A Perfect Machine

In Canadian sf circles, Brett Savory is best known as half of the husband-wife duo (with Sandra Kasturi) responsible for ChiZine PublicationsBrett — with whom, full disclosure, I am somewhat socially acquainted — recently stepped back from his publishing duties to focus on his writing. Not coincidentally, he has a new novel out: A Perfect Machine, while published by Angry Robot, is very much in the ChiZine ethos of dark and seriously messed-up speculative fiction, inhabiting the crossroads between science fiction, horror and bizarro fiction.

A Perfect Machine’s premise is bizarre enough: a secret society of Hunters and Runners operating on the margins of society, protected by a kind of amnesia that prevents outsiders from remembering what’s going on. Runners, when shot, do not die — they accumulate lead. Henry Kyllo is the first Runner (to his knowledge) whose body reaches 100 percent metal content — at which point, Runners believe, they achieve ascension. What follows is the story of his weird transformation, peppered by violence, intrigue and survival in the gutters.

From time to time while reading this relatively short book I would pause and mutter under my breath, “This is some seriously fucked-up shit, Brett.” Which I’m sure is what he was aiming for. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book succeeds, because for me, at least, it didn’t. Its characters are Tourette’s-afflicted cardboard clichés. Its prose aspires to a toughness, a street-level grit, that it does not achieve, with repeated use of sentence fragments as paragraphs that gets old fast. And its transfigurative ending comes out of nowhere, failing to achieve anything other than absurd bathos. It’s quick-paced, but feels rushed — it’s a potboiler with some deliciously messed-up imagery, but it came off the stove a bit too soon. A Perfect Machine is basically a B movie in book form, with all that implies, both good and bad.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Stars Are Legion

Book cover: The Stars Are LegionI’ve read Kameron Hurley’s stuff before — namely her first novel, the Nebula-nominated God’s War (Night Shade, 2010) — so I knew what I was getting myself into with her violent and visceral new space opera, The Stars Are Legion, which comes out next month from Angry Robot in the U.K. and Saga Press in the U.S. and Canada.

A tale of intrigue, war, and betrayal set among a fleet of artificial worlds travelling through space, The Stars Are Legion could easily have been a less distinctive work, but for the fact that the worlds are organic — and, incidentally, dying — and exist in a symbiotic relationship with the humans that inhabit them, who give birth to parts that maintain them. That Hurley’s archipelago of worlds is populated entirely by women is, in other words, essential to the survival of the whole apparatus, as well as to the story. But as regular Hurley readers might expect, survival is neither gentle nor pretty: those with body horror or other squicks be warned.

The main protagonist is Zan, a woman who has lost her memory. Sent repeatedly to attack a mystery world, Zan has no idea who she is or what she is supposed to do, though she has conspirators and collaborators who do, including the second protagonist, Jayd, who is given in marriage to the ruler of another world. The intrigue surrounding Jayd’s marriage is one plot thread; Zan remembering who she is, and her original mission, is another. The latter also enables Hurley to pull a Tiptree, viz., “start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don’t tell them.” We’re just as much in the dark as Zan is; the shape of the universe reveals itself in starts and fits, as much to us as it does to her. (Though certain McGuffins do appear on obvious mantlepieces, and the reveal can be guessed at.) In the process of finding herself and her purpose, Zan goes on an unexpected journey through unexpected terrain, with scenes that to me are redolent of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, that despite the blood, bone and viscera, manage a kind of awe that verges on the Clarkean.

This is a space opera like none other I’ve read, but it nonetheless combines adventure, passion, sound worldbuilding and compelling storytelling with that elusive sense of wonder so highly sought after in science fiction — and, it must be said, seldom found. Those who demand it may not expect to find it here, but find it here they will — that is, if they have the stomach for it.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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John Scalzi’s Miniatures

I’ve been expecting a short story collection from John Scalzi for some time now: it’s the sort of thing one periodically sees from science fiction writers, once their novel-writing careers are established enough to warrant one. But Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (Subterranean, Dec. 2016), his first collection of short stories (apart from the linked collections The Human Division and The End of All Things) is not that collection. Miniatures has a specific remit: it focuses on Scalzi’s short fiction at its shortest, its funniest, and (you might say) its scalziest.

Scalzi’s past career in the newspaper biz trained him to write short and make your point fast: the average length of these 18 stories is 1,310 words. Most of them adopt the form of interviews, memoranda, transcripts, or other non-typical narrative styles — there are even two tweetstorms — which I heartily approve of on general principle, but is almost essential when dealing in super-short lengths.

And they’re also appropriate when you’re writing humour. Because, make no mistake, there are some very funny pieces here. Laugh-out-loud funny. In another context I called Scalzi quite possibly the best humorist working in science fiction today, and these pieces do little to disprove that thesis. (Though I should warn you that there is a cat-story-from-a-cat’s POV in here.) If anything his humour works better at short lengths; when he does it at novel length it runs the risk of tedium. As Scalzi says in the introduction, “If drama is a marathon, humor is a sprint. Get in, make ’em laugh, get out.”

The entire book is about the length of a novella, and will afford a pleasantly diverting afternoon’s worth of reading. His longer short stories are generally available online or as individual ebooks; whether those stories will also be collected remains to be seen.

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The Glass Universe

The Harvard computers, ca. 1890. Wikimedia Commons.
The Harvard Computers, ca. 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

On December 25 the American astronomer Vera Rubin, whose discovery that galaxies were rotating too fast given the mass of their constituent stars provided evidence for the theory of dark matter, died at the age of 88. Her obituaries note the challenges Rubin faced as a pioneering woman in an overwhelmingly male field: prevented from doing graduate work at Princeton, she got her Ph.D. at Georgetown in 1954; in 1965 she became the first woman allowed access to the Palomar Observatory. In the June 2016 issue of Astronomy, Sarah Scoles decried the fact that Rubin’s discovery was somehow insufficient for a Nobel Prize, which she will now never win.

the-glass-universeInasmuch as Rubin was a pioneer, she was not the first woman in astronomy, nor the first to obtain a Ph.D., nor the first to be responsible for a discovery that fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the cosmos — nor the first for whom recognition was unfairly delayed. Some of the women who came before her are the subject of Dava Sobel’s new book, The Glass Universe, coincidentally out this month from Viking.

From the 1880s to the 1980s, the Harvard College Observatory amassed a collection of half a million glass photographic plates of the night sky, and catalogued hundreds of thousands of stars’ luminosity and spectra. The work, along with some significant scientific discoveries, was largely done by a group of women known as the Harvard Computers. If you watched Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, you saw a bit of this in the eighth episode, “Sisters of the Sun,” which talked about the computers, especially Annie Jump Cannon, as well as Cecilia Payne, who used the computers’ data to redefine our understanding of the makeup of stars.

The Glass Universe charts the history of the group, from the bequest by Henry Draper’s widow, to Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering’s decision to hire women to do the work (less expensive), to the achievements and discoveries that followed. It’s not a scholarly work, though it’s assiduously researched, drawing on the correspondence of the principal figures. Nor is it an explicitly feminist analysis, or for that matter strictly focused on the women themselves, as the narrative takes the reader far and wide, to remote stations in Peru and South Africa. Sobel (whose previous work includes Longitude, the story of Harrison’s chronometers) provides context, and a whole history, to help us understand not only who these women were, but what they accomplished.

The sheer volume of data collected — Pickering agonized over losing the irreplaceable glass plates to fire — was the basis not only of the Bright Star Catalogue and the Henry Draper Catalogue (if you see a star identified by a number with an HD prefix, that’s where it came from), but of the discoveries that resulted from the mass of data collection, and the fact that the principals stayed at their work for decades, building up a wealth of experience and perspective at, frankly, graduate student pay rates.

It is a paradox of popular culture that while the women of the Observatory who made these discoveries received credit for their work — first in acknowledgements in Pickering’s own work, later as co-authors and authors in their own right, and in the honours they eventually received from their peers (though not, it must be said, from Harvard University itself) — their names have not penetrated the popular-science zeitgeist to the same extent as, say, Hubble’s, Lowell’s or Tombaugh’s. You might argue that stellar spectra are a more rarefied subject, but I’d counter that (a) we know who Hubble is, and his discoveries are a direct consequence of their work; and (b) I knew what their discoveries were, I just didn’t know who made them.

I knew, for example, about the system of stellar classification based on stellar spectra (“Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me” and all that), but I didn’t know that it was developed by Annie Jump Cannon — as a compromise between earlier systems devised by Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury. Classifying stars was long, tedious, repetitive work — women’s work — but it was vital, and enduring.

I knew what a Cepheid variable was, and how the relationship between its pulsation and its luminosity allowed it to be used to calculate interstellar (and later intergalactic) distances; I didn’t know that this relationship had been discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  And it was Cecilia Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin) who determined that Cannon’s spectral classes were a function of temperature, and that stars were mainly made up of hydrogen and helium. These are fundamentals of stellar astronomy, and these women were the ones who discovered them.

I’m trying to reconcile the hostility Rubin faced with the relatively warm reception given the women of the Harvard College Observatory. It’s possible that Rubin’s obituaries and Sobel’s book are each reporting a different side of the same coin: the story in both cases is incomplete. But the women of the Observatory were likely seen as exceptional, which is to say exceptions, and as such less of a threat to the profession. In any case, the field needed their work, their data and their discoveries, and was happy to have it. And in the end, the Harvard Computers, once referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” managed to transcend what in science is called the “harem effect” — the hiring of large numbers of female subordinates at lower pay — to reshape our understanding of the stars.

See also NPR’s review of The Glass Universe and National Geographic’s interview with Dava Sobel.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Pirate Utopia

PrintBruce Sterling’s latest, Pirate Utopia (Tachyon, 2016) brings together several Sterling preoccupations: alternate histories, secret technologies, and liminal, out of the way places. This time the place is the city of Fiume (modern-day Rijeka, Croatia) at a complicated point in its history.

In September 1919, Italian irregulars led by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio marched into the city to prevent it from being handed over to Yugoslavia in postwar peace talks. A year later the Italian Regency of Carnaro, an anarchic, corporatist, proto-fascist state was proclaimed. It would prove short-lived: D’Annunzio refused to recognize the Treaty of Rapallo, which established Fiume as a Free State, and his regime was expelled by Italian forces in December 1920. Fiume itself would be formally annexed by Italy in 1924.

When reading alternate history that is set in the more obscure corners of the past (see also: two thirds of Howard Waldrop’s oeuvre), it can be tricky to separate the obscure from the fictional. How do you know what’s changed when the factual is unfamiliar and the counterfactual is, shall we say, subtle? Everything mentioned in the previous paragraph is historical fact. Sterling’s changes, apart from the off-screen elimination of certain world-historical figures, are subtle, suggesting a future in which Carnaro might survive long past its historical sell-by date.

Sterling’s version of Fiume is a polyglot ramshackle town that has attracted all manner of pirates, insurrectionists and scoundrels from across Europe, most of whom turn out to be real. (And some of whom are bizarrely unexpected.) A key figure, and the story’s protagonist, is one of the few fictional characters in Pirate Utopia: Lorenzo Secondari, the Pirate Engineer of Carnaro. Secondari reminds me of another of Sterling’s characters, one with the same initials: Leggy Starlitz, the hustler of the late 20th century who appears in three stories and the novel Zeitgeist (Bantam, 2000). For all intents, with his mechanical ability, unflagging luck and tenuous grip on existence, Secondari is Starlitz, who by the way also happened to find himself in the world’s liminal places (the third Starlitz story, “The Littlest Jackal,” is how I first heard of the Åland Islands).

Sterling’s purpose in Pirate Utopia is to shed some light on a key if overlooked piece of European history: when Futurist artists in Fiume began creating the theories and symbols that would later form the core of Italian Fascism. In Sterling’s version, Futurism goes off in a different direction and just at that point the story — if it can be called that — ends abruptly. In an interview included in Pirate Utopia, Sterling defends his decision to do so:

I decided to cut it off with that moment, because it makes a statement about the nature, the appeal, of fascism. How lofty and spiritual it is, and how people come to agree with it, like they get hypnotized by the inhumanity of it, and the scope of it. Fascism does have the appeal of science fiction in some ways.

All the same, Sterling’s aesthetic decision leaves us with only the first act of a story that would inevitably have taken Secondari away from Fiume to where his ideas would have had a much greater, and almost certainly more murderous, impact. We can see where the narrative is headed, so we don’t feel quite as cheated as we might: we can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Still, those reading for story will be somewhat disappointed, and the book, which includes an introduction and three afterwords, plus interior illustrations by John Coulthart, may come across as a bit padded out and just a little too impressed with itself. Pirate Utopia is, in the end, a rather odd artifact in book shape. Somehow that seems appropriate.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Bridging Infinity

bridging-infinityMost hard science fiction isn’t about science at all. Instead it’s really engineering fiction, concerned with building, creating and problem-solving, rather than pure science. To be sure, the two disciplines get blurred in the popular mindset: Heinlein, the field’s patron saint, was an engineer rather than a scientist; so too is one of the most prominent defenders and promoters of science in American popular culture, Bill Nye. Rocket science is as much engineering — materials science, propulsion — as it is physics, and many of the Giant Objects of hard science fiction, such as Dyson Spheres and Larry Niven’s Ringworld, are essentially engineering challenges in novel form (Niven himself described the Ringworld as a suspension bridge without endpoints). And let’s be honest: the holy text of hard sf, Analog, often reads as comfort fiction for engineers, a kind of escapism that reassures the reader that all problems, no matter how big or intractable, can be solved.

I’m probably being more than a bit unfair. Not every hard sf story requires a problem-solving engineer as its protagonist. Certainly that’s not the case with Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies, the fifth and most recent iteration of which, Bridging Infinity (Solaris, November 2016) is all about that hard sf tradition of engineered solutions to future problems. As Strahan writes in the introduction,

Science fiction, or at least the sort of science fiction that was typical in American pulp magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s was founded on a belief that problems are solvable, and that those problems are solvable using technical or engineering solutions. When faced with a problem in a story in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, our engineering hero wouldn’t quail before the challenge, but would instead “science the shit out of it” (as Andy Weir so elegantly put it) and come up with an engineering solution to the problem. And sometime it would take a big solution, a Hoover Dam or maybe moving a planet or two.

While previous volumes of the Infinity Project focused on interstellar futures, or limited themselves to the Solar System, Bridging Infinity‘s stories are about or are set in engineering projects at large — sometimes very large — scales, and the problems they aim to solve. But — and this is important — setting is not story. The fifteen stories by eighteen authors (there are three collaborations) are a good mix of perspective, character and setting.

The characters are as often adventurers and troubadours (for the latter, see “The Mighty Slinger” by Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord) as they are engineers; the marginalized are as present as the managerial, and the problem they’re trying to solve is sometimes their own survival. The settings themselves are fairly diverse as well: they range from cities, ships and installations to massive geoengineering projects on Earth (engineered responses to climate change is a recurring topic) and Venus to Dyson-grade megastructures. Some of the settings are familiar — with “Parables of Infinity,” Robert Reed presents us with another of his Great Ship stories, and Allen Steele returns to the setting of his novel, Hex, with a story that addresses a design flaw in that novel’s setting, a “not-quite Dyson sphere composed of trillions of hexagons.” Others, like the gravity wave generator in Benford and Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants,” are utterly uncanny. And sometimes the scope of the story is as vast as the built environment: see, for example, the multigenerational viewpoints of “The Venus Generations” by Stephen Baxter or Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays.”

I’ve long been a fan of Strahan’s Infinity Project. The stories have been of high caliber — Strahan’s a great editor, one I nominate for a Hugo each year — and I’ve made a point of buying and reading each installment as it comes out. But while Bridging Infinity is a solid and diverting collection of stories — it does what it says on the tin — it’s possible that after five spins of the wheel the returns are beginning to diminish. I can’t point to any single story and say, this is utterly amazing, whereas I could do that with many of the stories in the first book, Engineering Infinity. In the end, my sense of wonder ought to have engaged more than it did.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Invisible Planets

invisible-planetsIn addition to writing some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the past few years (and I hear his novels are pretty good, too), Ken Liu has also been translating Chinese science fiction into English. His most visible work has been the translation of the first and third volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, but he’s also been translating short stories — more than forty of them so far, according to his bibliography — that have been appearing in the online and print magazines. One of those translations, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” won the Hugo Award for best novelette this year.

Thirteen of Ken’s1 translations, including Hao’s “Folding Beijing” and two stories by Liu Cixin, have now been gathered in Invisible Planets, out this week from Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.). It’s a first-rate anthology for a couple of reasons. For one, Ken himself is an elegant writer, and his translations are no less elegant. For another, the process to arrive at these thirteen stories — Ken translating his favourite Chinese-language stories, then picking his favourites of those translations — makes for a selection process akin to a year’s-best or best-of anthology. In other words, we’re getting the cream of the cream of the crop.

At the same time, this is not necessarily a representative anthology — something that Ken warns against in his opening essay:

Any broad literary classification tied to a culture — especially a culture as in flux and contested as contemporary China’s — encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture. Attempts to provide neat answers will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value, or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices.

This is a collection of contemporary stories by up-and-coming writers (with the exception of Liu Cixin, already seen as the dean of Chinese sf). There is no attempt at comprehensiveness or canonicity, though the included essays from Ken and three of the Chinese writers do provide some of the history of Chinese sf. Invisible Planets is in the main about where Chinese sf is going, not where it’s been; it’s an introduction, not definitive.

Ken has also done two things that anthologists tend not to do. Most anthologies don’t have more than one story per author; he’s included three each from Chen Quifan and Xia Jia, and two each from Hao Jingfang and Liu Cixin. And he’s included longer stories. Many anthologies load up their table of contents with smaller stories (more bylines, better value); Ken’s eschewed this. Not only do the stories get more room to breathe, but we also get to see more than one side of each of Ken’s seven writers.

So what can be said about these stories in particular? Ken argues that these share “a sense of imbalance” reflecting the fact that China is a society in extremely rapid transition, split between poor villages and high-tech cities. That sense is most keenly apparent in a story like “Folding Beijing,” with its critique of class, poverty and privilege, or in Chen Quifan’s “Flower of Shazui” — the poor and traditional bump up against the rich and advanced. But it echoes in stories where the cost of that transition is scrutinized, as in Chen’s poingnant “Fish of Lijiang.”

I also think that these stories are engaged — socially aware, concerned with the impact of technological, political and environmental change. The uninitiated reader who assumes that Chinese literature must necessarily exist in a modern-day Biedermeier period will be startled to read something like Ma Boyong’s story, “The City of Silence,” a parable of censorship and repression that reads like Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age.

There is a recurring theme of loss and endings: we see it in stories that focus on old age and the end of life, even the end of human civilization (Xia Jia’s “Night Journey of the Dragon-house”) or existence (Chen Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies“). Care for the elderly is a recurring topic, both literally — Xia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” explores telepresence — and allegorically: Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” looks at the elder care requirements of the dying race that created humanity.

If these stories say anthing about Chinese sf, it’s that it’s a whole, complete, living breathing thing, capable of both pocket-protector crunchiness (Liu Cixin recasts a scene from The Three-Body Problem — using armies as calculators — as a historical tale) and real poignancy. There’s a there there — and it’s worth paying attention to.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Note
  1. To avoid confusion between Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, I’m calling Ken by his first name.