Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEAD, Michael Swanwick

 

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The zombie theme has been played, both in written stories and on the screen, with several variations as to the origin of the phenomenon, but always with the constant that shows the walking dead roaming devastated cities and preying on the living.

This short tale, however, takes a very different approach, postulating that the formerly dead can be revived by technology and set to work in many fields – in short they are turned into obedient, indefatigable, willing slaves.  No mention is made about the way this horrifying process is achieved, but we are allowed to see how these walking corpses (free from decay, and endowed with the ability to speak and interact with the living) are integrated into many aspects of everyday life: as restaurant waiters, chauffeurs, doormen – and even into other unsavory… occupations.

The process is however costly and the acquisition of a zombie workforce reserved to those with means – at least until this story gets well underway showing us how someone has found a way to mass produce them, especially since the many conflicts still raging around the globe are providing with an almost inexhaustible supply of bodies from the refugee camps.

One of the characters in the story is terrified by the kind of future this entails, even as he signs up with the corporation that will manage this new form of slavery: a future where the living will run out of jobs, replaced by flesh automatons, a future where both the living and the dead will be helpless under the thumb of those with power.  And like that character I know that such a possibility scares me far more than any zombie apocalypse I ever watched on TV or read in a story….

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: FIRE IN THE BONE, by Ray Nayler

 

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This short story left me with a burning curiosity to know more, to learn how the world depicted in it came to be – that is, beyond the tantalizing glimpses offered by the narrative, whose moods change with each new detail offered by the author.

At first we are given a bucolic description of this unnamed planet at sunset, its sky filled by a departing harvest ship laden with its cargo. A young man observes it and an older one advises him not to dream of another life away from there, in the blackness of space – but the young man does not think about leaving, not much anyway, because despite the apparent boredom of an unchanging life, he’s clearly in love with a girl, or rather a robot servant shaped like a girl.

Little by little we learn that the planet was colonized by humans who later build robots to help them tend the fields, and that these colonists survived some terrible event called the Uprising: what filled me with curiosity is the scene of the communal dinner of the estate’s farmers, since they seem to be all men, no woman present among them, except the robot servers in female shape.

When the young man meets with the robot girl in the crumbling church of the estate, for one of their secrete assignments, something happens, and here is where the story surprised me with an unexpected development: read it and enjoy, because it will be worth your time…

 

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Short Story Review: THE FUTURE IS BLUE, by Catherynne M. Valente

 

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All the reviews I read from my fellow bloggers about Ms. Valente’s novels hinted at a very versatile author, and this short story – the second I’ve read so far – confirms that any of her works might be quite different from the others, and just as fascinating.

The setting of this tale is a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the icecaps melted and the world disappeared under water: what remains of humanity survives in floating islands of garbage, cobbled together in makeshift cities.  Garbagetown is one such island, and the narrating voice is that of a nineteen year old girl, Tetley Abednego – by her own declaration, the most hated person in Garbagetown.

She lives alone, her only friends a deformed bird and an elephant seal cub, and the dwellers of Garbagetown visit her often to hit her, viciously: we don’t know why, at this point, and our angry puzzlement grows as we see that Tetley accepts those beatings matter-of-factly, and replies to those who hurt her with “thanks for my instruction”, because that is what the law requires of her.

Through a few flashbacks we see how Tetley grew up unloved and uncared for, unlike her twin brother Maruchan, how she gained her name through the required journey across the mountains of garbage that form her island – in a rite every child must undergo – and how the arrival of the Brighton Pier, a sort of traveling show, changed her life forever.

It’s a poignant, heart-wrenching story made even more so by Tetley’s quiet acceptance of it all – not through resignation but rather pragmatism – or her description of the flotsam of the previous civilization that is now piled in mounds of endless wonder and speculation.

I loved this story, even though it broke my heart, and I am set – now more than ever – to seek some longer works by this author to explore her amazing skills.

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: THE LADY OF SHALOTT, by Carrie Vaughn

 

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Until the very end I thought this short story might be a retelling of the Arthurian myth about the Lady of Shalott, the maiden confined in a solitary tower, weaving an endless tapestry and forbidden to look out of the tower’s lone window, on pain of death.  And at first the tale seems to follow that path, describing in rich, poetic detail, the life of this unnamed woman who creates idyllic scenes of trees, rivers and animals from an inexhaustible supply of silken thread, all without ever having seen the things and creatures she fills her work with.

The young woman has no memory of who she is, or used to be; of what caused her imprisonment and the curse hanging over her head. All she knows is that she must never, ever look outside, and although some curiosity about her situation does surface from time to time, she seems content of her endless weaving and of the days, each one like the one preceding it, spent in solitude.

Yet something is about to change: Lancelot, one of the knights of the Round Table, happens to pass near the tower and wonders about it, this strange building not attached to any castle but simply standing there, at the border of a forest.  And here is the first inkling that things might not be what they look like, because Lancelot’s musings about who and what a knight must be, and do, seem more attuned to those of a simple-minded fool rather than a valiant knight in shining armor.

 

A knight must do good. Make a name for himself by doing good, by going on quests and such. Succoring the weak. Slaying monsters. Or all of them at once, if the opportunity presented itself.

 

Once he learns that there might be a maiden in need of rescue in that lone tower, he sets his mind on freeing her, deaf to the warnings of nearby villagers about the terrible curse hanging over the prisoner. For her part, the young woman, piqued by curiosity about the commotion she hears outside her prison, decides to look out through a mirror – a way to circumvent the curse’s prohibition – and on seeing Lancelot falls in love with him, and for the first time in her life feels the desire to challenge the curse and escape from the confining walls.

Here is where the story veers sharply from the legend and turns into something completely different: I will leave you to discover it on your own…  🙂

 

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Short Story Review: PAINLESS, by Rich Larson

 

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This is not my first short story by Rich Larson, but so far it is the best, most engrossing and poignant I have come across, one I will not so easily forget.

Mars is a soldier, or rather a special operative for difficult missions, the kind that involve great danger and high chances of grievous wounds or death – but all that does not matter to Mars, because he was born without the ability to feel pain, and later he was experimented on and made invulnerable.

Try and imagine what it would mean to be changed so profoundly that everyone stops seeing you as human, and then being sent out into the world to kill, sometimes taking out bad people, sometimes… well, not.  After a while, even a detached personality like Mars’, who seems unable to feel anything at all – love, hate, friendship, camaraderie – must succumb to the need to seek oblivion. And that’s the point in his journey when we meet him at the start of the story, when he places himself in front of a truck that will smash him to pieces…

A few flashbacks show how he came to that point, what he was before and what was done to him: the remoteness of the delivery does nothing to keep the reader from feeling profound horror and compassion, to feel for this character in the way he’s unable to feel for himself.  Yet there is a glimmer of hope in the end, and it makes all the shock and pain we are forced to endure worthwhile.

 

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Short Story Review: ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS, by Seanan McGuire

 

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Would you be surprised if I told you that visiting the ‘fiction’ section of the Tor.com site and seeing Seanan McGuire’s name caused me to stop there and then to read this story?  No, I know you won’t… 😀   And as usual I found an intriguing, immersive tale whose only drawback was that it ended too soon.

The premise is a well-known one, the existence of parallel universes, but the story itself is a journey where witty remarks and horrifying glimpses coexist in perfect balance: the crew of the airship Her Majesty’s Stalwart Trumpet of Glory (or Stubby for brevity, one of the ships of the Cartography Corps) travels through these alternate realities to chart them while looking for artifacts to bring home.  This particular crew has been assigned to the North American area, and as the story starts they are approaching this world’s version of New York, relieved to find a recognizable landmark in the famous Flatiron Building.

Captain Isabel Langford, the Stubby’s captain, lost all her sense of wonder for what awaits her and her crew in each new reality: having seen it all, she seems to have grown jaded by it and she more than looks forward to the time when she will be able to enjoy a more stable life. Not that the overall tone of the story is one of gloom, of course, because there is instead a definite veneer of sarcasm running through it, from the description of the ragtag crew and their rambunctious ways, to the glimpses of past encounters in other realities – like the one where the inhabitants of New York had to take shelter in the subway tunnels because the pigeons had turned “carnivorous and bloodthirsty”.

What awaits Langford and crew in this version of New York will be a surprise, indeed, and one that seems to give these explorers a newfound perspective in their work.   

I enjoyed Any Way The Wind Blows, but I would have loved to see this premise expanded into a longer work: there is a great deal of potential in this story and in the small glimpses we are offered here and I hope that Seanan McGuire might decide one day to turn this into a full-fledged novel.

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: LIFE SENTENCE, by Matthew Baker

 

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A truly fascinating read from an equally fascinating premise: in this possible future – or alternate present – criminals are not sent to prison anymore, since their minds are wiped of memories for a number of years proportionate with the crime.  Washington’s (the main character) memory has been wiped clean though, since he was sentenced for life: as the story begins, a police cruiser is taking him to the home and family he does not remember having, and he starts his new life in the company of strangers – people he does not know and who don’t know him either, since he’s now a totally different person than the one who was arrested and sentenced.

The story is narrated through flashing glimpses of Washington’s new life, which is interesting because that’s how it appears to him, unrelated flashes that have no background to rest on, no connective tissue to put them together into a cohesive whole: as the man starts to build a new life for himself, the curiosity about the person he used to be grows, and he feels the increasing pull of his forgotten past battling with the equal and contrary pull of the new ties he’s creating with his family – mostly because his wife and kids seem both surprised and wary of this new individual, and Washington gets the definite impression his former self was a very unpleasant one, to say the least.

Once it becomes impossible to live being constantly “torn between the possibility of having a future and the possibility of having a past”, Washington looks for information about himself online…

The mind-wipe of criminals is not a new concept in SF, but it’s still one that can fuel an intriguing debate (just as we discussed in the comments to a recent post by Bookstoge): is erasing an offender’s mind and memories punishment enough for the crime committed? And what about the victims’, or their families’, understandable desire for retribution?  These are the kind of questions that cannot get a definite answer, and that’s what makes them so compelling – and actual.

 

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