White is for Linking

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“Mother of Champions” by Sean McMullen

IZ222 coverI mentally graphed my reactions to this story in my head as I read, not unlike those audience-interest graphs that accompany some reviews in Total Film. “We Champions do not write, neither do we read, but we are very particular about time, numbers, family and memories. After all, we are perfect”: promising start! Interest grabbed by the promise of the construction of an alien consciousness; this continues through the jargon of the next few sentences — “I watch the scavengers”, “echospeaker arrived in her shelter engine”. Then: “Mike, how are you?”: nice shift in registers, although interest dips slightly with the following realisation that the narrator is an animal (in fact, a Cheetah) with a “machine collar”. “Substitute a pack of wolves for a coalition of cheetahs and I could believe what I just saw”: interest perks up again, although partly based on fond remembrance of Jurassic Park‘s raptors. Mike leaves, and the visitor (Ella) sets about framing him: interest dips, although if the narrator’s not going anywhere, neither can the story. “⟨I am not the scavenger you call Ella⟩”: nicely creepy, slight up-tick in interest. “You — you bred humanity as tools?”: Uh-oh. Cats-domesticate-humans is good for a joke, not so good for a story. “Thirteen thousand cheetahs, and one mass mind!”: I suppose if you’re going to go there, at least go gonzo! “⟨It amuses cats to control you for us — nothing can use a cat⟩”: and oh dear, down into the ravine of boredom we go. A certain commitment to the narrator’s arrogantly cruel demeanour is something, but can’t compensate.

“Ys” by Aliette de Bodard

IZ222 coverAfter the precision of Allan, this inevitably feels baggy, and the first half of the story is routine: woman impregnated by goddess; husband doesn’t understand, blames her; she turns to a friend (that she knows has feelings for her); he agrees to help her visit the goddess. There is a novel note in this — the unborn baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect — which is nicely paid off later, symptomatic of the story’s generally more interesting final third. The characters reach Ys, the city of the goddess:

Ys is a dead city. No, worse than that: the husk of a city, long since deserted by both the dead and the living. But it hums with power, with an insistent beat that seeps through the soles of Francoise’s shoes, with a rhythm that is the roar of the waves and the voice of the storm — and also a lament for all the lives lost to the ocean. As she walks, the rhythm penetrates deeper into her body, insinuating itself into her womb until it mingles with her baby’s heartbeat.

This dredging of the story’s subtext to the surface, and the image of a barren goddess — driven to create life, but unable to sustain it — does linger, beyond a final confrontation that starts to surrender potency to long-windedness. But I don’t think it’s enough.

“Microcosmos” by Nina Allan

IZ222 coverFrom Martin Lewis’ review: “It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography … Observations … are often precise and clinical … Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists … fantastic elements are extremely muted.” All spot-on. “Microcosmos” is a brilliant mix of the specific and the elliptic. A near-future, desertifying setting is sparingly sketched; the pain behind a family’s relationships is glimpsed; both are defined as much by what is unsaid as by the details picked out for the intense attentiveness of the young protagonist. The story has a clear shape, but no resolution; troubled emotions are left to ripple behind the page, potential answers ripen but remain un-plucked. All is controlled. This one will haunt, I think.

Perhaps the only problem is that, in that review, Martin’s talking about the stories collected in Allan’s first book, A Thread of Truth, which was published in 2007.

Strahan’s Year’s Best SFF 4

Jonathan Strahan has posted the table of contents for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Vol 4. For my own reference, I’ve gone through and annotated the stories with their original publication venue:

1. “It Takes Two”, Nicola Griffith (Eclipse 3, ed Jonathan Strahan)
2. “Three Twilight Tales”, Jo Walton (Firebirds Soaring, ed Sharyn November)
3. ???
4. “The Island”, Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2, ed. Jonathan Strahan/Gardner Dozois [read online, “chapter two”])
5. “Ferryman”, Margo Lanagan (Firebirds Soaring)
6. “A Wild and Wicked Youth”, Ellen Kushner (F&SF, April/Mary 2009)
7. “The Pelican Bar”, Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse 3)
8. “Spar“, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld)
9. “Going Deep”, James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, June 2009)
10. “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown”, Holly Black (The Eternal Kiss ed. Trisha Telep)
11. “Zeppelin City“, Michael Swanwick & Eileen Gunn (Tor.com)
12. “Dragon’s Teeth”, Alex Irvine (F&SF, December 2009)
13. “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide”, Damien Broderick (Asimov’s, April/May 2009)
14. “By Moonlight”, Peter S. Beagle (We Never Talk About My Brother, Peter S Beagle)
15. “Black Swan”, Bruce Sterling (Interzone)
16. “As Women Fight”, Sara Genge (Asimov’s, December 2009)
17. “The Cinderella Game”, Kelly Link (Troll’s Eye View ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
18. “Formidable Caress”, Stephen Baxter (Analog, December 2009)
19. “Blocked”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF, October/November 2009)
20. “Truth and Bone”, Pat Cadigan (Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow)
21. “Eros, Philia, Agape“, Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com)
22. “The Motorman’s Coat”, John Kessel (F&SF, June/July 2009)
23. “Mongoose”, Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear (Lovecraft Unbound, ed. Ellen Datlow)
24. “Echoes of Aurora”, Ellen Klages (What Remains, Aqueduct Press)
25. “Before My Last Breath”, Robert Reed (Asimov’s, October/November 2009)
26. “Jo Boy”, Diana Wynne Jones (The Dragon Book, ed Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois)
27. “Utriusque Cosmi”, Robert Charles Wilson (The New Space Opera 2 [read online, “chapter one”])
28. “A Delicate Architecture”, Catherynne Valente (Troll’s Eye View)
29. “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles, Kij Johnson (Tor.com)

The obligatory observations: I have read precisely two of the stories, the Sterling and the Swirsky, both of which I’m quite happy to see included. I suspect I’ll be reading a few more over Christmas, but discounting the mystery story (“I’ve agreed not to publicise one of the stories until the book comes out, so that publication here doesn’t step too badly on the toes of its original publisher”), by my count 14 of 28 tales come from 10 different books; this would be a very expensive list of stories to try to recreate yourself. Among magazines, the winners are F&SF and Asimov’s, with four stories apiece, and — interestingly — Tor.com, with three, the lion’s share of the online fiction. I think that the stories split pretty much half-and-half between sf and fantasy — I’ve made a few guesses to get that figure, and assumed sight unseen that, e.g., the Baxter story is sf, so I could easily be out by a bit. And, of course, at least 59% of the stories in the final book are by women, assuming you count the Swanwick/Gunn collaboration; the lowest the percentage could be, if you don’t count it and if the mystery story is by a man, is 57% — which is still the highest proportion of women I can recall seeing in a Year’s Best anthology.

EDIT: And here’s Rich Horton’s anthology:

1. “A Story, with Beans” by Steven Gould (Analog May)
2. “Child-Empress of Mars” by Theodora Goss (Interfictions 2, ed. Christopher Barzak and Delia Sherman)
3. “The Island” by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)
4. “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” by John Kessel (The New Space Opera 2 [read online, “chapter three”])
5. “The Logic of the World” by Robert Kelly (Conjunctions 52)
6. “The Endangered Camp” by Ann Leckie (Clockwork Phoenix, ed. Mike Allen)
7. “Sylgarmo’s Proclamation” by Lucius Shepard (Songs of the Dying Earth, ed. Gardner Dozois and George RR Martin)
8. “Three Twilight Tales” by Jo Walton (Firebirds Soaring)
9. “Necroflux Day” by John Meaney (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3, ed. George Mann)
10. “This Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe” by Robert Charles Wilson (Other Earths, ed. Nick Gevers and Jay Lake)
11. “Technicolor” by John Langan (Poe)
12. “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirksy (Tor.com)
13. “A Painter, a Sheep, and a Boa Constrictor” by Nir Yaniv (Shimmer 10)
14. “Catalog” by Eugene Mirabelli (F&SF, February)
15. “Glister” by Dominic Green (Interzone, August)
16. “On the Human Plan” by Jay Lake (Lone Star Stories, February)
17 .“Dragon’s Teeth” by Alex Irvine (F&SF, December)
18. “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld)
19. “The Qualia Engine” by Damien Broderick (Asimov’s, April-May)
20. “The Long Cold Goodbye” by Holly Phillips (Asimov’s, March)
21. “Wife-Stealing Time” by R. Garcia y Robertson (Asimov’s, November)
22. “As Women Fight” by Sara Genge (Asimov’s, October-November)
23. “Images of Anna” by Nancy Kress (Fantasy)
24. “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear (Lovecraft Unbound)
25. “Crimes and Glory” by Paul McAuley (Subterranean)
26. “Living Curiousities” by Margo Lanagan (Sideshow, ed. Deborah Noyes)
27. “The Death of Sugar Daddy” by Toiya Kristen Finlay (Electric Velocipede)
28. “Bespoke” by Genevieve Valentine (Strange Horizons)
29. “The Persistence of Memory; or, This Space for Sale” by Paul Park (Postscripts #20/21)
30. “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link (Geektastic, ed. Holly Black and Cecil Castalluci)

With, again, one more story to come. Note that this list is not in final TOC order. In the meantime: overlap of six stories with Strahan (Watts, Walton, Swirsky, Irvine, Genge, Monette/Bear); two that I’ve read again (Swirsky and Valente, this time); 47% from books; Asimov’s the magazine winner, with four stories, but in general a wider range of magazines; 43% women; and I think about 55% sf, though I’m less confident here than with Strahan, and have made more guesses. 53% sf according to the editor.

EDIT: Dozois contents here.

“Lady of the White-Spired City” by Sarah L Edwards

IZ222 coverAnother variation on a theme, this time the separation created by relativistic travel. Unlike Pratt’s story, there is no twist. What you see — the protagonist, returning to a remote village on a world she left half a century ago, but for which hundreds of years have passed, hoping to discover what became of the daughter she abandoned — is what you get. A character study, in other words, and not a bad one, although at points it feels a little strained. Here’s the protagonist, for instance, talking to one of the villagers just after her arrival:

I’ve visited your village before,” Evriel told Sayla, “long ago. It was … a very peaceful time in my life.” She paused, wondering how to put into words what she’d come so far to ask. “I knew a family before. I can’t remember them very well now, it was so long ago. They lived here, I think. Their name was Reizi.”

Sayla’s eyebrows rose. “There are Reizis in a village down the mountain. They are my cousins, very distantly. But none have lived here before I was born — perhaps you confused the villages. One is very much like another.”

Cousins to the Reizis.

Only years of diplomacy kept Evriel’s fingers from reaching to touch this woman, so distant a connection and yet nearer than any she’d had since … Since.

Oh, so much emotion! You can tell because of the ellipses, the one-sentence paragraph, the straining against reserve, that desperately enigmatic “Since”: this is a story that, at times, yearns to be strongly felt, to matter. To that end there are quite a lot of pointedly noted pauses and silences, and more than a few things not left quite as unsaid as they could have been; and for me at least, the result is that “Lady” engages, but doesn’t haunt.

“Unexpected Outcomes” by Tim Pratt

IZ222 coverThere’s something bold, it seems to me, about using this title for a variation on an sf theme explored so many hundreds of times it’s hard to imagine any outcome being unexpected. I don’t think I’ve read this particular variation before, but I’d be amazed if it’s never been written.

The narrator wakes up to the revelation that his world is a simulation. An avatar of the scientists running the show appears and reveals that their experiment is over. Their ethics committee won’t let them turn the simulation off, but will let them carry out certain “reductions in non-essential services” to cut down on the cost of keeping things running: that is, removing everyone’s need to eat or drink, switching off their fertility, and locking the weather in its current configuration. Everyone will get to live until they die.

As I’ve hinted, there’s a further twist, one which neatly inverts the story’s themes. But this is a piece largely carried by charm, by the undeniable charge it gains from linking the revelation of reality’s nature to 9/11 (the tell-tale sign being that the planes stop dead in mid-air, inches away from hitting the World Trade Center towers; “This is like something out of a movie” is still everyone’s first thought), and by excellent pacing: it is simply very easy, enjoyable, and satisfying to read.

Oh, and by one other thing:

It was the end of the world, sort of, so I decided to take a road trip. My relationship with Heather didn’t even last until the end of September … Our world of possibilities had been beheaded. There was nothing else keeping me in Oakland. I’d lived there for about a month, having relocated when my old contract job ran out and Heather agreed to let me live with her, so I’d hardly put down roots. I’d only been working at my new job as an editorial assistant for a trade publishing magazine for a few weeks, and the few friends I had weren’t close enough to stay for, or else they’d scattered.

I suspect you get a bit more out of the story if you know a bit about the real Tim Pratt, enough to realise that he is the narrator, and that the story starts from his life as it was in 2001: that Heather is Heather Shaw, that they are now married, with the child denied in this story, that the “trade publishing magazine” mentioned is Locus, and so on. You can suspect this from the story (the narrator is called Tim, and used to be a writer), but it’s not made explicit (the narrator’s surname is never mentioned, nor does Pratt’s author biography give away his wife’s name, or his day job, though it does mention where he lives). I don’t think you need to know Pratt is playing with his own life to appreciate the story; but I think that if you do know it grounds things, lends the tale some real emotional weight; which perhaps is enough of an unexpected outcome for variation #647 on a theme.

(According to Pratt, the title comes from a Buckminster Fuller quote: “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” The suggestion, presumably, is that it was chosen for its appropriateness to the literal plot. But what does the author know, eh?)