Mortimer Gray’s History of Death • 1995 • Posthuman SF novella by Brian Stableford

★★★★

Synopsis: Mortimer Gray lives as an emortal in the 29th century with nanorobots repairing his cells and providing him a lifespan of hundreds of years. As historian, he writes ten volumes about human death culture, starting from early Egypt up to the new Thanatics cult who decline the immortality treatment. Gray’s life stages – living in a multi-partner marriage, or on the Moon, or as parent – influence the writing of the next volume.

Review: What sounds first as a boring study, starts very lifely with a life-threating scene and continues with evermore fascinating concepts like contractual group marriages, publicly staged deaths, or bioengineered humans with arms replacing legs to adapt them to a life in outer space. There is not much action involved, but more of a detailed character study and thoughtful deep dive into the sociological meaning of death in an immortal world. Stableford interleaves the dry reviews of the ten volumes with first person narratives of Gray’s life. Gray’s evolving insights of mortality lead to his philosophically founded and dedicated answers to the Thanatics cult and cyborganics. The novella has a very satisfying ending. Structure, pace, and engaging narrative make this a wonderful piece of work of science fiction.

Together with a citation from the last part of Star Trek:Picard, this novella left a deep impression on me:

Commander Data: “Mortality gives meaning to human life, Captain. Peace. Love. Friendship. These are precious, because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.”

Meta: isfdb. Available online.

 

 

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None So Blind • 1994 • Near Future SF short story by Joe Haldeman

Synopsis: The story follows biographically the life of genius Cletus starting in 1994 in Virginia. He falls in love with blind musician Amy, and wonders, “Why aren’t all blind people geniuses?” He experiments with repurposing the visual areas of the brain.

Review: A very short story throwing in large infodumps and gobbledygook, most of which isn’t of any consequence. The repetitive interjections by the biographical narrator don’t help as well. The story is concept-driven by yet another “you use only 10 percent of your brain” myth but fails to clarify what really would be lost removing eye-sight. I wonder why others found the story so charming that it won several awards.

Meta: isfdb. Available online at the author’s website.

 

 

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Die Krieger der Altaii • 2020 • High Fantasy Roman von Robert Jordan

★★★

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Die Altaii sind ein nomadisches Kriegervolk, die sich gegen die harsche Steppe behaupten und von Überfällen auf Karawanen leben. Sie scheinen übermächtig und lachen über die kläglichen Konkurrenten und verweichlichten Städter. Doch die Verhältnisse wandeln sich: Wasserlöcher trocknen aus, die Gegner verbünden sich. Einer der Anführer der Altaii – Wulfgar – versucht, die Ursachen dieser Widernisse herauszufinden. Anfangs stolpert er noch zufällig auf die Verschwörung, um später mit odysseischer Schläue die Gegner auszutricksen.

Fans lieben Robert Jordans regalbreite Serie vom “Rad der Zeit”, die aktuell von Amazon verfilmt wird. Der hier besprochene, posthum veröffentlichte Roman gehört nicht zu dieser Serie, obwohl einige Ideen wie die Magie auf weiblicher Seite oder die Kultur der der Aiel sich deutlich abzeichnen. Tatsächlich schrieb Jordan den Roman vor der Serie, konnte ihn aber nie zur Veröffentlichung bringen. Der Roman gefällt als typisches Produkt seiner Entstehungszeit Ende der Siebziger, als Wanderer zwischen den Welten technische Innovationen in die Fantasy-Welten brachten. Stramme Action, exotische Kulturen, freie Magiesysteme muten dem heutigen Leser wie ein Tie-in-Roman eines Fantasy-Spiels an: Keine Sekunde langweilig, eingestreute und stets jugendschutzfreie Sex-Szenen, sowie eine konsequente Charakterisierung des Hauptprotagonisten vor seinem kulturellen Hintergrund führen zu einem lässigen Durchlesen am Stück. Bestes Konsumgut, das allerdings keinen sonderlichen Eindruck hinterlässt, kein Nachdenken erfordert.

Der Roman ist geeignet für Fantasyleser, die zwischendurch abschalten wollen und keine literarischen Ansprüche anmelden. Vorkenntnisse des Hauptwerks von Jordan sind nicht erforderlich. Vor allem aber für Fans der Serie ist dieser alleinstehende Roman eine willkommene Ergänzung. Ich genoss die relative Kürze des Romans und dafür gibt es drei Sterne.

 

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Guest of Honor • 1993 • SF novelette by Robert Reed

★★★★★

Synopsis: Immortal humans don’t travel in space any more because it’s too dangerous. Instead, they amalgamate their characteristics to one clone and send it in teams on field trips. Pico returns home to her 63 parents from a decades long adventure cruise through the galaxy. With her, she brings all the memories, adventures, and feelings – her creators will dissassemble her and integrate her to their own minds just the next day. On the feast to honor her, she tells some highlights and remembers some intimate scenes. One man seems to be different than the other bored immortals and she gets second thoughts.

Review: A unique idea that I loved following with a well-played plot twist. The feast’s dialogues integrated well with her flashback scenes on different planets. They were fascinating and remembered me of the Tears in Rain soliloquy in 1982’s BladeRunner. It stayed with me and I wondered how all the other clones tried to escape their fate and how long the sacrifice helped overcome the immortals’ boredom. How does Pico cope with her looming death caused by her creators? Reed interleaves that topic masterfully with different angles into the narration.

Meta: isfdb. Reprinted online at Clarkesworld.

 

 

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Even the Queen • 1992 • Near Future short story by Connie Willis

★★★

Synopsis: Perdita rebels against her mother by joining the Cyclists, a feminist liberal group who refuse to take the shunt which prevents womens’ menstruation thereby expressing their freedom and embracing their gender. Perdita’s grandmother organises a lunch with her female relatives to brow beat her into leaving the group. After some tactical synchronization, Perdita doesn’t show up but she sent her Cyclist docent instead.

Review: This story won nearly every award – be it Hugo, Nebula, Locus or others, and I can see why this story worked for lots of people. It is quite comical starting with the repetitive phone calling of Perdita’s mother by her family, the bickering that it’s all her fault because she never tells them anything, the restaurants vegane menu and I really had to laugh at

“There are some things worth giving up anything for, even your freedom, and getting rid of your period is definitely one of them.”

It has a fine enough tension arc with a quite funny plot twist at the end.

On the other hand it didn’t respond with me, and that is mainly due to Willis’s narration style: Those inital repetitions of the phone calls might be taken from real life but it is getting on my nerves the same way as all that bickering. Though being funny, I think the story is vastly overrated – it just doesn’t give enough to think and wonder to last longer than a day. Also, I gringed about the sheer amount of menstruation and menopause in the story. The story is set in some undefined near future, but having been written in the 1990s, some facts didn’t transport well – like the state of Iraq or the Golan Heights. If Willis would have just scrapped those unessential elements from the story, it would have worked far better nowadays. One thing stayed constant, though: “Even the Queen menstruates” isn’t true in 2020 and wasn’t true back when the story was written.

Meta: isfdb.

 

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Bears Discover Fire • 1990 • magical realism short story by Terry Bisson

★★★+

Synopsis: Bears have discovered fire. They gather around on the interstate I-65 and are fine when people join them.

Review: This story won nearly every award – be it Hugo, Nebula, Locus or others. I got the allegory for the longing for wilderness and community, but it didn’t touch me as strongly as it would U.S. readers. While I enjoyed the contemplative prose, I found the obsessive elaboration of tyre changing quite boring. The relationship study of the narrator, his nephew and his mother isn’t accompanied by any action at all. 

Meta: isfdb. Available online.

 

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Tales from the Venia Woods • 1989 • Alternative History short story by Robert Silverberg

★★★★

Synopsis: Early during the Second Roman Republic, in the year AUC 2650 (A.D. 1987), two children from the Teutonic provinces go deep into the Vienna woods to salvage tokens from a haunted hunting lodge. Instead of the ghost, they meet a frightened old man hiding in the imperial ruins. They listen to his stories and soon begin to suspect that he is not a caretaker but a brother of the former Caesar taking refuge.

Review: This calm, engaging story completely without horrific elements is somewhat sentimental, nostalgic but also thoughtful: Think of Romans dancing to the (nearly eponymous) Waltz from Richard Strauss and the possibility of 2000 years of eternal peace under Romans – disturbed only by petty wars. Over the years, Silverberg wrote several stories in his alternative history world of Roma Eterna where old Rome survived the Hunnians during the Migration period and retained polytheism because the monotheistic religions didn’t manage to spread. This story is the second to last chapter in the collection. This idea stayed with me, but also the nostalgy turning kingdoms to republics.

Meta: isfdb. Available online.

 

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Fearless • 2020 • Space Opera by Allen Stroud

★★★★

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Human colonies on Moon, Mars, Ceres, and Europa need to be supported by the Fleet. Captain Shann and her crew patrol the space traffic to provide roadside assistance in case of emergencies. During the acceleration on the way to a freighter’s distress signal, one of crew dies, and a mystery story begins: Was it an accident or murder? Soon after they arrive at the helpless freighter, they battle against a human created superior battleship. A race to the safety of nearby Mars moon Phobos starts. The crew fights not only against this exterior enemy but also against their fears, suspicions, treason, end even mutiny.

This juicy space opera leads you breathlessly through mystery and action scenes. It is one of the highest sugar calory popcorn stories that I ever read, and I couldn’t put it down. Great characterization of multiple point of views, engaging space tactics, innovative problem solving feed that special urge of SF nerds. Don’t read this for relaxation but for entertainment. The tension arc holds up to the last page, and while providing a very satisfying ending it leaves enough trails for followup novels. Highly recommended.

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Kirinyaga • 1988 • SF novelette by Mike Resnick

★★★★★

Synopsis:  Kirinyaga is an 22nd century artificial space colony recreating the culture and environment of the Kikuyu African tribe stemming from Mount Kenya. Main protagonist Koriba earned several Oxbridge degrees but now leads the tribe spiritually as a shaman. The Maintenance crew won’t accept the tribe’s euthanasia and child murder rooted deeply in traditions. Koriba is unbending and trains the young men for war.

Review: Resnick brings the Kirinyaga tribe masterfully to life with their habits, mythology, traditions, and stories within the story, told by Koriba who leads as a fanatic anti-hero. From his point of view, the reader understands why the horrific ancient customs and laws need to be obeyed. There is no romanticism of natives involved, and some tensions between the shaman’s and chief’s roles come up. While the prose itself is simple and driven forward smoothly, the rich and complex ideas behind it are challenging the reader’s worldview. It is not only entertaining but also thought provoking, I highly recommend it.

Meta: isfdb. It won the Hugo Award.

 

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The Pure Product • 1986 • Time Travel novelette by John Kessel

★★★

Synopsis:  A time traveler lives through the 1980s. The story follows his road trip where he enjoys his petty crimes and leaves a trail of pointless murders.

Review: At first glance I nearly dropped the reading because I don’t like horror. As the story unfolded I could distance myself from the psychopathic actions and enjoy the protagonist’s musings. It was more like an adrenaline ride through a theme park than a real crime scene. The mystery of what this man is and what his motivations are draws one into the story and at the end, I liked it. I haven’t read other stories from the author – so, I only can guess that the story is linked by other time traveling episodes.

Meta: isfdb. Reprinted online.

 

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