Today we’re featuring a couple of stories that you can find free online.
Many years ago, Bruce Sterling wrote a short story called “Taklamakan” that won a Hugo award. I’ve been trying to read some past award winners, and since this one was handily available, I decided to start there. So, here’s my problem. “Taklamakan” won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1999 when it was published in the Oct/Nov 1998 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. That means the story is 13 or 14 years old. Do you know how badly near-future science fiction ages in 13 years?
“Taklamakan” is set in the Taklamakan Desert in 2052. Genetically modified NAFTA spies, inserted into the Chinese desert, discover a set of habitat ships buried under the surface. As they investigate, they discover that these ships, designed to be generation ships for colonizing other planets, actually contain dissident ethnic minority populations that the Asian Sphere had been suppressing. They had been told they were going to be sent to another planet to have their own freedom.
For me, the most interesting part of this story is watching the way the cultures have dealt with their imprisonment. Each ship responds very differently to the circumstances, and they respond differently to the appearance of the spies. However, the ships are not alone in their cavern. They are suspended over a lake of what I can only call cybernetic goo that creates new robots through endless iterations of possible software and hardware development. These robots are supposed to keep the ships safe from intruders, and also to keep the populations in their prisons. When they discover the presence of the spies, it has interesting consequences for the long-term safety of the project.
I’m sure “Taklamakan” was much more cutting-edge when it was written, but since this was written, we’ve sequenced the genome, built virtual reality headsets, developed machines that are controlled by your mind, and built a robot that can beat humans at context-sensitive games like Jeopardy! In this story, the core isn’t about “look at all this shiny new spy gear we have,” or at least, it shouldn’t be. What we have is a new technological skin grafted over the classic science fiction trope of humanity versus self-aware artificial intelligence. This is a story that Isaac Asimov has happily told multiple times, and I’m not sure Sterling adds to it in any meaningful way, especially since he ends the story right where the conflict that the spies spend so much time worrying about starts. I found it an odd place to end.
Note: Nothing is known about the identity of K.J. Parker, including her gender. I have used feminine pronouns to refer to her, just to be subversive.
“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K.J. Parker is set in her familiar quasi-Roman Empire inspired world. It focuses on the lives of two musicians. One is a genius who doesn’t care about music, instead frittering away his talent as he pursues other interests. The second is technically proficient and a great theorist, but lacks the gift to make truly great music. When the first musician gets in trouble with the law, he bribes the second musician with a magnificent symphony, written in the second musician’s style that will make him famous, if only he will help the first musician escape. The novella focuses on the machinations set into action by that fateful decision.
K.J. Parker is brilliant at psychological tension. Though no one knows who Parker is in real life, it is my pet theory that she must have been associated with academia at some point, since so many of her shorter works deal with the power games involved between those who pursue a life of the mind. What must it be like to work with a genius who doesn’t value his gift, when you would give away everything in your life just to have that gift for yourself? What would you do? Would you kill? Would you imprison someone unjustly? And if you did obtain fame through nefarious purposes, how would you live with yourself, knowing you are a fraud? Parker masterfully explores these issues in a world that has no magical solutions or technological fixes. Instead, the characters have to deal with their own natures, and make their decisions and deal with all the consequences, those both intended and not.
Fans of K.J. Parker will enjoy this novelette, as it fits nicely into the world she established with books such as The Folding Knife. Those unfamiliar with her work will find this novella an easy and enjoyable entre to her body of publications.