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:  

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Reviews

Short Story Review: THE POWHATAN, by Tony Daniel

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.

 

 

A very strange (but strange in a good way) story that shortly reveals itself as an alternate history: the focus is on Native American tribes, but in this version of the New World they have built cities and what looks like a thriving civilization rather than a nomadic life, an existence that is threatened by invaders – Romans and, probably, the descendants of Viking explorers.

The city of Potomak is under siege by the Romans, the population now facing the approaching threat of famine, so that Wannas, the son of one of the city’s leaders, is determined to try and get help from nearby allies – that is, if he and his companions will manage to pass unseen through the enemy’s lines and reach the canoes that will bring them up the river to their destination.   As Wannas prepares himself for the difficult mission, we learn more about the kind of society he lives in, and we are offered several tantalizing glimpses about this alternate vision of the world that I would not mind seeing expanded in a full novel.  One of the more intriguing is the mention of slaves (a practice that Wannas and his family strongly disagree with) and the fact that some of these slaves are Anglish – we are given the names of Ian and Gladys, which made me even more curious about how this alternate world came to be.

The mission proves to be more difficult than anticipated, and at some point the intervention of a group of beaver-men (I kid you not) makes a huge difference in the outcome: the appearance of these new players adds another fascinating layer to this too-short story, one that ended far too soon for my tastes and left me with a strong curiosity to know more.

My Rating: 

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: 

 

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

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

Short Story Review: Selection 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.

AMARYLLIS, by Carrie Vaughn

As the editor writes in the introduction, a dystopia is not necessarily a synonym for “post-apocalyptic” and it does not necessarily depict a bleak scenario.  This is particularly true for Amaryllis, since here the end-of-the-world-as-we know-it has already happened, and is something that belongs to the past.  Society has adapted to the new living conditions, and found new ways to carry on and move forward – there is no tragedy to deal with, but this does not mean that things are easy…

The titular Amaryllis is one of several fishing boats, tasked with the job of providing fish for the coastal community where the crews live: after the upheavals that changed the world, a new way of life has taken hold, one where checks and balances rule every human action, to avoid upsetting the eco-system and falling into the same mistakes of the past.  For this reason, each fishing boat is assigned a quota that must not be exceeded – “take what you need, and no more”, this is the golden rule that regulates all activities. Including reproduction.

In this new world, families are not necessarily formed through blood ties, but rather built on commonality of interest, and Marie – the owner and skipper of Amaryllys, has built her small family group around it and turned it into a thriving reality despite the big stigma hanging over her, since her mother’s pregnancy was not sanctioned by the community and it caused the disbanding of the family group.  When the latest addition to Marie’s clan, Nina, starts expressing the desire to have a baby, the skipper must face some difficult decisions…

I liked this short story very much, because it manages to convey poignancy without need to delve into tragedy and turmoil. Still the message is a fascinating one: how much control over our lives, our legacy to the future, are we ready to leave in the hands of the law? Even though these laws have been drafted to protect humanity from its past mistakes?   Carrie Vaughn’s reply to the question is a fascinating and delightful one, indeed.

 

My Rating: