Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Quick Sips - Tor.com 12/2015

Well I was reassured by Tor.com that their fiction releases are just on a holiday schedule and not suddenly disappearing. The schedule suits me (as it gives plenty of room for the holidays), though it's a bit sad to have less to read, because the stories this month are fairly strong. We have a new installment of the Mongolian Wizard series, which I hope is on its way to really complicating itself, as well as a few rather short short stories taking on the roll of the Supreme Court and...goblins. All in all, a good month of fiction, and things will probably return more to normal (read: more releases) in the new years. So to the reviews!

Art by Wesley Allsbrook


"The Phantom in the Maze" by Michael Swanwick (5916 words)

The adventures of Ritter continue in this story in the Mongolian Wizard series. Out of enemy territory, Ritter is sent north in this story to investigate a murder at an institute for seeing the future. It's a neat idea, a new wrinkle in the magic landscape of the setting, and it's a way of further showing the lengths the forces against the Mongolian Wizard are willing to go to win. It's a further step, because the series has been leaning in that direction of late, questioning the methods of those Ritter has allied himself with. His own sense of justice has to be put on hold in favor of the war effort. Things continue to happen that really questions which side is worse for the world. The one trying to rule it, or the one willing to destroy it in order to keep it out of the Mongolian Wizard's hands. The mystery itself is interesting, though these continue to be a little too short to be completely satisfying as mysteries. As installments in a larger story, though, they build on each other and work quite well. Ritter isn't always the most likable of characters, but it's interesting to see him starting to betray himself, and I assume at some point he's going to have to decide what to do about all these very shady things he's uncovering. I really hope that something comes from this, at least, because the message that in war some things are just necessary is a kinda terrible message. It's not like the powers that Ritter is working for really care about freedom or justice. They care about winning. Things might be bad under the Mongolian Wizard, but does it justify these tactics. In my mind, no, but it's yet to be seen just how Ritter will lean. The tension is building, and I really hope that it's going to reach a tipping point soon. I guess I'll just have to wait and see. Otherwise, the dealing with time is interesting here, and leads to some chilling scenes. It's a fun adventure, and one worth checking out.

"Oral Argument" by Kim Stanley Robinson (2130 words)

This is a rather cute story that uses a classic form in SFF, a series of answers without questions. In this case, the unheard questions come from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the person present is giving testimony in some sort of Federal case against a group of scientists who managed to make photosynthesizing humans. Or kind of. They created an ink that could be injected via tattoo into the skin that would aid in energy creation. And now, because of a devastating market crash, they are being blamed for destroying the economy. Which is kind of hilarious. I said it's a cute story and I mean by cute that the story is rather clever and the voice of the main character is strong and clear, the good guys and bad guys clearly labeled, though not without some important complication. This is a story that takes direct aim at judicial protection of business, and it makes it case quite plainly, that considering profit the sole basis for enterprise is not only rather immoral but dangerously reckless and ignorant. The story is a classic "little guy in a big court" story, one that uses a near-future SF lens to show the changing landmarks of these kinds of tales. So often this sort of story is about the right of business to operate free of interference from government. Or perhaps about a person who has been wronged by business being awarded compensation. This story chooses a different path, that of innovation over corporation. The freedom of people to innovate without caring about profit. Without worrying if it's "good for the economy" but instead if it's "good for people." And it's fun and crisp and just a good time. Go check it out.

"The Log Goblin" by Brian Staveley (1309 words)

This is rare bit of flash fiction from Tor.com, a rather simple but echoing story of a man and a winter and a goblin and a fire. In it, a man has cut down a great tree and split it and taken it inside to burn for his heat over the winter. When he discovers that it's being slowly stolen he decides to investigate and finds that the culprit is a goblin. A goblin with something to reveal. It's a rather stark story without much adornment. The story favors straightforward language, strong images, and the strangeness and isolation of the setting. The goblin is, as is traditional, an agent of the natural world, in this case not exactly at odds with the main character, who is also someone who lives more with nature, cutting his own wood and facing the winter away from the comforts of civilization. So it's a slow story, a soft story, one that doesn't rely on action or violence but instead on some lingering touches. The way that people live, the way that they die. The ending is rather sweet and poignant, sad and powerful without being cheesy or overly dramatic. The story is about the footprints in the snow, quickly gone. The warmth of a fire, of a love, of a lifetime, of a memory. Gone quickly but warm. Worth something, even if it is washed away. A very nice and very short story. Indeed!

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