asimov’s readers awards nominations 2010

After a lovely, busy almost-a-month hiatus in blogging, perhaps to celebrate the end of Iron Blogger, I'm back.

Here, at very nearly the last moment I can put them in, are my selections for the Asimov's Readers' Awards. The poll is instant-runoff voting, allowing three selections per category, so the numbered selections below are my votes, in order, and following are honorable mentions, in no particular order. All titles link to the month in which I review them, and of course all my current Asimov's reviews can be found under the asimovs tag.

Novella

  1. "The Union of Soil and Sky", by Gregory Normal Bossert

Novelette

  1. "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down", by William Preston
  2. "The Jaguar House, In Shadow", by Aliette de Bodard
  3. "Warning Label", by Alexander Jablokov

Short Story

  1. "Conditional Love," by Felicity Shoulders
  2. "The Other Graces, by Alice Sola Kim
  3. "Sins of the Father", by Sara Genge

Poetry

  1. "Louisa Drifting", by Mark Rich
  2. "Roadside Stand", by Mark Rich

Cover

  1. August 2010, by Michael Whelan
  2. July 2010, by Tomislav Tikulin
  3. March 2010, by Donato Giancola

I was surprised to discover that both of the poems I found notable this year were by the same guy, one Mark Rich. Though he wrote a couple other things which I didn't even notice, so clearly he's not batting 100%, just better than everyone else. Prose poetry is not the be-all, end-all of science fiction poetry, people!

Since this list represents most of the short fiction I've read which was published in 2010, this is also likely to be substantially my Hugo nomination slate, which I'll be figuring out momentarily.

Here's to another good year in science fiction!

january 2011 asimov’s

In magazine publishing, the new year begins… well, whenever the January issue hits the stands, which is usually a month or two in advance of the actual calendar date. So we're into a new year for Asimov's even if we've still got a couple weeks to go before January 1st. There weren't any real standouts in this issue, but there were a solid three or four compelling stories, so it was a pretty good issue all told.

  • "The Backward Banana", by Martin Gardner — The first thing in the issue of note is a puzzle, as you might have guessed if you recognize the author's name, told as a single-page science fiction short-short story. Apparently these ran regularly in Asimov's for a bit under the first decade of its run, and it's a cute little thing. It's neither as tight, nor as opaque, nor as hard as the puzzles I'm used to, written for the MIT Mystery Hunt, but the skills I've developed there came in handy to solve it, and I had fun doing so.
  • "Two Thieves", by Chris Beckett (novelette) — A bit of a swashbuckler, I guess ("novela de capa y espaza," literally "story of cape and sword," as I have just learned it would be called in Spanish). It's cute enough, but the characters are stock, and it's not subtle with its images and tropes. Fun, but nothing more than that.
  • "Dolly", by Elizabeth Bear (short story) — Fans of Bear's Shadow Unit will recognize her facility with police procedural detail at work here. As always, she builds layered and believable characters with an economy of strokes, and, though there's nothing new about the big idea at work here, she draws it to a real-world, logical conclusion in a way I found deeply satisfying.
  • "Visitors", by Steve Rasnic Tem (short story) — A middle-aged couple go to visit their son in a cryogenic facility which, we gradually discover, is also his prison. That's an application of cryogenic tech I confess I hadn't considered before, and it's interesting in its implications. Unfortunately they're not drawn out especially well, I didn't really connect with the story otherwise, and it doesn't really go anywhere. It did do better than average at letting me figure out what was going on rather than telling me up-front.
  • "Interloper", by Ian McHugh (short story) — The setting here is interesting — a potentially post-apocalyptic Australia where a Torchwood or Primeval-style interdimensional rift has appeared, spewing dinosaurs and odd powers and things that go bump in the night, the titular Interlopers. The main characters are a circus of people touched by the rift, who are also not coincidentally on the lookout for anyone like them, which of course goes wrong. The ending is sort of predictable, but there are worse things to say about a story. Lots of good detail, lots of good showing-not-telling, and it did keep me guessing for a bit. A fun story.
  • "Ashes on the Water", by Gwendolyn Clare (short story) — This is a bit of a travelogue or maybe quest story, as a young woman in India looks for the river on which to spread her sister's ashes. (It feels a bit like it could be set in Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl universe, a few decades before Bacigalupi's work takes place, the strongest similarities being its non-Western setting and its preoccupation with water.) I felt for the protagonist, and she seemed well-drawn. The story did feel a bit preachy, and it has the usual potential for problems that all fiction about non-Westerners written by Westerners does, of which I'm not a good judge because I'm a Westerner too.
  • "Killer Advice", by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (novella) — Despite being set on a space station, this is a traditional locked-room mystery, and (except for its murder weapon) could be set in any of the traditional settings for such. The characters are mostly stock characters one recognizes from other such work — the officious hotelier, the alcoholic doctor, the moneyed widow, the captain's daughter, etc. It's a fun read, as evidenced by the fact that I actually finished it (I don't usually read the novellas). It's been a while since I've read a mystery story, and it was fun to revisit the genre. The stock characters are stock for a reason — they work. That said, this is not, unfortunately, anything like a tightly-plotted story. The information necessary to solve the mystery isn't given to the reader until the characters themselves discover it, so no figuring it out on your own for the perceptive mystery readers in the audience, and there's a careless red herring early on — one of the characters uses the past tense to refer to the first victim before the character knows the victim is dead — which perceptive mystery readers will pick up on and be distracted by for the next twenty pages. Thankfully it is just twenty or so pages, so one can ride with the plot along the well-worn ruts of the genre in easy enjoyment and reach the destination before the journey becomes tedious.

Every year Asimov's runs a Readers' Award poll, which seems a remarkably straightforward way to encourage it to print more of the interesting things I like. At some point in the next few weeks I'll go through the posts I've made here and extract some semblance of a top three in each length category, which is what the poll calls for, also conveniently good Hugo nomination fodder, and I'll probably post them here as well. Best is always a dicey proposition — best on what axis? — but I'll pick an axis, and it'll do for this purpose.

december asimov’s

This being a capsule review of the December 2010 issue of Asimov's. It's an issue without a novella, so I had more to read than usual. 🙂

  • "Plus or Minus", by James Patrick Kelly (novelette) — Another "coming of age in space" story, and one with some odd and uncomfortable sexual politics that didn't otherwise grab my attention, so I didn't finish it.
  • "Libertarian Russia", by Michael Swanwick (short story) — Michael Swanwick is a writer I've enjoyed in other contexts (the head librarian at the library I worked at in high school gave me a copy of his Vacuum Flowers the library was getting rid of as something she thought I would like, and I did), so I was hoping to enjoy this story. Unfortunately it's a very transparent morality play about the limitations of libertarian philosophy, and while I even agree with Mr. Swanwick on a number of points, morality plays are not what I want out of my fiction, so I was disappointed. Post-apocalyptic Russia wasn't even a well-enough drawn place that I could appreciate the setting despite the dismal plot, and that seems like a setting that should have potential. I'm bored stiff of post-apocalypses — especially misogynistic ones, which they all are almost without exception, and this is not one of those exceptions.
  • "Sins of the Father", by Sara Genge (short story) — An interesting and unusual take on mer-people — what happens when global warming causes sea levels to rise catastrophically? — and a story sensitive to its characters and their place in the world. The story has an awkward and to my mind unnecessary infodump towards its end — I'd already figured out what was going on in the world, how the story was SFnal, from hints earlier on, and I didn't need or want it explained to me, but that hardly mars the otherwise excellent story. I consistently like Ms. Genge's work, so I'm glad to see that Asimov's continues to run it, and I look forward to seeing her name on the cover of future issues.
  • "Freia in the Sunlight", by Gregory Norman Bossert (short story) — An interesting and at times beautiful story about AI told from the perspective of a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) straining towards full consciousness. One of the better depictions of nascent consciousness I've read.
  • "Variations", by Ian Werkheiser (short story) — The son of a famous musician helps a startup recreate his father's performances. The science strikes me as a bit unlikely, but the transformation undergone by the main character is well drawn and the ending has a beauty to it that I can't find the words to articulate well.
  • "Excellence", by Robert Reed (short story) — A man's doppelgänger AI (built from his template) becomes successful. The man sells him. Hilarity ensues. It had a bit of discussion about what makes someone successful, but didn't otherwise grab me much.
  • "The Prize Beyond Gold", by Ian Creasey (short story) — In a world where genetic engineering of the human body is common and sports records among baseline humans get closer and closer to asymptotic best performance, one man has a shot to break a 70-year-old record and win… "The Prize Beyond Gold"! (You really need to read that sentence with Stentorian Movie Trailer Voice in your head. Go ahead, I'll wait.) This story would in fact film well, I think (two great tastes — science fiction and sports! Gattaca meets Chariots of Fire!) Unfortunately most of the story is an infodumpy conversation between the main character and a genengineered woman who's asking him to join her clade once he breaks the record, as a bit of a pie in the face of people who would use him as a symbol of how the "standard model" still has something worthwhile to it, so it's a bit heavy on side of telling instead of showing and loses something for that. Not that that would stop any film adaptations, which could proceed from just the idea and the title. However the film adaptations would almost certainly lose the ambiguity of the ending, which was a plus in favor of the story. Six of one…
  • "Uncle E", by Carol Emshwiller (short story) — A bit of a modern Boxcar Children, with a mysterious stranger, the titular uncle, who tries to help the orphaned children find a new home. Not much more than cute, but cute. (And a story about children in which the mysterious strange man isn't seriously dangerous to them! That's a positive.)
  • "Warfriends", by Tom Purdom (novelette) — The sequel to an Ace Double story from forty years ago, and it reads appropriately. Two intelligent species on a jungle planet, a (in my mind's eye) tiger-like species that dwells on the forest floor, and a more ape-like species that dwells in the trees, attempt to work together to defeat a common enemy. Some interesting bits of worldbuilding, some interesting bits of character development, but not enough of the latter to make me really satisfied.

I'm reminded by my description of "Freia in the Sunlight" that I read Ted Chiang's novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects last weekend, and it's probably the best depiction of nascent consciousness I've read. The story follows two employees of an early next-generation virtual pet "digient" startup (these are rather smarter than mere pets, even in the beginning) who adopt several of the digients after the company closes and raise them as their children to adulthood, and the trials and tribulations they face along the way. (What do you do when the company behind the software platform your child is running on shuts its doors and turns its servers off?) It's in many ways a story about the bittersweetness of being a parent and watching your children grow up, and the characters, both human and digital, and their relationships, are all well-depicted. I read Ted Chiang's stories more for their ideas than for their characters, and even in Lifecycle the characterization is spare (but obviously effective), so I was surprised to discover how much I cared about the characters in it when the story was over. Highly recommended.

(I'd also like to point out to other fans of Chiang's work that the Small Beer Press trade paper reprint of his collection Stories of Your Life: and Others, which I cannot recommend highly enough, is now out, so you no longer need to pay $50+ for a used copy of the hardcover.)

There was also a minor tempest in a teapot recently in the science fiction community over steampunk and its merits or lack thereof, which was mostly notable to me in that someone linked offhandedly to Phil and Kaia Foglio's Girl Genius comic (available to read in its entirety for free on the web!), which I've been meaning to read for some time, and it hooked me in a whoops-where-did-the-time-go kind of way. It's gaslamp fantasy, and make no mistake about it — there's not much challenging of aristocracy or depiction of the plight of the lower classes here — but it's genuninely fun, and it's the first thing I've read in a very long time where I got to the end and wanted to go back to the beginning immediately and reread it, because I wanted to keep living in that world. It's good, honest escapism, and I found it refreshing. Escapism has been lacking in my life of late, and I needed some. (And I'll note that the tendency to talk like a spark, with lots of exclamation marks and cackling, is catching, so if I seem a bit more wild-haired and wild-eyed than usual, now you know why. 😉

So that's what I've been reading. What have you been reading?

unofficial python audiobox.fm uploader

tl;dr audiobox-uploader-0.01.tar.gzgit repository

Some time ago I was being frustrated by my inability to access the music stored on my personal fileserver while at work — something about Apple having locked iTunes sharing to the local subnet, the lack of decent DAAP clients for Mac, and so on and so forth. Moving all the many gigabytes of music I have to my work laptop over work’s network connection is slow and anti-social, and at any rate then I have two places in which I need to manage my music and propagate new albums I buy. (Yes, if this were a Twitter post it would get the #firstworldproblems hashtag.) “Wouldn’t it be great, in this much-ballyhooed age of Cloud Computing,” says I to myself, “if my music could live in the cloud.”

Some friends of mine have a startup, MixApp, which lets me (legally!) publish the music on my fileserver and listen to it and chat about it with friends online, which was sort of like what I wanted. It’s actually a really neat service, and I like it and use it a decent bit, but I don’t always want to listen to music with other people, and the interface is tuned to the social music listening model and not so much to being like iTunes. Additionally, at the time they were having server problems (since resolved!) so that avenue wasn’t available to me.

I started looking around online, and the first service I ran across that seemed to fit the bill was AudioBox.fm. For a mere $10 a month, they’ll host up to 151GB of music, and they’ve got a nice Flash-based, iTunes-like player, last.fm scrobble support, decent library management capability, and most of the other features I expect out of modern music player software. They’ve got support for a bunch of formats besides MP3 (FLAC, OGG, and M4A being the ones I care most about), though all the music gets transcoded to MP3 for streaming, so I’ve been mostly converting to MP3 locally before I upload, since there’s no sense taking up the storage space for FLAC if I don’t get any benefit from it. Since it’s all my music, I can also get it back any time I want, so it’s a convenient backup of my music collection.

The only problem was getting all my music into the service. There’s currently a fairly nice Flash uploader, but it only takes 999 tracks at once and only MP3s, and there’s now also a Java WebStart-based uploader (which there wasn’t when I started), but most of my music lives on my Linux fileserver, not any of the client computers I use, so neither of those was going to do it. There’s also a nice RESTful API, and so I set out to write a Linux upload script.

Along the way, I discovered that none of Python’s built-in HTTP libraries deal with submitting multipart forms. I ended up stealing the multipart processing logic from Gabriel Falcao’s bolacha library, of which portions were in turn borrowed from Django’s test client, but I was disappointed that the support wasn’t built into something more comprehensive. Claudio Poli at AudioBox pointed me towards bolacha, and has been excellent to work with on this script — I’m pleased with AudioBox’s attentiveness to developers. (Careful observers will note that AudioBox offers both an OAuth authentication API for web services and HTTP Basic authentication for desktop applications, and Claudio promises that they aren’t going to pull a Twitter on desktop and open-source application developers.)

None of Python’s built-in or commonly-used HTTP libraries support bandwidth throttling, either, which turns out to be important when you’re uploading tens of gigabytes of music. I thought about building native support into the upload script, but I wanted to get a release out, and the trickle utility turns out to work marvellously on Python to limit its upload bandwidth use, so I punted on that. Seriously, if you don’t know about trickle already, you should make a note of it — I can’t remember the number of times I’ve wanted to throttle a program that didn’t provide the option, so its existence falls into the “I wish I’d known about this years ago” category.

At any rate, the result of my labors is audiobox-uploader-0.01.tar.gz, released here for the first time. Source can be found on Github, and users should please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, or patches you might have. 🙂

my travel loadout, part 3: computers and cell phones

As promised in my last post on this subject and at long last, the computing and communication devices (increasingly the same thing) I rely on when traveling.

  • My personal laptop is an Asus EeePC 901, now sadly discontinued. Or at least it began life that way — I’ve now replaced the screen (due to the original cracking) and the original stupid-slow 20GB SSD with a nice fast Intel 60GB SSD. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, so it’s no speed demon, but it’s fine for web surfing, e-mail, and SSH, which is most of what I used it for. (And in fact I did all my schoolwork on it last year, mostly using it as a terminal for faster machines located elsewhere.) It’s a wonderful travel machine, 2.5 pounds and easy to toss in a messenger bag with a couple days’ worth of clothes for short trips. It’s also got decent battery life — fourish hours with my usual use (and the modern web is not CPU-light), which is about what I expect, and better than my Macbook Pro, though apparently more modern netbooks can get something like eight or twelve. I’ve considered getting one of the extended batteries for it, but that ups the weight significantly and I don’t care that much day-to-day, so I haven’t bothered for now.

    I absolutely don’t mind the small form-factor for the keyboard, and in fact anyone who knows me well knows that I prefer small keyboards, and will bring one of my several Happy Hacking Lite 2 keyboards to wherever I work when I am forced to work on a desktop machine. I’m sad that nobody sells 9″ formfactor netbooks any more. They all seem supplanted by 10″ and larger netbooks, though I understand that most people don’t have my small-computer fetish. When I’m traveling, I care about every extra pound, and the 901 is an excellent machine for that. (I do wish it had some kind of minimal graphics chipset in it, because there are a lot of games of a certain age I’d like to play that should run fine on it, but then again most of what I play when I’m traveling is Crawl, so I don’t actually need it.)

  • My work laptop is a 13″ unibody Macbook Pro (which, ironically, I use a lot in the same way as a terminal for other systems elsewhere). It’s kind of becoming my primary machine, just because I do appreciate the larger screen (and my, is it a beautiful screen). The unibody has possibly the best build quality of any laptop I’ve encountered ever, which I appreciate a lot — it just feels sturdy. It’s about 5 pounds, and I’m lucky to get three hours of battery life out of it (I think average is more like two or two and a half), so it’s much more a machine which wanders between outlets than a true portable. Most of the things I don’t like about it are impedence mismatches between the software and me, not problems with the hardware, and if I had one of my own I’d definitely try installing Linux on it. (Last I asked around, I think wireless had issues, but these things change fairly fast?) Mostly I like laptops way better with a tiling windowmanager, Linux has a way better handle on multiple desktops than any other OS, and Steve’s Way is otherwise only about 75% congruent with the way I want to use my computer. But it’s being an effecive work machine, so that’s the most important bit right now.
  • My old G1 died a quiet death early this summer, and conveniently T-Mobile had just released the myTouch 3G Slide, which has a hardware keyboard (a requirement for me in a smartphone, since, in what you are no doubt beginning to recognize as a trend, one of my prime uses of it is a SSH terminal). I miss the G1 keyboard, which was about as close to a real, full QWERTY keyboard as I’ve seen anyone do on a phone (a full 5 rows), but I’ve found the Slide’s 4-row keyboard to be acceptable enough that I’m not considering upgrading to one of the newer phones with a physical keyboard. Android 2 is wonderful, and the ability to pull in phone numbers from Facebook is something I didn’t expect to find useful but I like a lot. I am annoyed that T-Mobile discontinued the 300 text message plan I was on, so I’m now paying $60 instead of $50 for the same service, since I never use more than 300 text messages a month anyway. (I’m still on the no-longer open Google Friends and Family plan, thankfully, so I save ~$10/month over what you’d see just starting out new now. I can’t quite see paying iPhone-level prices for the Slide, no matter how much I like it.)

So that’s basically my current travel loadout. Things that I’m still looking for, and would happily accept suggestions for:

  • Rollerboard luggage, at least the stuff I’ve got, is heavy. Really freaking heavy. Also, after this much travel, getting rather beat up, though I do kind of expect that. (Like, do they make rollerboards with aluminum frames that are any good at all? Because that would be nice.) I’m looking for a sturdy, lightweight, carry-on sized rollerboard.
  • I got a crappy cheap Bluetooth headset with my G1 for something like $10, which was worthwhile to prove the utility of the concept to myself, but not so great for long-term use. Does anyone have a Bluetooth headset they recommend? (I’m tempted by the headsets made by Etymotic Research, and I like their earphones, a pair of which I just got.)

Next time I’ll be posting some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned about international travel. (These are supremely unlikely to be news to my friends who travel a bunch, but I hadn’t known them beforehand, and I pay pretty close attention to you guys’ expriences, so maybe they aren’t well-enough known yet and could use a little publicizing.)