Sunday, January 22, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Fish of Lijiang - Chen Qiufan

The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan is another of the forty or so short stories listed on his website that Ken  Liu has translated from Chinese. It is one of the earlier ones. The English translation first appeared in Clarkesworld in August of 2011. The original is a few years older, it appeared in 2006. Liu included it in his anthology of Chinese science fiction Invisible Worlds, which is where I read it. Only about ten of Chen's stories are available in English at the moment, but Liu states in the author bio that he is working on a translation of one of Chen's novels. It is expected to be released later this year.

Stressed and exhausted from the corporate rat race, a management assistant is sent to rehabilitate in the city of Lijiang in the south-west of China, not too far from the border with Burma. He knows very well that he shows all the signs of an approaching burnout but sees this forced vacation as a failure on his part nonetheless. He has been to Lijiang before and notices how it has changed. The exterior of a commercial tourist trap hides a deeper secret however. When he meets a woman sent to the city to rehabilitate as well, he starts to figure out the real reason why he has been sent there.

This story is told from the first person. The main character is not in the best of moods. Besides feeling he has failed at his job, he is also disappointed in how the city of Lijiang  has changed. There is a series of comments on the way this cultural heritage site is treated as an amusement park. Some people would see this as criticism or a warning (as the story is set in the future) of China's policy in this area. Despite the dim view the main character takes, Lijiang seems like an interesting place to visit.

The situation he is in  is very recognizable to the western reader. Look around at work and you'll probably see a few colleagues who have run into this problem in the past, or are on their way there now. The science fictional element in the story is in the cause of the main character's problems. He is in essence used as a Guinea pig. His employer exposes him to a device that causes him to experience time in a different way. It makes him do more in less time but at a price. The way the main character responds to this revelation is where you can tell you are reading a Chinese story. Most western people would be outraged with being experimented on. This is not quite how the main character in this story responds. He heads back to his job for another round of compressed time.

I thought The Fish of Lijiang was an intriguing story, and one that shows great talent. Chen was in his mid-twenties when it was published in Chinese. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for that novel Liu is translating. Judging from this story, it should be worth reading.

Story Details
Title: The Fish of Lijiang
Author: Chen Qiufan
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Originally published: Clarkesworld Magazine, #59 August 2011
Read in: Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu
Story length: Short Story, approximately 5,000 words
Awards: science fiction and fantasy translation award winner
Available online: Clarkesword

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Short Fiction Month: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is a man with a reputation for writing excellent short fiction. He also wrote a lot of it. His collected short stories have been published in 13 volumes. A lot of his output was published in the 1940s and 1950s, well before the major science fiction awards were created. He did win a few with his later work. He even has a prize for short fiction, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, named after him. I don't doubt he has deserved his reputation but it can't possibly have been based on this story. To be blunt: this was the most disappointing read in Short Fiction Month so far. Why this novella was nominated for a Nebula is a complete mystery to me.

The story is set in a future were the sun went supernova. Fortunately, there was plenty of warning, and everybody who wanted to leave Earth could do so with time to spare. Many planets have been colonized and a record is created to keep in touch with each of these worlds. The main character of the story, find one that isn't listed. When the reason for this becomes apparent he has a difficult choice to make.

If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? was originally published in Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). To stick with the theme of the anthology, Sturgeon tackled one of the most widely spread of all human taboos: incest. There is a lot of progressive  ideas in the novella. The society of the planet the main character visits is utopia. Its inhabitants are wealthy, healthy and happy. They are free to do pretty much anything they please and as a result are able to satisfy all their natural (read: sexual) needs. In the afterword Sturgeon says he aimed to take a logical argument and a conviction based on it, one step further and see if it encourages people to reconsider their conviction. Which would have been fine if Sturgeon's reasoning was not so obviously flawed.

The character doing the explaining starts of reasonable. Human misery is not caused by sex or arousal but by the guilt attached to it. The link between sex and guilt has caused more suffering than I care to think about. Sturgeon certainly has a point there. Then he takes his step beyond and pins his whole case for ultimate sexual freedom on the question whether or not incest is morally wrong. What follows is a bunch of biological half-truths and falsehoods, mixed up with some dubious psychology that must have been derived from some of Freud's more questionable theories. The effect of unequal relationships and parental authority, and the potential to abuse these is entirely ignored. Jealousy and break-ups seem to be unheard of. The whole thing is so illogical, it is bullshit almost from start to finish. And yet the main character buys it.

Is it at least a well written story then? Not really. I like the prose well enough, but I came away with the feeling it was a bit padded. It takes the main character quite a long time to get to the point. Most of the first half of the story serves to show us how upset he really is, without actually moving the plot forward much. If I compare this to the way in which Samuel R. Delany deals with sexual taboos in Aye, and Gomorrah . . ., published in the same anthology, and the way that story triggers people to think about things like exclusion of people with sexual preferences outside the norm, I can only conclude Delany is vastly more effective. This story did not work for me at all.

Story Details
Title: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Language: English
Originally published: Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Read in: Dangerous Visions, Gollancz SF Masterworks edition (2011)
Story length: Novella
Awards: Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Not that I'm aware of

Friday, January 20, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Prott - Margaret St. Clair

Margaret St. Clair is one of the few women who managed to publish stories under her own name. Most of her work appeared in the 1940s and 1950s in various magazines. Later in her career she also produced a number of novels, four of which were published in Ace Doubles. St. Clair passed away in 1995 and her work is not receiving much attention at the moment. Based on this one story, that might be a shame. I have rarely read a 1950s science fiction story that has aged as gracefully.

The Prott are rumoured to inhabit deep space. No truly scientific documentation exists on them but there is a wealth of sightings. Enough to convince a researcher to take a space ship out where they are most likely to show up, and have a go at making properly documented observations. When he makes contact with them however, things don't quite go as expected. Soon, the scientist starts to slide from fascination to obsession.

This story was originally published in 1953 and generally science fiction written sixty years ago is laughably dated. The technology described in this story is as well. The digital age never arrived in St. Clair's future and it would have been nearly impossible to foresee in an age where computers were in the pioneering stage. Technology is not the focus of the story however. The main character and his interactions with the aliens are. His relationship with them and his personal feelings gradually change as the story progresses. It starts out with the optimism of 1950s science fiction but soon derails.

The character in the story does not follow the pattern of the classic, lone astronaut faced with a challenge in space. Competence and ingenuity do not save the day at the end of the day. The main character slides deeper into obsession until he digs himself a hole he can't get out of. Alone, cut off from help, in the deeps of space, is not a good place to be when you bit off more than you can chew. I liked this story a lot. I think St. Clair might have been more popular if she had been writing today.

Story Details
Title: Prott
Author: Margaret St. Clair
Language: English
Originally published: Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1953
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

Thursday, January 19, 2017

No Review Today

I had scheduled The Corpse by Sese Yane for today. I did in fact read it last night. It is a very strange story. After almost a full day of reflection I still have no idea what the man was going on about. All I got out of it was that whooshing sound you hear when a story goes right over your had. So I have decided to skip today. Should you  be tempted to read this story, it can be found in the anthologies Terra Incognita (2015), edited by Nerine Dorman and The Apex Book of World SF 4 (2015), edited by Mahvesh Murad and Lavie Tidhar.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Short Fiction Month: All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela

An Owomoyela is another name new to me. I know absolutely nothing about Owomoyela, other than that se is from the US and prefers it if we use nonstandard pronouns. This is harder than it seems but I will try not to slip. Owomoyela's output to date comprises only short fiction. All That Touches the Air was first published in Lightspeed in 2011. It is a science fiction tale and is still available online. It's an interesting story. I have rolled the dice a few times in Short Fiction Month. This is one of those stories I'm glad I found.

Humanity has spread through the galaxy and colonized numerous planets. Not all attempts are equally successful. On one planet, they encounter a sentient and very dangerous species. An understanding is reached with them. The humans are allowed to stay in their closed habitats. The ones that touch the open air can be taken by the local species. A fate worse than death, or so some feel.

