The Dispatcher • 2017 • novella by John Scalzi

★★

It isn’t as easy anymore as it was previously to kill someone: All of a sudden, murdered people don’t die any more but just vanish and reappear naked at home. This phenomenon established a whole new profession: Dispatchers kill people, when a surgery just went completely wrong. In this novella, dispatcher Tony Valdez helps … to find his mysteriously vanished colleague in a race of time.

The story concentrates around the thought experiment of reappearing people but focusing only on the detective story. Which is very one-sided, because we don’t really get to know how the mainline religions react on it, what economics or politics have to say about this idea, and also not about scientific elaborations. It is just the shallow, unexplained phenomenon, and doesn’t provide a well-defined setting. From this, I derive that it isn’t Science Fiction – it feels more like a detective noir in a kind of urban fairy tale. Other authors would have pushed this thingy into a short story, but Scalzi expanded it first to a two hours audio play. In the upcoming novella publication, this audio orientation comes through badly, as you have to read endless dialogue alternations without any orientation who said what. In fact, there isn’t much narration, it is mostly dialogue. I can’t say how the audio play was, but as a reader, this didn’t work out for me at all. It was ok, but I can’t say that I liked it.

I recommend it for fans of short popcorn mysteries. At the given price tag it is obvious that I further filter the recommendation to Scalzi fans. Anybody else might just want to skip this waste of time.

 

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The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas • 1973 • Utopia short story by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★

This story is no story, it has no plot, no main character. It describes in vivid descriptions a philosophical concept which is an extension of William James’s essay The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life: an utopia which relies on the suffering of a single person can only be wrong.  The title concentrates on the logical consequence that morale persons would take. It can be understood as an argument against utilitarianism, or a parable of first world exploitation of poorer countries: Think about all the children workers in the Lithium mines of D.R. Kongo just to get you a nice cellphone.

Though it doesn’t work as a short story at all, it resonates – far better because easier accessible than James’s complicate philosophical essay. Would you walk away? Or take the easy path and stay?

I’m pretty sure that nowadays it wouldn’t win the puppy polluted Hugo Awards like it did in 1974. Where people back in the 1970s in a different mind set than now?

Meta: isfdb. This SF short story appeared 1973 in robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions 3. I read it in her anthology The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. It won the 1974 Hugo Award.

 

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„Repent, Harlequin!“ Said the Ticktockman • 1965 • Dystopian short story by Harlan Ellison

★★★★★

Synopsis:  In a future world humans have sacrificed personal liberty for order and timeliness: Everything is scheduled tightly, everybody is exactly on time, ruled by the harsh requiment of the de-anthropomorphised clockwork called the Ticktockman. Enter the harlequin, who’s motto is best described as Civil disobience, mostly by being late and disrupting factory schedules by throwing in multitudes of jellybeans. The Ticktockman needs the Harlequin’s real name, so that he can use a device called the cardioplate which measures punctuality and can stop a human’s heart when they literally run out of time.

Review: What a title! That alone would deserve 5 stars – it covers the whole story with the result of the conflict between the main protagonists. This non linear but flashbackless story begins in the middle, continues with the start and finishes with the end. The story demonstrates how an author can violate writing rules without loosing excellence. It questions the balance between individualism and conformity, how much personal liberty you would like to give up for adhering to the rules of society and thus become a part of it. As in any dystopia, it shows us such a society in the extremes of a mechanical tyranny but with a more humorous and dark tone than Brave New World or 1984. In summary, it is a fable with a very easy morale.

Don’t miss the excellent literary analysis by Thomson Gale.

Meta: isfdb. This dystopian short story appeared December 1965 in Galaxy Magazine. I’ve read it in German in his collection Ich muss schreien und habe keinen Mund, but it has been reprinted in a more than 100 anthologies. It won the 1966 Hugo and Nebula awards.

 

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Mightier than the Sword • 2017 • Fantasy novella by K. J. Parker

★★★★★

Synopsis: Pirates have been attacking the Empire’s monasteries for a while. The Emperor’s nephew is sent out as imperial legate to assess the monasteries‘ defenses, learn about the pirates, and get the problem solved. In the monasteries, he finds banished family members and friends installed as abbesses and abbots, lots of monks extending their wonderful libraries, thick walls, but zero defending fighters.

Review: Parker’s novellas are always a great joy to read, always thoughtful, and full of beautiful prose. The first person account meant as a translation of a diary is often tongue-in-the-cheek, never boasting, sometimes romantic, or in summary: a very nice, believable main character. I really had to laugh when I learned about the delicate history of some female Aunts. Its setting remembered me of a late mediaeval similar version of Constantinople with a variation of orthodox Christian traditions, e.g. Epitrachelion or Omophorion wearing abbesses. The labarum added to it, which is Constantin the Great’s imperial standard, fusing military and religion. As you can see, Parker relies on many details to immerse the reader in his fantasy world. In style and setting, I find it very similar to Kay’s Tigana or Bujold’s Curse of Chalion. Also, in the amount of action involved, although it contains tactical campaigns and a little bit of one-on-one fighting. Instead, it is a mystery story where I had to puzzle about the pirates‘ background and motivation, all of which found a somewhat unexpected resolution.

A story with monks copying books and fighting pirates? How can one not love it!

The novella will be available end of June 2017 at Subterranean Press.

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The Collapsing Empire • 2017 • Space Operetta by John Scalzi

★★+

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To be perfectly clear about this extended short story: It’s a trap luring you into reading a series which doesn’t exist, yet. Are you ready for that?

In television, I’d expect this pilot movie to be instantly followed by a first season. In book series, I don’t know many installations which feel as hollow and screaming „buy me“ as this one.
I said it is an extended short story, not a novel. For one, it is 336 pages, which is short for a novel but too long for a novella in the usual meaning. Two, the contents of this pilot movie stretches over too long a piece of bread. Three, the pilot is fat, cholesterol and sugar heavy popcorn action. Containing lots of literal and verbal fucking around. An easy, amusing page-turner which fills some special need – quite similar to the times when you sit back and tell yourself „time for a nice porn“ or „I really need a supersize BigMac menu“.

Don’t blame me, I’ve read my good share of Scalzi novels, and this one is standing in the best tradition. I like it every now and then because it is a different diet than my literary, philosophical, or scientific needs dictate usually. Good for the moment it lasts, nothing to think about further on.

This work is absolutely everything you’d expect from a Scalzi with all its humour, admirable characters, and breathless action. Only this time, it is not a standalone but a huge cliffhanger sucking for future releases. Which are not available and won’t be for a while.

Fuck you, Scalzi, you should have written one standalone novel, not this teaser of an extended short story.

Sorry about swearing in this review, I’ve still got a sugar shock.

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A Martian Odyssey • 1934 • SF novelette by Stanley G. Weinbaum

★★★+

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The four-man crew of the Ares has landed on Mars in the Mare Cimmerium. Dick Jarvis travels south to explore the landscape, but crashes after 800 miles. He has to walk in the thin, but breathable atmosphere the whole way back. He rescues Tweel, a birdlike intelligent alien who takes the rest of the adventurous journey with him and saves him from several encounters.

The SFWA voted 1970 on the best SF stories of all time; this novelette came in second to Asimov’s Nightfall. In our times, it doesn’t come quite as close, when Locus readers voted it on place 15 of 20th century novelettes. But given its age, it transfers very well for a SF story. Likeable characters, an exotic zoo of aliens like Star Wars’s Mos Eisley Cantina including silicon-based pyramid builder, and an adventurous and dangerous ride on the surface of Mars which would perfectly fit into GRRM’s Old Mars anthology, well, if it weren’t an original old Mars story. Only the plot feels thin. Most of all, it invented aliens different from driveling tentaculous fiends and different from yet-another-humanoid-from-outer-space. ‚Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man‚ was Campbell’s challenge which was clearly fulfilled by Weinbaum. His aliens think completely differently, as seen in the Tweel’s foreign language, or have a completely different metabolism, as seen in the hundred thousand years old pyramid builders.

If you want to see that a single story can change a whole genre, then this is it: After 1934, every pulp author wanted to write like Weinbaum. That is why Asimov characterized him – besides E.E. Smith and Robert A. Heinlein – as one of three novae quickening the imaginations of his readers.

Don’t miss the wikipedia article with a map of Jarvis‘ travel.

 

Meta: isfdb. Read in The Road to Science Fiction #2: From Wells to Heinlein and The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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The Quiet War • 2008 • SF novel by Paul McAuley

A global catastrophy called the Overturn devastated Earth. We write the year 2210, and Earth is slowly reconstructed by fundamentally Gaia-oriented states like oligarchic Greater Brazil and the EU. Gen manipulation is necessary to get back exterminated animal races but otherwise mostly despised. This honourable path of humanity is contrasted by the Outers, a group of humans who escaped the Overturn to the planets of the Solar system. They developed a grassroot democracy and freely alter their genome, led by an ingenious gen-wizard Avernus. Some ten years before the start of the novel, a war between Earth and the Outers led to extinction of the Mars colony.
Pre-war tension is high at the start of the novel, and we witness the creation of human clones trained to be spies, and of neurally enhanced space pilots.
Warmongers work against pacifistic oriented characters like Earth’s ingenious geneticist Sri and main character Macy Minnot, a soil chemicist. Macy first engages to a peace project on a Jupiter Moon but has to flee through the outer Solar system. As a side-note, I’d like to point at that McAuley has written a short story featuring Macy Minnot, cf. my review of Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden.

This novel can’t decide if it wants to be a Kim Stanley Robinson or an Alastair Reynolds, i.e. vivid science and landscape detours or a juicy popcorn space opera.
I loved how it juggled both aspects through Antarctica, the moons of Jupiter and the Saturn ring without any of the balls falling. Most male characters where war oriented, whereas females tended more towards peace, so it is a kind of female novel with lovable characters in a realistic setting. It is also not exactly a war novel but more the slow build up to war. I found a good piece of action stretched with philosophical discussions and said detours. This style is certainly not everyone’s favourite dish but I really liked it.
I’ll put the second part of the trilogy, Gardens of the Sun, on my TBR shelves.

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The Star • 1897 • Apocalyptic SF short story by H.G. Wells

★★+

Our Sun has captured a celestial body which collides with outermost planet Neptune on a course to Earth. Initially, it is only relevant for astronomers, but after some time the media generate a hype aorund the approaching apocalypse. People really start to react when the star lightens up the nights and reaches the size of the Moon. Martians witness how the polar ice caps start to melt causing floods, Earthshakes cause further desaster, most of human population is whiped out, the Moon is displaced to an outer orbit, but the final impact doesn’t come: the star heads towards the Sun. Humans resettle on the climate poles.

H.G. Wells is considered as one of the SF founding fathers. Hugo Gernsback named him as one of his top three influences (besides E.A. Poe and Jules Vernes) when he formed Astounding. Wells didn’t want see himself in the tradition of Jules Vernes who explored innovations and discoveries; he wanted to describe normal peoples‘ reactions to phantastic or speculative elements. Impact events are an ever-recurring topic in SF with movie adaptions like 1998’s Armageddon or Deep Impact or novels like Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer. Written at the end of the 19th century, the scientific part demonstrates the visionary capabilities of Wells. Compare the build-up to modern works:

  1. The Event of the desaster
  2. The Dawning: someone realizes that it might be a problem
  3. Taunting: average people laugh about it or even consider it as a good omen
  4. Refused Proof: some crazy scientist’s proof is disregarded or even scoffed at
  5. Panic: most people realize the facts, situation gets out of control
  6. Last Minute Rescue Attempts
  7. Resolution: It was bad but the worse didn’t happen, we have to live on with the consequences.

Wells’s world view of Scientific rationalism clearly shows in the voice of the Mathematician, but also his scepticism of scientists‘ influence which are disregarded by media, politicians, and religious leaders. I see a connection to our contemporary Alternate Facts, here.

As a vision, the story works very well. As a story, not so good – it is more a list of emotionally distant scientific statements with pastiche-like reactions of average people to the apocalypse. Though not very long, it feels slow. As such, it doesn’t transfer to our times well enough.

 

Meta: isfdb. Read in The Road to Science Fiction: Volume I: From Gilgamesh to Wells and The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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Fable • 2016 • Fairy tale short story by Charles Yu

★★★

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A therapist asks a man in midlife crisis to describe his life as a fairy tale. He needs several attempts, some of them embarassing, but getting better and nearer to his personality with each try.

Actually, this is no fairy tale but a moving metafiction about raising up an autistic son. I found some remarks hilarious, but most of the time I didn’t like the heavy-handed analogies. Especially the ending wasn’t to my taste at all.

 

Meta: isfdb. Appeared May 2016 in the New Yorker. Read in Best SFF 11. Available online.

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The Visitor from Taured • 2016 • SF novelette by Ian R. MacLeod

★★★★

Cosmologist Rob tries to proof his theory of multiverses, exemplified by the story of the Man from Taured. His roommate Lita studies „analogue literature“ and is one of the last persons with dead tree editions of books – people don’t care about non-interactive 2D-literature anymore. Their relationship evolves as slowly as the tension about Rob’s research topic.

The beautiful prose of this melancholic romance compensates the complete lack of action. This is certainly no story for space opera or military SF fans. I’d say it is more on a level to mainstream literature with just a few grains of SF. I can see why it is included in Best of anthologies and can fully recommend it.

 

Meta: isfdb. Appeared September 2016 in Asimov’s. Read in Best SFF 11.

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