And every so often I get something out of the ordinary, at least for Analog. The latest such is Lian Hearns Across the Nightingale Floor, the first volume of the "Tales of the Otori" trilogy, to continue with Grass for His Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon. Its billed as an "International Bestseller," it carries some very laudatory blurbs, and even a cursory glance is enough to reveal that it is no sort of SF at all, and not even fantasy of the usual sort.
But I read it anyway, and Im glad I did. The setting is an imaginary land closely modeled on Japan under its feudal warlords. Society is based on clans, and the region is dominated by the Tohan, led by the brutal Iida Sadamu. The Otori are a rival clan, defeated by the Tohan not long ago but still beloved by a great many people who recognize its more noble nature. Lurking in the shadows are two groups, the Hidden, who owe their allegiance to a god rather than any warlord, and the Tribe, assassins and spies with ninja-like skills. Few know of the Tribe. The Hidden, however, are meat for Tohan hunters, who one day come to the village of Mino.
Fifteen-year-old Tomasu returns from picking mushrooms to find the villagershis stepfather, mother, sisters, allslaughtered and a Tohan squad led by Iida himself covered in their blood. He flees, only to encounter Otori Shigeru, the banned heir to the Otori clandom. Soon he has a new name, Takeo, and he is being trained in the warrior arts by tutors who see in him the marks of the Tribe. His father, it seems, was an assassin of remarkable talent before he fled to the countryside.
In due time Shigeru adopts Takeo, and his Tribe talents emerge: he has preternatural hearing, he can cast off a shadow to distract attackers, he can be briefly invisible, and he can walk silently across a nightingale floorbuilt so that any weight at all makes it squeak. Since Iida is famous for having surrounded his quarters with such a floor, the future is clear.
Yet there are complications. Shigeru has a true love; he is sworn to marry no other, despite the politics that keep them apart. Iida knows of her too, and as soon as his ill wife dies, he uses his power to force her to marry him. At the same time, he arranges a marriage for Shigeru, though the young bride turns out to be powerfully attracted to Takeo (and vice versa). Tragedy looms, especially since Shigeru and Takeo see in all this unwanted match-making the perfect opportunity to get within striking distance of Iida.
Because this is the first volume of a trilogy, it takes no great perspicacity to see that Takeo must survive. Will anyone else? I wont say, but Hearns writerly skills are immense. It may be hard to believe the Tribes rather magical talents, but the scenery and the characters live, and the pacing is flawless. I do not hesitate to recommend Across the Nightingale Floor and its sequels to you.
According to Charles Stross, the next century will see the discovery of faster-than-light travel, nanotechnology will make the wildest dreams of the cornucopians come true, and humanitys computer networks will awaken to become the Eschaton, the closest approximation to God available in the real world. One of the first things the Eschaton does, after all, is to scatter humanity across hundred of worlds, willy-nilly, sorting them out according to ethnicity, politics, affinity, and what-have-you, and equipping them with universal-assembler cornucopias.
Sounds rather nifty, unless youre at the mercy of an economy that has just lost most of its workers and consumers, unless you start playing with time travel (the Eschaton stomps on youHARD!since it wants to protect its existence), or unless you wind up someplace like the New Republic, where the self-anointed elite have outlawed all modern tech (except for military), enslaved the peons, and built a very retro empire. Thats the center of Strosss Singularity Sky, which opens as a strange phenomenon called the Festival arrives at one of the empires more backward worlds, drops cell phones from the sky, and offers to fulfill anyones wildest wishes if they can but provide information or entertainment.
The Revolution is on! And it doesnt take long for the New Republic to assemble an armada to deal with the problem, nor for it to figure a scheme that skates a mite close to the prohibition on time travel. Caught up in the mess is Martin Springfield, a stardrive engineer on assignment to upgrade the flagship. Hes in trouble since he expressed heretical opinions about the New Republic in public, but they need him. Hes off the hook, but perhaps not for longa young secret policeman has been assigned to get the goods. It doesnt help that he has a secret agenda.
Theres also the local UN rep, Rachel Mansour. Being a modern, independent woman who does not think she has but one function in life, she too is unpopular. She and Martin get cozy, and they both wind up on the expedition, even though they know it is doomed. The Festival is modern, you see, and the New Republics retro jugheads dont stand a chance.
Stross mixes a pretty straightforward undercover adventure with a sly wit that pokes nasty fun at the retro mindset. Its a fun combination, and hes worth watching for on the stands.
In the past year or so, the Departments of Justice, Defense, Transportation, and Homeland Security have shown themselves to be more than a little surveillance-happy. The FBI has Carnivore (and more). The NSA has Echelon (and more). DOT has CAPPS II. DARPAs Total (now Terrorism) Information Awareness and Lifelog projects are just the latest. And anyone who objects on Fourth Amendment grounds is met with "If you havent done anything wrong, you dont have anything to worry about." Idiots like that need to be reminded of the Reverend Martin Niemollers famous poem (e.g., http://www.hoboes.com/html/FireBlade/Politics/niemoller.shtml). Or perhaps they should read Paul Levinsons latest Phil DAmato romp, The Pixel Eye, which offers a new way for government agencies to spy on the citizenry.
The Pixel Eye, Paul Levinson,
The tale opens with DAmato looking into reports of missing squirrels in the park. Soon he has heard of missing hamsters, too. Dead squirrels are turning up, poisoned with anaesthetics of the sort used in knock-out darts. So he visits a research lab and stumbles on some very strange technology: Since sensory input gets stored in the brain, it only made sense for someone to develop a method of reading it back out again. Add a bit of circuitry to remotely-control where a squirrel goes and what it watches or listens to . . . you get the idea. And of course theres nothing to limit the idea to squirrels. Think pigeons on the windowsill, watching your every move. Think your pet dog. Or the cat who has always been free to look at even the queen.
Theres more than one lab, of course, even if each one doesnt seem to know what the others are doing and they all seem to blow up shortly after DAmato visits. Theres FBI agent Frank Catania, once a cop, who seems more than a little bit mysterious about whats going on. There are AI holograms who want to fill Phil in. There are mysterious explosionswhich it turns out are caused by bombs carried inside squirrels and other critters.
Sheesh! They spy on you, and if they dont like what they see or hear, theres no nonsense about arrest, rights, or trials. Just KA-BOOM!
But there are critters involved that have nothing to do with federal research programs. Someone else is in the game, they know far too much, and the chief of Homeland Security is scheduled to give a speech in Central Park, surrounded by squirrels.
This ones nicely straightforward and an interesting take on the real world of the moment. My only cavil is that the business of reading sensory transcripts from the brain is both far-fetched and unnecessary when electronic memory is so compact and were already talking about deploying networked smart dust (see, for instance, the June 2003 Technology Review). If youre putting in the squirrel brains electronics for control purposes, it would seem trivial to put in some electronic memory too, especially since wireless networking means the local storage capacity need not be huge.
On the other hand, Levinsons chosen approach means you can eavesdrop on what the critter heard or saw before you started with the add-ons. And at the end, he tosses our way an intriguing clue to what the next book might be about.
On the third hand, the electronic solution could probably be implemented in the very near future. I find that thought more than a little frightening.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller continue to mine their Liaden Universe with Balance of Trade, a nice coming-of-age adventure. Instead of concentrating on wars of honor, they now look at the trader side of things, opening on a small family ship, the Gobelyns Market. Young Jethri is on the verge of adulthood, but the captain, his mother, has spurned him ever since his father died. Now Mom has cut a deal to apprentice him to a different ship, and he is not happy.
Balance of Trade,
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Embiid Publishing (www.embiid.net) (ISBN: 1592220207) and
Meisha Merlin (ISBN:
c. 400 pp., $ ?.
Fortunately, he makes just the right moves when in dock and winds up with an offer to prentice with a Liaden Master Trader instead. This is unprecedented, but Jethri, we will learn, is a pretty special boy, only partly because of his interest in the odd little bits and pieces of old-time tech his father left him.
At any rate, off he goes into a very different world. He shows promise, makes a forbidden contact across old feud-barriers, confronts Liaden prejudice against the inferior Terrans, gets sent to the Master Traders homeworld for polishing, and finally makes a mark.
The forbidden contact and the old tech turn out to be crucial, as does his parentage, which turns out to be rather different from what he had been raised to think. By the time all is clear, the reader is well and truly hooked for what looks like a very nice new series. The writing is as rich with detail as anything by C. J. Cherryh, while the general approach, as well as the old tech, reminds of Andre Norton.
We know Five Star for its recent spate of collections, a number of which I have mentioned here. Now its getting into originals, and one of the first is David A. Pages Surviving Frank. The gimmick is a world where werewolves are real, caused by a virus. Frank, a Boston police detective, managed to get his infection treated almost in timehe doesnt turn into a wolf every full moon, but hes half wolf all the time. Tall, hairyin fact, his friends call him Hairytoothy, lapping his booze from a dog dish with his name on the side. Hes got a temper, too, and his last dozen partners have all met untimely ends. You might not think losing one to a safe falling out of the sky would count against him, but Captain OLeary wants to prove Frank is unfit to be one of Bostons finest. So he promotes Rookie Ryan to detective on condition that he will be partner thirteen and get the goods on Frankie.
Surviving Frank, David A. Page,
$25.95, 273 pp. (ISBN: 0786256346)
Ryan isnt at all sure there any goods to get. As far as he knows, Frank is a good cop. But Wuffie doesnt want another partnerhes a lone wolf, of courseand Ryan feels he has to prove himself. Their first case is a murder in the city library. The Rookie spots a fresh clue or two and concludes that someone is plotting an assassination, but Frank pooh-poohs the idea. The quest for more clues introduces Ryan to a few fantastical elements of the citysuch as the Trashcan People who inhabit the maze of medieval alleys behind the modern facadeas well as an enticing journalist who begins their relationship by exercising some impressive martial arts on his bod. That changes, of course, and in due time Ryan and Frank crack the case.
A fun tale, well worth a few hours of your time, but one thing did bother me: Page goes to some trouble to introduce a fantastical elementthe werewolfand insist that it wasnt fantastical at all. Just a virus, maam! Skiffy to the nines! But then he brings in definite fantastical elements (the Trashcan People are only one) that arent really necessary; at least, they could easily have been replaced with non-fantastic equivalents. There is thus an uneasy mixing of genres. If Page can bring that under control, his next book should be worth a look.
Alan Dean Fosters new tale of Flinx and his toxin-spitting Alaspinian minidragon, Flinxs Folly, is the ninth in the popular series that began with The Tar-Aiym Krang. His origins were recounted in For Love of Mother-Not (reviewed here in Mid-September 1983): As an orphan, Flinx was auctioned as a sort of slave. Mother Mastiff, aged curio dealer in the low-life district of Drallar, main city of the planet Moth, bought him for unclear reasons. Love grew between them, and Flinx grew boldly streetwise. His empathic talent appeared, and one night a sense of lonely hunger drew him from his bed to an alley garbage heap, where he found the minidrag, Pip. The rest of that novel explained that before Flinx reached his auction block, he had escaped from the Meliorare Society, a group of mad scientists who strove to use genetic engineering to improve the human species. They committed atrocities, were discovered, banned, and hunted. A few remained in hiding, seeking the best of their lost experiments. Now they had found Flinx, subject number twelve, and he must escape again. He succeeded, of course, for he had a distinct talent for adventure that in due time earned him the gift of a remarkable starship from illegal aliens. He also found that his unique talent made him sensitive to an inimical force rushing toward the galaxy from far, far away.
Alan Dean Foster, Del Rey,
$24.95, 266 pp.
Folly opens with Flinx unconscious from one of his increasingly massive headaches, during which some thing or things seem to be telling him he is the key to stopping the onrushing doom. As soon as he sneaks out of the hospitalhe cant risk close examination because of his gengineered differenceshe is attacked by minions of a secret cult that does not want the doom stopped. So he hies off to New Riviera, where Clarity Held, one-time romantic interest, lives and works. Unfortunately, she is almost engaged to a man who soon decides he must get Flinx out of the way. Fortunately, Flinxs old friends and mentors the thranx Truzenzuzex and the human Bran Tse-Mallory arrive in the nick of time. Soon Flinx has a new frustration and a new mission firmly rooted in past adventures.
This is one of the longer-running series in modern SF, and with reason. Foster is a smooth writer who in much of his work seems glib and superficial. In this series, his weaknesses are much more under control. The series deserves its popularity.
The late George Alec Effinger earned considerable renown in his day (1947-2002), not least for his tales of Marid Audran, heir in training to great-grandpa Friedlander Bey, lord of crime and data. Marid, once just another bit of flotsam on the streets, has been raised to power and wealth and some involvement in his mentors intrigues. Now he must survive the intrigues of the Budayeen, the low-life district of a future Arabian city. Drugs are easily available, strippers are rated on their "body-mods," and personalities, databases, and slices of others lives can be plugged into ones brain rather like video game disks. Political and other schemes provide plenty of plot grist. I reviewed the three Budayeen novels hereWhen Gravity Fails in September 1987, A Fire in the Sun in January 1990, and The Exile Kiss in October 1991. There were also a number of short stories, of which fourincluding the unpublished "Marid Throws a Party"appear in Budayeen Nights. One of the other three is the award-winning "Schrodingers Kitten." There are five more tales as well, all memorable, and Barbara Hamblys introduction to tell you a bit about who George was.
Budayeen Nights, George Alec Effinger,
$24.95, 236 pp. (ISBN: 1930846193)
I just handed in the manuscript for the fourth edition of my Careers in Science book, so it was with some interest that I spotted Julie E. Czernedas Space, Inc., in the mail. This is an anthology of fourteen original stories of future careers. Some of the tales, like James Alan Gardners "Eightfold Career Path," are a bit tongue in cheek. Some, like Doranna Durgins "Feefs House," are not. Sean P. Fodera deals with writing and publishing in "Attached Please Find My Novel." Nancy Kress sends an also-ran dancer into space to teach ballet to alien kids in "Dancing in the Dark."
Julie E. Czerneda, ed., DAW,
$6.99, 320 pp.
By comparison, my own book is mundane and pedestrian and boring. Down-to-Earth, in other words.
Long before the Apollo program got off the ground, and well before the first Mercury astronautsall men with test pilot backgroundsthirteen women were accepted into astronaut training. They were pilots in an age when women needed a mans signature to buy a car or a home, when feminism had not yet been invented, when a woman in space could only be "ninety pounds of recreational equipment" (nyuk! nyuk!). Tough-minded and independent and as thoroughly enchanted with going into space as any man, they did fine in the tests. But NASAs pioneering fair-mindedness didnt last long. The woman-in-space program was suddenly and mysteriously canceled in 1961.
Why? You can read all about it in Stephanie Nolens Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race. Nolen does a fine job of telling what it was like for women in those days, how difficult it was to do anything "manly," and how the frustrating tale worked out. She also sketches the history of women in aviation. All in all a fascinating look at a forgotten episode in space history, and just the sort of book to give any young woman who needs inspiring.