Short SF Marathon Day 12: Xia Jia, Rachael K. Jones, Stephen Graham Jones

Xia Jia, “Tongtong’s Summer.” Translated by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, December 2014 (originally in Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded, Wyrm Publishing, 2014).

The second Xia Jia on the list is even better than the first and continues his theme of the impact of high technology on everyday life. Here he writes about a very contemporary subject, the use of robots to help an aging population cope with day to day life. In this case Tongtong’s grandfather, in his eighties but still working at the clinic every day until a bad fall, has to come live with them, so Tongtong’s mother could take care of him. Because she and her husband both work, Tongtong’s father brings home a robot, an Ah Fu, to help them. Which isn’t actually a robot, but a tele-operated machine run by an intern for the company Tongtong’s father works for: real robots don’t work and full time carers are too expensive.

So far this looks like a typical gadget story, but Xia Jia takes it a step further to imagine the use people may actually put this technology to. Because in real life as in fiction, we tend to think about the elderly as passive recipients of such high tech solutions to their social and physical problems, but what if somebody like Tongtong’s grandfather could himself use an Ah Fu to frex, play chess with a friend in another part of the country?

The way Xia Jia works this out, again ably translated by Ken Liu, is great. Asimov once talked about social science fiction: “It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem”. Or, as one wag put it, even harder to predict the invention of the American teenager and their courting rituals based on mass car ownership. Xia Jia comes close, close enough for a Hugo nomination.

Rachael K. Jones, “Makeisha in Time.” Crossed Genres #20, August 2014.

Almost impossible, but Rachael K. Jones has managed to write a novel time travel story, of a woman who keeps getting pulled back into the past to lead entire lifes there, only to return to the exact method she left, her family and friends none the wiser, and how she adapts to this. A great story.

Stephen Graham Jones, “Chapter Six.” Tor.com, June 11, 2014.

This on the other hand felt old fashioned, the sort of bullshitty philosophy story an Asimov or Clarke could’ve written fifty-sixty years ago. Not a bad story, but somewhat dated. After the zombie apocalypse, the last grad student and his thesis advisor argue about the origins of human intelligence in light of the new data the apocalpyse offers.

Short SF Marathon Day 11: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, N. K. Jemisin, Xia Jia

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, “Where the Trains Turn.” Tor.com, November 19, 2014.

Because I didn’t really look at the link and skipped the introduction at Tor.com as it tends to spoil the stories being introduced, continuing a long introduction tradition, I only realised the author was Finnish when I got distracted by his slightly awkward English. Actually, if I’m completely honest, I first thought he was German, because the main character, the overtly strict, literal mother is such a German type, though apparantly her type is known in the Nordic countries as well (and indeed, over here in the Netherlands as well). She reminded me in fact of a certain poster to the rec.arts.sf.written.* newsgroups of a decade and a half ago, completely incapable of understanding anything that wasn’t flat, literal truth but still convinced she herself was completely logical and it was the rest of us that were ignorant and not making sense. It’s a type of person you don’t encounter quite as much in Anglosaxon countries, these being too romantic in nature to breed these people.

The slightly clumsy translation by Liisa Rantalaiho (especially compared to the Xia Jia story below) both hinders and helps the story. It helps because it’s just alien enough to “proper” English to showcase that this isn’t set in the familiar UK or US, hinders because it makes for awkward reading at the start.

I’m not sure what I thought about the story as a story: it felt overtly long to me, but again, that may have been the English as well. In one way this is based on the similar conceit as Jo Walton’s novel My Real Children, as the protagonist remembers her son who never existed; in another this is a horror fantasy stories about trains and the idea that some trains can leave their tracks and are hungry to kill. The mixture of the two didn’t quite hold together for me, but the second half of the story was better than the first.

N. K. Jemisin, “Stone Hunger.” Clarkesworld, July 2014.

A short fantasy story about a girl in a post-apocalyptic world, who can eat energy, all sorts of energy, who is on the trail of a man who can do the same and by doing so killed her city. A story of revenge and survival and perhaps moving beyond it. Some interesting ideas here, a neat setting that I’d be curious to see Jemisin do more with.

Xia Jia, “Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy.” Translated by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, September 2014.

It’s interesting to read this translated story after the previous one. Here, if you hadn’t been told this was a translation, you’d be hard pressed to notice. Is this because Ken Liu is Chinese-American, at home in both languages and cultures to an extent Liisa Rantalaiho isn’t, or did the latter make a deliberate choice in translating the way she did?

In any case, what you have here are five vignettes centered around Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, slice of life stories about family, all revolving around the ways technology interfaces or intrudes into our social lives. It’s neither celebratory nor condemning, which is rare in science fiction.

Short SF Marathon Day 9: Kathleen Ann Goonan, Theodora Goss, Nicola Griffith

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star.” Tor.com, July 20, 2014.

To be clear about it and as the introduction points out, this isn’t a science fiction story. But it is commentary on science fiction. It completely skewers the attitudes in socalled Golden Age science fiction that saw man conquer space and woman left to keep house on Mars. So on the one hand you have the timeline with milestones in space development, on the other you have the biography of Carol,coming of age during the space race. Goonan practically rubs your nose in the everyday sexism Carol has to deal with, which all seems so quaint, old fashioned and dumb now, but I can’t help remember that for all its progressiveness and forward looking, science fiction was never all that good at treating women like actual human beings until long after the second wave of feminism hit, and then only reluctantly.

It’s brilliantly done, biting without being axe grindy and it may well end up on my Hugos shortlist.

Theodora Goss, “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology.” Lightspeed, July 2014.

This is an interesting idea which didn’t quite work out for me. What if you could imagine a country and make it real, Borges style? What if you then went on a field trip to your imagined country? And married the daughter of the khan, who has a twin sister, but you made it so the Cimmerians don’t believe in twins?

The problem with the setting is that the imagined country isn’t imaginative enough, too much like a hodgepodge of Central Asian and Balkan cliches. Also, of course, Cimmeria actually existed, or at least there was a people we call that trundling around the Near East during the Bronze Age.

But the story itself is interesting enough to overcome this handicap; I need to find more of Theodora Goss’ writing.

Nicola Griffith, “Cold Wind.” Tor.com, April 16, 2014.

A woman tracks a legend to a lesbian bar, but is not quite what she seems to be either. A brilliant, economically told story. Not surprising coming from Nicola Griffith, who has a knack for the perfect small, telling detail.

Short SF Marathon Day 6: Cortázar, Crosshill, Davis

Julio Cortázar, “Headache.” Tor.com, September 3, 2014 (first English translation).

Now this is interesting. This is a short story originally written in 1951 and never translated before, by an Argentine writer who was one of the major players in the boom in literature in South America in the 1960s and 1970s, published at what may be the site the closest to the heart of genre science fiction. There’s always been whole worlds of science fiction and fantasy cut off from genre, written in different traditions or by writers who don’t think of themselves as genre writers; sometimes the dreaded words “magic realism” might also be uttered, as you may be tempted to in this case. A Spanish language writer telling a story of imaginary animals raised by people who suffer from various just as imaginary diseases and afflictions brought on — perhaps — by those animals? That’s the textbook example of magic realism, isn’t it?

It certainly is an intriguing story, one you know you can’t suck the meaning out off in just one read. It actually made me slightly nauseous reading it, evoking as it does through its language the feeling of migraine onset. I can’t compare the translation (by Michael Cisco) to the original, but on its own it’s got a brilliant hallucinary quality.

Tom Crosshill, “The Magician and Laplace’s Demon.” Clarkesworld, December 2014.

This on the other hand is a much more traditional mixture of fantasy and science fiction, in which the world’s first self aware AI becomes aware of the existence of magic and magicians and sets out to hunt them down to be able to understand and use the last thing in the universe outside his ken. A decent story, well told.

Amanda C. Davis, “Loving Armageddon.” Crossed Genres, July 2, 2014.

Compared to “Headache”, this is a much more self conscious attempt at a magic realist story, or sketch rather, of the man with a hand grenade for a heart and the woman who loves him. It almost seems as if this is meant as a metaphor. Almost.

Short SF Marathon Day 5: Carroll, Ciriello, Cooney

Siobhan Carroll, “The Year of Silent Birds.” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 9, 2014.

This is an epic fantasy short story, if that isn’t an oxymoron, a story that hints at a much bigger world than it can show in the space available without being incomplete. A woman comes back from the dead to save the son of her sister from execution, in the process learning that even the undead still aren’t save from politics. Carroll has a good eye for imagery and the opening with the protagonist moving through deep, silent snow while the birds in the forest have frozen on their branches will stay with me a while.

Dario Ciriello, “Free Verse.” Free Verse and Other Stories, Panverse, 2014.

Ever since I first read Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity I’ve been a sucker for parallel worlds/cross time travel craziness and this delivers in spades. It reminded me a lot of the sort of stories Keith Laumer used to write. For me, this is high praise.

C. S. E. Cooney, “Witch, Beast, Saint: an Erotic Fairy Tale.” Strange Horizons, July 21, 2014.

I’m not a real fan of modern fairy tales, nor of erotic fantasy perse, but this was worth overcoming my prejudices. Filthy, kinky, written in a way that you can believe the relationship between the witch, her enchanted man-beast and the saint who transforms him back to the man he used to be. Cooney is a writer I didn’t know anything about, but now need to read more of.