Four stories anchor Tor dot com’s SFF short fiction offerings this month, and if I had to find a commonality between them I think I would choose a sort of wandering feeling. Or maybe wandering with a purpose. All four tales are a bit on the slower side, pacing-wise, making for some cerebral and rather philosophical stories. About loneliness and desperation. About purpose and meaning and the direction of life. About finding something to be happy with and something to struggle against. The stories all excel at place, at revealing a strange world. The inside of Abraham Lincoln’s head. An abyss that might be an alien portal. A distant world and a town by a haunted city. A busy hotel next to one of the world’s busiest airports. And in these worlds the readers are invited to learn something, to see something, and to take something with them when they go. So to the reviews!
|Art by Chris Buzelli|
"Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper" by Douglas F. Warrick (4582 words)
This is something of a strange story about death and longing, and the longing for death. Of looking for meaning in life and finding…well, finding yourself in Lincoln's skull waiting to be killed by an enormous (relatively) bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth. Nods. In some ways it's a story about failure and about trying to define your ending. About the conflicting urges of wanting to define your life and recognizing that it's impossible, that you can't control how you'll be remembered, how you'll be memorialized. It's a story, too, of fathers and sons. The time traveler, the main character, is running in many ways. From a life he sees as a failure, from the pain that seems to follow him everywhere. His pain, his inner conflict, is tangible in the story, a denial of what is going on, a passivity but also a refusal to be truly passive. He wants to die and doesn't, wants to feel but doesn't. He's in flux, in crisis, deeply repressed, afraid of any action and so ends up merely running through the loops of escape, reenacting his own destruction without actually destroying himself. It's a situation that's familiar and rather heartbreaking, a man unable to break free from cycle of abuse. Grandfather to father. Father to son. Each is stuck with the insecurity and the paralyzing fear that it's not enough, that it won't matter, that they've failed in some fundamental way. Meanwhile the fear itself is the cage they are stuck in, the time traveler [SPOILERS] literally trapped in layer after layer of his own head, spinning his wheels, waiting for time to do what he cannot seem to, killing himself by degrees, by refusing to take any sort of action. It's a story with a taste full of longing and sadness, and it's one to certainly take some time with. A fine read!
"Once More Into the Abyss" by Dennis Danvers (7950 words)
This marks the third and presumably final story in the series that has chronicled this man's life as he deals with being the child of alien parents. Of being human but maybe not quite. Of living a life that is almost too perfect. It's a strange read, and one that's laced with a subtle thread of joy and fulfillment. And by that I mean that it seems to me to play with the idea of what is too good to be true. The prose is thick with happiness, with joy. With domestic tranquility. Everything is a story of happy accident, like Bob Ross wrote this character's life and the result is rather beautiful, rather touching. As the stories have gone on the relationships have taken center stage. Between the main character and his much younger wife. Between the main character and his older brother. Between the main character and his absent parents. There is the pervasive feeling of contentment that rolls through the work and culminates here. Also aliens and time travel and that, but there is a reading I see where this is a story about contentment. About seeking it and, largely, finding it. But coming to a place where you just can't be any more content. Where things can only decline. And looking at what a person might do at that moment. I'm not even sure whether to be heartbroken or happy about the ending, because it is difficult and because it is vague and because by that point I wasn't entirely trusting the piece. And maybe that's part of it, that I have a hard time trusting a story that is so…happy. So transparently happy. That there is this seed of doubt that the character was somehow beyond and that, more than anything else, showed him to be inhuman. To be alien. That he got to the end and believed so much in everything that he was able to step beyond, to step through, to achieve that heaven. And that part of it was that he didn't really question it. Which in my mind is a conflicting ending, but the story is about living in the moment, completely there. Not really glorying the past. Not obsessing about the future. And having the joy of now. It's a touching piece and nice way to close out the series, if it does end here. It's definitely one to spend some time with, and to think carefully about. Indeed!
"Something Happened Here, But We're Not Quite Sure What It Was" by Paul McAuley (6013 words)
This is a rather odd story about resistance and protest and progress. About technology and exploitation and space and time. It's set in a world where an alien race has given humans the keys to the galaxy, gifting them planets to colonize. Planets that are well suited to humans and that are seemingly devoid of sentient life, though there are remains of civilizations. The sites of these civilizations, rich in artifacts that help humans push forward the bounds of their understanding of science and tech, are pillaged by entrepreneurs and corporations alike, and on the border of one of these cites sits Joe's Corner. It lives mostly on tourism and the search for artifacts, and when a corporation decides it wants to build a huge space telescope array there, it gets certain people up in arms. The story is a nice look at people living off the dead, living off of history. Protesting these steps because they don't trust progress even as the protesters benefit from it, even as they have benefitted from past exploitation and show no signs of addressing that. And yet they're not necessarily wrong. The setting is complex and interesting, with the feel like humanity is some sort of experiment. Like maybe what the humans are chasing is their own tail, that there are answers that tie all the mysteries together but it involves time and disruption and still there's this looming mystery of what happened to the people who lived on these worlds before humanity was gifted them. I like the sense of discovery here, cut by the very real possibility of catastrophe. It's a fun story and one with an interesting look at protest and progress. Go check it out!
"The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan (12,716 words)
This story, to me, seems about dreams. Ambitions. The stars. About arriving at a place or a moment filled with ideas, with plans. And then finding that those plans don’t really fit. That there are some things that can’t be planned. And there are some things that can’t be planned and should be planned regardless of how they fit into other people’s preconceptions about what’s a good life and what isn’t. What’s a full and meaningful life and what isn’t. The story focuses on a woman, Emily, living with her mother, who has serious health issues stemming from her work. The world Emily lives in is one on the merge of once again trying to step out into space by putting a team of people on Mars. It’s something that’s been tried before to disastrous results. And I like how Emily is portrayed, competent and strong and happy with her work in a hotel, though it’s not glamorous and isn’t what her mother, who was a scientist, really wanted for her. This is a story of perceptions, about falling into roles. About finding what makes you happy, or what you’re suited to, even if that means not reaching for the stars. Or, at the least, even if it means reaching for the stars in other ways. Through missions. Through others. I like how Emily is inspired by the astronauts but doesn’t really want to be one, knows that she wouldn’t like it. And yet she is searching for something in her life, filled with dreams of travel, of…something. What she finds instead is a mystery surrounding her father, who she never knew even the identity of. In that it’s sort of a fairy tale, the absent father who can be anything, who could have died in space. The truth…well, it’s a nice way to bring everything together. And those aspects of the story that touch on dreams and intent and ambition, I like those, with how it creates this space for people who most assume hate their lives. People who aren’t glamorous. There is a perception that they fall into their work because they failed. Not that they like what they do. And the story does a nice job of that. Some of the things surrounding children made me a little uncomfortable but really that’s probably a personal reaction to some of the wording in the piece. Still, it’s a slow-burn story with a nice sense of scale and mystery and family and dreams. A fine read!