Letter From The Editor - Issue 42 - November 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
June 2012

By guest columnist Jamie Todd Rubin

I was asked to pinch hit for Alethea Kontis on this book review for a couple of months while Alethea is off on a book tour. When I had dinner with Alethea at the Nebula Awards Weekend last month we talked about this briefly and she insisted that I review some science fiction books because, as she put it, "I'm always reviewing fantasy, and Edmund is constantly reminding me that InterGalactic Medicine Show is a magazine of fantasy and science fiction."

Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint Alethea, so this month, I present to you a couple of (mostly) science fiction books for review.

Title: The Million Writers Awards: The Best Online Science Fiction and Fantasy
Author: Edited by Jason Sanford

We are living in a golden age of short science fiction and fantasy. Having read and written a great deal about classical Golden Age science fiction, having done a pretty good job keeping up with most of the short fiction markets today, I feel I can make this statement with some authority. If further evidence is required, however, I point to Jason Sanford's recent anthology, Million Writers Award: The Best Online Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Sanford is the curator of the storySouth Million Writers Award and has selected fourteen stories from the thousand or so stories that have won the award, placed as a finalist, or made the list of notable stories over the last decade. Those stories make up an anthology that demonstrates not only the diversity of science fiction and fantasy today, but the great leaps it has taken as a literature since those early days of the 1930s and 1940s. This present golden age may be of a different character than the Golden Age of the 1940s, but I suspect it will prove no less important.

The fourteen stories Sanford has selected in this anthology run the spectrum of the genre, from those stories that are clearly science fiction, like Saladin Ahmed's "The Faithful Soldier, Prompted" and Aliette de Bodard's "Horus Ascending" to stories that blur the genre boundaries, like N. K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities." And then there are the pure (and haunting) fantasies like Richard Bowes "There's a Hole In the City."

Even among these fourteen standouts, there were particular gems that struck me. N. K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities" was my favorite story in the anthology, and I suspect it was chosen for the lead position because of its power. In this piece, we follow Adele through a New York City that has been skewed by strange probabilities; a place and time where luck is not behaving as expected and where the citizens of the city find that it can be controlled to some degree, almost through willpower. The story has a James Morrow-like parable to it, while in some ways reaching back to themes in Heinlein's "Waldo." And still Jemisin brings a unique mood to the story that left me feeling that what I'd read could just possibly happen.

I was likewise moved by Richard Bowes haunting post-9/11 story, "There's a Hole in the City," in which the ghosts of 9/11 begin to rise from the wreckage. The story touches sensitive nerves even a decade later, but the pain it expresses is a necessary one. And there is a surrealism that moves through the story, something that echoes Harlan Ellison's morose "On the Downhill Side."

All of the stories that appear in Million Writers Awards were first published online, incidentally, often in magazines just like this one. The anthology provides an excellent jumping-off point for sampling our new golden age. And if you've never read stories by the authors you'll find within, you'll be wanting to read more by the time you finish. I most certainly was.

Title: 2312
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

The term "science fiction" is never enough of a classification for science fiction enthusiasts. We are constantly developing complex taxonomies around our genre. That there is social science fiction; over there is space opera; and that one there is hard science fiction. Even our sub-categories have sub-categories. There is biological hard-SF; there is near-future hard-SF.

Kim Stanley Robinson's outstanding new novel, 2312, can best be described as elegant hard-SF.

2312 is the story of Swan Er Song who is thrust into a political maelstrom after her grandmother, Alex, dies of seemingly natural causes. Against the backdrop of the entire solar system, three fascinating threads wind their way through this novel: a mysterious meteor strike on Mercury; some strange behavior by "Qubes," or quantum computer-based artificial intelligence; and a magnificent love story that involves two post-gender characters.

I call 2312 "elegant" hard SF because Robinson manages to introduce a level of scientific realism to the story so smoothly and naturally that it doesn't seem intrusive. It adds to the story at every level. His writing is equally elegant. The story takes the reader all over the solar system, beginning with the Sun Walkers out on the ever-drifting terminator on the surface of Mercury. From there we climb aboard a terrarium - a massive ship carved into a large asteroid. There are thousands of such ships, some designed by Swan and each of them unique. Robinson takes us out to Jupiter and Saturn; we follow Swan through a breaktaking ride as she body-surfs the F-ring of planet. We then come back and explore more of Venus and Mercury and even Earth, the sad stepchild of the solar system.

Like Robinson's Mars trilogy, 2312 is filled with political intrigue and maneuvering. We learn how the solar system was peopled; what political forces are at work; and what struggles still remain for humanity. (While much of the solar system lives in a kind of post-scarcity economic state, Earth still struggles with 11 million people, the majority of whom are just barely getting by. And they resent the "spacers" their riches.)

But it was the combination of Robinson's ability to put the reader into those vistas, coupled with his subtle and touching love story that really made the novel come alive for me. In theme, perhaps, the novel fell closer to the spectrum of his Mars trilogy, but in tone, this novel was written in a style similar to what Robinson achieved in Galileo's Dream.

In some ways, 2312 is a novel that approaches the post-Singularity phase of human civilization. Indeed, when the events of the novel take place, humanity has already passed through its Accelerando, which has allowed it to populate the solar system; has allowed them to lengthen their lives; and has allowed them to explore the meaning of gender beyond just male and female. I've often struggled with these types of novels in the past, but not so with Robinson's novel.

Indeed, at times the novel took my breath away. I'd step outside for a walk under the blaze of the sun and shiver at the thought of those people living on Mercury - or on the Vulcanoids, even closer in to the sun. Or I'd try to imagine the majestic skies of Titan with Saturn always looming above and the sun a bright speck among other stars. Robinson's scope and vision in 2312 - that of humanity's future in the solar system, as well as humanity's future evolution - is remarkable. The mystery he presents is compelling. And all of it comes together into an engaging piece of elegant hard-SF.

Read more by Alethea Kontis


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