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book reviews by Althea


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Vanishing Acts: A Science Fiction Anthology – Ellen Datlow ****

Well-known for editing the popular Year’s Best SF & Horror anthologies, Datlow here has created an anthology based around the concept of extinction – one of the areas, in my perception, where science-fiction so easily crosses over into the truly horrific.

Suzy McKee Charnas – Listening to Brahms
An alien race of lizard-people has become obsessed with human popular culture through listening to our radio (&etc) transmissions. Filled with enthusiasm, they send an interstellar mission to greet humanity – but by the time they arrive, humanity has self-destructed, and the only humans left alive are the crew of a space mission. The lizards bring the survivors back to their own planet, where they are feted as celebrities… but this does not save the survivors from depression and insanity… Meanwhile, the lizards’ culture, taken over my their love of all things human, seems to be going the same way as humanity’s has… Told from the perspective of one of the survivors, a none-too-stable individual who clings to the classical music of Earth as his touchstone.

Paul McAuley – The Rift
An ill-conceived expedition made up of a motley mix of adventurers, scientists, and media hounds has set out to explore one of the last wildernesses on Earth – a rift valley/canyon hidden deep in the Amazon. What they might find there could be stranger than they could guess… Well-written, but I didn’t really find the disorganization and incompetence of the expedition believable, from what I’ve read about such (non-fictional) ventures elsewhere…

Bruce McAllister – The Girl Who Loved Animals
A social worker, in between dealing with her own issues (including a troubled, addicted daughter), deals with one of her clients – a none-too-bright young woman in an abusive relationship – who has now caught the attention of religiously-motivated assassins and the press for agreeing to do something some people find terribly offensive – carrying the fetus of an all-but-extinct animal in her womb, to term. The issues here are sensitively dealt with, but I found the side-plot about the narrator’s own daughter and her problems to be somewhat unnecessary.

Ian McDowell – Sunflowers
In a small Midwestern town, there’s a field that has come down through one family’s hands without ever being developed or plowed over. And that one field is a link to plains of the past, where huge flocks of passenger pigeons fly overhead and extinct sunflowers sway in the breeze… as writer and ex-punk Kelly discovers when she comes to visit her younger, goth cousin, who’s been having a hard time of it, in a town infested with jocks and the Klan, especially because she’s gotten very close to one of those jock’s sister… Better than most fiction that tries to deal with contemporary subculture (and usually makes an offensive botch of it…).

Brian Stableford – Tenebrio
This one’s pretty much straightforward supernatural horror. A professor is reluctantly dragged out to inspect a remote site by his former student, an ecological protester. Although the site (an uninspiring stand of trees) does not seem to have anything unusual going for it – except an strangely high number of common beetles – when one of the protesters dies in a freak accident, things get weirder than expected…

William Shunn – Dance of the Yellow Breasted Luddites
Working with endangered species as a kind of ‘community service’ punishment in an interstellar civilization, debtor Hannah Specter encounters a bit of trouble when the birdlike creatures her team is supposed to introduce into a wildlife preserve seem to have an unreasonable hatred of the automated prospecting machines that also occupy the preserve. Teamwork and a bit of thinking outside the box may save the day…

David J. Schow – Blessed Event
Cop thriller meets “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as two policemen investigate a man who killed his pregnant girlfriend, believing that the fetus was an alien monster…

Karen Joy Fowler – Faded Roses
A melancholy story (and an all-too-believable one) set in a future ‘zoo’ that points out that not only do we not really appreciate what we have – neither will we realize what we’ve lost when it’s gone.

Mark W. Tiedemann – Links
Historical piece, set in the time of Darwin. A friend of the naturalist tries to buy an unusual creature for scientific examination.

Daniel Abraham – Chimera 8
In a future time, scientists try to reconstruct ruined ecosystems by introducing creatures created through gene splicing and hybridization. But with unauthorized experimentation, more may have been unleashed on the world than was intended.

Michael Cadnum – Bite the Hand
A short and weird little piece about an eccentric collector who buys what appears to be a mummified specimen of a mythological centaur. But is it really dead?

M. Shayne Bell – The Thing About Benny
After the destruction of the rainforests, the hunt is on to find any last remnants of plants that may have somehow survived – preserved among common houseplants in private gardens or offices. Benny is a slightly eccentric young man who is obsessed with ABBA (yes, the Swedish pop group) and has an almost preternatural ability to find these rare specimens. Oddly charming.

A.R. Morlan – Fast Glaciers
A heretofore undiscovered tribe who communicate through whistling are found, and a group of anthropologists are sent to study them. However, a student researcher believes that contact with the team is hopelessly destroying the tribe’s culture; even triggering physical changes to their morphology. However, when she takes matters into her own hands, in a well-meaning gambit, the results may be worse than anything she could have imagined.

Avram Davidson – Now Let us Sleep
This is the oldest story in this volume, and the only one I’d read before. It still packs a punch… probably because, if instead of taking place on a planet that just happens to be on an interstellar route, it were set on, say, some islands that just happened to be a stopping point between Europe and Australia in the days of sailing ships, you could easily convince me that it was factual. In this portrayal of the human capacity for not only callous and wanton destruction, but for planned and ‘justified’ cruelty and genocide – this is one of the bleakest statements about human nature that one could find in literature. It’s an excellent story.

Ted Chiang – Seventy-Two Letters
Some other reviews of this volume have said that it would be worth buying for this story alone. I would have to agree. As far as I can tell, Ted Chiang was only published (so far) eight stories. (This was his third) However, he has won 3 Nebula Awards, the Hugo, the Sidewise award for Alternate History (for this story), the John W. Campbell Award , the Asimov’s Reader’s Choice Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a Locus Poll award, and has been nominated for both the Mythopoeic award and the World Fantasy award…. Wow. This guy does not let a story out of his hands until it is perfect, apparently.
At least, this story is pretty close!
It posits an England where the golems of Jewish mythology are not merely the province of rabbis, and not ‘magic.’ Rather, they follow natural laws, and research and development is ongoing in the technological field of producing golems. However, when a young researcher’s advances in improving the dexterity of golems is seen as a threat to human workers, he’s shunned by the ‘Union’ – but picked up by a wealthy patron who has discovered a more serious threat to the future of humanity – a threat which could only possibly be solved by the most brilliant nomenclators of the day…
The setting is vivid, the issues are current, the ideas are brilliant – I can’t praise this story too much!

Joe Haldeman – Endangered Species
A short poem about war and religion.

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Black Wine – Candas Jane Dorsey *****

I got this book as a birthday present from my sister.
As soon as I was done reading it (with that shuddering pleasure that only the absolute best books give you), I passed it back to her to read… and I still haven’t got it back, because when she was done, she gave it to her boyfriend to read (someone who is not the biggest fantasy fan), and he won’t read the very end, because “But once I finish it, it’ll be over!”
I’m considering buying another copy, to re-read it and pass it on again to someone else.

It’s amazing that ‘Black Wine’ is a first novel. The characters are complex enough to fully immerse yourself in their lives. The world is not some faux-medieval wish-fulfillment daydream, but a real, gritty and harsh land – that still somehow has the feel of one of your deepest dreams.
Recommended for fans of Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and Sheri S. Tepper. (But having said that, I feel I should add that the “feminist” undercurrent of the book is neither distracting, nor does it leave you with that nasty “agenda” taste in your mouth.)

(oh, and they play Scrabble! Yay! (as Scrabble fanatics, both me & my sister got a big kick out of that!)