Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
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
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.
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
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
Read more by Alethea Kontis