September 24th, 2002

The Tuesday Evening "Ill In Bed" Review: The Ultimate Mallworld

Asimov's Science Fiction magazine has a knack of discovering SF writers. In its early years these included David Brin, S.P. Somtow, John M. Ford and Harry Turtledove. All have since gone on to high flying genre careers, though perhaps not in the directions originally predicted from their first stories. One who's journey has been more diverse than most is S.P. Somtow (who also writes as Somtow Sucharitkul). Now best known for his horror work, Somtow started with a run of humourous SF stories, in the shape of his Aqualiad alternative Rome and the far future Mallworld. Meisha Merlin has collected all the published Mallworld stories (along with two unpublished pieces) in The Ultimate Mallworld.

Mallworld is a 30km long shopping centre, in the middled of nowhere, owned by the powerful barJulian family. Unfortunately for the human race, it's been sealed off from the rest of the universe by the Selespridar, until it grows up. Trapped in a bubble just larger than the orbit of Saturn, the human race can't see the see the stars any more. This means that Mallworld has become the hub of what passes for human civilisation. It's here that humanity has its one point of contact with its masters, and it's here that the Selespridar will be sampling the lives of 9 humans to see if they are ready for the rest of the universe. Using this survey as a framing structure we're presented with Somtow's short stories.

While Somtow's stories are best classified as humourous SF, they're also finely tuned studies in melancholy. Yes, everyone behaves in trivial ways, because without the promise of the stars life is trivial. It's this underlying sadness that drives the main characters of these stories to overcome their situations, whether it's through music, art or parenthood. They're also a pointer to Somtow's later career in the moral certainties of dark fantasy.

An interesting collection of early works, that show Somtow's later promise.
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Another Tuesday "Ill In Bed Review": The Sky So Big And Black

John Barnes is one of my "buy on sight" authors. I've yet to be disappointed by anything he's written, whether it's light fantasy like One For The Morning Glory, a hi-tech thriller written in collaboration with an astronaut like The Return, or a dark journey through the underbelly of tomorrow like Kaleidoscope Century.

The Sky So Big And Black is a return to the future of Orbital Resonance, Kaleidoscope Century and Candle. It's the end of the 21st century, on Mars, and Terpsichore Murray is coming close to the end of her childhood. Life as an ecospector on Mars is hard, but rewarding, as each find adds to the terraforming effort. It's a job that has to be done, as on Earth the victorious Resuna meme has turned the planet into a group mind after the Meme Wars, One True, and the generation ships are on their way home to help rebuild a shattered human race on Mars.

Barnes presents us with a Heinlein style juvenile with a modern spin, where we see the story through the eyes of Teri's shrink, in the shape of taped memories and his meanderings. This isn't Heinlein, after all, and in Barnes' shattered tomorrow, nothing is really what it seems. Teri's story takes us through triumph and personal tragedy and global disaster to a difficult and complex choice she needs to make to survive, a choice that will affect her and everyone around her for a long time to come.

This is a seemingly simple short novel that contains multitudes. Barnes has been remarkably productive recently, with this, The Duke Of Uranium and The Merchants Of Souls - and not a dud amongst them...
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Things to do...

...when ill in bed and with a wireless laptop: Read all of Unicorn Jelly.

An amusingly interesting D&D-based, manga-styled, science fantasy, online comic strip... You'll also need to read the concordance, the language reference, and the alternate universe strips...

Unicorn Jelly
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