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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

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: 

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: 

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

Short Story Review: MEAT + DRINK by Daniel Polansky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues…  I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings.  This week’s choice is for:

MEAT+DRINK by Daniel Polansky

The vampire myth has been explored in all its forms and variations, so one might think there is no room for a new angle or a different perspective, yet at times you can find authors able to put a different spin on the trope.  This is the case of Meat+Drink, indeed, a story told from the perspective of vampires who have none of the glamour, attraction or sophistication that’s usually associated with the most classical point of view of the genre.

The narrator here used to be a 17-year old girl but is now meat, as opposed to flesh – dead as opposed to living. She shares a hiding space with four other undead, one of them a child, spending their days in a basement, away from the sun, and their nights either scavenging in search of money or valuable objects, or hunting for prey – for drink.

This former girl’s voice is quite peculiar, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a organic tale, grammar and punctuation as decayed and still decaying as the walking meat these vampires have become once they lost the vitality of flesh.  As the unnamed narrator says: “flesh is ever-changing, flesh is self-aware. meat is insentient, meat is stagnant”.   The horror in this story does not come so much from seeing these vampires prey on the living, but from the feeling of hopelessness and despair of such a condition, so much stronger and poignant because they remain unexpressed and probably unfelt.

And yet something of the former personality must remain after the transformation, as the events show when the little “family” undergoes an upheaval that changes the internal dynamics. It might be wrong to use the world “hope” in such circumstances, but the end is a little less bleak than the rest of the story. And that’s enough.

My Rating:  

 

Short Story Review: CALIGO LANE, by Ellen Klages

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues…  I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings.  This week’s choice is for:

CALIGO LANE

This is an exquisitely crafted story, one that revolves more around moods and perceptions than anything else and for this very reason is almost impossible to describe.  Set in San Francisco, it starts by depicting the way that the fog seems to alter geographical landmarks, and in so doing it defines the overall tone of the story itself.

In Caligo Lane there is a peculiar house where an equally peculiar woman, Franny, lives: she’s a cartographer, but a very special one, because her maps have the power to fold space, changing the shape of the world. Franny learned this secret from a Japanese master of origami, the art of folding paper into any desired shape: when fused with some magic, this art can transform a map into “a menu of possible paths”.

When Franny receives a postcard containing only geographical coordinates, she sets to work on a new map, the urgency in her actions tempered by the need – stressed several times – for detail and precision: even the most minuscule error might lead to failure.  Observing her work is a fascinatingly harrowing experience, the painstaking process always hanging under a cloud of apprehension, since the reader has no idea of her ultimate goal, but is nonetheless aware of the constraints of time.

The resolution, once it comes, is as melancholy as it is indefinite, like something viewed through fog, but it carries a huge emotional impact.  A story to be savored, its very haziness being its best feature.

My Rating:


Review: MINIATURES – The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

31258177If short stories can sometimes be a difficult medium, because the compressed space they must be worked in often leaves the reader unsatisfied with the way characters and narrative are developed, this collection of very short works from John Scalzi enjoys a different track record: the humorous nature of these stories lends itself quite easily to brevity and they feel more like well-developed jokes than anything else, or like some of the witty posts with which the author delights his blog’s readers.

So here you will find, for example, a mock interview with a very peeved Pluto, whose demotion from the status of planet still burns deeply, despite the abysmal cold in the fringes of our Solar System: the annoyed ex-planet takes this opportunity to vent some of its displeasure toward some old and new adversaries, the scientific community at large and – quite inexplicably – Phil Collins. Just to give you an idea of the tone of these stories, here is a quote directly from the ex-planet:

[…] people start calling me and telling me I’m the newest planet. And I remember saying, I don’t know if I want that responsibility. And they said, well, you can’t not be a planet now, Walt Disney’s already named a character after you.  That’s really what made a planet. Not the astronomers, but that cartoon dog.

Or we can read the advertisement for a very special travel agency that can send its customers into alternate universes, offering various possible scenarios about a certain event: the example used is the death of Adolf Hitler, and despite the far-from-palatable subject, Mr. Scalzi manages to make you laugh out loud with his vision of alternate futures.  My favorite is the one where the time-frame alteration keeps sending the city of Vienna back and back into the past, transforming it into a battleground for competing armies, until

[…] when the time traveling pro-Magyar forces show up, they are slaughtered by everyone else which is tired of all this time-traveling crap, thereby ending the causality loop.

Or again we are treated to a collection of hilariously crazy tweets the author posted to ease his boredom during a long flight, imagining the assault on the plane’s wing operated by a gremlin bent on plunging the vehicle down to earth.  If you don’t think this could be funny (especially in the case of people who are not comfortable with flight), reading this brief piece will make you change your mind.

Each story is prefaced by a few words about its inception and history, and all of them are accompanied by little drawings that complement the story to perfection.  If you want to spend a couple of light-hearted hours in the company of a favorite author, or if you want to discover John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor, this is the perfect place to start.

My Rating:


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: