Book review: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.

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Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)





Book review: He Who Fears The Wolf, by Karin Fossum

6 04 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian poet and crime novelist whose work, principally her ‘Inspector Sejer’ series of murder mysteries, has won numerous awards. I’ve previously reviewed her crime novel debut, In the Darkness, here.

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He Who Fears The Wolf (Den som frykter ulven, 1997, translated by Felicity David) is the third in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series. It opens with Errki Johrma, an escapee from a psychiatric institution, who is seen at the scene of a brutal murder of an elderly woman at a backwoods farm, and thereby immediately becomes prime suspect for the deed. But police efforts to find the troubled Errki are hampered by his subsequent disappearance, and resources become stretched when the nearby town’s bank is robbed the next morning, with an ensuing hostage drama.

This is an intriguing, well-paced mystery with vividness and depth. Fossum displays considerable empathy with her protagonists on both sides of the law. There’s an undercurrent of completely unforced situational humour in the working relationship between Sejer and his offsider, Skarre: a couple of the conversations between them, as they discuss their progress in the case—and as something else plays out between them—are highly amusing. I’m not sufficiently familiar with Fossum’s work to know whether such humour is an ongoing part of her writing, but it works wonderfully here. There’s an astonishingly personal (though, again, quite unforced) piece of character exposition in the lengthy exchange that occurs between Sejer and Dr Struel, the psychiatrist who for several months has been seeking to unpick the issues that torment Errki Johrma. And the characters of Errki, the hostage, the bank robber, and Kannick, the reform-school boy who reported the woman’s death, are sensitively and insightfully drawn. In time, every piece of the backstory emerges, takes shape, and attains significance. The story rewards on several levels. Part of this is due to something in the writing for which the best summary comes from the text itself:

[Skarre] also had that rare talent of directing at everyone the same amount of genuine attention, even at those that didn’t interest him

Fossum’s writing, I think, shares this talent. Even the third-string players in the story—even, I would suggest, the psychiatrist’s rubber toad—have their own vital part to play, and are afforded three-dimensionality for their troubles. It makes for a highly engrossing book, and one which, despite its inherent solidity, is over too soon.





Book review: Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna, by Michael Swanwick

4 04 2017

Michael Swanwick is a US science fiction writer whose novels and short fiction, over the past three-and-a-half decades, have won the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

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I’m a sucker for dinosaur stories, and Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna is chock-full of them, eighteen in a chapbook-sized volume of just thirty-two pages. Swanwick’s writing, perhaps especially his flash-fiction work such as showcased here, is characterised by whimsy, inventiveness, and intriguing juxtaposition. None of these stories is long enough to fully engross the reader, but equally, none outstays its welcome; and several, such as ‘The Thief of Time’, ‘Parallels’, and ‘Iguanodon anglicus‘ convey a poignancy beyond their brief wordcount. While not every story here manages to hit its mark precisely, most do, with wit and deftly twisted humour. Thematically it’s not, I think, particularly representative of Swanwick’s larger body of work, but the writing is wonderful, like a less gonzo Howard Waldrop. It’s fired me up to check out more of Swanwick’s short fiction.





Book review: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, by Hallgrímur Helgason

29 03 2017

Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic novelist, artist, and translator who writes in Icelandic and English. Two of his novels have been made into movies, and his artwork has been exhibited in Paris, Boston, and New York as well as in his native Reykjavík.

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The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (2008, written in English and subsequently translated by Hallgrímur into Icelandic) starts with ‘Toxic’ (Tomislav Bokšić)—a seasoned Croatian ex-soldier who for many years has been making a living ending other people’s across the US—on the run. Toxic’s latest hit (number 67) has been a success, but he’s been let down by his intel: the target was an operative of the FBI, and the Feds are hot on his trail. Looking to fly out of New York, he’s forced to adopt another alias, which he effects by strangling a second-string televangelist, Father David Friendly, in a restroom stall. Friendly has—had—a ticket to Reykjavík, and so Toxic’s impromptu bolthole turns out to be an Icelandic one. As long as he can pull off his impersonation of a born-again preacher, he’ll be just fine …

