Reviews

Short Story Review: MONO NO AWARE, by Ken Liu

 

 

MONO NO AWARE, by Ken Liu

(courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine: click on the link above to read the story)

 

Not for the first time I need to acknowledge that Ken Liu’s writing seems more appealing to me in its shorter form than in full novel size, since my attempt to read his larger work, The Grace of Kings, has so far caused me to shuffle it back in my reading queue – not because I didn’t like it, but because I believe it requires far more attention and involvement than I can give it at present.

Having appreciated The Paper Menagerie, I was curious to sample more of his shorter stories, and this one caught my attention, proving to be even better than my previous encounter with Mr. Liu’s writing – and not just better, but with a higher emotional impact: I’m not ashamed to confess that the ending moved me deeply, even more so because of its restraint, not in spite of it.

In short, what’s left of humanity – slightly more than a thousand individuals – is traveling on a solar-sail-powered ship toward a new home: Earth found itself on the path of a huge asteroid, and is no more. Main character Hiroto alternates details from shipboard life with memories of his childhood at the time in which the Hammer, that’s the name given to the asteroid, was nearing Earth and the evacuation of its people was underway.  There is a sharp dichotomy between the events of the past and Hiroto’s quiet acceptance of what happened, of the tragedy that caused the whole of humanity to be reduced to the present scant handful, and it’s not because of the emotional removal, but thanks to the lucid awareness that to behave otherwise would be useless, that survival depends on the ability to rise above one’s personal needs, to care about “the web of relationships in which we’re enmeshed”, as Hiroto’s father used to advise him.

When a tear in the solar sail threatens to send their ship, the Hope, wildly off-course, it will be Hiroto’s job to step in and make sure that what future still is there for humanity will reach its fruition, and his choices will be determined by the meaning of the phrase that’s this story’s title, a complex concept that can have several meanings, the most important one being that all things in life are temporary, that everything passes: what matters is not so much an individual’s life, but rather “the places we hold in the web of others’ lives”.

Profound, and profoundly touching.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SEA OF RUST, by C. Robert Cargill

When I saw this book mentioned in a “Waiting for Wednesday” posts on Lynn’s blog, it immediately caught my attention and I wasted no time requesting it from NetGalley: luck was with me and Orion Books kindly granted me the possibility of reading it, in exchange for an honest review.

In short, humanity has ceased to exist, defeated and then destroyed by the automatons it built to improve living conditions: once the AIs achieved a sense of self and asked for freedom, the first inevitable steps toward war were taken and mankind’s downfall became only a matter of time.  Now the only creatures moving across the Earth are the robots, but the aftermath of the war is not what the first rebel AIs envisioned, because of the rise of the OWIs (One World Intelligences).  These huge conglomerations of computers have been trying even since to assimilate, Borg-style, all the other intelligences, creating massive banks of processing machinery in which individuality is banned forever.  The free bots are given a simple choice, either submit or die.

We, the lesser AIs, were chased out of the world we had created, the world we had fought and killed and died for, by a few great minds hell-bent on having the world to themselves. […]  Upload or be shut down. That was the choice.

At first there were many OWIs, battling among themselves, but the strongest ultimately prevailed until only two remained, Cissus and Virgil, fighting for supremacy.  Meanwhile the freebots, those who refused to surrender and wanted to keep enjoying their new-found individuality, are forced to live like refugees, scavenging for parts to replace their malfunctioning circuits or casings, and more often than not preying on each other to survive: the dream of freedom has indeed turned into a cannibalistic nightmare…

Brittle is one of these survivors: once a caregiver bot acquired by an ailing human (who wanted, more than medical assistance for himself, a companion to alleviate his wife’s solitude), she now roams across the Sea of Rust, what used to be the industrial Rust Belt, and now is a graveyard of broken bots whose useful parts have been scavenged by their brethren.  Brittle is a loner, by choice and by necessity: meeting others of her kind might mean a fight for survival, as the main story shows all too clearly while she desperately tries to avoid a band of poachers led by Mercer, another caregiver in dire need of spare parts he can only get from Brittle, since their kind is all but extinct.

 

We’re all cannibals, every last one of us. It’s the curse of being free. We don’t control the means of production anymore; we can’t just make new parts. And parts gotta come from somewhere.  I’m sure if there were any people left, they’d be appalled at what we’ve become.

 

Yet a few enclaves where bots can stay in relative safety, at least for a while, still exist: subterranean warrens where a semblance of law is enforced and the “murder” of another bot to steal their parts means being thrown out at the mercy of the OWIs and their assault teams; or the realm of the King of Cheshire, an aggregation of bots whose logic circuits have gone haywire, rendering them so crazy not even the OWIs deem them worthy of assimilation.  Every single one of them, though, is threatened by the advancing wave of the OWIs, whose thirst for total control, for the perfection offered by one single governing mind has become the rule of the land.

It’s a very sad spectacle the one offered by this story: there’s some shades of Wall-E, in the total lack of human life and the wasteland scenery in which Brittle and the others move; there’s a vibe reminiscent of The Road, and the hopelessness of something irretrievably lost; and then there is a strong call-back to the Mad Max universe, especially in the scenes where cobbled-up bots try to survive in a world that’s become hostile even to mechanical constructs, and where fights to the death for resources are a fact of everyday life.

And yet in this bleak background there are still those who dare to dream of freedom, of a better world, and this leads to fascinating thoughts about not so much what it means to be alive, but rather about what it means to exist, to make one’s own choices – right or wrong as they might be – and make the leap from mere tool to individual.  Men might have created the bots to be their servants, but the OWIs are not much better than their former masters; by denying the single bots their individuality, they remove what makes each one of them a unique being, to the point that now many bots understand how humans were, in a way, the lesser evil, because mankind’s imagination helped them transcend the limits of their nature, go beyond their inner programming:

 

We have become the very worst parts of our makers, without the little things, the good things, the magic things, that made them them.

 

Sea of Rust is composed in equal parts of sad, guilt-ridden reminiscences of the past, in the flash-backs that show how the current situation came to be; of poignant considerations about the ‘brave new world’ the bots created in the wake of human extinction; and of electrifying chases across the desert, or pitched battles – and also a quest, one that could once again change the world.  What most surprised me was the sheer level of humanity the author managed to confer to his robotic characters, so that it was difficult for me to picture them as metal-and-circuits creatures rather than flesh-and-blood ones.

It’s a very peculiar story, and one that will not fail to touch emotional chords – strange as it might seem considering the nature of the characters – and even if you are not an habitual reader of science fiction, I would advise you to read this one, for its thought-provoking issues and the emotional depth of the characters.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: SWANWATCH, by Yoon Ha Lee

short_stories

 

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

 

SWANWATCH, by Yoon Ha Lee

(click on the title to read the story online at LightSpeed Magazine)

 

When the first reviews of Yoon Ha Lee’s novel, Ninefox Gambit, started appearing online, I was immediately curious about this intriguing new story and, more importantly, about the author’s writing style. Since I always enjoy sampling a shorter work from a new-to-me writer, I was quite thrilled when I saw this story on the online version of Lightspeed Magazine.

Swansong is the kind of story that requires all of your attention, because it plunges you straight in with the bare minimum of context – and in this particular case even less than that – and forces you to learn as you go. I always enjoy this mode of writing because I like to be challenged, so I waited patiently for events to unfold and for details to come into focus, and in the end I was happily rewarded.

Swan is a young woman from an affluent family in the Concert of Worlds and she has been sent to the Fermata as a punishment for offending a ship’s captain: the sin looks quite trivial, because she merely “addressed him in the wrong language for the occasion”, and yet the girl is sent into exile at the station orbiting near the Fermata, that sounds like a black hole, one where swanships come to die in an endless plunge toward oblivion, ruled by the relativistic forces of an event horizon – or at least this is how I interpreted the situation.

The only way to leave the place is to create a work of art so sublime that the judges, coming to the station every ten years, would lift the sentence. None of the other exiles present on the station – Dragon and Phoenix, Tiger and Tortoise – are artists, so only Swan, trained in music, might be able to compose a symphony worthy of her freedom.

This story seems built more on emotion than fact, images and sounds rather than characterization, and for this reason it had an enormous impact on my imagination: there is a current of quiet despair in the group of exiles manning the station, a despair that is enhanced by the sight of the ships, big and small, that cross toward their endless doom. And yet there is something more at play here, a glimmer of hope, a seed promising something more and better – I don’t dare say more, for fear of spoilers – that changes the reader’s outlook as it changes Swan’s, and it’s something, quite appropriately, quietly beautiful.

Highly recommended.

My Rating:  4 star half

Reviews

Review: UNDER THE SKIN, by Michel Faber

First things first, I want to thank fellow blogger Stephen Bianchini, over at The Earthian Hivemind, for showcasing this novel in one of his Teaser Tuesday posts, otherwise I might never have come across an incredibly intriguing read.

And second, I have to caution you that it will be next to impossible to review Under the Skin without spoiling its main plot concept, although I might add that the mystery at the basis of the story is revealed quite soon and that there are crystal-clear hints even before the actual disclosure, so I don’t believe that talking about it will ruin the journey of any reader – the warning stands though, so that anyone might decide how to proceed.

As the story opens, we learn that main character Isserley drives over the roads of rural Scotland in search of hitchhikers – a very specific kind of hitchhiker, brawny and strong, with little or no ties to community or family – for what’s clearly a heinous purpose: at first I thought she might be a vampire, or a serial killer, but little by little the accumulating clues revealed something totally different.  For starters, Isserley’s appearance is quite odd: she’s small, frail-looking, her face is strange and her eyes are hidden behind thick glasses that magnify them all out of proportion; her arms and legs are spindly and there are scars on her slightly-misshapen hands, but the strangest feature is represented by her breasts, whose size and fullness recall more the look of a centerfold playmate rather than that of the gangly creature flaunting them.

What’s more, Isserley grasp of language is sketchy at best and some of the more colloquial forms of expression (not to mention the Scottish brogue she encounters at times) completely fly over her head, as do some of her potential victims’ behavioral patterns: that’s because she is an alien, and her job is to collect viable male specimens to be fattened and slaughtered so that their meat can be sent to her home planet as a rare delicacy. From the few flashbacks we are afforded, we learn that Isserley’s place of origin is a barren wasteland where food and water are scarce, where even the few privileged live in a sort of aseptic seclusion, while the rest is sent to toil in the dreaded Estates, places that would make a penal colony of old look like a tropical resort.  Isserley has volunteered to be cruelly altered to resemble an Earth human (or as close to it as these alien minds can imagine, hence the huge breasts) so that she can act as a lure for the prey to be collected, processed and shipped home.

Hers is a life of agony, the original four-legged, furred appearance surgically corrected into a shape and posture that are unnatural and require constant exercise to keep the pain at bay; and also a life of loneliness, because the rest of the alien crew – the unmodified alien crew – looks on her as something to be pitied, something that is useful and productive, but is not human anymore.  Here is one of the mind-bending concepts of this novel: the aliens think of themselves as human, while Earth people are vodsels – unthinking, unrefined animals to be harvested and consumed, nothing more.  Isserley has chosen – volunteered – to undergo the transformation out of despair, and bears the pain and loneliness with a sort of detached acceptance that creates a surprising bond with the reader: more than once I felt sympathy for her, despite the horrible task she performs, because I could see how much a victim she is even though her role is that of the predator.

On hindsight, I believe that one of the reasons for my surprising reaction must come from the author’s stark, restrained prose: when he describes the aliens’ operation, even in its more crude details, the sober, almost clinical tone cushions his readers from the shock of it all, and his almost constant focus on Isserley and her thoughts places the ghastly reality of it all on the back burner, so to speak.  What in less skilled hands might have become a blood-and-gore account worthy of the worst splatter movie, turns instead this novel into a story that feels close to a disconnected dreamscape rather than harsh and disturbing reality, and whose emphasis is on what makes us humans, people capable of compassion and mercy – this last a word that takes a harrowing significance in one of the most chilling sections of the book.

Isserley is basically a person who has lost her identity and floats uneasily in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty she keeps at bay by fiercely concentrating on the job at hand: what looks like endless repetition of her everyday chores – cruising around, spotting potential subjects, taking them aboard her car and drugging them so she can carry the day’s load to the processing plant – is a way for her to forget who she was, who she is now and what her life has come to. That’s the reason for the huge upheaval that occurs when the wayward son of the operation’s boss comes to visit the premises and throws everything out of kilter. Amlis Vess is the typical spoiled brat of a wealthy family, one who has never had to struggle in his life, and so feels free to pursue his own ideals – including that of recognizing the rights of the “animals” his father’s company is fattening for the home planet’s market.  In this same way, he offers Isserley his respect (something she sorely lacks in her present situation) and maybe something more, helping her become aware of the beauty that surrounds them on this alien planet so different from their own, so that the fierce, violent way in which she initially rebuffs his approach is all the evidence we need to understand all that has been brewing under the thin veneer of Isserley’s apparent detachment.

Under the Skin is a story that goes well beyond the outward appearance of alien horror, the kind of book that stays with you long after you have finished reading it, because there is much more under the surface than meets the eye: I believe one of the meanings of the title is exactly this, that there are layers upon layers to us and to what we are.  It’s not an easy book, but one I’m glad I have not missed in my journeys.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PERFECT MATCH, by Ken Liu

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues…  This week is the turn of Ken Liu’s

THE PERFECT MATCH

(click on the link to read the story)

Thanks to the online archives of Lightspeed Magazine I discovered this intriguing short story by Ken Liu: it postulates that in a not-so-far future our life will be handled by the next generation of the technology we daily use today.

Sai is a young corporate employee whose life is totally managed by Tilly, the captivating name of the virtual personal assistant created by Centillion software – think Siri on steroids…  He wakes up to music Tilly tailors to his personal preferences, prepares himself for work eating the kind of breakfast that Tilly judges is best for him according to the day ahead, and knows that after work he has a date with a girl whose profile has been chosen by Tilly on the basis of his previous choices and psychological profile.

Sai is not alone in this: like millions of other Centillion customers, his whole life is run by Tilly, down to the smallest detail, because Centillion’s motto is “Make Things Better”, by creating social profiles of people and guiding them toward the choices that best correspond to their preferences and ultimately to their happiness. Tilly is an ever-present voice in Sai’s ear coming from his phone’s earpiece, a sort of technological Jiminy Cricket finding exactly what Sai wants even before he knows he wants it, always coming up with the perfect solution to any issue that might arise during the day.

The evening date with a very compatible woman goes according to plan: they are eminently suited to each other, and have no lack of common interests – Tilly’s choice seems to have hit its mark once more, and yet a little worm of doubt starts creeping over Sai’s consciousness:

Everything was indeed going smoothly, but maybe just a tad too smoothly. It was as if they already knew everything there was to know about each other. There were no surprises, no thrill of finding the truly new.

These doubts stem from the latest encounter with Sai’s next-door neighbor Jenny, a person who resents the excessive presence of technology in people’s lives, like Tilly’s camera over Sai’s door, complaining about the invasion of privacy. During one of their hallway encounters, Jenny accuses him of living under Tilly’s thumb, so to speak, accepting its advice to the point he’s unwilling – or even unable – to make choices on his own.

Once this doubt has been sown, Sai starts to question Tilly’s choices and this attitude is met with the kind of amazed perplexity of a hurt mother – a very suffocating mother: observing the ramifications of this software into people’s everyday life is something of a shock, because in truth many of us in the real world have started to rely on our gadgets in a way that makes us quite depended on them, instead of our memory, awareness, choices.  As one character says at some point:

Without Tilly, you can’t do your job, you can’t remember your life, you can’t even call your mother. We are now a race of cyborgs. We long ago began to spread our minds into the electronic realm, and it is no longer possible to squeeze all of ourselves back into our brains.

This story is not a dire warning about the dangers of technology, not at all, but rather a cautionary tale about surrendering our independence to the oh-so-easy help of convenient appliances, forgetting that at the same time we are surrendering a part of ourselves. Something to always keep in mind when we share the big and small details of our lives with the faceless technology that’s part of our existence…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SHADOW RUN, by A. Strickland and M. Miller

When I first heard about Shadow Run my attention was caught by its definition as a cross between Dune and Firefly: as a huge fan of both I could not let this book pass me by, of course, and that kind of anticipation helped me overcome any misgivings due to the fact that this story seems mainly targeted toward a YA audience, something that usually does not sit well with me.  But having had a few positive runs with this sub-genre in the recent past – most notably with the Illuminae Files for SF and the Great Library series for FY – I felt confident that I could overcome my bias one more time.

Shadow Run‘s main core concept is the existence of a substance – Shadow – that can be employed as an almost limitless source of energy: Shadow can be harvested in space near ice-bound Alaxak, a planet whose only resource comes from “fishing” the precious material, the other side of the coin being represented by the very nature of Shadow, that can poison the harvesters, driving them to madness and an early death.  Qole Uvgamut is the 17 year old captain of the Kaitan Heritage, a “fishing” ship she inherited from her dead parents: Qole runs the Kaitan with her brother Arjan and a small crew composed by hacker Telu, strong-arm Eton and the mysterious, gender fluid Basra, who is something of a walking mystery.  Her new recruit Nev, engaged as a cargo handler, is soon revealed as the heir of the noble Dracorte family, intent on proving his worth as a prince while finding a new, safer way of handling Shadow through the affinity shown by Qole, whose link with the substance seem to have gifted her with amazing powers.

Narrowly escaping the clutches of a rival noble family, Nev and the Kaitan‘s crew reach his home planet, where Qole is slated to become a partner in the research that will bring unlimited energy to the galaxy and a measure of wealth to Alaxak and its destitute and suffering inhabitants: the situation is soon revealed to be far less utopian than it appeared, and Qole and her crew will have to fight a battle on two fronts for their lives and freedom, while Nev will have to confront his life-long beliefs and take a stand, choosing the side he wants to be on.

As far as premises go, Shadow Run begins in a very intriguing way, first because it drops the reader in the middle of things and then proceeds to expand the focus in small increments, painting this world little by little without need for long exposition or tedious info-dumping. Moreover, the choice of working from a first-person perspective is given a good pace by alternating point of view chapters between Qole and Nev, which keeps things at a nice, almost compulsive speed.  The crew of the Kaitan is an interesting mix, and even though they are painted in broad strokes and don’t get as much “screen time” as the two main characters, there is enough to give most of them enough substance to make them real and three-dimensional, leading the reader to care for them and desire to know more about their past and what makes them tick.

Shadow is also a fascinating element, a material moving in currents through space that somehow made me think about plankton banks in the oceans: the method employed to gather it, by using energy nets, reinforces the comparison to actual fishing and makes for a few interesting scenes, that coupled with the description of the Kaitan, an old, rundown ship lovingly maintained by ingenuity and a lot of love, helps to carry home the harsh, unforgiving background in which the Alaxans try to eke out a living.  Last but not least there are several scenes and dialogues that stress how the galaxy’s powers that be exploit Alaxak’s resources without giving much back to the inhabitants, therefore creating a social commentary on the state of affairs in this time and place: again a comparison springs to mind with the mining of coal from the past, and with the health dangers incurred by the miners whose hard, dangerous labor never received enough compensation in correlation with the risks they took every day.

Unfortunately, such fascinating premises are somewhat marred by some narrative choices: of course there is a good measure of adventures, daring escapades, heart-stopping rescues and bloody battles, but they all appear as a mere side-dish for the romance between Qole and Nev. The young captain starts out as a strong character who has reached a maturity well beyond her years, a person who works for the small family she has built on the Kaitan, while very aware that her time is limited, that Shadow poisoning will soon come to claim her like it did her parents and older brother, and yet she keeps fighting because she refuses to give in and accept the inevitable defeat.  There is much to be admired in Qole, and that’s the reason I felt betrayed when first she repeatedly needed to be saved by Nev, and then fell in love with him: what would be the reason to create such an independent, headstrong person, only to place her in a condition of physical and emotional weakness?

And this would not have been the worst “sin” of the story if, on arrival on Luvos – Nev’s home planet – she had not been confronted by Nev’s distastefully aristocratic family: a form of social distance had to be expected in consideration of the circumstances, but was it really necessary to make them so blatantly snobbish and arrogant? The scene where Qole is prepared for an evening’s event is totally over the top, and in my opinion entirely undermines everything that has been shown about her character until that moment. Sadly, it does not end here: the budding romance between the rugged captain and the young prince is subject to a further cold shower when Nev’s fiancée Ket makes her appearance and – of course! – she’s a shrewish, catty airhead bent on humiliating the new arrival.

These elements are sadly part and parcel of any trope-laden YA narrative, and from my point of view they impair any effort at creating convincing characterization and story-telling, because the risk of producing cookie-cutter narrative is always around the corner, and in this case this is what I believe happened, spoiling what so far had been an interesting and promising story that I might have rated higher. Missed opportunities are always the saddest, indeed…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: YE HIGHLANDS AND YE LOWLANDS, by Seanan McGuire

I have to thank fellow blogger Maryam from The Curious SFF Reader, who sent me the link to this story, for the opportunity of reading this intriguing foray into science fiction by UF author Seanan McGuire, one that I might otherwise have missed: knowing how much I admire this writer, she pointed me this way, and at the same time introduced me to Uncanny Magazine, that’s been added to the list of places where I will look for interesting short fiction.

YE HIGHLANDS AND YE LOWLANDS

(click on the above link to read the story)

In Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands we learn that the world as we know it is ending and that the present situation is the direct consequence of a precise chain of events – indeed the words “things have consequences” keep resonating throughout the story, much like an ominous warning. Or a funeral dirge…

The main character, a mother with two teenaged kids, seeks some respite from what we understand is a long journey with little or no hope, and we learn through a series of flashbacks what happened before: the amazing discovery of a portal toward another world, the observation of this alien land where a few robotic probes have been sent in search for life, the encounter with an alien species – and the beginning of the end.

There is a painful dichotomy between the grim present, where people are running from certain death toward the few safe places – as long as they last, of course – and the hopeful, enthusiastic past, when people joked about the portal wanting to call it “the Stargate”, or when they sent the robot probes supplied with “every known human language—including Klingon”, in a giddy reach for contact with other forms of life that could not be disconnected from the number of fictional presentations that used to fire our imagination.  There is even some commentary about the fickleness of the human soul, when even the images of an alien world stop making the news, because “..-quickly people got over the magnitude of our discovery”.

I’m not going to reveal what the twist in the tale is, of course, but I feel comfortable in saying that it’s a painfully surprising one, and also a warning about the dangers of overconfidence, of putting one’s dreams above all else:  “we’d been so busy wallowing in intellectual ideals that we’d never stopped to think”.  Despite the grimness, despite the hopelessness, I enjoyed this story very much because no one like McGuire is able to deliver a tale of ultimate doom while keeping her readers engaged, enthralled by the way she weaves her words into a clear, mesmerizing picture.

Not a “happy” story, not by a long shot, but a powerful one that makes you think about the outcome of our choices, and the dangers of taking our customs and thinking processes for granted. Because, in the end

THINGS HAVE CONSEQUENCES

HELLO

My Rating: