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: 

 

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Reviews

#RRSciFiMonth – Short Story: WAITING OUT THE END OF THE WORLD AT PATTY’S PLACE CAFE, by Naomi Kritzer

 

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…

WAITING OUT THE END OF THE WORLD AT PATTY’S PLACE CAFE

 

In the end I was surprised at how much I liked this short story about the end of the world as we know it: even though the Earth is waiting for an event that might cause the extinction of the human race – a collision with a big asteroid – the overall mood is not one of panic or desperation, but rather that of quiet reflection and deep thoughts about things left undone and roads not traveled.  I think that what stood at the root of my enjoyment of the story is this image of humanity at its best despite impending doom: it probably would not play out this way if such an event ever truly happened, but it’s nice to think that it might.

Kathleen, now going by the chosen name of Lorien (something that instantly endeared her to me, because we Tolkien enthusiasts are just one big, happy family…), is en route toward her parents’ home for a final farewell after years of estrangement, a decision she reached because of the impending catastrophe: they have severed all ties with her for a long time, and refused to answer her phone calls even in the face of incoming annihilation, so she’s taken to the road toward home.  Unfortunately she runs out of gas some 200 miles from her destination, with no hope at all of topping up the car’s tank, so she decides to take a break in the small town she finds herself in, lured by the promise of coffee and food – and some rest – offered by a small café still doing business, the titular Patty’s Place.

Here she meets an oldest couple who help her take a different look at her predicament and ultimately at her life’s choices, not last the one to go seek the parents that rejected her so long ago: it’s an interesting point of view, and one that plays well within the parameters of the impending threat, shedding some comforting light on the end-of-the-world scenario.

A delightful change of mood for this kind of theme, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEAR SARAH, 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…

This is not my first short story by Nancy Kress, and as before I found myself immediately drawn into the picture she paints here of a very changed Earth after first contact with an alien race.  The theme of the aliens coming to our planet is a very familiar one in science fiction, and it usually goes both ways: either they are here to do something bad to humans (exploit, enslave or eat them, or all three together), or they have come to offer a higher level of civilization and better living conditions.

In Dear Sarah the latter scenario is the one that plays out, but it has not brought positive consequences for the Earth population, even though they brought Q-energy, a form of clean power that has supplanted oil and nuclear plants and even the small quantity of coal still in use, so that jobs were lost, and more were still when the aliens’ robots started being employed in manufacturing.  The greater part of the population – those without money of their own – is suffering from the lack of income and living on scant unemployment pay, the resentment against the aliens mounting day by day, fueled by some terrorist groups that are trying to drive the extra-terrestrials away from Earth.

MaryJo, knowing there is no future for her in the small village where her family lives, decides to enlist in the military, the only alternative to the hand-to-mouth existence led by her relatives: since the army is tasked with the duty of protecting the aliens against terrorist attacks or just plain anger from the man in the street, MaryJo’s family is strongly opposed to her choice, seeing it as a form of betrayal – protecting the creatures responsible for the sad situation of the majority of Earth’s population.  And MaryJo indeed finds herself torn between two sides as she tries desperately not to choose one – that is, until she has to…

Short and very realistic, this is a very thought-provoking story about choices and their consequences, and one that feels more grounded in actual reality than in speculative fiction. Something I’ve come to expect from this author…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: MY ENGLISH NAME, by R. S. Benedict

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…

 

MY ENGLISH NAME

A very weird story that hovers over the dividing line between science fiction and horror: the main character is an unknown creature (possibly an alien) forced to hide its true appearance under a human mask – or rather under a whole human skin.  The process by which Thomas Majors (that’s its last incarnation, and I will use that name as he does throughout the story) obtains the skins and wears them is only hinted at, mercifully so, because there is more than a whiff of creepiness in the whole business, mostly because those human disguises are subject to wear, tear and decay.

To avoid difficult questions, Thomas has elected to live in China, passing for an English expatriate and teaching in Chinese schools: there is a glaring dichotomy between this crowded, lively background where people live and move very close to each other and Thomas’ need for physical distance – not only because of his fear of discovery, but also because close contact might prove dangerous to the disguise.  This brings about a subtle streak of loneliness that I found quite touching despite my profound horror at what Thomas really is and the things he does to survive.

The chronicle of the creature’s existence as Thomas Majors is set as a sort of one-way dialogue with the only person he finally grows closer to, the man who employs him in his latest teaching gig, the one that will prove – through caring and affection – to be Thomas’ undoing in more ways than one.

I’m not certain how I feel about this story: certainly it piqued my curiosity and I did care for Thomas’ journey, mostly because of my curiosity about his origins and survival methods, but at the same time I can’t think about it without a shiver of revulsion.  Nonetheless it was intriguing…

My Rating: 

 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: BLOCK PARTY, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

Another story in the multi-faceted Liaden Universe series and one that further compelled me to learn more about these books and what seems to be a very complex, very intriguing narrative creation.  In the case of Block Party I felt the weight of my lack of knowledge much strongly than it happened with the authors’ other story I read, Wise Child, but still I managed to enjoy it because of the curiosity to learn more that it engendered, and not in spite of it.

On a remote planet called Surebleak, whose name seems to come from quite adverse atmospheric conditions since it’s cold and snow-bound, at least in the time frame of the story, the original settlers have built a close-knit society whose quiet way of life has been recently changed by the arrival of “newbies” that are slowly trying to find their own niche on Surebleak.  The main point of view is that of Algaina, who runs a baking shop that’s something of a community meeting place: it’s through Algaina’s musings and interaction with other characters that we learn much about Surebleak and its past, one that includes a despicable move from the part of the company running the colony.  From the retrieval of old records it becomes clear that for some reason the company pulled stakes and left, abandoning the colonists below a certain level (of usefulness, I presume) to fend for themselves, which explains the strong sense of community that binds them, and the way they refer to each other as “neighbors”, no matter the distance separating them.

The “newbies”, on the other hand, are revealed as refugees from some conflict or disaster, and what’s more the majority of them are children, or young adults helping to watch over them.  It’s through the chance encounter between one of these children and baker Algaina that the story develops, and it does so in deliciously intriguing way, with cookies, and sweet rolls and other baking creations acting as a bridge between the two groups of people, and even helping some of them overcome their inner troubles.  As someone who loves to cook for friends and family, I enjoyed this story very much, recognizing the binding power that can come from something that is made out of love of cooking and sharing one’s work; or the healing power in giving oneself to the simple pleasure of baking…

It’s not a revelation I would have expected from a science fiction story, but it was a happy find nonetheless…

 

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE POWHATAN, by Tony Daniel

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

A very strange (but strange in a good way) story that shortly reveals itself as an alternate history: the focus is on Native American tribes, but in this version of the New World they have built cities and what looks like a thriving civilization rather than a nomadic life, an existence that is threatened by invaders – Romans and, probably, the descendants of Viking explorers.

The city of Potomak is under siege by the Romans, the population now facing the approaching threat of famine, so that Wannas, the son of one of the city’s leaders, is determined to try and get help from nearby allies – that is, if he and his companions will manage to pass unseen through the enemy’s lines and reach the canoes that will bring them up the river to their destination.   As Wannas prepares himself for the difficult mission, we learn more about the kind of society he lives in, and we are offered several tantalizing glimpses about this alternate vision of the world that I would not mind seeing expanded in a full novel.  One of the more intriguing is the mention of slaves (a practice that Wannas and his family strongly disagree with) and the fact that some of these slaves are Anglish – we are given the names of Ian and Gladys, which made me even more curious about how this alternate world came to be.

The mission proves to be more difficult than anticipated, and at some point the intervention of a group of beaver-men (I kid you not) makes a huge difference in the outcome: the appearance of these new players adds another fascinating layer to this too-short story, one that ended far too soon for my tastes and left me with a strong curiosity to know more.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: FELDSPAR, by Philip A. Kramer

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

FELDSPAR (from Best Free Stories 2017)

The first story to catch my undivided attention in this anthology is one featuring the exploration of Mars: with the increased interest focusing toward the red planet in recent times, it’s only natural that so many works would choose to set their background on it.    The titular Feldspar is a remotely-operated rover, one of many landed on the surface of Mars to collect ores and carry them to a big smelter working to provide the necessary materials for the colonization effort: these rovers’ handling has been turned over to very committed and enthusiastic workers – gamers from all over the world who bought the operating rights to their rovers and became the “most dedicated workforce on Earth”.

Blake is one of those gamers-turned-operatives and through Feldspar he’s contributing to the effort of Project Regolith from his home in San Francisco: like many of his brethren, he’s playing this sort of serious game while living like a virtual recluse, but unlike others he has a dream and a goal, that of one day moving to live on Mars. To him the project is not just a divertissment, but a serious endeavor and one that moved ever closer to reality when the first manned mission landed on the red planet and started setting some permanent presence there.

For this reason, once he detects something troubling on the surface, he wastes no time in checking out the problem and discovering the presence of an injured astronaut whose oxygen and battery power might be depleted before the rescue party can reach her. The race against time and the unforgiving environment of Mars suffers from a false start of sorts because NASA does not look too keen about having a civilian (and what’s basically a nerd, at that) involved in their operations, but Blake’s preparation in the field and the help he can provide soon change their mind, so that the battle for astronaut Kate survival can be engaged with some hope of success.

I enjoyed this story very much, not least because of the suspense created both by the situation and by the nerve-wracking time lag of 8 minutes that makes communications – and commands sent to Feldspar – very difficult in that specific situation.  A story to be fully enjoyed, indeed, so that it’s no surprise that it won the Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award 2017: a well-deserved victory.

My Rating: