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The Best of Greg Egan, by Greg Egan

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a large and fairly comprehensive volume of short stories. For anyone who wants a view of what Greg Egan is up to in his work, this is an extremely good selection of What Greg Egan Is Up To, a cross-section, a sampler. I talk about hard SF a lot in various configurations, and Greg Egan is one of the people who’s aiming at doing it, not just moving other people’s furniture but building his own configurations of hard SF futures, nerdy ideas and the humans that poke at them.

Ideas are Egan’s strength, and it’s fun to watch him turn some of them over and examine them from different angles in adjacent stories. Sometimes it’s the same idea resurfacing–a “jewel” that stores a human mind and how people would interact with such a machine, how they would conceive of which thing was “really them,” their brain or the jewel–and sometimes it’s variations on a more general concept, biochemical happiness, religion and its manifestations in the human brain.

I was a little surprised that Egan didn’t take the time, in a note of some sort, to comment on what things he would do differently now, because I would hope there are some things–nor is that unique to him, heaven knows I’ve learned some things in the time I’ve been writing, one would hope a person would. In particular I’d flag that I’d hope his concept of bisexuality has evolved and that he would no longer use the word “retarded” in the casual offhand manner in which it shows up in a few stories. I’m also a little baffled as to why no one suggested that a story called “Crystal Nights” should either have a clearer connection to Kristallnacht or get a different and considerably more sensitive title.

But with those caveats established, this is an excellent place to start thinking about the career of Greg Egan, and about what can be done with the sub-genre of hard science fiction.

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Present Writers: Greer Gilman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, and Candas Jane Dorsey.

Some of the writers I’ve featured in this series have been extremely prolific. My friend Greer is not. She has to her name two novels (Moonwise and Clouds and Ashes) and a handful of shorter work, including two novellas about the extremely startling adventures of Ben Jonson (yes, the playwright). But this body of work is very densely written, with the closest of attention paid to the language in every instance.

Some of this work is very natural and seasonal. Some of it is filled with artifice in the best way–what is more created, more artificial, than the theater?–and one of my favorite things about reading Greer’s work is the moment when I fall into the cadence of one of her stories. This is lovely and easy when you have the pleasure and privilege of hearing her read aloud, but something can still click when you’re reading to yourself, and then the utterly singular and personal prose just flows, like being told a story in the way that only one person on earth could do it.

We are not here to tell stories like anyone else. No one exemplifies telling the stories that only we can tell better than Greer Gilman, and I am so glad that she is present and still coming up with charming, hilarious tales of Ben Jonson and beyond, with us today.

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Books read, early October

Stephanie Burgis, Masks and Shadows. This is a fun fantasy about Habsburgs and opera singers and alchemy. There are masked balls and banquets and all sorts of court intrigue of the sorts that I think a lot of my friends find fun to read about, and yet I don’t remember hearing this book talked about when it came out–I only saw that there was another in the world with Congress of Secrets when I looked at Stephanie’s webpage to see when a couple of other things were coming out. And I’m glad I did.

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Links. Kindle. This is an early Poirot mystery, and when I was sick it was a fine light read. I think she was still realizing how much it was going to be a series at that point, with the second volume, but it was fun, and some of the things that bother me about the TV series were completely the opposite in this book (though it would be a spoiler to say what, so if you want to talk about what, email me).

Aliette de Bodard, The House of Binding Thorns. This is the second in its series, and it’s full of ramification and implication, so I recommend reading the first one first. Angels and dragons and Paris! Illness and childbirth and addiction and trickery! So much skillfully interwoven here.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss. Kindle. Knowing what I do about George Eliot (Maryann Evans) and her actual life, this was a beautiful and heartbreaking book and I wanted to travel back in time and kick her brother in the shins and hug her and invite her and her partner and stepsons to Christmas dinner. This is a passionate story of a nerdy, unconventional young woman and how much she loves her rules-driven brother and craves his approval, and how she basically can never, ever have it. And the ending made me cry, and yet also I think that trying to give it to high school students who don’t have a really strong basis in Victorian cultural mores and this author in specific is futile and likely to make them hate her. But when it’s on your own hook, with the right background…oh, I loved reading this.

Elizabeth Hand, Errantry: Strange Stories. These are, indeed, strange stories; they are slightly off to the side of the main thrust of genre structure and expectation, often with less of a linear plot focus than a lot of genre-central manuscripts and more focus on mood evocation.

Laurence M. Hauptmann, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State. I was a bit disappointed on how much this focused on the white people who dispossessed the Iroquois, but on the whole it was an interesting additional set of data about the Erie Canal, the power elite of New York State, and the various ways that the Iroquoian people found to remain a force for their own culture and self-determination in the face of overwhelming odds.

Rose Macaulay, Potterism. Kindle. This is a novel about how easy it is to fall into the ruts of the conventional even when your life is dedicated to opposing them. It does not, itself, generally fall into those ruts as often as one might fear; there were several points in its short length at which I blinked and said, “Well, I didn’t see that coming.” Some of it is frothy and witty, some of it portrays staggering amounts of anti-Semitism directed at one of its most wholly positive characters, and while it is not approving of that anti-Semitism, you can’t really brace and say, okay, we’re done with that bit now, no more anti-Semitic slurs will pop up here. Similarly sexism: Macaulay is quietly, bitterly, wittily furious at some of the sexism she has encountered and uses it as fuel for this novel, but there it is, if you don’t want to read about it today, don’t read this book today. Aside from that, though: she doesn’t turn conventional pieties in a mirror by insisting that the conventionally pious will get their comeuppances instead of the conventionally impious–she understands the world differently than that, and that was…good but also frustrating but generally quite good.

Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, eds., Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. These were mostly quite short and, like the Hand above but in a completely different direction, very focused on evocative mood and language. I’m glad these stories were translated and compiled, as I found them very much worth reading and will probably return to this anthology for a reread.

Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick, The Witch Who Came In From the Cold (Season 1). This is a compilation of a serial, so it has the pacing of a serial, which is to say, sometimes rather slow. The thing it’s doing where Soviet vs. US and the two kinds of magic don’t map to each other made me very happy, though, and if you’re also a sucker for spy stories, you won’t want to miss it.

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Three stories while I was gone

Publishing moves at its own pace, and sometimes things happen all at once. Sometimes they happen all at once while a person is recovering from influenza and traveling around the continent. Just, like a hypothetical person. You know. In theory.

So! I have three stories out recently. The one you can immediately read online is Purposeful, out in Daily Science Fiction. This is a flash piece I wrote in my dad’s ICU room and is directly related to that experience. It may be a hard read for those reasons, but I’m glad that I wrote it, and I think Dad would be glad too.

Next up: I have a story about lichen and finding a new path when the one you were on closes, in the Nov/Dec issue of Analog, “Filaments of Hope.” This should be available on newsstands, and also you can order a copy here.

Finally, and I do mean finally: one of the stories that has had the longest wait is finally out! “In the Ancestor’s New House” appears in Spirits Unwrapped, edited by Daniel Braum and published by Lethe Press. This is one you can ask a bookstore to order for you, or you can get it on Indiebound or Amazon or wherever you like really. This is an anthology of mummy stories, so it is not at all my usual sort of thing…except that I read loads of books about Inca mummy societies and how they were affected by the Spanish conquest, so it’s not not like me either….

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Books read, late September

I spent late September having influenza! Boy was that…about as much fun as you’ve heard influenza is! And much of what I could do in that time was read. So read I did! Yay reading! Note: this is a particularly bad time to make comments about how you wish you had that much time for reading, as I had to cancel several other things I was excited about in order to lie in bed, feel terrible, and read. Still yay reading! But…not really to be envied. Even though some of these books are great.

Roma Agrawal, Built: The Hidden Structures Behind Our Structures. This is definitely a “pop structural engineering” level book; for all Agrawal outs herself as a nerd, she’s aiming at the general audience. But if you’re looking for little nuggets of trivia and interest about materials and building, from the most basic structures up to the most modern skyscrapers, this is your jam.

Gavin Chappell, translator, Sagas of Ancient Kings; Sorli’s Yarn: The Saga of Hedin and Hogni; The Saga of Asmund, Bane of Champions; The Saga of Fridthjof the Bold; The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek; The Saga of Hrolf Kraki and His Champions; The Saga of Hromund Gripsson; The Saga of Thorstein Vikingsson; The Sagas of Ketil Trout and Grim Hairy-cheek. Kindle. Oh so many legendary sagas. Oh so many. So many people turning into wolves, swans, and who knows what else. They’re actually pretty perfect to read in bulk with a fever because fever logic and saga logic live next door to each other: and then he ate live coals and turned into a troll, sure, yes, why not.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus. Discussed elsewhere.

Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven. This novella is darker than my usual fare, but sure-handed and beautifully done. The classes and regions of the worldbuilding, the individual relationships in the magic, the decay and the illness and the murder murder murder….

Ben Hatke, Mighty Jack and Zita the Space Girl. This is a team-up capstone to these two series, and I think it works best if you’ve read the books in both, because a lot of it involves revisiting characters and places from previous episodes in a dash to the finish.

Kat Howard, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. There are some truly beautiful stories in here, including a college Arthurian that is just exactly my jam. Highly, highly recommended.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Peculiar Ground. This book was mis-shelved by a used bookstore that thought it was fantasy; its speculative content is extremely minimal. Mostly it is a literary novel about walls and boundaries, ranging from the Restoration to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I enjoyed the experience of reading it but once I’ve had a chance to think it over, some of the thematic implications are kind of gross, but not gross enough to ruin the entire thing–especially not gross enough to ruin the rare chance at Restoration garden design fiction.

Kelly Jones, Sauerkraut. This is a really fun kids’ book about a haunted fermenting crock and a kid who likes to make stuff! and his family and their various interests! it is great! it is by the chicken book person! I am basically made of exclamation marks when I talk about this book!

Margaret Killjoy, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion. Kindle. A novella that does not outstay its welcome: it gets in, tells its story of magic in a small town commune of squatters and punks, and gets out again. This is what the pacing of novellas is supposed to do. Its characterization is precise and clear, its plotting doesn’t linger purposelessly, and its details are very well drawn.

Karen Lord, Unraveling. Karen Lord is always doing something different from anybody else, and this is no exception. It’s a labyrinthine fantasy of solving a serial murder related to immortals and their influence on humans, and it pays attention to that influence in ways that don’t fall apart when you keep thinking.

Rose Macaulay, Mystery at Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings. Kindle. Alas, I was bound to come upon one of Macaulay’s works that didn’t hold up for me, and this was it: this is a satire of the Leage of Nations in ways that just feel off and nasty now, some of them racist, some of them merely crass. The central plot feels cheap and shabby, with the resolution an unsatisfying echo of some of the things she manages in better works. Not recommended unless you, like me, have become passionately dedicated to Macaulay and want to be able to talk knowledgeably about what she wrote in all its available details.

Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching Through Scotland for a Border Collie. I cannot fathom the reviewer on the cover of this who thinks it will make you want a border collie. I love border collies, but it is very clear about them as working dogs, and you almost certainly do not want one. But if you want to read about nice dogs and the very weird people who have them, doing trials and things, this is a good book about that, it doesn’t last too long, the dog the writer has at the beginning is still around getting pettins at the end and also there is a new dog, so it is not one of those And Then My Dog Died horrors. Dogs! Sometimes one wants a book, and this is one.

Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. This was a fast, fun read that described a lot of things that you have probably experienced, or else will be interested to learn about and catch up on, if you like language and its fluidity. I DMed Gretchen excitedly about a particular example in the middle. If you don’t know Gretchen even in the internet way that I do, you probably shouldn’t do that, but you may well have the urge, because it’s that kind of book.

Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs. This is a lovely and loving book about attempting to establish a group based on love and trust in the face of a totalitarian regime. In this case it happens to be an early Christian group in Rome in the reign of Nero, and they fare about as well as you’d expect, but Mitchison wrote it in the late ’30s and was thinking rather more historically broadly than just Nero.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts. Roanhorse continues to be some of the most thriller-paced fantasy I have ever encountered. Her worldbuilding is unlike any other going on right now in the genre, a radically altered future with drastically changed magic. The new characters in this volume made it fun and a fast read for me, and I enjoyed zipping right through.

Karl Schroeder, Stealing Worlds. It took me a little bit to get into the characters on this one, but I’m very sympathetic to what Karl was doing with the ending, and it’s worth getting there, I think, even if you’re a hard-sell on blockchain fiction, which I am.

Vivian Shaw, Grave Importance. Now okay, yes, I did read this with influenza, so that might have made me more likely to cry, but the ending made me cry in such a good way. It is taking urban fantasy and monster tropes and making them into such a work of hope and love. All the times when people say that genre gives you structure to make your art work within: this is what they mean. This. This capped the series so beautifully and so movingly, and it works best with the full weight of the series behind it, so go, go read, I loved this.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, For Love of Distant Shores. I am so pleased that this is what Tchaikovsky has decided to do with his vast and sweeping fantasy setting. So not only did he write a ten-book series that had a beginning, a middle, and–get this–an ending–when he was done, he did not go do another just like it again to try to get the same result. No! Instead he is using this canvas he’s made to tell different kinds of stories! My analogy for this book is that if the big giant fantasy series is like the description of WWII, this set of novelette-ish length things is like the Indiana Jones stories, if Short Round got to be the protagonist. They’re fun, they’re a completely different tone, they’re exploring corners of the world in ways that Tchaikovsky is good at. Do approve.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 and Uncanny Magazine Issue 30. At least that’s how my Kindle metadata lists it! But! We know that Uncanny Magazine Issue 30 was actually Disabled People Destroy Fantasy and that it was actually edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Katharine Duckett, and Lisa M. Bradley, according to the cover. It was a varied and lovely issue, with my favorite part coming with A. T. Greenblatt’s essay about disabled protagonists, but I also found solidarity with Karlo Yeager Rodríguez’s “This Is Not My Adventure,” a story of grief that went some places I needed to go. I realized, looking at my Kindle, that for some reason Issue 6 was the only issue I’d missed in the past, though I’d read a lot of the individual stories, and while it’s not that long ago in real terms, in short fiction terms it feels like the magazine and the field has built a lot on what was going on then, on this issue and others around it, so it was interesting to look back as things grow and build so quickly.

Valerie Valdes, Chilling Effect. Discussed elsewhere.

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. What a difficult and compassionate book. I knew I would be in good hands when van der Kolk related learning from a mentor whom he asked, would you call this patient schizophrenic or schizoaffective? and got told gently: I would call this patient [name]. While he’s willing to talk about diagnoses and use them where appropriate, his focus is always on human experience, and it’s a stronger book thereby.

Greg van Eekhout, Cog. Discussed elsewhere.

Jane Yolen, Dragonfield, and Other Stories. Kindle. The first of these stories is the same story as the graphic novel of Jane’s I read at the beginning of September, so that was disorienting. And then there were a couple of stories that were among the best short fiction I’ve ever read of hers, so…yeah, worth the price of admission, I should say, even with the different angle/same narrative at the beginning.