Friday 18 December 2015

Closing Contact

A few weeks ago I turned up this typescript, which was my first submission to Interzone, and indeed my first submission to any kind of paying market. The story was written at the end of 1985, and submitted at the start of the new year of 1986, making it almost exactly thirty years old. I make no claims for the quality of the story; indeed - as you'll see - it was rejected, and its flaws were obvious enough to me even then, sufficiently so that I made no effort to rework it. But hopefully it's of some interest as an early effort, and scholars of Revelation Space will find one of the character names significant. If nothing else, it's an object lesson in how not to format a short fiction submission ....

 (Edit - struggling to find a good way to both display these images and have them appear at a useful size for reading. Bear with me...)

Monday 14 December 2015

Asimov's - August 2015

The August issue is a particularly strong one. Earlier this year I lavished praise on Nick Wolven's "On The Night of The Robo-Bulls and the Zombie Dancers", and Wolven's lead piece in this issue - the equally awkwardly titled "No Placeholder For You, My Love", while shorter, is no less strong. We meet the protagonist, Claire, at a dinner party in what appears to be New Orleans, where Claire in turn meets Byron, a mysterious and attractive stranger, but before long we're being clued in that all is not what it seems: "She lifted her glass of wine to her mouth, and the liquid vanished the instant it touched her tongue." Claire, we soon realise, is - along with Byron and everyone else she meets - embedded in a kind of virtual reality simulation, an elaborate construct with a particular set of rules, and which exists to serve the emotional needs of the real people existing beyond the simulation. For the versions of Claire and Byron inside the construct, life is a joyless shuffle of romantic permutations, endless parties, endless encounters with prospective partners, with each new roll of the dice signalled by the bells of the midnight chime. To say more would be to spoil the pleasures of discovering Wolven's premise, but Claire and Byron - after being separated and thrown back together again - gradually come to a tentative understanding of the parameters of their world, and develop a plan to exploit a latent flaw in the environment. However, things don't quite go as intended. Wolven has a heady, sensuous style, displayed to good effect in both of his Asimov's stories, each of which is saturated with the heat and mystery of long  sultry nights: "The breath of the bayou was in the air, warm and buoyant, holding up the clustered leaves of the pecan trees and the high, star-scattered sky." It's a story which is as much about atmosphere as the science fictional mechanics of the setting, and I enjoyed it tremendously.

Every now and then I'm in exactly the right mood for a piece of bleak, dystopian writing, and Kelly Robson's piece came along just at the right time. "Two-Year Man" is the first of hers that I've read, and it's very good indeed, even if I'm sure that I'll unpack rather more from the story on a third read. This is a bracingly sad story about Mikkel, a "two-year man" - the title refers to the time served in some kind of military campaign, in what appears to be an openly anti-semitic future or alternate history - who is at the absolute bottom of the barrel compared to the four, six and even eight-year men above him. At home is Anna, Mikkel's childless wife. When Mikkel rescues a kind of baby - a "taint" - from the lab where he does menial work, he thinks at first that it will make Anna happy. But the baby is an odd, reptilian thing, possessed of a beak and talons, something which is accepted largely without comment by Anna and Mikkel's friend Hyam. That's one of this story's considerable strengths, in fact: the way it refuses to explain itself, or defend its worldbuilding with lengthy interjections. The writing is enjoyably downbeat, striking an almost Lynchian air of grim fatalism:

"Appel strudel," grunted Hermann, the four-year man in charge of the early morning guard shift. "Those pasty scientists don't know good eats. Imagine leaving strudel to sit."

"Café Sluka has the best strudel in Vienna, so everyone says," Mikkel said as he passed through the security gate.

"Like you'd know, moron. Wouldn't let you through the door."

Mikkel ducked his head and kept his eyes on the floor. "I heated them in the microwave for you."

He rushed out into the grey winter light as the guards munched warm strudel.

In the interests of transparency I should probably mention that Paul McAuley is an old friend, someone whose career I've been following with admiration for more than thirty years, ever since his story "Little Ilya and Spider and Box" broke ground in Interzone by being actual honest-to-god science fiction set in the future with spaceports and interstellar travel and so on. But the fact is that better writers and critics than me have praised his work, both at novel and shorter length, and it's no real surprise that a McAuley piece delivers the goods, even if you can't ever be sure quite what you're going to get from him. If there's a common thread, it's that it's often Hard SF, but in which the speculative conceit is derived from biology, rather than the usual nuts-and-bolts defaults of physics and engineering. Not that he can't do that other stuff as well, but - as a trained botanist - his biological inventions have a rare conviction, amply demonstrated in this post-Collapse story of a woman named Mel, a "crazy old bee queen" who tends a very unusual beehive. When an outlaw gang rolls up at Mel's demanding that one of their number be treated - the bees have been genetically tweaked, so that their honey has enhanced antibiotic properties - events rapidly spiral into violence. The story is neat enough as it is, embedding some chilly insights into the biology of bees: "Some outsiders believed that because they were tweaked and networked the bees had somehow acquired sentience. They hadn't. And even if they had, it was doubtful that they would have acquired any concept of love or hate, or free will. They knew only loyalty and the chains of duty: theur life paths were engraved in their genes. The organization of the hive was as pure and pitiless as mathematics." But just when it seems to be heading toward a slightly too-pat ending, though, McAuley wrong-foots us, and the resultant conclusion offers a sharp sting in the tale.

Karl Bunker is a writer new to me, but "Caisson" is an enjoyable piece saturated - fittingly enough, as it deals with workers operating underground while breathing compressed air - with a truly oppressive atmosphere. It's set in the nineteeth century, during the difficult and arduous construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and deals with the unlikely friendship between two of the men forced to labour in the high-pressure box of the title, sinking the foundations for one of the bridge's two huge towers. When one of the men, Mischke, makes an unusual discovery during the excavations, something strange and wonderful comes into both their lives. Primarily a character piece with a keen sense of mood and place, the fantastical elements are mostly kept off-stage, which is perhaps for the best, since the underlying conceit doesn't really stand close scrutiny, at least as science fiction. But it's a satisfying story all the same, exactly the kind of thing which might have made a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits.

If I say too much about Kristine Kathryn Rusch's sweet "The First Step" I'll risk breaking the story's considerable charm, but it's perhaps sufficient to say that this is both a time travel story and a piece about the personal costs that might be attendant on making the achieving of time travel one of your life goals, even if you do eventually succeed. It's a short story, told briskly, and it feels satisfyingly tight and pared down, and beyond that there isn't much to say except to say that it's an extremely likable variation on a very old theme.

The long final novella, Will McIntosh's "A Thousand Nights till Morning", breaks little new ground in either its themes or its telling. But on its own terms, it's one of the most compulsively enjoyable science fiction stories I've read in quite some time. It's a resolutely old-fashioned account of aliens invading Earth, then being challenged by a ragtag group of human resistance fighters. What the story has in spades is a breakneck pace, as well as a cleverly and plausibly conceived foe in the alien Nunki with their total reliance on biotechnology. One minor criticism I've had of some of the stories in this year's reading is that they take a leisurely, novelistic approach to scene-setting, but no such complaint can be levelled at McIntosh. We start on Mars, with a human expedition learning that aliens have invaded Earth, and we're barely a page in before we've met the protagonist, gained some sense of him, learned about the aliens, something of their nature, and realised that the Martian expedition is now in deep trouble. Before long, the Martians improvise a desperate counterstrike against the aliens, damaging their biotechnological capability, and then send an expedition of their own back to a terribly wounded Earth. We're still only a tiny way into the story when the rocket lands back in Chicago, and if anything the story only kicks into a higher and more menacing gear when Aiden and his friends have to figure out how to help the survivors turn the tide against the Nunki. There are some neatly inventive touches here, such as the use of sign language to communicate with the Nunki, and the way in which the aliens have to learn to use human technology - guns, school buses, medical labs and so on - when their own biological systems falter. Running through the piece, though, is a strong focus on character, with Aiden having to face up to his responsibilities to an old lover, despite his deep and paralysing aversion to risk. It may seem faint praise to call a piece a real page-turner, but that's just what it is, and it takes some considerable skill to inject a sense of freshness and surprise into such well-trodden territory as the alien invasion story.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Asimov's July 2015

As the leaves begin to drop and the warm summer nights finally give way to the chill of autumn, it's time to review ... oh, wait, it's December already, and I'm still on the July issue. Never mind, I never promised you a rose garden, so let's crack on.
Mary Robinette Kowal delivers the lead novelette, "Like Native Things" and it's a nastily clever take on the idea of humans being able to jack into the nervous systems of other animals. Tilda, the scientist protagonist, is duped by bad-guy Helmut into gaining access to the experimental wetware control system of a dolphin, so that he can commit a terrorist act. The plot is simple: Tilda realises what's happened, and then has to scramble to use whatever wetware-controlled animals she can (octopus, puma and so on) to get to Hector before he achieves his aim. It's basically just an extended chase scene, conventionally - and breathlessly - told, with Tilda hopping from one animal body to another, but I hadn't seen anything quite like it before. It does all get a bit Scooby-Doo with the bad guys talking to each other in a way that very helpfully explains their plans (while Tilda overhears), but it's still fun, doesn't outstay its welcome, and I liked the ending.

David Gerrold has been part of the field for as long as I've been alive, but having read very little of his work I was interested to see how I got on with the next novelette, which is "The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, or Why Murdered Robert Benchley." My first thought, before going into the story, was what does Gerrold have against the guy who wrote Jaws? Being thick, I didn't know anything about the "real" Robert Benchley, nor very much about the Algonquin Round Table, and to a large degree - given the centrality of the Algonquins to this alternate history confection - I can't really judge how well Gerrold hits the voices and mannerisms he's aiming for. That said, on its own terms, it's perfectly enjoyable, and along the way gets into some mildly clever metafictional games. Beyond that, I can't really say all that much, other than that if there were false notes, I was too tin-eared to pick them up.

"Acres of Perhaps" by Will Ludwigsen is a likable piece that riffs off events surrounding an imaginary TV series in the vein of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. On my first read, I couldn't get on with at all, but something clicked and I found it much more to my taste when I gave it a second go. With that in mind, it's worth adding that I'm perfectly aware that one or even two reads won't always be sufficient to pull the good stuff out of a story, so if I've dismissed a piece or two during these reviews, I'm more than willing to accept that it may just have been me. Anyway, "Acres of Perhaps" focuses on the strange background of David Findley, the resident genius on the writing team, the one who had the real creative spark, as opposed to the reliable plodder of the narrator, who can pull stories out of his hat on demand, but never quite hits the weird heights of Findley's material. What's nice about this story is that, instead of just telling us that Findley wrote weird, imaginative episodes of the show, we actually get given specific examples of what they were like. Things take a decidedly Twilight Zone-esque twist when Findley's strange, Hill-billy-type family show up on set and demand to take him home, where he'll be much happier. I liked it.

"Petroglyph Man" by Rudy Rucker is another in a long line of stoned, gonzo surfer-dude Rucker pieces, this time about a new tech app called Benthos that somehow peels back reality to show what we're really thinking or feeling. If you take a photo using Benthos with your smartphone, the app distorts the eventual picture to reflect a sitation's "vibes" rather than the literal truth. Yeah. You'd better read the story, because it starts weird and then gets weirder, especially when the titular Petroglyph Man shows up. But if you like Rucker - as I do - then that's no hardship, and the story does actually have a good old romantic resolution.

By far the longest piece in the issue, Derek Kunsken's "Pollen from a Future Harvest", is a dense, knotty, twisty story about political machinations on a distant planet where human scientists and military types (with a strong African background) are engaged in the study of a very alien indigenous lifeform, the so-called "vegetable intelligences". Kunsken's story centres around the existence of a natural time-gate, which allows certain forms of information to slip back by eleven years - a feature which the vegetable intelligences have incorporated into their genetic biology at a very intricate level, using gene-coded pollen which blows back through the gate and allows their past and future selves to experience a kind of continuous but ever mutating present, spanning twenty two years between its leading and trailing edges.  Naturally the human investigators are very interested in using this capability to further their own political ends. Although told in quite traditional terms, it's stylish and exceedingly convincing in its imagined details, with exactly the right kind of off-hand jargon and theorizing to make the time-gate concept seem entirely plausible. I also liked the oppressive, paranoid atmosphere of the foreground narrative, with Major Okonkwo detailed to "audit" the sudden loss of pollen transmissions from the future, leading to an edgy, nervous investigation with echoes of cold-war spy thrillers. It reminded me, in the best way, of both the anthropological SF of Ian Watson and the early, icy hard SF of Gregory Benford. According to the introduction it's the second entry in a series exploring the biology of the vegetable intelligences, but while the ins-and-outs of the political gamesmanship occasionally lost me, I didn't feel that I necessarily needed to have read the earlier installment. I enjoyed Kunsken's early story in Asimov's this year, but this is even better.