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

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: Stockholm Noir, ed. Nathan Larson & Carl-Michael Edenborg

25 11 2016

Akashic Books’ ‘noir’ anthology series now numbers several dozen volumes, each employing as a backdrop a different city, each edited by someone who knows that city and its writers well.

stockholm-noir

There are thirteen stories in Stockholm Noir. I’ll provide brief commentary on each of them before offering a summation.

Åke Edwardson’s Stairway from Heaven is shot through (pun unintended) with noir tones, as a wealthy woman, Rebekah, offers the narrator (‘Peter Kampinsky’) a substantial sum of money to find a friend of hers, John. Kampinsky takes the assignment—money is always useful in his line of work—but Rebekah grows impatient with his methods, and things go pear-shaped. Edwardson has several crime novels to his name, none of which I’ve yet read. I’m impressed with Stairway, though, which opens the anthology very effectively.

Still in Kallhäll, by Johan Theorin (whose The Darkest Room I quite enjoyed), sets in play an inheritance ruse, as Klas manoeuvres to knock off his ditzy girlfriend’s grandfather, who owns an enviably-central apartment which, really, all things considered, is more-or-less going to waste. This one didn’t work so well for me: Theorin seems to be pushing for comic effect with the brash, somewhat cartoonish characterisation, and the result lacks the depths his more serious work is able to attain.

Martin Holmén’s The Smugglers features characters from his debut novel Clinch, as a young man waits at a pub’s table for what he feels certain is his doom. This is a powerfully atmospheric historical piece which tells just enough to leave the reader distinctly unsettled.

The Splendors and Miseries of a Swedish Crime Writer, by Malte Persson, is another somewhat tongue-in-cheek (not to say self-referential) piece, as the narrator, a struggling crime writer, is contacted by his high-achieving ex-girlfriend who wants to meet up. Things go bad, of course. This one works, more or less, and offers some good-natured digs at the genre for good measure.

Anna-Karin Selberg’s Horse is mysterious and primal, as a woman (orphaned as a child in a drugland slaying) intercepts a heroin kingpin. It’s effective, though I can’t be sure that it isn’t a fragment of a larger piece.

From the Remains, by Inger Edelfeldt, is paranormal / urban fantasy, in which the narrator, a writer, finds a teenage girl living in her intolerably-cold summer cottage. It told too much, didn’t show enough, for my liking, nor did it hew to the core of noir.

Northbound, by Lena Wolff, is a nicely-written but rather disturbing report of a dating-site liaison, as the narrator decides to travel north from her Malmö home to hook up with the frankly revolting Caliban. If it’s true that some matches are made in Heaven, the opposite must also be true.

Torbjörn Elensky’s Kim has the narrator at a loose end in Gamla Stan on a summer evening, when he (or she: the narrator’s gender isn’t revealed) receives a phone call from an androgynous stranger, Kim, who’s being held captive and abused at an undisclosed nearby location. Kim begs for the narrator’s help …

In Black Ice, by Inger Frimansson, elderly widow Maj is alone in her large hilltop house when she hears someone moving around in the basement garage. There’s nobody there, of course, but when she returns upstairs some of her belongings are not as she’d left them. This story has a good sense of atmosphere, though it didn’t fully convince.

The Wahlberg Disease, by Carl Johan De Geer, refers to the migraines suffered by the photographer Arne Walhberg, whose Drottninggatan workspace and ailment the narrator has inherited. This doesn’t seem a deeply noirish story, and it rambles somewhat, but it also provides perhaps the most sharply-visual sense of place of any of the anthology’s contributions.

In Nineteen Pieces, by co-editor Carl-Michael Edenborg, Agneta Bengtsson is a middle-aged policewoman with a substance abuse problem and, it seems, a postal delivery problem: someone has begun sending her, on a daily basis, parcels containing amateurishly-butchered meat. The story is certainly appropriately dark, but it didn’t really work for me.

Unni Drougge’s Death Star traces the awkward interaction between Berit, who witnesses a young woman falling to her death from a building in the derelict canal district, and Rafel, a welder who works in one of the district’s businesses. This is a visceral and fairly effective piece.

Co-editor Nathan Larson’s 10/09/03 follows its jaded protagonist through the planning and execution of a savage political assassination in Stockholm’s NK department store. The writing is admirably propulsive, the story carries a sharp edge, but the narrator’s hyperworldly cynicism felt overdone. A dash of moderation would, I felt, have resulted in a stronger ending, both for the story and the book.

Anthologies are always a mixed bag, one way or another: there will be pieces which resonate more with the reader, others which seem somehow misplaced, or perhaps unfinished. This is true of Stockholm Noir (as is the habitual disclaimer that those stories I preferred might not be so much to another’s taste), but it does seem as though the overall compilation is a fairly solid sampler, with the highlights (for my money) being the stories by Edwardson, Holmén, Selberg, Wolff, and De Geer, in which the characterisation, the setting, and the ever-present sense of impending disaster transcend the gritty shock-and-awe affrontery that appears to mark the editors’ preferences.





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.