|Art by Andreas Rocha|
"Beyond the Visible Spectrum" by Axel Taiari (4711 words)
This is an interesting story from the point of view of an alien creature woken up from a short nap by humans that want to study it, that want to study all alien life. They know that they aren't alone in the universe and they want to make contact with aliens, unaware that they're wading into waters filled with sharks. Alien sharks. With chainsaws and laser-eyes. Serious stuff. Like the main character, who though troubled by the cold is predatory in the extreme. I liked how the story captured the inhumanity of the creature, in how it could see beyond human limitations. In how it used its body. In it's thought process which was dark and powerful and patient. Desperate and yet still convinced of its superiority. There is one throw-away line about gender being revealed by voice that really should have been cut from the story, but otherwise it was effective, a bit creepy and putting this creature in a position where it is the hero, that it must save humanity more because they are its food source than because they are otherwise worth saving. A neat little bit of giving some sympathy for the devil. And I liked that it didn't really go full Lovecraft, either, though it definitely has that feel to it in some ways, that Colour Out of Space idea that it's playing with, a thing that is beyond the spectrum of human understanding. But I like that the story ended up doing its own thing. Indeed.
"Little Sprout" by Rebecca Roland (142 words)
I think this is the shortest piece that I've reviewed. Maybe. Certainly has to be close, as most pieces this small are considered microfiction or poetry. It's about a person telling I'm thinking their child to go hide in a closet with a gun. I say child because that's what "sprout" conjures to mind, so I'm guessing that the adult here is telling the child to hide to avoid the hungry ones. Zombies? Cannibals? Monsters? It's impossible to say but part of me quite likes this very short short story because of that ambiguity, because what is happening is that the older person is telling the child to hide but isn't going themself. Are they really going to fight these hungry ones or is there a different explanation? In my mind there is more going on in this story than it seems. And obviously that's just my reading of it, but it seems to me that there is another layer, that maybe the good guy/bad guy line in this story is played with deliberately, and that the adult might not be safe. Werewolf? Some other creature that needs to feed? Really I'm probably reading way too much into this but that's what makes this one fun, trying to imagine the situation being described. Either way, it's a very short and pretty neat little tale.
"When the Dead Are Indexed" by Gary Emmette Chandler (3486 words)
This is a rather cute story (can poems about the sex lives of dead people be considered cute? I'm just assuming yes) about a person who very much wants to attend an exhibit about dead authors. In this future world things are run by SHI (super high intelligence) individuals who sort of control everything. But they aren't exactly human any more, unable to eat or have sex or die. They are supposed to be better than human, but something is off about them. Because when they run the exhibit they don't focus on the works of the authors but their lives. Their sex lives. Their embarrassments and their moments they didn't want others to see. And that focus bothers the main character, as it's supposed to bother the reader. And it is disturbing to think that in this future the most powerful would be more interested in showing these artists as base and "perverted" rather than focus on the work. I mean, I sometimes have difficulty separating author from work but I think even works by problematic authors are worth looking at. I think part of the difference here to what I see when people look into the lives of authors and see some blatant racism or misogyny, for example, is that most authors of the past don't try to hide it. I assume that almost every white author who lived in the past (not even the more distant past) is pretty racist. But the ones that are rather problematic are the ones who are loud about it, who made it a part of who they were and who did insert it into their work. I feel like in part the story is making a point about not looking too deep into author's lives, but I think it's making more a point about not caring about the private actions authors take. If they like some kinky things, so what? As long as they are not hurting people, then it seems like it shouldn't matter. So I like the story for making that distinction, for not (in my mind) saying that we shouldn't be a bit disgusted by
"Dragon Rodeo Queen" by Kate Sheeran Swed (2776 words)
This is a very fun story. About a female dragon rider (as in bull rider, not as in the kind that flame Threads on distant worlds), it follows a pair of rivals as they square off against Purple Rage (I love the names of the dragons, btw). The main character, Matilda, is the best rider on the circuit, having more buckles than anyone else, including the second best rider, Colton Hicks (equally awesome name for an asshole). But even though she's the best, the misogyny that goes along with the rodeo, with the machismo, with the everything, makes it so that she's still treated worse. As a woman among men, as weak despite her performance. And it makes Colton angry enough that he challenges her over Purple Rage, a bet of his buckles against hers (a huge chunk of money). Of course, Colton's not playing fair, something that Matilda finds out a bit late, but not too late to do the right thing. It's a really fun story, told in a way that captures watching bull riding, that anticipation of waiting for the person to fall. Matilda has such a great voice that sets her apart and makes the story so fun to read. And while the characters might not exactly be the most nuanced, they are recognizable and consistent. They fit with this world of dragon riding, which is not one that exudes subtlety. Instead it is action and movement and everything is revealed with an earnest energy that is refreshing. Indeed!
"The Adjunct" by Patricia S. Bowne (3118 words)
This story focuses on the horror of being a teacher, dealing with trying to get tenure and the tactics some use to screw teachers out of being rewarded for their work. Oh, and I guess there are demons and such. But really, the horror (and humor) of this piece is that the human world, the one with the human faculty and students, is the harder one to deal with. Going to work in Hell, teaching demons about anatomy, having bodies be animated as part of class projects, that is just sort of par for the course. At least there you're getting through to students, making a difference, and in Hell the teaching politics are different. I rather like the second person style of this story, the way that it puts the reader into that place, into seeing what it's like being a teacher, that there really isn't too much difference in the two locations, that you work and deal with students but the largest concern is that you can't really feel secure. The tactics used topside are the more horrifying, the more terrible, treating teachers like burdens because they have to be paid, torturing them like they are the true denizens of Hell. People given the chance to be in a body again refuse. There was a bit with a reanimated soul that I wasn't quite comfortable with, that seems not fully-formed, that I couldn't quite figure out what it was trying say, but overall I liked the push of the story, that sometimes the mundane world of business is much, much worse than some of the punishments of Hell.
"Outside In" by Anna Yeatts (4024 words)
This is a very strange and rather unsettling horror story that manages to capture a very definite sense of confinement and isolation and need for expression. Sort of like "The Yellow Wallpaper" in its drive, this woman confined in this apartment that used to be a warehouse and suffocating from the lack of freedom. This seems so incredibly creepy because this is something that people want to believe probably isn't possible any more, and yet I'm guessing is still somewhat common. And this woman has to deal with being imprisoned to "protect" her and it just seems so messed up. So she tries to escape how she can, through writing and through a fascination with a pillar in her apartment that has a pipe, on the other side of which she images that there is another woman. Her mirror. The one that is trapped and who she wants to free. And in the end she manages to do just that (sorry about spoilers but kind of want to discuss that ending). Because the story gets a bit more and more strange, less...concrete (okay, bad pun). It delves more into her mind as she tries to reach the woman in the pillar, the woman who is basically her until finally the two women switch places, find a sort of freedom even if it is only mental, even if it is simply to be free from the abuse and the confinement. It's quite possible that this represents her complete dissolution as a person, her ultimate mental escape, but if it is I cannot read it as wholly sad. Tragic, yes, that she was ever in this situation, but there is a certain ecstasy to that freedom in the end. An unsettling story.
"Conversations with a Ghost" by Josh Vogt (623 words)
This is a short and neat little story that is a conversation between two people. And okay, I need to spoil this in order to review this properly, because it's a flash that primarily uses a twist to make its point, so be warned! This is a short conversation between a mother and her daughter. The mother has died but been duplicated into a virtual afterlife and the daughter wants to shut the program down because living with a dead virtual ghost of her mother is too much. But virtual people have rights and need to give permission to be terminated. And as the story moves along it turns out that it isn't just the mother that is a simulation, that the daughter is actually a duplicate daughter the original daughter made to keep her mother company. So this is a conversation between ghosts, one of a dead person and one of a living person. So an interesting idea that plays out a bit like an episode of the Twilight Zone, raising questions about how virtual people can be and what is ethical when it comes to shutting them down. To what extent are the virtual approximations capable of giving consent? At which point are they sentient? The story doesn't try to answer any of those questions, really, but does provide a nice little dialogue that complicates them somewhat. For being under seven hundred words, it does a nice job of saying its piece and then sitting down. Worth a look.
"Shamrock Part 2 - Into the Fray" by Josh Brown and Alberto Hernandez
After a bit of a break, Shamrock is back! I was quite pleased with seeing a graphic story appear here the first time it happened, and I am pleased again to know that this will be a recurring thing. And hey, maybe it started a trend, as between these parts I've seen Tor itself put out a graphic story on their website. And, as a longtime comic and graphic novel fan, is quite excellent as far as I'm concerned. In any event, this part of Shamrock seeing the hero and her new tiger friend talking and following after some slavers that took the people of Shamrock's village. It's a bit exposition heavy, but as the second part of the story it needs to establish the stakes, the backstory, all of that, and it does it in a compelling way, utilizing shadows and dark colors to convey a history soaked in blood, betrayal, and death. So while not an awful lot happens in the main story line, this installment does set the stage well for what is to come. And it keeps the action moving right along, revealing the primary players and then getting down to some heroic planning. Ah, I love heroic planning. I am super curious to see the next part, because so far Shamrock has shown a lot of potential. Animal sidekicks, a story reminiscent of the late 80s with stolen thrones, brutish slavers, and an intrepid peasant-turned-warrior. And by revealing itself in chunks every issue instead of going the webcomic route of a page every week or something like that, it plays into my preferred way of reading. Because while steady updates are very nice, I'm more of a binge and drought reader of things like this and so I like the nice, digestible story-chunk. And I love the way the tiger, Ruarc, emotes. Those faces! So cute. I want a Ruarc of my very own! Also very well done is the very last panel, that smirk after she's so thoroughly fooled the slavers. I'm normally not a huge fan of idiot villains but there is something about the setting, the homage to the kind of story that Shamrock is playing with, that makes it fun and refreshing. Sometimes it is completely okay to just have fun. So be sure to check this one out!