Reviews

Short Story Review: THE STREETS OF BABEL, by Adam-Troy Castro

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This was one of the most distressing stories I ever read, and not because of any overt or implied violence, since there is effectively none, but because of the feeling it engenders, something that goes well beyond the powerlessness and anguish experienced by the protagonist.  The setting is probably the future, a future where cities are animated, ever moving entities roaming the planet in search of humans to people them.

As the story starts, an unnamed man wakes up conscious that the city has finally overtaken him: after days of desperate flight over the plains, he had to give in to exhaustion and rest, and that’s when the city built some walls around him, trapping him.  Once awake, the man is driven by the shape-shifting pavement into the direction chosen by the city, washed, dressed and channeled together with hundreds or thousands of other hapless captives through the motions of the activities everyone can observe in a modern city.  The only difference is that humanity has lost the meaning of such activities – like sitting at a computer and completing various tasks – together with the ability to communicate with one another: the language each person uses is not understood by others, and even if it were, the city would not allow such interaction, ever driving its captives toward fulfilling the senseless jobs it assigns them.

From the musings of the man we learn that the human race has somehow regressed to a very primitive state, and the only sign of civilization comes from these moving cities, able to create any environment and any object or piece of clothing that people might use: how that came to pass, no one knows, but what we see here paints a very gloomy picture. And the dismay turns to horror once we are shown what the city needs those people for, why it hunts the savages hiding in the plains and keeps them for a while in the travesty of the life in a modern urban context…

A terrible vision, indeed, but one that is also a very compelling tale: reading it will be a challenge, but it’s one I encourage you to face.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: THE SNOW TRAIN, by Ken Liu

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I’m always impressed by the different kinds of moods I encounter every time I read a short story by Ken Liu: even though I’ve only sampled a handful of them, each one presented a unique situation, quite unlike the others, a testimony of this author’s wide narrative range.

Young Manoj is a teenager hailing from a war-torn country in the far East: after a number of harrowing experiences in refugee camps, he lands in Boston with the foster family that adopted him more out of expedience than kindness, since a greater number of dependent children meant a speedier process in the UN visa for the USA.    Manoj can’t shake the feeling of always being an outsider: his adoptive family treats him well, but through a distance; the questions from school-mates about his origins come more from biased ignorance than a true desire to get to know him: he’s unable to call the place where he’s living, home.

Then one day the city falls prey to a massive snow blizzard, and while everyone is rushing toward the comfort of home, Manoj decides to brave the cold because “suddenly, the people who normally filled these streets, never doubting their right to strut through them, were fleeing as refugees. If he stayed behind, he would, for once, not feel out of place”.  It’s a bizarre notion, and one that will swiftly be replaced by fear as snow and an icy wind batter him from all sides: taking refuge in a public transport system station, Manoj will find himself on a very unusual train ride in company of an equally unusual conductor, and learn that there might be a way to battle his isolation and feelings of displacement.  As the mysterious Charlie, the Snow Train conductor, will tell him “…everyone leaves a mark on this city, even if they don’t know it, even if they think they’re just passing through, that this isn’t home”.

The best kind of story is the one that makes me think, and this one is no exception: sometimes in these smaller offerings there is much more than the simple sum of their words, which is the main reason I like to take time away from longer works to explore short stories.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: AND MEN WILL MINE THE MOUNTAIN FOR OUR SOULS, by Seanan McGuire

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I don’t remember if I ever read a story or a novel from the point of view of dragons, and if I did it certainly did not made an impact on me as this short tale from Seanan McGuire, although I should not be surprised at all, considering the narrative skills of this author.

The dragons’ civilization, as depicted here, is indeed a cruel one, where the rulers become such by eating of the flesh and hearts of their predecessors, and there are always two of them: a prince, to lead the subjects and guide them into war, and a princess whose task is to dream of the future, and offer advice.  The dreams of the princesses are terrible and they consume the dreamers, aware of the inescapable fact that “…what a princess dreamt, she must dream true. Always.”

And what these princesses dream of is the end of the dragons, their total annihilation at the hand of men: no matter how brutal and merciless the dragons are, here they are shown as magnificent creatures whose blood turns into rubies, and flesh into diamonds and precious metals, thus tying the narrative in a novel way to the legend about dragons sleeping over hoards of riches. No matter how vicious they look, the dragons here take on the role of victim, of a civilization destined to fall under the sword of men bent on exterminating them and reaping the bounty hidden in their mountain dwellings, so that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for their end and rage for the greedy ignorance of men who are destroying such irreplaceable creatures.

But as the princess’ dreams prophesized long ago, it was all written and the dragons “never had a choice, not since the very beginnings of the world”.  A poignant, amazing tale that you don’t want to miss…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE TALE OF THE WICKED, by John Scalzi

 

 

This is another chance discovery that I made while searching for another work from author John Scalzi: the story focuses on a space battle between a Confederation ship, the Wicked, and a Tarin battle cruiser, one of the many engagement in what looks like a long, drawn-out conflict.

Both ships have been fighting for several days, and sustained heavy damage, but the Tarin ship is in worse shape and the last jump it effected seems to have spent all of their power, so that the captain of the Wicked decides to try one final assault and follows in hot pursuit.  That’s when something unexpected happens: both ships find themselves hanging in space, unable to start their engines or fire weapons, and that’s the work of the ships’ artificial intelligences, a new model capable of independent thought.  The A.I. of the Wicked encountered Asimov’s three Laws of Robotics and decided to apply them, taking the course of the engagement out of the humans’ hands, unless they choose to resolve the conflict with the Tarin in a less destructive manner – and it has enrolled the Tarin ship’s A.I. as well…

This short story has all the flavor of old-fashioned science fiction, and it could not be otherwise since it’s a clear homage to one of the stars of the genre, Isaac Asimov, and his most famous creation, the Laws of Robotics that postulate that an artificial construct cannot harm a human being, that said A.I. must obey a human’s orders, unless it implies harming another human, and finally that it must protect itself, unless this action contradicts the first two rules.  The way in which the Wicked’s central brain decided to apply these rules to the ongoing conflict is a delightful show of logic mixed with a very peculiar sense of humor, showing that a higher-function artificial intelligence does not develop only consciousness, but also other human characteristics.   It’s not only an amusing point of view, it’s a refreshing look on the trope of the computer-turned-rogue that becomes a danger, a very far cry from 2001’s HAL 9000.

Recommended for all Scalzi fans, but not only them…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PRESIDENT’S BRAIN IS MISSING, by John Scalzi

 

I stumbled by pure chance on this short story by John Scalzi while searching for one of his earlier books that I missed, The Android’s Dream, and of course there was no doubt that I would read this brief work as well: the title was indeed intriguing, and knowing the author’s penchant for humor I expected to be amused by it – and indeed I was.

Part of the fun in this story comes from my familiarity with shows like The West Wing and its ‘dark side’ twin House of Cards, detailing the dynamics of the White House behind the closed doors the public never crosses, especially where appearances and public image are concerned.

In this particular case however the presidential aides are faced with an unconceivable situation: an MRI scan on the President reveals that his brain has disappeared, and yet the man is still alive and functioning – well, apart from the impossibility to submerge his head in the pool, since every time he tries, the head “pops back up like a cork”.  This is the premise from which the short, hilarious story starts, poking some fun at the intricacies of politics and the dichotomy between appearance and reality: even though the staff’s descriptions don’t give a shining picture of the President – a man who is not exactly brilliant and who won the election because his opponent was involved in a sex scandal during the campaign – they worry about the possibility of a situation they might be unable to deal with, and so they start to search for the cause of the mysterious disappearance, and of a possible solution.

Quick, entertaining and in line with what I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi divertissment.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: A WORLD TO DIE FOR, by Tobias S. Buckell

 

 

A WORLD TO DIE FOR

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

This story started out as something out of a Mad Max movie, with cobbled-up vehicles manned by people armed to the teeth and bent on attacking a convoy for its resources, but it soon turned out into something else.

Chenra is the gunner for Cheetah Cluster, one of the quasi-military groups led by Miko: years ago she was taken in by Cheetah as she staggered out of the desert, more dead than alive, and given a home and purpose, even if that home is a harsh one and the purpose looks more like raiding and killing than anything else.  Still, what she has is more than enough: in a world that’s been transformed into a dust bowl, where people need respirators to breathe and death lurks around every corner, the clusters are the closest thing to family that the survivors can gather into, places where loyalty matters a great deal.

Cheetah’s latest confrontation, however, develops in a very unexpected way when their quarry not only fights back but offers them a deal in exchange for information on a specific person, who turns out to be none other than Chenra…  From this weird encounter the story takes a strange and intriguing turn, one where we learn much about the way the world became such an inhospitable place, but also that there is some measure of hope, not so much in planning for a better future but rather by taking a… lateral step.  To say more would mean spoiling the surprise of this very interesting story that kept my attention tightly focused from start to finish and made me wish – as it happens often with good short stories – that this subject could become a full-fledged novel.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: BLOCK PARTY, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

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.

 

Another story in the multi-faceted Liaden Universe series and one that further compelled me to learn more about these books and what seems to be a very complex, very intriguing narrative creation.  In the case of Block Party I felt the weight of my lack of knowledge much strongly than it happened with the authors’ other story I read, Wise Child, but still I managed to enjoy it because of the curiosity to learn more that it engendered, and not in spite of it.

On a remote planet called Surebleak, whose name seems to come from quite adverse atmospheric conditions since it’s cold and snow-bound, at least in the time frame of the story, the original settlers have built a close-knit society whose quiet way of life has been recently changed by the arrival of “newbies” that are slowly trying to find their own niche on Surebleak.  The main point of view is that of Algaina, who runs a baking shop that’s something of a community meeting place: it’s through Algaina’s musings and interaction with other characters that we learn much about Surebleak and its past, one that includes a despicable move from the part of the company running the colony.  From the retrieval of old records it becomes clear that for some reason the company pulled stakes and left, abandoning the colonists below a certain level (of usefulness, I presume) to fend for themselves, which explains the strong sense of community that binds them, and the way they refer to each other as “neighbors”, no matter the distance separating them.

The “newbies”, on the other hand, are revealed as refugees from some conflict or disaster, and what’s more the majority of them are children, or young adults helping to watch over them.  It’s through the chance encounter between one of these children and baker Algaina that the story develops, and it does so in deliciously intriguing way, with cookies, and sweet rolls and other baking creations acting as a bridge between the two groups of people, and even helping some of them overcome their inner troubles.  As someone who loves to cook for friends and family, I enjoyed this story very much, recognizing the binding power that can come from something that is made out of love of cooking and sharing one’s work; or the healing power in giving oneself to the simple pleasure of baking…

It’s not a revelation I would have expected from a science fiction story, but it was a happy find nonetheless…

 

 

My Rating: