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The Wonder Spyglass I: “The Cookie Monster” by Vernor Vinge; story reviews from Sci Fiction Online

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Welcome to the first issue of The Wonder Spyglass – Retrospective Reviews of Science Fiction and Fantasy on the Blogcritics site.

The idea of these time trips is to highlight the particular stories throughout SF&F history (all 100 years of it). Each week I will publish Spyglass issues, giving selective reviews to stories, collections, original anthologies and novels, choosing out of literally thousands of stories I've read personally. We will be taking jumps of 10 years in SF history, making it a fun perspective on the development of the genre.

Please keep in mind that these notes reflect only my personal reading experience and do not necessarily correspond with the impact a story had on SF field in general, or with the generally accepted verdict from the critics.

This issue will highlight stories from the last couple of years, next one will go deeper in time – to 1996, 1986 and so on, to 1906 (taking ten year jumps from 2006).

(Click to enlarge cover images)

Vernor Vinge
"The Cookie Monster"

© Analog, October 2003 

also in: Nebula Awards Showcase 2006
–novella : 2004 Hugo award – winner
–novella : 2004 Locus award – winner
–novella : 2004 AnLab /3rd place

Do you remember the movie Office Space ? It seems like Vernor Vinge buried "his red stapler" inside this haunting novella, so that his readers will be plagued by images of corporate hell worthy of Dilbert's worst. It certainly puts a stop to dreams of a cozy desk job in sunny California, grazing around the campus of some hip computer corporation. Instead of perks, freedom and stability the employees here get something quite different… and you get a sinking feeling from the moment the first email arrives in the story.

I enjoyed this novella as much as The Matrix movie, perhaps even more. It's classier, more hilarious, although deceptively simple: most of it happens inside a generic industrial park, with the main characters having a reckless adventure… by walking from one building to the other. Soon, however, the daily grind turns into a nightmare (and/or conspiracy) worthy of Kafka and Philip K. Dick. As our characters realize that they have become part of the biggest reality scam since The Truman Show, they have nothing left to do but to slowly trickle their brains on the pavement, hoping to "cool off" their thought processes, or to shuffle around in a zombie-like fashion, trying to figure out the implications of the plot.

A few years back, Vinge popularized the "singularity" concept, in which he predicts that humanity will be left in the dust in the wake of self-evolving software. This writer knows how to handle the vastness of concept, how to tighten the plot with the velvety gloves of the reader's own fears and paranoia. It all starts with an email (just like for Neo it all starts with a call on his cell)… but soon the workplace transforms into something else, and time itself is bending out of shape. What is going on? I won't spoil it for you – hopefully you will find the magic red stapler yourself and break out of the "hamster cage paradigm," at least in your mind.


Eric Schaller
"The Five Cigars Of Abu Ali"
© Sci Fiction Online, January 2005
(still available at www.scifi.com/scifiction/ in the Archives)

This story is really fun. You might not laugh out loud, but you will have a few amusing minutes, contemplating the predicament of the central character, who messes around with a genuine Genie and his ambiguous present. This is a modern-day adaptation of a centuries-old myth of Aladdin, and it is every bit as fresh and interesting as a Disney version.

    Abu Ali is a traveling rug dealer with a penchant for cigars. On one of his rug acquisition trips, he discovers a strange Coca-Cola bottle in a tiny shop, and when he uncaps it, a djinn, in classic storybook tradition, emerges. The djinn presents his rescuer with a gift, in this instance a magical cigar, which will impart untold riches when smoked. But djinn-kind are known to be tricksy and wicked. What cost to smoke the cigar? (Tangent reviews)

Eric Schaller is definitely a writer to watch, as he has a visual, engaging style, filling the narrative with a "Richness of Detail" rarely seen nowadays, without boring the reader. In other words, he is the next Steven Spielberg of the genre, if only he would put himself to it with true abandon. (Unfortunately, he holds some other jobs which may stump his output… did I make myself clear enough that I can't wait to read more of his stories?)


Howard Waldrop
"The Wolf-man of Alcatraz"
© Sci Fiction Online, October 2004
(still available at www.scifi.com/scifiction/ in the Archives)
–short fiction : 2004 British SF runner-up
–short story : 2005 Locus Poll shortlisted

Another werewolf story? Yawn… Another Howard Waldrop story? Well, let me get out a cigar and let's discuss it at length, gentlemen. His stories are an acquired taste, but they are truly "his own" creations, much like R. A. Lafferty stories are. As Chris Barnes puts it:

    That solidity doesn't lie just in the voice of the story, but in the details. The cell door isn't just a door, it's a Diebold vault door with a chrome-steel lock. The wolf-man, Bob Howlin (great name!), doesn’t just chew gum, he chews Beeman's Black Jack. Howlin's fascination with lunar astronomy is a masterful touch, and the reference to 17th-century fantasies about lunar voyagers is pure Waldrop. As is the unexpected and poignant ending.


Kim Newman
"Soho Golem"

(Jeperson series)
© Sci Fiction Online, October 2004
(still available at www.scifi.com/scifiction/ in the Archives)
–novella: 2005 World Fantasy Award runner-up

Like a modern-day Michael Moorcock extravaganza, spiced up with various popular culture references, and wrapped up into a devil-may-care narrative not unlike the Cornelius Chronicles on steroids… or on Hollywood juice… or simply on a DJ's stash of energy-drinks. Like a loud disco night in an era of sophisticated Electric Light Orchestra arrangements, this novella stands out in a lurid, brash way, with curiously slurred dialogue and even a touch of Clockwork Orange-wannabe self-invented slang. It was nominated for World Fantasy Award, but did not do much for me except keep me wondering what the noise is all about. A Victorian steampunk mystery populated with tripping hippies, time-warping Nazi demons, ancient spirits and dreadlocked Rasta zombies. Sounds like fun, but takes an effort to wade through.

Next issue will cover stories from 1996 – published 10 years ago.

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  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Nice round-up for a great series–looking forward to more.

  • http://thrillingwonder.blogspot.com Avi Abrams

    “…My SF reading is deliberately kept to a minimum for fear of obsession…”

    You are lucky to have such an imressive “selbstbeherrschung” (german for self-control)! How do can you keep away from reading new stuff by Jeff Vandermeer or Mievelle or Stross deep into the night? Thanks for the comment; the real fun should start when we start to cover the pulp era and the Golden Age of SF. Plus your suggestions on what to review next from the reading lists on my site are welcome.