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13) Sarah Pinborough -- The Death House

This is my nominee for the 2015 novel Hugo.

Yes, I liked it that much. I bought this YA speculative fiction novel when I saw Gollancz tweet an opening day offer, because I'd greatly enjoyed one of Pinborough's tie-in novels and wanted to read more by her. I started reading it that day, and was bowled over. It is a stunning portrayal of life, love and growing up under the shadow of death; a bittersweet coming-of-age novel about children and teenagers who know they will never do so.

It's set in a near future very much like our present, save for one thing - there is an illness so terrible that all children are tested for the signs that they are carriers. If they test positive, they are taken to the Death House. There they will be cared for and given as normal a life as possible, right up until the time the sickness activates. It may be a few months, it may be years, but one thing is certain - they will die. And they will never be allowed to leave, or have contact with anyone other than each other and the staff assigned to care for them.

Toby has been in the House for long enough to have found ways to cope with the separation from his family and the knowledge of what awaits him, but the arrival of a new girl disrupts both the interactions between the Death House inmates, and Toby's coping mechanisms. Through his eyes we see the different ways the children deal with what their lives have become; all the emotions of a lifetime compressed into a few short years, with the teenagers like Toby finding themselves being surrogate parent figures for the younger children. There's a mystery plot as well; and the whole is a slow-burning build to a resolution where the older children decide exactly what is worth fighting for with their foreshortened lives.

Moving and beautifully written, this was one of the best things I read all year.

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Kobo
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I wandered into Alex Woolfson's sf webcomic site Yaoi 911 while he was still posting Artifice, and was hooked. The ad I clicked said "smart guy-on-guy sci-fi", and that's exactly what I got.

Artifice, now complete, is a solid story about an android soldier who didn't obey orders, and is now being interrogated by the company's top robopsychologist to find out why. There follows a battle of wits as Doctor Maven tries to uncover why Deacon, last survivor of an assassination squad, not only failed to kill the last survivor of the colony his unit was sent to dispose of, but attacked the retrieval team sent in to fetch him. Excellent writing by Woolfson teamed with nice art by Winona Nelson, and it skilfully blends a thoughtful look at the use and abuse of androids with a delightful gay romance.

The Young Protectors, currently in progress, is a superheroes comic. Although some of the superheroes we run into aren't so heroic... In the prologue, young superhero Kyle has just finished a quick visit to a place he doesn't really want to be found by the rest of the team, when he encounters supervillain The Annihilator. The Annihilator's price for not telling the world that he just saw Kyle go into a gay bar for the first time is... a kiss. :-) Kyle goes back to ordinary after-class superheroing in the first chapter, but life rapidly gets more complicated for him. At forty-something pages in, there's a lot of intriguing backstory and long-term plot being hinted at, and I can't wait to see what happens next. Also, some acidly entertaining commentary about the amount of collateral damage around superheroes. Woolfson's excellent script is pencilled by Adam DeKraker and coloured by Veronica Gandini. I have no idea where Woolfson's planning to take this, but if you like your superhero comics with some May/December superhero/supervillain in the mix, take a look at this.

There are more pieces available to mailing list subscribers, but these are the ones which are currently available without registering.
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39) Bob Shaw -- Shadow of Heaven

[NEL abridged edition]
Short novel set in a future where an act of terrorism has rendered much of the world's arable land unusable without reducing the population. As a result, most of the first world population is crammed into narrow urban strips along the seaboard, with much of the feed coming from the sea. There is a small amount of arable farming carried out on multi-mile-wide anti-gravity disks high in the atmosphere, where some of the remaining uncontaminated soil has been placed for security. No people are allowed there and the disks, nicknamed Heaven, are farmed by robots. But when a reporter's brother goes missing, he realises that Johnny has fulfilled a childhood fantasy and run away to Heaven. Stirling follows him, using his job as a reporter as cover for tapping into the underground railway. What he finds there is a community of refugees, and a rule that nobody can break the community's cover by returning to the surface. Stirling has no intention of staying, but his brother has no intention of letting fraternal loyalty get in the way of his plans for the disk.

It's an interesting concept and story, but time has not been kind to it. Giant anti-gravity disks, but the press room where Stirling works uses card indexes to store their data? There are too many things to break a twenty-first century reader's suspension of disbelief for it to quite work for me now, which is a shame. One for the Oxfam box.

LibraryThing entry
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Book 12)

This was the out-of-copyright short story, downloaded from Feedbooks, rather than the fix-up novel with the same title. It's set in the Lensman universe (although it's not part of the main sequence of stories), and has the classic pulp feel to it. If you don't like that style, you'll hate the story, but if you do, it's a fun short read.

LibraryThing entry
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Book 61

This is the first of a 4 book anthology series, where the series concept is to have a set of four stories from each author, one per volume, which can each be read as individual stand-alone stories, but which together make up a story arc. It was published in 1974 and was edited by Roger Elwood, which is an entertaining and informative tale in itself.

I bought my copy of volume 1 about thirty years ago, and for various reasons (including the dreaded "it was only going to be in storage for a year or two") I probably haven't read it for close to twenty years. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that I only remembered two of the stories -- the one by Philip Jose Farmer, which I don't actually like very much and don't think works as a standalone; and the story from Anne McCaffrey, which is the first part of what later became The Crystal Singer, and which I've thus read a fair number of times in the novel. The others seem completely unfamiliar to me. This is surprising, because there are some good stories in here. I read a library copy of volume 4 a few years after buying this volume, and can vaguely remember something about the closing stories of only those two authors as well. (I think I liked the Farmer sequence better for having seen the end of the arc.)

detailed story list under the cut )

LibraryThing entry
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UK edition of a selection of Blish's short stories and novellas. This has somewhat different contents to the US edition under the same collection name.

Common Time
Short about a test pilot flight of a faster than light ship (using the Haertel overdrive, a common strand in Blish's work). The two previous test flights left successfully but never came back, so this one is under total computer control and Garrard's primary job is to stay alive long enough to report back. The opening sequence is a vivid description of the effect of drive on time perception, with the perceived time rate decoupled from the physical time rate. This section is very hard sf in tone. It then goes into a passage that feels very New Wave to me, even though the story predates the New Wave movement. The juxtaposition is rather disconcerting. I've always loved the opening sequence, but I seem to be getting old and cranky as regards the middle section.

A Work of Art
One of my favourite pieces by Blish. Richard Strauss finds himself alive again in 2161, the product of a mind sculptor. As is quickly explained to him, his personality and talent has been recreated in the body of a musically talentless volunteer. Strauss welcomes the chance to write new music, and adapts well if crankily to the changes in society over 200 years, but is not impressed by modern music. He gradually comes to realise what the true artform of this era is. A moving exploration of identity and personality.

To Pay the Piper
The survivors of an apocalyptic war have been living in deep bunkers for years. The war goes on, but one side develops a method to re-educate the population so they can survive on the plague-ridden surface. The hard part -- it's a slow process that for practical reasons is to be restricted to the troops who will be sent to do final battle, but the civilian population want *out*. A politician exploits popular sentiment to lean on the scientists to give him priority...

Nor Iron Bars
Set in the same sequence as Common Time, but somewhat further on in the development of the Haertel overdrive. Space colonisation has begun, but the Haertel overdrive is not yet fit for shipping large numbers of humans. This is an experimental flight of another ftl drive -- and it too has strange effects, this time a disconnect between spatial dimensions. But this ship has passengers, giving the captain an added incentive to find a solution before the various side-effects kill people. Notable for showing an inter-racial couple in a story written in the 1950s.

Beep
Short story later expanded into a short novel, The Quincunx of Time. There's a spreading interstellar culture, and the intelligence service is using the top-secret Dirac transmitter, a communication device that offers instantaneous transmission over unlimited distances. Any message sent on a Dirac device can be picked up by any other Dirac, anywhere. Blish explores the practical and philosophical implications of the technology. I like this a lot, but a lot of people don't.

Beanstalk
Novella about a group of genetically engineered humans, and the problems they face in being accepted by standard issue humans. The group are tetraploids, with features common in polyploid life-forms -- longevity, large size and low fertility. It's an interesting way of looking at racial and cultural discrimination, as the group are of the same genetic stock and culture as the host culture, but are clearly differentiated by their much greater height, and have created their own sexual mores to deal with the twin problems of low fertility and the skewed gender ratio that has resulted from prospective parents being far more willing to use the treatment on male embryos than female. But it somehow falls a bit flat for me.

Overall, the collection's worth reading, but some stories are definitely more interesting than others.
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Astronomers discover alien space probe heading towards Earth. Fanatical environmentalists who have already killed off most of the space programme decide they have to stop any attempt to make contact with the probe, lest the people be seduced into wasting time and money on space research and high technology, when they could be fixing the problems on Earth. Wealthy space entrepreneur Henson, owner of the only private enterprise in space, sees the opportunity the probe presents, and is determined to bring the benefits to mankind.

This one was a Did Not Finish for me within the first five pages, and the next five didn't rescue it. I was just too irritated by the apparent attitude that all environmentalists are violent fanatics who are anti-technology. I can certainly find Green Puritans annoying, but this seemed to be presenting the extreme fringe as the norm. Now it's more than possible that I'm grossly misjudging the book and will find that it does address this further on; and I say that mindful of a "bailed after the first chapter" review I read recently that demonstrated exactly that problem. In fact, a quick glance at the last couple of pages suggests that it's a lot less black and white by the end. But I have a TBR mountain that's going to take me a couple of years to get through, and no particular reason to give this book another 25 pages to get my attention (unlike a couple of other books with similar annoyances which I've read). This one's going in the Oxfam box, unless the next book by this author in the TBR mountain gives me a reason to retrieve it.

[Later: checking on LibraryThing, I find that I liked the author's short story in New Writings in SF 10, and the tone of that one suggests that the annoying tone of this one is an opening gambit. The book gets a reprieve, but I'll read it some other time when I'm feeling more receptive.]

LibraryThing entry
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Anthology of sf crime short stories from the prolific book packager Martin H Greenberg. I normally like the anthologies Greenberg puts together, in both sf and mystery, but I've got a bad case of "it's not you, it's me" with this one. I can see why other people might like it, but it doesn't quite work for me, and I think it's because I'm not quite keyed in to the relevant genre conventions. Half way through, and I still haven't encountered a story I'd regret not having read, and have read one or two that left me feeling I'd just wasted a small piece of my life -- even though I know and like the work of several of the authors (and indeed, bought the anthology specifically because it included a short by one of my favourite authors). I've finally learnt that I don't have to finish a book just because I've started it, so I'm bailing at this point -- but even so, I think this one could work for a reader with slightly different tastes to me.

LibraryThing entry
at Amazon UK
at Amazon US
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One of the 1968 volumes in the long-running sf anthology series. The highlights for me were a Sector General story from James White , and a novella from Colin Kapp that was definitely not an Unorthodox Engineers story, but which pressed some of the same buttons (at least for me). As usual with this series, I personally didn't like everything in the collection, but thought it was all well-written.


Vertigo -- James White

A Galactic Survey ship comes across a decidedly peculiar planet which the crew promptly name Meatball. While they debate how to recognise any intelligent lifeforms, the lifeform solves the problem for them by sending up a primitive rocketship. It appears to be in difficulty, so the survey ship rescues ship and pilot, and carts it off to Sector General for the pilot to receive medical treatment. It's up to Conway and friends to work out why the rescue seems to have made things worse...

It is in general a fun and interesting story, but I did find it rather implausible that the medics took so long to realise what the basic problem was, especially given the Great Big Clue in the initial encounter.

(Later included in the Sector General fix-up novel "Major Operation", which is where I first read it.)


Visions of Monad -- M John Harrison

Psychological study of a man who has been the subject of a sensory deprivation experiment. Well-written, but didn't work for me.


Worm in the bud -- John Rankine

Short story in the Dag Fletcher space opera series. Fletcher's on a diplomatic mission to a hostile planet. Part of that mission is a one-man geological survey with limited supplies in a remote part of the planet -- so why are the natives finding all sorts of ways to delay pick-up of the geologist past the safe time limit?


They Shall Reap -- David Rome

A young family give up everything to make a fresh start in a new community of farms founded by wealthy philanthropists. The valley is even more isolated than they realise, and with reason. While I liked the writing, John Wyndham had covered this territory a decade earlier, and to better effect.


The Last Time Around -- Arthur Sellings

Poignant exploration of the social and emotional effects of being a pilot on a relativistic ship, with your subjective time decoupled from the objective time of your society. This theme has been covered by many writers, but this is one of the best ones I've read.


The Cloudbuilders -- Colin Kapp

In a low-tech world, hot air balloons are the main form of long-distance travel. Jacobi the Journeyman joins Timor the master Cloudbuilder, bringing personal experience of new techniques developed by their Guild. But that's not all he brings.


LibraryThing entry

at Amazon UK
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Snagged from the Broad Universe mailing list -- Anne Wilkes is putting together a database of places to request reviews of your sf:

http://wilkes.zftp.com/ReviewPlaces.html
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Since it seems to be the season for trolling for award nominations, I will point out the one that is probably the most relevant to my stuff -- the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. Nominations are currently open for GLBT-positive science fiction and fantasy first published in calendar year 2007. Nominations are open until 31 January, and my eligible publications are:

Dolphin Dreams cover art
Novel category:
Dolphin Dreams
(Not that I think anyone who's read it is going to forget it in a hurry, but details here.)

Short fiction category:
And if I offered thee a bargain
(currently available as a free story at Forbidden Fruit.)
(ETA warning for the romance readers: romantic, but *not* genre romance.)

I'm not the only one publishing glbt-positive sf&f romance, so even if you don't want to nominate one of mine, if you read in the genre you can undoubtedly find something worthy of nomination. You can find more details about the awards and the nomination form here:
http://www.spectrumawards.org/

(This isn't *just* trolling for nominations -- in the past someone has nominated something of mine which as far as I could see wasn't actually eligible, so I'm putting up a list this year.)

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