BooksOfTheMoon

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

Not So Stories

By David Thomas Moore

Rating: 3 stars

I don’t think I’ve ever read the Just So Stories all the way through, although I’ve probably encountered individual ones over the years, but I have read other Kipling, so am perfectly prepared to believe that the original stories had Issues. Moore uses this volume as a response to the Just So stories, stories that look at colonialism and racism from the other side of the lens.

As with any anthology, it’s a mixed bag, some really good stuff and some that didn’t work quite so well for me. I really enjoyed the opening story by Cassandra Khaw, How the Spider Got Her Legs, which mimicked the style of the Just So Stories to a tee, but taught a very different lesson, especially to the arrogant, thoughtless Man.

There are other stories that tell of the dangers of despotism and the vigilance always required by democracy, such as Stewart Hotston’s How the Ants Got Their Queen and How the Snake Lost Its Spine by Tauriq Moosa.

There were a couple that I felt didn’t work hugely well, like Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew, which I had trouble following; and The Cat Who Walked By Herself, by Achala Upendran which felt bleak, and, in some ways, a bit simplistic to me.

On the other hand, I loved How the Simurgh Won Her Tail by Ali Nouraei, partly because it didn’t go where I expected and partly because of the heart-bursting framing story around it. This was my favourite story in the collection.

Speculative fiction, and literature in general, is always in conversation with itself. The Just So Stories have been important in the past, and many people grew up loving them, but they were written with a specific mindset and from a specific point of view. This response to them is long overdue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781086124
Publisher: Abaddon
Year of publication: 2018

Far Horizons

By Robert Silverberg

Rating: 3 stars

This is an interesting idea for an anthology, in which Robert Silverberg asked a number of authors to contribute a novella that adds something to a series that they’ve written. And he gets some impressive contributors. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a number of the series’ in question and I found the quality varied, although, of course, YMMV.

We kick off the collection with one of the strongest stories, Old Music and the Slave Women set in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ekumen. This tells the story of Edsan, attached to the Ekumen embassy on a planet undergoing a full-scale uprising of its slave society against the masters. Le Guin’s characterisation is masterful and understated and her prose sharp and readable. A great opening story.

Next up is A Separate War by Joe Haldeman, set in his Forever War series, which tells the story of Marygay Potter after she was split up from William Mandella towards the end of the war, and her own adventures before they reunited. I don’t remember a huge about about The Forever War but this story is pretty self-contained and I got to like the character of Marygay quite well. I’m not the first to find the sexuality within the Forever War series very weird; the idea of heterosexuality being banned never entirely feels real. But other than that, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Orson Scott Card revisits his Ender universe with a fairly slight story called Investment Counselor which tells how Ender met the AI Jane, who is important from the second main book onwards. I don’t think this adds a huge amount to Ender’s story, but it’s fairly light and fun, as Ender comes of age and finds himself trying to untangle the set of trust fund investments set up on his behalf so that he can pay the appropriate amount of tax.

Next up, David Brin returns to his Uplift universe in Temptation, about a group of uplifted dolphins who had been left behind on a planet while their ship had to flee its pursuers. I have read the (first) Uplift trilogy but it was a very long time ago. I liked the idea that the uplifted dolphins are a very new sentient species though, and that under sustained stress, they’re liable to fall back to pre-sentient behaviours. Brin does a fairly good job of making these non-humans feel relatively alien, too.

Robert Silverberg then adds his own story in his Roma Eternal series, Getting to Know the Dragon, about an alternate history where Rome never fell. An historian living in the Renaissance gets his hands on the personal travel journal of an emperor from a few hundred years earlier, who was the first to circumnavigate the world. Looking back on that period nostalgically, he finds that the reality doesn’t match the rose-tinted glasses. This isn’t a series that I’ve read but it’s perfectly readable, although alt histories aren’t really my favourite genre.

Dan Simmons’ contribution to his Hyperion universe is Orphans of the Helix, which is a story that I’ve read before, in Simmons’ own collection Worlds Enough & Time. Set after the end of the main series, it’s a story that I enjoyed a lot.

Nancy Kress contributes Sleeping Dogs from her Sleepless series, another one that I’m not familiar with. The idea of genetic engineering to remove the need for sleep is interesting, but the idea that it would turn the recipients into immortal supermen seems a bit far-fetched. And this story, about the terrible consequences of doing the same alteration to dogs, left me sort of cold.

The next story is The Boy Who Would Live Forever by Fred Pohl, set in his Heechee series. I’ve only read the first in that series, but this seems to take place somewhere after that, possibly at the same time as a number of the other books, as we see events from the point of view of the eponymous boy as he makes his way to Gateway and has various adventures while bigger things seem to be going on around him. This was really the first story that felt incomplete, like it was a small part of a larger story.

A Hunger for the Infinite by Gregory Benford is a disturbing piece set in an endless war of humans and machines across the galactic core. One of the AIs has been taking “harvested” humans who fell in battle and mutilating them, while keeping them in a sort of horrible half-life, in an attempt to create art. But it’s frustrated because it feels that there should be more to it. It’s an odd story, that I’m not entirely sure I followed, but it was hard to get past the body horror of the Hall of Humans for me.

I skipped Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship That Returned as I’ve read it before in a different collection and didn’t like it.

And finally, we have Greg Bear’s The Way of All Ghosts, set in The Way. I loved Eon but failed to really get into this story. It felt sort of dream-like, and there was a degree of body horror which I don’t like and I still have really no idea what happened at the end.

There’s a number of strong and interesting stories here, but also a number that failed to grab me, whether that’s because I wasn’t familiar with the series they came from or something to do with the writing. A mixed bag, but the strong stories make it worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857239683
Year of publication: 1999

Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project

By Diana M. Pho (editor)

Rating: 4 stars

This is a good little collection of fiction where a number of authors write a flash piece around the quote “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It’s an unsettling quote and all the authors take a good stab at “persisting”. Obviously, some stories work better for any individual than others, and for me the contributions by Maria Dahvana Headley about the first American non-human astronauts, and Charlie Jane Anders’ story about a woman who creates an unauthorised AI stand out in the “fun” mode.

Alyssa Wong and Seanan McGuire’s stories are hard-hitting and brutal, while Nisi Shawl and Amal El-Mohtar provide melancholy and eerie stories.

The collection won’t take long to read, each story being only a few pages long, but it’s thought-provoking and definitely worth your time.

Book details

Stories of Hope and Wonder

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

This collection follows in the footsteps of Flotation Device: A Charity Anthology in being pulled together quickly near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in order to raise money for the NHS in the UK. Floatation Device was the local effort of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, while this was edited by Ian Whates of NewCon Press so has access to a much larger range of writers. There are over fifty stories here, comprising nearly a quarter of a million words. In all that, there are bound to be some that work better for an individual taste than others.

There are stories from across genres: lit-fic, SF, fantasy, horror and more. I’m not really a horror fan so those didn’t really work for me, but there were more than enough others to make up for it. There are stories from well-known names including Stephen Baxter, Christopher Priest, Tade Thomson, Lauren Beukes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter F. Hamilton and many, many more. It’s hard to pick out individual stories in such a large collection, read over so long, but I really enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Wars of Worldcraft (the pun in the title along endeared it to me) and Ian McDonald’s An Eligible Boy, set in the same world as his novel River of Gods.

So if a story doesn’t work for you, just move on, it’s not not like you’re short on choice. And it’s for a good cause.

Book details

Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2020

Changing Planes: Armchair Travel for the Mind

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories linked by the idea that you can travel other worlds (planes) through the boredom of a missed flight at an airport with “a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe”. The stories represent descriptions of these other worlds that the author has either visited (or, in some cases, descriptions from others who have visited). For the most part, they’re gentle anthropological imaginings of different societies and different species. Although that’s not to say that bad things don’t happen. When you’re talking about societies over time, that’s inevitable.

Peoples discussed include the Islai whose experimentation with genetic manipulation had a terrible cost; the Asonu, who just stop talking as they grow up, and the travellers who come to follow them and analyse the few utterings they do make; and the Hegn, where almost everyone has royal connection, and the attention they pay to their few common families.

It’s a great collection of stories, well thought out and written by someone with a strong anthropological background, which makes for some well told tales.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575076235
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2004

Battle Angel Alita: Holy Night and Other Stories

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 3 stars

This book collects four short stories set in the Alita-verse, two of which feature Alita herself. We open with a story featuring Ido, shortly after he was banished from Zalem and his discovery of a girl who needs his help (sound familiar?). It’s quite a melancholy story, but gives us more insight into Alita’s ‘father’.

Second up, we have Sonic Finger, set during what I think of as a golden period of Alita’s time in the Scrapyard. She’s finished with Motorball and being a hunter-warrior, but is beloved by them and trains them. When someone attacks her with what appears to be a gun, her friends all rally round. There’s a lot more action in this one, but no real depth. We don’t get any character development or even any real reason as to why Sonic Finger was doing it.

The third story is a short one with hardly any dialogue, featuring a Deckman who left the scrapyard, and its encounter with Alita. This one manages to pack a lot of punch into a short, almost wordless story. We see the Deckman learning about the world outside the Scrapyard, playing with children and seeing the beauty of a sunset. All the while being trailed by Alita in her A-1 TUNED phase.

The final story is set after the end of the main series, following Koyomi’s attempts to be a journalist photographer, and her desire to find the rumoured still living leader of the Barjack rebellion again, just so that she can have a purpose in life. Again, not a huge amount of action, but some nice character development for Koyomi.

These are an enjoyable set of stories in the Alita-verse that help round out her world, but are by no means essential.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632367105
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Year of publication: 2018

Federations

By John Joseph Adams (editor)

Rating: 3 stars

This is a nice idea for an anthology: stories set in and imagining large-scale interstellar societies. There’s a mix of reprints and originals, and I tended to find the originals tended to match the brief better than the reprints.

There was a mix of stories here. There weren’t any that I outright hated, but I couldn’t remember enough about Ender’s Game to appreciate Orson Scott Card’s Mazer in Prison, set in the same universe, before Ender’s time; and I feel there was some mythology in LE Modesitt Jr’s Life-Suspension that I missed which probably stopped me getting the most out of it. Someone is Stealing the Great Throne Rooms of the Galaxy by Harry Turtledove was probably a bit too comic for my taste; while Prisons by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason just felt grim, after a hopeful start.

The story I had the most problem with was Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Returned, which is another story abut the brainship Helva, The Ship Who Sang. I was very fond of another Brainship book, The Ship Who Searched in my youth, but this makes me very wary of going back and revisiting it. To put it kindly, there’s a lot of outdated notions of womanhood and ability, not to mention outright rape jokes that really left a sour taste.

On the other hand, there were some great stories as well, including Spirey and the Queen by Alistair Reynolds about two (too-)balanced factions fighting a war in a distant solar system; Mary Rosenblum’s My She about telepaths who form the basis of the communication network between the stars; The One With the Interstellar Group Consciousness, about the conscious Zeitgeist of a civilisation that just wants to settle down and get married; and finally Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy which is a great story that paints a society through wine.

So a great idea for an anthology, but the execution could have been better.

Book details

ISBN: 9781532739941
Publisher: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform
Year of publication: 2016

Flotation Device: A Charity Anthology

By E.M. Faulds (editor)

Rating: 4 stars

This anthology from the members of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle was put together quickly after the start of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, in aid of various charities. All the authors donated their stories, so all the money (minus PayPal fees) went to the chosen charities. Given the cause, how could I refuse?

There’s quite a variety of stories here, light and dark, and of varying lengths. The opener, Of Gods and Monsters was strong, with a modern take on a fantasy Quest, where the princess gets pregnant with the Chosen One’s child and the Mighty Wizard storms off in a huff, so they have to find another solution. Sweet and funny, a fun way to start the collection.

Other highlights included The Map, or a Pocketful of Dog’s Teeth about a carny and their con trick against a punter; Amaranth, a metaphor for depression wrapped in a superhero story and The Snow Baby about a boy and his younger brother who’s been hidden from the rest of the village for fear they’ll kill him, which turned out better than I was expecting.

Some stories are short but pack quite a punch, such as The Anniversary by Ruth EJ Booth. Christopher Napier’s The Sea Calls its Own is longer, but has father-son feelings going on, and an end that punched me in the guts.

There are some well known names in here, such as Hal Duncan, with Threnody. I’m sorry to say that having read several pieces by Duncan in different collections, I’ve never entirely clicked with his style. Neil Williamson also contributed a story: Rare as a Harpy’s Tear, which is lyrical and melancholy.

I’m saving my favourite story for the end though. I must proclaim an interest here, in that I know Brian Milton personally and he’s a lovely chap, but I always perk up when I see a new story by him. His style is whimsical and light, but always full of heart. Here, he contributed Some of the Great Old Ones are on the Pitch, a story in broad Scots about a kerfuffle at a Partick Thistle football game. And, because some people apparently found this difficult to interpret, he’s provided a translation into the Queen’s English on his website. Heartily recommended if you need a smile today.

This is a good collection, with many of its stories based in Glasgow or Scotland, and for a good cause. Definitely worth your money and your time.

Book details

Publisher: Glasgow Science Fiction Writers Circle
Year of publication: 2020

Robots vs. Fairies

By Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (editors)

Rating: 4 stars

This is another gem from Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” over on Whatever. The idea of an anthology features robots and/or fairies tickled me, and I’m very glad I picked it up, as it’s a very strong anthology with a lot of big names in it.

It opens with Seanan McGuire‘s Build me a Wonderland (featuring both robots and fairies), which is a great read that satirises theme parks, consultants and HR. This is followed by a thoughtful story by Ken Liu on life in Silicon Valley, robot nannies and the way they change the social fabric around them. It’s also filled with geek popular culture references (particularly from the Star Trek episode Darmok), which always goes down well with me.

Other highlights include Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt, about a human librarian of a fairy library, which is a huge amount of fun; Just Another Love Song about a New York banshee just trying to make a living as Fae disappear around her; and To a Cloven Pine, Max Gladstone‘s science fictional take on The Tempest.

Hmm, looking at that list, it looks like I’m on Team Fairy, which surprises me, since I would consider myself much more Team Robot. The things we learn about ourselves.

Special mention to Catherynne M. Valante‘s closing story A Fall Counts Anywhere, which, like the opening story, also features both fairies and robots, this time in a very literal take on the anthology title, with robots and fae fighting it out, Battle Royal-style, in a WWE-style wrestling ring. Very fun, and with a surprising amount of pathos for such a silly concept.

So a great anthology for any fan of fairies and/or robots. With an absolutely beautiful cover to boot.

Book details

ISBN: 9781481462358
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Year of publication: 2018

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