Monday, January 30, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com January 2017

The offerings from Tor dot com do an excellent job of balancing light and dark, love and betrayal, hatred and hope. The stories range from horror to noir mystery, from sci fi romance to cerebral deconstruction. As such there isn't exactly a single thread that weaves all these stories together. Which is just fine. What I find instead are stories that stand perfectly well on their own, that revel in the myriad interpretations of SFF. From gothic horror to environmental science fiction, the stories all set about capturing different flavors of genre. There isn't an awful lot of overlap, either, so fans looking for a nice primer on different styles and visions might be well served checking out each of these stories. Or, for those preferring a specific brand of SFF, you'll find weighty stories that provide satisfying experience in and of themselves. So yeah, time to review!

Art by Sam Wolfe Connelly
"A Human Stain" by Kelly Robson (9734 words)

Well okay then. This is a deliciously gothic story tinged with bloody horror and a deepening madness and darkness. It sees Helen, a woman who has run out of luck and lenders in Paris, retreating with a wealthy acquaintance to a remote house in the Alps to be tutor to a young boy. The house has secrets, though, and Helen hasn't exactly been told the truth with regards to why she's there. The story sets itself up rather nicely, bringing Helen into isolation and weirdness in a house where the servants are strange and know not to tell the truth and the boy, Peter, who she's supposed to be teaching…well, there's something just a bit off about him. The story opens with Helen's strong personality and her resolve, and it is these things that drive her through the action of the piece, determined to figure out what's going on even as the house and the situation begin to eat away at her (or is it her that starts to eat away at them?). I love how the situation follows, how the story veers sharply away from more standard gothic horrors where things are implied and where the supernatural is something maybe hinted at but revealed to be false. Here the supernatural is certainly not false and it turns out to be a hungry thing, revealing itself in rather disturbing scenes of blood and bones and teeth. The weight and scope of the story drop like a stone, crushing everything else out, and the ending comes as a series of horrors, each one more consuming than the last. It's a story that builds very well, the sense of dread and the sense of hunger and the sense of despair all merging, all becoming something strange and dark and compelling. If you want to start the new year off with your skin crawling, then this is the story for you. A great read!

"Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story" by S.B. Divya (7162 words)

Aww. This is a rather romantic and sweet story about microbes and acute bacterial reactions and love. A story about pollution and cleansing and loneliness. Like the last story there is a sense of isolation but here there's not the same kind of horror. The isolation comes from need of the main character, Moena, to avoid the contaminants of the outside world. Inside her hermetically sealed home she is safe and relatively content. She keeps her world in order, the bacterial levels perfect, designed for her health. And yet there is something that nags at her, that pulls at her. A guilt, in part because her conditioned has forced her to be selfish, to prioritize herself when at heart she is a rabble-rouser, a rebel, and an eco-warrior. She wants to be out in the world, doing something and maybe, given the hot fellow-environmentalist (Rahul) she meets, someone. The story looks at different kinds of pollution, though, not just the environmental kind but also those things that are bred in captivity. Moena's system, while it keeps her safe, is designed for her alone, and bringing it out into the world means that she is both invaded and invader, the bacteria and the harm being done going both ways. And I love that, that Moena is so focused on getting what she wants that she neglects to think of others and only when she begins to understand what she's doing does she realize what she has to do. The setting is interesting and extremely topical, and I just love the characters, how they interact and how they care so much for each other. It's a fun and heart-warming story that holds a large amount of hope. That hurts can be forgiven. That pollution can be cleansed. That loneliness can be broken. Go check it out!

"The Atonement Tango" by Stephen Leigh (15,223 words)

It's interesting to me just how many different styles and stories can be told in the Wild Cards setting. Just last month there was a much more YA-flavored story about growing up and tolerance and here we have a very different kind of story, thematically and content-wise. This story focuses on Drummer Boy, the drummer for a joker band who experiences a very traumatic event that sends him on a quest for revenge and recovery. This story has quite a bit of personal history and baggage to go along with it. It's a hard rock noir fantasy where the main character is a six-armed jaded rocker trying to make sense of his own feelings in the chaos following the event that changed his life so abruptly. The story is in other ways about taking stock and finding out how to survive and really appreciate life even when not dealing with near-death-experiences. The Wild Card phenomenon here is much like mutants in Marvel Comics, with some people born jokers and some who contract it later in life and some who become someone who can pass as normal but who has powers. It's a fascinating system and it creates this whole class of people who are visibly different, who are marginalized by that difference. I think the story does some interesting things with that, looking at the main character who is somewhat jaded and bitter about the ways in which the joker community is run and what they can accomplish in the face of hatred and violence. And it's a story about revenge and the cost of revenge, and what a person might lose when they decide to seek out vengeance. And as long as you're okay with treating the jokers as a simply metaphoric minority that doesn't tie directly into any real-world marginalized group, the story is fine and fun and tightly plotted and well-executed. [SPOILERS!!!] For me personally the story is a little triggering because of some certain recent-ish events of domestic terrorism targeting minorities and the media's treatment of those events and a narrative of self-loathing and religious ideology that leads to violence. I don't think the story does an awful job with the setup, but for me trying to follow the metaphors of persecution out from the story to the "real world," I stumbled a bit and quickly made myself retreat back to the fiction. In the world of the story, everything makes sense. And the story is an interesting and vivid look at an ugly situation that finds its heart in the right place. So yeah, an enjoyable read!

"The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island" by Julianna Baggott (4881 words)

This is a rather unsettling and cerebral story about trauma and about recovery. About the idea of therapy and how it can guide and help people to heal, but also how it can be something else, a tool of the therapist of their own ego and satisfaction, and even a way to maintain a cycle of harm that doesn't seem like it can end. The story centers Archer, who renders immersive games to help patients work through their issues. It sounds like something that already happens in therapy, but a bit more personalized and on a larger scale, each person getting entire immersive environments built specifically for them. For one patient, though, the therapist, a rather boorish man named Klaus, wants to try something new (and terribly unethical). The story shows how the borders between the IRL world and the virtual world can blur, how achievements made in one world can be carried over into another, but also how virtual defeats and events can create new issues. Archer finds that he's having trouble with his own issues, with a marriage that isn't really bringing him much joy especially after a series of miscarriages. Feeling powerless, he retreats into a virtual setting to try and deal with his issues. But the story does show the limits of these games and the differences between traumas and losses. That for Archer his pain is something that he seems to be guarding instead of letting go, that his attempt to self-diagnose and treat has led him to doing things that only seem to be making things worse. Just like, in Klaus' drive to be a renegade and break the rules, he's lost touch with actually helping his patients. It's a complex and rather draining story for me personally, because it deals with a flood of sorrow and trauma, Archer constantly wading in the problems with others while dealing with his own insecurities about his masculinity and relationship. I like the premise, though, and it is a story that carries some definite wait. A fine read!


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