For this month I'd like to point you, not for the first time, at a short story by Aliette de Bodard.
This time is a classic adventure tale called The Dragon's Tears, initially published by Electric Velocipede in 2008, and re-published by Lightspeed Magazine this month (you can obtain a hardcopy of the issue via the link below!)
The story is one which has been told in ever so many variants across all the different cultures - it follows a young man who goes on an adventure to obtain the means to heal his terminally ill mother. I'm not going to spill what makes this iteration of the trope specific, you can find that out yourself through the old-fashioned process of reading the story, but I can confirm that this is indeed well written, and affecting, and worth your time.
The rather wonderful picture on the right is from an artist calling him/herself Reverie Addict, and is not related to the story save by sharing its title.
Now here is a strange, subtly unsettling, and generally unusual book, with a suitably unusual history to it. Orgasmachine is Ian Watson's 'lost novel'. Originally written in 1970 during his stay in Japan, it was nearly sold (the publisher went bankrupt), re-written during the 1980s, sold to Playboy whose book division was sold and subsequently dropped the book; part of it was included in an Anthology in 96 to rave reviews, and it was finally published, back in Japan, in 2001 to coincide with the movie version of AI (Ian has screen-writing credits for that), and short-listed for the Seian award. And, finally, in 2010, Ian Whates' Newcon Press released the book in English, too...
The story follows a number of friends from the same generation of custom-built girls: Jade with the huge blue eyes, Hana with her 6 breasts (plus a nipple on her chin); Mari, a furry cat-women, plus some others. You see, this world is a man's world. Women are, by default, subservient, controlled via brain-nets, mood settings set via remote, and Dream-Cast from the all-controlling Data-Swarm-Male (MALE – for Module for the Application of Law Established). Women are things, owned and discarded at the whim of their owner.
The Three Laws of Feministics:
Your body is not your own; it belongs to another. Therefore you may not damage it nor, through inaction, allow it to be damaged.
You must obey all orders given you by your owner (or in cases of loss of ownership, by any man) even if such orders conflict with the First Law.
You may not injure any man, nor through failure to comply with the Second Law, cause him displeasure and mental injury.
Kim Curran is an Irish-born, London-based writer of YA near-future SF. She has 4 published Novels to her name, plus a short story called ‘A Woman Out of Time’, which was on the James Tiptree Honors List 2014. And, apparently, she has her next book ready, at least in first draft.
Shift, the first book in the trilogy of the same name (the other two are Control and Delete), was her debut novel, which I picked out of a stack of freebies as it sounded interesting (I presume this was to promote the 3rd book in the series at the time).
It plays in a world very much like our own, in a London with recognisable locations. The main difference is that in this world there are people, no, children, who have the power to change their own decisions they made in the past, and thus affect the course of the present, the future, and history as we know it. This power is limited to Children and Adolescents only, and is lost as the Shifter (as they are known to those in the know) reaches a certain age. Any potential paradoxes from this are avoided by changing all subsequent events, so that the new reality chosen by the Shifter is internally consistent. The exception are some Shifters who can recall the other reality they moved from; and mapping out what changes to the world and its history the reversing of a specific decision would make, pre-switch, is a specialist subject.
Scott Tyler, a socially awkward adolescent from a dysfunctional family, and the main protagonist of the series, is one such Shifter. Except that his talents had not manifested themselves at the age when they usually do; so it comes a bit as a surprise when he, for once, hangs out with the ‘cool kids’, and, to impress a girl, climbs a pylon on a dare. From which he falls, to his certain death. Except that this had not happened, and all people knew was that he had fallen off the fence surrounding the pylon and made an arse of himself…
But he gets picked up for ‘shifting without a license’ by the very girl he tried to impress - arrested, and waiting for the Regulators from ARES (Agency for the Regulation and Education of Shifters) to pick him up, until she realises that he actually has no clue about his abilities, and absconds with him. But this train of events, plus a second, inadvertent shift, leave him in a reality where his sister is dead due to his fault; and he (with some help) shifts all of this out of reality, and decides to join ARES and the training/structure they offer voluntarily and of his own accord.
In-between all these reviews, and my complaining of stories falling short of my overly picky expectations here and there, let's give this a break. Here is a treat instead, in the shape of a link to and a recommendation for a short story by Ian McDonald, called Some Strange Desire.
It concerns the machinations of a subspecies, a variant of humanity, two chromosomes apart, living alongside us. They are gender-fluid, able to change quickly and as desired. They work as prostitutes, as they require human haploid cells they acquire during sexual intercourse, to allow their extended life span. But there are threats to them, now, both from within their own making, and from the outside.
And I suspect I've told you too much already, just to whet your appetites. The cultural background Ian wrote for this is part Jewish, part West-African/Haitian Voodoo, and part Witchcraft, and it's utterly fascinating.
The story was originally published in Omni Magazine, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. The illustration is by Robert K. J. Killheffer.
It was not what I expected to find when I picked up this book by Alastair Reynolds - I was looking forward to some large-scale space opera, or maybe some far-future hard SF. But not quasi-Steampunk YA, somehow…
But do come back - Revenger is an enjoyable and engaging read, with a story that stays with you, set in an immersive and fascinating world. Solar system. Universe. Or, as the blurb has it: "Revenger is a science fiction adventure story set in the rubble of our solar system in the dark, distant future - a tale of space pirates, buried treasure and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazard and single-minded heroism ... and of vengeance."
But let’s start at the beginning - we see Adrana and Arafura Ness, together with their father, at a function in the Hall of History at the Chamber of Commerce. We witness a confrontation with Dr Morcenx, the creepy family physician, before the two sisters abscond - first to Neural Alley, where they are being told that they have special talents, after which they hire on a Spaceship as Bone Readers. All to get away from Dr Morcenx (who prefers his charges to remain young/underage, and advocates the use of drugs to achieve this…) but also to earn the kind of money to turn the family’s fortunes.
I found this to be a story of contrasts - on the one hand you have the quasi-Victorian setting with the Hall of History, the guilds, the seedy back-alleys with mysterious stalls and shops; and on the other hand you get space flight, sentient robots etc. And no, I do not think that he really was playing for the the Steampunk effect, but the first part of the book reminded me of nothing as much as of Philip Reeve’s Larklight (although Revenger is not blighted by a romantic undertow which made parts of Larklight such a drag to read).
The story is set, as much as I can tell, in our Solar System, but literally millions of years down the line. Earth has been shattered, and, by someone (not necessarily human) rebuilt into a large number of different worlds of various shapes and sizes. Some, like Mazarile where the story starts, have a ‘swallower’ (read black hole) at their centre to adjust gravity. This Congregation of worlds has seen many Occupations (by humans) before they vanished again, only leaving behind their artefacts and treasures in Baubles - some kind of shielded Asteroids within stasis fields. So we are talking cycles of high-tech civilisations, over the span of millions of years. There are hints of interstellar flight, as the occupations must start somewhere, and returners are a possibility. There are also several kinds of Aliens extant, during the current occupation they run the human banking system, for some reason.
“Don’t be silly Bob”, said Mo, “everybody knows Vampires don’t exist!”. Well, with that very first sentence the topic of the book is well and truly established…
Charles Stross is a British writer living in Scotland. He’s the author of some 25 novels now, plus short story collections, omnibus editions, novellas, novelettes, and various other things in various formats and length. He has won a number of Awards, including the Prometheus and the Hugo. The Rhesus Chart is the fifth book in the Laundry files series, which deals with the going-ons at a fictitious (?) secret government agency dealing with supernatural threats to the realm. It also is written as a ‘jumping-on’ point, for those who have neither read the whole series, nor are planning to in the near future, but want to be part of the fun. Me, I would recommend you start at the beginning, and get all the entertainment…
The book kicks off with the above authoritative statement by Mo, as part of a domestic arguments between her and Bob Howard, the main protagonist of the series so far. Things are definitely going downhill in this household of two secret agents. And it foreshadows (as the first third of this book is very prone to do) that he failed to save their marriage. Heavy stuff, from the word go! The book then starts into who they are, the Laundry, what they do, the whole “Magic is a branch of applied mathematics” which underpins this universe. There are several of these info-dumps, mostly as explanations by Bob for the report he’s writing (and which you’re reading); these will definitely make it possible for you to start with this book, even if you’ll miss some of the background, for obvious reasons.