readers and reviewers of the past 40 years, and he updates regularly, this is a great place to catch up on reviews and recommendations. I just wish he would return to compiling his annual best-of-the-year lists [the site contains such lists for 1992-2004]. Jim Black has promised to be a more consistent blogger this year, which I hope is true since his combination of reviews and discussions of sf is one of the more interesting blogs on my favorites list. It does not hurt that his taste is very similar to my own, of course.

Next time I’ll discuss the fiction websites which I frequent regularly.