All posts by Karen Burnham

Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She works at NASA, edits for Locus Magazine, and lives in Houston, Texas.

PODCAST REVIEW: To the Manor Borne by Robots

I’d like to draw your attention to a new sf fiction podcast, To The Manor Borne By Robots. This is an interesting new entry in the field of fully-produced science fiction audio dramas. Let me shamelessly crib from the press release for a description:

Only stories will feed the Beast! In the new podcast, To The Manor Borne By Robots, a monstrous entity invades 25th century Earth, wreaking havoc, destroying cities, killing millions. The only thing that will pacify it is stories, stories read to it by the Master, the leader of the future Earth. In an effort to destroy the Beast, the Master transports his 21st century ancestor, a cube-worker named Bob, to the future, where his DNA signature allows him to be a stand-in with the Beast, while the Master travels to the past, to unravel the origin of the Beast, and destroy it. Each episode features the serialized story of the Master, Bob, and the Beast, as well as a stand-alone story, all voiced by an extensive and talented cast of actors, lavishly produced, with sound effects and music. A sci-fi Scherherezade, To The Manor Borne By Robots is available on iTunes, and via web-player on its own site. Journey to the Manor, where the future is past.

They’re two episodes in, and I’m hooked. Every episode is split just about evenly between the frame narrative, where Bob and the Master must keep the Beast quiescent while seeking to destroy it, and the story that Bob reads to the Beast. Bob introduces the story, but it isn’t simply read; like the rest of the show the story is fully dramatized, with different actors, foley sound effects, and music.

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BOOK REVIEW: Afterparty by Daryl Gregory


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman who long ago overdosed on the designer drug Numinous sets out to discover who is pushing the drug on the streets.

PROS: Amazing characters traveling through a diverse and convincing near future based on speculative neuroscience.
CONS: A possibly overly optimistic view of mental illness.
BOTTOM LINE: Fast-paced and engaging with a great narrative voice, perfect for those who like their science fiction to explore the borders of human consciousness.

With the title of his fourth novel, Daryl Gregory has given his game away. In his four novels so far he starts his stories where other people might end theirs–after the party, after the crisis. In his Crawford-award winning debut, Pandemonium, the main character is still a mess twenty years after being possessed by a demon. In Devil’s Alphabet, a town has settled into a new ‘normality’ after a mutagenic plague hit them; the protagonist comes back to try to heal his old wounds. In Raising Stony Mayhall, the zombie plague was intense but short lived; the few remaining zombies have been living underground, and the title character is the only zombie baby to have grown up. In the hands of other storytellers, these stories would be centered on the demonic possession, the mutagenic plague, or the zombie apocalypse. For Gregory, those moments of drama are back story, traumatic events that haunt the main characters for the rest of their lives.

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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 16c): Discussing Cordwainer Smith with Gary K. Wolfe

In this much-too-long-delayed episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we revisit stories from Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man, with especial focus on “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”. More importantly, we discuss these stories with senior SF critic Gary K. Wolfe, who brings quite a bit more biographical information about Smith to our attention, to our mutual enlightenment.

Many apologies to those (Fred!) who have been waiting for this episode–I (Karen Burnham) can only plead extreme mental discombobulation. And we hope it is worth the wait!

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An Interview with Ytasha Womack, Author of Afrofuturism

Ytasha Womack is a filmmaker, futurist, and the author of Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity and 2212: Book of Rayla. She is the creator of the Rayla 2212 sci-fi multimedia series, the director of the award-winning film The Engagement, the producer and writer of Love Shorts, and the coeditor of Beats Rhymes and Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop. She has written for many publications including Ebony and the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Chicago.

Today we’re interviewing her for her non-fiction book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, launching on October 3. This book sheds a very different light on the history of science fiction compared to the “standard” narrative, especially as it integrates music, fashion, art, and technology into its scope. And that’s before we get to all the pre-Samuel Delany black writers that haven’t always made it into the historical narrative.

Karen Burnham: Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. Could you give us a short overview of your book Afrofuturism and what you hope readers will find in it?
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 18): Season 2 Re-Cap

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we revisit Season 2. There’s general consensus that our podcasts on Jagannath and Distances are among our favorites ever, and that there’s still a lot of value found in some of the older science fiction such as Olaf Stapledon and Cordwainer Smith.

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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 17): Ken Liu and Vandana Singh

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle two short pieces from contemporary authors on our mathematical theme. We start out talking about Ken Liu’s “Single-Bit Error” and then we wind up raving about Vandana Singh’s novella Distances.

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INTERVIEW: Toh EnJoe, Author of Self-Reference ENGINE

Toh EnJoe is the award-winning author of a number of short stories, and now a short story collection/not-quite novel Self-Reference ENGINE. This collection, translated from the original Japanese by Terry Gallagher for Haikasoru Press, is a mind-bending collection of post-singularity fiction, surrealism, and humor.

With the able help of Haikasoru’s translation team, we bring you this interview with the author, former mathematical physicist Toh EnJoe!

Karen Burnham: Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview! Your book, Self-Reference ENGINE, is structured differently than a novel and also differently than a typical short story collection. Could you explain what people will find in the book and what your intention was in structuring it in such a unique way?
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 16b): Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle two more short stories from The Rediscovery of Man, the complete collection of the short fiction of Cordwainer Smith from NESFA Press.

We wound up finding so much to say about Smith’s stories that we decided to break this episode into two parts. In this installment we discuss “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961) and “On the Gem Planet” (1963).

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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 16a): Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle two short stories from The Rediscovery of Man, the complete collection of the short fiction of Cordwainer Smith from NESFA Press.

We wound up finding so much to say about Smith’s stories that we decided to break this episode into two parts. In this installment we discuss “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950) and “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” (1960). In the next installment we’ll finish the conversation with “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961) and “On the Gem Planet” (1965).

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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 15) — “Flatland” by Edwin Abbott and “Shadow Postulates” by Yoon Ha Lee

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Flatland (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and “The Shadow Postulates” from Yoon Ha Lee’s debut collection, Conservation of Shadows.

In one fell swoop we cover some of the most recent fiction yet (2008) and some of the oldest (1884). We hope you will agree that they are worth talking about together. Math fiction of many dimensions.

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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 14): NAPIER’S BONES by Derryl Murphy

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy.

Murphy introduces some fascinating ideas, but undercuts them with info-dumping and a muddled ending. Dom has the ability to see and control numbers. After running from a desert confrontation between two other numerates, he ends up in a small Utah town with an adjunct spirit called Billy riding along in his head. Along with a raw numerate named Jenna, Dom and Billy head north while avoiding their foes. The magic system itself is fascinating, if dubious at times, but the lengthy explanations often slow the story down. The final 50 pages then turn into a race to cram too much action into a sloppy and chaotic ending. Murphy’s nifty ideas might be enough to sustain the plot for some readers, but few will come away wholly satisfied. –Publisher’s Weekly

Math-Fi and Magic and History and Myth, all wrapped up in a fun (possibly urban fantasy-style) adventure!
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 13): “Shadow of the Torturer” by Gene Wolfe

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, the first volume of the Book of the New Sun quartet, published in 1980.

This is the first-person narrative of Severian, a lowly apprentice torturer blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, whose travels lead him through the marvels of far-future Urth, and who–as revealed near the beginning–eventually becomes his land’s sole ruler or Autarch. On the surface it’s a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. … For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling… The Book of the New Sun is almost heartbreakingly good, full of riches and subtleties that improve with each rereading. It is Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece. –David Langford

Despite reading this book in isolation from its series — which means that we are looking at all the set-up and none of the payoff — we find a lot to discuss and a lot to love in this classic novel.
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 12a) – “Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis

After our previous episode discussing Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, the last novel written by C. S. Lewis, we decided that we needed a little more expertise than we were able to bring to bear. To that end, we’ve invited Beth Potterveld, a graduate of Wheaton College who has volunteered with the Wade Center and studied Inklings scholarship (a group which includes Lewis as part of its focus). In this supplemental podcast we discuss some of Lewis’ history with the Psyche myth, different ways of reading the somewhat less clear Part II of the novel, and other influences in Lewis’ work.
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INTERVIEW: Yoon Ha Lee, Author of CONSERVATION OF SHADOWS, on Writing and Her Attraction to Space Opera

Yoon Ha Lee is the author of over two dozen short stories, sixteen of which appear in her debut collection Conservation of Shadows. Her stories “Ghostweight” and “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” have been Sturgeon award finalists (both are included in the collection). Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It tends to include math, and war, and language, and spaceships, and magic. She kindly took the time to answer a few questions for us.
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BOOK REVIEW: Autonomy by Jean-Michel Smith


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In 2068, a group of researchers discover a way to experience months of life inside a virtual reality for every real day spent there. The advances they make set them on a collision course with a ruthless, patent-enforcing world government.

PROS: An interesting depiction of humanity’s first steps to becoming post-human.
CONS: Over-the-top villains and poor characterization.
BOTTOM LINE: This should appeal to fans of Greg Egan’s work from the 90’s, although it’s perhaps less polished.

I may have picked the ideal time to read Autonomy, a debut novel by computer scientist Jean-Michel Smith. In its choice of subject — humans beginning the process of uploading themselves into computers and spreading out from planet Earth — this story bridges an interesting gap in the future-history timeline that I’ve sketched in from Greg Egan’s fiction. I suspect that Smith’s work will appeal most to those who already appreciate Egan’s work, with all its strengths and flaws.
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 12): “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, the last novel written by C. S. Lewis, published in 1956.

At once more human and more mythic than his Perelandra trilogy, Lewis’s short novel of love, faith, and transformation (both good and ill) offers the reader much food for thought in a compact, impressively rich story. Less heavy-handedly Christian-allegorical than Narnia, Till We Have Faces gives us characters who remind us of people we know facing choices and difficulties we recognize. This deceptively simple book takes on new depth with each rereading.

We strongly recommend that you read this one for yourselves; we had rather divergent readings of it just between the two of us, and we’re already tempted to revisit this discussion later, possibly with a scholar in tow. There is no doubt that this is a complex and complicated story that will reward your attention.
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BOOK REVIEW: Liar’s Blade by Tim Pratt


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A rogue-ish hero and his intelligent sword hire onto a quest. Their employers are looking for a lost relic, and our pair are looking for gold any way they can find it.

PROS: A charming and convincing partnership based on mutual respect and a healthy dose of witty banter.
CONS: Nothing earth-shattering or overly ambitious here.
BOTTOM LINE: This is the sort of Fafhrd-and-Grey-Mouser-style sword and sorcery adventure that I love and would like to see more of in RPG novels.

The Pathfinder line of RPG novels is doing a lot of things right. They’ve been publishing intelligent adventure novels that showcase their gaming system and their campaign setting in lush detail. They’ve hired a variety of solid, professional authors, and they’ve spread their tales among a wide variety of heroes instead of following one party for multiple books. The one thing that they had been missing–until now–was the particular brand of charming that I have recently come to love in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series. Tim Pratt has done an excellent job of capturing that spirit in this Pathfinder outing.

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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 11): “Star Maker” by Olaf Stapledon

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Star Maker, the 1939 classic by Olaf Stapledon.

One moment a man sits on a suburban hill, gazing curiously at the stars. The next, he is whirling through the firmament, and perhaps the most remarkable of all science fiction journeys has begun. Even Stapledon’s other great work, LAST AND FIRST MEN, pales in ambition next to STAR MAKER, which presents nothing less than an entire imagined history of life in the universe, encompassing billions of years.

This relatively short novel is jam-packed with all the sense of wonder you could ask for. We talk about the seeds of any number of sf stories found within its pages, its perspective on aliens, the Omega Point, and much more. If you read Star Maker and enjoy it, we strongly recommend that you also read Last and First Men, Stapledon’s earlier work of science fiction.
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 10): Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we enthuse about Jagannath, the award-winning collection from Karin Tidbeck.
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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 09): Children of God

Welcome back for Season 2, Part 1 of SF Crossing the Gulf!

Here’s our notional reading list for the coming season:
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