Hitman’s Guide is a bit of a misnomer, since housecleaning features only tangentially within the story. And it isn’t really a crime novel in the standard sense, though various felonies are certainly committed during the course of the book; and one always suspects Toxic’s A-Croatian-Yankee-in-King-Olaf’s-Court shtick is ultimately going to derail his efforts towards keeping the lowest possible profile beneath the rather threadbare guise of the deceased Father Friendly. For the most part, it’s a black-comedy rite-of-passage which focusses on the peculiarities of Icelandic culture—the small-town feel of the nation’s capital, the inexplicable shortage of weaponry, the unprepossessing climate—as viewed by an outsider. Hallgrímur has a lot of fun with Icelandic names, which are presented as Toxic (‘Friendly’) hears them (‘Sickreader’, ‘Gunholder’, ‘Torture’, ‘Guard the Beer’ …). The book aims, in its portrayal of Iceland, at a blend of affection and irreverence, and it generally succeeds. I wasn’t always convinced by the comparative ease of Toxic’s redemption, and there is a bit of a slump around the seventh-inning stretch mark, where the story does meander for a couple of chapters, but Toxic’s pottymouthed world-weary streetwisdom retains a certain charm throughout; and the tale starts well, it ends appropriately, and there’s a good deal of acerbic situational humour within.





Book review: We Who Are About To…, by Joanna Russ

22 03 2017

Joanna Russ was a US writer and literary critic perhaps best known for her seminal (or should that perhaps be germinal?) work in feminist SF, as typified by her novel The Female Man. Her genre writing has won the Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, and Pilgrim awards.

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We Who Are About To is a novella or short novel (I’m not sure of its wordcount, but I’d estimate it’s on the cusp between those categories) first published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1976, appearing in book form a year later. Its narrator, who never names herself, is one of eight starship passengers (there are four women, three men, and one twelve-year-old girl) who become marooned, with a limited set of resources (a water purifier; food for six months; a single-seat ground-effect vehicle) salvaged from their vessel, on a habitable but deserted and probably uncharted planet. Most of the group want to establish a colony that will allow them (and / or their descendants) to survive until they can be rescued; the narrator just wants to be allowed to wander off and die, because she knows the prospect of rescue is exceedingly improbable. This aspiration causes friction within the group, not least because she’s one of three potentially-childbearing women on the planet. And, because any sufficiently-small group of people, in complete isolation, is essentially lawless once it starts to notice that there’s no higher authority on call, this friction is taken to a conclusion. It is, in a thematic sense (though not in style or in tone), rather reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Or, if you prefer, a riff on the Gilligan’s Island trope, but with the misanthropy dialled up to eleven, or maybe higher.

It’s a very bleak story, in several ways: none of the characters, not even the narrator (and perhaps especially not the narrator), is likeable; and the predicament doesn’t engender hope. And yet the first two-thirds of it are quietly compelling, as one watches the miniature conflict of ideas that erupts between the narrator and her fellow maroonees, and as one grows accustomed to the narrator’s voice, anger, and mindset. I did feel that the latter section was rather too rambling and unfocussed. (There’s a reason it has this form, which I can appreciate even if I disagree with the author’s choice of presentation.) And there’s also scope for confusion: is Russ railing against society, or against a popular trope in SF? If it’s the latter, then I think it runs the risk of presenting itself as novel-by-strawman-argument. But this description is probably too harsh: there is some very good writing in here; the plotting is skilful, making optimal use of a minimal palette; and the narrator is deeply drawn, with her own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, and a sense of drive that’s admirable whether or not one agrees with the choices she makes. It’s probably better suited to those who are more comfortable with dystopias than am I, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking read, and that’s seldom a bad thing.





Book review: When It Grows Dark, by Jørn Lier Horst

16 03 2017

Jørn Lier Horst is a former Norwegian police officer and a crime fiction writer whose ‘William Wisting’ series of police procedurals now comprises eleven titles, although the first five appear not to have been translated into English. His work has won numerous prizes including the Riverton, Glass Key, and Petrona awards.

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When It Grows Dark (Når det mørkner, 2016, translated by Anne Bruce) is the most recent entry in the Wisting series but, aside from the present-day ‘framing story’ composed from the book’s first and last chapters, this short novel is essentially a prequel to the earlier books. The bulk of the text takes us back to the events of December 1983, when Wisting is just starting on a career as a policeman, but much of the text concerns an unsolved crime from over a half-century earlier, as Wisting tries to piece together the sequence of events that led to his discovery of a long-hidden car, pierced by bullet hotes, that lies in a dilapidated shed a short distance from a quiet country backroad. Who shot up the car? Why was it hidden? And how did the doors of the shed come to be padlocked on both the inside and outside? Most of the people who could have answered such questions have died of old age in the time that the car has lain rusting in the shed, but a few of those connected with the events leading to the vehicle’s long seclusion are still available for Wisting to interview. But will the young policeman manage to wrap up a mystery already fifty-eight years old?

There’s no sensationalism here, the story is told in plain and streamlined language, and yet the credible detail and methodical approach leads to a story that is, in its own way, quite compelling and steeped in atmosphere. It has much of the same sense of patient intrigue as Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series and, as a short novel that appears to comprise Wisting’s first significant case, it serves as an excellent introduction to Lier Horst’s writing.





Book review: The Hercules Text, by Jack McDevitt

14 03 2017

Jack McDevitt is a long-established American SF author, with sixteen Nebula nominations (of which he’s won one); he’s also won the Campbell Award, the UPC Science Fiction Award, and the Robert A Heinlein Award. I’ve reviewed a couple of his books previously: Echo and The Devil’s Eye, both from his ‘Alex Benedict’ sequence.

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The Hercules Text is McDevitt’s first novel, and is a standalone. It was first published in 1986 but, so as to preserve the integrity of its near-future setting, was apparently updated in 2015.

Harry Carmichael is a mid-level administrator at Goddard Space Flight Center who learns—on the same night that Julie, his wife of ten years, announces she’s leaving him—that an object one of the teams at Goddard has been observing as telescope time permits, an X-ray pulsar in the constellation Hercules, has gone unnaturally quiet. It starts up again after a while, though when it does it’s no longer simply emitting the hot noise of X-ray pulses that project leader Ed Gambini and his colleagues have been expecting: it is, undeniably, a signal.

The pulsar hangs in intergalactic space at a distance from Earth of around one and a half million light years. Whoever has sent the signal is unlikely to be waiting for a reply. But what can be the rationale for broadcasting towards the Milky Way a string of code that, ultimately, is found to be an encyclopedia of arcane and almost untranslatable knowledge?

Harry assists in the assembly of a team of experts—cosmologists, physicists, microbiologists, psychiatrists—who seek to interpret the signal’s reams of data, and to conceptually reverse-engineer the creatures that have sent this information. It’s unlikely that creatures at such a vast distance from Earth can pose any kind of threat to terrestrial civilisation, but can the same be said of the knowledge they’ve sent Earth’s way?

The Hercules Text doesn’t have the full grandeur and casual sense-of-wonder that typifies McDevitt’s later, far-future novels like, say, The Engines of God or Seeker, but it does show his facility with the bold idea, and his ability to map out, in quite impressive detail, a set of plausible scientific, bureaucratic and political responses to what must surely qualify as the Grand Bull Moose Achievement Winner of all possible SETI results, as well as the many unforeseeable but almost unavoidable knock-on effects that such a signal would inflict on society. It’s an impressive first novel, which plays out somewhat like a teleconferenced Childhood’s End. My main criticism of it would be that it makes a rather Heinleinish claim to uncomplicated American integrity, but it’s sufficiently thoughtful overall that this can, I think, be overlooked. And it’s always a pleasure to read a hard SF novel that features characters who seem more-or-less like real three-dimensional people, rather than simplistic ciphers of the author’s creation.