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China Mièville's novella This Census-Taker is a collection of mysteries, memories half-remembered, truths half-told, stories layered one on the other that may or may not be about the same thing, by the same person.

There was a boy, who lived with his mother and father on the side of a mountain, just above the main part of a town that spread across two hills. The boy learned to read from his mother, and learned to fear his father. A boy who saw something so terrible his mind could not encompass it, his tongue could not communicate it, his fellow townspeople could not believe him when he tried to explain it.

Later there was a man who was either a prisoner or a guest, who had three books to write, one in figures, one in words, one in secret.

There was a census taker, who came to the boy's house, and spoke to his father, and then took the boy away to become a trainee. And before him, there was another trainee, who disappeared leaving only a warning for the boy who came after her, who became the man writing the books.

There are no answers to any if the questions, the mysteries, the disappearances. There is only memory of what was seen and heard, but never known and understood.

It is an unsettling story, full of implied violence and without anything that feels like an end. But it stays with you.

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Kij Johnson's novella, "The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe" is in many ways a response to H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," in which the protagonist, a man named Raymond Carter, first sees a mysterious city in his dreams and then finds a way to transport himself to this dreamworld full of magical places and terrifying creatures, where he undertakes a journey to find the city of his visions.

Johnson has set her story in that dreamworld. Vellitt Boe, a professor at Ulthar Women's College, is awakened one night to learn that one of her finest students, Clarie Jurat, has eloped with a man from 'the waking world,' as the inhabitants of the Six Kingdoms of the dreamworld call our reality. Because she travelled extensively in her youth, and because she knew a man from the waking world once - a man who, it turns out, was Raymond Carter himself - and knows the location of one of the gates that allows people to travel physically between the worlds, Boe undertakes to follow Clarie and bring her back. The stakes are high - Clarie is the daughter of a high official of the College and a socially prominent society; the College, and higher education for women, is not universally supported, and if Clarie is not recovered, there is a good chance that the College will be closed because of its inability to protect its students from scandal and impropriety. But there is more. Boe discovers that Clarie is the granddaughter of a god, and that the petty politics of the gods of the dreamworld may result in the destruction of Ulthar itself, and perhaps other lands of the dreamworlds as well.

This story is both labour of love, and critique, of Lovecraft's novella. As Johnson notes in her brief acknowledgements, "I first read it at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it."

Where Lovecraft has a young male protagonist searching for a vision out of his dreams, Johnson gives us a middle-aged woman fulfilling her responsibilities to an institution that gave her position, place and standing in a world - as created by Lovecraft - without much room for women, and to her student.

In the end, both Boe and the dreamworlds are changed by her dream-quest and its resolution, in ways that subvert Lovecraft's sexist and elitist imaginings but hold onto the wonder.

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Brushwork, by Aliya Whiteley, is a novella set in a dystopic, climate-changed future where real food, grown in biodomes and greenhouses, is a luxury for the rich and a target for agro-terrorism.

Mel - so called because her production area is the melon section - is one of the workers at a BlossomFarms facility. Like many of the workers, she has lived in the domes for years, sleeping in dormitories, eating synthetic food, never tasting the fruits she grows for the conglomerate's wealthy customers. When agro-terrorists break into the biodome, taking the facilities hostage in the name of the people who have never tasted fruit, everything changes - except the fact that workers remain workers, and no matter who is in charge, the hierarchy never changes until the workers themselves decide what is important to them.

One thing in particular that I enjoyed about this was the age of the protagonist and her co-workers, and the acknowledgement of generational issues we see around us in the world today - older people who did everything they were supposed to do, and feel betrayed without knowing who to blame. And the youth, knowing they will not have what they think was the birthright of their parents and grandparents. Both betrayed by the wealthy and powerful, but somehow blaming each other instead.


