Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Short Fiction Month: All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela

An Owomoyela is another name new to me. I know absolutely nothing about Owomoyela, other than that se is from the US and prefers it if we use nonstandard pronouns. This is harder than it seems but I will try not to slip. Owomoyela's output to date comprises only short fiction. All That Touches the Air was first published in Lightspeed in 2011. It is a science fiction tale and is still available online. It's an interesting story. I have rolled the dice a few times in Short Fiction Month. This is one of those stories I'm glad I found.

Humanity has spread through the galaxy and colonized numerous planets. Not all attempts are equally successful. On one planet, they encounter a sentient and very dangerous species. An understanding is reached with them. The humans are allowed to stay in their closed habitats. The ones that touch the open air can be taken by the local species. A fate worse than death, or so some feel.

Structurally, it is a very well thought out piece. The tale opens with a scene where a member of the colony is deliberately exposed. The cruelty of the act and the impact it has on the main character who witnesses it, are not entirely clear to the reader right away. Owomoyela takes the time to explain the full impact of that event. By the end of the story, the leap the main character takes is clear. In a way we are back where we started, but looked at from another angle, the roles are reversed. It's very clever really.

The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of a character with some pretty severe mental issues. It reminded me of Emma Newman's novel Planetfall (2015). The character's fear of being exposed to air leads to some pretty strange behaviour. Fear of the alien species permeates the narrative. The author uses that to make the climax of the story an overwhelming experience.

The alien species in All That Touches the Air is suitably alien. They don't think in legal terms like we do. The understanding they reached with the human colony implies the threat that they could change their mind at any time and take them out. The relationship with the aliens is very much about power. They do not feel it necessary to demonstrate that power though. Once the main character overcomes their fear of them, the dynamic of power changes. The aliens realize this before the main character does. Power, not law or ethics, is the key to their behaviour.

I liked the way the story deals with fear and the power that can be derived from overcoming it. There is a darker side to the story as well though. Power is to be feared, a struggle to take over power from the aliens is considered the only way for the colony to survive. The main character doesn't think about it in those terms but both the colony government and the aliens take an almost Darwinistic perspective to the interaction between their species. They can't both occupy the niche of dominant species. Liberation of one, goes at the expense of the other. It is a well executed science fiction story indeed. I am impressed by Owomoyela's work.

Story Details
Title: All That Touches the Air
Author: An Owomoyela
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 7,100 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing

As some of you may know, my girlfriend is from Norway. I must to my shame admit that beyond Sophie's World my knowledge of Norwegian literature is sorely lacking. Much to my surprise I spotted a Norwegian story in The Big Book of Science Fiction when looking for more stories this weekend. Naturally, I included this in the list. Jon Bing passed away in 2014, but from what little I know of him, he was a big name in the Norwegian science fiction community. He produced quite a few novels and collections but not all that much appears to be available in English. This particular story originally appeared in 1986, both in English and Norwegian. Curiously enough, the name of the translator isn't mentioned.

On Bear Island, a remote place halfway between the North Cape and the Svalbard archipelago, a geologist is wintering on a scientific station. His sole colleague has fallen ill, and has died on the way back to the  mainland. It soon becomes apparent to the scientist this was no coincidence. An alien entity takes over his mind and uses him to conduct research. The Owl, as the scientist calls the alien, has weaknesses however. The scientist develops a plan to free himself of the alien.

The story is more about the atmosphere than the plot really. There is something claustrophobic about Arctic research stations, especially in winter. They are almost as bad as possessed space ships really. John W. Campbell realized this when he wrote Who Goes There? Bing captures the loneliness of such a place very well but not so much the paranoia that sometimes comes with these kinds of stories. The main character knows what is going on, even if he is unable to stop it.

The Arctic setting also shows up in the theme of light and darkness in this story. The alien is dubbed the owl, a creature of darkness, who takes over the main character during the long polar night. It implies, at least that is how the main character sees it, the alien is evil and must be fought. Only by staying in the Arctic during the long days of summer can he regain a measure of self-control and freedom. The main character is, as it were, rescued by the light.

The plot itself is very minimalistic though .One character, no dialogue, lots of atmospheric descriptions and the main character explaining what is going on does not leave much for the reader to wonder about. How reliable the narrator is, perhaps. We never get to see if his plan works out. The main character might well have been doing what the alien wanted.  Maybe that was what the author was going for. I ended up liking the story more for the setting and the language than for the plot.

Story Details
Title: The Owl of Bear Island
Author: Jon Bing
Language: English
Translation: Unknown
Originally published: Norwegian: Hadata? (1986), English: Tales from the Planet Earth edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull (1986)
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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh

Next stop in short fiction month is The Cost to Be Wise by Maureen F. McHugh, another author whose work I'm unfamiliar with. She is probably best known for her novel China Mountain Zhang (1992), which won her a Tiptree, Locus, Hugo and Nebula Award. In the years since, McHugh has not been terribly prolific. Four novels and two collections have appeared to date. Her short fiction is well represented on the Hugo and Nebula shortlist however. Apparently McHugh chooses the quality over quantity approach. This particular novella appeared in 1996 and shows up on both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists.

In the Sckarline colony, they believe only appropriate technology should be employed. Nothing that is not sustainable or cannot be replaced from local materials is used in their everyday life. One day, off-worlder anthropologists come visit the colony. For Janna, one of the few colonists to speak any English, it is a break from the monotony of her life . When a local clan shows up in search of booze, things get quickly out of control. The price for their way of life turns out the be very steep indeed.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this story. It is a well written tale to be sure. There is a fine bit of worldbuilding in it for example. We are introduced to the colony through the eyes of Janna, who is well aware of the outside world but has never actually seen it. To her the colony is home. McHugh doesn't use her to spoon feed the reader the details of their life. What details we need come through the questions of the visitors and a bit of reading between the lines. That aspect of the novella was handled very deftly.

Janna is a bit of a sullen girl. She has a poor relationship with her mother and is clearly not satisfied with her life. The outsiders fascinate her in a way. They show her glimpses of what life could be without their reliance on only appropriate technology. The generational conflict and Janna's hopes and wishes for the future are not really developed in the story however.

The fate of the colony is the main concern of the author. Here, the plot turns brutal. I'm not entirely sure if this is what the author intended but what the story essentially shows is what will happen to those who cannot or will not defend what is theirs. There are all sorts of historical parallels to be drawn here. History is littered with the acts of those that feel power entitles them to take what they want.

What bothered me about this novella was not so much the tale itself, I can admire McHugh's craftsmanship, but more the feeling that I had been reading a few chapters in a longer story. There are so many open ends and so many unexplained motives in the story that it really does not work all that well as a novella. It is a well written piece but ultimately a bit unfulfilling. I think I need to find myself a novel by McHugh. That might be more to my taste.

Story Details
Title: The Cost to Be Wise
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Language: English
Originally published: Starlight 1, edited by Patrick Hayden Nielsen (1996)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Novella, approximately 19,000 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Small Beer Press

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov

Other than that he is from Bulgaria I know very little of Haralambi  Markov. He has published only a handful of stories thus far. The Language of Knives originally appeared on and was later reprinted in The Apex Book of World SF 4. The story is somewhere between fantasy and horror. It is beautifully written but pretty gruesome. Probably not everybody's cup of tea.

A father and daughter are performing the death rites for a great warrior. To send him of to his gods, his body is baked into a cake in an elaborate ritual. While they perform the ritual and deal with their personal grief, old hurt between the two of them surfaces.

The setting of this story seems mythological. The deceased warrior performed all sorts of heroic acts, battling mythological foes. When I read that kind of fantasy in the short form, I always get the feeling that there is a lot more to the setting than the story is showing me. It didn't bother me as much as in other fantasy shorts though. Worldbuilding is not what the author is concerned with.

Another thing we never find out is who the narrator is. The story is told from a second person point of view, which Markov uses very effectively to show the tension between the demands of the ritual and the strong emotions the characters are experiencing. The author keeps a bit of distance from the characters, just like the characters have to keep their grief at bay for the duration of the ritual.

Markov is not shy about describing the grisly details of the ritual. Caring for the dead is usually no pleasant task but this ritual takes it very far. It makes you wonder what kind of gods would demand such an offering. Again, the author creates a huge contrast, this time between the love and tenderness implied by the act of caring for a dead loved one and the horrific nature of the act itself.

When the dam does burst, the climax of the story proves very powerful indeed. The need for the characters to understand each other, to share their grief and to come to terms with the other's choices in life.

The Language of Knives is a powerful story, one that swings between extremes. It is a story in which prose and perspective are used to emphasize this and as such, it is a well written tale. Whether all readers will appreciate having their buttons pushed quite so forcefully is doubtful but this story shows Markov is a talented author. I understand he is working on a novel at the moment. I for one, am curious to see what he can do in the long form.

Story Details
Title: The Language of Knives
Author: Haralambi Markov
Language: English
Originally published:, February 4th. 2015
Read in: The Apex Book of World SF 4. edited by Mahvesh Murad and Lavie Tidhar (2016)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 2,700 words
Awards: None
Available online:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Short Fiction Month: What Do I Intend to Read? - Part 3

Running out of stories so I guess I should add some more.

  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 Guim (1998)
  13. Neutron Star - Larry Niven (1966) 
  14. Pelt - Carol Emshwiller (1958)
Still to come:
  • The Language of Knives - Haralambi Markov (2015) 
  • The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh (1996)
  • The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing (1986)
  •  All That Touches the Air - An Owomoyela (2011)
  • The Corpse - Sese Yane (2015)
  •  Prott - Margaret St. Clair (1953)
  • If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon (1967)

Short Fiction Month: Pelt - Carol Emshwiller

Ever since encountering a story by Carol Emshwiller in John Joseph Adams' anthology Wastelands I have felt I ought to read more of her short work. In the years since, I have somehow managed to read two of her novels but to avoid any collections. Quite an achievement when you consider most of Emshwiller's output is in the short form. She has had a remarkably long career. She was born in 1921 and her first stories started appearing in the 1950s, her publications continue until quite recently. Pelt is one of the older ones. It first appeared in 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted several times. Most recently in The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

A faithful hunting dog is running ahead of his master in search of prey. The world is new to them, full of strange, exciting smells of creatures that would make excellent additions to his master's collection of trophies. Then he hears a voice that asks him: "Little slave, what have you done that is free today? Remember this world, Do something free today. Do, do."

The plot of this story is not overly complicated. At the end of it the message is loud and clear: hunting for trophies is wrong. What makes it interesting is how Emshwiller uses perspective to tell her tale. She is acutely aware of what each character knows and what it tells the reader. The story is written from the point of view of the dog. His view on matters is very limited. He can hear the locals but not really communicate with them. He also doesn't quite understand the question or why it is important.

The, one would assume, more intelligent master on the other hand, does not hear the locals and has to figure out what they mean and want solely from their actions. Together, the reader has a fuller understanding of what is going on. The master for instance, is left with fear bordering on panic which, when taken into account what we know from the dog's point of view, is understandable but not necessary.

The slave/master dynamic - or predator/prey dynamic, Emshwiller seems to consider them much the same thing - reminded me of her novel The Mount (2002). This novel has the human as slave instead of the master though. It is a subject she clearly has a lot to say on.

Science fiction from the 1950s is usually not my taste. Emshwiller approaches the genre from an angle that made her stand out though. Not in the sense that won her much recognition from the fans of hard science fiction or space opera that dominated the scene at that time, but from a wider audience that appreciated the more literary qualities of her work. She may well be one of science fiction's best kept secrets. An author more people ought to read. One of these days I will really get that collection I have been promising myself for almost a decade.

Story Details
Title: Pelt
Author: Carol Emshwiller
Language: English
Originally published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1958
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'm aware of.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Neutron Star - Larry Niven

One of the nice things about short fiction month is that I get to read new authors without having to commit to a whole novel. Niven is the fourth this month I haven't read anything of until now. Bit surprising given the number of science fiction novels I consume. Niven is known as a hard science fiction author and has been active since the mid-1960s. Neutron Star is one of his earlier stories and won Niven his first Hugo. It was published in 1966 in If, which at the time had Frederik Pohl at the helm. When I read this story I feel it is more of a John W. Campbell kind of science fiction. It makes one wonder how it ended up in If.

Beowulf Shaeffer is in trouble. The company he worked for folded, leaving a huge amount of salary unpaid. Shaeffer decided to not let his creditors know about this by keeping up his spending, digging an ever deeper hole for himself. One day, he gets approached with a financially tempting offer. An exploratory mission to a neutron star. Unfortunately it seems to be a suicide run. The star has killed explorers before. Shaeffer is not in a position to refuse though.

Neutron Star is part of Niven's Known Space universe and Shaeffer, introduced in this story, is a recurring character. Why Niven thought it was a good idea to keep him, I will probably never understand. This must be the most nonsensical story ever to win a Hugo.

