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Short Story Review: INHUMAN GARBAGE, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

32597254This novella was part of a collection, the 2016 edition of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas, edited by Paula Guran – the one containing Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” that I previously reviewed.  As far as shorter stories go, not many of them worked out well for my tastes, Binti being the only one to stand out and truly shine, in my opinion.

Inhuman Garbage starts out in a very intriguing way, being a mix between science fiction and a police procedural: the police is alerted about a body being found in a garbage dumpster, which sounds like a far from unusual beginning, but the great difference comes from the fact that the dumpster belongs to a recycling plant based in the Armstrong dome, on Luna.  Stories about human colonization of our Solar System, and of the way these settlements develop and grow, always exerted a strong pull on my imagination, so I was immediately drawn in: the detective called on the scene, the young and upward-moving Noelle DeRicci, launches herself in the investigation moved both by her strong sense of duty and the need to overcome some deep-seated phobias.

In a close environment such as a dome on an inhospitable planet, recycling is one of the most important factors: every bit of organic waste in Armstrong is sent to the Growing Pits, from where Luna-grown foodstuffs come from, and while DeRicci is aware of this fact, just like everyone else, she tries not to think too closely about it and what it implies.  The fact that a body might end up in the compost heap that will promote food growth is not something she is ready to face: despite the fail-safes built in the system, a strong suspicion starts to insinuate itself in her mind, that this might not be the first time this happened, and that other bodies might have passed unnoticed into the system.

As the investigation progresses, we learn a great deal about what it means to live on the Moon, to build a viable outpost there and what kinds of problems humanity can take with it once it leaves the planet of its birth. At the same time, DeRicci’s character takes on substance and shape, and while she does not come across as totally likable, her dogged pursuit of the truth – as opposed to a more laissez-fare attitude from some of her co-workers – shows how some things never change, even when the environment is radically different from that of mother Earth.

The involvement of former mob boss Deshin in DeRicci’s investigation, and the discovery of the true nature of the body found in the dumpster, add further points of interest: Deshin’s desire to try and go legitimate – at least on the surface – comes from having adopted an abandoned child he and his wife are raising on their own. Both of them come from dysfunctional backgrounds, and the possibility of giving this child the kind of life they did not have opens new possibilities for them: Deshin is an interesting character, and I would have liked to see more of him and the kind of organization he runs, both on the legitimate and the less savory side of it.

Furthermore, we learn about the existence of clones, and the quite intriguing detail about their status in this future society: they are not considered persons, but rather property. Any harm visited on a clone is not labeled as a crime, but rather as damage to property: killing a clone is tantamount as denting someone’s car – the perpetrator pays a fine and that’s that.

With all of this on the table, I expected a different kind of story, even taking into account the shorter medium it was told in: unfortunately, there were many tantalizing hints that could have worked far better in a novel-sized format and were instead barely outlined here.  What’s worse, the ending appeared rushed, switching from the organic storytelling of the beginning to a “tell-vs- show” progression in the last part of the novella. I had the definite impression that the author realized she had put a great deal on the table, and didn’t know what to do with it as the constraints of the format closed on in, so that what had started as a fascinating story fizzled out in a very disappointing way.

A missed opportunity that deserved much better, indeed.

My Rating:


Short Story Review: SPECTRUM, by Aidan J. Reid

30365707I received this short story from the author, through InstaFreebie, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

There are some vibes in this short story that somehow reminded me of “Flowers for Algernon”, but with a much sinister twist to it: BioLuminary is a corporation that tests new drugs and medical procedures on volunteers, and that’s nothing out of the ordinary, but their manner of finding subjects for the trials is what instantly sounds alarm bells in the reader, because they search among society’s rejects – the homeless, the drifters, the people living at the margins of society. People who will not be missed if something goes wrong.

The main character, a young woman who remains unnamed, tells the story in diary form (that’s where the Algernon resonance comes from, I believe): a drug and alcohol addict, she’s recruited off the street to test a new procedure for restoring 20/20 eyesight, with the promise of a substantial amount of money as compensation – money she already intends spending indulging her vices once she’s out.  During the course of her stay in a medical center that seems more a correctional facility than anything else, she seems to accept the strange, often alarming reactions of her fellow volunteers to the various procedures tried on them: she appears removed from it all – probably due to her wasted, mindless existence – even when her own trial shows weirdly troublesome effects.

The abrupt ending leaves several questions on the table, especially concerning BioLuminary – not so much about their purpose, which seems all too clear, but rather about who and what they really are. And the only fleeting clue is quite chilling….

My Rating:


SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: THE LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by M.R.Kowal – from Tor.com

In this particular case, I was already familiar with Ms. Kowal’s writing, having read and greatly enjoyed her fantasy series the Glamourists Histories, but this was unknown territory for me: a short story and a science-fiction themed one.  I must say beforehand that it was the very best short story I read for my Sci-Fi Month posts, and the one that touched me more deeply, showcasing Ms. Kowal’s deep sensibility and skill as a writer.

Elma used to be an astronaut, the first and more famous woman astronaut: she now lives on Mars, as mankind has found the way to colonize other planets of the Solar System. She pines for the days when she could travel in space, but she’s now sixty-three, well past the age when an astronaut can be sent on missions, and moreover she cares for her husband, suffering from a degenerative illness that will soon take his life.

When she is offered one last mission, one that will imply a one-way journey to establish a sort of beachhead on a newly-discovered Earthlike planet, she is torn between the desire to touch the stars once more and her duty and deep love toward her husband Nathaniel.  The way in which she expresses her quandary comes across as more effective because of the starkness of the words, not in spite of it:

I wanted to get off the planet and back into space and not have to watch him die. Not have to watch him lose control of his body piece by piece. (…)  And I wanted to stay here and be with him and steal every moment left that he had breath in his body.

Another fascinating side of the story comes from the subtle statements about the role of a woman in what is traditionally considered a man’s job: there are a few remarks about the way Elma’s work was presented, with a slant on appearance and glitz rather than skills and competence.

I was there to show all the lady housewives that they could go to space too. Posing in my flight suit, with my lips painted red, I had smiled at more cameras than my colleagues.

To call this story ‘poignant’ would be a huge understatement: what makes it so much more touching is that M.R. Kowal never resorts to easy drama or saccharine-laden sentiments, but rather shows Elma’s quandary in simple strokes, and yet manages to present the situation in all its difficult sides, ending with a moving, emotion-laden sentence that I’m not ashamed to admit moved me to tears. And that does not happen often…

Follow the link and read this beautiful story, you really owe it to yourselves.

My Rating:


SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: SPIDER THE ARTIST, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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Spider the Artist, by Nnedi Okorafor – from Lightspeed Magazine

In a not-so-distant future, the Niger Delta is exploited for its oil, pollution running rampant through crops, waters and people. In one of the many villages lining the pipeline lives Eme, whose only means of escaping the rigors of such a life is playing her father’s guitar.  The pipeline is protected against sabotage or simple theft of oil by mechanical, spider-shaped guardians, that people have started calling “zombies”: when a Zombie finds someone tampering with the pipeline, it kills in a brutal and gruesome way.  One night, as Eme is playing her guitar outside her home, one of the Zombies approaches her and listens to her music: it’s the beginning of a very strange, silent friendship that will have unexpected consequences.

The true horror of this story does not come so much from the terrible living conditions of the villagers, or the reports of mindless killings operated by the Zombies, that more often than not are unable to distinguish between thieves and saboteurs and mere children playing near the pipeline: these events, as terrible as they are, pale against the depiction of Eme’s everyday life, and the shock is not engendered by what she relates but rather by her quiet acceptance, the resignation that’s plain in her words and attitude.

As Eme reports in the very first sentence of the story, her husband beats her, taking all his despair and frustration on her, and all she can do – besides passively accepting it all – is bear it day after day, almost not realizing that every desire for a better life is slowly dying.

No matter my education, as soon as I got married and brought to this damn place I became like every other woman here, a simple village woman living in the delta region where Zombies kill anyone who touches the pipelines and whose husband knocks her around every so often.

There is a form of quiet desperation (to quote from a Pink Floyd song) in Eme that reaches out from the pages and grabs at your soul with incredible strength. So it’s almost not surprising that she might find a kindred soul in a mechanical construct that seems to care about the beauty of music much more than the flesh-and-blood people around her do.

It’s a peculiar story, but a fascinating one, and I will need to explore this author further in the near future

My Rating:


SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: THE EMPEROR OF MARS, by Allen Steele

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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The Emperor of Mars, by Allen Steele – from Clarkesworld Magazine

This story deals with madness, and the physical and psychological displacement suffered by space-faring humanity: the premise sees the early colonization of Mars, where the first human settlements are being built by enterprising adventurers.  As with modern oil-rig workers, those who accept a two-year stint on Mars – not counting the travel time, that’s limited to the periods when the planet is closest to Earth – do so knowing that their sacrifice will earn them a sizable amount of money with which to start a new life.

But outer space is an unforgiving environment, and the strangeness, the alien-ness of it all, can play tricks on the human mind: as the narrator says, there are many kinds of madness that can infect the unwary human – but the tale he relates is one in which madness is a saving grace.

Jeff Halbert is one of those hopefuls: young and driven by the will to gain enough for himself and his fiancée and their future together, he becomes quickly known for his good-humored dedication and appreciated by co-workers and supervisors – until tragedy strikes.  On Earth, his parents and fiancée – and the unborn child she carries – are killed in a car accident: when the news reaches Jeff, he’s only seven months into his 3-year stint and he understandably falls into zombie-like depression, until he’s assigned to an exploratory mission that also retrieves the old Phoenix probe.  Inside the probe, he finds an old DVD where the scientist of the Phoenix project uploaded a number of books and stories concerning Mars: losing himself in these old stories, many of which depict a planet that’s quite different from the one where Jeff lives and works, he builds a wall around himself and his pain, forgetting his day-to-day harsh reality thanks to a fictional dream-world.

To say I loved this story would be a huge understatement: what looks like a sad tale about loss and displacement transforms into something a reader of speculative fiction can relate to – the need to lose oneself, now and then, in a place other than the one we live in. And in the end, The Emperor of Mars becomes an uplifting story that shows how we can build something good, and lasting, from a painful beginning.

Quite recommended.

My Rating:


SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: PATHWAYS, by Nancy Kress

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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Pathways by Nancy Kress – from Clarkesworld Magazine

This is my second short story from Nancy Kress, the first one being included in the Dangerous Women anthology, and it reinforced my resolve about reading her longer works, since I do like her style very much.

Pathways is a story of deprivation: of means and education, of opportunities for bettering oneself and even of the drive to seek something better, something more.  Ludmilla Connors comes from a large family living at the margins of society in a depressed area, and the scant details about the outside world point to a dystopian background where the ruling government has banned most – if not all – kinds of scientific research.

Ludmilla’s family, and a few others in the neighborhood, suffer from an added burden: the great majority of the members succumb to a syndrome called “Fatal Familial Insomnia”, where lack of sleep brings behavioral changes, madness and death.  Going against the family’s whishes and public ostracism, Ludmilla signs herself in for an experimental treatment that will, if nothing else, bring some much-needed cash in the Connors’ pockets.

Shunned by her family, Ludmilla comes to live at the clinic, where the forced isolation brings her – ironically enough – in contact with the wider world, and she learns that there is much more out there than the closed confines of her reality have shown her: there is an Algernon-like quality to her journey that’s quite poignant and brings to light the extraordinary courage of this young woman, driven by desperation to make more of her life, and that of the people she cares about.

Very intense.

My Rating:  


TEASER TUESDAY #15

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

The name of George R.R. Martin is more frequently tied to his Song of Ice and Fire saga, a tale often filled with violence, cruelty and ruthless political intrigue, but a different GRR Martin can be found in his shorter works: a writer capable of subtle lyricism and poetical descriptions.

One of the best examples is THE GLASS FLOWER, a story included in the first volume of his DreamSongs, a collection of his tales ranging his entire writing career.  This story is a favorite of mine, full of mystery and strangeness.

Once, when I was just a girl in the first flush of my true youth, a young boy gave me a glass flower as a token of his love.  […]  My flower has a long and delicate stem, curved and graceful, all of fine thin glass, and from that frail support the bloom explodes, as large as my fist, impossibly exact. Every detail is there, caught, frozen in crystal for eternity: petals large and small crowding each other, bursting from the center of the blossom in a slow transparent riot, surrounded by a crown of six wide drooping leaves, each with its tracery of vein intact, each unique.

If you want to experience the full beauty of this story, I also recommend the audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black: HERE is the first segment of the audio file, just to give you a sample of great writing and amazing acting.  Enjoy!

Review: LOOKING THROUGH LACE, by Ruth Nestvold (and Teaser Tuesday)

Teaser Tuesday #13

This week I’ve decided to mix one of my usual TEASER TUESDAY posts with a brief review of this novella, that I received through Instafreebie in exchange for an honest review.  Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

Teaser Tuesday

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

11213638I was curious about this story because I am familiar with the author’s name, but had never read anything by her: now that I have I will certainly add some more of her books to my reading queue.

Antonia (Toni) Donato is a young xenolinguist who is enrolled for a tour on the planet Christmas – so called because of the inverted Christmas tree shape of its main continent – to study the humanoid natives’ languages, especially the women’s, who seem to possess one all of their own, not spoken with and by the men.   Her initial excitement about the project, one that could launch her career out of obscurity, is marred by the project manager’s dismissive attitude toward her skills, one that quickly transforms into open obstruction once Toni is able to reach some small breakthrough in the puzzle of the women’s language.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories dealing with first contact with alien cultures, and this one – even though the ‘aliens’ are quite human-like – is made doubly interesting by the strong link between language and customs, and the questions about the origins of both.

What Toni discovers will turn all the previous findings – and her own assumptions – on their head and lead to a conclusion I found both bittersweet and highly satisfying.  Ruth Nestvold is indeed a writer I must keep on my radar.

The lace mentioned in the title plays an important role in the economy of the story, and so I have chosen a quote that showcases it while offering a clue to the interpretation of the title itself:

Our ways differ so much, when you say one thing, I understand another. We can’t help but see each other through the patterns we know from the cultures we grew up with. Like looking through lace — the view isn’t clear, the patterns get in the way.

Fascinating, indeed.

GIVEAWAY! A Whisper of Leaves by Ashley Capes

I’m very happy to share the news that Australian author Ashley Capes is hosting a giveaway of his novella A WHISPER OF LEAVES on Instafreebie: you will find the download link HERE. The giveaway starts today and will go on until August 25th, so hurry and grab your copy!

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The story, in short:

When ESL teacher Riko finds an old journal buried in the forests beneath Mt Fuji, a malevolent, untraceable force begins to threaten her at every turn.

But is it all in her head?

The more she studies the journal for answers, the more questions she uncovers. Worse, no-one takes her fears seriously and her best lead appears to be a belligerent old man, whose only care in the world is raking leaves deep in the forest.

With her grip on reality shaken and friendships strained to breaking point, Riko has to discover the truth about the journal in order to put ghosts of the past to rest, as strange events turn deadly.

If you’re interested, here is my review of the novella, but I urge you to go and read for yourselves this very moody, very peculiar story. Enjoy!

 

Review: ZIMA BLUE and OTHER STORIES, by Alastair Reynolds

860926My successful encounter with Alastair Reynold’s short fiction in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days persuaded me to look for more of his stories collections and this one proved to be again different from what I expected: there is a wide range of themes and moods in this anthology, and it helped me appreciate the different shades of storytelling of this amazing author.

As it happens with every collection I’ve read so far, not all stories were to my liking, but I can honestly say that only a couple did not manage to hold my complete attention, while the others ranged from the very interesting to the deeply engrossing. As anthologies usually go, I rate this a huge success.

Reviewing short stories is always difficult, because you don’t want to give away the plot while you explore story and characterization, but this collection makes it somewhat easy because some of the stories are linked, as if they were part of a bigger background – or the seeds for more expanded storytelling – and allow the reader/reviewer more latitude.

The first and last story work as bookends for the rest of the anthology: both of them deal with journalist Carrie Clay and her search for interesting subjects as the focus of her articles. In the first one, The Real Story, she interviews the first man to set foot on Mars, that at the time in which the action takes place is both successfully colonized and a tourist attraction. Her encounter with astronaut James Grossart and his crew is both fascinating and a source of constant surprises until the very bittersweet end. The last story, the one that gives this collection its title, Zima Blue, is just as bittersweet and poignant: again we deal with a well-know person – a renowned artist this time – and are led toward incredible discoveries and a huge, intensely emotional surprise.

Hideaway, Minla’s Flowers and Merlin’s Gun all deal with the character of Merlin: as humanity fights what seems a losing battle against the all-destroying Husker swarms (they made me think of the Borg on steroids…), Merlin takes another path and spends long centuries alone on his ship, searching for a way to eliminate the threat. These three stories are among the best and made me think more than once that Merlin’s journey deserves a novel all of its own, mostly because this is space opera in the purest Reynolds flavor and scope.

Signal to Noise and Cardiff Afterlife share again a thematic link, that of parallel worlds and the way to travel (after a fashion) between them: while the first one is a quietly emotional piece about loss and how to deal with grief when science offers you a last opportunity to say goodbye, the latter feels almost as an afterthought and did not resonate with me as the former. The concept of passage through parallel realities is however very intriguing and – to my knowledge – quite new.

Among the stand-alone stories, Beyond the Aquila Rift was one that forced me to change my point of view several times: what seems a “simple” tale of a ship’s crew stranded beyond the boundaries of known space because of a navigational error, turns out to be something quite different.    Enola paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic Earth and the way survivors have learned to adapt and to forge an entirely new mythology about the past and what shaped their present.  Angel of Ashes imagines a religion born out of an alien visitation and geared toward integration of machine and human: I found this one interesting enough, but also quite weird.

And last but not least, Understanding Space and Time: life on Earth has been wiped out by a virus and the last surviving members of humanity dwell on Mars where a small research station had been established sometimes before the apocalypse.  The scientists die one by one, either because of illness or choosing suicide out of despair, and the last survivor, Renfrew, finds the means of overcoming loneliness and sorrow through the apparition of a piano-playing musician with whom he establishes a strange kind of relationship.  To say more, would be to spoil the surprises awaiting both Renfrew and the readers, but I appreciated enormously Reynolds’ take on the psychology of the very last man alive, and his way of dealing with the end of civilization.

What links all of these stories is the deep sense of wonder that this author can convey with galaxy-spanning civilizations or with more enclosed backgrounds, and – more importantly – the optimistic subtext that he can infuse even in the most critical scenarios: his characters keep trying to find a way to survive, to overcome the obstacles on their path. If to do so requires them to change and adapt they do it, not without pain and loss, granted, but still they forge on, and this is a very important message, even in the face of destruction. Something we should always keep in mind…

My Rating: