I want to concentrate on the ways that I like the stories from this month's Tor dot com offerings. There's a lot here, especially for fans of a certain kind of epic fantasy. For my money, though, the stories that shine are the ones that step back and witness the meetings between worlds. The ties that bind people together across species and across space. Stories that imagine humans seeing something completely different from themselves and not recoiling in terror. Or at least not entirely. This is something of a mixed month for me, personally, but I'm sure that there will be lots of people who find something valuable in each of the stories. So yeah, to the reviews!
|Art by Jaime Jones|
"Her Scales Shine Like Music" by Rajnar Vajra (9324 words)
This story seems to me to be about isolation and the unknown, about scale and about a person's place in the cosmos. It's also a lovely first contact story about a man named Ross, a wannabe poet, left on a planet after the survey mission he's on discovers an abandoned alien campsite. And I love how the story is structured, the touch of the sublime, with this most barren landscape and this man on the shore and this immense darkness and against that darkness something else. A presence. And I love that the story basically posits that it's Ross' role as a poet that allows him to handle this. He is known by his hobby, a tradition of the ship he came on, so for the story he is more Poet than Ross, and it is as Poet that he seeks to understand the creature who confronts him, that he seeks to understand the mystery and the wonder of what's happening to him. It's also a story about yearning, about having something just out of reach. For Poet it seems to be a relationship that he never got to act fully on because of his money woes and for the alien he meets its something else. And for both of them it's also the loneliness that looms larger than any sea, more crushing than any cold or pressure. And together the two find a way to solve their problems, find a way to reach out and touch despite the distance between them. It's a lovely piece and I don't even mind the rhyming. An incredible read!
"Totem Poles" by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling (4497 words)
This is a…strange story about aliens who come to Earth as a sort of mystery and start…cleaning it. De-polluting it. Aliens who abhor harming humans, who would rather destroy themselves than do something that would harm someone. And the story follows a few humans engaged in interactions with the aliens. A couple fighting them. A second couple selling them as house-hold cleaners. There's a lot going on in this story, which seems to posit the aliens as some sort of refining agent, a way of pushing humanity into some next level while also kind of destroying them. To me, at least, it's a story about layers and about transformations. The aliens arrive and begin their cleansing and some humans don't trust it but most are pleased. And the aliens…well, nothing is exactly known about why they're doing what they're doing. What seems to be the case is that they're effected by human suffering and are seeking to end it, which is to humanity's benefit and yet also means that a lot of what humanity values will be destroyed. The planet is being changed and it's just not the case that humanity is inherently suffering. If it's pulled up it will change. And the characters toward the end to me seem to react to that, seeking to capture some portrait of humanity in this moment, seeking to catalog what they were before this change. Not because the change is bad but because without some record they can't really look back and see what has been lost or gained. And it's that context the story, to me, seems to focus on, this image and art that will soon be obsolete. Though I might be a bit off base because the story was a bit opaque to me and I admit I struggled with it. Still, it's a story worth spending some time with.
"The Weight of Memories" by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (2865 words)
Well this is…a rather bleak story to me. It plays out mostly as a conversation between a woman and her fetus. Plus a scientist who has managed to turn on the inherited memories of the fetus. As such, the fetus doesn't want to be born because it sees the world as a painful, terrible place. And no amount of convincing can really get the fetus to believe otherwise. And…[SPOILERS] okay, there is something here about the nature of children, about how life requires a certain amount of mystery because if one was given the option of going through so much pain and…not, then some people would certainly choose to avoid the pain. But…but really, fuck, this is a pessimistic story to me because it basically (in my opinion) the characters sort of decide that the reason that inherited memories turn off in humans is because the world is such a shitty place, more good than bad, and no one would want to deal with that. Which…which I just don't agree with at all. Because it just sort of makes the characters brush their hands of it. Oh well, better to be ignorant. To me, at least, it is then wholly immoral to turn right around and breed when the whole premise of this is that fetuses would choose not to be born. Instead of respecting that, or trying to make the world a better place, the characters just push ahead. A parent wants a child and that's that. And that seems to me to just reinforce all the things that would make the world a shitty place to live in. Seeing that children would not do what their parents want them to do if given a choice and then deciding it's better then to deny children a choice at all seems incredibly dangerous (in my opinion) and like it strips people of their right to consent. And…and perhaps this is just triggering to me in a way that I can't see past that. Maybe this is a critique on how people treat their children. As property, as unworthy of consideration. Like they do need to be kept ignorant because the truth is difficult. When really people should have to face that truth and if parents don't want to do the hard work of treating their children like people then they have no business having children. But okay, yeah, this story has apparently struck something in me. I'm sure that many other people will read something else into that and so probably best to check it out and make up your own mind. Indeed.
"Up from Hell" by David Drake (12,558 words)
This story reaches back in time to tell a historical fantasy about magic and warfare and unleashing things that shouldn't be. It follows Taranis, a military man and leader of a squad of foragers. Which I guess is a way of saying people who steal livestock from surrounding areas during campaigns. This is a military fantasy and if that's your thing then this probably has what you're looking for. For my money I get a little uneasy about military fantasies because they have a tendency in my mind to posit that good men can be involved in really awful shit and I'm pretty sure calling Taranis kind, as this story does at one point, is sort of beside the point when he's ordering random servants and others killed or raped or the like, which is sort of what "taking slaves" is so… But that's more my frustrations with the genre. The story itself is a rather straightforward adventure where Taranis ends up stepping into something way over his head and a friendly-ish witch he met, Alpnu, helps him out. It's an action story and one with some nice visuals and some seriously messed up phallic shit that probably shouldn't be thought of too much (dogfish-mouth monster-penis was an…interesting touch). [SPOILERS] Also not the hugest fan that the character that I read as being basically the super disabled person ends up becoming pawn to some evil power and then murderdrained by said monsterpenis. And really I'll just reiterate that fans of the genre will probably have less problem with it than I did. It's another story I encourage people to make their own minds up about.
"Ratspeak" by Sarah Porter (4032 words)
This is a rather odd story about a boy obsessed with…well, with becoming a rat. A boy who sees in rats something beautiful and different and genius and who wants more than anything to give up his humanity and become a rat. Or, at least, to speak like them. It's an interesting story in that it looks at appropriation, looks at how Ivan really want to learn ratspeak, but has no real concept of what that means. For rats it's a magic, something that's tied to who they are, and Ivan doesn't care, wants it because he's been hearing things, because he doesn't really fit in with his family or the rest of the human world. He feels like he would be a great rat, and that's part of the problem, because that's a certain kind of arrogance that doesn't really value rats but places Ivan above them, as if he could change and suddenly be not only a rat but the best rat. A prince. And how the story treats this magic is weird and fun, where the rats are [SPOILERS] obliged to teach him ratspeak but at the same time decide they're going to test him, going to push him. They see that he's trying to force his way into their world and doesn't much care that they don't want him. This is complicated by the fact that they do seem to be talking about him and might even be planning on killing him, so the morality here is gray indeed. I love the feel of the world, though, and the weird way that this all play out, the shrewdness of the rats and the stubbornness of Ivan and how it all comes to a head. And I really like the ending, this sinister feel and the way that it defies the standard expectations, all the ways that Ivan could have learned a lesson and moved on. Instead it does something different and something dark and it's a nicely paced and disturbing piece and definitely worth checking out!
"The Key to the Coward's Spell" by Alex Bledsoe (6556 words)
What a first line. Like, really, I think that if it wasn't my policy to read the entire thing I would have stopped there and walked happily away, because wow. Okay then. So…this a story about a man looking for a missing child. And it's a story that's…perhaps a little preoccupied with gender while obviously trying to be decent about it and…well, to me it's one thing for the main character to believe that people are the gender they claim to be and a slightly different thing for a character to believe that people are the gender he assumes they are. There are…the story genders a lot of things as it moves. A type of body, a type of walk. And gendering these things doesn't exactly fit with…respecting people's identities. The story does try, I give it that. But it's a violent story about a man hunting child rapists and sex traffickers in a fantasy setting and…that's really not my most favorite of things. So…the setting is interesting enough, dark and gritty and with swords and magic. It plays with a lot of worn fantasy tropes and recasts some of them in a way to make them more interesting or at least update them for a newer generation. The characters all interact as one might expect in this kind of fantasy, with a noir-ish feel and a general sense that everyone's lying and secretly noble. For fans of this kind of story, I don't think it's the worst example. The action is fast and well choreographed. To me it could have done much better, but it could also have done much worse. So yeah.