Firstly, and foremostly, to introduce Brian Aldiss. Er. Brian has been at the forefront of Science Fiction for longer than most of us can remember (let's just say he's been writing for my entire life time, and I'm no spring chicken) – he has turned 90 in August (but is still writing, even if he announced this book to be his final SF novel), he's been a Science Fiction Grand Master since 1999 (yup, last Millennium), and has won about everything that is to be won along the way. No, I'm not going to count the books, he's written tons, both SF and other, he's published loads of short stories, he's been involved in endless collections... reading through his entire oeuvre would be a daunting task!
Finches of Mars, then – the book was originally published in 2013, and is now re-published, presumably in honour of his 90th birthday, by OpenRoad Media. He had announced this to be his final SF story, but I understand there are question marks around this, given that he's still actively writing... but either way, here are my thoughts on that book.
The setting uses a classic golden-age SF trope: the settlement of Mars. What we find in the book is a human colony, in 6 separate towers, located on the Tharsis shield (locally known as 'The Prospect'), where Curiosity and its follow-up expeditions had identified water under the surface. The 6 towers are called Chinese, West, Russ-East, Singa-Thai, Scand, and Sud-Am; this should give you an idea of the geographical spread of the endeavor. This is run, and supported (the settlement is by no means self-sustaining) by the UU, the United Universities, a multi-national organisation created and run by a fascinating individual called Herbert Amin Saud Mangalian. The book does not really explain how these Universities manage to afford such an expedition, and its upkeep – there must have been an enormous amount of money materialising in the funding of those in comparison to today.
All the colonists are carefully chosen, for their knowledge, abilities, psychological suitability, and their dedication to the cause, as a trip to Mars is one-way only. The environment on Mars is strictly controlled, with strict ID and health (it is never explained why) checks upon entering a tower, and there is much mistrust and animosity between the towers. There is statutory exercise people have to take, there are no drugs, no pets, definitely totally absolutely no religion, and everybody is given a new, computer-generated name when they join. And still, Aldiss compares, nah, contrasts this with police states, which are only stable due to the control exerted. I marveled.
Some day in the late 1960s David Rodinsky, an orthodox Jewish scholar of Eastern European descent, vanished from his room in the attic above a disused synagogue in Princelet St, Spitalfields, the former Jewish quarter in East London. What became of him no one knew, and no had cared about. The room, where he lived as a near-hermit, was forgotten, and was left as if frozen in time, until it was (re)discovered in 1980, in the state he left it behind - complete with porridge on the stove and the imprint of his head still on the pillow. The room became a mystery, a time capsule, a touchstone for speculation, and something of a cause celebre amongst those who listen and dig for such things, for the hidden corners, and the remains of history below the every-day surface.
Rachel Lichtenstein, a young Jewish Artist, was staggered and stopped in her path when she learned and encountered the building, the room, and the mystery of its former occupant. She started researching David Rodinsky’s origins, life, and disappearance; which turned into a trip into her own history. Her background (Polish-Jewish) and drive to art suffuse her part of the story; as her approach to finding Rodinsky, her own connection to 19 Princelet St lead to her stint as Artist in Residence, courtesy of the Spitalfields Heritage Centre. But her focus to finding Rodinsky stopped, at least for a while, her own artistic work whilst she explores Rodinsky's legacy. She was put in contact with the author Iain Sinclair, a savant of London’s hidden East End if there ever was one, and together they document the area, its history, the synagogue, David Rodinsky - but especially Rachel’s search for herself in Rodinsky’s mirror.
“One day a man, who lived alone in a dead building, in a forgotten part of the town, walked out, disappeared. But it was not a true disappearance, because nobody noticed it. It was a trick without an audience. A retrospective vanishing.” (IS)
You might have gathered that this year's Hugo Awards have, to put it mildly, a bit of a problem. If not:
Two related groups, calling themselves Sad/Rabid Puppies, respectively, created nomination slates of what they felt should be on the final shortlist (predominantly right-wing, white, male et al) and animated a good number of people to stuff the nomination ballots with these slates. With the results that a good amount of the shortlist now indeed comprises of these artificially elevated entries.
The hubbub surrounding this is not edifying - go read about it at your own peril, regardless what your thinking is in regards to what should be considered 'Good Science Fiction' (it's a question of taste, I suspect).
But here is The Day the World Turned Upside Down by Thomas Olde Heuvelt - the only entry in the Novelette category which was NOT nominated by slate voting - and, given the backlash against said tactics this might well mean that the awards will equate 'only' with 'best' and will thus award Heuvelt a Hugo Award for it.
I would suggest you have a read yourself, and make up your own mind if this story, published in Lightspeed Magazine in April 2014, can be considered the best short story of the year (that one is a question of taste, too!).
Ian Whates is the owner and chief editor at NewCon Press - The Gift of Joy is the first book of his own writing he published. And, as much as this might smack of ‘vanity effort’ I can assure you that it is not - firstly he has published a good number of other writers and collections/anthologies (see also the reviews of some of those on this site), and secondly his own writing can very well stand on its own. Plus, most of the stories collected here have been published previously, by different publications, between 1986 and 2008.
There are 18 short stories here, 5 of which are new, ie first publications. Each story comes with a short postscript, explaining some of the history, inspiration, and other morsels of meta-information concerning the story. There also is an Author’s Biography at the rear, for those who are interested in learning more about the author of these stories, which cover a huge range of styles, topics, and approaches to storytelling. The variety is actually such that it made me wonder if this should be considered flexibility, or if this is a sign of an author still searching for his niche, his ‘thing’?
Either way, these stories are fun, entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking, and as a collection highly recommended.
Below is a run-through of the stories, and some capsule reviews (or at least thoughts) on them - if you’re considering buying the book (and I can recommend that you do so) and this kind of thing spoils your enjoyment then stop now.
The first thing which catches you when you approach this book is not the title, but its tagline: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. And whilst this sounds lurid and OTT I can assure you this book is non-fiction, and that this must all be true (and yes, of course it is!). Andrew Kessler, the author of this unusual tome, is a writer with a degree in mathematics, is an entrepreneur (his book-event start-up ran into legal issues with its founders) who won - as a non-space-geek! - the space geek lottery and was invited to join and follow the Phoenix Lander Science Mission from within the Science Operations Center. I mean, spending 90 days exploring the Martian Arctic? I know a number of people who would have given their right arm to do so… Martian Summer is the the record of said summer spent on Mars (remote operations only), providing an outsiders view of the workings of such a mission, the scientists and engineers involved, and the discoveries they made before the Martian Winter set in.
Phoenix was launched in August 2007, landed on Mars in May 2008, and sent its last message on November 10 of that year (it reported “Triumph” as the engineers put it into sleep mode for the Martian Winter - which it did not survive). Its name was very much program - it was built, on the double quick, from the canceled Mars Surveyor Lander, using instruments from both that and the (unsuccessful) Mars Polar Lander mission, amongst others. It was the first such mission led by a University and thus outside NASA (although they paid for a lot of it, and kept rather a lot of control, too - more on that below!). The main investigator for the Science phase was Peter Smith from the University of Arizona, Tucson, who hired Andrew to document the mission and relate it, in layman's terms, to the outside world. Andrew calls him, at least initially, a Martian Photographer, because Peter built the cameras for the Pathfinder mission (and for Phoenix, of course), and is the man who contrived to upload the Pathfinder pictures onto the Internet. This was in pre-Google times, but went what we would call ‘viral’ now - there were more than 100 million hits on the NASA server from people who wanted to see, to know, to be part of this - obviously totally overloading and crashing the server. It had a huge impact - all of a sudden NASA was riding on a wave of support, for the first time in a long while. And now he found a new way of spreading the word of what the scientists and engineers are doing behind their closed doors to the world.
For reasons mainly to do with my brain, and what's current in it, I'd like to point you to Peter Watts' story Malak. Malak is a drone. More so, it's an autonomous drone, and is being trained (there seem to be software upgrades, and neural networks, and general tinkering in play) to make its own 'moral' decisions. All in the name of removing slow, fallible, guilt-stricken, hesitating humans out of the equation. Because it's so much easier to have machines make our dirty decision for us, never mind do the dirty work...
The drone here is called Azrael (after the angel of death...), and we experience the story through its 'eyes'.
I'm not gonna spoil your enjoyment of the story by giving away more. If you know Peter Watts then you know that what he shows is realistic, rarely very edifying (especially when humans are involved) and mirrors the complexities of the real world.
The picture on the right is of a drone called Azrael (I don't know if that's inspired by this story, or a parallel development), built in Lego, and posted on Flicker by a user called [MIXBRIX]. Recommended soundtrack to reading this: Drones, by Muse. Obviously.