So, I’ve still been working my way through the short-fiction periodicals since my last “Reading for the Hugos 2016” update, notably the short fiction in Clarkesworld. But I also, realizing the sheer volume of material that’s been published in the last six months, have been skipping around a bit, concentrating on stories I’ve seen recommended elsewhere. The recommendations by K Tempest Bradford, Charlotte Ashley, Amal El-Mohtar, Brit Mandelo and Niall Alexander, and Lois Tilton have been particularly valuable, although I admit I’m still struggling to catch up even with that more curated set of fiction to read.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading lately: The January issue of Clarkesworld, besides having yet another excellent cover illustration by Julie Dillon, had a couple of standout stories.
My first introduction as a tween to adult science fiction was to Ray Bradbury short stories, and although I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to describe it then, I remember being impressed with his use of speculative scenarios to “defamiliarize” common human experiences and make readers look at the everyday with a fresh new perspective. For me, the novelette “Ether” by Zhang Ran (originally published in Chinese in 2012, translated here into English for the first time by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu) does that particularly well. Without giving too much away, “Ether” puts an interesting spin on the tension that many feel between, on the one hand, not wanting to make waves socially, and on the other, craving conversations and relationships of real depth and substance.
Similarly, the short story “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer addresses a fairly universal human experience, but through a narrator who isn’t human at all. Almost everyone knows someone who, maddeningly, seems to act consistently against their own best interest, no matter how many offers of help their concerned associates provide. In “Cat Pictures Please,” that concerned associate is an AI who, by crunching the data on individuals’ browsing history, really does know what people need, but is frustrated by the human capacity to avoid the things that would most benefit them. The AI also, as the title implies, has a mild obsession with cat photos, a theme which mercifully sweetens what could otherwise have been a bitter pill of a story, as well as making the AI narrator stand out a little in a genre which seems flooded lately by AI narrators. A smart, well-crafted story with both charm and depth.
In other-than-short-fiction categories, I finished The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi last night, and I’m still mulling it over. It was definitely a fun read, the last third of the book particularly, as the different threads of the novel began to coalesce and fall into place. Frankly, though, I couldn’t help but compare it to Bacigalupi’s previous Hugo winner, The Windup Girl, which I loved. Bacigalupi follows the same formula of beginning with multiple (and seemingly unconnected) character perspectives that ultimately collide in a fast-paced climax. It’s a solid formula, but I just wasn’t as engaged with the characters and world-building to the same extent as with The Windup Girl, which seemed, with respect to both its characters and setting, to have been much more ambitious in scope. Definitely an entertaining read regardless.
I’ve also been catching up with this year’s SFF movie releases to date, which I should have more to say about in a future roundup.