Reviews

Short Story Review: CANOE, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

CANOE, by Nancy Kress

Another story from an author I’ve encountered before in very interesting reads: this time she offers a quite poignant story of a small exploration crew and of a huge discovery in the farthest reaches of space.

The Herschel is a new breed of ship sporting a revolutionary kind of drive that can take it well away from the Solar System, and its four-people (plus one artificial construct) crew is headed toward Luhman 16, the first alien system to be visited by humans – a system comprised of two stars and six planets.  The most interesting of them, an ice-covered planet with sixteen moons, suddenly appears to be escaping its sun’s hold, plunging into the even colder depths of space: knowing that their time for exploration is limited, the crew of the Herschel rush to complete, as far as possible, all the measurements they were scheduled to do, and suddenly something quite unexpected meets their eyes.

The two men and two women in the Herschel’s crew are highly trained professionals but also human beings, with all the flaws and troubles that we have been carrying with us since the dawn of time, and that we will probably take along once we’ll take to space, so that the long voyage, the protracted inactivity and the unavoidable boredom have taken their toll on their interpersonal relationships, especially that of Rachel, a biologist of Samoan origins, and Peter, the scion of an influential WASP family – the two have indulged in a brief fling that ended in a terrible row, straining the already tense atmosphere aboard the ship.

But such petty troubles vanish almost instantaneously once an unexpected discovery changes the scope and goals of the Herschel’s mission, forcing the four of them to re-assess their outlook on it and their long-term goals: Rachel in particular, thinking about her exploring ancestors who braved the oceans in search of new homes, strongly feels that need to the point that it becomes her primary drive.

At times poetic and quite touching, this is a story that will remain with me for a long time.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A delightful tale with some steampunk overtones, set in Victorian England (or maybe an alternate version of it) in which Scotland Yard inspector Albert Grant finds himself confronted with extraordinary events and an equally extraordinary young woman who makes him change his outlook on the world.

Despite his young age – he’s twenty-four years old – Grant is as cynical as they get: the son of an impoverished family, he was sent to the best schools where he learned modern scientific methods to be applied to police work. Despised and ridiculed by his peers for his family’s misfortune and kept at a distance by his colleagues because of his superior education, he lives in a sort of cocoon made of loneliness and contempt that at times turns to disappointment when he realizes that there is no amount of scientific knowledge that can outdo the street-wise experience of a beat policeman.

So, when he’s called to investigate the case of Lisa Elliot, a young lady who was arrested on suspicion of illegal activities, he finds in her a kindred spirit and someone with whom he can discuss scientific facts with the certainty of being understood. For her part Miss Elliot shows him an incredible device that can afford a glimpse into the future or maybe an alternate reality, something that instantly draws the attention of the powers that be and sets in motion an unpleasant chain of events.

Among the details I most enjoyed in this story are the underlying comment about the Victorian era’s mindset, especially toward women, and the tentative friendship between Grant and Constable Duncan, a man that the inspector first treats with his usual disdain, only to slowly change his opinion and start forming a working relationship based on mutual respect.

A very pleasant read, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

#RRSciFiMonth – Short Story: WAITING OUT THE END OF THE WORLD AT PATTY’S PLACE CAFE, by Naomi Kritzer

 

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

WAITING OUT THE END OF THE WORLD AT PATTY’S PLACE CAFE

 

In the end I was surprised at how much I liked this short story about the end of the world as we know it: even though the Earth is waiting for an event that might cause the extinction of the human race – a collision with a big asteroid – the overall mood is not one of panic or desperation, but rather that of quiet reflection and deep thoughts about things left undone and roads not traveled.  I think that what stood at the root of my enjoyment of the story is this image of humanity at its best despite impending doom: it probably would not play out this way if such an event ever truly happened, but it’s nice to think that it might.

Kathleen, now going by the chosen name of Lorien (something that instantly endeared her to me, because we Tolkien enthusiasts are just one big, happy family…), is en route toward her parents’ home for a final farewell after years of estrangement, a decision she reached because of the impending catastrophe: they have severed all ties with her for a long time, and refused to answer her phone calls even in the face of incoming annihilation, so she’s taken to the road toward home.  Unfortunately she runs out of gas some 200 miles from her destination, with no hope at all of topping up the car’s tank, so she decides to take a break in the small town she finds herself in, lured by the promise of coffee and food – and some rest – offered by a small café still doing business, the titular Patty’s Place.

Here she meets an oldest couple who help her take a different look at her predicament and ultimately at her life’s choices, not last the one to go seek the parents that rejected her so long ago: it’s an interesting point of view, and one that plays well within the parameters of the impending threat, shedding some comforting light on the end-of-the-world scenario.

A delightful change of mood for this kind of theme, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEAR SARAH, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

This is not my first short story by Nancy Kress, and as before I found myself immediately drawn into the picture she paints here of a very changed Earth after first contact with an alien race.  The theme of the aliens coming to our planet is a very familiar one in science fiction, and it usually goes both ways: either they are here to do something bad to humans (exploit, enslave or eat them, or all three together), or they have come to offer a higher level of civilization and better living conditions.

In Dear Sarah the latter scenario is the one that plays out, but it has not brought positive consequences for the Earth population, even though they brought Q-energy, a form of clean power that has supplanted oil and nuclear plants and even the small quantity of coal still in use, so that jobs were lost, and more were still when the aliens’ robots started being employed in manufacturing.  The greater part of the population – those without money of their own – is suffering from the lack of income and living on scant unemployment pay, the resentment against the aliens mounting day by day, fueled by some terrorist groups that are trying to drive the extra-terrestrials away from Earth.

MaryJo, knowing there is no future for her in the small village where her family lives, decides to enlist in the military, the only alternative to the hand-to-mouth existence led by her relatives: since the army is tasked with the duty of protecting the aliens against terrorist attacks or just plain anger from the man in the street, MaryJo’s family is strongly opposed to her choice, seeing it as a form of betrayal – protecting the creatures responsible for the sad situation of the majority of Earth’s population.  And MaryJo indeed finds herself torn between two sides as she tries desperately not to choose one – that is, until she has to…

Short and very realistic, this is a very thought-provoking story about choices and their consequences, and one that feels more grounded in actual reality than in speculative fiction. Something I’ve come to expect from this author…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: MY ENGLISH NAME, by R. S. Benedict

A short story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

MY ENGLISH NAME

A very weird story that hovers over the dividing line between science fiction and horror: the main character is an unknown creature (possibly an alien) forced to hide its true appearance under a human mask – or rather under a whole human skin.  The process by which Thomas Majors (that’s its last incarnation, and I will use that name as he does throughout the story) obtains the skins and wears them is only hinted at, mercifully so, because there is more than a whiff of creepiness in the whole business, mostly because those human disguises are subject to wear, tear and decay.

To avoid difficult questions, Thomas has elected to live in China, passing for an English expatriate and teaching in Chinese schools: there is a glaring dichotomy between this crowded, lively background where people live and move very close to each other and Thomas’ need for physical distance – not only because of his fear of discovery, but also because close contact might prove dangerous to the disguise.  This brings about a subtle streak of loneliness that I found quite touching despite my profound horror at what Thomas really is and the things he does to survive.

The chronicle of the creature’s existence as Thomas Majors is set as a sort of one-way dialogue with the only person he finally grows closer to, the man who employs him in his latest teaching gig, the one that will prove – through caring and affection – to be Thomas’ undoing in more ways than one.

I’m not certain how I feel about this story: certainly it piqued my curiosity and I did care for Thomas’ journey, mostly because of my curiosity about his origins and survival methods, but at the same time I can’t think about it without a shiver of revulsion.  Nonetheless it was intriguing…

My Rating: 

 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: MERIDIAN by Karin Lowachee

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

I read a couple of books from Karin Lowachee in the past, and they focused – with lucid starkness – on difficult subjects like pirate raids, kidnapped and abused children and the harsh decisions one must make to survive, so when I started reading this short story, the core concept felt quite familiar.

Young Paris Azarcon, just five years old, is the only surviving member of his family after a raid on their home on Meridia station: grievously wounded, he is rescued by the crew of a commercial ship passing by and adopted into the family, but the ghosts of his past keep resurfacing – especially the memory of his older brother Cairo, the one Paris saw for the last time as he was urging his little brother to run, save himself.   Life on the ship Chateaumargot becomes progressively difficult as Paris channels the formless rage, pain and survivor guilt into violent reactions that force the ship’s captain to… trade him to another vessel, the operation allowed by the records’ flexibility in this area of space.

On the Dragon Empress, under the tutelage of Madame Leung, Paris learns how to become a drug smuggler and builds around himself the hard, though persona of the guy he needs to be if he wants to keep going, the tattoos he applies on his skin a sort of armor against the pain of life. That is, until one day he makes an incredible discovery that turns his world upside down in a major way.

I’m not going to tell you what that discovery is, it’s best if you find out for yourselves. What I can share is that this story quickly became emotionally wrenching and brought me close to tears: my previous encounters with Ms. Lowachee’s writing elicited many emotions, mostly compassion for her abused, tormented characters, but I never felt anything so deeply touching as I did for Paris Azarcon.

Trust me, just read this amazing, heartbreaking story: it’s more than worth your time…

 

My Rating: 

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: