Reviews

Short Story Review: WEATHER (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

Weather is a novella-sized tale exploring in more depth the hostility between the Conjoiners and the rest of humanity, even that part of humanity that has chosen to meld flesh and machine: the Ultras, another of the factions in which the human race has fractured itself, combine mechanical and organic parts, either to augment some capabilities or to replace lost limbs, but they leave the mind well alone, finding the Conjoiner way of life beyond repulsive.

This story takes place aboard the Petronel, a cargo ship being chased by pirates: after a long, nerve-wracking pursuit, the Petronel’s crew chooses to stand and fight and, quite surprisingly, they get the best of their hunters, who have run afoul of some wandering space debris.  As they board the pirate ship to salvage equipment for repairs, the crewmen find a Conjoiner girl who had clearly been a prisoner and, not without some difficulty, take her aboard the cargo at the insistence of Inigo, the shipmaster, and against the objections of Captain Van Ness, who is highly distrustful of Conjoiners.

The two men have enjoyed, up until now, a close relationship borne of trust and mutual respect, but Inigo’s insistence in trying to deal with the girl – named Weather as a way to simplify her complicated designation – as a human being instead of a dangerous monster, drives a wedge between shipmaster and captain, to the point that the fracture seems impossible to reconcile. Only the danger presented by the failing drive – a Conjoiner model – will convince the captain to trust Weather, up to a point, and let her try to repair it so that the Petronel can reach its destination in time.

The rift between Conjoiners and the rest of humanity is represented here in all its bitterness, the past misunderstandings and troubles so deeply rooted that even the passing of time seems unable to lessen them, and Inigo finds himself trying to walk the fine line between two opposing feelings, while the story reaches its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion.

 

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Short Story Review: A SPY IN EUROPA (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

 

In the third story of this anthology the focus shifts from Clavain and the Conjoiners to follow another character entirely: Marius Vargovic is a highly skilled spy, enrolled for a mission on Europa, one of the major Jovian satellites, where he needs to contact a sleeper agent to retrieve an important substance that will prove pivotal in the struggle between the Demarchists and another faction for the control of political power.

The first part of the story follows more or less the usual patterns of spy lore: the agent arrives on site in disguise and mingles with the crowds of workers and tourists that move through Europa, then he meets his target while trying to look and sound inconspicuous, and finally he concludes his mission, heading for the retrieval point.  What comes as totally unexpected, as the story unfolds, comes from the descriptions of the place and the unforeseen turn of events that leads to the conclusion.

Europa looks like a fascinating and terrible place: not only the settlements around Jupiter are flourishing – mostly because the economy of Sol System’s inner planets is dwindling – but on Europa they are based on floating cities anchored to the moon’s frigid oceans thanks to a crucial technological discovery. The cities were built through the work of the Denizens, humans who had been genetically modified so they could survive in the cold depths of Europa’s seas, and have been used as little more than slaves ever since.

Vargovic’s task, on behalf of the Demarchists’ adversaries from Gilgamesh Isis, consists in taking possession of a material that will sabotage the cities, and to do so he needs to be surgically altered in a way that will allow him to live underwater for the critical part of his mission. But as such operations go, there are plots within plots involved and even the main operatives are unaware of every detail, so that Vargovic will have to face more than he could foresee, or had bargained for…

A Spy in Europa is a great change of pace and scope from its two predecessors, and at first I found myself a little disoriented, but as the story rolled forward, gaining momentum and upping the stakes, I was fascinated by its twists and turns, and highly surprised by the unforeseeable ending.

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Short Story Review: GLACIAL (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

The second story in this collection takes place some time after the events of Great Wall of Mars: Clavain is continuing his integration into Conjoiner society and is now part of an expedition on an ice-bound planet named Diadem, where the Conjoiners found an abandoned human base whose inhabitants are long dead.  Searching through the records, they discover that the group came from Earth as embryos, grown and taken care of by a set of robots: something of a common choice in the past when ships took a far longer time to travel between the stars. At some point, however, a viral infection caused the base dwellers to suffer a form of mental imbalance that ultimately led to their death: while exploring the now abandoned base, Clavain however discovers that one of the explorers died outside on the ice, and that what looked at first like an accident might be instead the consequence of a murder. And once the Conjoiners find one body preserved in cold storage, that of a man who hibernated himself in the hope of being rescued, Clavain can’t shake the suspicion that he might have had something to do with the death of his companions…

Glacial is in equal parts a mystery (which at some point turns into a murder mystery) and a journey of discovery for Clavain, who is still adapting to the Conjoiner nano-machines in his body and at the same time trying to keep hold of some aspects of his older self: while his companions can communicate more quickly and efficiently through direct mind-link, for example, he still prefers to talk, as if he were somewhat afraid that letting go of the last remnants of what he used to be, he might lose something important he will not be able to recover.  I liked very much his interactions with Galiana, the de facto leader of the small group of Conjoiner refugees he belongs to, and the affectionately amused way in which she stresses Clavain’s small quirks, just as I found intriguing the man’s need for some moments of solitude away from the constant flow of information that the Conjoiners take for granted.  The society he was “adopted” into is a fascinating one, and these small day-to-day details are fleshing out nicely the wider scope of Reynold’s Revelation Space background.

A less fascinating offering than its predecessor, but still a very interesting read.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: GREAT WALL OF MARS (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

In this story several of the characters I remember from Revelation Space are present, offering some of the much-needed backstory I needed to put their narrative arc into perspective, not to mention to better understand their motivations.

War between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners has been going on for some time, the latter now entrenched on Mars while their adversaries systematically destroy the shuttles launched in the attempt to evacuate the base. At the origin of the conflict is the general abhorrence for the Conjoiners’ way of life, one that implies the use of neural implants that speed up the individual’s thought processes and work toward a sort of shared consciousness that augments the cognitive abilities of the group.  Nevil Clavain and his brother Warren have fought long against the Conjoiners and Nevil was their prisoner for some time: for this reason, tired of the constant war that seems to reach no turning point, he offers a diplomatic solution he means to achieve by contacting Galiana, the leader of the Martian group and Nevil’s former jailer, a person he believes will be disposed to listen to his proposal.

Unfortunately, the shuttle on which Clavain and another diplomat are traveling on suffers a catastrophic accident and his companion is killed, while Clavain barely reaches the safety of the Conjoiners’ compound. Once there, his diplomatic mission is thwarted by an unexpected development whose consequences will bring him to shift his perceptions and change the direction of his thinking and even his life.

This was a great start to the anthology, and a very satisfying read: the pace is relentless and the sense of urgency and impending doom add to the definite feeling that there is much more than what appears on the surface – both in the actual background in which the story is set and in the narrative scope.   Great Wall of Mars also worked perfectly in making me understand the character of Clavain, whose role in the Revelation Space trilogy is one of the pivotal ones: if the other stories in this collection will do the same for other aspects of that series, I’m certain that my planned re-read will be a great journey of discovery.

Reynolds at his best, indeed.

 

 

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Short Story Review: DEATH OF AN AIR SALESMAN, by Rich Larson

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Short stories by Rich Larson always proved to be fascinating reads, and this one was no exception, even though the core concept was truly depressing.  The future on this version of Earth looks quite bleak: pollution has reached such levels that the very air is contaminated and people must wear filter masks and protective clothing to stay outside.  Society has changed for the worse as well: people live in stifling cubicles called “sleepstacks” where they spend their rest hours laying down and watching videos, until it’s again time to go to work, moving like ants in a huge anthill.

Maya is an air seller: the company she works for bottles clean air that she peddles through the city’s milling throngs, hoping that her sale rates will make her win the lottery ticket granting the lucky recipients a vacation to one of the company’s air farms, where the sky is blue, the grass green and the air free and clean – or so the adverts say.  One day she notices a boy wearing a bright red scarf, a color that stands out in the dreary drabness of the city, and she does all she can to get his attention despite their conflicting work shifts and the thickness of the crowds, in the old, never tired game of “girl meets boy”…

What’s morbidly fascinating in this story is the depiction of the unnamed city, with its thick, murky air and the swarms of pedestrians moving to and fro in what looks like tired resignation. It’s easy to picture this urban sprawl where the only color comes from garish neon advertising signs, or the appalling image of a plaza “where there are still the husks of dried-out vines and shrubs spilling from cracked concrete planters” speaking of the death of any kind of vegetation and possibly of any hope for the future.  And yet there is a ray of light in the end, despite everything, because of the two young people meeting amid the devastation and daring to dream about the future.

A small ray, but I will take it gladly…

 

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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….

 

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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.

 

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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

 

Click on the LINK to read the story online

 

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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