Today I'm looking at the February stories from Tor.com. And yes, I know that it's March. The shame I feel at having to do this is great, but there was really no avoiding it. February was long and I just had too much I wanted to get to. Also, writing a review the first day of the month is difficult, so this gives me a whole extra day. I'm sorry is what I'm saying. Sorry and I'll try to do better. But anyway, on with the show!
"The Human Engineer" by Jessica Brody (6743 words)
Definitely not a happy story, this one at least doesn't make the idea of growing fetuses in artificial wombs out to be something evil or one step in a slippery slope. If anything, it's a great advocate for such technology, because as the main character notes, it has tons of advantages. It's more a story about giving a corporation that kind of power can lead to some terrible decisions. In an age where there are memory coders and things like that, having things be driven by the commercial aspect of things makes for some really terrible things. Like putting a dollar sign on life. And that seems to be at the heart of the story. It's also a rather bleak look at what might be the future, but it makes some decent points, blasting the capitalist system where whatever makes money is valued. Where the money is more important than the human. It's a delicate position to take, but I do think that the story manages, that it succeeds. It's not a particularly happy story, but it is a pretty good one. So hurrah.
"The Language of Knives" by Haralambi Markov (2719 words)
This story moves smooth as knife cuts, revealing a daughter and parent working together to make the body of their father and husband into a cake. It's a slow, methodical story, and one that snuck up on me. I will admit that I was surprised by the turn, by the reveal that the second parent is a man. It's very well done to set up the expectation that it's a woman, with the magic using instead of the brawn, with the baking, with those small hints at what is perceived as feminine. So this one caught me, got me to question my own assumptions when approaching the work, and yet I didn't really feel tricked. I didn't feel that the story became about that twist. Indeed, I think that's a great part about it, that it doesn't dwell on the reveal, that it sets it up so that the fact that he's a man is rather insignificant. It's obviously consciously chosen, to show how people assume, to challenge those assumptions. But the story itself is no different. If it had been a mother and daughter it would be no different. The pain and jealousy and hurt and all of that would remain. Basically, that he's a man or a woman doesn't cast him into any assigned gender role. It shows that gender roles are constructs, that they don't magically change the meaning of the story if one character is male or female. And it works. It's a beautiful story and wonderfully told.
"Acrobatic Duality" by Tamara Vardomskaya (3996 words)
This story seems to circle around the idea of identity and also athletic ethics as a single person becomes a pair of gymnasts competing at the World Championships. The idea that two people are really the same, that one mind is split between them, is interesting and strange and is explored well in the story. There is a sense that despite the two bodies being different, that they are completely in sync. Except that as they compete and as they come to terms with what they are and what winning would mean, they realize that they can't just pretend that they are normal, can't just continue on as if they have earned the praise that they are receiving. It's a flowing, intricate story, and the split psyche is handled well, the descriptions of the gymnastics well framed and the feel of the story solid. I did want to know what was going on, empathized with both their want to fulfill their potential and their want to find out who they really are. Because the easy thing to do would be to accept that the sport is their life. That they can be successful. But they forego that in order to seek the more difficult truth, regardless the outcome.
"Shrödinger's Gun" by Ray Wood (7679 words)
Set in Prohibition era Chicago, the story follows a female detective as she investigates the murder of a gangster. Only she's no ordinary detective. She has a heisen device that allows here to visit other realities, to explore the uncertainty of the universe and use it to her advantage. It is a great idea and one that really works with the setting, a mixture of high tech and noir. And really it's not something I'd expect to work, but it does. Historical science fiction noir. Good times. And it plays with some interesting ideas swirling around uncertainty, with how a detective might use the tools available to her, as well as what might happen with the truly improbably happens. It's a fun story, full of the feel of the time, of smoke and cheap booze and despair, and it works with the ending, with that ultimate uncertainty of her decision when faced with the two different outcomes. For the readers, we are left to make that decision of what happens or let it linger, forever unanswered.
"The Hell of It" by Peter Orullian (15347 words)
In some ways this story is even more painful than the author's story from last month (also at Tor), which was all about torture. I'm sensing a theme, at the very least, of loss and pain when it comes to these two stories at least. In this one, which is quite long, a man faces the prospects of losing everything he has left, which isn't all that much to begin with. Down on his luck following the death of his wife, Malen finally hits the bottom when he's fired from his job as a deck scrubber and resorts to trying to gamble with the last of his wife's things. Things go from bad to worse as Malen slowly makes concessions, slowly gives up everything, continually cheated out of his way out. It's a gritty story, and one that really just seems an exercise in kicking a character when he's down. Because the ending comes off as a bit hollow to me. At least, though the story focuses on the fact that Malen is a "good" man who has been kicked by the system, and that he's finally won in some ways because his son is being taken to become part of that system, I can't see it as a victory in any sense. Maybe it's just what he needs to tell himself in order to not die, but it doesn't seem like any victory to give his son up. It seems another thing that will work out poorly for Malen, like when he finally returns he'll find his son has embraced the system that kept him down and that Malen delivered him into that system and I just don't know what to take from that ending. Part of it just rubs me a little the wrong way, because it seems to focus on Malen's nobility by showing how terrible things are around him, and how futile his struggle is, because even in the end the best he can do is make his son a tool to do to others what was done to him. Hmm... This story definitely brings up a lot to think about, though. So there's that.