Sunday, October 11, 2015

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel "Aurora," overwhelmed me - mostly in a good way. Through a clever use of an artificial intelligence as a narrator, Robinson was able to tell one of his farthest ranging story on a canvas both vast and intimate. The multi-generational Ship of the story experiences the complexities of human hopes and conflicts while sweeping up the observations of centuries of travel and peril in interstellar space. While relatively compact for a Robinson novel, plenty here, taken separately, would serve as an entire novel in lesser hands. 

Morgan Crooks 2015

Okay, so what is this book about? Devi, Badim, and young Freya are a family living on the Ship. Devi is a prickly, brilliant, and frequently outraged ecosystem engineer aboard the ship. Devi is a person cursed with that particular mentality able to perceive inconvenient truths about a situation, and knows how tenuous their survival is. Their home, the Ship, is flying through space on a 170 year journey towards Tau Ceti, and just arriving there will be a stroke of luck. Devi is a hard person to live with, and eventually her mix of disappointment and grinding fear for the future drives Freya out into the wider microcosm of the ship, to engage in a wanderjahr, a years-long jaunt around the various biomes spinning in two rings around the Ship. 

Neither Freya or her mother, however, are the protagonist of the story. For most of the novel, narration is supplied by the Ship itself. Here Robinson's clear-eyed prose really shines. Devi shows the same dissatisfaction with the Ship's rudimentary AI that she displays towards her daughter. The Ship proves a better student. Over the course of the novel, which stretches centuries, the Ship begins to bootstrap itself into something approaching true self-awareness, as the increasingly perilous state of affairs aboard the ship pose larger and more complicated problems. For me, this was one of the true pleasures of this novel. The Ship, in all of its iterations, has a sly but warm personality, and while its motivations are ultimately simple (it's a spaceship, and spaceship travel through space), its attempts to wrestle with the hard problems of astrophysics and human conflicts bring into focus one of the purest expressions of Robinson's own future-centric humanism.

But I also think my difficulty in describing this story come from the very personal reaction I had during reading it.

A little biography...

When I was six or seven, I remember being in an after school program at a local art museum. We were given materials with which to create small animal totems. I really didn't want to use the pinecones, feathers, and small stones we had to work with. When the adults asked me why not, I remember expressing my dislike for natural things. I said I didn't want to be on planet earth. That planet earth was a 'mud-ball' and I wanted to be out exploring space.

One of my earliest memories was of how little I cared for this planet, the only home (currently) for the human race.

This is my way of showing you, my reader, where I'm coming from when I say that I have never had my basic world view shaken and pulled into question as I have with the book.

Although there are many distinct pleasures in reading this book and I recommend it to anyone, I left the book feeling very sad and very thoughtful. Thirty years on this particular merry-go-round has given me a greater appreciation of the difficulties that aspiration entails. And yet, that is still the basic dream. I would like our species to spread out into the solar system, the Galaxy, and the universe. 

Avoiding spoilers, Robinson's basic point in writing Aurora seems is to show the seductive yet lethal folly of such ideas. The universe Robinson provides  here provides a simple, obvious, and horrifying answer to the Fermi Paradox. Although Robibson shows an obvious love for space technology and the technologies that endeavor requires, he wants to make it clear. Earth is not just our cradle, it is the one place in the universe we evolved to inhabit. The most powerful scenes in this book turn away from the grandeur of artificial biomes and alien worlds to explore what Earth is like, what our home actually provides us. 

I left the book with a profound melancholy. Because of who I am I can't shake the feeling our species or whatever our species produces will find away out of the trap Robinson describes, but I can't in any particular deny the force of his argument. 

At one point a character in the novel describes a certain class of fiction as Dark Realism. I suspect that title was provided as a useful handle by the author for this work. Philosophically this is a novel opposed to the ideas that seize us and bend us towards suffering and collapse. It is not a particularly optimistic vision but it does arrive with all of the force of simple truths expounded clearly. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Martian

I was late to The Martian party, having only read it earlier this year. I enjoyed it then and had a good feeling about the movie directed by Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon. Something about the trailers suggested the film-makers got the essential point of Andy Weir's novel and wouldn't go out of their way to ruin it.

There is a distinct pleasure in having favorable first impressions backed up by the actual product.

I very much enjoyed The Martian which marks the third hard sci-fi space thriller in as many years that I thought really worked. With $55 million taken in over the weekend, it also looks like the kind of financial success that could bring in another round of such projects. As a big fan of space exploration I tend to think that as a very good thing.

So where does this movie lie in the big scheme of things?

The challenge is that while The Martian fulfills the promise of the book and certainly ranks high in science fiction movies, it's not a great movie. Not in my humble estimation, anyway. While well-acted, produced, directed, and filmed, this is ultimately "Cast Away" in space. The point of this film is that ingenuity and perseverance pay off and that even the most impossible situations might be salvaged with a little luck and hard-work. Noble sentiments but not really in the same mind-blowing sphere as 2001 or even Interstellar.

So where does that leave us?

The Martian is my favorite movie I've seen set predominantly on Mars. Yes, I think it even beats out the original Total Recall.

It is my favorite science fiction movie with Jeff Daniels (although if one includes Arachnophia into the mix it becomes dicier).

It is my second favorite movie with Matt Damon playing an astronaut.

It also my second favorite science fiction movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a major role.

I would rank it as Ridley Scott's fifth best film overall and his third best science fiction film.

It's my favorite movie with Michael Pena.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this is a few notches above a good movie but it's probably not going to be in my top five anytime soon. It's definitely worth a watch, maybe even a rewatch, but I would pull a skeptical face if anyone said this was the best space movie of all time.

I do have one more positive thing to say for it though.

As I walked from the theater I heard a little boy say to his dad, "I want to go to Mars. When can I go to Mars? I want to build a house there." Considering how tense and dangerous this movie makes space travel appear - I think that is one small positive sign for the future.

If one is in the market for such things.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What I Read in September

September was a busy month for me. Back to school. Two collections including my stories. A great number of stories to pore through in under thirty days.

I am including my favorite stories out of the Bundoran Anthology, Second Contacts, that includes my story “This Beautiful Creature.” I’ll probably do something similar next month with the Game Fiction Volume 1. I think both collections contained some killer stories and it’s my pleasure to talk up them and their authors.

Okay, on to the picks for September 2015:
  1. The Oiran’s Song by Isabel Yap (Uncanny Magazine) A beautiful and terrible meditation on war and the thirst for violence and death. An oni daughter infiltrates an Imperial Japanese army unit and begins to feed upon them. Her tent mate is a boy neutered by his anguish and loss, slowly sliding into being an accomplice.
  2. The Peace of Worlds by Jaime Babb (Second contacts) So everyone knows what happened when the Martians invaded before. For all of their overwhelming fire-power and technology in the end the smallest of earthly life-forms, bacteria, laid waste to them all. In this clever alt history tale the Martians try again with applied economics. As any student of history knows, soft-power can succeed where overt uses of force often fail.
  3. Get the Message by Peter Wendt (Second contacts) Nifty story revolving around that most plausible of all impossible technologies - the ansible. Although Wendt uses a different term to describe this instantaneous communications device with alien races, what he is describing is an ansible. The pleasure here is that because the aliens are simply another voice (?) on the phone he can introduce a great number of different species in a very short story. Also enjoyable is the twists and turns of the plot as Earthlings cast desperately about for extraterrestrial assistance in the face of an alien invasion.
  4. Ten Things to Know about the Ten Questions by Gwendolyn Kiste. (Nightmare) This is my favorite Kiste story since the last Kiste story I read. She gets better and better as a writer, here weaving a Leftovers-like scenario into psychological test. I found myself gripped by a nameless extential dread, the fear the worst thing imaginable was about to happen. Another masterful story from my favorite new writer.
  5. Cremulator by Robert Reed. (Clarkesworld) A haunting story about the mysteries of love and death. Poignant and scientific and yet very magical. I’m thinking about writing a post about the few recent stories I’ve run across doing this sort of thing well - this ongoing project to incorporate fairy tales and magical realism tropes into solid science fiction.
  6. The Springwood Center for Genetically Modified Animals, by Verity Lane (Crossed Genres) One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read on CG. Easily one of my favorites this month. This poignant, uber creepy story follows a human orphan looking for a job in an animal shelter for GMO pets. A slow steady burn through a sad, sad future.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Teaser video for my story in the "Second Contacts" anthology

Apparently Michael Rimar and Hayden Treholm put together a series of short teaser videos for the stories in Bundoran's "Second Contacts" anthology. Here's the one for mine, "This Beautiful Creature:"

The more I look at this picture the closer it looks to what I was aiming for in describing the Ghost Monkeys of the story.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What I Read in August

Neil Clarke’s post on Clarkesworld explaining why his magazine doesn’t have a short fiction review column struck me. Not having access to his web traffic logs I can’t argue with the facts he brings to bear, namely that short fiction reviews don’t drive readers to the site. I would say on a pure anecdotal level, however, that I have read many short stories on the basis of review columns and, more importantly, also discovered markets where such stories appear. These “What I Read” posts also tend to attract the most traffic on my site.

That said, I agree with him on one level - this blog, which really is just a list of the stories I like - is probably not going to be moving anyone to read a particular story. I do hope that in assembling these lists every month a casual short story reader might come across a title that does seem worth interesting or a magazine that they had not heard of. Really, if the year so far has taught me anything, it’s that there is an incredible wealth of quality fiction available, most of it free, for any one willing to follow a few links.

Okay, stepping down from the soap box, let me once more offer a few stories I think worth your time. Seriously, please read one of these stories. They’re amazing.

  • Hani's: Purveyor of Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweat Teas by Sara Saab. (The Dark) I like my fairy tales dark and perfectly understandable within the context of that world. This work is a succinct and cogent story reworking of the “House of Candy” trope, creating a pastry shop and it’s not-so-sweet proprietor. A dark long con played upon hungry children, with sweet caramelized dollops of body horror.
  • It Was Educational by J. B. Park (Clarkesworld) I clicked open this story humming that old Pixie song, not sure of what I’d find. Essentially this story plays with an idea I’ve always found stimulating - history as a simulation for the edification of the future. Beautiful and full of ideas.
  • Ships and Stars and Childhood Things by Gwendolyn Kiste (Flash Fiction Online) A bitter sweet tale of a love grown into through magic of time dilation and then outgrown in turn. Kiste writes about terrible things with a rare clarity and precision. I also recommended one of her stories from February “Once Lost, Gone Forever." 
  • Mustard World by James Victor (Apex and Abyss) This is a horror story - essentially a  fairy tale - swapping out princes and fairies for chlorine drenched hellscapes and astronauts. Raiding old stories is a tactic I whole-heartedly endorse, especially when done with vivid and knowing skill. The chummy, unaware attitude demeanor of the narrator makes this story worm beneath your skin.
  • Milagroso by Isabel Yap ( I loved this story - a vibrant and riotous exploration of the future and significance of real food. Even as the narrator - a food engineer himself - recognizes the obvious benefits genetically tailored food provides, he longs for the simple imperfections of the past. In a world where artificial miracle food feeds the poor and prevents disease, true luxury is clutching onto the fragile and already rotting artifacts of the past.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Goldshader is Live!

It looks like Goldshader's website, which features one of my stories "Distractions," is now up and running. I could not be more pleased with the awesome presentation for my story, including the evocative animation for a scene in the story.

"Distractions," as befitting its inclusion in the First Volume of the Game Fiction anthology, concerns augmented reality games played between young explorers on the fringe of the known universe. My story is available in full on the website, but it is also available for purchase in print and e-copy formats.

I'm extremely happy with how this website came out and I hope you have a chance to check out the other stories featured on the site!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Suggestions for the Post-Apocalypse

After watching the majesty of Mad Max: Fury Road, I decided to revisit some classics of the post-apocalypse over the last couple of months. I’m not sure what I was looking for, precisely but my rough outline was - the work (movie, television show, book, whatever) had to involve the end of the world as we know it and spend a significant portion of its narrative examining what sort of society would exist after such an event.

Obviously, there is no shortage of the post-apocalypse. To go out on a limb, the collapse is even in a bit of a growth cycle. Before even watching Mad Max, I read five novels all published last year that addressed TEOTWAWKI in some respect. Whether following spore zombies in post-collapse London (The Girl With All of the Gifts) or the slow crumbling of social order in The Book of Strange New Things, I was already in this catastrophic state of mind.

As far as books go, the post-apocalypse has a long history. Mary Shelley wrote “The Last Man” way back in 1826 but I’d mark "Earth Abides" as the true start of post-apocalyptic literature. Seriously you should read this one. The character is compelling and the narrative, perhaps because George R. Stewart wasn’t aware of some of the cliches and tropes an End of the World story is supposed to have. One of my favorite moments happens early in the book when the survivor, Isherwood, finally finds a few survivors living in San Francisco. Instead of quickly settling down and trying to restart civilization, he takes one look at the bedraggled, traumatized remainders of humanity and decides he’d rather take a road trip. The whole book, with its poetic rumination on the slow decay of modern artifacts and the resumption of nature, is like Grapes of Wrath in reverse.

I can also recommend "The Stand” by Stephen King (obviously) and Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel, as books with similar themes and details to Earth Abides. But seriously, read Stewart’s book. In most respects it hasn’t aged a day.

If "Earth Abides" represents the meditative, philosophical take on the post-apocalypse, the other two early titans of this genre - “Alas, Babylon,” by Pat Frank and “A Canticle of Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, take a look at one of the big enduring mainstays of the end of the world, a thermonuclear exchange. I read Canticle a while ago but finally tore through Frank’s book this summer. In total, I preferred “Earth Abides,” but “Alas, Babylon” has a lot to recommend it as well. For one thing I would point out the rigorous adherence to verisimilitude in Frank’s book. Small details of the nuclear war and its aftermath ring true, and lead to a somber but ultimately optimistic vision of the world after such a disaster.

Nuclear war, as a survivable event, doesn’t seem to crop up as much nowadays - which is probably a consequence of a clearer understanding of the horror of such a war and the receding threat of the old Soviet Union. That said, it remains a favorite of movies (Mad Max being an obvious example) and television shows (the justly praised ‘Jericho’). Trendier catastrophes like superflus and environmental collapse reign currently.

Once you get away from the “Day After Tomorrow” style hyper-disasters, the lingering effects of the total disintegration of the biosphere have produced some of the most compelling science fiction in recent years. Books as diverse as “The Drowning World” by J.G. Ballard, “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy, and “The Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” have all taken up this theme. This is also the subtext of this year’s  “The Water Knife,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, where the western United States slowly dries up as the world grows warmer and warmer. The Water Knife is also notable because of the literate and sophisticated way Bacigalupi handles the question of the post-apocalypse. In The Water Knife, the almost pornographic fascination people have for dying cities and desperate refugees (#collapse) contributes to the spreading disaster. Of all of the versions of the end of the world, this was probably the one that felt the most up-to-date to me, certain features of the story - the ongoing draught in California, economic instability, and spreading wildfires - brought to their all-too-plausible conclusion.

Finally, I’d conclude with Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves" which convincingly wipes out every living human being except for a handful of women and then fast-forwards a few millennia to the civilization created by the genetically manipulated offspring of these “Seven Eves." I found myself admiring this book more than actually enjoying it. The bleak picture of the end of the world (caused by the inexplicable explosion of the moon) is heavy on interesting speculation and light on characters you’d actually want to survive the end of the world. On the other hand, this is a novel that is utterly unafraid to consider colossal ideas, one of the biggest being what if all human civilization could be rebooted from the ground up.