Structurally, it is a very well thought out piece. The tale opens with a scene where a member of the colony is deliberately exposed. The cruelty of the act and the impact it has on the main character who witnesses it, are not entirely clear to the reader right away. Owomoyela takes the time to explain the full impact of that event. By the end of the story, the leap the main character takes is clear. In a way we are back where we started, but looked at from another angle, the roles are reversed. It's very clever really.

The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of a character with some pretty severe mental issues. It reminded me of Emma Newman's novel Planetfall (2015). The character's fear of being exposed to air leads to some pretty strange behaviour. Fear of the alien species permeates the narrative. The author uses that to make the climax of the story an overwhelming experience.

The alien species in All That Touches the Air is suitably alien. They don't think in legal terms like we do. The understanding they reached with the human colony implies the threat that they could change their mind at any time and take them out. The relationship with the aliens is very much about power. They do not feel it necessary to demonstrate that power though. Once the main character overcomes their fear of them, the dynamic of power changes. The aliens realize this before the main character does. Power, not law or ethics, is the key to their behaviour.

I liked the way the story deals with fear and the power that can be derived from overcoming it. There is a darker side to the story as well though. Power is to be feared, a struggle to take over power from the aliens is considered the only way for the colony to survive. The main character doesn't think about it in those terms but both the colony government and the aliens take an almost Darwinistic perspective to the interaction between their species. They can't both occupy the niche of dominant species. Liberation of one, goes at the expense of the other. It is a well executed science fiction story indeed. I am impressed by Owomoyela's work.

Story Details
Title: All That Touches the Air
Author: An Owomoyela
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 7,100 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing

As some of you may know, my girlfriend is from Norway. I must to my shame admit that beyond Sophie's World my knowledge of Norwegian literature is sorely lacking. Much to my surprise I spotted a Norwegian story in The Big Book of Science Fiction when looking for more stories this weekend. Naturally, I included this in the list. Jon Bing passed away in 2014, but from what little I know of him, he was a big name in the Norwegian science fiction community. He produced quite a few novels and collections but not all that much appears to be available in English. This particular story originally appeared in 1986, both in English and Norwegian. Curiously enough, the name of the translator isn't mentioned.

On Bear Island, a remote place halfway between the North Cape and the Svalbard archipelago, a geologist is wintering on a scientific station. His sole colleague has fallen ill, and has died on the way back to the  mainland. It soon becomes apparent to the scientist this was no coincidence. An alien entity takes over his mind and uses him to conduct research. The Owl, as the scientist calls the alien, has weaknesses however. The scientist develops a plan to free himself of the alien.

The story is more about the atmosphere than the plot really. There is something claustrophobic about Arctic research stations, especially in winter. They are almost as bad as possessed space ships really. John W. Campbell realized this when he wrote Who Goes There? Bing captures the loneliness of such a place very well but not so much the paranoia that sometimes comes with these kinds of stories. The main character knows what is going on, even if he is unable to stop it.

The Arctic setting also shows up in the theme of light and darkness in this story. The alien is dubbed the owl, a creature of darkness, who takes over the main character during the long polar night. It implies, at least that is how the main character sees it, the alien is evil and must be fought. Only by staying in the Arctic during the long days of summer can he regain a measure of self-control and freedom. The main character is, as it were, rescued by the light.

The plot itself is very minimalistic though .One character, no dialogue, lots of atmospheric descriptions and the main character explaining what is going on does not leave much for the reader to wonder about. How reliable the narrator is, perhaps. We never get to see if his plan works out. The main character might well have been doing what the alien wanted.  Maybe that was what the author was going for. I ended up liking the story more for the setting and the language than for the plot.

