Sunday, 27 September 2015

Short Story Sunday: Joe Haldeman and Kay Kenyon

It’s time for a new project here at Shared Universe Reviews. Spurred on by the success I’ve had with The Blog Fantastic project, I wanted to do something that was related to science fiction, another genre I love but I feel I haven’t explored deeply enough. Heck, I’m well aware that I’ve only scratched the surface. As much as I’d like to give science fiction its due by discover some of the classic and contemporary works by authors new and familiar to me, I just don’t have the time. While my output has slowly gone down since I first started SUR, I’ve stabilized it to a regular schedule of one post a week. The problem is that I’m not fully satisfied with that. It doesn’t feel like enough but it might already be too much since some weeks I struggle to hit my self-imposed deadline.

All of this led to an idea. Writing smaller posts on short stories and uploading them once a week. This way I can combined my goal of posting more frequently while exploring more science fiction authors. That the goal is also for writing smaller posts, I figured short stories are perfect for this. Additionally, short story is a form of writing very closely linked to science fiction publications in the last hundred years, it makes sense to combine these ideas together. Short Story Sunday might not always be exclusively made up of science fiction reviews, but I’m pretty happy letting that be the main focus. With each post I’ll include where I found and read the story (online publication, best of anthology, magazine, etc.) and give the story one of the following rankings: 

1 star – Bland ideas and poor execution
2 stars – Unoriginal or overly familiar ideas and/or poor execution
3 stars – Good ideas and/or good execution
4 stars – Original ideas executed with skill and style
5 stars – A classic of the short story form, highly recommended

I expect that a lot of these reviews will get a ranking of 3 stars, but I’ll make sure to include the reasons behind my ranking for each story. Without any more preambles, here are the two stories for this Sunday.

“Sleeping Dogs” by Joe Haldeman
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published in Gateways (2010), Edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull

I’ve only read one book by Joe Haldeman and it was a Star Trek book. It was the second Star Trek book I ever read and I really enjoyed it. The ending wasn’t all that great, but it was good enough for me to go out and buy Forever War. A science fiction classic, I’m a little ashamed to admit it’s been sitting on my bookshelves for over two years. I’ll get to it eventually, especially since this short story gave me a clearer understanding of the kind of science fiction writing Haldeman is known for. That’s my guess, anyway, because like Forever War, this is a military sci-fi story and I liked it.

“Sleeping Dogs” is set a few centuries in the future, though no specific date is given. A man has travelled to a planet that is part of the Confederación, a federation of 48 planets. He spent eight months here as a soldier during his youth and, as it was customary at the time, he was given the drug aqualethe before the trip back to Earth. The drug blocks out all traumatic memories from his long term memory. The drug was used to as a way to prevent (rather than treat) PTSD. The memories weren’t erased, but the connections with them were greatly reduced, ultimately resulting in them being practically erased. The distinction is important however since the effects of the drug are reversible. The soldier has come back to this faraway planet because he’s got a few doses of the medication that will allow him to regain access to his wartime memories. In order to do this, he needs to be in the same physical location he was when aqualethe was originally administered.

It was nice to get a sense of Haldeman’s non-Star Trek style, but I was also disappointed to see him use pretty common sci-fi tropes. Large corporations, galactic federations, old soldiers trying to figure out the truth of the events of the war. There are some ideas that I haven’t encountered before such as the drug aqualethe (break it down to its root words) and the idea of memories being used as a way to control individuals. I also quite liked that the federation of planets is dominated by Latin American culture and that Spanish is one of the dominant languages. I certainly haven’t seen that before. The story has a twist ending of sorts which works nicely with the rest of the story. The story’s tone was one of its stronger assets.

Ranking: 3 stars
For a story that used very familiar building blocks, it was nonetheless skilfully told. I really liked the idea of the aqualethe and I wish there was another story that continued to develop that idea.

“Castoff World” by Kay Kenyon
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published in Shine (2010), edited by Jetse De Vries

I wasn’t familiar with Kenyon’s writing until I read this story. According to the editors’ notes, she set out to write a story that presented a positive look at our future. I’d argue that she accomplished this and she did it by using environmental concerns and the (at least) partial destruction of humanity in the near future. It’s an odd combination of ideas, but it worked for the most part. The story is made unique by its setting which is an ocean gyre, an area where many ocean currents converge creating an area of high pressure where pollutants and garbage often rise to the surface. In such a location live an old man and his granddaughter aboard Nanobiotic Oceanic Refuse Accumulator, or Nora. As the name suggests, Nora is a raft of nanobiotics that collects garbage and recycles it into reusable materials. This recycled material is collected at regular intervals and the floating island of Nora continues to do its job.

The child and her grandpa live on Nora because an unspecified catastrophe has rendered the mainland dangerous. It’s to be avoided. The story focuses on how Nora works and how this odd family survives out on the ocean’s surface. A few questions are answered but far too many at left ambiguous or simply ignored which made for an unsatisfying conclusion. It feels like the beginning of a larger story more than a complete short story. I’d be interested to read the continuation if it exists but I could just as easily go on living knowing that this is it.

Ranking: 2 stars
I liked the story’s setting but the story itself, a young child befriending an AI and helping each other survive in the world, is familiar. The writing style didn’t impress me either. I found it to be far too cute. I’m also not a big fan of near future stories. I guess this one has too many strikes against it to really work for me.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Behroze, who unknowingly inspired me to start this project. Hopefully I can convince him to contribute to a future post.

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