Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com April 2017

It's another fairly full month from Tor dot com, but still nowhere near as busy as last month. There are five stories to explore, one novelette and four shorts, and the pieces all center science and study. These are pieces that look at the role that humans can play in researching other species as well as humanity itself. They look at how medical science can be used to ease burdens and to create them, how studying and interacting with other species can teach us more about ourselves and more about the universe. These are stories about pain and disease and exploration, and people coming to terms with a universe that is vast and sometimes very cruel. And they are at turns beautiful and ugly, affirming and devastating. So let's get to the reviews!

Art by Micah Epstein


“When Stars Are Scattered” by Spencer Ellsworth (13,035 words)

This is a story about war and faith and fear. About commonalities and differences. It takes place on a distant planet populated by three main groups—Christian sharecroppers (disorganized and living at the margins without much outside support), Muslim missionaries (with much more organized support and protection), and the Kites (native kite-like beings who sail around the planet and who have been converting to Islam). Into the middle of this walks Ahmed, a doctor and mostly-atheist who pretends at being Muslim in order to have gotten schooling and to have a position. The story moves between him and Adéla, the wife of the local imam, who witnesses a dangerous shift in her husband’s moods and ideology as a disease threatens to wipe out the Kites. To her husband, Jose, the disease must be a weapon developed by the Christian settlers to get rid of the Kites, who they see as less-than-sentient, mere pests. Of course, the Christians are dealing with their own issues as the disease seems to have mutated and spread among their population. All of this sets the stage for misunderstanding, fear, and hatred to flourish, which is the perfect recipe for avoidable violence. The story is largely a tragedy that shows just how people can fall into the traps of belief and fear and how that belief can seem like knowledge, at which point mistakes are very easy to make. To me the piece explores the way that religion can be used as justification for violence when belief overrides caution and observations. When pain makes empathy nearly impossible. And it shows that so often the victims of these misunderstandings are those who had no say in them, are the bystanders who find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. The world introduced is bleak and mostly desolate, or at least seems that way at first. Like the Kites, the landscape itself is judged by human standards first, and then slowly is revealed with Ahmed’s growing understanding of it to be more complex, to be beautiful and alive. And in many ways for me the story is about observation and scientific curiosity and letting that guide policy and action rather than belief without some level of skepticism. Without being a religious person myself I felt the story wasn’t dismissive of faith, though, nor or organized religion, both as a tool for good and as something from which people can find meaning and comfort. I feel like the story very firmly comes down on the side of treating people not as vehicles for any god but rather as students learning the lessons of those gods through their interactions and observations of the world and what helps people. It’s a story about compassion and not being blinded by pain, and in that it’s a hopeful piece and rather lovely, with a complex situation and a complex treatment. And it’s certainly worth checking out!

“Mental Diplopia” by Julianna Baggott (4541 words)

This is another story that deals with a virus and with aliens, with fear and with tenderness. This story centers a couple as they move through what could certainly be the end of human civilization after a strange disease decimates the population, a nostalgia virus that brings people mentally into the past to relive some experience from their childhoods. For the main character, this time is one of fear and budding love, as they find in this new relationship something deep and powerful, only to also find the end of all things staring them in the face. I like how the story builds this apocalypse, which is incredibly mysterious even as the mechanism for it, this virus, is hauntingly alluring. A lot of the piece focuses on how peaceful people are who have been infected, that even those with deep trauma have moments where this vision of the past is comforting and serene. I do wonder if that would actually be the case for most people or if it matters. It’s possible that the virus is designed to produce that effect, after all, and it doesn’t arise from some actual happiness or nostalgia. What is certain is that this is not an accident, that there is a reason that this is happening. But that part of the story, of possible invasion and attack, is muted, like the feelings of the people experiencing the virus. Instead of fighting back the humans are instead embracing each other and their own loss, definitely more of a whimper than a bang, though perhaps more accurately a gentle sigh. It’s an interesting piece that looks at how some people approach death and the end, the sudden illness and the inevitable consumption that follows. And while there is a part of me that yearns for answers, that wants there to be a reason and an explaination behind this, what’s here is compelling and warm and the character work is solid. It’s a fascinating look at a possible end of the world.

“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson (6090 words)

This is an intense and dark story about a man who comes back from a near-death experience in the north of Canada only for his wife, Kristine, to find that his brush might have been a bit closer than they thought. And okay, so I like stories that feature the cold as a living thing, as a force. Living where I do, winter is a real thing, and to see it personified in myth and legend is rather interesting. And in the story Noel studies stories and is up in the north collecting them. It’s a rather classic setup right out of the Gothic tradition, where he has brought something back with him from the fringes, from the mystic borders, and while that’s not always the supergreatest of tropes it does make for some disturbing and rather fun reading. The piece is horror through and through, building up the danger of Kristine’s situation and making her make all of the difficult decisions. Noel’s not much help here, having been infected by...something, and so it falls to Kristine not to figure out what’s going on but to figure out what she’s going to do about it. At the heart of the story is the heart of her relationship with Noel, one that is full of love but is increasingly strained and hostile as they deal with what’s happened. In some ways the story is a look at the ways that toxic masculinity so often pushes the women in these situations, pushes the wives, to make sacrifices. [SPOILERS] There is an undercurrent in the story, after all, of Kristine making sacrifices. It’s heavily implied that she’s pregnant and hiding this out of concern for Noel, and that despite their needing to talk about this and figure it out and probably both make adjustments, it’s something she’s expected to carry herself, to be solely burdened by. And the end of the story seems to be Kristine weighing the weight of that and her love for Noel with how their relationship makes her feel and deciding [VERY SPOILERS] that she has to live up to her responsibility and save Noel rather than save herself. It’s a difficult and uncomfortable moment that I’m not sure feels the greatest but it’s a story that certainly conveys the heaviness of her situation and the horror of what Noel’s become, the hunger that cannot be sated, that Kristine might always need to pay. An interesting read!

"A Burden Shared" by Jo Walton (3209 words)

This story deals with pain in an interesting way, imagining a world where pain can be shared and passed to others. Luckily the story doesn't linger on how this would be exploited, how people would be made to bear others' pain in order to escape worse treatment (which is apparently where my mind went first when presented with the scenario and tech). Instead, it looks at a situation where Penny, the main character, is dealing the effects of bearing the pain of her daughter, Ann, for pretty much all of Ann's life. Because it's apparently easier to bear the pain of others, and because Ann was born with a disorder that caused chronic pain, most of Penny's life is a puzzle of doing her own things while dealing with this constant pain. And it's interesting because she is so focused on trying to bear her daughter's pain, her daughter who is getting more and more guilty about the situation. And yet I think that the story treats this fairly well, how Penny wants to bear the pain in part to stay close to Ann, to have this connection to Ann, and to keep her a child in some ways, whereas Ann sees this and wants their relationship to mature, to change, so that Ann isn't a burden, so that they can have some level of equality in their relationship. Of course, the story also explores that for people who are always offering to take other people's pain, there is a danger of missing the signs that their own bodies are sending. Their own pain is lost in the mix, and for Penny the realization that something is wrong doesn't really come until it's too late. It's a difficult and touching story even as the implications of the technology left me kind of squicky, as did the fact that parents could take the pain of their children without consent (it seemed). It's an interesting piece that shows the weight of pain, though, and I certainly recommend people check it out.

"The Awakening of Insects" by Bobby Sun (7014 words)

This is a fun story about a woman on a strange world, Earth-IX, and finding something...big. Jingru's role on Earth-IX is as a scientist, there to conduct research and see just how safe it is for human life. She lives there with her partner, Maia, though Maia for the duration of the story is offworld attending a conference. And the story is delightfully brisk and matter-of-fact about the mission and about the situation. Jingru is connected at all times to the tech around her, to her artificial assistant and to communication that allows her to check in with her superiors and her partner and orchestrate some very complicated science very quickly. Experiencing the story's flow is like watching a well oiled machine, everything working smoothly and efficiently, even in the presence of some seriously weird findings. And that's what the story becomes about, that Jingru finds something on the planet that needs to be investigated. Almost immediately she is able to get the tools required, including a different scientist with some relevant knowledge. The story is very science-forward, looking at how it's not by wanton or imperial exploration that progress is made but by more methodical, careful work. Not that there aren't risks (there are, and huge ones), but that there is always a respect for the study and for what they're studying. These scientists are prepared to die to further the knowledge of humanity, and at the same time they're sure they don't take unnecessary risks. The level of professionalism and competency is high and it makes for something like watching Star Trek, where I wanted to be a part of this future, this humanity, going out with hope and just a bit of wonder and a job to do. The character work is compelling and the science and discovery is amazing, the observations and the conclusions they draw monumental. It's a wonderful story!


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