BooksOfTheMoon

Mission Critical

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 4 stars

I liked the idea of this anthology: of things going wrong, and going wrong quickly, and the people who have to deal with those situations and comes out the other side. There’s a lot to enjoy here. It displays its mission statement with a strong first story, This is Not the Way Home by Greg Egan, involving a space tourist trapped on the moon when contact with Earth disappears. This is followed up with a very different take on the idea in Rescue Party by Aliette de Bodard, set in her Xuya universe. This one posits the idea that people can be removed from society and “stored” to be used as living memory banks, if their cultural impact or worth is judged to be more important than their individual liberty, and the rescue party that comes to help the protagonist.

Other highlights include John Barnes’ The One Who Was There, which sort of snuck up on me. You start off thinking that the protagonist is a journalist who’s never been to Ethics, only interested in the story around the Saturn system, before it expands and shows you something much more nuanced. I enjoyed this a lot by the end. Then there’s Mutata Superesse, a fun first-person story with a rapid-response soldier/paramedic dashing in to rescue some colonists who’re in over their heads, and spinning some yarns as they go. The Fires of Prometheus is a story about first responders dealing with someone who just wants to die on Io, but the rules won’t let them leave him alone. It’s a poignant piece with some nuance to it.

I don’t think there’s any particularly bad stories in here, although some worked better than others. Some of the misses for me included Hanging Gardens about attempts to terraform Mars, and the children who get caught in it; Genesong which was just a bit grim, involving a pirate attack that kills almost everyone on a ship that was capturing an asteroid to bring back to a terraformed Venus; and while it’s not exactly bad, Cyclopterus isn’t the story I would have chosen to end the collection with, set in a post-climate change planet, where the megacorps are still intent on wringing all the profit they can out before it all collapses.

Strahan has a good eye for pulling the right stories into his themed anthologies. If you like a a bit of disaster-porn, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085806
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

Entropic Angel: And Other Stories

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read an awful lot of Powell’s work, but when I saw this special edition on offer, I thought I’d give it a go, based on having read Embers of War and Light Chaser. And I’m rather glad that I did. I enjoyed this collection a lot, there’s a lot of interesting ideas and settings, and some great writing too.

There’s a couple of far-future end of the universe stories: Sunsets and Hamburgers postulates two humans resurrected at the end of time, and encouraged to have children, despite hope seeming lost; while The Redoubt features two humans given the opportunity of a million lifetimes, to travel the universe until the end of time.

I loved the basic idea of the title story, which involves these winged creatures seeking out sources of energy – power stations, wind turbines and the like, and increasing the entropy within them until they fail and break. There’s a lot packed into a short space here and I enjoyed the stuff that was left unsaid as much as what as said.

There are a few linked stories as well – Fallout and The New Ships both set in an England after an alien ship crashed in the West Midlands, irradiating most of the area and what people do to survive. And then there’s The Last Reef and Flotsam with a setting of a solar system in which AIs go post-Singularity, but most of which turn inward as they ramp up their evolution and burn out.

Eleven Minutes was probably one of my favourites in the collection, in which two squabbling Nasa technicians running night shift duty on a Mars rover see something in the camera that they really don’t expect.

There’s a few stories that didn’t work as well for me – Lift Up Your Face isn’t really SF, but I didn’t really get it much at all; while This is How You Die features a pandemic and the second person voice, neither of which I’m particularly fond of in stories.

But all in all, this is a strong collection from a pretty consistently good writer.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910935392
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2017

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

By Tarun K. Saint

Rating: 2 stars

I kind of wish I’d enjoyed this collection of short speculative fiction from the Indian subcontinent more than I did. The omens weren’t good when then footnotes for the introduction were almost longer than the introduction itself. And it was long and dry, feeling very much like someone wanted to be able to repurpose it at some point into an academic paper.

There was a mix of old and new stories, with some historical ones, although most were modern. It would have been nice to have some clue as to to the age of each story, actually, since the copyright page listing the stories was incomplete, and some of the ones that were present lacked dates.

The stories themselves were a mixed bag. The editor notes in the introduction that SF isn’t a genre that’s been historically popular in south Asia, but he includes some in here anyway. The opening story, Planet of Terror feels very “Golden Age”, and that’s followed by a satire in which a police inspector goes to the moon, to teach the people of the moon the ways of a modern, efficient police force (i.e. corruption and bribery). A lot of the stories are quite dystopian, which isn’t really my cup of tea, and many of the others feel quite experimental, and what can I say, I prefer more traditional styling in my fiction.

It’s a mixed bag, of course, and I did enjoy some of the stories. These included The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi, a diary of a man who, er, turns into Gandhi, and how he tries to continue living his life; Flexi-time is a gently humorous story about the perils of living your life too regimented and a paean to “Indian time”; and the last story Reunion is a cli-fi piece about the importance of change and adaptability. My favourite story is probably S. B. Divya’s Look Up, about a broken family, one of whom is trying to put her past life behind her with a new start on Mars.

So, an uneven collection, not to my taste, but I still think it’s important and that there should be more like it. I’ll certainly keep looking out for them, hoping that a different editor has tastes closer to mine.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228689
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper

By A.J. Fitzwater

Rating: 3 stars

The author says in the introduction to this linked collection of short stories that joy is political, and they certainly set out to prove that here. Cinrak is a dapper, lesbian, poly, pirate, unionised capybara. She’s kind and understands the importance of family, especially family that you choose.

I quite enjoyed these gentle stories, but I didn’t find them entirely satisfying. There was a lot of gaps between them, so we go straight from Cinrak stepping on a pirate ship for the first time to her being a captain in her own right, to her wooing the queen. I enjoyed the message of the book and its gentleness and insistence that love is love and that everyone deserves to be loved and respected for who they are. Oh, and that unions are a good thing.

And despite being called Cinrak the Dapper, we never really got much description of her wardrobe (other than her being fond of bow-ties). There’s a lot of world-building in few words, but sometimes the stories felt a little vague. Enjoyable, fairly fluffy, and making an important statement, but it didn’t gel quite as much as I’d hoped.

Book details

A Quiet Afternoon

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I heard about this collection because a friend of mine has a story in its sequel, and when I went to have a look, I was intrigued by the idea of “low-fi” speculative fiction, something low-stakes and gentle, compared to the grandeur and world-threatening nature of much of the genre. And I’m really glad I picked it up.

The collection starts strongly, with The Baker’s Cat, about a girl who really wants to be a baker, but just isn’t very good at it, and the small acts of kindness that lead to her getting the help she needs. Other highlights include The Dragon Peddler about a boy who can see dragons and Tomorrow’s Friend about getting the friend you need, when you need them. Hollow is a nice twist on the magic quest, and the final story, Of Buckwheat and Garlic Braids (not garlic bread, as I first read it as) is a lovely little tale of travel and belonging.

As in most collections, there’s some that didn’t work as well. I didn’t really get Ink Stains, or 12 Attempts at Telling About the Flower Shop Man (New York, New York). Both pleasant enough, but I didn’t really grok them.

But overall, it’s a pretty good collection. It’s one that you sit and pick a story almost at random to read if you’re feeling a bit down, and you’re pretty sure that it’ll be okay in the end.

I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009746
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2020

The Best of C.L. Moore

By C.L. Moore

Rating: 4 stars

Although I knew the name CL Moore, I was unfamiliar with her work and thought she was a New Wave writer, not Golden Age, so it’s been interesting to read these stories, all written in the 1930s and 40s. We think of much of the work of that era to be very plot-oriented, with little in the way of emotional underpinning or characterisation. I don’t think that can be said of Moore’s work, judging by this sample. Although the characters perhaps aren’t emotionally developed in the modern sense, they are much more vividly drawn than in much of the work of Moore’s peers of the era.

Shambleau is the work that made Moore’s name, introducing the character of Northwest Smith and the woman that he saves from an angry mob who turns out to be more dangerous than he thought. My favourite story in the collection is probably the final one, Vintage Season, in which a man rents out his house to a group of strange foreigners. This story is based around a trope that modern readers will readily identify, but which was startlingly original at the time (the author notes in the afterword that she thinks it may be have been the first story use this particular trope). It’s handled well, with a little sting in the tail.

There’s a surprising (to me, at least) amount of theology in the book. Not only is there the very direct Fruit of Knowledge about those first days in the Garden of Eden, but Daemon discusses the concept of the soul and The Bright Illusion has two gods fighting on an alien world, and a man who wonders about an afterlife.

So a fascinating look back into a different era of the genre, and to see how Moore’s writing contrasted with that of the men around her. She brought emotion into a genre that was, at that time, staid and with mostly cardboard characters. The stories themselves, while coloured by their time, are well worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345247520
Publisher: Random House Inc
Year of publication: 1976

The Aliens Among Us

By James White

Rating: 3 stars

I’m very fond of James White’s Sector General stories, but I’ve not read much of his wider work. This collection contains one story set on Sector General itself, another that might be in the same universe and a selection of others.

The Sector General Story, Countercharm is, to my mind, one of the weaker stories in the collection, as it feels a bit dated in terms of sexism and there’s a throwaway homophobic joke which doesn’t sit well. But also, the setup – in which Conway has to cope with an alien “educator tape” in his mind with no help whatsoever from the station’s psychological team, even when it could possibly be a danger to others – doesn’t really make any sense to me.

Of the other stories, To Kill or Cure was a fun story set in Ireland, where a military search and rescue crew stationed in ‘Derry finds a crashed flying saucer; Red Alert is a tense thriller where we follow an alien invasion as they enter Earth’s solar system; and Tableau is a story story about the horror of war and how it should be memorialised.

The Conspirators was fun heist/escape story and it’s almost a shame that The Scavengers was in the this collection because it was similar enough to one of the other stories that I guessed the twist early. The final story, Occupation: Warrior introduces us to Colonel Dermod, a familiar name from Sector General, but in a very different circumstance, as he tries to win a staged war.

The overarching theme of the collection is humanist and peaceful, telling stories about disparate groups working together for the greater good and the horrors of when dialogue breaks down and war and conflict break out. It’s a message that resonates with me, and one that is still too rare, especially in the speculative fiction genres. These stories feel very much of their time, but the genuine warmth of the author shines through them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780708882580

Snapshots from a Black Hole and Other Oddities

By K.C. Ball

Rating: 3 stars

K. C. Ball is an author I’m unfamiliar with, but I got this collection as part of a Humble Bundle and it’s a good one. It’s a very heterogeneous collection: the author is happy to turn her hand to pretty much any genre and she makes a good go of it. As always, some stories work better for me than others (for a start, I’m not a horror fan, so those weren’t generally fun for me) but there are some gems in the collection.

The title story is interestingly told from an AI perspective and leaves a haunting image in the mind. There are (attempted) alien abduction stories, zombie stories, ghost stories, (kind of) time travel stories and more. My favourite in the collection is probably Flotsam about a disaster in low Earth orbit that happens to a small crew, trying to clean up orbital waste. I like the characters, the believable actions of the corporation and the solution.

There are author’s notes at the end of the book (although I might have liked to have these after each story, while the story is still fresh in my mind, rather than all collected at the end) which are an insight into the author’s mind while she was writing.

The collection shows a talented and versatile author who passed away too young. I will look out for other of her work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780984830114
Publisher: Hydra House Books
Year of publication: 2012

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

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