Reviews

Short Story Review: DEATH OF AN AIR SALESMAN, by Rich Larson

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Short stories by Rich Larson always proved to be fascinating reads, and this one was no exception, even though the core concept was truly depressing.  The future on this version of Earth looks quite bleak: pollution has reached such levels that the very air is contaminated and people must wear filter masks and protective clothing to stay outside.  Society has changed for the worse as well: people live in stifling cubicles called “sleepstacks” where they spend their rest hours laying down and watching videos, until it’s again time to go to work, moving like ants in a huge anthill.

Maya is an air seller: the company she works for bottles clean air that she peddles through the city’s milling throngs, hoping that her sale rates will make her win the lottery ticket granting the lucky recipients a vacation to one of the company’s air farms, where the sky is blue, the grass green and the air free and clean – or so the adverts say.  One day she notices a boy wearing a bright red scarf, a color that stands out in the dreary drabness of the city, and she does all she can to get his attention despite their conflicting work shifts and the thickness of the crowds, in the old, never tired game of “girl meets boy”…

What’s morbidly fascinating in this story is the depiction of the unnamed city, with its thick, murky air and the swarms of pedestrians moving to and fro in what looks like tired resignation. It’s easy to picture this urban sprawl where the only color comes from garish neon advertising signs, or the appalling image of a plaza “where there are still the husks of dried-out vines and shrubs spilling from cracked concrete planters” speaking of the death of any kind of vegetation and possibly of any hope for the future.  And yet there is a ray of light in the end, despite everything, because of the two young people meeting amid the devastation and daring to dream about the future.

A small ray, but I will take it gladly…

 

My Rating:

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Review: OUR WAR, by Craig DiLouie

 

I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

My first encounter with Craig DiLouie’s work was through his previous novel, One of Us, a tale about children gifted with peculiar abilities, segregated from the rest of humanity and cruelly exploited.  Our War focuses on children as well, young people finding themselves enmeshed in war and having to fight, literally fight, to survive.

The premise states that an impeached president of the USA refuses to step down, starting a civil war between the opposing factions of his loyalist base and the Congress supporters who are asking for his resignation. The whole country is plunged in bloody strife and transforms into a series of war zones, with refugees trying to escape to marginally safer places, and bitter skirmishes happening along a very fluid, very dangerous battle line.

Ten-year- old Hannah and sixteen-year-old Alex Miller are brother and sister, running away from home with their terrified parents in search of an uncertain shelter from the warring parties: Alex, already a troubled teenager, runs from the family car in a surge of unfocused anger about the life he’s forced to leave behind, and ends up among the rebel forces loyal to the president, while the death of the father leaves Hannah and her mother to fend for themselves. When her mother is also killed by a sniper bullet, Hannah finds sanctuary with the Free Women militia, on the opposite side of the conflict.  Both kids, like many others, will learn how to wield weapons and kill – not just for survival but for a desperate need to find a place to belong in a world gone mad.

The adult point of view comes from Aubrey, a dedicated journalist working for the Indianapolis Chronicle, and from Gabrielle, a Canadian UNICEF worker bringing some much-needed humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Both of them are very interesting characters – Aubrey tries not to succumb to fear and cynicism, and finds an unexpected well of courage in the goal of showing the world what is happening to children enrolled in the militia, and Gabrielle braves the dangers of the war to pay forward the debt she owes to the man who saved her life when she was little – but the real focus of the story is, of course, on the two young siblings, on the other kids they meet in their respective groups and on the way the horrors of war can shape (and twist) a young mindset and soul.

My previous experience with Craig DiLouie’s work should have prepared me for this starkly lucid depiction of a country in the throes of war and the consequences visited upon its people, especially the young ones, but Our War went well beyond anything I might have foreseen, hitting me with unexpected strength: there is such a heart-wrenching quality to the story being told here, that I too often felt breathless with the chilling impact of it all.  The suddenness with which society crumbles, once the conflict starts, reveals how thin our veneer of civilization is, how the savage side of our collective mind is always lurking beneath that surface layer: what’s truly terrifying, in the devastated world depicted in this book, is that it looks all too plausible, that the way politics have changed in the last handful of years have made the scenario in Our War a troublesome possibility rather than a flight of the imagination.

The way we approach politics these days, no matter the country one lives in, has turned away from a debate, however heated, of ideas, to become a constant barrage of insults, viciousness and other unsavory ingredients that have corrupted what should be a healthy exchange into a free-for-all where the warped logic of “us vs. them” has replaced any other kind of interaction.  We seem to have become too easily enmeshed in the kind of mob mentality that sees those with a different outlook (be it political, religious or whatever) not as someone with a divergent perspective but as blood enemies to be crushed. The step from partisan shouting to civil war appears all too brief and too easily taken, and this story highlights with terrible clarity the kind of steep incline we might all slide down on one of these days if we don’t re-learn some mutual respect and the ability to listen without being deafened and blinded by prejudice.

Our War shows us the possible consequences of underestimating that danger, consequences that would be mostly visited on the vulnerable ones, like children: Alex and Hannah quickly lose the carefree innocence that should be their right as they learn how to kill.  For both of them, what started as a form of defense transforms all too soon into an offensive stance: in Alex’s case because he finds himself attached to a group of people where many enjoy senseless violence for the sake of it, and he becomes somewhat addicted to the need for their approval, so that the only way the young boy has to obtain it is to become as trigger-happy as they are. Hannah, on the other hand, finds shelter with the Free Women and also the sense of family she lost as her loved ones disappeared one by one, therefore turning herself into a killer means being able to defend her newfound family and the protection – physical and mental – they provide.

Our War gives us a bleak picture of a possible (all too possible…) future, one that must compel us to seriously consider the dangers inherent in the habit of turning our differences into unsurmountable chasms, when even the slight glimmer of hope we find at the end does not seem enough to dispel the darkness left by looking into this potential abyss. 

Still, I would not have missed reading it for the world…

 

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: THE DEAD, Michael Swanwick

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

The zombie theme has been played, both in written stories and on the screen, with several variations as to the origin of the phenomenon, but always with the constant that shows the walking dead roaming devastated cities and preying on the living.

This short tale, however, takes a very different approach, postulating that the formerly dead can be revived by technology and set to work in many fields – in short they are turned into obedient, indefatigable, willing slaves.  No mention is made about the way this horrifying process is achieved, but we are allowed to see how these walking corpses (free from decay, and endowed with the ability to speak and interact with the living) are integrated into many aspects of everyday life: as restaurant waiters, chauffeurs, doormen – and even into other unsavory… occupations.

The process is however costly and the acquisition of a zombie workforce reserved to those with means – at least until this story gets well underway showing us how someone has found a way to mass produce them, especially since the many conflicts still raging around the globe are providing with an almost inexhaustible supply of bodies from the refugee camps.

One of the characters in the story is terrified by the kind of future this entails, even as he signs up with the corporation that will manage this new form of slavery: a future where the living will run out of jobs, replaced by flesh automatons, a future where both the living and the dead will be helpless under the thumb of those with power.  And like that character I know that such a possibility scares me far more than any zombie apocalypse I ever watched on TV or read in a story….

 

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Short Story Review: THE ATONEMENT PATH, by Alex Irvine

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I came away from this short story reeling in horror, a horror compounded by the detached, almost clinical tone of the narrating voice.  The premise here is that young offenders are no longer sent to jail or rehabilitation centers, but rather directed toward the Path of Atonement, a way to make amends for their misdeeds.

At first it seems as if the Path simply compels these young people to serve the community in any way that is required of them, and that might sound like an enlightened, civilized way to make amends for youthful mistakes, but as the story progresses and the narrating voice adds details on the workings of the Path, is becomes hideously clear that there is more to it than one could imagine: from the distressingly effacing way in which the people committed to the Path speak of themselves and their journey it looks as if some kind of brain-washing might be involved, as are other even less savory practices.

But what sheds light on the truly horrifying side of this… correctional method is that those committed to it are seen as less than citizens, less than persons, and are treated as such – I can leave to your imagination what the consequences might be.  And that kind of mentality, and behavior, might be against the law, but is, in the very words of the narrator, “rarely prosecuted”, while “kindness is not illegal, but is frowned upon”.

I will say no more about this peek into a possible (and how possible? – one can wonder) future, this story must be read without prior spoilers that might lessen its impact on the reader’s mind, since it opens the way to an analysis of the ratio between crime and punishment, and how far it can go.

As hard as this short work hit me, I would not have missed it for the world, indeed…

 

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Review: A BOY AND HIS DOG AT THE END OF THE WORLD, by C.A. Fletcher

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Post apocalyptic worlds can come in a wide variety of flavors, most of them having in common the obliteration of the greater part of the human race: either by quirks of nature, pandemics, or climate changes, mankind finds itself vastly reduced in numbers and trying to survive in what is often a ravaged land – or a very unfriendly one.  This novel, however, starts from a different kind of premise, that the dramatically dwindling population is the consequence of a devastating decrease in birth rate, one that results in the progressive, unavoidable emptying of the world, so that vegetation and fauna retake control of a landscape in which humans are more intruders than anything else.

A few enclaves survive, however, either small groups living together for support, or isolated family units: the latter is the case for Griz, the narrator of this story, whose family dwells on an island off the Scottish coast. It’s a harsh life, one made of hard work and constant struggle against the failure of ancient machinery cobbled together ingeniously from the remnants of the old world and made to function without the aid of electricity or propellants, both things having disappeared together with civilization as we know it.

Still, it’s not a bad life, despite its tragedies: Griz’s twin sister Joy died several years before falling from a cliff, and their distraught mother, searching for her child, fell badly and suffered a head injury that left her absent-minded and incapable of fending for herself. Griz’s father, older brother and sister are a tight-knit family unit, occasionally trading with the next-island neighbors, and surviving through sheep farming, some scavenging in the abandoned areas of the mainland (they call it “viking”, from Viking raiders or old) and whatever forms of agriculture the island climate allows.  And of course there are their dogs, Jip and Jess – part of the family and Griz’s best friends and faithful companions.

Things change for the worse when a passing trader elopes with Jess: like humans, dogs have suffered in their reproductive abilities and female dogs have become quite rare in litters, so Brand – that’s the name of the trader – knows he will get a good price for Jess somewhere else.  Incensed for the theft, and the awareness that the whole family has been deceived by Brand’s easy manners and tall tales, Griz jumps on one of the family’s boats and launches in pursuit of the thief, intending to retrieve the stolen dog at any cost.

What follows is of course an adventure in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale and a lesson about never losing sight of your humanity, no matter how harsh and unforgiving the situation becomes.   And it’s a story about the bond between humans and dogs, as well, showing us that they are not just intelligent creatures who have stayed at our side since the dawn of time (Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest), but also the kind of companions we can always rely on, their love and devotion coming straight from the heart and never filtered through self-interest or artifice.

As easy as it is to like Griz as a character, the moments in which this youngster truly shines happen in relation with Jip the dog: they are not merely friends and traveling companions, they look out for each other, care for each other’s well-being and share a bond that goes beyond the need for words, since they seem to understand one another through an unseen connection – not so much a connection of the mind, as one of the heart.  As Griz tells the thief, in a heated exchange about the lack of laws following the fall of civilization: “…but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?”. Jip and Jess are family and as such they deserve the same kind of faithfulness and love as the rest of Griz’s parents and siblings – and in those simple words we can find the essence of this story and of Griz’s journey.

A side of this character that will not fail to endear it to us bookworms is the love of stories, the pleasure Griz takes in being drawn into them and letting the mind wander along the “what if…?” path that we all know so well: strangely enough, Griz’s main focus is on post-apocalyptic stories, which to me sounds like a tongue-in-cheek sort of joke and also as a curious parallel, since it’s a sub-genre I’ve always been interested on.  For me, I think it’s a matter of superstition – sort of: as long as I can read about all the ways the world might end, I know it all remains firmly in the realm of fantasy; for Griz it’s a way to understand how the world truly ended: being born in the aftermath of it all means that any information has been filtered through second- and third-hand retellings and there is no certainty that things truly happened that way.  Then there is the pure joy of losing oneself in stories – not just dystopian ones, of course: life on the island, with its definite boundaries and the need for constant hard work, does not leave much room for the mind to wander, and it’s only through books that Griz is able to move across a whole universe of possibilities.

And when the journey begins in earnest, when Griz is alone in the wide world beyond the borders of the tiny island, it’s the knowledge gleaned through books that helps in the difficult business of survival or that makes the sights and wonders more relatable, either thanks to scientific information or – again – to stories read in the past. And so the deep forests of the mainland (something that the islands lack) make Griz remember passages from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; or the need to escape from confinement is fueled by recalling The Count of Montecristo, and so on.

Above all, this is a story about love, loyalty and steadfast determination, but it’s also a journey of discovery: of an unknown – and sometimes unknowable – world, but also of oneself and what it means to be human. You will find a wide range of feelings here: fear and delight, joy and terror, anger and compassion – this is the kind of book that will steal your heart, taking you on an emotional rollercoaster driven by a writing that at times becomes almost lyrical despite its deceiving simplicity.  I found much more than I expected here, and I would not have missed it for the world.

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Short Story Review: BLACK FRIDAY, by Alex Irvine

 

(click on the LINK to read the story online)

 

Try to imagine the combination of the Black Friday madness in a shopping mall with the Hunger Games and you might get an idea of what this short, brutal story is about.  In a twisted, bloody version of Thanksgiving celebration, family groups engage in battle inside a shopping mall to acquire desired goods and eventually the prizes that have been hidden like Easter eggs in various locations.

The story follows the Anderson family – calling themselves The Mugs – composed by father Caleb and three teenage children, respectively fifteen, fourteen and twelve years old, as they furtively enter the Greenleaf mall armed to the teeth, ready to claim their goals. It becomes immediately clear that this kind of event is followed by television networks all over the country, as drones follow the progress of the groups and newscasters comment with various degrees of excitement as they would for a sports match – with the hideous difference that in this case the match involves the wounding or killing of one’s opponents. That’s where the comparison with the Hunger Games comes to the fore in all its chilling evidence, especially when it illustrates the backing and publicity-seeking of many sponsors…

The competition is ruthless and savage, and the mention of rules to be followed seems more like lip service to a hazy idea of fairness than anything else: these people are there to get what they want and to do so are prepared to roll over the opposition with any means at their disposal, while no one seems interested in forcing adherence to those rules. At some point we learn that

 

The more predatory teams would be hunting for the wounded, aiming to finish them off under the pretext of checking items off their lists. This is known as vulturing.

 

showing that the actual goal is not so much the acquisition of a particular object but rather the vicious joy of destroying other lives: that young people, children, are involved in this, trained from an early age to kill without the slightest qualm, and to do it efficiently, makes this story all the more petrifying, especially at the unexpected turn of events in the end.

This is not an easy read, granted, but I wonder if it might not prove helpful in giving some much-needed context – and a chance for reflection – in the running debate about guns…

 

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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: