Following the depressing Homecoming, covered last update, I needed something light and humorous. Beth Hilgartner's Cats in Cyberspace (Meisha Merlin, 2001) filled that need quite nicely. PKP and Fluffy are distressed by the fact that financial difficulties have forced their owners to work outside the home more, reducing lap time, snacks, etc. Conveniently, they happen to be in the office when Dana demonstrates the Internet to her husband. PKP and Fluffy sneak online shortly thereafter, and resolve to earn enough money in online trading to permit their owners to work from home again. Cats in Cyberspace is certainly not great literature, but it's a fun, light-hearted, quick read. Hilgartner perfectly captures the sorts of thoughts every cat owner imagines their cat must have. Unfortunately, despite my telling her my password, Sadie appears to be sufficiently content that she has not yet taken up trading on my behalf.
Following this was The Urban Bizarre (Prime Books, 2003), an upcoming anthology edited by Nick Mamatas (nihilistic_kid). I actually read it twice, but I was proofreading, which skews my opinions (did I like a particular story better because it really is better or just because I wasn't adding or deleting commas every other sentence?); thus I won't comment on the particular stories. However, I will say there are some excellent stories in here. Continuing to prove he has no respect for genre boundaries, Mamatas has picked stories from mainstream to hard SF to some truly bizarre (in the best possible way) erotic fantasy, and it makes for one of the better anthologies I've read.
Oddly, the next book I happened to read continued the theme of stories in which urban settings are a critical element. Intracities (UnWrecked Press, 2003), edited by Michael Jasper (unwrecked) is an anthology of short stories, mostly fantasy. The best story is Claude Lalumière's "The Lost and Found of Years," which is the sort of metafictional self-referential story that usually fails miserably, but in this case Lalumière pulls it off brilliantly. Other highlights include "Flow of Time and Water" by Rachel S. Heslin (a sentimental fantasy about the significance of oral mythology to dying native cultures) and "Broken Branches" by Heather Shaw (rambleflower) and Tim Pratt (a story about homeless kids in Oakland, CA, which manages to end on a surprising hopeful note). All the stories in Intracities are worth reading. The only one that didn't work for me was "Just Like Venice, Only Not" by Mary Madewell; it's set in Las Vegas and has the old Vegas-destroying-all-hope-and-happiness sort of plot, which I've read too many times to care any more.
Last up for this update is John Christopher's The Death of Grass (Michael Joseph, 1956). A virus has been discovered in China that kills rice plants within weeks and is spreading rapidly. Before long, it has mutated into a form that kills all members of the grass family (wheat, rye, etc.) and the entire world is threatened with starvation. John and David are brothers. David inherited their grandfather's farm, nestled securely in a valley, while John is an architect in the city. After learning from his friend Roger about the imminent danger posed to Londoners by their own government's plans for coping with the disaster, he and Roger and their families undertake the journey to David's farm, where they hope to find safety from the rapidly deteriorating society around them. This is a rather bleak and depressing story, all the more so since its premise seems, if anything, more plausible now than it did in 1956. Christopher clearly believes that humanity would survive the disaster, but only at the price of giving up compassion and civility. To keep his family alive, John transforms from successful architect to feudal warlord; he misses what he once was, but cannot regret the decisions he made each step of the way. Christopher's writing is a bit on the dry side, but for a hard SF story of the 50's, the characters are fairly well-written, which makes the horrible events they live through that much more dispiriting.