Thursday, October 29, 2015

Quick Sips - October 2015

October at Tor has actually seemed a bit of a reprieve from super-long stories, which is rather nice given the story-load for this month. That doesn't mean that they don't bring the quality, as these four stories are all rather dense reads, building some amazing settings and worlds that seem to flit and bend and dance. The settings are alive, characters in their own rights, and it is quite the treat to discover each one. From the alien world of the Cyclopes to the onion-like layers of interlocking dimensions, the stories bring some startling ideas, and do not disappoint in executing them. To the reviews!

Art by Tommy Arnold


"Tear Tracks" by Malka Older (7169 words)

Alien life is not only discovered in this story, but in a way that no one really expected, which is to say the life found is strangely like life on Earth. Humanoid. And a pair of humans get the chance to visit this brave new world in order to establish relations and perhaps reach some sort of agreement that would lead to a formal treaty or framework. The pair, a man and a woman, meet with the aliens, the Cyclopes, on their home planet, and in doing so they witness a truly alien world, though one that fairly closely mirrors are own. They navigate the taboos and try to learn something. I loved how the Cyclopes valued suffering, and how that value infused its way into the rest of their culture. The world building of the story is strong, moving, and the character work brings it home. [SPOILERS?] Flur is a young woman with something to prove, wanting to show her competence which isn't really valued among the Cyclopes. Instead it is what she hides, the grief that she has never really let anyone see, that the Cyclopes would praise, only her training prevents her from revealing it. It's a great look at how, in our culture, we see grief as a sign of weakness, and how we treat those who suffer, and how a different system, while perhaps not better, contrasts the way we push grief away into "safe" places, how for us it is grief that is as taboo as eating is for the Cyclopes. And for Flur it all comes rushing back, impacting with a strength that is surprising given how subdued most of the story is, shattering a few walls that seemed indestructible. Also, I love first contact with alien stories, and this does a damn fine job of it. A very nice piece.

"Variations on an Apple" by Yoon Ha Lee (5034 words)

This is…a bit of a strange one, a retelling of the story of Paris and the contest of the goddesses and the fall of Ilion. Here, instead of choosing any of the three goddesses, Paris chooses to give the prize to his city, to his lover, but instead of avoiding the whole bloody mess that the conflict set off in the original story, his choice only cements it. There is a definite mixing of settings and genres in this story, elements of myth running together with mathematics, with robots, with all matter of things, creating a story that is part myth and part sci-fantasy, shining a spotlight on the altered nature of the story. The idea of variation, touched on by the title, is visited and revisited, each change in the story designed to provoke a different outcome, and yet time and again the story ends in death, in destruction. There is a sense of fatalism to Paris, to his situation, that he is here a victim of being chosen to make a choice, and yet for all the illusion of choice the outcome is foregone. He will suffer and die, as will those close to him. It's a fascinating examination of myth and consequence, and one that I'm not sure I fully understand. The language is flowing, surreal at times, moves back and forth over images and ideas and then on, and the effect is strange, a bit uncertain, the familiar aspects of the story bristling against the additions but still, in its core, true to the idea of the myth. Probably this one deserves a few more close readings to really pull it all together, but as I don't have the time this month, I will say that it's a bit unsettling but with a feeling of justice and injustice and choice and helplessness. And it's well worth reading.

"Hold-Time Violations" by John Chu (5138 words)

I will admit that this story took me a little while to get into. There is a sense that, as a reader, I'd just jumped into something without really knowing how deep the water was. Luckily, the story does a fine job of hitting its stride, and with Ellie, the bold and rather put-upon main character, I was along for the ride. There really is a nice sense of weird going on with this story, where the universe is governed by an enormous system of pipes that seem to control everything. That are being fought over by people hoping to either improve, fix, verify, or prevent changes from happening. Ellie is a builder, a fixer, and as such she has the responsibility to respond when faults in the system start to have effects in the world, throwing off physics, making the trains run a bit off. The daughter of a legend in the business of altering and preserving the universe (well, the one they're in, which is both inside an outer universe and around an inner universe that loop infinitely around), Ellie finds her task complicated by a series of discoveries and having to work fast or be found by those not wanting the universe altered even to fix it. I love the world building of the story and am a bit bummed that once I found my feet in the story it doesn't keep going. But the story is emotionally hitting, managing to make the universe about the small actions, the small fixes, the imbalances and the things that can and should be done to try and make things right. The struggle within Ellie as a builder, as one who both fixes and creates, is strong, and it's a fun to watch as she finally makes her decision. A neat story.

"Some Gods of El Paso" by Maria Dahvana Headley (4198 words)

I think I was expecting a Halloween story for the last week in October, but instead I'm left a bit numb from this piece which works on some deep and almost troubling levels. The story is about Vix and Lorna, two lovers and whores and healers, capable of taking people's negative emotions and bagging them, selling them on. The emotions are freely given and the two see themselves as healers, as doing good work even as they leave people broken, lacking or too full or some other measure of miserable. They are worshipped for their abilities, but they are gods who care only for each other, who travel because they can, because their gifts compel them, because they drag around their own baggage, as well. And the story works thanks to the ways this story echoes and layers. The characters offer catharsis, offer a release, an act that is both sexual and religious. Their activities are illicit and craved. I love the way that story treats having to live in the middle, that when extremes are outlawed people go in further to make up for it, to find the high and low they've been denied. And in some ways the story can be viewed as about art. That here are people offering other people's pain mixed with their own, cut and spliced and offered back. The way that art can act to draw out emotions, to give people release, the way that art can be used illicitly, unethically, the way it can hurt and heal and everything in between. The story defies the literal even as it revels in it, working both where emotions are tangible things and where what they're really doing is playing a sort of artistic game of catch and release. And I love the uncertainty at the end, the way the story teases, engaging in the act it portrays, allowing the reader to experience the highs and the lows and then disappearing. A story to cut with bourbon and take your time with. Indeed!

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