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.


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: 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.


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: With Her Body, by Nicola Griffith

24 12 2016

Nicola Griffith is a  British-born writer of speculative fiction and crime fiction, now living in the USA. I’ve previously reviewed her 1992 debut novel, Ammonite.


With Her Body is a slim volume of three novelettes / novellas, published as part of Aqueduct Press’s ‘Conversation Pieces’ series of feminist SF.

‘Touching Fire’ explores the evident attraction between Kate, who serves drinks and sweeps floors at Tallulah’s, a women’s bar, and customer Nadia, whose kinesthetic control is so precise that she is the only human capable of LAOM dancing, a skill so demanding that she has been accorded National Treasure status, and is (almost) always accompanied by armed guards. But Nadia warns Kate that she’s trouble, and not to be trusted … which turns out to be true enough. This is a racy, wrenching piece, urgent yet still reflective.

In ‘Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese’, Molly is an immunologist living in the isolation of an abandoned apartment complex twenty miles out of Atlanta. It’s a world in which ninety-five percent of all people, including her partner Helen, have succumbed to a fatal variant of chronic fatigue syndrome. Under such conditions, what’s the purpose in going on? Suffused by her own grief, her persistent listlessness, and a sense of professional helplessness against an all-consuming foe, Molly struggles to find purchase. This is a closely-observed and effective piece of post-apocalyptic pastoralism.

In ‘Yaguara’, the longest of the chapbook’s stories, photographer Jane Holford travels to a minor archaeological site in Belize to capture images of epigrapher Cleis Fernandez and the Mayan glyphs she is convinced hold an unexpected significance. But the experience pushes Holford well outside her comfort zone: sharing quarters with Fernandez feels claustrophobic; their contact person among the local villagers, Ixbulum, seems taciturn and passively hostile; and the surrounding jungle is full of unfamiliar danger, typified by the silent, steathy jaguar that stalks Jane on her walk back from the dig site one afternoon. Cleis seeks to reassure her that jaguars have never been known to attack humans, but it’s an assurance that, in the circumstances, appears rather hollow, as first Cleis and then Jane seeks to puzzle out the connection between the glyphs and the jaguar.

Each of these stories is vivid, immersive, uncomfortably frank, as Griffith’s heroines grapple with an elusive understanding of The Other. There’s a well-defined physicality to Griffith’s imagery: the book’s title is well-chosen, and equally applicable to each of the three stories. While each undoubtedly qualifies as ‘speculative fiction’, the speculative component is generally reasonably subtle, with a predominant focus on character, and on what it means to be human.

‘Walking’, by Sean O’Leary

2 04 2016

Further on the ‘what have I been doing over recent months’ front, there’s this. Walking is a collection of seventeen short stories by Melbourne author Sean O’Leary.


As well as editing the collection, I also did the typesetting and the cover design, so my perspective on the book is hardly that of a detached observer. But be that as it may …

Sean’s stories mostly fall into the ‘crime’ or ‘literary’ category (although a couple of Walking‘s stories qualify as SF), and are narrated with a plain immediacy that keeps the pace fast and throws the characters into sharp relief. The settings are, without exception, various versions of a real or imagined Australia (Sean seems to have lived in almost every city or town in the country); recurring themes within the stories are attraction, responsibility, retribution, and schizophrenia. Sean has an eye for the grittier, less pretty side of life, and he tells a good story. His work has been praised by Garry Disher and by Les Murray. This is his second collection: his first, My Town (Ginninderra Press, 2010), is now, I gather, quite difficult to locate.

If you’re interested to learn more, Peggy Bright Books has the book on sale (in paperback and e-book versions), at a reduced price prior to its June launch.



The plot thickens, or something

17 07 2014

A new Gordon Mamon space-elevator murder mystery novella. A painterly xenohominid who cannot correctly choose the pigments that best represent the humble tomato; and the larger-scale problem this may signify. The complicated combination of ethical, economic, aesthetic, engineering, and tactical considerations that come into play when choosing the raygun that most ideally suits one’s own particular purposes. And my nastiest Titan story yet. It can all only mean one thing.

Actually, that’s a rather pointless assertion: it can very obviously mean any of several quite different things, the range of which I am not going to seek to encompass here. There is one thing that it does mean, and that one thing is this one thing: I have a second short story collection in the works, a follow-up, as it were, to Rare Unsigned Copy, and this second collection will be released (assuming all goes according to plan) at the start of October.

Most of the more titivating details, such as the full Table of Contents and the cover artwork, will be revealed closer to the time. For now, I can let slip that, like its predecessor, the new collection will be published (in print and e-book editions, as usual) by Peggy Bright Books, and edited by Edwina Harvey.

The title of this new collection? Well, after Rare Unsigned Copy, what else could it be? It’s Difficult Second Album.