Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Review of Jim Baen's Universe, October 2006

Jim Baen's Universe, Volume 1, Number 3, October 2006.

I've never reviewed a magazine on my blog before, but I couldn't pass up a free magazine :). I had no idea what I was getting into, or that I would enjoy it so much. I read everything except the two serial novels (because they're already in the middle in this issue) and the classic story from Rudyard Kipling (because I didn't want to miss my deadline). I'm a dedicated reader but more of the slow and steady type than the Speedy Gonzalez one. I read half a dozen different SF and fantasy magazines on and off. I don't think I've ever had as high a ratio of stories I like to those I don't in a magazine. Some of these tales were just stunning and amazing, and almost all of them were good. I only remember one story I didn't like and it may have been an audience issue. Below I put a couple of sentences in response to each story so you can judge for yourself.

As far as the magazine goes, I have to say I'm impressed.

The illustrations seemed well matched to the stories overall, and enjoyable in their own right. My son glanced over my shoulder while I was reading one day and absolutely loved Laura Givens' conception of John Barnes' spaceship.

I did find the lack of contributor notes odd. I would have liked to know more about the authors I didn't recognize immediately...and to verify my supposition about some of the stories (to see whether there's a gap between what a newer author writes and what one who has been around for a while does). Some of the stories have a little note at the end, so the choice of not saying anything might have been the author's choice rather than the editor (a position I sympathize with since I struggle with those mini-bios.

I found the "If you like...You should try..." column that was tucked in at the end of a story a wonderful addition. At first I thought it was just an advertisement, which I suppose it is in some ways, but it's a good guide to the possibility of discovering new (or older but missed) authors.

On an odd note, the TOC is not in order in the PDF version I was given. Also, I tried to put the PDF on my Palm with the latest reader from Adobe and the errors were dramatic (like whole paragraphs excised. I understand Baen's Universe is usually delivered in an online environment, but if a PDF version is available, I hope they look into the incompatibilities. That said, the only other things that bugged me about the technical aspects were occasional proofreading errors, but as a copyeditor, I know how hard it is to catch everything and only in one of the articles did they occur with enough frequency to pull me out of what I was reading.

What I can say is that this experience has me thinking to count my pennies and ante up the subscription fee. As slow as I read, I want my time spent on worthwhile texts. Jim Baen's Universe satisfied my fiction needs and tossed in a couple of science and editorial articles for extra measure.

Specific comments about the content are below:

Science Fiction Stories

o All the Things You Are by Mike Resnick
I have to say that I'm a long-time Resnick fan so his story is both familiar and new. He has a distinctive voice that's clearly present in this tale. While the idea of the story did not read to me as a unique one, the voice and Resnick's specific take on the concept made for a good read.

o The Old Woman in the Young Woman by Gene Wolfe
The Old Woman in the Young Woman offers up an interesting take on both a post-apocalyptic world, and the question of clones and clone morality. Though not a traditional story-telling style, the narrative is catchy and the story explores, in its short moment, interesting questions.

o Every Hole is Outlined by John Barnes
Every Hole Is Outlined matches the feel of the two previous tales and surprisingly belongs to old style SF. Whereas newer stories expend their focus on drawing the reader into the headspace and emotions of the characters, these tales, Every Hole Is Outlined especially, hold the reader at an almost philosophical distance. The events are described in a fuzzy memory type way where the characters drift through events rather than feeling the touch of them. It makes the stories no less compelling, and this one definitely took the philosophical aspect to heart. I suppose these are more what I would call idea stories than character stories. Ultimately, Every Hole Is Outlined provides no answers that I could see, just information to contemplate and the feeling that someone would always be left to consider that information.

o A Time to Kill by S. Andrew Swann
A Time to Kill was just simply brilliant. This story is more in the personal style I've come to expect but at the same time it didn't tell a story so much as expose the story through a series of interconnected events. I can't say more without spoiling it, but I'll say this: It's generally accepted that unique time travel stories are pretty much exhausted with the plausible avenues already explored. This story proves that wrong and right all at once. Well worth the read.

o The Man Who Wasn't There by Gregory Benford
The Man Who Wasn't There is a short and sweet piece of hardware science fiction, a nature borne out by the masterful illustrations. Personally, I think it suffered from following immediately after A Time to Kill simply because both dealt with the issue of terrorism. At the same time, I've been waiting to see someone use the technology of that see-through suit and this portrayal came off well, if a little technical. This is hard SF at its best, and somewhat of its worst. The gadgets are fun and the way they work is explained in enough detail that I couldn't tell, with the ones I hadn't heard about, what was made up and what existed at least in prototype form. At the same time, this story tries to convey the emotional impact of a personal vendetta and that emotion didn't come across to me. It was too lost in the technobabble (which admittedly I enjoyed). That makes the epitaph all the more poignant in some ways because, though this story is written for one who I have to assume died in a terrorist bombing, the emotional impact just hasn't reached out of the story to me.

o Little Sips by Barbara J. Ferrenz
I have to question the classification of this story as science fiction, but that didn't stop me from being caught up in the storytelling. I can pick up situational clues rather quickly so the end came as no surprise. If anything, the doctor taking so long to see the connection between the two was more of a shock. On the other hand, the way the story came together and built, and especially the last hiccup at the end, was compelling and kept me reading even though I already knew the shape of the story. The ability to hold my attention that way shows real talent.

o Great Minds by Edward M. Lerner
This is an odd little story. Nothing comes as a surprise and it offers no themes that haven't been covered many times before. However, the story is short enough that despite the well-trod territory, it managed to keep me. The end has a cute twist, but I have to say this is the weakest of the stories I've read in the issue so far simply because it has nothing new to say.

o The Power of Illusion by Christopher Anvil
This story is a powerful combination of two tales, one set in a medieval-style culture on an alien planet, and the other in an interstellar military force commanded to keep another alien race in check. It's a story about instincts, generosity, and courage. The story is a long one, but it kept me going, made me want to see and understand the whole of it. A good read with an interesting message in the end.

Fantasy Stories

o Protection Money by Wen Spencer
This is an excellent extension of the Tinker world and the issues it will have to face now that the invasion has been dealt with. As a fan of Tinker, I enjoyed the story, but I wonder how it will seem to someone who has not read the book? In my opinion, the "catch up" material offered little to strengthen the story and not enough to ground someone who hasn't read Tinker. That said, if the backstory is skimmed, Protection Money still offers a strong story about learning the truth about yourself and defining who and what you are. I did have a problem with the first illustration though because it seemed to clash with the description. The image offered rounded ears while the story described cat ears.

o Baby Girl by Jon Skovron
This is a cute story with an interesting narrative voice and a funny ending. I enjoyed the almost traditional feel to it. As a "deal with the devil" story, it offered some unique twists and amusing turns that kept me reading.

o Femme Fatale by Jason Wittman
Wow! This story is powerful, strange, and sad. It has the feel of a torch song sung in a smoky bar, a little bit of light and a whole lot of sadness mixed in with the wonder.

o Gnome Improvement by Rebecca Lickiss
Another cute and fun story. It made no attempt to hide the truth of what was going on, but knowing didn't change the sweet nature of the tale, or how the characters grew to love something they weren't even sure they could believe in.

o A Hire Power by J. Simon
LOL! Okay, this story falls somewhere, I just don't know where. It's almost a vignette, but it has enough elements of a beginning, middle, and end to stretch beyond that. Does it have a point? Not really, but it's a fun frolic through the red tape of a futuristic, magic-based society. And if that's not enough to make your head spin, I don't know what would.

Introducing: Stories by New Authors

o The Men in the Mirror by Steven Ray
This is a weird story. It seemed at first quite traditional and, especially with the confused pronouns, not all that appealing to me. Having read through to the end, I still think I'm not the audience for this story. It's got too much that I've read before and too little to distract me from that fact. However, the ending does strengthen the overall, making it a better story than I had first expected.

o Songbird by Jeremiah Sturgill
Songbird is an amazing story (I almost typed song) with its entirety in the cadence in the echoes of an old man's thoughts. While not in any way a traditional form, it has power, and a message, and heart. This story tells me that Jeremiah Sturgill is an author to watch, one who creates stories that echo within me.

o Devil May Care by Jason Kahn
A curious story, this starts out with what has become a traditional portrayal of a bureaucratic Hell. However, the details of the setting make it well drawn, while the story itself is appealing. A fun read.

NonFiction Articles

o Doing a Slow Turn by David Brin
An interesting article that is simultaneously cynical and optimistic. I can't really give an objective opinion on the contents because I'm what I call an optimistic realist. Yes, I know the world is populated by idiots (myself included at least at times) but that each has the ability, given the opportunity, to both prove me wrong and stand up for all that is good about humanity. Brin suggests we look around us and notice the good in people. Trust me, you won't have to look far. I was hiking at Yellowstone National Park last week and had lost my sunscreen. There I was at the top of a mountain, already turning pink, and some complete stranger shared his sunscreen. Everyone is capable of acts of kindness and consideration as much as of rudeness. It's a choice.

o Terraforming: A Bumpy Road Ahead by B. B. Kristopher
This is an extremely pessimistic/realistic article on the realities of terraforming the planets within our solar system. I was somewhat shocked to reach the end and find a viable proposal because the step by step destruction of all options led me to expect a downbeat ending in which there are no options. Oddly, the option proposed is the one I've always expected. Terraforming whole planets from one environment to another always seemed a bit grandiose, something more of science fantasy than science fiction. This article nicely brought out facts to support those gut instincts, and offered another approach that seems much more plausible. Note that readers who hate copyedit issues will find a few teeth to grind in this piece though.


o Salvos against Big Brother:

Copyright: How Long Should It Be? by Eric Flint
In this article, Eric Flint offers up a clear analysis of the purpose and effects of copyright law. While I thought he was heading in a direction I don't agree with at first, by the middle he had my vote. Not only did he speak to my gut instinct that extending copyright past the author's lifetime is off, but he provided specific arguments to show that no one benefits from that with a very few exceptions. This is an interesting, well-grounded article that I hope gets read by the "right" parties where it can make a difference.

o The Editor's Page: October 2006 by Eric Flint
This editorial is a surprisingly detailed look at the financial projections and future of the magazine itself. Along with insights into the whole market of electronic publishing, Eric Flint gives us a look into the planning and current status of the magazine. He ends in a resounding statement that Baen's Universe has passed the first hurdle and is on the road to security. Oddly, one of the things mentioned in the article is something I've struggled with in writing this review. Baen's Universe offers an incredible wealth of quality material. Even with the planned reduction in issue size, it will have more than any of the leading paper magazines offer in a single issue. I hadn't realized just how much reading I would have to do to complete this review, but can't find it in myself to regret signing up.

To wrap this up, whether in the generals or my specific reactions to the stories, I think my enjoyment is pretty obvious. I hope Jim Baen's Universe has a long future and that more and more people move to accept the electronic form for magazines because this would be a sad one to miss. Click this link to check it out: Jim Baen's Universe


Random Walk Writer said...

So your review persuaded me to wander over to Jim Baen's Universe to check out the price of a subscription--and I can't find it. The links for "subscribe" want me to register as a member. I shouldn't have to register just to find out the price of a subscription.

I'm afraid, as good as the zine sounds, they lost me.

Margaret said...

They're working out some usability issues on their accounting software so I feel your pain. Actually, if you go to register, the prices are right there at the top before you sign up for anything, but I guess that's not clear. I'll pass the feedback on to Nancy and tell you if they get it fixed up :).


Margaret said...

Umm, I just checked. Did you click the subscribe link at the top? The prices are right there unless it's a browser issue.

Random Walk Writer said...

It's fixed now--earlier, I got the same page as you get when you click the "log in" link.

Maripat said...

Whoa..awesome overview of the ezine. Very tmepted to check it out.

Jsturgill said...

Hey, thanks for the kind words about "Songbird." It's encouraging to hear that someone liked it, you know?

Margaret said...

Yr welcome. They were well deserved.

And yeah, I remember when someone commented on Curve of Her Claw :D. You never know how people took your story once it's out in the world.

Jason D. Wittman said...

Jason Wittman here, author of "Femme Fatale." I just wanted to thank you for your kind review of my story. It is very much appreciated. :-)

Margaret said...

Oh, you are very welcome. Thanks for the fun read :). I enjoy those stories that are a mood as well as a tale...and I have a fondness for the torch singer feel, though don't ask me where that came from.