Reviews

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

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

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

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

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

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

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

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE, by Seanan McGuire

 

LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE

(click on the link to read the story on Lightspeed Magazine)

 

Think about “The Day of the Triffids” blended with “The War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on a steampunk background: this is what this story made me think about, even though there is much, much more to it.  These concepts, handled by the deliciously evil writing skills of Seanan McGuire, have created the tale of an invasion that is also a commentary on human flaws, poking fun at our ingrained short-sightedness.

Told in the style of a 19th Century memoir from a lady of high breeding, it recounts the invasion and conquest of Earth by an alien race of… vegetables, and if the premise makes you smile, think again, because if the tone of the account is deceptively gracious and civilized, the reality it depicts comes across as efficiently brutal, and it chilled me to the bone.

The first wave of the invasion by what will be later termed “The Vegetable Empire” starts with the arrival of seeds all over the world: the only one who manages to thrive lands in 19th Century England in the garden of Sir Arthur Blackwood, the royal botanist – and promptly proceeds to eat Sir Arthur’s sister’s maid, taking on her appearance and memories.  Far from being appalled by what happened, the Blackwoods take the seedling into their circle, as a novelty and a subject of polite study, even bestowing on her the name of Lady Antheia, from the goddess of flowers. As Antheia later writes in her memoirs, “better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say”.  The lack of a shocked reaction to Antheia’s method of interaction with humans is commentary enough on the period’s regard for household help and of their short-sightedness about the creature they have welcomed into their midst with little or no thought for her true, blood-thirsty nature: after all, Antheia comments, all they see is “the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles”.  She looks like a woman, therefore she can offer no threat, can she?

When six years later the bulk of the invading army arrives, England and the rest of Earth are unprepared for the assault, not understanding how their perceived superiority in culture, breeding and arms (that include airships and ray guns and so forth) seems to melt in the face of a veritable shower of seeds that cover the ground and start sprouting invaders, with appalling results.  As a shocked Sir Arthur is forced to accompany Antheia to the Queen to negotiate a surrender, he struggles to wrap his mind around the incursion, and Antheia’s reply forces him to consider what the British Empire has done until that very moment, taking resources they wanted and needed: “that’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do”.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing skills make this story shine in a delightful way, not in spite but because of the main character’s personality: even if your are not a reader partial to shorter works, I would recommend reading this one for the amazing experience that it is.

 

My Rating: 

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

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

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

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: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: FORSWORN, by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage 0.1)

While searching for the titles of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, I discovered that the author had written a number of prequel novellas, and since I’m already backtracking my steps after reading Sins of Empire, the first book in the new series set in the same background, I decided to start from a… more remote past, so to speak.

Forsworn is the first of these novellas and deals with the story of Erika ja Leora, a young noblewoman from Kez, a place where powder mages are hunted down like dangerous animals.  Erika is a powder mage herself, but her noble birth saved her from that fate: she has however taken an oath not to use her powers – the Forsworn from the title are indeed people who can wield powder magic but renounce them publicly.

The chance encounter in the woods with a runaway child, Norrine, will change Erika’s life forever: Norrine (a character I encountered as an adult Riflejack mercenary in Sins of Empire) escaped from the prison where she was being held as a powder mage, after being denounced by her own parents in exchange for money, and on meeting her Erika sees what her own fate would have been if her station had not prevented it.  Choosing to help young Norrine is an act of dangerous defiance, especially since a Privileged sorcerer is on the runaway’s trail and pursues the prey and anyone ready to help her with dogged determination.

The world being depicted here is a cruel one: of course that’s a given in this genre, but there is something more brutal at play here, especially since it highlights the strife between the more “conventional” magic of the Privileged, and that of the powder mages, with the former clearly fearing the latter’s encroachment of their position of power, especially with the ruling class.  And just how ruthless the Privileged can be becomes evident during the long chase through the mountains toward the safety of neighboring Adro, where powder mages can live without fear: Erika will need all her strength and courage to survive and escape with Norrine from the pursuit of Duke Nikslaus and the King’s Longdogs, the aptly named power mage hunters.

As a first introduction in this world, this was a very promising one, and the surprise appearance, at the very end, of a well-known character from the original trilogy was very welcome, almost like a sign I’m going to enjoy losing myself in this series.

My Rating:

Salva