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Originally published Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Three generations of adventurously new science fiction

Nisi Shawl rounds up new science fiction, including new stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum, a collection of the work of Harold Waldrop, and a collection of Cory Doctorow's essays.

Special to The Seattle Times

Benjamin Rosenbaum's weird yet plausible fabulations have been appearing in science fiction magazines since the turn of the millennium, earning nominations for the genre's top awards. The U.S.-born Swiss author's debut collection "The Ant King and Other Stories" (Small Beer Press, 224 pp., $24 hardback/$16 paperback) shows just how strange and wonderful the microcosms he creates can be.

The title story recapitulates dot-com era-Silicon Valley's surrealistic troughs and surges via its gold-digging human heroine's transformation into hundreds of yellow gumballs, and its entrepreneur hero's quest through theme parks and office Christmas parties to restore her to life — and then to move past the emotional doldrums that follow her rescue.

Another story, "The House Beyond Your Sky" is far-future hard science fiction, but with its vast spaces analogized into cottages and mountain paths, and its disembodied intelligences rendered as parakeets and librarians.

The feeling of sharing in a conspiracy to warp reality-as-we-know-it can be found in Rosenbaum's other stories, too, most notably in "Sense and Sensibility," original to this collection. "The family of Dashwood had long been settled in a tidy house atop a large mole on the left shoulder of the Glutton," begins this metafictional perversion of conventional narratives, and as he describes the exact color the youngest and entirely spherical Miss Dashwood was painted, the author also enlists your aid in redefining the formerly familiar acts of writing and reading.

Rosembaum's willingness to take risks could be ascribed to his newness to the genre, but if he is a daring young writer, Howard Waldrop is a daring old one, a veteran of decades of challenging the short-story status quo. Waldrop's work is often described as alternate history, but what he does is something more subtle than portraying what might have happened if Hitler had won WWII.

Unfortuostely Waldrop's much-prized oeuvre consists almost completely of short stories. The magazines in which they first appeared have been replaced on the newsstands by fresh issues, and the collections quickly go out of print. Though his work has won numerous prizes, it can be hard to find in bookstores, though selected works are available online.

"Other Worlds, Better Lives: A Howard Waldrop Reader" (Old Earth Books, 272 pp., $15) contains much of Waldrop's longer fiction, focusing on what was originally published between 1989 and 2003. The book includes such treasures as "Fin de Cyclé," a retelling of France's Dreyfus affair from the viewpoints of Marcel Proust, painter Henri Rousseau and Dadaist Alfred Jarry (transformed by Waldrop into rabid bicycle enthusiasts); "A Dozen Tough Jobs," which relocates Hercules and his labors to rural Mississippi in the 1920s; and "Flatfeet," featuring mummies, vampires, and proto-Hollywood's finest Keystone Kops in a series of dryly humorous vignettes.

In 2000, a year before Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine published Rosenbaum's first story, Cory Doctorow received the coveted John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in science fiction. Doctorow had his first publication in 1990, so his professional career is about twice as long as Rosenbaum's and roughly half as long as Waldrop's.

"Content" (Tachyon Publications, 288 pp., $14.95) collects Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Doctorow's essays on related issues: technology-driven social change, copyright, and intellectual property vs. intellectual freedom. (The foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to defending rights and freedoms in a digital world, a sort of cyber-ACLU).

From ranting against ubiquitous Closed Circuit Television cameras, to gleefully explaining how giving away electronic editions of his novels makes him money, to railing against Microsoft's Orwellian "Digital Rights Management" (which prevents the company's loyal customers from transferring movies and music between players) Doctorow surprises, informs, and delights in succession.

If you don't want to take my word for how good "Content" is, you can download a copy for free at craphound.com/content/download/; like his other books it was published under a Creative Commons License. According to Doctorow, this should lead to it selling much better than a book you can only buy.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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