Story Details
Title: The Owl of Bear Island
Author: Jon Bing
Language: English
Translation: Unknown
Originally published: Norwegian: Hadata? (1986), English: Tales from the Planet Earth edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull (1986)
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

Monday, January 16, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh

Next stop in short fiction month is The Cost to Be Wise by Maureen F. McHugh, another author whose work I'm unfamiliar with. She is probably best known for her novel China Mountain Zhang (1992), which won her a Tiptree, Locus, Hugo and Nebula Award. In the years since, McHugh has not been terribly prolific. Four novels and two collections have appeared to date. Her short fiction is well represented on the Hugo and Nebula shortlist however. Apparently McHugh chooses the quality over quantity approach. This particular novella appeared in 1996 and shows up on both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists.

In the Sckarline colony, they believe only appropriate technology should be employed. Nothing that is not sustainable or cannot be replaced from local materials is used in their everyday life. One day, off-worlder anthropologists come visit the colony. For Janna, one of the few colonists to speak any English, it is a break from the monotony of her life . When a local clan shows up in search of booze, things get quickly out of control. The price for their way of life turns out the be very steep indeed.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this story. It is a well written tale to be sure. There is a fine bit of worldbuilding in it for example. We are introduced to the colony through the eyes of Janna, who is well aware of the outside world but has never actually seen it. To her the colony is home. McHugh doesn't use her to spoon feed the reader the details of their life. What details we need come through the questions of the visitors and a bit of reading between the lines. That aspect of the novella was handled very deftly.

Janna is a bit of a sullen girl. She has a poor relationship with her mother and is clearly not satisfied with her life. The outsiders fascinate her in a way. They show her glimpses of what life could be without their reliance on only appropriate technology. The generational conflict and Janna's hopes and wishes for the future are not really developed in the story however.

The fate of the colony is the main concern of the author. Here, the plot turns brutal. I'm not entirely sure if this is what the author intended but what the story essentially shows is what will happen to those who cannot or will not defend what is theirs. There are all sorts of historical parallels to be drawn here. History is littered with the acts of those that feel power entitles them to take what they want.

What bothered me about this novella was not so much the tale itself, I can admire McHugh's craftsmanship, but more the feeling that I had been reading a few chapters in a longer story. There are so many open ends and so many unexplained motives in the story that it really does not work all that well as a novella. It is a well written piece but ultimately a bit unfulfilling. I think I need to find myself a novel by McHugh. That might be more to my taste.

Story Details
Title: The Cost to Be Wise
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Language: English
Originally published: Starlight 1, edited by Patrick Hayden Nielsen (1996)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Novella, approximately 19,000 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Small Beer Press

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov

Other than that he is from Bulgaria I know very little of Haralambi  Markov. He has published only a handful of stories thus far. The Language of Knives originally appeared on Tor.com and was later reprinted in The Apex Book of World SF 4. The story is somewhere between fantasy and horror. It is beautifully written but pretty gruesome. Probably not everybody's cup of tea.

A father and daughter are performing the death rites for a great warrior. To send him of to his gods, his body is baked into a cake in an elaborate ritual. While they perform the ritual and deal with their personal grief, old hurt between the two of them surfaces.

The setting of this story seems mythological. The deceased warrior performed all sorts of heroic acts, battling mythological foes. When I read that kind of fantasy in the short form, I always get the feeling that there is a lot more to the setting than the story is showing me. It didn't bother me as much as in other fantasy shorts though. Worldbuilding is not what the author is concerned with.

Another thing we never find out is who the narrator is. The story is told from a second person point of view, which Markov uses very effectively to show the tension between the demands of the ritual and the strong emotions the characters are experiencing. The author keeps a bit of distance from the characters, just like the characters have to keep their grief at bay for the duration of the ritual.

Markov is not shy about describing the grisly details of the ritual. Caring for the dead is usually no pleasant task but this ritual takes it very far. It makes you wonder what kind of gods would demand such an offering. Again, the author creates a huge contrast, this time between the love and tenderness implied by the act of caring for a dead loved one and the horrific nature of the act itself.

When the dam does burst, the climax of the story proves very powerful indeed. The need for the characters to understand each other, to share their grief and to come to terms with the other's choices in life.

The Language of Knives is a powerful story, one that swings between extremes. It is a story in which prose and perspective are used to emphasize this and as such, it is a well written tale. Whether all readers will appreciate having their buttons pushed quite so forcefully is doubtful but this story shows Markov is a talented author. I understand he is working on a novel at the moment. I for one, am curious to see what he can do in the long form.

Story Details
Title: The Language of Knives
Author: Haralambi Markov
Language: English
Originally published: Tor.com, February 4th. 2015
Read in: The Apex Book of World SF 4. edited by Mahvesh Murad and Lavie Tidhar (2016)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 2,700 words
Awards: None
Available online: Tor.com

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Short Fiction Month: What Do I Intend to Read? - Part 3

Running out of stories so I guess I should add some more.

Read:
  1.  Scales - Alstair Reynolds (2009)
  2.  Folding Beijing - Hao Jingfang (2014)
  3. The Star - Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
  4. A Cup of Salt Tears - Isabel Yap (2014)
  5.  Bloodchild - Octavia Butler (1984)
  6. Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh - Ian McDonald (1988)
  7. The Day the World Turned Upside Down - Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2013)
  8. A Salvaging of Ghosts - Aliette de Bodard (2016)
  9. Aye, and Gomorrah . . . - Samuel R. Delany (1967)
  10. Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death -  James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
  11. The Blind Geometer - Kim Stanley Robinson (1986)
  12. The Silence of the Asonu - Ursula K. Le Guim (1998)
  13. Neutron Star - Larry Niven (1966) 
  14. Pelt - Carol Emshwiller (1958)
Still to come:
  • The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov (2015) 
  • The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh (1996)
  • The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing (1986)
  •  All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela (2011)
  • The Corpse - Sese Yane (2015)
  •  Prott - Margaret St. Clair (1953)
  • If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon (1967)

Short Fiction Month: Pelt - Carol Emshwiller

Ever since encountering a story by Carol Emshwiller in John Joseph Adams' anthology Wastelands I have felt I ought to read more of her short work. In the years since, I have somehow managed to read two of her novels but to avoid any collections. Quite an achievement when you consider most of Emshwiller's output is in the short form. She has had a remarkably long career. She was born in 1921 and her first stories started appearing in the 1950s, her publications continue until quite recently. Pelt is one of the older ones. It first appeared in 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted several times. Most recently in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

A faithful hunting dog is running ahead of his master in search of prey. The world is new to them, full of strange, exciting smells of creatures that would make excellent additions to his master's collection of trophies. Then he hears a voice that asks him: "Little slave, what have you done that is free today? Remember this world, Do something free today. Do, do."

The plot of this story is not overly complicated. At the end of it the message is loud and clear: hunting for trophies is wrong. What makes it interesting is how Emshwiller uses perspective to tell her tale. She is acutely aware of what each character knows and what it tells the reader. The story is written from the point of view of the dog. His view on matters is very limited. He can hear the locals but not really communicate with them. He also doesn't quite understand the question or why it is important.

The, one would assume, more intelligent master on the other hand, does not hear the locals and has to figure out what they mean and want solely from their actions. Together, the reader has a fuller understanding of what is going on. The master for instance, is left with fear bordering on panic which, when taken into account what we know from the dog's point of view, is understandable but not necessary.

The slave/master dynamic - or predator/prey dynamic, Emshwiller seems to consider them much the same thing - reminded me of her novel The Mount (2002). This novel has the human as slave instead of the master though. It is a subject she clearly has a lot to say on.

Science fiction from the 1950s is usually not my taste. Emshwiller approaches the genre from an angle that made her stand out though. Not in the sense that won her much recognition from the fans of hard science fiction or space opera that dominated the scene at that time, but from a wider audience that appreciated the more literary qualities of her work. She may well be one of science fiction's best kept secrets. An author more people ought to read. One of these days I will really get that collection I have been promising myself for almost a decade.

Story Details
Title: Pelt
Author: Carol Emshwiller
Language: English
Originally published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1958
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.