book reviews by Althea

Carbide Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction – Ben Bova, ed.

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**** “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson
This one could almost be a companion piece to Ben H. Winters’ ‘Last Policeman’ series… OK, the specifics of the disaster are different, but I thought it was similar in feel. Some might find it too sentimental, but it worked for me.
A socially-challenged but brilliant physicist is struggling with the minutiae of life… from the fallout of divorce to the struggles of being a single father. He’s the only one who realizes what’s happening when a strange phenomenon is seen in the sky…

**** “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard
One thing de Bodard is very good at is really giving the reader a sense of a full and complex world around her stories. This one shares a theme I’ve seen in other of her stories: exploring the feelings of members of a minority culture that’s been decimated by contact with a more powerful civilisation. The main character here is both surprised and suspicious when a man purporting to be someone who was important to her in the past turns up. He says he has something to give her. But is it really him, or is it a trap? In a world where switching bodies is common, even a professional verifier of identity can have trouble ferreting out the truth.

* “Thunderwell” by Doug Beason
OK, this guy has a PhD in physics, and works at Los Alamos, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that the unlikely scenarios involving nuclear launches in this story may be more theory-based than they seem to a casual reader. However, this is still just not a good story. The writing is terribly awkward, full of strange word choices and tortured grammar. The characterization (what there is of it) was unconvincing. The dialogue was stilted. I was genuinely surprised that the author has published novels to his name.
After a supply ship fails to deliver its payload of necessary supplies to Mars, one of the stranded astronaut’s wives (who just happens to be highly placed in the government’s nuclear energy division) is convinced to implement a dangerous plan. If all goes well, her husband and his colleagues could be saved. But the cost of failure could be much higher.

*** “The Circle” by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
Credited as an ‘adaptation’ of an excerpt from Liu Cixin’s recently-translated ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I recently read the novel, so I was slightly taken aback when, after a different set-up, I suddenly found myself re-reading some very, very familiar passages.
The author is enamored of the idea of creating a non-electronic ‘computer’ using binary rules. After all, it’s just math, and not technically dependent on technology. The iteration of the idea found here may actually be stronger than the one in the novel.

**  “Old Timer’s Game” by Ben Bova
If advances in anti-aging technology are made, enabling men of sixty (or even older) to maintain the vigor of twenty-year-olds, how would this affect professional sports? That’s the question Bova asks here, through the device of a Sports Commission’s interview with an aging (or, not-aging) athlete. I’m not generally a fan of sports stories, but my problems here weren’t with the theme. I just didn’t feel there was enough to the piece, and I found the portrayal of the athlete to be more condescending than humorous.

*** “The Snows of Yesteryear” by Jean-Louis Trudel
A couple of scientists doing climate-change-related investigations in Greenland accidentally uncover a corporate-terrorist plot. OK, but not particularly memorable.

**** “Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen & Gabrielle Harbowy
Medical advances have allowed for many ailments to be treated by specially-programmed cells, which are ‘tattooed’ into a client’s skin and are triggered into appropriate response when needed – when all goes well. As with any new and delicate technology, all does not always go well. Indi is a talented lawyer who’s made her reputation protecting the victims of tattoo treatments gone wrong. She’s the bane of the medical company that’s patented these treatments. Until now, Indi has strictly avoided becoming a tattoo client herself due to a potential conflict of interest. But circumstances may make her stance untenable.
Really nicely done. Great characterization, meaty ethical issues.

***  “Lady with Fox” by Gregory Benford
If Anais Nin had been in a time and place to write a cyberpunk story, it might’ve come out something like this. An enigmatic femme fatale and the two men (and the hints of many more) caught in her web. However, the weirdly alluring promise here is one centered on neurological research and the new technology that allows two dreaming minds a kind of telepathic communication – the ‘konn.’ The scientific reality has quickly acquired illicit overtones of both sex and spirituality. Strange and interesting.

**  “Habilis” by Howard V. Hendrix
Some time ago, a soldier captured by the alien enemy was given an artificial replacement hand – and then, inexplicably, let go. Now, he’s working an unglamorous job as a fish hatchery manager on a frontier planet. This ‘story’ is his philosophical rambling to his co-worker about human consciousness and its relation to left- or right-handedness.
It feels very unfinished.

*** “The Play’s the Thing” by Jack McDevitt
Slight shades of Connie Willis here, I thought. A researcher programs an AI simulation of William Shakespeare – which ends up exceeding its creator’s expectations significantly. There’s ironic humor in how the programmer handles the situation.

***  “Every Hill Ends With Sky” by Robert Reed
A researcher’s computer simulations emulating the development of life in the solar system come up with some surprising results.
These results have no effect on humanity’s self-destructive spiral into collapse. A generation later, a young woman in a post-apocalyptic landscape looks to those simulations for a hope that is less than a wisp of a prayer…

** “She Just Looks That Way” by Eric Choi
Most young people know what it’s like to have that unrequited love that you just can’t get over. The young man here is willing to go to desperate measure to ‘wash that girl right out of his head’ – he wants to undergo an experimental treatment intended to treat body dysmorphia to make him unable to love the object of his affections. There are some serious logical holes in his assumptions, and unfortunately I felt that the story’s end was a bit of a cop-out as far as dealing with some of the issues it brings up.

***** “SIREN of Titan” by David DeGraff
I’m awarding an extra star here, just because it’s so refreshing to see a sometimes-pernicious trope turned on its head. There are so very many, many stories that trade on the fear of technology escaping human control. From ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘2001’ and beyond, in fiction our creations have run amok. In this story of a robotic space probe and its human control team, it happens again – but the real danger is shown to be our fear, not our technology. Thought-provoking – and heartbreaking.

** “The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” by Kate Story
There have been enough re-tellings of Romeo and Juliet. I don’t think we need any more, especially not ones as self-consciously meta- as this one.
This tale places the familiar story in an outer space mining station, tenanted by two rival corporations. There are some original twists and entertaining details, but I wasn’t fully won over.

* “Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick
Sorry, but this was just a string of stereotypes. The Regular White Guy scientist protagonist. The aboriginal Australian physicist sidekick who talks about the Dreamtime and goes by a demeaning-sounding nickname. The wife and mother who exists to act nurturing, say she doesn’t really understand all that difficult physics stuff, and to freak out protectively about her child. The child who says stuff like, “Gosh!” Stilted dialogue, and a not-too-mind-blowing concept about how SETI researchers might be looking in the wrong places.

*** “The Mandelbrot Bet” by Dirk Strasser
One of those that conflates the understanding of mathematical concepts with the application of those concepts. I know this idea has its adherents, but I’m not one of them. A paralysed physicist figures out some equations and finds himself at the end of the universe.

**** “Recollection” by Nancy Fulda
I didn’t think this would be up my alley, but I ended up finding it very touching. A new treatment has been developed for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, while it arrests the progress of the disease, it is unable to restore lost memories. The story explores one family’s – specifically, one couple’s – wrestling with the new reality that the treatment has given them. Very realistic, and something that could be a real issue within our lifetimes.

Many thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this anthology. As always, my opinions are my own.


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