Reviews

Short Story Review: FELDSPAR, by Philip A. Kramer

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

FELDSPAR (from Best Free Stories 2017)

The first story to catch my undivided attention in this anthology is one featuring the exploration of Mars: with the increased interest focusing toward the red planet in recent times, it’s only natural that so many works would choose to set their background on it.    The titular Feldspar is a remotely-operated rover, one of many landed on the surface of Mars to collect ores and carry them to a big smelter working to provide the necessary materials for the colonization effort: these rovers’ handling has been turned over to very committed and enthusiastic workers – gamers from all over the world who bought the operating rights to their rovers and became the “most dedicated workforce on Earth”.

Blake is one of those gamers-turned-operatives and through Feldspar he’s contributing to the effort of Project Regolith from his home in San Francisco: like many of his brethren, he’s playing this sort of serious game while living like a virtual recluse, but unlike others he has a dream and a goal, that of one day moving to live on Mars. To him the project is not just a divertissment, but a serious endeavor and one that moved ever closer to reality when the first manned mission landed on the red planet and started setting some permanent presence there.

For this reason, once he detects something troubling on the surface, he wastes no time in checking out the problem and discovering the presence of an injured astronaut whose oxygen and battery power might be depleted before the rescue party can reach her. The race against time and the unforgiving environment of Mars suffers from a false start of sorts because NASA does not look too keen about having a civilian (and what’s basically a nerd, at that) involved in their operations, but Blake’s preparation in the field and the help he can provide soon change their mind, so that the battle for astronaut Kate survival can be engaged with some hope of success.

I enjoyed this story very much, not least because of the suspense created both by the situation and by the nerve-wracking time lag of 8 minutes that makes communications – and commands sent to Feldspar – very difficult in that specific situation.  A story to be fully enjoyed, indeed, so that it’s no surprise that it won the Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award 2017: a well-deserved victory.

My Rating: 

 

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Reviews

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

From the anthology: SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS

edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS

 

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: JUST DO IT, by Heather Lindsley

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

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

JUST DO IT by Heather Lindsley

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

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

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

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DARK MATTER, by Blake Crouch

 

Book blurbs once tended to use the phrases “a page turner!” and/or “unputdownable!” to advertise a book that would grab its readers and not let go until the very end, and over the years I’ve become a little wary of such emphasis because more often than not it led me down the path of disappointment.  But in the case of Dark Matter I think those sentences describe perfectly the effect the story had on me, the way it pulled me in and held me under its spell until I finished it; and the proof of the potency of such a spell lies in the fact that I did not start to question the (few and far between, granted) small inconsistencies in this fascinating narrative until I closed the book.

Jason Dessen is a physics professor in Chicago, a man whose life is running on comfortable tracks – if a little predictable and boring: he’s happily married, he and his wife have a teenage son, they are financially well-off and experience no troubles of any kind – the picture of the perfect suburban life.  Both Jason and his wife Daniela had to give up some of their youthful dreams – he of pursuing his scientific research, she her artistic inclinations – when Daniela became pregnant with their son Charlie and they choose to marry and build a family, but neither of them seems to openly regret that sacrifice.   One night, Jason accepts the invitation to the party of a former colleague and friend, who just won a prestigious prize for his breakthrough research, and for a brief moment we see Jason’s shell of contentment crack, even though it’s a passing thought, easily shaken off.

At that point I knew that something had to happen, that the idyllic picture had to be broken, and indeed as Jason is walking back home he’s assailed by a masked man who kidnaps him and brings him to an abandoned power plant, where he injects his victim with some unknown substance.  When Jason regains consciousness he’s in a strange installation, greeted as the returning hero by a host of people who seem to know him well, while he never met a single one of them.   Even if I had not been aware of Dark Matter’s core theme, it would have been easy to suspect that I was dealing with alternate universes, and that the mysterious assailant was indeed another Jason, one who had chosen to pursue his scientific career and unlocked the secrets of the multiverse, but now yearned for the fulfilling family life that the other Jason enjoyed, and so orchestrated the exchange.

From here on, the novel becomes Jason’s breathless, desperate search for the way back to his own reality, and his family, while the author explores the theories about parallel realities and the science behind it, laying it down in such a way that it’s both easy to understand and emotionally engaging: one of my favorite themes is the one about the traveler’s power of observation and mental state affecting the reality of the world he opens the door to.  The first parallel worlds Jason ends up in, while searching for the way home, are desolate places made uninhabitable by glacial temperatures or nuclear fallout, and they mirror closely his despair and helplessness at being torn from his reality and family, and it’s only by clinging to the memories of the life he built day by day, and recollecting with painstaking care the more minute details of that life that he keeps getting closer to his goal.

It’s not surprising that the strongest theme in this novel would be that of the road not taken, and of the consequences of our decisions, even the most trivial ones: they don’t affect only the outcome of people’s lives, but also the makeup of their personality.  What Jason sees, in the multitude of his alter-egos living in other realities, brings into sharp focus the evidence of the extreme volatility of existence, of the way even minor occurrences can have a profound effect on one’s destiny. We see that in the news quite often: the missed train or plane that saves an individual from a deadly wreck is the most classic example, or on a less dramatic instance, a chance encounter might decide for an unforeseen career path.  For Jason, all those variations of himself bring home the fact that his family, the people he loves more than himself, are what defines him and that he will be whole again only when he gets back to them, undoing the horrible wrong that his doppelganger inflicted on him: if this narrative choice contributes to making him a very sympathetic character, it’s also something of a double-edged sword.  As I said, it’s easy to ignore the doubt it instills while in the midst of the story, but on hindsight it’s a little bothersome.

The “original” Jason is basically a nice person, and he remains that way all throughout his ordeal: even in the direst of circumstances he strives to keep hold of his fundamental decency, and if at times he almost gives in to his baser instinct, he always manages to drag himself back from the brink. That’s all right of course, and it serves to enhance a reader’s sympathy toward a character who is going through any kind of hell to get back to his loved ones, but this side of the characterization falters once Jason starts meeting his counterparts (and at some point there is quite a LOT of them…) and the vast majority of all those Jasons shows no qualms about doing away with any obstacles in their path, even when that requires murdering their “twins”. While all that serves to show Original Jason in a more favorable light, on hindsight his inner decency appears contrived, as if the author were blatantly pointing at him as the only true Jason, distinguishing him from the rest of his “evil” copies.   Something similar also happens when our hero wakes up in the alternate reality lab: with a single exception, everyone is a cold-blooded murderer, ready to kill anyone to maintain the secret of their momentous discovery: in my opinion it felt all a bit forced, and unnecessarily so.

It’s a very small complaint, though, and the fact that it surfaced only after I finished the book shows the depth of commitment to the story I enjoyed while I was reading it – which means that I can only highly recommend Dark Matter as a very satisfying read.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

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

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

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION?

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: OUTPOST (Donovan Trilogy #1), by W. Michael Gear

 

The colonization of distant planets is one of my favorite science fiction themes: I’ve always found it fascinating to observe humans react to a new, often hostile environment and having to do it on their own, because any kind of help is millions of miles away.  It hearkens back to the idea of pioneers starting a journey toward the unknown, being aware of the dangers that might face them, but still feeling the need to obey that inescapable drive to move forward, to “see what’s out there“.  One of such stories was the Heorot series by Niven and Pournelle, where the colonists found themselves face to face with terrible predators aptly named ‘grendels’, and I encountered a similar spirit in this novel, which enhanced my enjoyment of this well-crafted book.

Donovan is a lush, Earth-like planet rich in minerals and precious stones, a true paradise for colonists and miners, but it also possesses a dark, ruthless side, because most of its flora and fauna are deadly: in the three decades since planetfall, the first wave of settlers has dwindled down to a few hundred individuals, their life hanging on a precarious balance due in part to the heavy casualties and in part to the lack of supplies, because none of the ships sent with new people and equipment ever made it to Donovan.  Items like antibiotics, for example, have run out, which means that on this planet even a banal infection can kill you.

Still, the Donovanians have learned how to cope with the situation and how to reach a sort of armed truce (where armed is indeed the key word) with the planet and its dangers, and in so doing have developed a streak of stubborn independence.   Enter the Turalon, a new ship sent by the Corporation, the colony’s contractor, whose representative Kalico Aguila is determined to use the mission to further her ambitions: solving the mystery of the lost connection with this potentially lucrative settlement, and bringing it back into the Corporation’s fold, will take her to the top of the corporate food chain.  What Aguila discovers is that travel in space is far more dangerous than one could have imagined, and on top of that the colonists are not ready to hand back the independence they literally bought with their blood.

What passes for government on Donovan is handled by a trio of people, the most notable of them being Talina Perez, a woman toughened by hardship who, like her two other counterparts, has won the respect and faith of the other colonists by showing her aptitude for survival.  It’s therefore not surprising that the arrival of Aguila and her company of marines, led by the veteran Max Taggart, does not shake the community overmuch: the settlers know that before anyone can lay any claim on Donovan, they have to demonstrate their ability to survive it, to move beyond their new-arrival status (defined “soft meat” by the colonists) into the hardened shape that the planet requires.

To make things even more interesting, one of the new arrivals is a ruthless killer who boarded the Turalon with forged papers, determined to build himself a new life on Donovan – of course on the backs of his hapless victims: he proceeds to find himself a lucrative niche in the colony, doing away with any obstacle with the same ease as other indigenous predators; and as if all the above were not enough to keep readers on the edge of their seat, one of the ships bound toward Donovan, the Freelander, makes its appearance: the same kind of unexplainable anomaly that made the other ships vanish has caused the Freelander to be trapped in a sort of limbo for over a century – the crew and passengers are all dead and in the middle of the officers’ mess-room looms an ominous construct of human bones…

More than the fascinating glimpses of the wondrous, dangerous beasts that prowl the surface, like the reptilian quetzals, or the treacherous flora, like a kind of predatory vine that lashes out when one least expects it, this novel finds its strength in the contrast between the new arrivals, full of notions about how to run things and follow rules, and the settlers, whose experience has taught them the hard way that they had to adapt to the planet, and not the other way around.  The political and economical quandaries faced by Aguila dovetail nicely with the personality clashes between colonists and Corporation people, the latter having a hard time wrapping their minds around the laid-back kind of anarchy that has supplanted any rule still observed by the newcomers, who have not had the opportunity to learn Donovan’s harsh lessons.  One of the best scenes where these differences come to the fore is the failed attempt at a trial in which Talina and her two co-rulers should be the accused and end up being the heroes of the moment, having correctly judged the mood of the audience and the weaknesses of Aguila and her enforcers: there is a delightful balance between drama and humor in this scene that mirrors the novel’s overall mood, and the opposing attitudes between the major players.

As fascinating as the background is, the characters are even more interesting: apart from Talina, who is some ass-kicking woman indeed, one we meet for the first time as she chases a dangerous quetzal, there are her co-rulers Shig and Yvette – the former often relying on some inscrutable Eastern wisdom and the latter on a more practical approach – a triumvirate based on shared experiences and mutual respect. If they remain more or less faithful to themselves in the course of the story, we can see great changes in some of the new arrivals, especially Max “Cap” Taggart and Kalico Aguila.  Taggart, who starts as the epitome of the square-jawed soldier, slowly falls under the spell of Donovan (and Talina’s as well…), for the first time realizing that there is more to life than an existence structured around rules and regulations, that the freedom he enjoys on the planet, despite or maybe because of the dangers he faces, is what he wants and maybe always wanted.  In a sense, Taggart “turns native”, and this causes him no end of grief from his former comrades who are unable to look at Donovan with the same eyes.    Kalico Aguila seems to be the perfect corporate drone, living only for advancement and power, and it will take the hard reality of Donovan and the fear engendered by the returning Freelander to steer her goals in a different way.

As the first book in a trilogy, Outpost does a good work of laying down the premises for the story and manages it while telling a compelling, multi-faceted tale full of twists and turns – some of them quite unexpected, like a development that caught me by surprise toward the end – but it leaves a good number of unanswered questions for the next installments: I can’t wait to see what this dangerous, mysterious planet still has in store for me…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: EMBERS OF WAR (Embers of War #1), by Gareth L. Powell

When I started reading the synopsis for this novel, as soon as I reached the words “sentient ship” I stopped paying attention to any other detail, since this has been a favorite theme since the times of my long-ago encounter with Anne McCaffrey’s stories, and more recently with the Leviathan Moya of the acclaimed tv show Farscape.  And once I discovered that in Embers of War the ship Trouble Dog is not simply sentient, but enjoys its own first person point of view, I knew I was in for a delightful experience – but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s proceed with order…

The action takes place in what feels like a distant future, when humanity has been discovered by and welcomed into a sort of galactic federation called the Multiplicity: such enlightened company has not changed humans very much though, and therefore the story opens on the final stages of a brutal conflict between two factions, the Conglomeration and the Outwarders.  The former, knowing the war might go on for a long time with heavy casualties on both sides, decides to strike a massive blow against its opponents and causes the total destruction of a planet covered by a sentient forest, where Outwarder and Conglomeration forces are locked in endless guerrilla skirmishes.

Years later, Captain Sal Konstanz commands a vessel of the House of Reclamation, an organization devoted to the rescue of endangered spacers, and her ship, the Trouble Dog, used to be one of the vessels tasked with the annihilation of Pelapatarn, the planet destroyed in the prologue: the ship, gifted with sentience thanks to a mix of technology and human brain cells, feels the need to atone for its past actions (evidently not subscribing to the easy alibi of “I was just following orders”, as many humans do) and believes that working for  the House of Reclamation is a start to balance the lives lost to wartime destruction.

The House of Reclamation is indeed a fascinating concept, a mix between the Red Cross and the Foreign Legion, where one’s past and previous affiliations cease to matter and the only goal is that to save lives.  For this reason they are not subject to any one planet or system’s laws and they are free agents commanding respect from all factions thanks to their humanitarian goals.   This does not mean, however, that they are immune from dangers, and as the Trouble Dog is called to render aid to a liner that was attacked while exploring a peculiar group of planets called ‘the Gallery’, ship and crew find themselves in the crosshairs from competing factions poised to start another conflict.

Besides Sal Konstanz and her crew – former Outwarder soldier Alva Clay, the alien engineer Nod and the young, inexperienced medic Preston Menderes, who’s been assigned to the Dog after the demise of the previous doctor – the story’s points of view include poet Ona Sudak, a passenger on the attacked liner and also a woman with a dark secret in her past; and Ashton Childe and Laura Petruska, respectively a Conglomeration and Outwarder agent.   Their individual paths converge on the Gallery system, a group of planets that a mysterious alien race carved into bizarre shapes and where a chance find opens a portal toward a distant part of the galaxy and the encounter with an old alien race.

This is a story that moves forward at a very good pace, thanks to the author’s narrative skills in keeping the action rolling, and his choice of alternating between the main points of view while having each of them relate the events in the first person, thus giving a more hands-on perspective to the whole scenario as he builds the individual characters. If there is a common bond between these different individuals (and I count Trouble Dog among them) is the strong need for redemption, or freedom from their inner ghosts – or both: for example, Captain Konstanz’s life is dotted with losses, so that she works to save lives to balance those that were taken from her, and sometimes the struggle becomes so painful that she needs to physically retreat from everything and everyone, to elaborate her pain in solitude.  Ashton Childe is profoundly disillusioned by his life’s choices and believes that his current assignment as a spy and military adviser in a far-off conflict is leading nowhere, crushing him under the weight of uselessness and despair.  Or again young Preston is desperately trying to live up to his father’s standards, and doomed to failure by devastating psychological problems.

Still, the most interesting character remains that of Trouble Dog, formerly a Conglomeration ship of the Carnivore class (interesting denomination, this one…) and part of a pack of similar ships built for speedy ruthlessness of action: witnessing the destruction of Pelapatarn and its living forest, knowing that in the massacre uncounted lives were lost, besides the age-old sentient trees, changed its attitude – or probably the growing and learning human brain cells implanted in its systems realized the full consequences of the Carnivores’ strike, and reeled from it in horror.  Nonetheless, despite having now dedicated itself to saving lives instead of taking them, Trouble Dog perceives that its feral instincts are not vanquished, but simply dormant, ready to be awakened in defense of its crew and the people it rescues: I loved how the Dog acknowledges its dual personality, the streak of ingrained violence existing alongside more noble feelings, and how it manages to make them work for the good of the crew through a very creative application of computerized logic.

The ship’s twofold nature is also a good mirror for the story itself: on one side we have action scenes and a plot whose tension grows with the turning of each page as the characters converge toward a well-crafted peak of confrontation and discovery; on the other we are made privy to many inner struggles to protect the life choices they made without jeopardizing the nobler pursuits of their new existence.  The result is a captivating story led by interesting characters, and two of them stand out for very different reasons: one is the alien engineer Nod, whose extreme focus on his job and his spiritual goals make him probably the most stable personality aboard the Trouble Dog, and whose manner of speech – or rather, thought – is a delightful combination of single-minded innocence and affectionate mocking of his human companions’ perceived quirks.  The other is the poet Ona Sudak: even before discovering what lies in her more than checkered past, I could not relate to her because she seemed too detached, too coldly calculating to really make a favorable impression on me; and as the story progressed, I found that I ultimately disliked her.

In the end, Embers of War is revealed as an introduction to a more complex plot, one that will develop over the next books in the series: here we are given glimpses of an age-old alien mystery and of the way it might impact on the present – and very volatile – situation.  Consider me quite intrigued and firmly on board for the rest of the journey…

 

My Rating: