|Art by Keith Negley|
April marks a rather full month of short SFF releases from Tor dot com with three short stories and a novelette, a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all of it unfolding in the “real world,” though sometimes twisted by technology, sometimes touched by magic, and always heavy with a waiting darkness. The stories certainly lean on the dark side of things, revolving around exploitation, grief, and death. That might come in the form of a family who transforms when they die into heirlooms for their relatives to treasure and care for, or in the form of a military experiment targeting a person who can’t feel physical pain but can definitely experience other kinds. There’s artificial intelligences helping to facilitate social justice, and even a creepy dog who might hide a menacing secret. It’s an eclectic month of fiction, to say the least, offering a solid tour of how SFF approaches death, recovery, and hope. To the reviews!
“One/Zero” by Kathleen Ann Goonan (10249 words)
No Spoilers: Split between two points of view, this story follows Mai, an aging woman who has dedicated most of her life fighting for social justice around the world, and Vida, a young person from Kurdistan made refugee when almost all of their family is killed on their younger brother’s third birthday. The piece is stark and does not look away from the horrors of conflict, plague, and injustice. Vida’s story sharply contrasts Mai’s, which is much more concerned with her health in a very affluent way, living around Washington DC and dealing with an increasingly invasive medical technology. The whole piece circles around AI, and specifically superintelligences (SI) and their potential to change the world, or at the very least help it to be changed. It’s a story about change and hope in the face of horror, and it’s a moving, complex read.
Keywords: AIs, Refugees, CW- Atrocities, CW- PTSD, Health, Privacy, Rights
Review: I love how the story looks at change, and looks at how SIs might develop and be used. On the one hand, Mai deals with a very invasive kind of AI which is trying to make her “healthy,” but by healthy it means meeting a standard of health. It tries to make her conform to recommendations for what she’s “supposed to be” and that extends to mental health as well, the program pushing her and other people into a sort of homologous state. Meanwhile Vida is much more concerned with just surviving and then, as time passes and they get access to a SI, thinking about what comes next. And really that’s the where the story focuses in my opinion. On the question of what happens next. The characters all inherit something of a broken world. Full of abuses and troubles and things that the medical AI want to fix by adjusting people’s minds so that they’re just okay with the way things are. Making them feel better about there being terrible things happening. For Vida, though, that’s never really an option. There is no amount of mental tweaking that would allow them to be okay with what’s happening. Instead, they have to navigate forward in a way that reaches for justice, that reaches for meaningful change. And they get there by focusing on children and their potential to imagine a different world. And especially for those who aren’t really invested in the way things are because they’ve been so personally hurt by it. And giving them the tools to build something, to cooperate, and to shape a world into being, supported by the resources and processing power of an SI. The different between the two approaches is wonderfully explored and I like the way that Mai comes to see the value in what’s being done, in giving up the vision of progress that her health AI presents her with, and goes back out to fight for the world that the children are creating. It’s a strange but hopeful story that seems to revel in the wonder of the human spirit, and the potential of young people to create a better world, if given half a chance. A great read!
“Blue Morphos in the Garden” by Lis Mitchell (4869 words)
No Spoilers: The story opens when Vivian’s daughter Lily appears to announce that her grandmother is turning into butterflies. It’s an almost shocking way to start things off except that it’s not played as particularly strange. It’s just that Lily’s partner’s family has a way of Passing that involves transforming into something that will stay on at the ancestral estate. It’s a strange blessing/curse that Viv has some feelings about, complicated by her own place in the family, or outside of it, and her feelings about death and dying. It’s a difficult story at times, confronting the “meaning” of death and what a person should want to do with their passing. And it’s messy, careful, and gloriously messy.
Keywords: Death, Transformation, Funerals, CW- Terminal Illness, Family, Stories
Review: I love the messy situation that Vivian finds herself in, both inside and outside this family that doesn’t die like other people die. Because she’s in this situation that’s rather religiously tinged for me, where the people around her are pressuring her to see death as this one thing, as this chance of Passing into a different state of being, of still being of use to the family, of still be present in some way. It speaks to an afterlife that Vivian doesn’t feel a pull toward. She doesn’t want to meddle, doesn’t want to linger, doesn’t want to be a weight on her daughter. When she goes she wants to be gone and done, food for the worms, and it’s a resonating drive she has, especially since death is something she has to think about quite a bit, what with her own health deteriorating with some sort of genetic illness. It’s something she argues with her partner about. Partner, because they never married, because doing so would link her into his family’s magic, into the cycle of death and transformation that she wants no part of. And yet no one really gives her peace about it, won’t accept that she could be happier and satisfied not Passing into something else. Not wanting to still be around and used by the family for...whatever. But I really like that, because it shows that she sees death so differently, not as something that requires another step. Not as something made better by the addition of a new wardrobe or desk or chair. And there’s something that speaks to me about not wanting death to be...softened I guess in that way. There’s an implication that these objects the dead have become are still that person, and yet that puts such a burden on the living to care for them and to never accidentally damage them. To stay rooted to this one spot, to this one way of doing things. That might be beautiful for some, but might also be a bit horrific for others. And I like that it deals with how Vivian chooses to face her death, standing up to the familial pressure to make things easier not just for her partner but for their daughter, who might much more easily accept a death tinged in magic rather than one that seems more...mundane. A wonderful and nuanced read!
“Painless” by Rich Larson (5409 words)
No Spoilers: Mars has been part of a military experiment since he was a young boy, picked up because he is unable to feel pain. He is made into a killer, an assassin, and yet through it all he is isolated, alone, kept separate from everyone else. He has an organism inside him now that allows him to heal incredibly rapidly, and he’s got a plan for maybe being able to take his life back. First, though, he’s looking for someone, and the story follows him on his mission, in all its blood and hunger and death. The piece is quick and violent, showing Mars’ transformation from the young boy being exploited for money to the man exploited for power to the fugitive trying to figure out how to live for himself. It’s rather fun, with a yearning feeling as he reaches for something he’s never really known, a pain that he can’t begin to describe.
Keywords: Pain, Military Experiments, Healing, CW- Cannibalism, CW- Suicide
Review: This story in some ways puts me in the mind of superheroes, not least of all because it does rather feature a man with superpowers. He’s got a healing factor and a great deal of military training and uses it to deadly effect here, creating a visceral and blood-soaked piece. More than that, though, I feel the piece seeks to examine the different kinds of pain a person can experience, and how Mars only misses out on the physical pain. The emotional pain he feels is no less real, though, and he has severe trauma and issues stemming from that, to the point where he tries to kill himself. Which, in turn, gives him something to live for, something to seek out and connect with. It gives him a route through his isolation and to a point where he can experience the third kind of pain that the story introduces only at the end—love. At least that’s what the story feels like to me, bringing Mars to the point where he can feel affection and love, which manifests in some ways as pain, but one that’s warm and affirming. One that he wants to experience more, even if it hurts with how many ways it could go wrong, with all the doubts and fears and insecurities he has. It’s a piece that builds up his story well, showing just how much he’s been damaged even if he doesn’t bear the physical scars. He’s still got the psychological ones, and yet he still chooses to try and get himself out of the cycle, to put distance between himself and his past. To try and imagine a future that isn’t about killing. It’s a rather brutal piece, but not without a little heart. It’s not perhaps all that surprising a read, but I think it’s well constructed and executed and worth checking ou. Indeed!
“Mama Bruise” by Jonathan Carroll (6345 words)
No Spoilers: A woman and a man who are married have to navigate a rather strange situation after their dog begins to exhibit some...unusual behavior. The piece is told a little jumbled and without names for any of the primary characters, focusing instead on relationships and the way that the dog and its power complicate and endanger the lives of its owners. The voice of the story is...odd, the perspective not exactly the woman or the man but rather some other observer following everything, relating the story as if speaking directly to the reader. The effect is a piece that seems to me part horror, part contemporary rumination on death and returns, and part ghostly conspiracy about resurrection, aging, and addiction.
Keywords: Dogs, Reincarnation. Marriage, Death, Communication
Review: This is a really odd story for me, and one that has a lot of things going on and a very distinct way of revealing them. I actually am not sure what I think of the narrative style, which is rather...blunt with the actions going on. There are moments of intimacy and fear within the piece, of revealing the quirks and characters of the two dog owners, but at the same time things just sort of Happen. The events with their dog suddenly...realizing...that it’s the reincarnation of the woman’s dead father is related matter-of-factly, and by that time it’s not like it’s completely unreasonable, but I’m struggling to really capture the sort of...soft impact the story manages with all of the weird things that happen. The couple just sort of...accepts them and moves on. Not treating these events like they’re normal but not really Doing Much about them. The piece I feel works this into a discussion of aging parents whose minds have perhaps slipped or been damaged by substance abuse. The ghost dad here is now a dog, and that means sometimes only a dog and sometimes a lucid human and sometimes a much more confused and erratic human and also he might be some sort of reincarnation...outlaw or fugitive because he remembers the past life and there might be...time agents or ghosts or...something after him but that’s all really just guesswork and the real question is more about if the couple is good for each other, the two of them in a somewhat rocky relationship where they’ve broken each other’s trust and aren’t doing a great job of getting it back. So perhaps it is a story about Something Big happening, something big that really should be faced and managed but instead it’s just sort of talked around and accepted and lived with, though it’s not really making anyone happy and is in fact rather dangerous (only also it can give ghost money and that’s huh?). So this is a bit of a confusing piece for me, but it’s also a rather interesting one, and I certainly recommend people check it out for themselves to see what you think.