Reviews

Short Story Review: WEATHER (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

Weather is a novella-sized tale exploring in more depth the hostility between the Conjoiners and the rest of humanity, even that part of humanity that has chosen to meld flesh and machine: the Ultras, another of the factions in which the human race has fractured itself, combine mechanical and organic parts, either to augment some capabilities or to replace lost limbs, but they leave the mind well alone, finding the Conjoiner way of life beyond repulsive.

This story takes place aboard the Petronel, a cargo ship being chased by pirates: after a long, nerve-wracking pursuit, the Petronel’s crew chooses to stand and fight and, quite surprisingly, they get the best of their hunters, who have run afoul of some wandering space debris.  As they board the pirate ship to salvage equipment for repairs, the crewmen find a Conjoiner girl who had clearly been a prisoner and, not without some difficulty, take her aboard the cargo at the insistence of Inigo, the shipmaster, and against the objections of Captain Van Ness, who is highly distrustful of Conjoiners.

The two men have enjoyed, up until now, a close relationship borne of trust and mutual respect, but Inigo’s insistence in trying to deal with the girl – named Weather as a way to simplify her complicated designation – as a human being instead of a dangerous monster, drives a wedge between shipmaster and captain, to the point that the fracture seems impossible to reconcile. Only the danger presented by the failing drive – a Conjoiner model – will convince the captain to trust Weather, up to a point, and let her try to repair it so that the Petronel can reach its destination in time.

The rift between Conjoiners and the rest of humanity is represented here in all its bitterness, the past misunderstandings and troubles so deeply rooted that even the passing of time seems unable to lessen them, and Inigo finds himself trying to walk the fine line between two opposing feelings, while the story reaches its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion.

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: A SPY IN EUROPA (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

 

In the third story of this anthology the focus shifts from Clavain and the Conjoiners to follow another character entirely: Marius Vargovic is a highly skilled spy, enrolled for a mission on Europa, one of the major Jovian satellites, where he needs to contact a sleeper agent to retrieve an important substance that will prove pivotal in the struggle between the Demarchists and another faction for the control of political power.

The first part of the story follows more or less the usual patterns of spy lore: the agent arrives on site in disguise and mingles with the crowds of workers and tourists that move through Europa, then he meets his target while trying to look and sound inconspicuous, and finally he concludes his mission, heading for the retrieval point.  What comes as totally unexpected, as the story unfolds, comes from the descriptions of the place and the unforeseen turn of events that leads to the conclusion.

Europa looks like a fascinating and terrible place: not only the settlements around Jupiter are flourishing – mostly because the economy of Sol System’s inner planets is dwindling – but on Europa they are based on floating cities anchored to the moon’s frigid oceans thanks to a crucial technological discovery. The cities were built through the work of the Denizens, humans who had been genetically modified so they could survive in the cold depths of Europa’s seas, and have been used as little more than slaves ever since.

Vargovic’s task, on behalf of the Demarchists’ adversaries from Gilgamesh Isis, consists in taking possession of a material that will sabotage the cities, and to do so he needs to be surgically altered in a way that will allow him to live underwater for the critical part of his mission. But as such operations go, there are plots within plots involved and even the main operatives are unaware of every detail, so that Vargovic will have to face more than he could foresee, or had bargained for…

A Spy in Europa is a great change of pace and scope from its two predecessors, and at first I found myself a little disoriented, but as the story rolled forward, gaining momentum and upping the stakes, I was fascinated by its twists and turns, and highly surprised by the unforeseeable ending.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: GLACIAL (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

The second story in this collection takes place some time after the events of Great Wall of Mars: Clavain is continuing his integration into Conjoiner society and is now part of an expedition on an ice-bound planet named Diadem, where the Conjoiners found an abandoned human base whose inhabitants are long dead.  Searching through the records, they discover that the group came from Earth as embryos, grown and taken care of by a set of robots: something of a common choice in the past when ships took a far longer time to travel between the stars. At some point, however, a viral infection caused the base dwellers to suffer a form of mental imbalance that ultimately led to their death: while exploring the now abandoned base, Clavain however discovers that one of the explorers died outside on the ice, and that what looked at first like an accident might be instead the consequence of a murder. And once the Conjoiners find one body preserved in cold storage, that of a man who hibernated himself in the hope of being rescued, Clavain can’t shake the suspicion that he might have had something to do with the death of his companions…

Glacial is in equal parts a mystery (which at some point turns into a murder mystery) and a journey of discovery for Clavain, who is still adapting to the Conjoiner nano-machines in his body and at the same time trying to keep hold of some aspects of his older self: while his companions can communicate more quickly and efficiently through direct mind-link, for example, he still prefers to talk, as if he were somewhat afraid that letting go of the last remnants of what he used to be, he might lose something important he will not be able to recover.  I liked very much his interactions with Galiana, the de facto leader of the small group of Conjoiner refugees he belongs to, and the affectionately amused way in which she stresses Clavain’s small quirks, just as I found intriguing the man’s need for some moments of solitude away from the constant flow of information that the Conjoiners take for granted.  The society he was “adopted” into is a fascinating one, and these small day-to-day details are fleshing out nicely the wider scope of Reynold’s Revelation Space background.

A less fascinating offering than its predecessor, but still a very interesting read.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: GREAT WALL OF MARS (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

In this story several of the characters I remember from Revelation Space are present, offering some of the much-needed backstory I needed to put their narrative arc into perspective, not to mention to better understand their motivations.

War between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners has been going on for some time, the latter now entrenched on Mars while their adversaries systematically destroy the shuttles launched in the attempt to evacuate the base. At the origin of the conflict is the general abhorrence for the Conjoiners’ way of life, one that implies the use of neural implants that speed up the individual’s thought processes and work toward a sort of shared consciousness that augments the cognitive abilities of the group.  Nevil Clavain and his brother Warren have fought long against the Conjoiners and Nevil was their prisoner for some time: for this reason, tired of the constant war that seems to reach no turning point, he offers a diplomatic solution he means to achieve by contacting Galiana, the leader of the Martian group and Nevil’s former jailer, a person he believes will be disposed to listen to his proposal.

Unfortunately, the shuttle on which Clavain and another diplomat are traveling on suffers a catastrophic accident and his companion is killed, while Clavain barely reaches the safety of the Conjoiners’ compound. Once there, his diplomatic mission is thwarted by an unexpected development whose consequences will bring him to shift his perceptions and change the direction of his thinking and even his life.

This was a great start to the anthology, and a very satisfying read: the pace is relentless and the sense of urgency and impending doom add to the definite feeling that there is much more than what appears on the surface – both in the actual background in which the story is set and in the narrative scope.   Great Wall of Mars also worked perfectly in making me understand the character of Clavain, whose role in the Revelation Space trilogy is one of the pivotal ones: if the other stories in this collection will do the same for other aspects of that series, I’m certain that my planned re-read will be a great journey of discovery.

Reynolds at his best, indeed.

 

 

My Rating:

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.

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: