Sunday, February 19, 2017

The People's Police - Norman Spinrad

Norman Spinrad made his name as part of the New Wave in the 1960s. It is the period in science fiction where things start to get interesting to me. I am not that much of a fan of Pulp or Golden Age material. It is somewhat surprising that I never actually read anything by him before. When Tor offered me a review copy I figured it was time to do something about that. The People's Police is his first published novel since 2011. Spinrad self-published the English edition of his previous novel Osama the Gun (2011) after a string of rejection notes from US publishers. The topic was deemed too controversial. Controversy is something Spinrad clearly never tried to avoid in his career. The People's Police is bound to rub some readers the wrong way as well. Then again, it wouldn't be a good satire if it didn't.

New Orleans is not doing so well. After being struck by hurricane Katrina, the city has never regained its former glory. With increasingly powerful hurricanes hitting the city every year, much of the city's surroundings have reverted back to the swamp it once was. To add to the city's misery, a new economic crisis started by the meteoric rise of the value of the dollar has hit the nation. Police officer Martin Luther Martin, brothel owner J. B. Lafitte and Voodoo Queen MaryLou Boudreau all suffer the consequences of yet another economic failure. Something needs to be done. Each in their own way, will contribute to a series of events that will upset the politics and economics of the state of Louisiana severely.

Spinrad is clearly not impressed with the political and economic state of the US at the moment, and in this novel he presents a crisis that is an extension of the one we are currently crawling out of. It boils down to an extreme rise in the value of the dollar, which is nice in the short term because products get cheaper. In the long run it depresses wages however, which is not good for people trying to pay off a mortgage, closed before the rise of the dollar. A new round of foreclosures quickly ensues. I'm a little hazy on the mechanism that causes the dollar to rise and how realistic that development is. Economics is not exactly my area of expertise.

Whatever the exact economics of the situation may be, the message that the financial and political elite has failed to learn the lessons from the 2008 crisis is loud and clear. Spinrad argues that market economics cannot work without a large and stable middle class, and that the current direction of the US economy is not going to provide that. Since it is also very obvious that the economic elite is not about to change their ways, change must come from the bottom. And there we hit on a second issue Spinrad takes aim at, the deeply rooted mistrust of career politicians and the, in my opinion, somewhat naive belief that putting people in charge from other walks of life would yield better results. Looking at this novel in that light, the election of Trump as president couldn't be more fitting.

The main characters in the story are all people just trying to get by. They have opinions on what needs to be changed, but rarely are able to think more than a few steps ahead, or beyond their immediate surroundings. They are often shamelessly selfish in their motivations as well. Their actions quickly expose some of the divisions in US society. They clash with the religious conservatives, with the anti-union sentiment that has become so prevalent in the last decades, with the close ties between big business and the political establishment, and with the abuse of the system of checks and balances to endlessly block decision-making. It is, in other words, a revolution that meets with stiff opposition.

Spinrad swings all  over the political spectrum in this novel. From police union actions that would make Joseph McCartney turn in his grave to sending in the National Guard to end the anarchism caused by a lack of police enforcement. There is more than a bit of irony in the role of the religious and conservative National Guard commander in the story. Through his religious convictions, and more than a bit of common sense, he ends up doing things that are perfectly in line with his convictions but not by any stretch of the imagination in line with conservative orthodoxy. Whether you approach the problem from the right or the left, so Spinrad seems to argue, the conclusion that the balance between capital and labour needs to be restored is inevitable.

Being set in the Big Easy the dialogues are in a kind of Southern Vernacular English. Spinrad plays with the preconceptions associated with that variety of English, as well as with various stereotypes associated with the rural population of the Mississippi delta, and preconceptions of crime, drug use and race. He constantly tempts the reader to fall into one of these preconceptions and think of the characters as backwards, uneducated and dumb, only to have that character make a move that shows them not quite as simple as the stereotype would have it. This contrast is sometimes downright hilarious but can also be very confronting. The Voodoo queen is probably the best example of that. She is 'ridden' by the spirits but do not think her a puppet.

The People's Police is a very politically charged novel. It questions, it mocks, it satirizes and it challenges. The book is quite cynical about the world of politics and business in particular. You have to be able to appreciate a strong political message in the book to like it. Spinrad does not hide his own opinions, which border on the anarchistic at times, in the novel. I suspect this goes for a lot of his other books as well, so for readers familiar with his work, that will most likely not be a surprise. Personally, I enjoyed his sharp criticism and unapologetically cynical observations. It makes me curious what Spinrad has to say on terrorism. I may have to seek out Osama the Gun some time.

Book Details
Title: The People's Police
Editor: Norman Spinrad
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 284
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8429-4
First published: 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

High Stakes - George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass

High Stakes is the 23rd book in the shared world series Wild Cards, and the final book in what has become known as the Mean Streets Triad. The triad started with Fort Freak (2011), which combines a police procedural with comic book heroes inspired characters. This final volume is quite a different beast though. It takes us far from the streets of Joker Town in New York and pits an unlikely bunch of heroes against a malevolent foe capable of destroying the world. It is pure Wild Cards alright, but probably not the ending of this story arc people were expecting.

Detective Franny Black manages to crack the case of the disappearing Jokers. He tracks them down to a casino in the city of Talas, Kazakhstan, where Jokers are forced to fight to the death in an arena. Franny's intrusion puts a stop to that but it soon turns out the casino hides a much greater threat. The jokers do not just serve as a sick kind of entertainment. The deaths of the Jokers slakes the thirst for blood and suffering of a creature waiting to unleash its terrible power upon the world. Franny may have solved a crime and destroyed the world in one move.

The Wild Cards series swing back and forth between short story collection and traditional novel. High Stakes is what Martin calls a full mosaic. It was written by six authors: Melinda M. Snodgrass, John Jos. Miller, David Anthony Durham, Caroline Spector, Stephen Leigh, and Ian Tregillis, all of whom have contributed to the series before. Where, in the previous two novels in the triad, the authors all had clearly defined sections, this book is edited in a different way. You can still recognize the various contributions by the point of view, but they are worked into seven long sections with contributions by all the authors instead of individual chapters. The editing is decent, some minor continuity errors but nothing that really bothered me. There must have been quite a bit of rewriting involved. The copy-editor could have done another pass though. If I spot typos there's a lot of them.

I suspect that quite a lot of people will not particularly like this novel. It breaks from the police procedural and launches into full-blown Lovecraftian horror. The horrific element of the novel is, as one would expect from a comic book inspired series, very much over the top. The authors don't shy away from describing events in gory detail. I felt the copious descriptions of the nightmarish scenes in Talas padded the novel quite a bit. I suppose with six authors you need to give them some space to do their thing but this book definitely could have been shorter. If this gory kind of monster horror is your thing, then you will want to read this book. It is such a break with the two books that have gone before, and the reader has to have read Lowball (2014) to make sense of this one, that for many readers it will be a disappointment.

Here and there, a fine bit of characterization can be found in the novel. When the horror does not rely on monsters, it is actually truly horrific. The influence of the creature the Aces are fighting makes the darkest thoughts, hidden in the deepest recesses of their mind, surface. The shift between the face they normally show the world and the murderous monsters they can turn into is often rapid and very disturbing. Especially Molly, who swings between the lonely and selfish kleptomaniac she has shown herself to be and the murderous fury she can turn into several times in the book, is a good example of this. A lifetime of therapy probably won't be enough to deal with that kind of trauma.

While the novel is well padded and over the top, the authors do manage to keep it compulsively readable. The reader will want to know how they manage to defeat the monster lurking under Talas. To do that, the authors reach back to a character that has not appeared in the Triad before. For readers who have not read the other novels in the series, it may feel like a deus ex machina ending. I guess one of the advantages of having so much material to draw on, is always being able to drag in an Ace with useful powers.

High Stakes left me with pretty much the same feeling as Suicide Kings (2009), the final novel in the Committee Triad. The triad starts out interesting but then doesn't live up to the promise. This book was very readable, fun even at some level, but it was not a good book. High Stakes manages to make the triad feel unbalanced by so completely changing the nature of the story. It makes the book feel like a story attached to the previous two books at a later time rather than a continuous narrative. I guess there is a trade off between leaving the authors space to be creative and agreeing in advance on a story arc. Martin has sold three more Wild Cards books to Tor. I hope they manage handle to this obvious limitation of their modus operandi better in those novels.

Book Details
Title: High Stakes
Editor: George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 555
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3562-3
First published: 2016

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Wrapping Up Short Fiction Month

And that completes short fiction month. I managed to read 31 stories this month and write about 30 of them. I didn't think I would manage quite that many so in that respect I am pleased with the result. I have noticed that it is much harder to write one after a long day at work though. The quality of some reviews are not what I hoped for. I did enjoy sampling work by so many authors, many of the new to me, this month. Maybe I'll do it again some time for a week instead of a month.

Here's the list of what I ended up reading.

  1.  Scales - Alstair Reynolds (2009)
  2. Folding Beijing - Hao Jingfang (2014)
  3. The Star - Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
  4. A Cup of Salt Tears - Isabel Yap (2014)
  5. Bloodchild - Octavia Butler (1984)
  6. Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh - Ian McDonald (1988)
  7. The Day the World Turned Upside Down - Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2013)
  8. A Salvaging of Ghosts - Aliette de Bodard (2016)
  9. Aye, and Gomorrah . . . - Samuel R. Delany (1967)
  10. Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death -  James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
  11. The Blind Geometer - Kim Stanley Robinson (1986)
  12. The Silence of the Asonu - Ursula K. Le Guin (1998)
  13. Neutron Star - Larry Niven (1966)
  14. Pelt - Carol Emshwiller (1958)
  15. The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov (2015) 
  16. The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh (1996)
  17. The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing (1986)
  18. All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela (2011)
  19. The Corpse - Sese Yane (2015) - No review
  20. Prott - Margaret St. Clair (1953)
  21. If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon (1967) 
  22. The Fish of Lijiang - Chen Qiufan (2006)
  23. Faster Gun - Elizabeth Bear (2012)
  24. Crying in the Rain - Tanith Lee (1987)
  25. In-Fall - Ted Kosmatka (2010)
  26. Walking Awake - N. K. Jemisin (2014)
  27. Blood Music - Greg Bear (1983)
  28. Elliot Wrote - Nancy Kress (2011)
  29. Old Paint - Megan Lindholm (2012)
  30. Reiko's Universe Box - Shinji Kajio (1981)
  31. The Long Chase - Geoffrey A. Landis (2002) 
I will be taking a break and skip next weekend. I probably won't be able to finish a novel before then anyway. Normal service will resume the second weekend of February.

Short Fiction Month: The Long Chase - Geoffrey A. Landis

For the final story in Short Fiction Month, I picked The Long Chase by Geoffrey A. Landis. His work is primarily short fiction of which I have read exactly nothing. This particular story originally appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2002 and was later reprinted in Lightspeed, September 2010. In a way, this story brings us back to the start of the month. It is a far future science fiction, in which post-human characters are in the spotlight.

A war rages in the solar system. When it is over, one miner out in the Oort cloud wishes to retain her independence. To stay out of the hands of the enemy there is only one option: leave the solar system. It takes several centuries to get a gravity assist from the Sun and swing out of the system. Soon, she realizes her attempt has been noticed. A centuries long chase through interstellar space ensues.

The story is written in the form of a series of log entries. Sometimes there are centuries between them, which nicely emphasizes the scale of the story. There is plenty of detail about the mechanics of moving through space, how fuel is necessary for braking as well as accelerating, and how missing a target can mean not seeing it ever again. Landis plays with scale by making the main character a machine the size of a grain of sand. The contrast almost couldn't be greater.

What I also found interesting about the story is that in order to escape, and that impulse goes very far back for the main character, she keeps shedding layers of humanity. Her body to begin with, and later more and more emotions and feelings. This stripped down intelligence pulls essentially the same trick to escape from the long chase. How much does there have to be left to make independence worthwhile?

The Long Chase is a very well written tale. I liked the style and non-linear way the story unfolds in particular. There is something strange about a story dealing with deeply human desires, expressed by a sentient machine in the hostile environment of interstellar space. It leads the reader to wonder how human the main character is, and what makes her human or machine. A good story to end the month with. Landis is on the to read list too.

Story Details
Title: The Long Chase
Author: Geoffrey A. Landis
Language: English
Originally published: Asimov's Science Fiction, February 2002
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 4,400 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Monday, January 30, 2017

Reiko's Universe Box - Shinji Kajio

Reiko's Universe Box by Shinji Kajio is one of the many translations in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's enormous anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction. The Japanese original was published in 1981 but not until 2007 did it appear in English translation. It is one of very few stories that have been translated. The introduction states that Kajio often writes humorous stories. This one must be atypical for him then. It is a rather sad tale.

A newly married couple receives an odd present. A box containing a miniature universe. The husband is not interested in it and puts it aside. As the months progress and the marriage deteriorates, the wife is more and more drawn to the box. She begins to study astronomy and soon begins to see stars, planets and comets in the interior of the box. Her husband, distracted as he may be by his work and his mistress, does not particularly like the change in his wife.

The marriage described in the story is a very sad one. The story is told from the wife's point of view. She said yes to the proposal more or less because he asked, not because she actually feels she loves him. The husband is occupied by building his career and their future. In doing so, he shamefully neglects his wife's present needs and wants.  It soon spirals into a cycle of indifference from her side and anger from his. They feed each other until a confrontation is inevitable.

The universe in the box holds wonder and fascination so obliviously absent in her marriage. The miniature universe develops as the marriage descends into two people barely acknowledging each other's presence. Then the two collide and one swallows the other in a burst of misunderstanding, anger and resentment. Where once she was a satellite around his star, her universe engulfs them both.

Reiko's Universe Box is full of beautiful but sad imagery.  It is a story that took me a while to process, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. The parallel between the emotional lives of the characters and the main star in the miniature universe, following the evolution of a star heavier than our own sun, is a very nice touch. It's a shame so little of Kajio's work has been translated, the English language world is missing out on some good writing here.

Story Details
Title: Reiko's Universe Box
Author: Shinji Kajio
Language: English
Translation: Toyoda Takashi and Gene van Troyer
Originally published: Japanese: Hayakawa SF Magazine (February 1981), English: Speculative Japan edited by Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis (2007)
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Old Paint - Megan Lindholm

These days, pretty much everything that is being published by this author, appears under the pseudonym Robin Hobb. Once in a while a story under the name Megan Lindholm appears. It doesn't seem likely that we'll ever see another Lindholm novel again, but some of the short fiction she writes just doesn't fit the epic fantasy Hobb is associated with. Old Paint appeared in Asimov's in July 2012. It has recently been reprinted in Clarkesworld. If you want to explore Hobb's work published under the Lindholm name, this story is not a bad place to start. It is probably closer to Hobb in style than many of her earlier Lindholm works are.

Sadie is a young girl growing up in a poor distract of Tacoma, Washington. She lives with her mother and older brother on a small income. None of the niceties of 2030s living are for them. One day, Sadie's grandfather, who she doesn't know at all, passes away. Her mother had a complicated relationship with him but he has left her in his will. Besides some run down furniture, they inherit a car. It is old and hopelessly outdated but well maintained. Her mother decides to hang on to it.

I suppose the reason this story reminds me of Hobb is the technique she uses to tell it. A first person narrative, witnessed by a young girl with a limited understanding of the situation, related long after the events have taken place. It is basically the way she started Assassin's Apprentice (1995), the first book in her Farseer trilogy. What is distinctly different is that she doesn't heap nearly as much misery on her characters as what Fitz has to endure.

In the story self driving cars are an accepted part of life. The car Sadie's mother inherits is one of the early models. It can drive itself just fine and possesses (by our standards) sophisticated AI. Society wasn't ready for it though, and all sorts of restrictions were put in place to make sure a person with a license would have to do the driving. In hindsight, such restrictions seem ludicrous to the characters. A nice bit of social commentary given the developments in this field in recent years. Lindholm isn't blind to the risks though, and uses one particular risk to shape her plot.

In the end, Old Paint is not really about technology. The relationship between the mother and her father is the core of the story. By using a young character to relay the story, our understanding of that relationship deepens gradually. The car is just a piece of machinery, but one that comes with a strong emotional attachment. It is a story that ends with both an understanding of how an object can evoke such strong emotions and a feeling that things turned out for the best. It's a very satisfying read.

Story Details
Title: Old Paint
Author: Megan Lindholm
Language: English
Originally published: Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2012
Read in: Clarkesworld, Issue 112, January 2016
Story length: Novelette, approximately 10,000 words
Awards: None
Available online: Clarkesword

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Elliot Wrote - Nancy Kress

I have read quite a few pieces of short fiction by Nancy Kress. She seems most comfortable writing novella length pieces (to the point where many of her novels are three novellas put together) but there are quite a few short stories and novelettes as well. She regularly ends up on award shortlists with her shot work. This particular story did not get nominated and I can see why. It did not have the same impact some of her stronger stories had on me.

Eliot's father is a mathematician. A man of numbers, of reason, and of science. One day, he has a religious experience after seeing the image of Zeus on a strawberry toaster pastry. It upsets him to such a degree that he is admitted to a mental hospital. They offer him a treatment that will remove the memory from his brain. Elliot wants him to have this treatment, but since he is still under age, he cannot give permission. The only person who can is his aunt, who in many ways is the opposite of his father. Rationality plays no part in her decision, and this frustrates Elliot greatly.

What Kress does in many of her stories is explore the impact of some piece of science, biological, genetic, or in this case neurological, on an individual. In this case it is a procedure to remove memories. I have no idea if it is based on some real or proposed procedure. The description is so vague that I suspect it isn't. The human mind is still very poorly understood, and it will not come as a surprise to the reader that it has side effects. Elliot, who believes in numbers and evidence, has trouble accepting that people base decision on feelings or statistically insignificant occurrences. Elliot is pretty extreme in this, and that makes him a somewhat unlikely character.

What I did like about the story, is the way in which he keeps looking for the right metaphor for the human brain. It is a nice illustration of him grappling with something that is not understood, something that perhaps can't be understood. Where his father tries to capture god with numbers, Elliot tries to capture the brain with words. Where it drives one to give up, the other realizes the importance of the attempt.

There is a lot of potential in the story but for some reason the elements don't really fall into place. Where in Kress' best work, the consequences of a scientific discovery for the main character, or the society they live in, is central to the story, here it seems to be the nudge for the main character to gain insight in the way people perceive the world. The father who is actually undergoing the procedure and the change that comes with it, is of lesser importance to the story. His situation is probably just as interesting as that of the son however. Although I am having difficulty pinpointing it, the story leaves me with the feeling that Kress missed an opportunity somewhere along the way.

Story Details
Title: Elliot Wrote
Author: Nancy Kress
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed, May 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 4,700 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Friday, January 27, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Blood Music - Greg Bear

Blood Music is probably Greg Bear's best known story. It appeared in Analogue in June 1983 and won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novelette the next year. Bear expanded the story to a full novel, which appeared under the same title in 1985. The novel attracted quite a bit of attention too, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell and BSFA. The novel is regarded as a classic of the genre, so of course I haven't read it. Based on the novelette, I think I should.

One day, doctor Edward Milligan meets up with an old classmate Vergil Ulam. Edward has a good job as an OB-GYN but Vergil has chosen a different career. He went into research and got a job at a small company working on nanotechnology. Vergil was fired after some of the experiments he tried to hide from his employers were discovered. To salvage what he could, he injected himself with some of his creations. Now, he seeks Edward's medical advice.

Bear is known as a hard science fiction writer. In this story he certainly lives up to that reputation. There is quite a lot of science in this story. Given the rapid development of genetic research, these days this story might not have attracted quite as much attention. When you consider it is over thirty years old, it must have been revolutionary at the time. Bear dives into the world of RNA, cellular biology and micromachines. What he manages particularly well is helping the reader to wrap their mind around the difference in scale between molecular, cellular and macroscopic structures and how on even the smallest level there is a huge capacity to store information.

Putting aside the science for the moment though, the tale itself is not all that exciting. Because his experiments are deemed dangerous, a scientist decides to experiment on himself. You don't really need three tries  to guess how that is going to end. Edward knows this too, and yet for some reason, he holds back on sounding the alarm. Not, as it turns out, a terribly bright thing to do. Bear does a good job of portraying Edward's predicament, but I can't say I particularly liked the character. He is quite passive throughout the story.

The really hard science fiction stories tend to be hit-or-miss for me. While I usually appreciate the subjects, quite a few of them pay little attention to the actual craft of writing. I bounced right off the first Larry Niven story I read earlier this month. Interesting science in a poorly executed story doesn't do it for me. Blood Music does not provoke that response. It is a decently written story, with a great scientific concept and a rather formulaic plot. A Hugo and a Nebula seems like a bit more praise than the story merits, but it well worth reading and it did make me wonder how Bear built upon this novelette. The to read list is growing again.

Story Details
Title: Blood Music
Author: Greg Bear
Language: English
Originally published: Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1983
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Novelette, approximately 9,100 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula winner
Available online: Baen

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Walking Awake - N. K. Jemisin

Walking Awake is one of the original stories in Lightspeed's special edition Women Destroy Science Fiction. Jemisin is very successful with her novels at the moment, picking up a Hugo and a whole lot of nominations for other awards for her novel The Fifth Season last year. She is one of the voices calling for more diversity in the genre, something that has brought her in open conflict with Vox Day, one of the people behind the Rabid Puppies campaigns to influence the outcome of the Hugo Awards in recent yeas. As far as I am concerned she deserved a Hugo just for that.

The story is set in an establishment which caters to the Masters. These long lived individuals are capable of taking over human bodies, and as long as they change before the human host dies, they can live for centuries. The bodies they wear, are the product of a careful breeding program. The honour of serving the masters that way is only reserved for the finest specimens. Sadie is flawed. She has taken on the role of caregiver, taking care of the next generation of hosts for the Masters. Slowly she is beginning to realize that serving the Masters may not be the honour she was taught to believe in.

The main theme of the story is oppression. The Masters are obviously not quite what they appear to be, and serving them most certainly is not an honour. They are vain, wasteful and view humans as a resource. The Masters are powerful however, and Sadie is not. The story goes on to detail how Sadie finds out the true nature of the Masters, and how a powerless, flawed and scared person such as herself can challenge them anyway.

Another point this story makes, is that oppression is of our own making. The Masters did not create their slaves, humans created the masters and in doing so enslaved their offspring. Oppression cannot just be fought, it can be prevented from occurring (or reoccurring, the story is set in the future) if one is avoids dehumanizing even one's enemies. "All the monsters" one of the characters says, "were right here."

Walking Awake is a story with a powerful message. One that isn't delivered with any great subtlety. That was definitely something the anthology could use. It is, after all, among other things, a statement against sexism in publishing and the science fiction fandom. People who do not appreciate so much politics in their fiction will probably not like this story. I'm pretty sure it will draw very mixed responses from readers. I liked the story and I think the message needs to be heard. Given the ongoing Hugo mess and other events in the genre, a bit more directness might be just what the progressives of science fiction need.

Story Details
Title: Walking Awake
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,000 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Short Fiction Month: In-Fall - Ted Kosmatka

Ted Kosmatka is not a prolific short story writer. Only fifteen or so short stories appeared in the last decade, along with three novels. After The N-Word and The Divining Light, In-Fall is the third one I read. It originally appeared in Lightspeed in December 2010. The story is a brief tale that explores both the implications of Einstein's theory of general relativity, as well as those of absolute religious beliefs. The way Kosmatka presents them, they are not radically opposed views.

A boy and an old man face each other on a ship falling towards a black hole. The man wants information the boy is unwilling to provide. When rough questioning has failed, another strategy is called for to convince a true fanatic.

Kosmatka makes some interesting observations about the ease in which ever more densely populated areas can be attacked with relatively easy means, and yet result in a huge number of casualties. He takes it a few steps into the future, but recent terrorist tactics have shown exactly what he means.

That is not the main idea behind the story though. A real fanatic, so Kosmatka reasons, is hard to defeat because death will see them to paradise. What if, by using time dilation effects, you could deny them whatever afterlife they were hoping for? The story ignores this question, but does not lead to the conclusion one might expect.

In-Fall is a brief tale but, under a rather brutal plot, does include a lot of food for thought. It is one of those stories where a science fiction concept allows the author to explore a human topic from a different angle. It is very effective. Given the subject, it might not be everybody's cup of tea, but I thought it was very well done.

Story Details
Title: In-Fall
Author: Ted Kosmatka
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed, December 2010
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 3,500 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed