Thursday, June 30, 2016

Quick Sips - Tor dot com June 2016

It's another full month of fiction at Tor dot com with five original fiction that mostly stick to fantasy but with a few science fiction or at least science fictional elements going on as well. It's also something of a mixed bag for me personally, but I think overall the good outweighs the things I didn't quite care so much for. What's for sure is that there's a lot to think about in these stories, from what justice might look like in a post apocalypse to what it might be to have Sasquatch governors. It's what speculative fiction is all about, asking "What if?" and trying to provide a satisfying answer. Now to the reviews!

Art by Alyssa Winans


"The Weight of the Dead" by Brian Hodge (15,276 words)

[SPOILERS AND TRIGGER WARNINGS ON THIS ONE] This is a story that seems to me to be about family and punishment and justice and how the world changes. And, okay, a little about the constant threat of child rape. Which, if I were to pick a thing that kind of makes me want to check out of this story at times, it is that. The main character is a thirteen-year-old young woman whose father accidentally (well, semi-accidentally) kills a man and is punished by being lashed to it and exiled. And so the main character must navigate a walled village without much in the way of protection from apparently a large population of men looking to rape her. And the story does convey the oppressive horror of that fairly well, though there is also a bit of "oh well it's the times" mentality that bothers me when it comes to making settings more gritty and dark. Especially troubling to me personally about the trope is the implication that it's the laws and threats of jail/incarceration that's all that prevents child rape now. Which also implies that it does prevent it now, that child rape is something that only happens in less civilized places. And okay, sorry, forcefully pushing myself back toward the story. The scene is certainly dark and rather hopeless, with a feeling that things are fallen, like the loss of technology because of the sun's "roar" has opened the door of something vaguely natural but obviously itself abused. The spirit of the planet, maybe. Or the Wild. Which has recovered and is it's own sort of magic. I like how the old tech is still sort of in play and how there is a feeling of starting to build something new in the ruins of the old by the ending. That the village gets something of a fresh start. The story is creepy and unsettling and I think it does some things quite well. But ultimately I don't think it's really for me. You're likely not me, though, and so perhaps you'll have more luck with this story. So yeah.

"Lullaby for a Lost World" by Aliette de Bodard (2639 words)

This is a rather intense story about sacrifice and the sacrificed, about safety and the illusion of safety, and about, essentially, reaping what you sow. It's a story about cost on many levels, where Charlotte is a girl who has been fed to a hungry thing and buried. Planted. Still conscious in some way, preserved by the dark ritual that took her life. Her death is supposed to mean that the house where she was brought up is safe. Safe from the city beyond which is filled with chaos and violence. The story sets up a situation where only someone weak and young is sacrificed, and only once in a while. It's a moral exercise in what safety is worth. And what I love about the story is that it identifies that safety is an illusion where people can still be killed, where they can still be sacrificed. That giving up freedom for safety, that giving up a few for the safety of all, is just a lie. It's a lie convincingly told, like much of the lies that are told in the story, but it is still a lie, and a lie that Charlotte is not willing to live with any more. [SPOILERS IF IT'S NOT TOO LATE] Charlotte here is literally a piece of unfinished business who decides through sheer force of will to rise, to end the cycle of violence…with one last swelling of violence. To prove the lie of safety. Which is fitting, though provides an interesting conflict there, that the revenge that consumes her makes her into a monster, into something designed for killing. She does not save anyone, does not even try, and it makes a rather powerful statement on the use and justice of violence in violent systems, that she becomes the agent of justice but because her ability to be peaceful has been stripped away the only thing left is to be that machine of destruction. It's a compelling story and a quick, thrilling read. Go check it out.

"Typecasting" by Harry Turtledove (9121 words)

This story sums itself up rather nicely in the end. "It was a feel-good story. Why mess with it?" As a reviewer, of course, it's sort of my thing to mess with it, but mostly I think that statement works here. It is a feel-good story about prejudice and typecasting and about how one man works to try and get people to change their thinking. And I love the premise of the story, that this is an alt-historical fantasy where sasquatches are living among us and one is the governor of the fictitious state of Jefferson that sits in what was before northern California and southern Oregon. The story is about fighting for rights, for equality. And, in some ways, about flexing what muscles you can to push for positive change. The main character, Bill, is the governor and as such has some definite pull, pull that he's quite willing to use to try and get people to understand sasquatches a bit better. When his daughter gets cast as the monster (or monstrous at least) character in a play, he steps in to try and let people know that it's not cool. And the prose is rather light, rather charming, the plot a fine way of showing how political schmoozing can indeed get you what you want. My main issue with the story, actually, is that for a story about typecasting it…well, it typecasts the only queer person in the story as a gay theater director. Which…given that said director is also the sort-of villain, well…I want to think maybe this was intentional, that maybe this was to make a point about typecasting and the sort of harm it can do by subtly playing with it in the story, but I'm not sure my thoughts on it, really. It's a fun enough story, in the end. A feel-good story that I wish I could just feel a little better about. Still, I love sasquatches, and if you do too then check out this story.

"Chains" by A.J. Hartley (11,121 words)

This story seems to me about doing the right thing, or trying to, even when there isn't a right thing to do. About being in a situation where there is no good decision, where because of who you are and how you are perceived you can't actually get ahead, even when a lifeline is dangled in front of your face. It's a heartbreaking story of Anglet, a woman working on a great suspension bridge, who works in part because she has to and part because she wants to be a part of that construction. That pride she takes in her work brings her to the attention of a rich man who offers to buy her freedom from the gang she is indentured to, freedom from the crushing poverty and oppression of her life. Except…well, except that things are going on that will ruin everything. [SPOILERS] What I think the story does quite well is sell that this most things in the story are avoidable. The pain and the humiliation and the oppression. That it could be lifted easily by those with power. But because of who Anglet is, she is unable to break through to be seen. Though she does prevent a murder, a plot, and though she should be commended for it, the story does an excellent job of twisting the knife as everything she had hoped for is taken away. Because she isn't believed. Because of racism and misogyny and arrogance. So that there was no way for her to win. And yet she still tries. Still hopes. Still fights. It's what makes her a compelling character, her optimism and her drive. Her dedication to trying to do what is right. And even though it doesn't work out, even though in some ways she's punished for it, hope still lives, that by her skills and wits and compassion and strength she can win yet. That she can find a way out. A great read!

"Traumphysik" by Monica Byrne (4356 words)

This is a strange story about science and dreams, about ability and isolation. It follows Lucy, a woman who graduated MIT only to end up on a small atoll in the Pacific during World War II doing not much of anything. Except exploring her dreams. The story does a great job of drawing parallels between Lucy's situation on the atoll and her situation in life, the way that her intellect and education and ambition has isolated her, put her apart in a great sea without much to help her. Without much to do. Squandered in many ways. But she presses on, and discovers that in her dreams things don't quite look the same. Don't quite work the same. And in seeing that twist, that difference, she examines the world that she's in, the one where she's stuck and shunned and harassed and abused. The story builds a surreal landscape in that isolation, the dreams and the reality overlapping and obscuring each other until it seemed like the dream was more solid than the reality. It is a story about distance, and how (especially at the time but even now) isolating it can be a woman in the sciences, where men feel like women don't belong, and how they use their misogyny to effectively force many women out or to the fringes. It's an unsettling story and the ending is nicely vague, letting the reader try to discover what exactly has happened. And it blends hard science with certain "softer" sciences like dream study to capture a unique and weird feeling. A fine read!

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