Reviews

Short Story Review: OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS, by Adam-Troy Castro

From the anthology: SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS

edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, 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.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS

 

This is one of the hardest reads I encountered in my journey through short stories, so that even taking into account the fact that it’s part of a dystopian anthology and that some harshness was to be expected, there were moments when the horror became too much to bear. But I guess that was the intention of the author…

Enysbourg is an actual island but also a virtual island of carefree happiness and delight in a world that’s become too set in its way, too dedicated to work, duty and productivity; a gray, dreary world that sucks all joy from people, who come to places like Enysbourg to taste something they sorely miss in their lives.  The island’s dwellers are welcoming, sunny people and it’s so very easy for tourists to be swept away by their hosts’ delight in living and having fun, to the point that some of them choose to abandon their former lives and take residence on Enysbourg, never to return.

Where’s the problem, then, one might ask. Well there is, and it’s a big one: the revelries don’t go on forever, but only for nine days – on the tenth something dreadful happens, war breaks out in the most bloody and vicious declination one might imagine, and the citizens of Enysbourg are savagely brutalized within an inch of their lives, without ever dying no matter how deadly the injuries.  No explanation is given about the sudden shift from idyllic setting to war zone, as no explanation is given, on the morning of the new day when the nine-day cycle begins again, about the return to health and integrity of the former victims.  The description of that one single, terrible day of death and destruction is given through the eyes of Robert, an occasional tourist who decides to stay for the love of a woman he met, and he voices the question any reader of this story would ask: how is it possible to accept even one day of appalling carnage, of lingering pain unrelieved by death, in exchange for nine perfect days of joys unknown to the rest of the world?  And how does one deal with the aftermath of such suffering, even in the midst of pure happiness?

It would not be an easy answer, if there is indeed one. Still, this story made an indelible impression on me, and despite its brutal change of pace it was indeed the most memorable of the whole anthology, worth indeed the effort of looking for this book.

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: JUST DO IT, by Heather Lindsley

From SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, 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.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

JUST DO IT by Heather Lindsley

The ubiquitousness of ads is a sad fact of life: just think about all the times we have been pestered by some silly commercial repeated throughout a program we were watching, maybe accompanied by an annoying tune that lodges in our mind and refuses to go away. In my case – but I suspect that’s what happens to most of us – such… insistence, to be kind about it, doesn’t achieve the expected result: on the contrary, the more irritating the ad has been, the less chances there are of my buying the showcased product.

In this story, the author postulates that advertisers have gone beyond the stage of merely harassing an increasingly recalcitrant audience: ads are literally shot, in the form of darts, at the hapless victims, the chemicals contained in the payload creating an irrepressible craving for the product at hand.  Imagine going down a street, being hit by one of these darts and, like the character in this story, being possessed by a sudden, inescapable craving for French fries (“French fries from the den of the evil clown, where they don’t even pretend to use potatoes anymore”) – even if your conscious mind keeps telling you that you don’t want them, even if you try to resist the compulsion, there is nothing to be done, and you have to give in to the induced craving.

Alex, the protagonist, belongs to a group trying to fight the chemical-advertising companies, and she plans to do it from the inside, letting herself be hired by the enemy, but even the best plans can meet unexpected obstacles…  Should you choose to read this story, be prepared to feel both amusement and dread: there is nothing more unsettling than an extrapolation based on our present reality…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION? by Genevieve Valentine

SELECTIONS FROM “BRAVE NEW WORLDS”, edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, 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.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION?

This short story was quite intriguing: it depicts an alternate version of our world ruled by an apparently benign totalitarian regime (and how can a totalitarian rule ever be benign?), one where ubiquitous propaganda dictates the citizens’ way of life, of behavior, of thought.

For example, an unspecified event called “the Bang” has allegedly created pockets of an infectious disease against which the government enforces a widespread campaign of prevention, but there are those who claim it’s all a massive hoax to keep people in line. Or couples are formed on the basis of state selection, and their relationship closely monitored to observe anything untoward.  Or again, citizens are constantly instructed to be on the lookout for any “anomalous” behavior, and to report it no matter how trivial it might look, because – as the propaganda says – “What do you know that we should know?”.

For all its outward ordinariness, this is the kind of society that most frightens me, one where people – with the exception of a very few – don’t even realize that they are being controlled, herded and shaped according to someone else’s idea of perfection.  It’s even worse than an open dictatorship, because on the surface people should not have anything to complain about. “Should not” being the key word here…

It might have given me the chills, but I truly appreciated this tale, one I heartily recommend.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: Selection from BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, 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.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

AMARYLLIS, by Carrie Vaughn

As the editor writes in the introduction, a dystopia is not necessarily a synonym for “post-apocalyptic” and it does not necessarily depict a bleak scenario.  This is particularly true for Amaryllis, since here the end-of-the-world-as-we know-it has already happened, and is something that belongs to the past.  Society has adapted to the new living conditions, and found new ways to carry on and move forward – there is no tragedy to deal with, but this does not mean that things are easy…

The titular Amaryllis is one of several fishing boats, tasked with the job of providing fish for the coastal community where the crews live: after the upheavals that changed the world, a new way of life has taken hold, one where checks and balances rule every human action, to avoid upsetting the eco-system and falling into the same mistakes of the past.  For this reason, each fishing boat is assigned a quota that must not be exceeded – “take what you need, and no more”, this is the golden rule that regulates all activities. Including reproduction.

In this new world, families are not necessarily formed through blood ties, but rather built on commonality of interest, and Marie – the owner and skipper of Amaryllys, has built her small family group around it and turned it into a thriving reality despite the big stigma hanging over her, since her mother’s pregnancy was not sanctioned by the community and it caused the disbanding of the family group.  When the latest addition to Marie’s clan, Nina, starts expressing the desire to have a baby, the skipper must face some difficult decisions…

I liked this short story very much, because it manages to convey poignancy without need to delve into tragedy and turmoil. Still the message is a fascinating one: how much control over our lives, our legacy to the future, are we ready to leave in the hands of the law? Even though these laws have been drafted to protect humanity from its past mistakes?   Carrie Vaughn’s reply to the question is a fascinating and delightful one, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: YEAR ONE (Chronicles of the One #1), by Nora Roberts

Some time ago, a friend told me about the In Death series written by Nora Roberts under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb, and I decided to give it a try, but unfortunately the story did not work for me: I found that the author favored some telling over showing and often indulged in sudden changes of p.o.v., a technique I don’t exactly approve of.  Nothing wrong with either practice, granted, but to me they spoil the enjoyment of a story, so that I moved on – that is, until I saw this book mentioned on a fellow blogger’s post.

Post-apocalyptic scenarios always fascinated me, so I found the premise for Year One quite irresistible, enough to silence any residual misgivings coming from my previous experience.  Once again, though, I must give in to the realization that Ms. Roberts’ writing is not my cup of tea…

As I said the premise is intriguing and the novel starts with great momentum: what looks like a strain of avian flu sweeps like wildfire across the world, with a staggering mortality rate. The descriptions of the rapid spread of infection, aided by the worldwide transport network, reminded me of the initial scenes of the ’70s BBC classic Survivors, in my opinion one of the staples of the post-apocalyptic genre, and the ensuing, inevitable collapse of infrastructures all over the world is painted in dramatic flashes that focus on the main characters’ lives and the way they deal with the end of the world.

At some point, however, Ms. Roberts decided to introduce a magical element, something that literally came out of the blue with little or no explanation other than it was a by-product of the pandemic: people start to exhibit peculiar abilities – like lighting fires or flying – and those few who already possessed some, discover that these abilities are enhanced and growing every day.  It was somehow jarring, I’ll admit it, because in my opinion this element had little or no place in the description of the end of the world as we know it, but I decided to take it in stride and see how it would develop.   Sadly, it failed to integrate with the rest of the narrative, in my opinion, in great measure because I kept seeing it as a mashup of incompatible themes: as a civilization literally falls, the appearance of ladies riding unicorns or Tinkerbell-like pixies (I kid you not…) takes away the drama from the depicted events and becomes dangerously close to ludicrous, and just as unbelievable as character Lana, who “graduates” from lighting candles with her mind to shifting heavy objects (like a moving bridge) with no explanation whatsoever for this amazing escalation.

This alone should not have been enough to stop me from forging on, particularly because the few ominous mentions of immune people being rounded up and disappearing from the face of the Earth – probably being experimented on in search of a cure – added a new, scary facet to the overall drama, as did the mounting violence that always comes when social infrastructures weaken or cease to exist.  Still, problems kept piling up: for example, in this novel people seem to be divided into two groups, the ‘good guys’, who are unfailingly, immutably good; and the bad ones, who are irredeemably evil.  There is no space for gray areas, for people wavering between the brutal needs for survival and the tenets of humanity, and this robs characters of believability, transforming them into cardboard cutouts instead of the flesh-and-blood people I always want to care for (or even hate, why not?) in a book.

And again, some behavioral choices don’t add up when compared with the seriousness of the situation, so that they strike a jarring note I was unable to ignore. Some examples? Lovers Lana and Max are preparing to leave New York city, before it becomes to late for that, and they gather some necessary items for the road: when going out to procure a couple of backpacks, Max comes back with an appropriate camouflage-colored one for himself, and a pink-hued one for Lana, as a cute gesture – because of course if one wants to avoid calling attention to themselves, pink is the perfect choice, and you need to be cute when the end of the world draws near!  Or take the example of journalist Arlys and her intern Fred (i.e. Miss “Hey, I’m a pixie! Cool!”) who are leaving as well, knowing they might be hunted down for a number of reason I won’t list here: as they grab what supplies they can, Fred adds makeup items to their stores, as if unwilling to face the end of the world without looking at their best. Seriously?

Add to that a few obvious plot devices, or some dialogues that are at times quite cringe-worthy and you have the perfect recipe for a huge disappointment: I had tried very hard not to compare Year One to my favorite novels on this subject, Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, but at some point it was impossible not to, and this novel came up quite short of the mark, so I gave up the struggle at around 50% of the road.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: ESCAPE TO OTHER WORLDS WITH SCIENCE FICTION, by Jo Walton

My continuing search for short stories to read between full-size books continues, and this time I’m not writing about stories I’ve read online, but about a few I found in an anthology (THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW SF – 23, edited by Gardner Dozois): the authors’ names I saw on the table of contents for this one were enough to pique my curiosity, either because I already read them in the past, or because they were writers I was eager to sample.   As it often happens with anthologies, there were good stories, so-and-so stories and works that did not “speak” to me at all, and I’m sorry to report that the overall impression was not a very encouraging one, despite the presence of many talented authors in the list.

Still, there were a few stories that did reach out and leave a lasting impression, and here is another one that truly caught my attention, and what’s more important made me think.

 

§

 

Jo Walton is an author who features prominently in my “must read” list, thanks to the enthusiastic comments about her works I read from other fellow bloggers, so I was thrilled at the opportunity of sampling her writing in this anthology: if this is a good example of her style and narrative voice, I know I will enormously enjoy her longer works.

In the alternate world depicted here, the Great Depression never truly ended and things went from bad to worse with time: even the events of World War II developed quite differently from established history, and the USA at the time in which the story runs are in a very sorry state indeed.

The tale is told in brief flashes alternating newspaper headlines and points of view from various characters, and the overall impression is that of a place where survival is often attained at great price: we see people being overworked under the threat of losing their employment; long queues at soup kitchens; news of strikes and insurrections being mercilessly dealt with, and there’s an often-repeated hint about people being taken away from the soup kitchens’ queues, loaded into trucks and disappearing forever.

Interspersed with these quite appalling scenes are the newspaper and television ads for miracle products like hair regrowth or for the new blockbuster movie from Hollywood, a quite creepy “The Reichsmarshall” starring Marlon Brando: these snippets of information convey more than anything the real state of affairs in this alternate world, one where a man might choose to take his lover not on a dinner date but to a political rally, an event sporting “…rallies and torch-lit parades and lynchings, beating up the blacks as scapegoats for everything. It didn’t help at all; it just made people feel better about things to have someone to blame”.

As an oasis of hope in this very bleak background, now and then a listing for a new science fiction novel or story pops up, the only apparent means of escape from this miserable, depressing world…

To say that this story made quite an impact on me would be a massive understatement.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PAPER AND FIRE (The Great Library #2), by Rachel Caine

I quite looked forward to this second book in Rachel Caine’s Great Library trilogy, and I was not disappointed: the story advances toward what I envision as the final showdown between the Library and those who feel the need to break the shackles it imposes, and there are a good many breath-taking moments and harrowing escapes, not to mention a few important revelations. Yet I did not feel the same level of involvement as I enjoyed with the first volume, and for a number of reasons that taken singly do not amount to much, but all together do indeed cast some shadows on an otherwise engaging story.

The book starts a brief time after the end of its predecessor, showing how the group of Library postulants we got to know in volume one is trying to settle into the new roles assigned to them after graduation: Jess and Glain have been enrolled in the Garda, the Library’s military arm, while Khalila and Dario are on their way to become full-fledged scholars; their former teacher Scholar Wolfe and his partner Garda Captain Santi, who played such a pivotal role in the postulants’ education, have somewhat faded into the background.  The glaring absence of Thomas, arrested by order of the Library for the “sin” of having designed a printing press, and now presumed dead, and that of Morgan, relegated in the Obscurists’ Tower because of her abilities, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind – and most notably on Jess’.

The possibility first and then the certainty that Thomas is alive, imprisoned and most surely tortured (as it happened to Wolfe in the past), drives Jess and Co. to mount a rescue operation that will see them facing extraordinary risks and, what’s more important, becoming fully aware that the Library is quite different from the image of the shining beacon of knowledge it presents to the world: for Jess, the scion of a family of book smugglers, this realization comes as a lesser shock in comparison to his friends, particularly when they come to understand – in one of the most powerful scenes of the book, set in the Black Archives – that the work of the Library in the last centuries has rather been that of suppressing knowledge, rather than protecting it.

 

“This is the graveyard where they buried our future.”

“How many? How many times was this created and cut down? They’ve been destroying it over and over, all this time. All the time.”

 

In a parallel with the growth arc of a young person, where Ink and Bone was, for the characters, a journey of discovery and the first step toward maturity, Paper and Fire embodies the age of rebellion, the need to move against preconceived notions and rules imposed from above, to obey the commands of heart and conscience rather than the laws whose profound injustice becomes clearer with every passing moment.  And indeed, what the group of friends learns along the way is that the Library has no regard for human life, even well beyond the maxim about a book being more valuable than a single person: from the barbarous suppression of knowledge and technologies that might undermine the Library’s power, to the appalling practice of segregating Obscurists and trying to generate more, and more powerful ones, through selective breeding, the Library comes across in all its heartless devotion to its own survival, and the will to dominate, rather than to be the protector of human wisdom.

Given all the above, it might look strange that I did not enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but there were a few details that kept bothering me at a subliminal level, interposing some distance between me and the story instead of the total immersion I enjoyed with book 1.  For starters, in the first 25-30 percent of the book the pace seems to be dragging a little: granted, Jess and his friends are trying to collect clues about Thomas’ survival and the possible location of his prison, so they face some virtual blind alleys and spend a great deal of time speculating on what little they already possess, which is not very conducive to fast-paced action.  Still, it looked to me as if the story was unable to find its right path.

Then the characters: we learn nothing new about them, about how their respective experiences in the “real” world have changed them.  Khalila is still serious and driven; Dario is the usual smart-mouth with delusions of grandeur; Glain the solid warrior who seldom speaks; Morgan the tormented soul prisoner of her own Obscurist powers. Scholar Wolfe is as scathingly cynical as always, masking his inner torment, while Santi stands there as his rock.   And Jess, the one on whom the story focuses the most – sometimes to the detriment of the others’ development – still feels like an outsider looking in, the imprinting derived from his family’s careless treatment affecting his determination to open his heart to others.  The only exception to this are his resolve to rescue Thomas, the only person he feels comfortable in calling ‘friend’, and his newfound… ninja powers concerning the Library’s automatons – something that could have been awesome for one or two instances, but sadly loses its impact with each new repetition, no matter how dangerous it is for Jess, or how daring he appears.

My reservations notwithstanding, Paper and Fire is an enjoyable read, particularly in the second half where the stakes are raised higher and higher and our group of rebels – because this is what they were fated to become from the start – has to choose whether to close their eyes to blatant injustice or to act against it, and therefore against the Library: going back to my comparison about the coming-of-age journey, their decision is tantamount to defiance toward one’s parents, and as such it cannot be undertaken lightly or without dramatic consequences.

This second book in the Great Library series ends in a huge cliffhanger, one that managed to counteract the mild dissatisfaction I felt for the story and to rekindle my eagerness to move ahead toward what promises to be a stormy finale. Now that the “middle book syndrome” is over and done with, the road can only get smoother…

 

My Rating: