Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015

Magazine Review: Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2015 edited by Trevor Quachri

Since its debut issue as Astounding Stories of Super-Science in January 1930, what would become Analog was one of the most influential, and often the most influential, science fiction magazines on the racks.  After I reviewed Analog  1 (a collection of stories from when the magazine made its main name change in 1960) last week, I was informed that this month’s issue was in fact the 1000th issue, the longest run of any science fiction magazine and a respectable milestone for any publication.  (It has skipped a number of months over the years, or April 2013 would have been the lucky number.)

Analog 1000

If the cover by Victoria Green looks a bit odd, it’s because it’s a “remix” of the very first cover (illustrating the story “The Beetle Horde” by Victor Rousseau and painted by H.W. Wessolowski) with the  genders reversed.  The editorial speaks about that first story (and the issue is available to read at Project Gutenberg!)

Former editors also get to pen a few words.  Stanley Schmidt talks about there always being new futures for science fiction writers to write about–no matter how many milestones are passed, there will be more to come.  Ben Bova writes of John W. Campbell and his influence on the field of science fiction (generally positive.)

Naturally, there is some fiction in this issue, beginning with “The Wormhole War” by Richard A. Lovett.  An attempt to send a wormhole to allow humans to travel to an Earth-like world in a distant star system ends disastrously.  Follow-up wormholes end equally badly, but much closer to home.  It dawns on the scientists that someone else is making wormholes, and they might not be too happy with us.  It’s a serviceable enough story.

“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare features exobiologist Becca and her alien partner Shurza helping with an archaeological dig that is developing some unusual results.  Possibly the vanished natives haven’t actually vanished–but then, where are they?  This story appears to be part of a series, and refers back to earlier events.  (One of the letters to the editor in this issue praises that another series story got a “previously on” section, but this one didn’t.)

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F. Wu is a tale of a  human/alien war told in brief reminiscences by the participants.  It is a condensed version of many war-related themes, such as the home government not living up to the principles its soldiers are supposedly fighting for, and the ending twist is not surprising if you think about it.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins may be titled like a business blog, but is actually about an artist taking on a  strenuous job because their art doesn’t pay well.  A crisis arises when his shirt stops working.  Amusing.

“The Odds” by Rod Collins is a rare second-person story, with a narrator emphasizing just how unlikely the scenario “you” find yourself in is.  It’s short, and describing the plot would give away the twist, so I’ll just say that it’s chilling.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C.C. Finlay has a misleading title, as one of the characters admits.  The protagonist is visiting a doctor to be rid of his capacity for empathy, and doesn’t think through the implications to their logical conclusion.  Perhaps it is because his empathy was already too low.

“Flight” by Mack Hassler is a short poem about kinds of flight.  It’s okay, I guess.  (Long-time readers know modern poetry isn’t my thing.)

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson involves three people who have been assigned to evaluate human colonies sent into space millenia ago to see if they are a threat to humanity, and if so to destroy them.  This is their final stop, and perhaps their hardest decision.   Is preserving civilization as it exists worth losing the potential that this new direction offers?  Disturbing.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser is a tale of a near-first encounter with aliens spun by a spacer to colonists in a local bar.  Physicists may catch the twist in the story before the end.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen rounds out the fiction with a tale of first contact gone horribly wrong.  It turns out there’s another planet passing through the Oort cloud, one that’s inhabited.  Unfortunately, the aliens aren’t  the sort humans are ready to deal with, and it’s up to a storyteller to spin a yarn that will save the day.

That first issue of Astounding.
That first issue of Astounding.

One of the things I notice reading this issue as compared to even the 1960 stories in Analog 1 is diversity of protagonists.  In the earlier stories, women are love interests and faithful assistants at best, and a non-WASP protagonist is something special that has to be justified.  Now, women, people of various ethnicities, and more…unusual protagonists are able to appear with it being “no biggie.”

The fact article is “Really Big Tourism” by Michael Carroll, talking about the possibilities of the Solar System’s gas giants for tourist visits (once we lick the problem of getting there.)

“The Analog Millenium” by Mike Ashley gives us all the statistics we need about the magazine’s 1000 issues.   There are a few surprises in here!

The usual departments of letters to the editor, book reviews (mostly psionics-based stories this month) and upcoming events are also present.

This issue is certainly worth picking up as a collector’s item, if nothing else.  I liked “The Kroc War” and “The Empathy Vaccine” best of the stories.  If you haven’t read science fiction in a long time, you might find the  evolution of the genre interesting to consider.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

Book Review: Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town

Book Review: Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town by Mirta Ojito

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Hunting Season

In 2008, an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was murdered by a group of teenagers in Patchouge,  New York.  They had been looking for “Mexicans” to beat up in that suburb of New York City.  This shocking crime made headlines, and exposed a lot of raw nerves about immigration issues in America.

Mirta Ojito is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and briefly talks about her own experience as a Cuban refugee.

Much of the book is taken up by short biographies of the people involved in the case one way or another, from the victim to the killers to the mayor of Patchouge.  (None of the people convicted of the murder consented to be interviewed for the book, and only two of their parents, so some biographies are very short.)

There’s a look at the various circumstances that combined to make the incident happen:  demographic shifts, a changed pattern of immigration that brought unassimilated migrants straight to suburbia instead of the inner city, racism, economic woes, portrayal in the media of immigrants as “invaders”, small town boredom, and a poisonous political atmosphere.

The mayor of Patchouge, Paul Pontieri, comes off pretty well.   He was late realizing that there was a problem with anti-immigrant violence in his town, but actually had plans for dealing with it just before the killing took place.  The tragedy accelerated those plans.

By comparison,  Steve Levy, county executive of Suffolk County, comes off pretty badly.   He campaigned on fairly heavy anti-immigration policies, even co-founding a group called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform that seeks local ordinances to restrict undocumented immigrants further than they already are.  But he never specifically called for violence.

As well as the effect on Patchouge of immigration issues and the murder, the book looks at the effect these have had on Lucero’s home town of  Gualaceo.  The money sent home by migrants has allowed the town to become prosperous again after years of economic depression, but at the cost of its hardest-working and most ambitious citizens

As the book points out, this was neither the first or last time an immigrant was killed by Americans for the sin of not being “one of us”, but perhaps we can learn lessons here to lessen future violence, and find new ways of incorporating immigrants into our society.

Recommended for true crime readers, and those interested in immigration issues.  Check it out at your library.

Book Review: America In So Many Words

Book Review: America In So Many Words by Allen Metcalf & David K. Barnhart

America

American English is its own animal, with a vocabulary that marks it out from British English.  This volume traces American history through the words that have been important to or invented by Americans.  It’s set in roughly chronological order, from “canoe” (1555) through “gerrymander” (1812) to “millennium bug” (1998.)  The authors admit to a certain amount of fudging, with some words discussed in the year they were invented, others when they became common and some when their usage changed.

Most of the entries are entertaining, full of useful or exciting facts.  Some words’ origins may be very familiar to educated readers, while others are obscure.  The indexes in the back are both alphabetical and chronolgical for easier searching.  The illustrations are somewhat sparse.

This is a good book for both the American history student and the lover of words.

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