Monday, December 5, 2016

Quick Sips - Tor dot com November 2016

It's another full month from Tor dot com (partly because I missed one from the last day of October, but still), and if last year is a guide then things will probably slow down considerably going into the holidays. But for now there's lots to look at with four short stories, one tie-in short story, and one graphic story. The pieces range pretty far, from standard sci fi adventure to more surreal contemporary fantasy to much more raucous historical fantasy. And there are some real gems this month, even if a few of the pieces left me a bit conflicted as well. It's an interesting group of stories that I'm going to get to reviewing. 

Art by Kevin Hong


"Dune: Red Plague" by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (3952 words)

I'm not too familiar with the Dune series after Dune itself, but this story does a nice job of setting the stage of The Story Thus Far and lays out a political situation that pits a rather callous industrialist against a religious fanatic, both men dedicated wholly to their cause and both also rather too quick to let people die. The story is interesting to me for creating no real "good" side in the story. Perhaps it does lay things on a little thick in that regard, because the characters are both rather obviously "bad," but I like that the story attempts to muddy the waters by showing two extreme reactions to a protracted war against super-advanced technology. The characters are all well-painted if a bit familiar. The evil capitalist, the evil religious fanatic. In the middle there's a huge space for a more traditional "hero" to rise, but for the moment I'm rather interested that there is no attempt to fill that space. Probably that will be held back for the novel, but it's neat to see the two deeply flawed leaders here and their slightly-more-reasonable advisors. Again, I'm not really sure where this falls into the bigger picture of Dune projects, but it's probably going to be a fun enough sci fi romp. My memories of Dune are mixed but this story is quite enjoyable if also a bit truncated. It's definitely more interested in setting up a larger work, but what's here is fun and for those interested in the larger universe I'd certainly recommend checking it out.

"The Loud Table" by Jonathan Carroll (5118 words)

This is a rather interesting story about aging and about memory and about being human. And it's a story that centers on a group of old men, which is somewhat unusually as SFF typically doesn't spend so much time with the elderly. Unfortunately in peeking into a main character that is elderly the story has a tendency to…well, sound how many people imagine old people be. Which makes a certain amount of sense for the narrative (though events as they unfold challenge this) but for someone who's not a huge fan of truisms that come off as just a bit misogynist and homophobic, it makes certain parts of the story a bit more conflicting for me personally. I think it's a fascinating examination of age and memory, and purpose in old age and about the fear of losing what you've gained. It also speaks with a great compassion for why some older people might lash out because they feel a growing invisibility. Of course, that seems to excuse some behavior as matter of course as if the elderly people have nothing to do with the system that supports their own irrelevance and so they feel more entitled to punish the young for their difference, for moving on, for not keeping things the same as always. So…well, I feel I have some personal qualms about the story, though the prose is effective and the twist does complicate things. [SPOILERS] Having the main character turn out to be a hyper-advanced alien, though, who still feels hesitation about _the gays_ and who still thinks that men and women are inherently and hugely different because gender roles is just deeply disappointing to me, because the alien is posited as being advanced while still holding the social values of an old straight white guy. So…I think that it's a story that I personally struggled with but that does reach for treating the elderly with empathy and understanding. Which for many will probably be enough. At the least, it's worth checking out to make up your own mind about.

"Reverse Documentary" by Marisela Navarro (5583 words)

This is a very strange, nearly surreal story about a ghost and a man and a documentary about trees. It features Dino, who has lost his girlfriend in a traffic accident, as he seeks to deal with that through his work on this film. The result, a mix of script and prose, is eerie and moving. To me the piece seems to center on how Dino deals with his grief, with his denial, haunted by what happened and by the lack of closure about it. His girlfriend, Jennifer, was apparently unfaithful, and this colors a lot of the work. Which…well, I'm not a huge fan of the trope. The girlfriend/partner dying while cheating is something that can seem…to punish that person while centering and privileging the feelings of the (normally male) person left behind. That the story also [SPOILERS] featured an unplanned pregnancy with another female character mostly sidelined in favor of Dino's feelings and story left me feeling a bit…disappointed. Not that the story isn't complex and interesting, because the prose is solid and I quite like the depiction of the ghost, the way that it moves around, and I love the way the film shifts its focus from being about tree vandalism to being about the filmmaker. That twist is nicely built and becomes about a person in crisis, reaching out and back, lost but going through the motions and finding in those motions something to find meaning in. I just wish I personally liked the overall effort more, but again I think that it's something that others might get more mileage out of than me, because it features a few things that I find difficult to get around. It's an interesting piece, definitely, and there's a lot to dig into, and I recommend people read it and make up their own minds. Indeed!

"A Pest Most Fiendish" by Caighlan Smith (6778 words)

This is an utterly charming story about a pair of…pest control experts called to deal with a series of unexplained disappearances. And by pests I mean supernatural scourges. And by called to deal with I mean lied and cheated to steal the contract from a rival. And by unexplained disappearances I mean, well, it turns out there's a lot more going on than it seems when Pippa and the Porter arrive at the hopeful site of a new chalet. The banter and flow of this story is really top notch, Pippa being exuberant and just north of dodgy and the Porter acting as the stoic foil, nearly exasperated by the constant barrage of flippancy that she has to deal with from Pippa. Together the two make an interesting comic pair who know how to kick some ass. And really, can you ask for much more than that? It's a fast-paced and actiony story that manages to be fun while building a world of pests and pest controllers (and even pest advocates, once all is said and done). The pistols and petticoats feel of it adds in a nice aesthetic while making the nods and winks at advanced technology rather cute and clever. Pippa seems part graft but also quite professional, dedicated to doing her job as well as she can, even if she does play the part of the scoundrel quite well. There's not a whole lot revealed about the characters, though, aside from their line of work and the feelings of their archetypes. Which isn't a bad thing, but does make the story feel more like a teaser for a different work than a completely satisfying whole. As a taste of things to come, though, I think that it's definitely intriguing enough, funny enough, and delightful enough that I would gladly check out more from the world and the characters. A great read! 

"Dragons of Tomorrow" by Kathleen Baldwin (4512 words)

This story just begins to explore a world where beings that resemble dragons—beings of fire and light and destruction—have arrived on Earth and the result is a return to semi-agrarian-ness as the dragons reduce human civilization to rubble. Nora and her brother are out hunting in this world when a dragon descends towards them. And what follows is a sort of revelation, a turning point in the history between the dragons and humans as Nora and the dragon that confronts her seek to understand each other. It's an interesting story and one that works as an introduction to this world, to this setting. To me that aspect of the story becomes the driving force, establishing the mystery of the dragons and then teasing a possible answer. It does a nice job of grounding these huge events into a context that's easy to digest. Nora is bold and brave and wants to protect her family. And yet something else is also drawing her onward and upward. I like how the story sets that trajectory, and how it shows Nora begin to unravel the mystery that has been in the front of people's minds ever since the dragons showed up. The dragons themselves are fascinating, though there really isn't much to go off of right now. The dragons are opaque, still, speaking in riddles and obviously trying to set something up without really talking about it. As far as establishing the setting and revealing what makes it unique, the story does a great job. In terms of bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, though, it leaves a lot open and doesn't really answer any of the questions it asks. I like the world and I like the character, though, so for me it's certainly worth checking out! 

Graphic Story:

"The Auntie" by Alyssa Wong, illustrated by Wendy Xu

I just missed out on including this in my October review, but I didn't want to miss out on saying how great this graphic story is, released just in time for Halloween. It follows Maya, who has moved back into her parents' home to try and take care of them and who quickly discovers that the house is being haunted. Or maybe it's her specifically that's being haunted. By the ghost of her Auntie Haichen. And the result is equal parts humorous and heartwarming as Maya must deal with this voice from the past, this critical gaze that follows her everywhere. That attempts to undermine her self esteem and her choices and her relationships. And yet mixed into this toxicity there is also something else, the voice of a woman who cared and who, in some ways, wanted security for Maya. Safety from the dangers that are omnipresent and insidious. The art is compelling and fun, the ghosts depicted amorphous and twisting while remaining true to the character and Maya herself incredibly expressive and fun. I love the date scene and the games in the church and basically just everything about the piece, which is fun and light but with an emotional core that makes the ending that much more rewarding and sweet. It's not frightening in the traditional sense (though having a dead relative follow everywhere you go is indeed scary), but it's still appropriate for the holiday and an excellent read!


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