oct/nov asimov’s

"back to youth I so well lost / I left it on another world" –"Roadside Stand", by Mark Rich

In a slight break from travel gear, here follows my review of the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of Asimov's.

  • Becoming One With the Ghosts, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (novella) — Didn't grab me in the first couple pages, so I didn't read it.
  • "Names for Water", by Kij Johnson (short story) — An odd little story, and one I can't do justice in description. The main character is an engineering student, so I identify with her on that. It's one of the best stories in this issue, and it's so small it's easy to miss.
  • "The Incarceration of Captain Nebula", by Mike Resnick (short story) — The main character is the eponymous Captain Nebula, and he's in an insane asylum. The "treatment report" format for stories is one I don't like, and this one didn't seem to be doing anything novel, so I punted it after the first few pages. (The typography on this one was also questionable, since it made significant use of typewriter font, and I find Asimov's typewriter font almost unreadable. Further discouragement if I'm already unsure on the merits of the story.)
  • "Torhec the Sculptor", by Tanith Lee (novelette) — A sculptor who destroys his pieces at the end of every show, and the very rich man who endeavors to posess a piece of the sculptor's art. I'm actually kind of surprised there isn't an artist with this schtick already, though I'd imagine the schtick would make it hard to make money. It's a cute enough story, if not entirely unpredictable, it's philosophical about the ephemeral nature of art, and it's certainly one of the better stories in this issue.
  • "No Distance Too Great", by Don D'Ammassa (short story) — Postulates a weird form of hyperspace travel which looks to the travelers like overland travel through a fantastic landscape. Said landscape is influenced by the emotional state of the travelers — the more frought, the less passable — and the main character, whose wife just died, finds himself, perhaps not coincidentally, on one of the trips which gets iredeemably stuck. It's cute in its way, but the emotional core of the story never grabbed me. (Perhaps it didn't grab me because there is — thankfully — no comparable event in my life to provoke my empathy, and I found the details of the mode of transport off-putting and implausible enough that my sensawunda wasn't engaged to compensate.)
  • "The Termite Queen of Tallulah County", by Felicity Shoulders (short story) — Despite finding the premise of the story wildly implausible — using time travel to prevent termite infestations before they happen? really? — there was enough interesting and genuine character interaction that I enjoyed the story.
  • "Dummy Tricks", by R. Neube (short story) — The main character was interestingly unlikeable, and, though the environmental event he's fighting seemed implausible, I found it an interesting enough story.
  • "Frankenstein, Frankenstein", by Will McIntosh (novella) — What if Phineas Gage had, after his accident, gone on to a life as a sideshow performer playing the role of Frankenstein's monster? And what if that sideshow act had met with another, also purporting to be Frankenstein's monster? While I was somewhat annoyed that the story didn't go too far beyond the Frankenstein complex which has grown up around Shelley's original and adaptations thereof, the relationship — the friendship and mutual respect and humanity — between the two "monsters" rescued the story for me. Another one of the best stories in this issue, the last of my top three.
  • "Changing the World", by Kate Wilhelm (short story) — This story about a hoax that goes a bit too far has obvious parallels to current events, and, well, that's about all it has going for it. I was underwhelmed.
  • "Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol", by Ferret Steinmetz (short story) — This story inverts the usual high schoo jock-nerd dynamic, but it lays its subversion of the norm on so thick that even as a former disenfranchised high school geek I found it well past cloying, and only skimmed it after the first couple pages.
  • Several Items of Interest, by Rick Wilber (novella) — Didn't grab me within the first couple pages, so I didn't bother.
  • Dishonorable mention to Norman Spinrad's book review column, which looked from its first paragraph to be more of the same nonsense he was peddling back in April, and which I skipped.
  • Honorable mention to "Roadside Stand", by Mark Rich, one of the poems in this issue — not for its poesy, as it has none, but for its idea (buying tomatoes on Mars) and in particular the line I used as a pull-quote above, which grabbed me enough to… use it as the pull-quote on my blog post. 🙂

(As an aside, this list of things Prof. Malcolm Macmillan is looking for to document the life of Phineas Gage is fascinating — a real-life Mystery Hunt.)

Also a few quick reviews of stuff published for free! Online! And in a variety of ebook formats! By Tor.com! Which I mostly read on my phone on the way to and from work. (I think the ones published in 2009 aren't eligible for Hugos next year, so there's less drive for me to index them as comprehsensively as the Asimov's stories.)

  • "Overtime", by Charlie Stross (2009; length unknown) — A Christmas-time Laundry story. Features a Dr. Kringle from Forecasting Ops, the precognitive arm of the Laundry, and has about as much treacly Christmas cheer as one expects from Stross or the Laundry, making it a fine and amusing read at any time of year.
  • "First Flight", by Mary Robinette Kowal (2009; length unknown) — Time travel and the Wright brothers. A personable older protagonist and her competent younger foil.
  • "The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model", by Charlie Jane Anders (2010; length unknown) — The Fermi Paradox basically asks, "if aliens exist, where are they?", and the answer in this story is that they're waiting for us to kill ourselves off in the inevitable nuclear holocaust so they can come in, collect, and sell all the precious materials we have helpfully mined out of the Earth's crust. Amusing; delivers well on its premise.
  • "A Memory of Wind", by Rachel Swirsky (2009; novelette) — When Helen fled to Troy with Paris, the Grecian kings assembled an army to follow her and take her back, but found themselves becalmed. King Agamemnon sacrificed his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis that she might stir up the winds and send their warships to Troy. This is Iphigenia's story, and it is beautiful and haunting. Go read this. Now. (This was apparently a Nebula award finalist.)
  • "Eros, Philia, Agape", by Rachel Swirsky (2009; novelette) — An android leaves his human lover, and thereafter is told in retrospect the story of their relationship. Gorgeous and haunting and different than "A Memory of Wind", and that description fails to capture the least bit of what I liked about the story. So much truth about humans and human relationships and the worlds we build for and with each other. Go read this, now, too. (This was both a Hugo and a Locus award finalist for Best Novelette, apparently.)

Rachel Swirsky has a new story on Tor.com, "The Monster's Million Faces", which I haven't read yet, but which I look forward to. (It's now loaded on my phone to read on the T tomorrow.) An awesome, awesome writer. She has a bunch of her stories online linked at her web site, and I'm really tempted to go through and read them all, but I need to go to bed. Whoops.

my travel loadout, part 2: shoes and wallets

As promised in my last post, another post about travel gear! This week, shoes and wallets.

  • Given that we seem doomed to walk through the metal detector at the airport in stocking feet for the forseeable future, slip-on shoes are a must to make the process as painless as possible. Slip-ons mean no struggling to pull the shoes off my feet as the rest of the security line makes impatient noises, no fiddling with tiny dress-shoe laces as the agent at my gate on the other side of the terminal announces last call for boarding, no running with shoelaces flapping trying to make my flight — a just plain more pleasant travel experience. For business travel, nice slip-on shoes are a must, so I can go straight from the plane to a meeting if I have to. I ordered a pair of Bostonian Bolton shoes in brown and wore them to Iceland, and they’re quickly becoming my everyday shoes. (I in fact liked them so much that I bought another pair in black — I think of the as latter as “going to dance clubs in foreign countries” shoes.) They’re light, they look great, they fit well, and they’re comfortable to walk long distances in, as I did in Reykjavik — in fact they’re possibly the most comfortable shoes I own. I’m extremely happy with them. (If you expect to walk a lot with them and you like the fit out of the box, do treat them with some kind of waterproofing compound, wax, shine, whatever. I got caught in an unexpected rainstorm and my brown pair got soaked, and they relaxed more than I wanted.)
  • I happened upon BigSkinny, who are Boston-local, at about the same time as my old black leather trifold wallet, a gift my senior year of high school, had started to seriously lose its structural integrity, so I jumped at the chance to replace it. My friends had mentioned struggling to fit (larger) foreign currency in wallets designed for (smaller) US currency, so I bought BigSkinny’s World Bifold Wallet in black leather. The currency wasn’t much of a problem in Iceland, where the bills are about the same size as US bills, but hopefully it will be useful for other travel in the future. It’s big enough for the stuff I need to carry but still encourages me to keep that set to a minimum, it’s solidly made, and it is in fact pretty damn skinny (about a half inch thick, closed).
  • Speaking of wallets, I’ve been appreciating AwardWallet as a service for managing frequent flyer accounts, gift cards, hotel chain points, credit card points, and other loyalty programs. It’s very nice to have a complete list of programs I’m in all in one place, with the balances and expiration dates visible at a glance (especially since, given where I work, I seem doomed to collect the complete set of frequent flyer programs :-). It also acts as a password wallet for the award program web sites, letting me log into any of them with a single click. It’s also under active development, unlike some of the similar sites I looked at. I found and reported a bug, and the developer fixed it in a week or so, though they never said anything to me about it — I had to check back. (But it got fixed! That’s more than I can say for a lot of the bugs I report.) I like their pay-what-you-will Pro account model — basically donating any amount gets you an upgraded account which checks when your points or miles expire — so after the bug I mentioned got fixed, I upgraded to a pro account in thanks. It will also pull your travel plans in from airlines which expose this information and let you associate hotel information with flights and so on, creating a nice itinerary that you can then print or access on the go. As a friend of mine said, it’s way better than a spreadsheet for tracking these things.

Up next week, computers and cell phones!

my travel loadout

My Travel Loadout, or, a Road Warrior in Training

I now have the free time to travel for pleasure, my job has me traveling some, and there’s the potential for more travel in my future, so I’m starting to explore what equipment I need in order to do so comfortably. I kind of hate the term “road warrior” — as though it’s such a burden to travel, or some Mad Max thing. At least, it doesn’t describe my mindset yet, though I can see how people who are on the road a significant fraction of their working lives might start to identify with it, so I am at best a road warrior in training. On the other hand, reading Scott Eblin’s Business Travel Diva’s Rules for Family Vacations, I realized that I was doing most of the things he describes already, so maybe I’ve adopted the mindset more than I think I have.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about my current travel loadout, including tweaks I tested on my recent Iceland trip.

The core of any loadout, it seems to me, is the bag or bags — the fewer the better. For a long time my Yak Pak Medium Flapdoozy Tech was my everyday bag for school and also my go-to travel bag, and I’d cram in my laptop, toiletries, and a couple changes of clothes and be set for up to four days. (Yes, that’s a MegaTokyo link. Shh, we were all sixteen once, and Piro has good taste in bags.) It was even nice-enough looking that I was comfortable wearing it with my suit and tie to job interviews and using it like a briefcase, and I liked that versatility. (Mine obviously didn’t have a MegaTokyo logo on it.) However it was starting to wear around the edges, and when the rubber lining on the inside started to come out, I knew it was time to find a replacement. Sadly Yak Pak doesn’t make the Flapdoozy any more — their current line is way too gaudy to double as a briefcase in my world — and I couldn’t find any extra stock online, just a lot of other people looking for the same thing, so I set off in search of a new bag.

What I ended up with was the Tom Bihn ID bag in black and steel, with a soft-shelled laptop case for my work laptop, a 13″ unibody Macbook Pro. In that color combination, it’s totally conservative enough to double as a briefcase for work, and it works well in that capacity. I like that the ID isn’t a Laptop Bag(tm), so it doesn’t scream “I CONTAIN A VALUABLE LAPTOP PLEASE STEAL ME,” and the soft-shell case is protective but transparent to X-rays so I can take it out with my laptop inside and run them through security unopened. I bought this bag for a business trip in early August, but it showed up the day I left, so I first tested it in Iceland. (I need to remember that “second-day shipping” doesn’t mean “you’ll get this in two days,” it means “you’ll get this in two business days, assuming someone is home to receive it”. Obviously for business travel I should have had it sent to work, but for general packages it’s just completely impractical for me to be home to receive stuff all the time, and I’m usually more busy before a trip than less.)

The bag is extremely well-made — the fabric is thick and tough, the zippers are the sturdiest I’ve ever encountered, all the seams are well-finished, and the buckle is rugged without being too stiff. There’s just a ton of attention to detail. I’m not wild about all the pockets — the front flap pocket is too small, though I like the document pocket on the back, and I’m still not sure about having my laptop behind another zipper after the flap is out of the way, but I’m adjusting, and I do appreciate the dividers for pens and so on, which I didn’t expect to like. It comfortably fits the stuff I was carrying in the Flapdoozy, though it seems less capable of overloading so I’m not sure how much stuff I’ll be able to fit in for longer-term travel. When I switch out my work laptop for my personal laptop, a 9″ Eee, as I did for Iceland, the bag can comfortably fit toiletries and a fleece jacket as well, so it’s not impossible, though I also had a checked bag along for that trip. I was specifically looking for a bag that wasn’t too large, since my tendency is to let cruft just accumulate in strata at the bottom of the bag, so a smaller bag forces me to think harder about everything I carry. The strap on my Flapdoozy was really nice, basically seatbelt material, and so I was dubious about Tom Bihn’s nylon webbing straps with adjustable pads, but it’s very comfortable. (I just went with the default, though Tom Bihn does offer several levels of strap up to “Awesome” — they’re all the webbing-plus-pad form-factor.) For someone with my… aggressive collarbone, the strap fit is really important. There’s also a waist strap, which I detached almost immediately, since I don’t expect to be biking with it much right now. The ID is a little big, width-wise, and not as wieldy on a crowded T car as I would like, but it’s extremely comfortable and well-made, and ultimately I’m happy with it as a replacement for my Flapdoozy.

Up next week: shoes and wallets.

iceland, gaming, eve online

Last weekend at this time, I was in Iceland. My friend and housemate Matt spent the summer there interning with CCP Games, and I decided to take a long weekend and go visit him on his last full weekend there. (CCP are the people who make EVE Online, the second most popular MMO in the world, and the forthcoming World of Darkness MMO.) Our friend (and soon-to-be housemate) Kate was also there, stopping over on her way back from London.

There were a lot of reasons for me visiting, not least that, in my twenty-five years of existence, I hadn't yet left North America, and I was starting to feel a bit provincial and more importantly a bit bored. Also, I'm a terrible tourist, but surely one can learn these things, right? Besides, it would be fun. And indeed, I had a blast.

The trip was pretty much entirely comprised of me learning the practicalities of navigating a foreign country, more or less effectively, and hanging out with Matt, Kate, and Matt's coworkers at bars, cafes, restaurants, and apartments in Reykjavik. I had lots of good and sometimes unusual food (lamb hot dogs?), I went to the Laugar geothermal pools and soaked, I watched the fireworks on the harbor for Reykjavik Culture Night, and that was pretty much it. The scenery, even just on the bus from the airport to Reykjavik in the morning, was gorgeous, all ocean and mountains and low-angled light. It was a fascinating trip.

I'd read a lot about EVE, the game Matt's company makes, in computer gaming magazines, but being a student I was really scared of getting into anything that I might be more obsessed with than school. (Hear now the archetypal story of the guy or girl who got kicked out of school because they played too much EverQuestWorld of Warcraft.) I'm no longer a student but I'm of course working, and work is very unlikely to ever be replaced as the prime sink of my time, but I feel like I need be less pathologically risk-averse now, and so I've been considering lots of different ways to spend my free time — auditioning them, perhaps. So when Matt sat me down at his desk in Iceland and showed me around EVE a bit, I was paying attention. (Frankly I've been kind of looking for an excuse to give EVE a go.)

There are lots of reasons that EVE is interesting — it's all a single gigantic world, rather than a bunch of parallel worlds like other MMOs; the economy is entirely player-driven; it's set in space rather than some fantasy world; yadda yadda yadda. That's not the most interesting part of EVE for me. Some background — when I was in middle school, I was in the local equivalent of a Talented and Gifted program, because they didn't know what to do with me (a rant for another day). In eighth grade, as sort of a capstone project, we (well, I, mostly, I think) wrote a space computer game. It wasn't much better-specified than that — I had grand visions of hopping from planet to planet, trading commodities, and maybe some space battle, and I eventually got together an interface inspired by the Star Trek computers, some basic movement, and a "market" with random prices. (I was writing this in Visual Basic, if I recall correctly; I was just discovering C and Linux. Shh, we were all fourteen and living in the boonies at the end of a crappy dialup connection once. Well, okay, some of us were.) We had a group of four or five — a friend did some art, I don't remember if it ever got used or not; we theoretically divvied up tasks somehow, but I think I was the only one with significant programming experience. We tried to keep it going and improve it, after we'd met the (low) requirements for the TAG program, but it went the usual way of such projects. At any rate—

Friends, EVE is that game I was dreaming of. Trade, courier, mine, fight, loot — it's all there. EVE is that middle-school space game, made by professionals. I'm not sure quite why I'm primed for those narratives so hard, but I am, and EVE hits those narrative kinks like whoa.

I may be hooked.

Now, history suggests that I may like starting games more than continuing to play them (what can I say, I just really like tutorial missions ;-), so we'll see if I come back to EVE after a week at work. But this is really kind of exciting — perhaps the most excited I've ever been about a game after I finished the tutorial missions. It could be a wild ride. 🙂

another rant for another day: why I faileddropped microecon twice, or, how how we teach economics sucks (hint: students have never interacted with a real market as either a buyer or, particularly, as a seller)

also, I have no point here, I just like to say "New Game Excitement"

september 2010 asimov’s

Here’s my review of the September 2010 issue of Asimov’s, before I leave it on the plane in the hopes someone else will find it and enjoy it. (It’s a good issue.)

  • “Backlash”, by Nancy Fulda (novelette) — A cute time-traveling retired-spy-back-into-service story, which, unusually for the spy genre, features a reasonably accurate portrayal of said spy dealing with PTSD. (PTSD: It’s not just nicely-cinematic flashbacks.)
  • “The Palace in the Clouds”, by Eugene Mirabelli (short story) — Not to be confused with the cover story, Geoffrey Landis’s The Sultan of the Clouds. It posits an aging steampunk Venice-of-the-sky, which makes for some gorgeous imagery, and goes from there. It’s either inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, or he should totally make a movie of it, or both — the image of a slowly-failing flying city and the main characters, a young boy and his aviator uncle, are all tailor-made for his style. As with Miyazaki, you won’t find any deep philosophy here, more themes of family and growing up, but that’s not a bad thing.
  • “Wheat Rust”, by Benjamin Crowell (novelette) — Does a decent job at a story of a generation ship and the people who live there and their divergent cultures, and notably a story whose stakes are much smaller than The Destruction Of The Entire WorldWShip! (As you might gather from the name, the main characters are trying to prevent an agrigultural plague.)
  • “For Want of a Nail”, by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story) — Another generation ship story, with a bit of interesting generation ship morality, plus some AI morality. AIs used as the collective memory of families over generations.
  • “The Sultan of the Clouds”, by Geoffrey Landis (novella) — Geoffrey Landiss is a NASA scientist, so he obviously does a good job with the geophysics of a colony of floating cities on Mars. Thankfully he does it without letting it overwhelm the story, which has some nice bits of character development and some interesting speculation about alternative family structures a la Heinlein.
  • “The View from the Other Side: Science Fiction in Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Countries”, by Aliette de Bodard (nonfiction) — A follow-up to Norman Spinrad’s obnoxious book review column I complained about back in April. It can be summarized as “why the opinions and perspectives of anyone but white men matter ever 101”, and so pretty basic, but probably useful to start educating the clueless. (sigh)

Currently reading: the latest issue of Apex Magazine, Cat Valente’s first as fiction editor!