Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder 2019 – Selections from BY BLOOD WE LIVE – Edited by John Joseph Adams

(image courtesy of kasana86)

 

I found this anthology on the Baen Free Library, and I was instantly captivated by the idea of a series of stories focused on the vampire myth, one of the most powerful in the horror and paranormal landscape. It was an interesting journey indeed…

 

 

Under St. Peter’s by Harry Turtledove

This is indeed the weirdest vampire story I ever encountered and, as the editor wrote in his introduction, one that carries more than a whiff of blasphemy – which stands as a warning for anyone choosing to sample it – and still it makes for a fascinating read, one that becomes bizarrely more compelling as the hints pile up and one starts to understand that they are heading without fail in that particular direction. To anticipate anything would be a huge disservice: suffice it to know – and to act as a teaser – that there is an ancient, terrible secret buried under St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, one that’s revealed to any new Pope right after their investiture…

 

Lifeblood by Michael A. Burstein

As a counterpoint to the previous story, this one deals with the vampire threat – and the possible defenses against it – from the point of view of Jewish religion: in the legendarium surrounding vampires, the Christian cross is a powerful instrument in stopping and repelling a vampire, but what happens if the potential victim does not belong to the Christian faith?  In Lifeblood, a distraught father enters a synagogue looking for help: his son has been bitten three times by a vampire, which means that by the end of this day he will turn into one, and the man is searching frantically for a way to avoid that, while being very aware that his distance from the faith of his ancestors might prove to be the boy’s undoing.  An intriguing tale, and one that makes us think about the power of faith, no matter its origins and its precepts.

 

Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu by Norman Partridge

This is a mix between a retelling of the myth of Dracula as narrated by Bram Stoker, and a sort of… well, unhappily-ever-after focused on a Texas cowboy returning home after the events of the Stoker novel. It’s a strange tale, somehow disconnected due to its alternating between two timelines, but it’s also a poignant one about love and the deathlessness of the emotion even beyond actual death. Unconventional, but quite fascinating.

 

This Is Now by Michael Marshall Smith

There are no vampires as such in this story, but rather the suggestion of them, or at least of strange, deadly creatures held behind an electrified fence by the government since the mid-eighties: three friends, now in their forties, recall a long-ago night of thirty years prior, when they scaled the fence on a dare, on a cold, snowy night, and found more than they bargained for. Now that they are older, and probably wiser, only a night of drinking and reminiscing brings them back to that fence and the desire to see if they can try again.

 

After the Stone Age by Brian Stableford  

Interesting, but so far the weakest of the lot: the premise here is that offering oneself as a willing “blood donor” for a vampire can have positive effects for an overweight person. A weird story, and one that felt too strange by far.

 

House of the Rising Sun by Elizabeth Bear

This story proved puzzling besides being darkly fascinating: it could not have been otherwise since its background is New Orleans – a city where traditions, mystery and a touch of the uncanny always manage to create a very peculiar atmosphere. The main character is a vampire who prowls the streets not so much to sate his own thirst but rather to procure blood for his mistress, an old vampire whose extreme old age makes her incapable of feeding directly from the victims. There is a definite feel of sadness and misery in this undead man that’s quite touching, but that’s not all: from a few hints, and from the editor’s preface to the story, it would seem that the man used to be a famous singer, and the lyric quotes from older songs should be the key to the mystery. Unfortunately, my knowledge of music is sadly lacking, so I’m left with a big, unanswered question…

 

Peking Man by Robert J. Sawyer

Just imagine a story where paleontology is applied to vampires, and you will have an inkling about the core concept of this short tale, one that alternates between the discoveries of a dig in Chinese soil at the start of World War II and a series of flashbacks about a primitive tribe, probably of Neanderthals, meeting a strange creature,  tall, thin, pale, with red-rimmed eyes that somehow seemed to glow from beneath his brow ridge”, one who first douses their precious fire, throwing their night back into terrifying darkness, and then proceeds to catch them, one by one, and drink their blood…  “Fascinating” does not even start to cover my reactions to this intriguing journey.

 

Exsanguinations: A Handbook for the Educated Vampire by Anna S. Oppenhagen-Petrescu and translated from the Romanian by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne Valente is one of those authors I have not managed to read yet, despite my growing curiosity at every enthusiastic review I see of her works, but if this short story is any example, I will certainly enjoy any of her books – if nothing else for the tongue-in-cheek humor exhibited here in a mock essay (with footnotes!!!) about vampirism allegedly written by one of the undead blood-suckers, the titular Anna Petrescu. To say more would be to spoil the utter fun this story offers: just read it  🙂

 

Lucy, In Her Splendor by Charles Coleman Finlay

Another somewhat disappointing story, made more so because it was the last of this anthology and closed it on a lukewarm note, especially after the fun that was the Valente short, which would have been a better way to end the book, in my opinion.

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Reviews

Short Story Review: NUMBER THIRTY-NINE SKINK, by Suzanne Palmer

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is the last one of the stories from this anthology that I chose to review:

NUMBER THIRTY-NINE SKINK

If you are a fan of Martha Wells’ MurderBot and of sweet Wall-E like I am, you will enjoy this story very much: it’s a bittersweet tale of a mechanical construct that was part of an expedition on an alien planet, seeding it (through a process that somehow made me think of laser printing) with appropriate life to establish a suitable eco system for human settlers.

Something must have gone wrong, though, and Kadey (the nickname for KED-5) recollects how its crew suddenly abandoned it, with the exception of mechanic Mike who remained on planet until illness took him away: puzzled for the desertion, and still feeling the loss of Mike, Kadey still goes on with its work, introducing newly-minted fauna into this this world during the day, and going into energy-conservation mode at night – see where I derived my resemblance with Wall-E?   And like the little garbage collecting unit from the animated movie, Kadey does feel the loneliness, in its own way, especially now that there is no Mike to share thoughts with and to make sense of the details that escape a too-logical mind.  At some point it needs to be awake at night to check on some strange happenings, and it’s on this occasion that it notices the stars in the alien world’s sky, and decides to give the constellations a designation “I name one group The Wrench, and another Coffee Mug. Mike would have approved; I rarely saw him without one or the other in hand.”  If that is not enough to make you root for Kadey, I have no idea what would…

But the unnamed planet is not as bereft of life as the expedition crew believed, and curiosity sends Kadey on a journey of discovery that will give it more answers than it’s able to process, and also offer a few unexpected, incredible revelations.

I loved this little story quite a bit, and I hope to see Suzanne Palmer’s name again, maybe on a longer work: something tells me it will be a very enjoyable experience.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEATH ON MARS, by Madeline Ashby

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

DEATH ON MARS

I don’t know exactly what I expected from this story given its highly dramatic title, maybe a tale of something going horribly wrong, or one of a desperate struggle for survival against unforgiving odds – but in the end it caught my eye because of the word ‘Mars’: the red planet has returned with a (welcome) vengeance in speculative fiction these days, probably because the first manned mission seems to be looming closer and our curiosity and expectations for what we will find have reached new heights.

And yet, Death on Mars managed to surprise me because it was not even close to what I had imagined – it was better than I anticipated and it also was a deeply emotional journey, one that moved me beyond words.

A group of women has been sent on a station orbiting Mars to study in depth the planet and prepare the ground for the first ground mission and settlement: they have been chosen because of their greater adaptability to enclosed spaces and the ability to sustain the great and small annoyances of a long-term assignment. And also for their lesser body mass and reduced caloric needs, as one of them remarks with sarcastic clarity.   Over time they have developed a close relationship, almost a family bond, and as the story starts they are waiting for the arrival of a technician who will help solve a problem with the sampling drills downplanet: the group wonders if this new addition – a young man – will upset the balance they have managed to build over time, and in fact Cody’s appearance does bring a huge disturbance, not so much because of his presence, or his personality, but rather because of something he carries with him from Earth, something he brought for one of them…

The dramatic revelation this engenders seems to upset the balance that the group reached with dedication and effort, and for a while the atmosphere aboard the station feels quite tense, until a technical problem offers what looks like the perfect – if heart-wrenching – solution.  The last part of the story affected me deeply, and made me wonder if Madeline Ashby’s longer works will hit me in the same powerful way: I guess there is only one way to discover it…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE HISTORY OF THE INVASION TOLD IN FIVE DOGS, by Kelly Jennings

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE HISTORY OF THE INVASION TOLD IN FIVE DOGS

To say that I found the title of this story very intriguing would be an understatement: the theme of alien invasion is one I’ve always found fascinating, but it was the… dog element, for want of a better description, that piqued my curiosity, since I’m very fond of dogs, even though I can’t share my life with one. What I found here was very different from any expectations I might have held, particularly because it touched me deeply.

The unnamed character relaying her story starts with recollections of her childhood, and of her first dog, a surprise present for her ninth birthday: what follows looks like the normal process of the bonding between a kid and her dog, that is, until the family is forced to move to a refugee camp – and that’s when we learn that things are not so idyllic, because the people on the run must leave behind a great deal of precious possessions, and Elvis – that’s the name of that first dog – cannot follow her human friend in her escape.  And that was the first painful blow that this story dealt me.

From here on, things go from bad to worse: the invaders are reshaping Earth to suit their needs, altering the climate to colder temperatures and therefore bringing modifications to the eco-system, modifications that put the surviving humans on a road to starvation.  The protagonist relays her struggle for survival, first with a resistance group, then alone, and finally with a secluded community trying to eke out a living in a remote area of the mountains: in every one of these instances, our protagonist is always in the company of a dog (with one notable, dramatic exception), and you can tell that it’s the presence of these four-legged companions that helps her hold on to her sanity, or even her humanity.

If nothing else, this story is an ode to dogs, and their irreplaceable role in our lives – and I totally agree.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: CANOE, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

CANOE, by Nancy Kress

Another story from an author I’ve encountered before in very interesting reads: this time she offers a quite poignant story of a small exploration crew and of a huge discovery in the farthest reaches of space.

The Herschel is a new breed of ship sporting a revolutionary kind of drive that can take it well away from the Solar System, and its four-people (plus one artificial construct) crew is headed toward Luhman 16, the first alien system to be visited by humans – a system comprised of two stars and six planets.  The most interesting of them, an ice-covered planet with sixteen moons, suddenly appears to be escaping its sun’s hold, plunging into the even colder depths of space: knowing that their time for exploration is limited, the crew of the Herschel rush to complete, as far as possible, all the measurements they were scheduled to do, and suddenly something quite unexpected meets their eyes.

The two men and two women in the Herschel’s crew are highly trained professionals but also human beings, with all the flaws and troubles that we have been carrying with us since the dawn of time, and that we will probably take along once we’ll take to space, so that the long voyage, the protracted inactivity and the unavoidable boredom have taken their toll on their interpersonal relationships, especially that of Rachel, a biologist of Samoan origins, and Peter, the scion of an influential WASP family – the two have indulged in a brief fling that ended in a terrible row, straining the already tense atmosphere aboard the ship.

But such petty troubles vanish almost instantaneously once an unexpected discovery changes the scope and goals of the Herschel’s mission, forcing the four of them to re-assess their outlook on it and their long-term goals: Rachel in particular, thinking about her exploring ancestors who braved the oceans in search of new homes, strongly feels that need to the point that it becomes her primary drive.

At times poetic and quite touching, this is a story that will remain with me for a long time.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A delightful tale with some steampunk overtones, set in Victorian England (or maybe an alternate version of it) in which Scotland Yard inspector Albert Grant finds himself confronted with extraordinary events and an equally extraordinary young woman who makes him change his outlook on the world.

Despite his young age – he’s twenty-four years old – Grant is as cynical as they get: the son of an impoverished family, he was sent to the best schools where he learned modern scientific methods to be applied to police work. Despised and ridiculed by his peers for his family’s misfortune and kept at a distance by his colleagues because of his superior education, he lives in a sort of cocoon made of loneliness and contempt that at times turns to disappointment when he realizes that there is no amount of scientific knowledge that can outdo the street-wise experience of a beat policeman.

So, when he’s called to investigate the case of Lisa Elliot, a young lady who was arrested on suspicion of illegal activities, he finds in her a kindred spirit and someone with whom he can discuss scientific facts with the certainty of being understood. For her part Miss Elliot shows him an incredible device that can afford a glimpse into the future or maybe an alternate reality, something that instantly draws the attention of the powers that be and sets in motion an unpleasant chain of events.

Among the details I most enjoyed in this story are the underlying comment about the Victorian era’s mindset, especially toward women, and the tentative friendship between Grant and Constable Duncan, a man that the inspector first treats with his usual disdain, only to slowly change his opinion and start forming a working relationship based on mutual respect.

A very pleasant read, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

#RRSciFiMonth Short Story Review: THE HUNGER AFTER YOU’RE FED, by James S. A. Corey

 

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE HUNGER AFTER YOU’RE FED

Seeing the name of James S.A. Corey listed among the authors of this anthology gave me a jolt of surprise and wonder, since it pointed to the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, creators of one of the best space opera series presently on the market, The Expanse. My hope that this would be a short story based in that universe was dashed immediately, although this Earth-based tale starts from one of the premises at the core of The Expanse, that the unemployed on our home planet need not worry about survival, since they are all allotted a monthly basic allowance, which insures they don’t starve.

As the protagonist of the story has learned the hard way, surviving might not be enough because human nature always requires something more, be it a deeper meaning or a more prosaic need to emerge from the crowd, to feel the worth of one’s individuality. As the man reflects at some point:  “When I was young, we were afraid to starve […] now we fear being less important than our neighbors.  All the vapid things that the wealthy did […] we are doing all the same things, but not as well, because we have less and we’re still new at it.”

So this man is risking everything on a search that seems both difficult and futile: discover the identity of radical writer Hector Prima, an author with a huge online following and an even bigger mystery surrounding his identity.  Like many others before him, the character in this story has gambled his entire savings on his quest, as if his life depended on such a discovery, as if this were the meaning he needs to give substance to his life.

Apart from the interesting – if slightly depressing – peek into this sliver of Earth society, the story offers the chance of pondering the consequences of a society where basic needs might be fulfilled, but something more vital is sorely missed, something whose absence creates an “overpowering emptiness that most people didn’t recognize”.

It’s a bleak, somewhat disheartening consideration that comes from a facet of the overall story we tend to forget while focusing on the conflicts developing in outer space, but still I don’t regret reading it.

 

My Rating: