The Kindest God is Light, Joanna Berry. A depressed poet is stationed at an alien psychological treatment facility as part of a diplomatic endeavour. Alongside a select number of other human beings, this poet has been asked to sync with a device called an Echo, which will record the full range of their emotional personality. The poet blames themselves for their inability to achieve sync, particularly in contrast to those at the facility who are actually receiving treatment. To move forwards, they must revisit the fundamental reason why they are here. Strong writing and an optimistic message.
Books & Zines
The Winds and Persecutions of the Sky, Robert Minto. Forgot to take notes at the time of reading. This story rushed back to me as soon as I re-read the first few words; the mental image of the protagonist clinging to the side of a crumbling skyscraper as they scale the vines that enfold it is a memorable one. It’s a nice story that juxtaposes two ways of life in the aftermath of a fallen civilization and has some fine moments, although I found the conclusion a little under-supported in terms of character motivation.
Verum, Storm Humbert. The black market narcotic of choice is “verum”, a tailor-made substance that induces dreams in the user. Our protagonist is a mixer of verum, and indeed the first who produced mixes that induced dreams greater than the unimaginative output of the “porn barons” his product displaced. But this mixer is growing old and feels a younger competitor nipping at his heels. This is a solid lead story that focuses on the relationship between the two mixers, their experiences and desires, and the lurking threat of betrayal and violated trust. The worldbuilding is just enough though it’s unclear why verum is a black market substance, save that the story demands low-output mixers who tailor their product for individuals.
Last year I was posting reading notes on Interzone short stories as I caught up on a backlog of magazines that built up during my relocation.
This was part of a personal aspiration to read a short story and an essay every day. Achieving something so simple is sometimes harder than it sounds.
Sharing those notes here fell by the wayside due to holidays and work, but COVID-19 is inadvertently providing a little time to redress this…
The Realitarians, James Warner. Apparently part of a series of tales about “feline sleuths”, this one features a woman with a tendency to get mixed up with bad sorts luring a physicist into a kidnapping, following which things rapidly unravel. She’s not a good person, and nor are any of the humans around her. Are the cats? Well, one of them at least might be a “realitarian”. An off-kilter story with an easy humour that left me wanting to read more about these feline sleuths.
Cyberstar, Val Nolan. Humanity has expanded across much of the solar system, and – wouldn’t you know it – our societies are riven by state violence and deep-rooted inequality. One strange and at times horrifying religion is sending out its missionaries, promising something different and recruiting those it needs for its cause. One such is our protagonist, a laid-off engineer, who at the story’s outset is having his eyes removed by his brothers and sisters. Making good use of its protagonist’s shifting worldview, this story quickly establishes an evocative and exotically familiar setting, feels scientifically grounded despite its wild invention, and delivers in style with its conclusion.
The most recent issue of Vector, the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal, landed on my doormat last month. Its arrival was a pleasure, as it’s the first mailout to come to my new Finnish address (the rest, I believe, languish as-yet-unread in my sister’s house in Surrey).
Best of all, it’s a themed issue, something I gather Vector is doing more of these days. The last issue was on economics and science fiction, which I look forward to reading. This issue covers African and Afrodiasporic SF, and it’s one of the most interesting issues of Vector in recent memory. So much so that I wanted to share a quick overview of its contents, and encourage my many readers to consider joining the BSFA. It’s an almost entirely volunteer-based organisation, after all.
The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright, Alison Wilgus. A quite wonderful story, written with warmth and confidence, about the sister of the famous Wright brothers and her time-skipping efforts to save them from death. Most of the story adheres to the recorded history of the Wright siblings, although in its final section it goes further in an attempt to save Wilbur from his early death by typhoid fever, and Katherine and Orville’s long estrangement in the years that followed.
I’ve resolved to try and read a short story every day, and I’m starting with a backlog of recent issues of Interzone magazine. Here are a few thoughts on the stories in issue #278.
Soldiers Things, Tim Lees. A portrayal of the trauma of combat and of a consequent loss of identity. A soldier returns home where he is welcomed as a hero. Yet he is also one of the few who seem to have survived, and has been released into a community that does not understand him, and which, bitterly, he himself no longer understands. What is the protagonist’s identity? What was his past? He contradicts himself, and these contradictions drive this story.
Andy Weir, author of The Martian, hardly needs signal-boosting. His breakthrough novel was not an immediate hit in 2011, but a self-published novel that sells 35,000 copies when it arrives on Kindle, then is picked up by a major publisher, and then is made into one of 2015’s biggest science fiction films is undoubtedly a huge success story.
The novel also offers up a good story. For such a popular novel there’s a surprising amount of engineering, science and mathematics present, albeit most of it asking little of the reader save to accept that astronaut/botanist/engineer Mark Watney has solved a problem. It’s interesting that this might also be one of the most commercially successful novels with hard SF characteristics in many years. Not being an avid tracker of genre book sales I’ve no idea if I’m correct in thinking that, but if it is true then the reason why is likely the book’s other main strength: its protagonist’s good humour and wit. He’s a sort of lovable goofball type, except competent and intelligent rather than indolent and fundamentally dickish.
I’m a fan of space opera. Have been since I was a starry-eyed teen reading whatever SF I could find in my local second-hand bookshops. This inevitably included Golden Age works – van Vogt, Asimov, Pohl, E.F. Russel and more – with yellowing pages and, at least in my memory, instantly recognisable covers, usually by Chris Foss. Often via the same shops I also read various works of ‘new space opera’: Banks, Hamilton, Greenland, Sheffield, MacLeod and many others.
Coming to both epochs of space opera mixed together in one great melange meant that I had little grasp of how the latter reacted to the former, refracted through the lens of the intervening New Wave and the differing politics of generations and cultures. To me it was all science fiction. Yet whilst I liked much of what I read I enjoyed the new space opera more. A personal reaction, of course, and one reflected on two decades later. I’m just laying the groundwork for a little context, because around that same time I read an E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith book and I thought it was shit.