Reviews

Short Story Review: RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

 

RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

When I saw the name of James S.A. Corey on the list of authors whose short stories are hosted on LightSpeed Magazine, I dived straight in: Corey (the pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is the author of The Expanse, one of the best space opera series of recent times – both in books and on television – so I hoped that Rates of Change might be based on that universe. It wasn’t, but this did not diminish my appreciation of it.

The premise: in the future, it will be easy to swap one’s consciousness into another body with the same ease with which we change dresses – it’s not clear from the story how these bodies are obtained, whether they are cloned and stored waiting for… occupancy, or if they are bodies of people who have given them up, either voluntarily or not.  What matters here is that it’s something of a common practice, so common that the exchange is not limited to human bodies, but can be effected with animals as well: one of the story’s characters, Diana, retraces the steps that brought her son Stefan to splice himself into the body of a manta ray as a form of fun experiment with his friends. An accident caused Stefan’s brain to be explanted from the manta and placed in a sort of ICU gel bath while waiting for recovery, and Diana waits for the procedure to complete its cycle and to know whether her son’s consciousness is still intact or damaged beyond repair.

Both Diana and her husband are now living in bodies that are not their original ones: she had to switch once to avoid dying of a devastating cancer, and again when she did not feel at home in the new body; her husband changed his in an attempt at a fresh beginning when his wife’s depression made it apparent that she was feeling like an intruder in her changed body.  Diana’s very fragile balance, one that progressively estranged her from her husband, friends and acquaintances, is further endangered by what happened to Stefan and she is terrified by the long-range consequences on identity and sense of self that can come from this far-too-easy way of escaping the troubles of one’s corporeal form.  As she muses, “everything is a lie of health and permanence, of youth permanently extended”, and seems to negate the expected course of flesh’s decay, the natural rhythm of life.

It’s a fascinating philosophical question, one that offers no easy answer – as it should be – and ends on a consideration that, from my point of view, builds a slight tie with one of The Expanse’s themes, that of what makes us human even when our bodies deviate from the accepted norm, as it happens to Belters in micro-gravity: the authors remind us that “being human isn’t a physical quality like being heavy or having green eyes” and that we need to look beyond the skin-deep levels.

Thought-provoking, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Advertisements
Reviews

TV Review: DARK MATTER Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When last year I wrote reviews for the two “summer shows” from SyFy, KillJoys and Dark Matter, I sensed a stronger potential for growth in the former, while the latter seemed headed toward a more conventional, if still entertaining, path. Season 2 however overturned my predictions for both shows: if Killjoys did not exactly disappoint, it did not prove to be equal to its promises, while Dark Matter showed a solidity of stories and characterization that was a very welcome surprise.

In the first season we met six people (plus and android) who wake up from suspended animation on a strange ship, without memory of their identities and past.  As they try to come to terms with the situation and what little information they can glean about themselves – apparently a band of criminals hired for dirty operations, with the exception of the young stowaway girl who’s not part of the original crew – they also face the problems created by the dichotomy between their former selves and the people the are now, thanks to the clean slate created by amnesia.

In this second season, the crew of the Raza faces a different set of challenges: they have acknowledged their violent past, but feel more comfortable with the personalities they have developed since waking up, and prefer to proceed from there (with one notable exception, but that’s something of a spoiler, so I will not say more about it).  Having accepted both their shady past and the somewhat uncertain present, the group chooses to look forward, to plan for the future rather than delve into the past, even when parts of it come back to bite their proverbial behind.

Shared dangers have coalesced the crew into a team – almost the embryo of a family, I’m tempted to say – and they have learned to look out for each other, while at the same time maintaining their individual quirks and, on occasion, less savory personality traits: as I said in the review for Season 1, there must be something in one’s personality makeup that is similar to “muscle memory”, something that comes into play through the unconscious, like an autonomous reflex.  This time, however, those reflexes come into play for the good of the team, and not for an individual’s egotistical drives and even if it doesn’t mean that the former “bad guys” have turned into angels, still there is a huge difference between who they are now and who they used to be, and they seem to prefer putting some distance between their present and past selves.

The background that was sketched in the first season of the show takes more substance, and presents a galaxy that’s quite far from the standards of more idealistic future shows: there are far too many struggling colonies or mining outposts that try to eke out a living despite the pressure of the corporations that seem the real ruling power here, and the corporations themselves are at war with each other using mercenaries like the team on the Raza to undermine their rivals’ powers.  Even the Galactic Authority, the entity that acts as a police force, is not immune from power plays, to the point that they are far too easily corrupted and even when one of their officers doggedly pursues the crew of the Raza, he appears motivated more by personal drives than simple love of justice, making me often think about inspector Javert from Les Miserables in the blind pursuit of his quarry.  This last element is quite dramatically evident in the last episode of the season, where he apparently throws away the chance of stopping a terrorist operation in favor of capturing his elusive prey.

If character development and well-timed action are the main components of this series, and even more so in this second season, the plot is equally capable of evolution, branching off from the main theme that was at the root of the story and developing into several individual narrative threads that still remain firmly grounded in the main arc, giving it a multiplicity of points of view that keeps the story itself always interesting.  What’s more, Dark Matter is not afraid of taking extreme measures with its set of characters: in the very first episode, one of the original six is removed from the equation in a very surprising game change that’s not at all usual in serialized television. The addition of new figures to the crew, and their non-permanent status, reinforces the awareness that no one might be safe here, that we should not take for granted the survival of any individual character.

For this reason (or should I call it warning?) when the final episode of the season closes on a very difficult situation, with the members of the crew separated from each other and facing potential annihilation on a doomed space station, the ending cliffhanger takes on a further layer of uncertainty and makes us wonder about the changes that we might witness in Season 3.

In short, Dark Matter might still not shine for originality of plots or narrative devices, but it does move forward with a form of enthusiasm that’s quite refreshing, making us care about the characters and involving us with the narrative threads: I’ll say it again, and this time with even more conviction – it might not be a revelation, but it’s a solid story that deserves more than one chance.

 

My Rating for Season 2: 

Reviews

TV Review: KILLJOYS Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When I reviewed the first season of this science fiction series, I was full of enthusiasm for the potential shown by its brief 10-episode run. And how could it be otherwise, when the story focused on a small team of bounty hunters, working in a remote area of space?  The overall feel of the setting reminded me a little of Firefly, thanks to its definite frontier flavor and the complex social and political threads running in the background, and what’s more the main characters were quite promising: Dutch, an ass-kicking heroine with a brutal past, who managed to overcome the trauma of her upbringing as an assassin and to remake herself into a whole, independent and self-sufficient person; Johnny, her tech-wiz team-mate and the “softer side” of their working equation, one that created a strong, family-like bond between them that is one of the series’ stronger points; and D’Avin, Johnny’s brother and former soldier, traumatized by his military experiences (and probably some dark experiments), trying to move past his PTSD.

The overall tone, in that first season, was lively and irreverent, with the episodic nature of the show paving the way for a more complex narrative arc that Season 2 was bound to develop further – and the premises were indeed there, from the brief appearances of Dutch’s devious mentor Khlyen, still stalking his former pupil and trying to bring her back  into the fold, to D’Avin’s flashbacks to some traumatic event, that caused him to lash out quite dangerously in the most unexpected of circumstances; from the monopoly exerted by the system’s wealthy families on the available resources, to the exploitative activities of the Corporation managing the workforce.  All these elements promised some fascinating developments, and an expanding scope for the story, but unfortunately some of those promises went unfulfilled…

The very fist sign that something had changed – and not exactly for the better – was in the new opening credits: both the chosen music and the appearance of the characters as graphic novel versions of themselves represented a puzzling, and somehow jarring surprise, and to me they did not look at all in sync with the series’ previous “mood”.  That Killjoys did not take itself very seriously was a given, and it was part and parcel of its charm, but this new introduction seemed… cheap, for want of a better word, and at odds with what had gone on before.

But these purely aestethical considerations would have been forgotten if the story had moved forward in the direction hinted at in the first season: sadly, it fell prey to its own need for excessive complexity that was potentially interesting, yes, but also needed something more than the season’s scant 10 episodes so the various threads could have the time to grow into an organic and well-defined story. The compression of so many components into such a short time span worked against the story, making it appear at times slipshod and confusing, and it also worked against the characters – the strongest element of the series so far – robbing them of many chances for growth and expansion, and forcing them to almost become caricatures of themselves.  This last is particularly evident with D’Avin: where he started as a mentally scarred veteran, he becomes almost a parody of himself in Season 2 – having been subjected to further experiments, he’s now a sort of invulnerable soldier, thanks to the green fluid running through his veins. The circumstance in which this is revealed (the seduction of bartender Sabine) fails to be as dramatic as it was intended, and remains the most cringe-worthy segment of the whole season.

Dutch fares a little better, but not much: the series of circumstances that puts an unwelcome distance between her and Johnny seems to make her lose some focus, and Dutch appears to be reacting to, more than acting on, the problems that the group has to face. What’s worse, Khlyen’s increased presence on screen does not reinforce Dutch’s sense of self-assurance and independence, but instead seems to weaken it when he’s given a personal story and a non-selfish motivation for his actions: by somehow bringing them together, instead of keeping him as a form of evil manifestation, Dutch’s inner strength appears diminished, and unfocused – and given how she literally exploded on the scene in the first season, this is not something viewers completely appreciate…

Johnny is the only one given an interesting – and evolving – arc: it was clear from the start that his nature was not completely suited to his work as a Killjoy, and through his association with Pawter, the slum doctor who used to be a scion of a ruling family, he finds a… mission, a purpose that appeals to his need to make a difference, to change things for the better.  When the relationship with Pawter takes on romantic overtones, we see Johnny dealing with some inner conflict as he chooses a divergent path that takes him away from Dutch and the team: on one side he knows he’s working toward a noble goal, on the other he feels that the need for secrecy upsets the team’s dynamics and often causes him to lie to his long-time partner, and that’s a price that weighs heavily on him.  If the rhythm of the events had not been so frantic, Johnny’s turmoil could have been explored in greater depth than it was, and that’s another regret I came away with at the end of the season.

Despite these disappointments, I will keep an eye on the show (I know that the third season is airing now, so I might be able to see it in the near future), in the hope that the creative team manages to overcome the hurdles of season 2 and finds a much firmer footing for both story and characters.  It would be a pity to see Killjoys’ promises fizzle into nothing…

 

My Rating for Season 2: 

Reviews

Review: ARTEMIS, by Andy Weir

I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

My first experience with Andy Weir’s writing, his acclaimed The Martian, did not work out well: although the story’s potential was amazing (as testified by the huge success of the movie inspired by the novel), the delivery failed to engage me, and the book ended up in my ‘unfinished’ pile.  Still, I’m a great believer in second opportunities, and when the first synopsis for Artemis surfaced, I was intrigued enough to give it a try: this time around, things went a great deal better…

Artemis is the first (and so far the only) organized community on the Moon, a collection of interconnected domes named after famous astronauts: the city, with a resident population of around two thousand people of varied ethnicity, is mostly an industrial settlement and a tourist resort – a place with few written laws and a good number of unwritten ones.  Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a young woman of Saudi descent, the daughter of a respected welder she had a falling out with some time prior to the start of the story: Jazz works as a porter, a low-income occupation she uses as a front for her smuggling operations, and it’s because of her non-official job that she becomes involved in an industrial take-over scheme that suddenly morphs into a bloody gang war, turning her into a target for both the police and the members of a ruthless Brazilian cartel.

The pace is lively, carried by Jazz’s mordant, impudent tone, while the city of Artemis comes alive before our eyes thanks to her first-person narrative, whose scientific explanations (clearly the main staple of Andy Weir’s storytelling method) come across as lightly informative rather than pedantic: unlike what happened with Mark Whatney’s voice logs, Jazz ideally talks with the audience rather that at them, and this made a huge difference for me as far as my connection with the character was concerned.  The mechanics of living in microgravity, and in a hostile, airless environment, are explained in a discursive manner that makes it sound more like an interesting chat between acquaintances than a pedantic lecture – one of the most fascinating pieces of information being the effect of reduced gravity on the boiling point of water and therefore the temperature (and taste) of hot beverages.

Another characteristic Jazz seems to share with Whatney is her flippancy, with the difference (from my point of view) that with her it works well and it feels natural, an integral part of her psychological makeup, and what’s more it suits the character and the situations she finds herself in, while that same cheekiness sounded wrong for Whitney and his dilemma. Moreover, the book’s chapters are interspersed with the mail correspondence Jazz starts as a child with an Earth boy, Kelvin, and through these exchanges we learn much about her back-story without need for lengthy infodumps. There is a not-so-subtle veneer of pain and resentment underlying Jazz’s character, a dark side that she seems to have accepted and makes jokes about, but at the same time you can feel it places her apart from everyone else, a remoteness that seems more a form of defense than a real wish for solitude.   

I guess it all boils down to the youthful transgression that caused the rift with her father, an event that still preys heavily on her mind and must be the reason Jazz constantly refuses to employ her remarkable skills to better herself: there are several instances, throughout the book, in which people point at her above-average intelligence and wonder – to her extreme annoyance – why she remains attached to what is essentially a menial job, when she could fare much better with work she’s more skilled at.  It’s easy to imagine it might be a form of self-inflicted punishment – unexpressed as it remains – that coupled with her sense of fairness, and her peculiar moral code, quickly endeared her to me despite the brash surface appearance Jazz presents.

Here, though, also lies my main contention with this story: as an independent, self-sustaining woman, Jazz exerts that freedom in many areas of her life, including her sexuality, something that is not at all strange in our present time, nor should it be in the near future period –  and frontier location – where Artemis is set, since the absence of Earth-style laws or morals allows that freedom in all its different declinations. As an example of that liberal mindset, we are told about a couple of siblings engaged in an incestuous relationship that chose to emigrate to the Moon to avoid condemnation for their life choices.  So, why does practically everyone have to remark on Jazz’s past and present promiscuousness? Why is she targeted as the Red Woman from Babylon, in a place where you can do almost anything as long as you observe strict airlock safety?   It’s a small thing, granted, but still it bothered me like an itching nose in a spacesuit…

Still, it’s a very minor quibble, and the story itself more than makes up for it, especially in the breath-stopping (literally…) final segment, where the words “compulsive reading” become quite appropriate.  As my second attempt at Andy Weir’s writing, Artemis worked like a charm and the news that it’s already been optioned for a movie picture made me eager to see how this one will translate to the big screen: hopefully they will find an actress that will do Jazz the justice she deserves.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

VICK AND HER VULTURES ARE COMING BACK!

 

Last year I had the opportunity of reading the first volume in Scott Warren’s Union Earth Privateers series, kindly offered for review by the publisher Parvus Press. Vick’s Vultures proved to be a fast-paced, quite entertaining story about a band of privateers, space crews sent to retrieve any kind of alien tech that Earth would be able to retro-engineer and use to keep abreast with the more advanced races peopling the galaxy, while at the same time keeping a low profile.

One of the book’s best features was indeed Victoria Marin, the captain of the Condor, a strong, well-rounded character whose practical determination quickly won my sympathy: once I closed the book I knew I would look forward to learning more about her and her Vultures.

Soon I will have this opportunity: Parvus Press contacted me with the kind offer of reading and reviewing Book 2 in the series, To Fall Among Vultures, that will be published at the beginning of October. I am of course eager to learn what new adventures are waiting for the Condor and its crew, and equally eager to share my findings with you, so while we wait I’m very happy to share the link to the giveaway for Book 1 that is currently running and will enable you to catch up with Vick’s first adventures and to prepare for the new ones.

Just follow the link below and fire your engines! The journey starts here…

 

VICK’S VULTURES GIVEAWAY

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirsky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues, thanks to the archives of online magazines.  This week is the turn of:

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

This is one of the most chilling, most terrifying stories I read, and the horror does not come from monsters, alien invasions or deadly plagues, but from the cold calculation exerted on the right to live based on available resources that’s at the core or the story itself.

In the world depicted in Rachel Swirsky, one that does not seem very far in time from the one we’re living in, the energy crisis requires severe rationing of electricity: no more lights or computers kept on all day long, private cars a memory of the past, plane trips a luxury for the very rich.  This need to regulate energy expenditures extends to all sectors of society, hospitals included, and here is where the shock hits, because the author postulates that in any hospital neonatal care is restricted to a given number of incubators, and that occupancy is controlled by the ability of parents to pay for the energy outlay necessary to keep their babies alive.  It they can’t, the child is “displaced”, i.e. removed from the incubator and left to die so that their place can be taken by a baby whose parents’ solvency is more secure.

Even more terrifying than this premise is the acquiescence that becomes apparent from the characters’ reactions, as if that were an acceptable price to pay while the world re-builds its energy output and tries to go back to previous standards.  This compliance seems to come from the acknowledgment from the more fortunate that someone else will have to suffer the consequences, that there is “a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think ‘at least that isn’t me’. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.”

Given recent news on the subject of health care, this story resonates both as a warning and an accusation, an admonition toward thinking about the long-range consequences of today’s decisions, and the impact they can have on the not-so-distant future.

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: STRANGE DOGS (an Expanse novella), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novella from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

A confession first: when I saw this title among the monthly proposals from Orbit, I immediately clicked on the NetGalley link, without even checking first what the theme would be, or which character it might focus on.  For me it was more than enough that the story would be centered on the Expanse’s universe, one of the best (it not THE best) space opera series currently running. The rest would take care of itself… And it did, indeed: even though none of the familiar “faces” is present in this novella, the story is totally absorbing and my only complaint is that it ended too soon, leaving me with a lot of questions that I hope will be answered in the next full-length book(s).

Laconia is one of the worlds opened to colonization by the alien portal whose creation we saw in Abaddon’s Gate, and young Cara arrived there as an infant together with her parents; her brother Xan was born on Laconia and both of them don’t know any other life but that of their new home, Earth being more like a fairy-tale than an actual place.  Cara’s life is divided between school lessons, domestic chores and the times she spends near the pond at some distance from her home, where she observes the strange flora and fauna of her home world.  And Laconia looks indeed like a wondrous place: the descriptions of Cara’s surroundings create an image of a beautiful, alien world full of possibilities, a place devoid of grave dangers and just perfect for a young person’s imagination to run free.

Not everything is idyllic in this new world, though: the presence of soldiers, who landed on Laconia in the aftermath of the brutal attack on Earth from Nemesis Games, has placed a veil of unease on the settlers and at times Cara intercepts some conversations between her parents that make her wonder about the seriousness of their tone, and the half-understood sentences she is able to catch. Still, she does not delve too deeply on that, preferring to spend her time observing the animals that visit her pond: the weirdest encounter happens when she sees for the first time a group of peculiar dog analogues, creatures that seem possessed of a superior intelligence and that fire her curiosity and imagination, especially when they seem able to do the impossible.

I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but to do so would be to spoil the whole story, particularly because at some point tragedy strikes and the dogs – the Strange Dogs – will prove pivotal in the upheaval of Cara’s life and the hard choices she will feel compelled to make.  Also, the fact that rogue Martian admiral Duarte is mentioned, and since he’s very likely the one who stole the protomolecule sample Fred Johnson was safekeeping, this detail lays a very uneasy feeling on the whole scenario, especially where the dogs and their peculiar abilities are concerned…

What I can safely share is how well-rounded Cara appears, despite the short length of the story, how she feels both very young and very mature at the same time, and how she is able to maintain a sort of… lucid innocence – for want of a better word – despite the harrowing events developing in her world.

There are so many narrative threads in this short story, and they are quite tantalizing because the authors just touch on each subject, moving swiftly to another one and so on, and that’s the reason I felt both intrigued and frustrated while reading the novella: my hope is that this might be a sample of what we will find in the next installments of the series, branching off in what promises to be a new and exciting direction, as it has done with every single book.  All the same, this was a very, very welcome “appetizer” while the wait for Persepolis Rising goes on…

 

My Rating: