Reviews

#RRSciFiMonth Short Story Review: THE HUNGER AFTER YOU’RE FED, by James S. A. Corey

 

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE HUNGER AFTER YOU’RE FED

Seeing the name of James S.A. Corey listed among the authors of this anthology gave me a jolt of surprise and wonder, since it pointed to the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, creators of one of the best space opera series presently on the market, The Expanse. My hope that this would be a short story based in that universe was dashed immediately, although this Earth-based tale starts from one of the premises at the core of The Expanse, that the unemployed on our home planet need not worry about survival, since they are all allotted a monthly basic allowance, which insures they don’t starve.

As the protagonist of the story has learned the hard way, surviving might not be enough because human nature always requires something more, be it a deeper meaning or a more prosaic need to emerge from the crowd, to feel the worth of one’s individuality. As the man reflects at some point:  “When I was young, we were afraid to starve […] now we fear being less important than our neighbors.  All the vapid things that the wealthy did […] we are doing all the same things, but not as well, because we have less and we’re still new at it.”

So this man is risking everything on a search that seems both difficult and futile: discover the identity of radical writer Hector Prima, an author with a huge online following and an even bigger mystery surrounding his identity.  Like many others before him, the character in this story has gambled his entire savings on his quest, as if his life depended on such a discovery, as if this were the meaning he needs to give substance to his life.

Apart from the interesting – if slightly depressing – peek into this sliver of Earth society, the story offers the chance of pondering the consequences of a society where basic needs might be fulfilled, but something more vital is sorely missed, something whose absence creates an “overpowering emptiness that most people didn’t recognize”.

It’s a bleak, somewhat disheartening consideration that comes from a facet of the overall story we tend to forget while focusing on the conflicts developing in outer space, but still I don’t regret reading it.

 

My Rating: 

 

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Reviews

#RRSciFiMonth – PHOTO CHALLENGE: The Best Ship in the Universe

 

November might be the month of grey, dreary weather and the first fogs, the transition month that brings us into winter, and as such it’s never been my favorite month of the year – that is, until book blogging made me aware of this month-long event celebrating science fiction in all its forms.  And that made November a lot prettier, indeed…

SciFi Month 2018 is hosted by Imyril and Lisa and you can follow the links to know more about the event and how to participate.

It’s not always been possible for me to be very active in this SF festival, but even when I could not be a part of it, I’ve always enjoyed reading other bloggers’ contribution.  Since I have not prepared for the event, I doubt I will be able to post much, but this year the Photo Challenge comes to my aid, allowing me to share some of my love of science fiction through images.

THE BEST SHIP IN THE UNIVERSE

Ships are of course at the center of the majority of SF stories – otherwise how could you travel from one side of the universe to the other? Or be protected by the hostile, lifeless, deadly cold of space?

For this gallery I have tried to steer away from the most obvious choices like the many incarnations of Star Trek‘s Enterprise, or the almost endless range of ships one can find in the Star Wars universe, and rather went for the vessels from the shows that are closest to my heart, those that still spark a strong emotion every time I see them

I will start with a blast from the past, and travel back to the mid-70s with SPACE: 1999, the show that did not only bring to our small screens the fascinating journey of Earth’s Moon turned rogue after a devastating explosion, but also an amazing visual concept for the interiors of the Moon Base, and its technology, that for the times looked quite advanced. Well, if you forget the main computer spewing its answers on a thin strip of paper, that is…   The means of transportation from Moonbase Alpha to the various planets our heroes encountered in their journeys was called Eagle, it it was a very interesting design, both functional and believable: one of the elements I always liked was the central module that could be detached from the main frame and exchanged for a different payload.  Thinking about it now, that shape was not so different from that of current NASA shuttles, was it?

 

 

 

FIREFLY was a delightful little show obliterated before its time by the usual short-sightedness of network executives, and it focused on humanity’s diaspora through the stars, in an era when old Earth seemed to be little more than a myth and colonization was still ongoing on several worlds, whose wild frontier look made the show appear like a mix between science fiction and classic western, complete with six-shooters wielded with extreme ease. Serenity is the ship housing the main characters, a group of rebels fighting the centralized power and trying to eke out a living by smuggling and sometimes stealing: the best parts of the story, for me, where those where the somewhat dysfunctional family aboard the ship gathered around the mess-hall table, laughing, joking and quarreling, secure in their knowledge that their beloved ship would protect them as long as they kept taking care of it.

 

 

 

 

And of course it was a given that I would end up talking about what I consider THE science fiction show by definition: BABYLON 5,  a story that will never grow old, or anachronistic, because it’s not based on ground-breaking concepts or special effects, but rather on the study of the human (and alien!) soul, on the way in which ordinary people react to extraordinary events and try to give their best.  The simple fact that it’s filled with an incredible amount of worthy quotes that can be applied to any kind of situation is the proof of its depth and durability. And yes, I’m just a tiny bit biased toward it…    Human ships, in the B5 universe, are somewhat clunky and not exactly aesthetically pleasing, still having to rely on rotating sections to obtain artificial gravity, but the alien ships… well, they are something completely different.

Take the Minbari cruisers, for example: they are beautiful, reflecting their creators’ love for form and function mated in a seamless whole, but at the same time they do look deadly, as the humans learned in the conflict that pitched Minbari and humans against each other 10 years before the B5 timeline starts.

And then there are the Vorlons, the mysterious aliens with an equally mysterious agenda, whose ships can open some sort of solar sail that looks like a flower, while the main vessel resembles more the shape of an octopus. The two elements might sound improbable together, and yet they create a thing of beauty – and let’s not forget that Vorlon ships and partially sentient, and that when their owners die they prefer to follow them in death rather that go on without a part of what makes them what they are.

But of course in the B5 universe there are also evil creatures, like the Shadows, whose war of conquest is carried out through their impressive, cruel-looking ships that have all the appearance of a spider ready to pounce.  Their approach is always announced by a horrifying screech that freezes the blood in your veins, and if that’s not enough to scare you, remember that their guidance systems requires an… organic component, a telepath melded to the machine as an integral part of the ship. The stuff of nightmares, indeed…

 

 

 

Since I could not leave you with such a blood-curling image at the end of this post, I’m closing this list of ships with a very special one, a living ship – a creature born and bred in space that can house people in its quite comfortable interior, shelter them and adapt to their needs.  The Leviathan Moya, from FARSCAPE, is such a ship, a gentle creature who looks a little like a whale, and whose sight never fails to put a fond smile on my face.

 

Reviews

Review: SOMEONE LIKE ME, by M.R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

With an author like M.R. Carey, who made himself known with such outstanding works like The Girl with All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge, there is no question that the announcement of a new book of his would catch my attention, and my curiosity: Someone Like Me deals with a totally different genre compared to the two previous books I read, but still it offers a compelling, impossible-to-put-down experience.

Reviewing Someone Like Me proved to be something of a reviewing challenge, however, because I found myself walking the thin edge between description and spoiler and trying to avoid the latter as much as I could, since there are some revelations, in the course of the book, that should be met on their own, so this post might sound a little vague, for which I apologize in advance.

The story revolves around two main characters, quite different from each other: Liz Kendall is a single mother, who is trying to raise her two kids – child Molly and teenager Zac – while facing the aftermath of the divorce from her husband Marc, a violent man prone to domestic abuse.  Returning the children to their mother after a court-sanctioned weekend with them, Marc enters into an argument with Liz and blinded by rage tries to throttle her: in the past Liz never reacted to Marc’s violence, partly because she did not have the strength of character to resist and partly because she thought that offering herself as a target she would turn Marc’s rage away from the kids.  This time, however, something seems to take control of Liz’s willpower: grabbing a broken bottle from the kitchen’s floor, she hits her former husband’s face, shocking him so much that he breaks the assault for a long enough time to allow the neighbors to intervene and call the police.  The authorities’ involvement shines a spotlight on Marc’s past and present behavior, and Liz is able to obtain a restraining order and to start the process of removing the ex-husband’s poisonous presence from their lives, but the incident also seems to have woken up something that Liz did not even know she harbored…

Fran Watts is a sixteen-year old girl burdened by a dramatic past: ten years before she was abducted by a very disturbed man who thought she was a monster and kept her captive for a couple of terrible days before the police found her and arrested the man. Since then Fran has tried to deal with the nightmares from that experience, but there seems to be no amount of medication or psychological counseling that can help her completely: there are times when the reality around the girl seems to shift in small but still frightening details – a bedcover changing color, a differently shaped armchair or a different image in the pictures hanging on the wall.  These alterations of the surrounding reality make Fran somewhat skittish, and therefore a loner since she has been dubbed as ‘weird’ at school and she can only rely on the support of her widowed father and the friendlier of her hallucinations, the fox Jinx, a character from a cartoon series Fran loved as a child, the only one of the unreal elements plaguing her mind that the young girl feels comfortable with.

These two apparently unrelated individuals do indeed share a certain element of commonality, and here comes the tricky part of the review, because talking about it would be a huge disservice to the readers of this gripping book: what I can safely share is that it’s an interesting take on a well-known theme, and one that kept me turning the pages in a compulsive way until the end.  Since I need to steer away from that avenue of discussion, I can only concentrate on the characters – and as I’ve come to expect from M.R. Carey’s work, they are both interesting and realistically drawn.

Liz, despite having endured Marc’s abuse, is not what you could expect from a victim: she does suffer from many insecurities, granted, and she knows she was not strong enough to defy her husband’s progressively worsening attitude, but she found her strength and courage through her children and the need to protect them from the physical and psychological abuse that the man might have visited on them.  We see through her recollections how she used to be a different person, one with a strong spirit and some dreams (like her love for performing music with her band) that were slowly subsumed, as it often happens in these cases, by her acquiescence to Marc’s desires first and to his violence later. Yet she does not see herself as a victim, does not act like one, because all her drives have been channeled into making Molly and Zac two strong, self-reliant kids, so that her success in that respect is what gives her the motivation to remake herself into a different person and what makes her a very relatable – if not completely positive – character.

Fran stands somewhat at Liz’s opposite end of the spectrum: even though the repercussions of the kidnapping have left unhealed scars on her soul, she has learned to draw strength from that past and the knowledge that she survived it, despite the nightmares that still afflict her. She is very independent and more mature than her age would entail, one of the sides of her character I most admired being her constant strife to avoid burdening her father with her troubles: the relationship between the two of them is indeed one of the highlights of this novel, one based on affectionate jokes that hide the deeper concerns each of them harbors for the other.

The main concepts around which the novel revolves are those of identity and of the road not taken, of the way life’s experiences shape people’s characters and inform their psychological makeup – in a way the subject of parallel universes is touched on, but in a different, novel way that gives this story an added level of intensity.  This is the best I can do without spoiling the overall arc of Someone Like Me, and I can only add that it’s a story that builds up at a relentless pace and keeps you glued to the pages with no chance of coming up for air.  And if the final resolution seems to come a little too easily, or the inevitable fallout looks a bit on the light side – at least in comparison with the highly dramatic events piling up over the course of the story – I can still call myself satisfied with the overall result.

In my opinion, this book manages to surpass M.R. Carey’s previous novels in narrative strength and characterization, and considering how strong those earlier stories were, you can get an idea of how compelling this one is.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

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

 

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

SciFi Month 2018 – PHOTO CHALLENGE #2

 

November might be the month of grey, dreary weather and the first fogs, the transition month that brings us into winter, and as such it’s never been my favorite month of the year – that is, until book blogging made me aware of this month-long event celebrating science fiction in all its forms.  And that made November a lot prettier, indeed…

SciFi Month 2018 is hosted by Imyril and Lisa and you can follow the links to know more about the event and how to participate.

It’s not always been possible for me to be very active in this SF festival, but even when I could not be a part of it, I’ve always enjoyed reading other bloggers’ contribution.  Since I have not prepared for the event, I doubt I will be able to post much, but this year the Photo Challenge comes to my aid, allowing me to share some of my love of science fiction through images.

PHOTO CHALLENGE #2: First SF read – What got you into SF?

That’s a difficult question for me, because I don’t remember the title of my first SF novel: I have been reading science fiction since I was a teenager (and trust me, that was a LONG time ago…) so it’s impossible for me to pinpoint the exact book that made me decide this was my kind of genre.   

What I know is that I’ve always loved to read about “strange, new worlds” and to let my mind wander along the corridors of infinite possibilities, and I know that I started with those authors that are now considered The Classics, such as Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and so forth.

One detail I can share, though, is where I read those novels: you see, back when I started becoming the geek that I proudly admit to be, in the early-to-mid ’70s, and before I learned English and was therefore able to get directly to the… source material, there were not many publications dedicated to SF here in Italy, and the publishing industry looked down on the genre, so there were not many possibilities for reading the stories I enjoyed – that is, except for Urania.

This series, aptly named after the Muse for astronomy, was published by one of the major Italian publishing houses, Mondadori, in what I now imagine was a bold statement for the times (the first issue came out in 1952), and proceeded to let the Italian public know the works of authors that are now household names for any SF fan.

The novels Urania published – alternating them with short stories collections – opened my eyes on many amazing stories, and for quite some time their weekly or by-weekly issue was the way I could enjoy my favorite genre.  So, to celebrate those early years of SF reading, here are some of the covers from the Urania issues: the first one is for Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, the second one is for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, and the third one for William Gibson’s The Night We Burned Chrome.

 

             

 

 

If you’re curious about these covers and their evolution over the years, you can take a look HERE.  I don’t read Urania issues anymore but still, seeing that trademark white cover with the image in the red circle peeking from a bookstore shelf or a newsstand, brings back many fond memories…

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEAR SARAH, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

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

A short story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

MY ENGLISH NAME

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

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

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

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

My Rating: