Monday, December 29, 2014

Everybody Jump

Could you cause an earthquake if enough people jumped up and down at the same time? And if you could, would it save a lot of lives to
create earthquakes on demand?

Author Henry Lien explores that question in his excellent fantasy novelette, "The Great Leap of Shin," appearing in the January/February
2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The powerful Eunuch Mu-Hai Chen is determined to create the Earthquake of Five Thousand Years by lining up 200 million men along a major fault line in his kingdom and synchronizing their jumps to set up a resonant frequency, prophylactically saving millions of lives, though at the expense of a percentage of the population.

But the young nobleman Tian-Tai is equally determined to halt the plan, which will destroy his island of Pearl and flood the Purple River. He brings a team of acrobatic dancers to the capital to assassinate Mu-Hai Chen under the guise of paying homage. He pleads to save Pearl, which has developed a self-healing new building material of spider silk made liquid.

Neither the eunuch nor the boy will back down, so the great leap occurs as scheduled. The kingdom of Shin lies in ruins, and older buildings of the city of Pearl are flattened. Then we learn how history treats each one for his sacrifice.

Lien's calculations of how the Great Leap would work are highly entertaining, though a peek at Hugo winner Randall Munroe's book, "what if?" shows us that it would be impossible to make the earth move even a little, even if everyone on earth jumped, even if they were in a concentrated area the size of Rhode Island, even if...

Great fun, nonetheless.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Editor's Note: Abbreviated Epics

What is an epic? The dictionary defines it as a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation. Third Flatiron's tenth quarterly anthology, "Abbreviated Epics," is a double issue, encompassing 19 very short stories on epical themes, such as swashbuckles and sorcery, alternate history and steampunk, megalomania, Frankenstein-type tales, and creation myths. As you might guess, it is quite a fantasy-heavy collection.
In reading submissions we were intrigued to receive a number of tales drawing upon Japanese and Chinese mythology. Our lead story, "Blade Between Oni and Hare," by Siobhan Gallagher, brings a marvelous—and often strange to Western eyes— viewpoint to the idea of an epic struggle. Other notable tales with feminine heroines include "Rain over Lesser Boso" by Gustavo Bondoni, "The Perfection of the Steam-Powered Armour" by Adria Laycraft, and "Qinggong Ji" by Stephen D. Rogers. What could be more appropriate than a manga-style cover?
If Victorian and Napoleonic steampunk is more your cup of tea, you'll find some damn fine exemplars in "Beyond the Turning Orrery" by Deborah Walker and "Through an Ocular Darkly" by Martin Clark. Daniel Coble rounds out this group with a tale about a lost Himalayan expedition, "Assault on the Summit."
During my studies of medieval literature, I grew especially fond of the Norse sagas, both owing to their bloodthirsty, ambitious characters and strong moral content. We're happy to include Jordan Ashley Moore's "A Wolf Is Made," and Steve Coate's "Fortunate Son," passionate, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories inspired by the Viking civilization. And since epics by definition are poems, we've included a reprint of "Odin on the Tree" by poet/novelist Jo Walton.
Many writers are familiar with American mythologist Joseph Campbell's deconstruction of "The Hero's Journey," which outlines the basic pattern of an epic. We were tickled to see satirical pieces by Elliotte Rusty Harold and Jake Teeny, "Refusing the Call" and "Toward the Back." And Manuel Royal points out that sometimes the battle just goes "Heart-Shaped."
Our flash humor offerings, "The Committee," by Margarita Tenser, and "Damfino Plays for Table Stakes" by Ben Solomon, show us not to press our luck.
In "The Lost Children," Alison McBain provides a new take on the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur, while Patricia S. Bowne invents a shiny new myth in "Great Light's Daughters." "The Blue Cup," by Marissa James, asks whether it is possible to recapture a long-ago, magical time.
While we don't have room for sweeping histories like "Dr. Zhivago," we call to your attention "On a Train with a Coyote Ghost" by Robin Wyatt Dunn and "HMS Invisible and the Halifax Slaver" by Iain Ishbel. These are affecting and luminous stories about the courage it takes to fight evil, fascism, and slavery.
 "Abbreviated Epics" proudly showcases an international group of new and established speculative fiction authors, who share with us just a smidgen of the heroic and grand.
It's available in all ebook formats from Amazon and Smashwords (and other popular distributors) and in paperback from CreateSpace. It's getting some good reviews already on Amazon and Albedo One.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review of "Fish Tails" by Sheri S. Tepper

I hadn't read any of Sheri Tepper's work since "Beauty," the excellent 1991 dystopia/feminist story, but was given a review copy of her new book, "Fish Tails." It's the conclusion of a trilogy that began with "A Plague of Angels" and "The Waters Rising."

We have an intriguing beginning, as Abasio and Princess Xulai travel about the post-apocalyptic planet, a thousand years in the future, letting folks know everything's about to go under water. Their message: people are going to have to evolve tails and gills. It's "The Little Mermaid," but in reverse!

Abasio and Xulai have undergone an evolutionary procedure and produced
two babies that can survive under water, and they are recruiting other
young people to do the same. Not everyone likes the idea of tampering
with the human genome, of course.

Xulai carries in her pocket a fascinating gizmo called a ul xaolat,
leftover technology from Earth's past. It's an AI that gets power from
transformers on the moon capable of providing defense and services to
the possessors. She's unaware it has become autonomous over time.

Tepper switches to a dreary setting where Grandma Lillis puts up with
living in a valley where the men are cruel and stupid and the women
just go along with it. You wonder, who would put up with such a thing?
Oh, right, half of Earth. Grandma spends all her time lecturing her
granddaughter about the ills of the world, including humanity's
tendency to "monkey brain" thinking. Tepper is rather preachy here,
but she's preaching to the choir. At any rate, we know she and the child,
"Needly," are special.

The story is mostly a long journey, traveling to meet up with
characters that Tepper fans may recognize from previous books. Along
the way, they encounter cannibalistic giants and bio-engineered
griffins. Abasio gets clues about their next steps from dreams, which
seem to indicate that alien entities are interested in Earth events.

Maybe it's not "The Little Mermaid," after all. Maybe it's a Higher
Power deciding to wipe out humanity in a great flood.

Ultimately, it is revealed that the flood is indeed by design of
intergalactic meddlers. They feel that humans are destroying their
planet and are not worthy to join the galactic civilization. They're
willing to give humanity one last chance, however, by presenting an
"extinction" problem (the flood), and seeing if there are individuals
who can save the species and thus become deserving of survival.

Tepper devotes lengthy interludes to showing the importance of the
griffins and gaining them as allies and future fellow sea
creatures. Basically, they represent all the species that may have to
be left behind. To me, though, the question arose as to why the focus
shifted away from Abasio and Xulai's babies, who represent the
future. However, we are comforted by the fact that, in the end, there
will be a future.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review of "Unidentified Funny Objects 2"

The second annual scifi/fantasy humor anthology edited by Alex Shvartsman contains
19 fun stories. Shvartsman is quite the humorist in his own right, so
it must have been hard to keep from throwing one in himself. Not every
story in the collection is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but humor is
subjective, and this reader did utter some chuckles, giggles, and a
few outright guffaws.

"The MSG Golem" by Ken Liu was yet another golem story, but this time it was seasoned with an added soupcon of hot and sour Chinese culture and cuisine.

In "Service Charge" by Esther Friesner, a wizard works hard to insult a dragon to get it to blow itself up before it can fly off to destroy a neighboring kingdom. A fair approximation to the US and UK visa systems.

"Item Not As Described" by J. W. Alden is a hilarious parody of how Craigslist might work in the Cthulhu mythos. No dissatisfied customers here.

"Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy" by Jim C. Hines has a superhero getting cancer, but he's impervious to treatment. Meanwhile, his cocky tumor really sticks it to him. The author dedicated this story to Jay Lake, who died recently.

"How to Feed Your Pyrokinetic Toddler" by Fran Wilde is the first one that made me laugh out loud ("Get a metal spoon and bowl (no plastic!)").

"A Stiff Bargain" by Matt Mikalatos features a relative of Van Helsing the famous vampire hunter. He's got a deal with the town to keep out the supernatural riffraff, but it's a handful when a new cult moves in.

In "The Girl with the Dagon Tattoo," Josh Vogt introduces a girl who wants a tattoo with unmentionable powers. Although she doesn't possess enough skin area, she manages to talk her demonic ink slinger into a condensed version--something tasteful that fits on the ankle, I assume.

"Improved Cubicle Door" by M.C.A. Hogarth takes us to an office fueled by magic. One of the employees has been moonlighting for the competition. We eventually find it's because he just wanted a door instead of a cubicle.

In "On Safari," Mike Resnick offers a Robert Sheckley-esque tale about the lucky winners of an all-expenses paid safari to the planet Selous. Unfortunately, it's the tour guide's first trip.

"How You Ruined Everything" by Konstantine Paradias has the perfect title. Much better than "The Time Machine," and funnier. I always loved those scenes of Rod Taylor curiously stopping and sampling the different ages. Flash, sun, flash, dark...Oops, Morlocks.

"Insider Information" by Jody Lynn Nye seemed more like a mystery than a comedy, about why the CEO of an Oculus Rift-like virtual reality company decided to off himself. Nonetheless, it was exciting, and we enjoyed the parasitic alien character, K't'ank, who had not one, but two apostrophes in his name.

"The Haunted Blender" by K.G. Jewell. Hey, Colorado's most famous edible export gets a mention! This one had me salivating and wishing I had a bowl of cool, refreshing gazpacho, in spite of the spectral complications involved with the ingredients.

Ah, youth. In "The Retgun," by Tim Pratt, an otherwise charming young lady afflicted with a bad case of coprolalia shows us what it's like to be the companion to Dr. Who, er, Kirtley, trying to make the universe a better place. It's a damn wild ride, writ large by a master.

"The Diplomat's Holiday" by Heather Lindsley shows there's a little breakage when galactic diplomats cut loose on holiday after carrying the weight of the universe on their shoulders all year. I wonder if the author got this idea from Obama's Secret Service staff.

"Congratulations on Your Apotheosis" by Michelle Ann King is another "magic in the workplace" type story, but this life coach usually avoids using it, when an omniscient "assistant" shows up. She's bored, she's got time on her hands, and she *really* wants to help. Reminds favorably of "Bedazzled," one of the funniest of the funny.

"One Thing Leads to Your Mother" by Desmond Warzel opens with an officer who's fixed his broken spaceship and just needs to restart the main program, but he's forgotten his password. Can the onboard AI ("S.H.R.I.N.K") help? Of course not. But it's read "Rumpelstiltskin," so it knows a lot about good guesses.

"Class Action Orc" by James Beamon is one of several stories set in Beamon's Seven Realms world, and we would like to see more. Anglewood (Ang Ul Wud) is one heck of a jailhouse lawyer. I guess Orc is the new black.

"The Wiggy Turpin Affair" by Wade Albert White. Here we have a lady killer (not a ladykiller) coming off a job on the moon to investigate a murder PG Wodehouse-style. Dash it all, the victim refuses to stay dead, but luckily the robot butler takes the initiative.

"Hannibal's Elephants" by Robert Silverberg occupies the pole position of the anthology. I love the idea that when aliens invade Manhattan, everyone will rush to their favorite bar and "drink like mad." What else you gonna do? That's life in the Big Apple.

The book's available on Amazon in ebook or paperback.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Review of "Sword and Sorceress #28"

Have just finished "Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress 28," a well-edited collection of short stories featuring strong
heroines in magical fantasy settings. Elisabeth Waters has done a
great job of anthologizing tales by both former contributors and
writers new to the field of high fantasy.

 1. In Jonathan Shipley's "Dead Salt," sorceress Jenna works with army
buddy Trayn to keep the peace, but she doesn't get much respect.
When they lay their lives on the line, we again appreciate how public
servants sacrifice on our behalf, even when we don't deserve it.

2. In Catherine Soto's "The Rolang of Taiyung," we meet dagger-wielding
Lin Mei and her cat familiars, called upon to investigate the
mysterious appearance of a Rolang, a zombie assassin. The lovely world
Soto creates is reminiscent of Lian Hearn's "Tales of the Otori"
trilogy, but it seems the heroine solves the mystery a bit too easily.

3. Jessie D. Eaker's "Tear-Stained Sword," is a tale of a royal family
both graced and cursed with magic. In spite of sororicide, regicide,
and fraticide, the family comes out on top.

4. Rebecca G. Eaker's "A Variation in Silence" follows a deaf and blind
girl's discovery of the power of music when a magical Troubador comes
to town.

5. Taverns have been overused settings for fantasies ever since Frodo and
Strider fled the Prancing Pony in LotR, but Dave Smed's "The Tavern at
the Ford" is a fun variation on tried-and-true tropes. Coil and Azure
are descendants of a disembodied goddess, who wants their bodies to
restore herself (sort of a Voldemort-style predicament, yes?) and
sends a giant spider in pursuit.

6. By far the best of the bunch, Pauline J. Alama's "The Damsel in
the Garden" recites a medieval-style tale of a knight in shining armor
braving magical perils to save three brothers. But this knight is a
girl, who not only prevails in this exciting quest but finds true love.

7. "Ghost Spike" by Jonathan Moeller reprises his heroine Caina, a Ghost
spy for the imperial army who hopes to marry Lucan, whose wife was
killed by a necromancer 10 years earlier. The couple is shocked to
discover Lucan's wife may still be alive and a hostage. Although Caina
believes she may have lost Lucan, her trickery defeats the kidnapper, and
she wins at love as well.

8. Ah, a funny one. "Ru's Bad Day" by Lorie Calkins gives us a glimpse of
what it's like to be "befriended" by a dragon. Most agreeable and
definitely not boring.

9. In "The Vine Princess" by Steve Chapman, a princess meets her
doppelganger in the bowels below the castle. It's such a good copy,
she's not even sure she's herself.

10. "Trading Gifts" by Rabia Gale is a lovely fantasy of a kitemaker
who trades gifts with street urchins in return for kites. At last she
finds an urchin who has a most precious gift to trade.

11. Sorceress Laurel of Albion is apparently on loan to the Imperial
Court of China in "A Drink of Deadly Wine" by Michael Spence and
Elisabeth Waters. Unfortunately, using the golem spell on the clay
soldiers of Chin Shih Huang Ti is not a particularly surprising plot,
though the setting is well drawn.

12. "Promises and Pastry" by Melissa Mead shows what might have
happened had Cinderella turned down her fairy godmother's offer of
help. Could I interest you in a salmon puff?

13. "Where There's Smoke" is another of Michael H. Payne's series about
Cluny the cat and her two familiars, a human and a firedrake. This time
she's summoned by the Queen of the Realms of Fire to account for past
actions. Weren't light refreshments supposed to be served afterward?

14. "Justice" by Suzan Harden takes us on an adventure with an
unwilling justice of the peace and executioner. She finds justice,
mercy, and love are all inextricably intwined.

15. "Pearl of Tears" by Deborah J. Ross gives us a girl who devotes
her life to avenging her brother's death at the hands of a sorceress
wielding a powerful talisman. But revenge is not the answer. The evil
talisman was a bit derivative of the One Ring in LoTR.

16. "What's in a Name?" by Katharina Schuschke. Mufke, God of Despair,
that's what.

The book's available from Amazon.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review of "A Stranger in Olondria" - A Literary Adventure Fantasy

Sofia Samatar's "A Stranger in Olondria" is full of adventure, mythic tales, poetry, and parables. The boy Jevick longs to get away from his cruel father's island pepper plantation and imagines life in the capital city of Bain. His father brings him a tutor from Olondria, and Jevick learns to read and write the great city's literature. When his father dies, he finally gets his chance to travel to  the mainland. On the ship he briefly meets a girl, Jissavet.

Jissavet has a wasting disease called kyitna, which turns her hair red. Everyone but Jevick shuns her, because the disease is both communicable and fatal.

After some adventures in Bain where the naive boy is robbed, drugged, and kidnapped, he goes insane and is committed. While recovering, he hears that the girl he met on the ship has died and her body was not properly burned. He is shocked, as in his country, this is a sacred rite, or the spirit is doomed to walk the earth forever as an angel. The impressionable boy immediately becomes haunted by Jissavet and embarks on a quest to find her remains and burn them. The question is whether Jissavet will allow him to do this.

Set against the backdrop of the war between religion versus secularism, "A Stranger in Olondria" is basically a ghost story. But it is unusual in that in most "Western" ghost stories the ghost moves on once the reason it still hangs around is revealed. This ghost lingers around so long that the protagonist falls in love with her.  She claims she'll free him if he writes a vallon (epic poem) about her. In a sort of Stockholm Syndrome fraught with suffering, he says of her, "She was so alive, so alive I forgot that the name of the life she lived was death."

The language is dense and beautiful, and the reader will be rewarded for sticking with it to the wistful yet disquieting ending. Jevick has much to teach us.

"A Stranger in Olondria" has been nominated for a Nebula for best novel of 2013, and Samatar has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award (best new writer) at the 2014 Hugos. Available from Small Beer Press or Amazon.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Journalism: Best of Times, Worst of Times

It's Conference on World Affairs time again, the week when students
and folks from the Boulder community mingle to hear lively discussions
about what's going on in the world.

Catching my ear today was a panel on the state of journalism. Most of
the participants didn't have degrees in Journalism and got into the
field by the seat of their pants, so it was fascinating to see how,
along the way, they became respected professionals.

Dan Gillmor writes a column on media and technology for The Guardian,
is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for
the People (2004), a book that explains the rise of citizens' media
and why it matters. Dan did his best to appear generally
optimistic. Since the days when advertisers deserted newspapers in
favor of the Internet, the business side has been slowly improving, he
felt. The "ecosystem" of news is evolving and growing. Even think
tanks like the Cato Institute are writing about topics like civil
liberties. Glitzy startups like Vox Media are working to fill a niche
with "explanatory journalism" (everything you need to know about Syria
in a nutshell, for example). He actually envies today's students, who
he thinks will have a great future to look forward to. The one thing
he feels is being lost is local news, i.e., its watchdog role. Crooks
used to be afraid that someone may be watching.

Josh Rogin claimed to be the youngest of the panel, and got his start
working for a large Japanese daily.  He talked about changes in the
way people consume news, saying it has been changing completely every
18 months. Readers found it became too hard to go to individual news
sources and began using search engines, then moved more recently to
trusted social sites (eg., Buzzfeed, and Politico). The upshot is that
he's had five jobs in 10 years, including Newsweek/Daily Beast, saying
that it's been necessary to constantly hustle to stay gainfully
employed. He's built a strong network of contacts so he can jump from
job to job if necessary. Josh's story was striking, in that to me it
resembled how engineers of the past have worked. A project ends, and
you move on to the next employer. When I went to Journalism school in
the 70s, one thing I definitely wanted to avoid was being in sales and
marketing for a living. Now marketing yourself is part of your living.

Monika Bauerlein from Mother Jones was less optimistic than
Gillmor. She said 14,000 jobs have been lost in the past decade, while
only a couple thousand have come back from new startups such as
Vox. She wants journalists to be professionals and to be paid for
their work, which is increasingly difficult. Mother Jones uses every
money-making opportunity (reader appeals and grants included) and
still barely scrapes by. She stressed how expensive it is to fund all
the journalism that people need or would like to see. Monika wasn't
totally dismissive of Josh's hustle, saying you need to get eyeballs
on your stuff, but the money problem still is there for the industry
as a whole.

Jurek Martin was the grand old man of the bunch, having worked for
decades for the Financial Times of London. He also never majored in
Journalism and originally got his job by explaining to an editor how
baseball was played. He enjoyed his career as a "gatekeeper" who took
pride in providing quality news from all over the world. He believes
in being right the first time, rather than rushing to press and later
having to correct it. "The truth will lag terribly." He also quoted
Johnson about pay: "Only a fool writes for free." He talked about
Gawker, which is thinking of paying bloggers by number of hits. "The
problem with that is that 95% of the readers are bonkers, and the
other 5% are nasty." Yet he is still optimistic that somehow,
somewhere, news, analysis and straight reporting will continue--"if we
can just find it."

In the Q&A, a number of students asked about whether it was worthwhile
to get a Journalism degree. Most of the panelists felt that it might
be worth it from a good program, especially because it might provide
valuable contacts for that first job. But a general knowledge degree
is equally helpful in teaching communication and critical thinking

One audience member asked why the media don't call "bullshit" on
liars, such as in the so-called climate debate. Jurek said it's a
valid criticism and offered an anecdote about how the Wall Street
Journal caved on investigating a Chinese oligarch for fear of seeming
"unbalanced." Gillmor was thrilled by the question, but said it is up
to the public nowadays to be their own gatekeepers, because "we have no

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Colorado's Cities Should Do About Fracking

The boom in oil shale and natural gas development caused by new fracturing and
horizontal drilling techniques has largely been a good thing. It's
helping America achieve that Holy Grail of "energy independence."

But here in Colorado, it has a lot of bad implications for cities. We
all know that the U.S. Constitution cedes anything it doesn't
specifically reserve for the Federal government to the
states. Likewise, anything not specifically reserved by the Colorado
constitution gets ceded to the counties and cities. So, I believe
Governor Hickenlooper when he says that our constitution specifically
allows energy development in our state on land belonging to those
who own the mineral rights.

But in our cities, a small proportion of the residents own the mineral
rights under their houses. It would be prohibitively expensive for
cities to try to buy back those mineral rights for their citizens.

Some cities, such as Boulder, Fort Collins, Lafayette, Longmont, and
Broomfield, have declared moratoriums on drilling within their limits,
until more information can be found about the possible air and water
quality hazards of fracking. Likewise, Boulder County has declared a
moratorium. The governor thinks that is probably unconstitutional. The
courts are being called upon to decide.

But if homeowners can't keep people from drilling under their
property, what can they do? They get pegged as left-wingers without
proper scientific portfolio, cherry-picking horrors such as those
portrayed in the documentary, "Gasland."

Sure, Boulder has some million dollar houses and millionaires, but
much of that wealth is invested in their homes. In effect, they are all
just leasing the land their homes sit on. If the mineral rights owner
decides to foul somebody's nest and move on, what recourse is there?

The key word here is "penalties." Colorado has instituted stricter
penalties for air and and water pollution by energy companies. But it
doesn't have the budget to monitor every square inch of the
state. With horizontal drilling, bores can be 10,000 feet underground,
making leaks hard to detect. Furthermore, a fine can be considered
"the cost of doing business" as long as profits continue to pour in.

If cities institute their own penalties, they could fund the
resources needed to inspect for illegal emissions. Of course, there's
the chicken-and-egg problem of funding the resources before the
presumed fines would occur. By instituting larger fees for frackers, the
initial funding could be obtained.  Boulder County already has
excellent water monitoring capabilities, so this might be done quite
economically. Any penalties would need to be BIG, though. Not just
thousands of dollars, but millions. That's what a house or two in the city of
Boulder costs.

There's also the problem of water, and fracking requires a lot of
it. Clean water's in short supply in Colorado, so any use of clean
city water by frackers needs to be paid for. So far, they're not very good
at cleaning and recycling the water they use for fracking.

We've seen California set the standard for gasoline mileage in car
fleets, and that has trickled up to the Federal government. We should
do the same regarding fracking in our communities, until the Feds pass
legislation that ensures private property rights. (Boulder has beaten Los
Angeles on this one. They just passed a fracking moratorium too.)

Would we be infringing on the property rights of private corporations?
Maybe, but we've had no problem doing that before. Ford Motor Company
was free to manufacture Ford Pintos, but when they burst into flames
upon being rear-ended, they were withdrawn from the market. Bad
publicity and fearful penalties can accomplish wonders.

One last aside: If you look at a picture of North Dakota at night taken from space
(image from the Suomi NPP satellite, NASA Earth Observatory), you see huge
amounts of natural gas being burned off. Are we producing too much, in our rush
to make money?

We should consider oil a strategic resource, and not engage in
greedily exporting it abroad or repeating the Teapot Dome
scandal. Instead, we should encourage and subsidize alternative energy
development to reduce our unhealthy diet of fossil fuels, a primary
contributor to America's growing array of chronic illnesses--its energy
"metabolic syndrome," if you will.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review of Tenth of December by George Saunders

I read a lot of speculative fiction and like to alternate it with
reading classic fiction. Occasionally, I'll dip a toe in contemporary
literature, sampling some authors like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy,
or George Saunders. Such forays often leave me feeling lost at the
crossroads of Depression Street and Anxiety Boulevard.

What is it about contemporary literature that makes it so
disquieting? Is it the schadenfreude to be derived from the
artful, horrific dissection of societal problems, neuroses, and
suffering? You damn right.

Certainly the lines have blurred between science fiction, fantasy,
horror, and other genres, but you can still expect scifi to be fairly
clean and simple. A typical short story explores an unusual
idea, future extrapolation, or scientific possibility in 5,000 words or
less. A few obstacles, then a resolution, one way or the other.

But reading a typical short story by George Saunders is like getting
on an elevator that hasn't passed inspection. "Trust me," it
says. "Huh, a talking elevator," you say. "You'll be fine," it
says. But you almost never are fine. Going up? The first few floors
can be hilarious, even exhilarating, and the characters are
adorable. You're loving the ride. Then you hear a strange
clunk. Someone has injected some Darkenfloxx into the air. The
carriage shudders, and then you're falling, rapidly approaching
terminal velocity. It's not just the terror of falling. It's the
crushing sadness of knowing that someone you love is going to
die... Or maybe they won't. (Think good Scarlett O'Hara thoughts.)

If you have anxiety tendencies like I do, a Saunders story can cause
you to put your hands to your face like Stefon on "Saturday Night
Live." This is just too bizarre, you giggle to yourself. Then it's got
you by the short hairs. Saunders is an acknowledged and highly
decorated master, like Harlan Ellison.

The eponymous story appeared in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Reading the "Tenth of December" collection at about the same time as
The Atlantic editor Scott Stossel's January/February 2014 feature, "My
Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life," puts me in an odd
frame of mind. Stossel says he is subject to many phobias, anxieties,
and fears, and has coped over the years via psychiatric therapy,
drugs, and booze, yet he hasn't found a good answer. Although we live
in an uncertain world and a stressful society, he feels a lot of the
problem is certainly chemical, yet science can't seem to alter these bad
chemicals in a way that's very helpful or permanent. Gulp. Shades
of Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Review of Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi

A happy and prosperous New Year!

Just getting around to reading last year's Hugo winner, "Redshirts."
Besides being a popular hit, this small masterpiece demonstrates that
the author knows all the rules of scifi writing and how to break
them, much to our delight.

The hilarious Prolog kicks off with one of the security detail officers on the Intrepid, a Star Trek-like starship, being killed by a massive, carniverous Borgovian land worm while on an away mission to the planet below. Before his untimely demise, Ensign Davis keeps having thoughts that don't seem to be his own. They also seem to be
violating the rules all fiction writers are held to by their editors, namely, to avoid background exposition at all costs. We immediately
suspect that Davis is being taken for a ride a la "Stranger Than Fiction," wherein he finds himself to be the main character in a novel over which he has no control of the narration happening to him.

Soon we learn that all the "redshirts" (junior officers) aboard
the Intrepid are aware of a high mortality rate on away missions. New
recruit Andy Dahl and his friends begin to seek the reason
why. The Intrepid is like any other ship in the fleet, yet its
mortality rate has gone up sharply. (Could this be due to another
demand we see from editors and producers, namely, that constant
obstacles be thrown in front of the characters to keep the action
going?) Gradually they become convinced they are fictional characters
in a television show from the past.

After an entertaining and laws-of-physics-bending trip to the year
2012, they meet their lookalike actors and manage to convince the
writers of the tv show to stop killing them off. Satisfied, they
return to their spaceship and live happily ever after. But people in
the real world are left shaken by the impossible turn of events. Did
they really meet these visitors from another world, or have they simply
gone crazy? The novel concludes with three touching and
thought-provoking codas, as each character contemplates the example
set by his or her fictional doppelganger.