book reviews by Althea

Solaris Rising 3 – Ian Whates, ed.

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***** When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
This piece reminded me a lot of S.P. Somtow’s Chronicles of the High Inquest. I almost felt that this could be an incident happening on the outskirts of that empire. Here, two planets in the same system are at war. It’s a secret war, because if higher authorities hear of their little spat, both planets will lose what independence they have. People die while both sides try to maintain their terrible secrets.
This short piece has a remarkable amount of interesting elements in it, which all work together: A complex and believable political situation, a fresh and original depiction of future technology, a rich (and lushly glittering) depiction of a world and culture that feels fully developed. And that’s just the background: the main focus is on the emotionally and ethically complex interaction between two women, Etiesse and Pahayal – which bring the grand schemes of worlds quickly down to the personal level. Masterfully crafted and aesthetically lovely.

*** The Goblin Hunter by Chris Beckett
A naive and idealistic young woman arrives to work for the ‘Indigenous Protection Agency’ on a colony planet. She just doesn’t understand why the colonists insist on slaughtering the native aliens, who, after all, aren’t interfering with the colonists’ activities at all. She’s in for a rude awakening, and perhaps a glimpse into the ugliness that lies within.

** Homo Floresiensis by Ken Liu
Disappointing – I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Ken Liu so far. usually, he’s great at distilling ideas into story. And there are interesting ideas and issues here: it’s about the conflict between habitat protection and local cultures, and the ethics of contacting isolated tribes. However, the piece comes off as overly didactic – more of an essay letting us know what Ken Liu thinks than an story that the reader can connect with. [Also, there are no major speculative elements here.]

*** A Taste for Murder by Julie E. Czerneda
In a future where bio-modifications have run rampant, an investigator looks into the death of a high-profile socialite. Everyone knows she was killed by a bio-mod – but was it an unfortunate medical accident, or part of a plot connected with her work as a food taster? Classic mystery genre meets sci-fi elements.

*** Double Blind by Tony Ballantyne
A group of people have signed up for a medical experiment (or have they been coerced into it?) In a quarantined isolation room, they’re directed to give themselves injections of a test substance. Things don’t go well, in this horror story that depends on a deep distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.

** The Mashup by Sean Williams
One day, weird spheres start appearing and following everyone around. What are they, and why is this happening? Don’t expect to find out.

** The Frost on Jade Buds by Aliette de Bodard
Family / political conflict focusing on two sisters, set among orbital habitats with a future-Vietnamese culture, threatened by the greater power of a Galactic civilization. With mind ships. According to the introduction, this is set in an established universe, so perhaps if I had a bit more background I wouldn’t have felt that a lot of elements were introduced overly quickly. The flow of the story didn’t really grab me.

*** Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus by Alex Dally MacFarlane
Non-traditional narrative. Rather than a story, this is a series of descriptions of ‘posters’ and ‘popular images,’ presumably from an archive, which gradually reveal information to the reader about this expedition to Saturn’s moon.

*** Red Lights, and Rain by Gareth L. Powell
Sci-fi with a bit of a paranormal-investigation feel to it. A woman’s in an Amsterdam bar, expecting to meet a man. It’s not for a date… but saying why would be a spoiler…

**** They Swim Through Sunset Seas by Laura Lam
A researcher on an alien planet captured a young specimen of a native species for scientific observation. Lack of communication and a universal desire for freedom culminated in violence and tragedy. Now – perhaps the desire for revenge might also be a universal trait.

* Faith Without Teeth by Ian Watson
Picking on Communism just seems kind of old, these days. This story felt like hyperbolic WWII propaganda or something. Not saying that any political system should be exempt from criticism, but this was just… clunky, in a gross-out way. I also felt like it made fun of the ignorant, rather than striving to understand differing perspectives.

*** Thing and Sick by Adam Roberts
In the genre of isolated-team-members-go-crazy-and-hate-each-other. I found both of the geeky dudes annoying. A petty incident where one guy hides the contents of a letter from home from the other, escalates. And maybe there’re aliens.

** The Sullen Engines by George Zebrowski
While I am actually fully in agreement with the idea that cars are unacceptably dangerous devices, I wasn’t won over by this tale of a woman who develops the inexplicable ability to zap those car engines to a remote desert location. Too much suburban angst and enuui.

*** Dark Harvest by Cat Sparks
Starts off really strong, with a compelling portrayal of tough military men finding themselves out of their depth when assigned to a tour on an agricultural farming planet. However, I found the ending to be overly mystical and inconclusive. This might work really well if expanded to a novel.

** Fift & Shira by Benjamin Rosenbaum
I felt like this tried too hard to be boundary-stretching, with its portrayal of aliens with different genders, family structure and communication methods – while the story itself wasn’t very compelling.

*** The Howl by Ian K. MacLeod and Martin Sketchley
A woman seeks out an elderly man who was once a friend of her mother’s (and, we suspect, may be her father). He’s reluctant to talk to her about his past as an RAF pilot, but she’s persistent, and old memories (and old tragedies) are dredged up… Very well-written.

**** The Science of Chance by Nina Allan
While looking into a case of a lost child found alone at a train station, an investigator gradually becomes convinced that the child somehow slipped through time, and is somehow connected to a terrible bombing incident that happened thirty years earlier. Really nicely done: compelling characters, incisive psychology, and lovely use of ambiguity.

*** Endless by Rachel Swirsky
In the future, tranhumanist beings strive to keep in touch with their ‘humanity’ by experiencing virtual ‘deaths’ from the past. One of these people is obsessed with reliving the experiences of the young women who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

While I didn’t love all of these stories, there were a few excellent ones here. I’d still highly recommend the collection as a whole, as the authors selected here are nearly all major names in the genre today; it gives a good overview of the diversity of work coming out of the field.

Thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an ARC of this collection. As always, my opinion is my own.


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