Note: Brushwork can be found online at Giganotosaurus:
http://giganotosaurus.org/2016/05/01/brushwork/

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Penric and the Shaman is the second novella in Lois McMaster Bujold's world of Five Gods subseries about the young demon-ridden divine. Several years have passed since Penric acquired the demon he calls Desdemona, and he has learned to work with both the altered perceptions and powers she gives him, and the personalities and memories of her ten previous hosts. He has come into his own as a sorcerer and a scholar, and has learned much about the nature of being a priest - and a priest of the trickster Bastard god at that.

All three aspects of his vocation are tested in this adventure. He is called on to assist Oswylt, a Locator of the Order of the Father, in his pursuit of a suspected murderer. The complication in this pursuit, which makes the presence of a demon-possessed sorcerer necessary, is that the suspect is a shaman, a practitioner of wild earth magic, who is himself possessed by the spirit of a Great Beast, and this possession gives him powers that can only be countered by a sorcerer's demon.

The pursuit of and eventual confrontation with the shaman Inglis is a test of Penric's abilities as sorcerer, scholar and priest - and it is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of the wild magic first seen in the novel The Hallowed Hunt, and how it relates to the religion of the Five Gods that has been so much a part of the other works set in this world.

The novella offers much - fine storytelling, growth and development of a character with great promise for many more stories, and a large amount of worldbuilding seamlessly integrated onto the story.

I've become quite fond of Penric and Desdemona, and am looking forward to reading about their further adventures.

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Kai Ashante Wilson's novella A Taste of Honey is a bittersweet story of love and loss, of sacrifices made for love, and the eternal question of what might have been.

Aqib bmg Sidiqi is a member of the minor royalty of
Great Olorum, is in training to follow his father as the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie. His family has great hopes for him, that he will marry well and raise their status, thus improving his warrior brother's chances of promotion and his scholarly sister's chances of making a good marriage herself.

But Aqib places all this at risk when he becomes the lover of Lucrio, a soldier with the diplomatic delegation from Daluça. In Olorum, sexual relationships between men are taboo and the penalty is death. Lucrio and Aqib fall passionately in love, just ten days before the delegation is due to leave.

The story unfolds in two times, the events of each night of their relationship interwoven with scenes from Aqib's future after Lucrio is gone, his marriage with a highborn royal woman, the childhood of their daughter Lucretia, his career with the Menagerie, all the things that he would have lost had he left Olorum to be with Lucrio.

But Wilson is not content with giving us just such a straightforward story, and nothing more, and in the end takes us much deeper into the realm of duty, sacrifice and love to an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. Beautifully and evocatively written.

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Seanan McGuire's novella Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a difference - it's about what life is like for those who cross into another world after the portal travelling is done, after the strange world beyond the magic door has changed their hearts and souls and then sent them back.

Eleanor West knows what it feels like to find your true home on the other side of the magic mirror, or at the bottom of the rabbit-hole. As a child, she wandered into another world not once but several times. Now a middle-aged woman, she runs a 'home for wayward children' - mostly girls - who have gone through a portal and returned, but can not move on. Most have been sent to Eleanor by their parents, who don't understand what their children have experienced, or why and how they have been changed. They want their children back as they were, and Eleanor tells them she can help them. But her real intention is to help the travellers accept that their portals are closed, that there is little chance of their ever opening again, and how to live in the mundane world with the knowledge of where they have been.

Nancy is one of these wayward girls. She has spent years of subjective time in a world she calls the Halls of the Dead, learning to be silent, motionless, a statue in black and white, until the Lord of the Dead sent her back. Her parents believe her to be the victim of a kidnapping, and send her to Eleanor West, to be healed. At first she is confused by the others she meets, all changed in different ways by the different worlds they have been to. She learns how the portal worlds are classified, of the axes of Logic and Nonsense, Virtue and Wickedness. And she begins to form wary relationships with some of the others. Kade, a trans boy cast out of the world he loved because it, like the mundane world, could not accept his gender. Her roommate Sumi, a noisy, colourful girl who is never still. Jack and Jill (identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian) who have been to a world of mad scientists and vampires.

When murder strikes, Nancy, and some of the other children whose portal worlds dealt with death, attempt to unravel the mystery before the authorities have cause to shut down the school.

Every Heart a Doorway is a strange and compelling tale, balanced between fantasy and horror, about difference and what people will do to find a place they can call home.

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Katya Gould, the protagonist of Mary Robinette Kowal's novella Forest of Memory, is a dealer in Authenticities - artefacts from the past that have a provenance and a history of real use, a patina of use and wear that she and her clients call wabi-sabi. The world she lives in is one of constant connectedness - most people are hooked into a system that informs, records, communicates and tracks their every word and action.

Katya is returning from a buying trip when she accidentally encounters a mysterious man who is drugging and tagging deer. He blocks her connection to her AI, drugs and kidnaps her, holding her in a forest area while he tags several more groups of deer. Apparently wounded by a buck, he lets her go. When she gets far enough away to reconnect, she calls for help, but when a medical team arrives, and she leads them back to the site where she was held, there is nothing to be found but deer tracks.

At least, that's what she remembers. Because nothing of her experience was recorded, it's hard for others to believe her story. And when an unknown client hires her to write her story - a one-of-a-kind account on a typewriter the client has also bought - her hesitations and disclaimers show that she is not even sure herself of the authenticity of her memories.

The account she types out - typographic errors, false starts and all - forms the text of the story. It is her first person narrative of what she remembers. And what she doubts, and mistrusts, and the lacunae when she is drugged or asleep. It is the authentic human experience - which cannot, unlike the artefacts she appraises, ever be authenticated.

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Many readers of speculative fiction have a conflicted relationship with H. P. Lovecraft. I'm certainly one of them. There's a power, an allure, to the Cthulhu mythos that's hard to set aside - yet there's also the pervasive racism that makes so many of the specific works that form that mythos so difficult to read.

Victor LaValle's powerful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is both a retelling of Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and a response to its appalling racism. I'd come across some reviews of LaValle's piece some time ago, and decided to reread Lovecraft's story before reading the novella.

"The Horror at Red Rock" has been called by some one of Lovecraft's most overtly racist works. It is set in a part of Brooklyn that Lovecraft populates with a "hopeless tangle and enigma" of "Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro element," "unclassified slant-eyed folk," and "swarthy, evil-looking strangers." The protagonist is a police detective named Malone, who works the human smuggling beat in Red Hook, investigating "the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island." In the course of his work, he encounters a reclusive scholar named Suydam who seems to be unaccountably involved with the more corrupt and violent elements of Red Hook society.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle inverts the characterisation of Red Hook, painting it as a vibrant multicultural community that suffers under the structural racism of American society and the callous brutality of the police, whose job it is to keep the people of Red Hook away from white New York.

The protagonist here is a young black man named Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler with a minor musical talent who skirts the edges of the occult world. Raised in poverty and always under the threat of race-based discrimination and assault, he accepts an invitation to play at a party being held by the eccentric and mysterious Suydam - and is introduced into the world of Cthulhu.

The general course of events outlined in Lovecraft's story unfold in similar fashion in LaValle's novella, but from the joint perspectives of Tester and Malone. A tragic act of police violence finally drives Tester to Suydam's side snd he becomes his primary lieutenant, Black Tom.

In LaValle's work, it is the promise of revenge for years of oppression by whites that draws members of the Red Hook community, including Tester, to embrace the worship of Cthulhu, and ultimately leads Tester to choose the end of human civilisation over the continuance of white supremacy. As Black Tom tells Malone at the climax of the story, " I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

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In Laurie Penny's novella Everything Belongs to the Future, science - corporate controlled science - has developed a drug that, taken daily, can extend the lifespan for years, perhaps centuries. It is, of course, extremely expensive, available only to the rich and to favoured scientists, entertainers, and others who make themselves of particular value to those in control.

The narrative focuses on a small group of anarchist activists. Joined by Daisy, the scientist who did the original research on the "blue pill' - now a woman in her eighties who looks like a teenager - their attempts to develop a generic life extension drug give way to something profoundly different when Daisy's research leads in an unexpected and potentially explosive direction. Although we know from the beginning that something goes wrong with their plans - part of the narrative consists of letters written from prison by one of the activists - much of the story's tension is driven by the fact that the reader learns early on that there is a covert agent of the establishment among them.

Penny writes about power and corruption, oppression and resistance, loyalty and betrayal, but her focus is so narrow that the reader is left with little understanding of how the existence of life extension drugs has changed society. We learn that, faced with long life, the world's elites have finally taken measures to curb climate change, but little else that's concrete about this future society.

We get a sense that, at least among those to whom the protagonists initially try to distribute stolen life extension pills, life seems grim and faintly desperate, but we are left unsure as to the reasons for this. Is it just the longing that everyone has for the virtually unattainable fountain of youth, or has the creation of an immortal elite altered social conditions in ways that have made a life of normal span less tolerable?

Penny also uses the dichotomous categories of eternal youth and premature aging to explore the ways that apparent age influences the perceived value and status of women.

The novella moves quickly, and Penny's prose is at times both deeply evocative and chillingly powerful. As an allegory of favoured elites, disfavoured masses, and discontented resistance, it offers considerable good for thought, but I found I wanted more.

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Bao Shu's novella Everybody Loves Charles, translated by Ken Liu, is an exploration of identity, celebrity and corporate greed and power. Bao uses the by-now familiar trope of being "wired" into the feeling and sensations of a celebrity to present a world in which millions of people would rather spend hours of every day being someone else - someone glamorous, who does exciting things and has sex with the 'beautiful people' - rather that live their own lives.

Charles Mann is the world's most chosen 'livecaster' - a daring race pilot who has love affairs with the world's most famous women and who, unlike many other celebrities, is online for his subscribers 24 hour a day. He thrives on the knowledge that millions love him so much they want to know his every feeling and sensation, to see the world through his eyes. Takume Naoto is one of his subscribers, a programmer who works just enough to support a spartan life, and spends all of his remaining time vicariously experiencing Charles' life.

When Charles meets a woman who is outside of his world of fame and constant livecasting, he is persuaded by her to limit his livecasting - she refuses to allow his time with her to be a part of the experiences of anyone who cares to subscribe to Charles' livecasts. But when he contemplates stopping his casts altogether, he discovers the world of corporate brandmaking that lies behind the livecasts.

An ultimately pessimistic, even dystopic view of a culture where personal identity and experience are felt to be inadequate beside the hyped-up lives of the rich and famous, and where even the cults of celebrity are ultimately nothing more than ways to make profits, Everyone Loves Charles delivers a serious critique of the virtual and vicarious lives we are increasing drawn to.

Bao Shu's novella can be found online at Clarkesworld. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/bao_01_16/

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I don't think I'm going too far when I say that Diane Duane's Young Wizards series has captivated her readers, who have become attached, not only to the central characters Nita, Kit, Dairine and their immediate families, but also to the wizards - and other beings - from planets far and wide who have become a part of their extended family, as well as colleagues they can rely on.

This is why I was so excited to learn that Duane is writing a trio of novellas about some of the secondary characters - if any of them can actually be called secondary - as they deal with the defining moments of their future lives as wizards, their Ordeals. In fact, I immediately bought the two novellas currently available from Duane's website.

The first novella I read was On Ordeal: Roshaun ke Nelaid, which, in addition to showing us that an Ordeal need not be full of physical threat and heroic deeds in order to be a profound test of courage and will to do what is best for all, provided much welcome background information into Roshaun's life, his family and his world.

The second novella of the planned trio, On Ordeal: Mamvish fsh Wimsih, tells of the Doom of the Wimseh at the hands of the Lone One, and the events leading up to Mamvish's rather unorthodoxly concluded Ordeal. The history of Mamvish's people, and Mamvish herself, is a difficult one, but Duane handles it with skill and sensitivity. A beautifully told story.

The third novella, not yet released, features another of the fascinating young wizards who have worked with and become companions to Nita and Kit - Ronan Nolan. I am keeping an eye on Duane's website so I can read it as soon as it's available.

The idea of seeing these familiar characters before their wizardry comes to them, and as they negotiate the trial that confirms them as wizards and agents of the Powers, appeals greatly to me. I rather hope that Duane will continue with these novellas, giving us the Ordeal stories of more of the wizards who are a part of Nita and Kit's lives.

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Novel

I was quite familiar with three of the finalists - White's The Ill-Made Knight, Van Vogt's Slan, and Smith's The Grey Lensman - all quite well-known classics of the genre, and all on my nomination list. Boye's Kallocain, which I had actually read earlier this year, was also one of my nominations [1]. So the only new novel to me among the finalists was The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson [2], which, having now read, I think of as a quick and pleasant read, but not particularly special.

My personal opinion is that The Ill-Made Knight has aged the best of the the finalists, and as a retelling if the Arthurian legend, it holds a special place in my memories. But I'd be almost as happy if Slan wins, as it's a book I remember with much nostalgia from my childhood - as I suspect do many socially outcast young nerds.


Novella

Heinlein's If This Goes On… and Coventry - both personal favourites among his early work - were on my nomination list for this category. Magic, Inc., however, has always seemed to be one of Heinlein's lesser works and I did not consider it for nomination.
I had read both of the de Camp/Pratt finalists - The Mathematics of Magic and The Roaring Trumpet - before, but long enough ago that I did not remember them clearly. I have now remedied that [3]. Both of the de Camp/Pratt novellas were good, well-crafted comic adventure pieces, but I remain convinced that for technique, entertainment value, and maturity of themes and ideas, the two Heinlein science fiction pieces are the cream of this crop.


Novelette

Heinlein's "Blowups Happen," Sturgeon's "It!” and Bates' “Farewell to the Master” were among my nominees - I was of course long familiar with the Heinlein novelette, but not Harry Bates' story, which I read for the first time this year and was quite taken with, or the Sturgeon novelette, which I also read earlier this year [4]. Heinlein's “The Roads Must Roll" was a close contender for me, though it just missed being one of my nominations. The late addition to the finalists, A. E. Van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" was new to me, and sadly, I was not impressed [5]. All in all, "Blowups Happen" and "Farewell to the Master" made the strongest impression on me in this category.


Best Short Story

“Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett, “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein, and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges - I adore Borges - were all among my nominations for this category, and both “The Stellar Legion," also by Leigh Brackett, and “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov were among the works I had under consideration up to the end [6]. I think I'd be quite content if any of them were to win, but my secret hopes are for the Borges piece.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181310.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198078.html
[3] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198990.html
[4] short notes on the Bates and Sturgeon novelettes here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html
[5] short notes on A. E. Van Vogt's novelette here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/199299.html
[6] short notes on the two Brackett stories here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html

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The Roaring Trumpet and The Magic of Mathematics, two of the novellas nominated for the 1941 Retro Hugos, are the first two entries in a series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

De Camp and Pratt collaborated on a series of comic fantasy adventures featuring Harold Shea, psychologist and occasional enchanter. In our universe, Shea works in a psychology institute attached to a hospital, and along with a few of his his colleagues, has developed an interest in what they call paraphysics - the theory that all the worlds of the imagination exist, and the key to moving between them is the ability to shift one's sensory awareness from one universe to another.

In The Roaring Trumpet, the first of Harold Shea's adventures, he plans a nice trip to Ancient Ireland, but instead winds up in the universe of Norse mythology, in the midst of Fimbulwinter, with Ragnarok just around the corner. At first, Shea doesn't realise that the laws of physics he knows don't work in this universe - and neither do his matches, his gun, or anything else he brought with him, but once he works out the basic laws of magic, he gains respect as a warlock, and helps the gods prepare for their final battle. His bewilderment in dealing with the gods, giants, trolls and other magical folk from Norse legend provides much of the comedic enjoyment, and in the end, it's a fun - if somewhat bloodthirsty - romp through a mythic winter wonderland.

The Mathematics of Magic, the second adventure of Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter Harold Shea, takes place in the universe of Spenser's Gloriana, where Arthurian-style knights comport themselves nobly against a background of Elizabethan pageantry. This time Shea is accompanied by his colleague in psychology and "para physics," Dr. Reed Chalmers, as they roam from tests of arms to jousts and tournaments to battkes with evil magicians under the guidance of the great female knights Britomart and Belphebe, and the much-imperiled damsel Amoret, committing magical mayhem as they go. De Camp and Pratt offer a fine parody of the excesses of the courtly literary tradition, with a few trenchant comments on the general position of women in the world of knights and fair ladies.

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Hugo Nominations - Novel and Novella

Unlike my Hugo voter experience last year, this year I had actually read many of the finalists in the novel and novella categories before the finalists were announced, and was able to quite quickly read those I had not. This post is simply a placeholder, to gather together links to my comments on all the finalists.

And now, to make a few comments on my relative assessments of these works in the novel category. I had a very hard time making my personal nominations - right up until the end there were about ten novels that I could barely differentiate in ranking, and The Fifth Season, Uprooted, and Ancillary Mercy were among that group. There was but a hair's-breadth of difference for amongst them all, and hence, only a hair's-breadth of difference between these three at the top of my ballot. The other two novels were not in that final group of ten.

As for novellas, Binti is the only one of my nominations that appeared as one of the finalists. Both Slow Bullets and Penric's Demon were on my list until the end, and had I read The Builders before nominations closed, It would have been another possibikity for consideration.


Novel

The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/173419.html

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/176380.html

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/177907.html

Seveneves: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181055.html

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/193254.html


Novella

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/179830.html

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185477.html

The Builders, Daniel Polansky
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192634.html

Penric's Demon, Lois McMaster Bujold
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/170131.html

Brandon Sanderson, Perfect State
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192320.html


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I am beginning to think of Aliette de Bodard as one of those authors whose every work is a "must have" for me - I have been delighted, transported and entranced by everything I've read from her so far, and have started searching for older works I've missed.

One such work is the 2013 Hugo-nominated novella On A Red Station, Drifting, which is Set in her Xuya universe, in a future space empire heavily influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese cultures and notable for its human/AI Minds that manage both starships and space stations.

On A Red Station, Drifting takes place during a period of internal strife when lords opposed to the Emperor are in open rebellion. Fleeing war on the planet she was sent to as magistrate, Lê Thi Linh seeks refuge on Prosper Station, managed by a branch of her family. But all is not well on Prosper. There are divisions within the family and troubling malfunctions in the Mind that runs the station. Nor has Linh been fully honest about her reasons for flight.

Beautifully written, with a close focus on both the interpersonal and the political relationships that drive the events of the story. It's the depth of the characters, and the honesty of their portrayals (there are no heroes, no villains, only people doing what they feel they should, or must) that kept me enveloped in the story.

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There are things that I'm not particularly fond of in my fiction. The tropes and settings of the American West for one. Talking animals as characters instead of people for another. A scene that ends with "Now here's the plan...." so that the characters know what they're doing but you don't. Not that I can't enjoy a good book that has these things. I loved Karen Memory. Narnia and Animal Farm are among my formative influences. And there are some books where keeping the reader in the dark does not cone across as an artificial way of ratcheting up the suspense. Still... I have to push harder to get into books that utilise these things.

Which made Daniel Polensky's novella The Builders a difficult book for me to get into at first. What helped pull me in was the long slow introductory sequence best described as "getting the band back together again." It starts, as many westerns do, in a bar, when a mouse with great personal presence, called only the Captain, walks in and asks Reconquista the barkeeper, a severely disabled rat, if he's the first to arrive. Flashbacks taking up fully one-quarter of the text show the Captain tracking down all the former members of his gang. Some years ago, it seems, they undertook a task of some sort. They were betrayed, and failed, and split asunder. And now the Captain intends to try again.

It's quite a fascinating collection of characters in animal form - a stoat, a salamander, a raccoon, a badger, a mole, an owl, and of course, a mouse - and it is made quite clear from the start that these are not cute kiddie farm animals. They are ruthless and accomplished killers. The enemy, rather appropriately, is a skunk, and his agent, a snake.

This is a brutal and bloody tale of revenge, of finishing what was started no matter the cost - keep in mind, this is a western, and there are seven gunslingers riding on this trail.

There's some clever craft in the writing of this novella. Polansky quite skillfully uses the well-known traits of the various animals to flesh out the characters in a way that makes up for the difficulties normally faced in handling so many key characters in a relatively short work. There's the slightly folksy tang of the oral storyteller in the way he uses language, and in the way the novella is structured, with short chapters and frequent diversions, that adds to the sense that this could be a story told around a campfire on a cold prairie night.

In the end, Polansky gives us something that is part fable, part legend, tapping into well-worn western tropes from a hundred movies with a generous hand - and subverting them, not unlike Clint Eastwood's classic deconstruction of the western hero in The Unforgiven. The question at the heart of the story is familiar - can a stone cold killer ever change, become something different? Be a builder, not a destroyer? Polansky's answer can be found in the rubble of buildings and the bodies strewn across the battlefield at the end, when the heart of a place once known as The Gardens becomes little more than a mass grave.

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Brandon Sanderson's novella Perfect State is about the fantasy adventures of a brain in a jar - albeit a brain that is fully aware of the unreality of its existence, and is at heart in some existential distress because he knows his life is a game shaped by those who control the illusionary state he lives in. The main character, Kairominas of Alornia - Kai for short - infodumps the concept early in the narrative, although it's hardly necessary as Sanderson gives multiple clues to what's going on, which is this:

...the best way to create greatly satisfied people using minimal resources was to remove their brains when they were fetuses and attach them to simulated realities tailored to fit their emerging personalities. Each Liveborn received an entire world in which they were the most important person of their time. Some became artists, others politicians, but each had a chance for supreme greatness.


Kai is God-Emperor of a State based on the standard medieval fantasy tropes. He spends his time developing new ways of using the magic system active in his personal reality and engaging in battles with Liveborn from other States. He's a good God-Emperor - he cares for the simulated characters that are his subjects, and tries to make their lives happy and comfortable. Then the rhythm of his life is changed when the Wode Scroll - the representative/communications interface of the agency (whatever it may be) that manages the fantasy universes - instructs him to travel to a Communal State - one which maintains its own programming regardless of which and how many Liveborn "enter" it - and arrange to procreate with a Liveborn woman (outside the fantasy states, the two Liveborns' DNA will be merged, but for some reason, the donors are expected to simulate sex in the fantasy states before this can be done).

But Kai has a bitter enemy, one of the Liveborn with whom he has been battling sporadically for some years. And his enemy is about to deliver a most painful revenge.

The novella's congruences with films from Tron to The Matrix franchise and a wide range of cyberpunk novels and their kin is immediately obvious, although this work is different from most in that there is no way out for the Liveborn. They are nothing more than brains in jars, they must live in this artificial reality for as long as their brain tissue lives - and the details suggest that this is a very long time, at least subjectively. So the thrust of Kai's inner journey cannot be about changing the situation he is in, but rather finding ways of existing and adapting to it that will be less about playing the games set before him and more about finding whatever degree of meaningfulness he can in reaching out to the Liveborn around him to try and break the paradigm of endless struggle.

There is a moral here, I think, buried under the subjective fantasy and the vaguely suggested science-fictional world beneath it, about breaking out of the bubbles of self-delusion we create for ourselves, and the strictures of functioning day-to-day in a world that often demand of us that we conceal huge swathes of ourselves, and connecting with others on a real and honest basis. It's not a new or revolutionary idea, but it is a good one.

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I enjoyed Alistair Reynolds' novella Slow Bullets very much, despite certain flaws, largely having to do with characterisation. The story itself is a compelling one. Scur, a former soldier, saved from a certain and horrifying death by a sudden ceasefire, falls unconscious from pain, and wakes up in a giant ship full of soldiers from both sides of the conflict, most of them war criminals, all being conveyed to their destination in hibernation.

Mysteries abound - why was she on the ship in the first place? Why are all the sleepers awakening prematurely? What planet are they orbiting? What happened to cause multiple malfunctions in the ship's programming and mechanical systems? Is there any way to keep the soldiers from re-igniting the war? How will Scur deal with the presence of the enemy soldier who tortured her? What must they do to survive?

The answers unfold, in surprising ways. Scur is a strongly realised, if somewhat unreliable protagonist - she insists that she was no war criminal, but if so, why is she on this ship, and why are there subtle anomalies in her "bullet" - a small memory storage device implanted in her chest that carries her personal records. It is in large part her decisions, her priorities, her memories and her need to resolve her unfinished business with her torturer that drive many of the key developments in the narrative. The other characters pale beside her - perhaps because this is clearly her personal narrative, and as it turns out, a narrative that will be her posterity.

Overall, a satisfying read with some interesting reflections on what drives people apart, and what holds them together.

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Bao Shu's speculative novella What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear seems at first to be a straight-forward non-genre story about a young boy in modern-day China - excerpt of course, for that thing about him being born on the day the world was supposed to end, but obviously it didn't. You read on, thinking that's going to become the sfnal bit, but it isn't really mentioned again, and the boy just keeps growing older and having perfectly normal boychild experiences.

Then things get a bit confusing, and you start wondering just when he is supposed to have bern born - you try to remember in what year the Beijing Olympics took place, and when the Arab Spring happened in relation to that, and you wonder if maybe your memory has faded or if maybe the author got something a bit wrong. Then you decide that no, your memory of current events can't be that bad, and that no author is going to screw up that many references, so you decide that this is some kind of alternate history story, in which things happened in a different way than in our own world.

And then you notice the pattern. And you remember that Xie Baosheng was four when the Olympics were in Beijing, and that there was a four-year gap between those Olympics and the day the Mayan Long Cycle calendar ran out in in 2012. And that's when it hits you.

What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear isn't just a moving story about a man, the woman he loves all his life, and how he is shaped and his life is directed by the times he lives in. It's also a meditation on time and history - how we perceive then, how we understand them, how we try to create meaning and causality out of the passing of time and events. It is profoundly human, and profoundly philosophical, all at once.

And kudos as well to Ken Liu, whose translation of this and other Chinese works of science fiction is making the global conversation of ideas wider and richer.

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Gypsy is one of the latest additions to PM Press's remarkable Outspoken Authors series. As with previous volumes in the series, Gypsy contains several collected works a single author. This collection features selections from the works of eclectic writer Carter Sholtz, including the novella Gypsy, two bitingly funny satirical short stories, an essay on the ease with which the US and its corporations violate national and international law, and an interview conducted with Sholtz by Terry Bisson.

The novella Gypsy takes place in an unsettlingly familiar dystopic future - climate change, corporate greed, resource depletion, war and the collapse of civil society. It's gotten bad enough that an underground network of dissidents have managed, in secret, to cobble together a space ship that will be able - if everything goes right - to transport a small number of people to the Alpha Centauri system in the hopes of finding a livable planet. It's a desperate shot in the dark.... but letting the situation on earth continue without some attempt to create another place for humans to survive seems unthinkable.

This is not a happy story. It is unrealistic to expect that that everything would go right in such an endeavour, and this is, given the opening situation, a very realistic, hard sf story. But it is also a powerful story, and a thought-provoking one.

In addition to the novella, the other pieces in the collection are well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed "Bad Pennies," a wicked satire on the American penchant for meddling in other countries' business and for doing business at whatever cost.

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