Let's start with the good news before I get to the nonsense. Neutron stars were theorized to exist in the 1930s but by the time this story was published, the only observations of one were unconfirmed. In 1966, this was cutting-edge astronomy. So much so that Niven felt it necessary to infodump an explanation of the concept midway through the story. The description of the neutron star seem sound. Some of the physics is apparently a bit dodgy. He has admitted the trick Shaeffer pulls to survive would not actually have worked, but most people wouldn't have known it.

While the science is what one might expect from a hard science fiction story, the writing itself leaves something to be desired. The prose is, lets be generous, unremarkable. The main character is a lazy, slippery and greedy idiot and Known Space itself seems to be full of contradictions. Faster than light travel is possible, but sending a probe to check out the neutron star instead of wasting another life apparently is not. Physics, even the Newtonian kind, seems to be beyond some of the space faring cultures. How could one build a space ship but not understand a phenomenon like tides, which occurs everywhere where one body exerts force on another?

In the decade after the publication of this story, Niven won a shelf full of awards and wrote numerous works in Known Space. I guess it must have been popular back then. If they have aged as gracelessly as this particular story, I don't think I want to read any of it. Without the context of other Known Space tales, there is little to this story beyond a bit of interesting science. It is, in short, not a very encouraging first encounter with Niven's work.

Story Details
Title: Neutron Star
Author: Larry Niven
Language: English
Originally published: If, October 1966
Read in: The Best of Larry Niven  (2010)
Story length: Novelette
Awards: Hugo winner
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Silence of the Asonu - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Silence of the Asonu is probably not one of the best known stories by Le Guin. It wasn't nominated for any awards I'm aware of and has not been reprinted much outside Le Guin collections. The story originally appeared in Orion in 1998 under the title The Wisdom of The Asonu. All subsequent publications exchange wisdom for silence. In 2010 it was reprinted in Lightspeed where it can still be read for free.

The story describes an alien people who, as adults, are almost entirely silent. While younger Asonu talk quite a lot, older members of the species can go years without uttering a single word. This silence is fascinating to many people and the Asonu soon become the objects of intense study.

There is a lot of humour in the story, especially at the expense of people reading all sorts of things into the Asonu silence. Some see them as good listeners for instance.
Others follow their Asonu guides or hosts about, talking to them  continually, confiding their whole life stories to them, in rapture at  having at last found a listener who won’t interrupt or comment or  mention that his cousin had an even larger tumor than that. As such  people usually know little Asonu and speak mostly or entirely in their  own language, they evidently aren’t worried by the question that vexes  some visitors: Since the Asonu don’t talk, do they, in fact, listen?
Their silence makes them appear wise to some. People approach them with a religious reverence and their every word is considered a pearl of wisdom. Some go to extremes not to miss the few words that are being spoken. Under all that mocking are a couple of very serious messages though.

The human tendency to fill in the blanks if someone does not speak for themselves is one of them. Le Guin takes it one step further by mentioning an incident in which the silence of the Asonu is considered a justification for a horrible crime. Le Guin in effect points out that not having a voice, leads those that do to not take your needs, desires or feelings into account. Replace Asonu with the name of any random marginalized group and you'll see her point. Another point the story makes is just as sad really. Apparently it is very hard to accept that not everybody has the same desires. To not speak is seen as concealment, a snub, an insult, something to be cured. If we cannot accept difference within our own species this really does not bode well for any alien that might cross our path.

The Silence of the Asonu is a little gem. Both a humorous tale and a call for more empathy, it packs a lot into a short text. It must have flown under the radar the years it was first published. This is easily as good as some of Le Guin's award nominated short fiction. As far as I am concerned, this is recommended reading.

Story Details
Title: The Silence of the Asonu
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Language: English
Originally published: Orion (1998)
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 2,500 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Blind Geometer - Kim Stanley Robinson

This novella has a complicated publication history. It originally appeared as a limited edition chapbook in 1986. An abridged version appeared in August 1987 in Asimov's.  The story was later revised and expanded from the original edition for publication in Tor Double #13. The collections the novella was published in afterwards contain the third version. Ironically, the magazine version, which Robinson thinks is the least of the three, won the Nebula in 1987.

A blind mathematician is asked to study some geometric drawings by a colleague who regularly takes on jobs at the Pentagon. The drawings mean little to him but the colleague arouses his suspicion. The woman who has made the drawings intrigues him however. He decided to continue with the investigation and is soon drawn into a game of lies and suspicion from which it proves nearly impossible to extricate himself.

As with many of Robinson's stories, the main character of The Blind Geometer is a scientist. It shows in the way he thinks. Much of his thoughts are given over to geometry, a theorem by Desargues in particular. This is apparently the bit that the Asimov edition trimmed. A decision I can understand at some level but also makes the story less... Robinson I suppose. His writing is just not the same if he can't elaborate on some bit of science. Math, I will admit, has never been my strong suit but that doesn't stop me from following this story.

The most striking feature of this story is how Robinson deals with the character's blindness though. The story is written from a first person perspective so Robinson can't describe what the main character sees. He relies much more on auditory and sensory input to convey what the character experiences. Robinson uses lots of music in his tale for instance. Including a reference to Keith Jarret's The Köln Concert which I happened to have listened to last week. He likens voices to instruments in an orchestra, is acutely aware of timbre and tension, and of course the mathematics behind acoustics. It enables him to detect a lie from the way words are spoken. There is an explanation of how not being able to see can be an advantage in higher dimension geometry. Try to picture a shape in four or more dimensions and you'll soon tie your brain in knots.

There is one particular scene in the book where this way of processing information from the senses is portrayed in a very dramatic fashion. I have no idea if this is anywhere close to how a person blind from birth would experience the world, but it certainly works to convey his mood at that point in the story. He seems very aware of the difference between a person with vision and himself. I couldn't entirely escape the impression that the writer trying to wrap his head around how a blind person would approach a certain situation seeps through here and there.

If you enjoy Robinson's novels, you will most likely like this novella. It contains many of the elements that crop up in his novels. I quite liked this particular story but I do think his writing works  better in the long form. While I liked The Blind Geometer for the science and how the character goes about his business, I was less impressed with the spy element of the story. It feels a bit under developed. The motivation to involve him is made clear, but who exactly wanted information from him is not. I suppose that is not really what the story is about, but it could have used a bit more attention. It is still well worth the read though, I would even say it is not a bad introduction to Robinson's writing either. If his work piques your curiosity this would be a good place to start.

Story Details
Title: The Blind Geometer
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Language: English
Originally published: The Blind Geometer (1986)
Read in: The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010)
Story length: Novella
Awards: Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominated
Available online: Not that I am aware of.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death - James Tiptree, Jr.

Another famous writer in science fiction of whom I have read absolutely nothing. Tiptree is well known in the genre for hiding her true identity for so long. The debate about whether she was a man or woman caused several well known figures in science fiction to embarrass themselves. Robert Silverberg in particular will be remembered for it. The revelation that she was in fact a woman raised some eyebrows back in 1976. From what I know of her life it was an extraordinary one, right up to the moment of her passing. Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death originally appeared in the Stephen Goldin anthology The Alien Condition  in 1973. I read it in the Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! If anybody deserves to be in that issue it is Tiptree.

The story is written from the point of view of an alien just awakening from a cold winter. He has grown since he last saw the sun and he is ready to face the next stage in his life. He soon realizes that the world is growing colder and that his species is locked in a violent lifecycle called The Plan. He comes up with his own plan to break out of the cycle.
There is not a human in sight in this story. The alien Moggadeet is the only character and his views are ... wel, alien. It shows up in how he sees the world, how he narrates the story, how he discovers the details of his lifecycle. It doesn't make for easy reading. The main character exclaims rather than tells the story.
Excitement, enticement, shrilling from the sun-side of the world. I come! . . . The sun is changing again too. Sun is walking in the night! Sun is walking back to Summer in the warming of the light! . . . Warm is Me—Moggadeet Myself. Forget the bad-time winter.
It is fitting though. The story is an experiment in form as well as a tale about alien biology.

Between the lines of the narrative, the details of his ecology become clear and the conclusion, for anybody who knows anything about arachnids, should be obvious. Considered in that light, Moggadeet is not all that alien. To write him from his perspective without overly bold anthropomorphisation is quite an achievement. He may not have broken the cycle of life and death that governs his species, but there is a kind of contentment in the climax of the story that is hard to imagine from a human point of view. My first taste of Tiptree's writing is an interesting one. I guess another name just got added to the to-read list.

Story Details
Title: Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death
Author: James Tiptree, Jr.
Language: English
Originally published: The Alien Condition, edited by Stephen Goldin (1973)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,700 words
Awards: Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominated
Available online: Lightspeed