" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction

I have not been posting enough. I do find the process helps me organize my reading. Also as an aade-mémoire it is useful to be able to access these small snapshots of what I was reading and thinking at a particular moment in time. 

Rich Horton, science fiction columnist, editor and a reviewer for Locus Magazine maintains an interesting review blog at Strange at Ecbatan. I often check in to see which authors he is featuring and was taken by his capsule discussions of the short fiction of Yoon Ha Lee.  


I have read stories by Lee in the past and felt they were good. But this time I read two stories that really struck a chord. 

The first was was "The Knight of Chains, The Deuce of Stars", which I read in the Horton edited anthology Space Opera. The first two paragraphs were enough to tell me I was in good hands.

"The tower is a black spire upon a world whose only sun is a million starships wrecked into a mass grave. Light the color of fossils burns from the ships, and at certain hours, the sun casts shadows that mutter the names of vanquished cities and vanished civilizations. It is said that when the tower’s sun finally darkens, the universe’s clocks will stop.

But the sun, however strange, is not why people make the labyrinthine journey to the tower. The tower guards the world’s hollow depths, in which may be found the universe’s games. Every game played among the universe’s peoples was once trapped in the world’s terrible underground passages, and every one was mined and bargained for by some traveler. It is for such a game that the exile Niristez comes here now, in a ship of ice and iron and armageddon engines."

Niristez was at one time a strategist for the High Fleet of the Knifebird, until she fled(?) from an unwinnable war which continues to this day. She has come to the tower to retrieve a game, but first she must deal with Daechong. He has been the warden of the tower for as long as it has existed and it is unclear just how long that has been.  Daechong likes to challenge visitors to a game for access to the tower. Sometimes they survive. 

"Most people don’t first notice the warden when they meet him, or the rooms crowded with agate-eyed figurines, flowers of glass, cryptochips sliced into mosaics. They first notice the warden’s gun. It is made of living bone and barbed wire and smoke-silver axioms. It would have a stock of mother-of-pearl, if pearls were born from gangrenous stars. It has a long, lustrous barrel forged in a bomb’s hellheart. And along the barrel is an inscription in whatever language your heart answers to: I never miss."

Lee's focus is the game between Niristez and Daechong for access to the tower. I will not relate anymore you can read it yourself here. 

Instead I will try to explain why I enjoyed it so much. Lee's language reminded me of the beautiful prose poetry descriptions you find in the works of Roger Zelazny or Samuel R. Delany. Niristez character seemed to be related to the legend haunted go-captains from the stories of Cordwainer Smith. And the concept of the games themselves carried a hint of Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game where the rules, if there are any, and the structure of the game itself are ambiguous and ever changing. I am always attracted by connections, real of imagined, that I find between the stories I read. Lee offers plenty of them. 

The second story  “Architectural Constants”  I read in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue # 2 Oct. 23, 2008. This is the story of the city, its architect and a period of flux. 

"In any of these cities, you may mention the city or the architect, its restless Spider, and no listener will fail to understand which city you mean. The city lies at the intersection of leys that move through seas and continents, and stretch into the vastness beyond the visible stars. The city extends upwards and downwards in preposterous arches and chasm-spanning bridges.

If you listen during the silence following the city’s curfew bells, you can hear the click-click-clicking of the Spider’s slide rule as she checks her calculations."

The librarian Eskevan Three of Thorns is the first character we meet. He is tracking down a rumour that the Spider ascends. The Spider typically resides deep within the depths of the city. If she is roused, that means the foundations of the city need to be restructured.

The second character is city sentinal Attavudhra Nought of Glass; she is assigned to guard the city gate by the guard captain Yaz Five of Hearts. None are allowed to pass except the Spider and Yaz himself. The city itself is a place of shadows, mirrors, reflections and dreams. Often the characters try to alter their perceptions to see what is real or illusion.  Indeed one character we meet later, Riyen Nine of Knots, is not even complete as part of his body is missing/hollowed out. We are not told much about the city; it simply appears to be a dark and ever-changing place. In both stories, Lee using the language of geometry and mathematics frequently, and in this story, both city and characters seem multi-dimensional. It is also clear the ascension of the Spider is treated with some level of fear by the inhabitants as this will mean changes to the city and their lives.

Again this is a story I really enjoyed. I enjoyed the ambiguity of the setting and the imagery. It reminded me of China Meiville's Perdio Street Station and Italio Calvino's Invisible Cities with it's dreamlike cities and fantastic geometries. I could imagine any of them within a print by M.C. Escher. The characters themselves exist at some strange intersection between human, monster and archetype. In both stories Lee has provided the type of fantastic science fiction I often find appealing and I have purchased Lee's collection Conservation of Shadows on the strength of them. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

New books and the state of science fiction publishing

  Why does this post lead off a photo of an old lamp, is this some metaphor for suddenly seeing the light? Not really, Helen bought it for the living room at a mid-mod shop we visit, Murphy's Mid-Century. The table that features in the photos below also came from Murphy's as part of a trade. It is a local shop selling used furniture and one we love to visit. Indeed Saturday was spent on our favourite pastimes, trying a new breakfast place and visiting a few shops. 

One is an independent bookstore called Second Page. There is a second store, Pages as well, but both are independent and locally owned. They sell new and used, and I have featured purchases from them before. Today I noticed they had anthology Octavia's Brood and Butler's Lilith's Brood as well. I had read the first chapter of Dawn, the first book in the trilogy online and wanted to read all three books. As I eyed both books, I remembered I had planned to order Lilith's Brood online using gift cards I received from my family for Christmas. Then I looked around and thought and then how do these people stay in business. If they close, where do we go on a day out to browse real shops that are not stocked from a central warehouse by some corporate purchasing department? 

Marc Yancus/John Jennings

We visit three independent bookstores in Calgary, that stock new books. 
It is in these stores that we find books we would never discover online and that the chains don't stock. Helen left with a book on the history of textiles. 

Dominic Harman/Tomislav Tikulin/Donato Giancola

The other day Helen sent me an article on the state of Science Fiction Publishing. It seems some publishers are doing okay, others are struggling. This year I had decided to subscribe to both Asimov's and Analog, so I could read some current science fiction. I got paper because it was easier, and no one was going to delete them from my Kindle account for me. Also, I am old, and like paper copies, I can share them with friends and generally run riot.

I had been buying Clarkesworld for years focusing on the year-end anthologies (see comments on paper copies above). I also get some individual issues because they have some of the greatest covers in the history of SF, and this site is about SF illustration as well as stories. I also got Spotify this week so that I can listen to weird British Hauntology inspired music (I blame the Unsubscriber, see my Blogs I follow section and The Fortean Times), but this also allows me to access the Clarkesworld podcasts. I have also pulled some free samples of Beneath Ceaseless Skies for my kindle to see about adding them. If you like Thomas Ligotti I would recommend you try an issue of the online journal Vastarien. Mainly I would suggest that if you can afford it you support some of the things you like so they continue to be available. 

Normally I attribute the cover artists for Clarkeworld their cover gallery is here

Boy do I have lots reading to do.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

January 2020 Reading, Neal Asher, Jack McDevitt, Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I have been reading but not posting lately. One thing we have been doing is organizing the basement so we can turn the largest room which has been storage the entire time we have owned the house, almost 30 years into a library/rec room. This requires organizing the books in the basement. Some are mine; many are Helen's. Helen tends to prefer longer SF novels that are part of a series and more recent authors. My preference is short stories often older, but I want to see what else is out there. I have brought a number upstairs to my room so I can read some more current SF. That said, of the authors, I am going to touch on today. I have read two previously. This discussions many include minor spoilers.

McDevitt has two main series, the one I intend to discuss here deals with the antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant and pilot Chase Kolpath. I read McDevitt's A Talent for War and loved it. The narrator is Benedict, and he is researching a number of the figures who participated in a war against an alien race, the Ashiyyur. I enjoy history and worked in archaeology for nine years, so the focus on research and the reconstruction of events fascinated me. The revelation at the end of the novel seemed fresh. I read another of his novels; it might have been Seeker, found it retreaded the same ground and moved on. I decided to try reading them in sequence and read Polaris. Chase is now the narrator. She and Alex have obtained artifacts from the Polaris a "Mary Celeste" of the spaceways where all six of the crew and passengers of a space ship disappeared, and the Polaris was found drifting with no indication of what happened. What did I like? The research aspect. Alex and Chase follow up with people involved in the events, all existing records and any other sources material they can find. They also visit the locations involved. Many people in this society update their memories to avatars who can be questioned. The avatars do not have memories covering the events on the Polaris, but they do provide a lot of insight into the characters involved. I think this comment from Wikipedia is fair. Certainly, I find the history of the minor characters are sometimes more interesting than the events of the main plot-line.  

"McDevitt has a (probably unintentional) tendency to give the impression that his novels will go in one direction and then take them in a different direction. Or possibly his background is so well thought out, that throw away lines, or subplots, or minor characters, have enough information behind them to make the reader want to see their story as much as the main plot of the book. While slightly annoying, this is, I've decided, a strength of McDevitt's writing since it shows the depth of his created worlds.[3]"

One of the frustrating things about McDevitt's work, and Helen agreed with me here is the plotting shows a real lack of imagination. In Polaris, Alex and Chase are targeted by unknown assailants. In a world with high tech security and AI incorporated in homes and vehicles, they are almost killed three times when someone sabotages two of their aircars and a spaceship. Maybe some variety would be nice. Also, the final revelation, the explanation for the events on the Polaris and the later attacks on Alex and Chase did not make sense to me. I would suspect that McDevitt wanted to do a "Mary Celeste" type story but had trouble setting up the scenario and tossed a lot of stuff against the wall. In my mind, a lot did not stick. I will probably continue to read his works and his series on the space pilot Priscilla Hutchins, but my expectations are low. 

Helen had a ton of books from Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Retrieval Artist series. I read The Recovery Man, which is from the middle of the series and started the first book, The Disappeared. The Recovery Man involved the kidnapping of a scientist Rhonda Shindo and the efforts of her daughter Talia, police, lawyers involved with her estate and her ex-husband ( the Retrieval Artist of the series title) to find Rhonda. They also have to protect Talia from the machinations of the company Rhonda worked for. Rather than discuss this novel in more detail, I will discuss the theme of the two works I have looked at. Humans have encountered a number of alien races as they began to explore space. Often there is a conflict between the laws of the Earth Alliance and various the alien cultures. Humans who break the "alien" laws which operating in their spheres of influence are turned over to the aliens for punishment even if the acts are not a crime under Alliance law or the penalties are considered cruel or even incomprehensible by human standards. This requirement has created several very specific professions or organizations to deal with this requirement. There are "recovery men" bounty hunters who track down humans are considered criminals by alien cultures so they can be punished. Some organizations feel this is unjust and assist humans in disappearing, outfitting them with a new identity so they can avoid capture. Then there are retrieval artists who track down the disappeared. Rusch's plotting was better than McDevitt's novels, and the works are well written. But I am not sure the world she has created, of vast interstellar corporations, vindictive aliens, lawyers and police procedurals, is one that will engage me for long. (Having digested for a couple of days I found the plot revelations involving Rhonda's actions to avoid alien justice very disturbing.  The second book I started also had plot elements that I could see might trend in the same direction. Rusch is a good writer, but there is so much available to read I will definitely pass on this series.)  Helen enjoys the current batch of mystery writers mysteries more that I do. I am more of Dorothy Sayers or Sherlock Holmes fan, so SF that emulates the current treads in the mystery genre can be somewhat hit and miss with me.  

Asher has long been a favourite of mine. I prefer his Polarity setting to Bank's Culture. He is also one of the few writers of long space opera series I read at present. I love Reynolds Revelation Space and have read all his short stories in the series. Many more than once. But I have not read the novels yet. The latest series I have read by Asher are the three Transformation Books and the first two books in the Rise of Jain series. The last book is due out shortly, and I cannot wait. I have even come to love the covers, with their strange organic spaceships and have picked up remaindered and ex-libris hardcovers where possible. As Asher seems determined to, at least loosely, tie most of the Polarity novels and short stories together, I suspect I will be reading the entire series chronologically in the future. I will be looking into Asher's work in greater detail, but I have rambled long enough.

Cover Artists

Polaris by John Harris

The Disappeared by Greg Bridges, The Recovery Man uncredited?

Line War by Steve Rawlings

Dark Intelligence by  Jon Sullivan

The Soldier, The Warship, Infinity Engine, War Factory, by  Adam Burn

Thursday, January 9, 2020

New Year; New Arrivals

I have picked up a lot of new titles. Some online and some locally. 

These two books were written and published in New Brunswick in 1981 and 1982. I really liked the graphics of these b&w covers. Both also have interior illustrations.

Recently I read the first two volumes of Farmer"s World of Tiers series so I picked up volumes 4 & 5. I am still missing 3 of course.

I often find Reynolds exploration of economic and cultural themes interesting. Older SF tends to be so Libertarian a different perspective is refreshing.

Wyndham was actually covered when I was in public school and I read a lot of his works. I really like these Penguin  editions with the image extending into the white borders. There is a great overview of Penguins SF covers here.

I could not resist this Moorcock cover.

My collecting began with HPL/Arkham House related items and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I am still a sucker for a cover like this from Corgi. 

If you follow my posts you know I like short stories and shorter novels. However I love Asher's Polarity series with it's Old Captains, War Drones, Golems, Gabbleducks, Runcibles, Dracomen, Haiman  and Hooders.  I will post on his books in more detail in the future. 

Cover Artists

Star Destroyer & Courier all illustrations by Owen Pulton

Behind the Wall of Terra by Gray Morrow, The Lavalite World by Boris Vallejo

The Phoenix and The Mirror by Leo & Diane Dillon, Adam Link - Robot by Jack Gaughan

The Five Way Secret Agent and Mercenary from Tomorrow uncredited (Lehr?), 

Satellite City by Davis Meltzer

Jack Wyndham both covers by Peter Lord

My Experiences in the Third World War by Michael Heslop

Fearless Master Of The Jungle by Chris Achilleos, who also did the covers for my copies of Talbot Mundy's Tros of Samothrace novels as well as some Burroughs I have never seen by Tandem Books. The ISFDB database is a wonderful thing.

Neal Asher both covers by Adam Burn design Claudia Noble