Side Quest: from The Choice to The Ice Owl


This is the first post in my Side Quest, where I read collections of the “best” sci-fi/fantasy stories from 2011.  Here’s my take on the first 10 stories:

The Choice by Paul McAuley.  While Paul McAuley would appear to be a mild-mannered author, apparently at night he fights crime as CAPTAIN INFODUMP.  Seriously, if you or I wrote a story like this, we’d get a pat on the head, and maybe a complimentary pamphlet on why we shouldn’t infodump.

Personally, I don’t mind infodumps that much, but if every guidebook/writers’ advice blog/author interview is going to say that infodumps are not interesting to readers, then don’t take an infodumpy story and call it one of the best of the year.  Anyway, in the story, Britain has been flooded, and an alien-built oceangoing ship beaches itself on shore.

A Soldier of the City by David Moles.  An artificial habitat is hit by a terrorist attack, and a surviving soldier wants revenge.  Most of the people are polytheists, and their gods are living beings.  The terrorists are ancestor-worshipers.  This really seems like an opening chapter to something longer, rather than a self-contained short story.

The Beancounter’s Cat by Damien Broderick.  A woman’s talking cat takes her to meet the planet Jupiter, which has been turned into a giant brain.  I think there’s a Dyson Sphere also, but I’m not sure.

Dolly by Elizabeth Bear.  A billionaire is killed by his robot maid / sexbot, the police begin an investigation, and the story ends.  It’s like a quarter of an episode of Law & Order.

Martian Heart by John Barnes.  A couple of teenage runaways get deported to Mars and become prospectors.

Earth Hour by Ken MacLeod.  An assassin tries to kill a politician, but the plot feels like it’s just there to showcase some speculative tech.

Laika’s Ghost by Karl Schroeder.  The characters discover a secret Soviet colony on Mars.  This is apparently a sequel to something else which I haven’t read, but I felt it stood on its own well enough.

The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick.  A very young Swedish girl (somewhere between toddler and teenager) is on the run.  Europe has been apocalypsed by an AI (possibly in a grey goo scenario), but Sweden has been protected by its own AI, until now.  I liked how the little girl’s objects, like her toy, her backpack, and her raincoat, had some intelligence built in and tried to help her survive the trip.  I didn’t like the final fight scene, where the Swedish AI grew the girl to the size of a giant.

Since readers/audiences became so wrapped up in the survival struggles of teenage girls in “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent”, maybe this story was an attempt to play on similar sympathies for an even younger female protagonist.  Watch your local bookstores for my upcoming novel, “Susie Bee, Toddler Space Captain.”

The Way It Works Out and All by Peter Beagle.  A couple of guys find a magical other-dimensional way to travel around the world.  They bounce around a little, then run away from some unspecified scary thing.  That’s about it.

The Ice Owl by Carolyn Gilman.  A bunch of thinly disguised analogues for various human atrocities, mainly the Holocaust, combined with a family drama.

My average rating (5 star system) of the above stories:  2.65

Suggested use for this collection:  patent it as a cure for chronic insomnia.


  1. […] I’d use today to wrap up the first of my side quests.  I’ve already covered the first ten stories in this collection, then ten more and ten more.  I’ll cover the last five stories here, then have some final […]

  2. […] The Choice by Paul McAuley.  I also read this story earlier in my side questing. […]

  3. […] The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick.  I read this story earlier in my side questing. […]

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