Monday, April 3, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com March 2017

First I guess I have to talk about Tor dot com's March project, Nevertheless, She Persisted, which features eleven pieces of flash fiction all centered around that idea, that quote. These are stories that hit and hit hard, some of them blisteringly defiant and some of them steeped in despair. The stories (and poem) show the many facets of the idea of persistence. The power of it and also the crushing nature of having to persist, and persist, and persist, ever and always. The stories run across a wide range of speculative genres and it's wonderful to see the authors taking this central idea and being inspired by it. Using it to say something new and interesting. Making a statement on our current situation and refusing to look away from the uncomfortable truths of it. So yes, it's a wonderful project and makes for a some surprising start to Tor's March.

That's not all that the publication got up to, though. Oh no. This would have been a full month even without the eleven flash stories, as there are also three short stories and two novelettes to look at. And wow. These are some gorgeous pieces that take on some deeply uncomfortable themes and manage to find glimmers of hope even in the most devastating of loss and corruption. They are stories of ghosts and magic, bodies and wars. And before I get too lost in describing them, why don't I just get to the reviews!

Art by Scott Bakal

"Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light!" by Kameron Hurley (548 words)

This story quickly and efficiently builds both a setting and character to inhabit it, putting Moira in a city that both relies on and discourages women from going out and battling monsters. It pulls in the quote behind the series as both a warning as an encouragement, and does a generally great job of showing the double standards at work here. How these women are attacked not just by the monsters (who also attack everyone) but by the defenses of their own city. [SPOILERS] They must fight first through the forces that are supposed to be protecting and helping them because those forces aren't enough. And yet the energy and resources are wasted. If the city worked to help these women instead of trying to stop them, everyone would benefit. That the city demands that these women aren't able to fight monsters while at the same time enjoys the benefits of their sacrifices is an excellent way of showing just how loaded the society is against women. And, really, against justice and equity. It maintains the balance that keeps the monsters strong enough to attack, and in so doing tries to reinforce the idea that it's right to do so, that because the women are never wholly successful they are failures. And I love how the story works to subvert that, to crush that, letting people know that losing, that dying, are not moral wrongs. They are sometimes necessary, and they do great good. And I like that the story aims not for some perfect victory but for resistance and persistence in the face of adversity and injustice. It's a story about doing what's right, even when it sucks, which is something that women are probably no stranger to. A great way to kick off this project!

"God Product" by Alyssa Wong (501 words)

Well…for those thinking that all of these stories were going to be of the happy or uplifting sort…uh…maybe not. Not that this isn't a beautiful piece, about value and desperation and trying to fit yourself to a system that doesn't want you—it is that. But this is a disturbing piece that features a girl, Caroline, hoping to catch the attention of a god who her parents value. The story delves into this idea, that Caroline is the chosen of a god but only a small one. One that her family doesn't care about and because she is taught to compete, that if she is to be loved she needs to stand out (at least, the story implies this by how Caroline is desperate to get the larger god, Hyeon, to pick her), and that she won't stick out with only her small god. The story does a wonderful job of showing how children (and especially girls) are taught what is acceptable and not, what is valuable and not. By what their parents praise, by what society praises. By those little things that push children into their roles. And Caroline finds that she wants to fit, which is a place that many people find themselves. It's a tragic and dark and violent story, though, and acting on that desire to fit in by doing harm. By cutting apart what makes you special in an attempt to be some better, more valued kind of special. When really, trying to fit to expectations and values is damaging. Is a violence even when it doesn't include blades and captives and tears. But this story dares the reader to confront the horror of this moment, the weight of it—makes deathly serious what many people will just flippantly comment. That people should just fit in. That they should just behave or do what they're told. It's a story that carries a heavy darkness but also is a fantastic read!

"Alchemy" by Carrie Vaughn (487 words)

This story veers sharply back into more hopeful territory, not because it is without darkness but because it ends on a light overcoming that darkness. A shine. A treasure. It features a woman, nameless, the first of her kind (a woman, I assume) to attend her university. And there she studies. And there she experiments. And there she deals with the pettiness of her schoolmates. And there she persists. The story features alchemy, the desire to create gold from something else, and it's a lovely way to approach things like education, which take on that process in a more metaphorical sense. Education is supposed to be, after all, making students into scholars, making people more able to push the world forward, to make it better. And the main character here is engaged in a bit more than that, literally trying to make gold but also taking on that key idea of alchemy, of taking something that is not valued and turning into something incredibly valuable. That her goal is to start the process of taking women, who here seem to be seen as without value, and showing the world just how wrong it is. To show the world that not only can women succeed at education, at science, at anything, but that they are capable of being the best. Not just adequate, not just good, but capable of things above any man, above any person. It's a story that shows a woman pushing for something, reaching for something, and grasping it. Owning it. It's an empowering and fun story!

"Persephone" by Seanan McGuire (500 words)

Well so far this project is doing a fantastic job of going from hopeful to FUCKING DARK AS FUCK is quick and stunning fashion. Here is another story that's much darker than I was expecting, showing two women pretending to sisters going in to give blood in order to get a clean bill of health and a little money. For Mary it means being able to go to job interviews, maybe move up in the world. For the main character (again nameless) it means being able to afford birth control. The setting here is stark and dark, filled with rampant inequality, exploitation, and corruption. Sound familiar? It's a great bit of world building in a very short space and it's also a great bit of character building. The main character and Mary are definitely not sisters and the reality of their situation in this setting is wrenching. It's not surprising but still devastating how easy it is for people to abuse their power against those who are how valued in society. Against those who are considered criminal and wrong. I love the way the story establishes the relationship between Mary and the main character in order to twist the knife and show just how bleak this setting is, just how much this level of violence and injustice only leads to further violence, how it feeds the worst parts of people. How it leaves people with nothing to lose, which is a very dangerous thing. And it shows that the same scapegoats, the same victims, recur time and again, and it's because of their bodies, because of their identities, that people think they should be victims. The story is brutal and difficult, but also another great read!

"Margot and Rosalind" by Charlie Jane Anders (671 words)

This story is the first to break apart the theme into its constituent parts, showing a woman named Margot as she bonds with and people try to dissuade her away from a giant brain. The world building here is also efficiently packed into a small place, the world now featuring a caste of immortals who once used their Hyperbrains for great deed but now have them disconnected so that they can focus on endless games. Margot has an illicit Hyperbrain of her own that loves listening to her stories and that everyone is Very Concerned about. They don't trust Margot because she doesn't seem to understand their point of view. She thinks brains are for thinking, after all, and questions for answering. And I like how the story follows as Margot is accosted time and again for just being. Not even for doing the thing they're all so afraid of but for having the power to do so. Like our world now, the prospect of a woman having control over even her own body is an abhorrent one to a great many people. Whole communities want to get involved with things that really should be something that a woman decides on her own. Instead everyone wants to stop Margot from doing what she hasn't actually resolved to do, and in their suspicion and hate they create a situation where Margot really has no other choice. It's a subtle story (with Hyperbrains!) that does a great job of showing how involved people feel it is their right to be into women's lives. Into women's business. And how it's in everyone's best interest to just let Margot decide what to do. That she probably won't destroy reality just by thinking. That, indeed, she might do some good. It's a wonderful story!

"Astronaut" by Maria Dahvana Headley (1158 words)

Awww. Yes to this story. All the yes. Here we have a lovely bit of misdirection that I probably would have been in on if I had known a bit more about the history of space travel. As it is I was delighted by this story, which tells the story of Miss Baker, an astronaut-in-training who is up against a field of men to be perhaps the first person (or first American, at least) to go up and then come down again. It's a story about determination in the face of people assuming that she couldn't do this because of her gender, that she was weaker and more fragile. And she showed them how wrong they were. And it is amazing. And the story does a good job of capturing the voice of Miss Baker without ever really revealing the nature of that voice, which I think works well. And I love how the story challenges our perceptions of gender and how we view those roles as universal not just for humans but for all animals. And that, frustratingly, any evidence in animals that seems to align to societal gender roles is "evidence" that those roles are absolute. Well fuck you, this story seems to say, these roles are just lies we tell, and the truth rests all around us, is revealed by the victories and accomplishments like those of Miss Baker. It's just a charming story that does manage to do a lot with the space and provides a joyous, fun read. Definitely check this one out!

"More than Nothing" by Nisi Shawl (582 words)

This story mixes things up a bit, telling a tale of magic and hope and the oppression of place and belief. It stars Cora, a young woman who can do magic of a sort. Who is in a difficult position because of the dynamics of where she lives and what those around her believe. And yet she carries with her a hope, not just for personal gain but something bigger than that. A gain that will mean something to everyone, and perhaps get people to see that what Cora believes isn't evil. Isn't the work of the devil. And I like how the story gets into Cora's character, shows her frustration with where she's at and the vulnerability of where she's at. As a young woman without much of a family. As a pagan in a Christian community. She's not really allowed to embrace who she is because of those around her, because of their entrenched beliefs. But it's easy enough for other people, young people, to see that she's not evil. To trust her because they trust her instead of suspecting that she's up to no good. She uses her power for those that she cares about and more besides, and it's a great way of showing how much a threat that can be to people. Again, the real danger that people feel is not that she's worshiping pagan gods but that she might actually have power. That she might not have to listen to them and depend on them. That she will be able to meet life on her terms, and maybe other people will have to as well. And it's a great exploration of how she has to weigh her fear of discovery against her hope in the future, and how she ends up siding with hope. A fantastic piece!

"The Last of the Minotaur Wives" by Brooke Bolander (543 words)

This story imagines the Labyrinth, only not quite the one of mythology. Here, there is still a single minotaur, but only because it is the last in a line of minotaur wives who have lived in the twisting tunnels and survived. All the others have grown old and died. And the story does an amazing job of showing how progress can work. How sometimes it takes generations working toward a goal to see any progress toward. And even then, that it might not be the simple solution that people wanted, might not be bloodless or peaceful. The story is about imprisonment, and the Labyrinth is a great way to capture that feeling, that yearning to be free and escape the maze that has been creating to keep you prisoner, used for the sport of others. [SPOILERS] And I love how the story treats death and progress, how the solution to getting out of the Labyrinth is written on the bones of those minotaur wives who have died. It speaks to this way that the previous generation has for opening doors. For giving their daughters the tools to push the fight farther. And farther. Until the doors are all open and what stands between the last of the minotaur wives and freedom isn't something as solid as stone but as fragile as flesh. And I like what the story does with the main character, how it's about patience and about persistence, but also about seizing a moment. About waiting for the right opportunity but then acting and acting dramatically and decisively. It's a great and fist-pumping kind of story that builds to a final, powerful moment and implication. Another amazing read!

"The Jump Rope Rhyme" by Jo Walton

This is the first and only poem in the project and is framed as a sing-song that children play as they jump rope. In the future. Which at the same time it gives the pieces its speculative edge it also gives it a certain kind of resonance. Because what the poem tackles directly is the cyclic nature of resistance and the push for equality. The push against erasure and violence. What the poem seems to capture is the way that these things keep on coming up. That it's a fight that you can't ever really put down because it's something that's always in danger of being pushed back. That the rhythm can get lost, the song slip. The poem itself rhymes but it's not exactly the smoothest of songs (unless I'm singing it wrong). There are moments when things catch a little bit, or get a bit bumpy, but I think that works into my reading of the poem. That history is full of these moments. That you get tied in the rope. That you fall. That you have to wait for another turn. But that you do and that the song continues. That you keep pushing even when it's hard and even when it seems like progress is marching backwards. And in that way the frame of this children's song is especially impacting, because it puts the focus on the stories that we tell our young people, reminding everyone that we are creating the future right now in what we make. In the art we prioritize. That this is what teaches our children and that we have to make sure to make it right and well, so that it can get passed on and up. So that things can get better in that future we want to reach. A fun and fascinating poem!

"Anabasis" by Amal El-Mohtar (649 words)

Fuck. Yeah, this story brings back a lot of the darkness that the project had drifted a little bit away from. Some of the bleakness. Some of the hurt. And it's an important hurt to show, one that grows out of the current political situation we are seeing—one that grows out of the ever-more drastic roles that borders are playing in our world. The lines that separate us and them. And the story also looks at shapeshifting, at ways that people change themselves to fit better, or to seem to fit better, into that us group. To avoid being classified as "one of them." On one level the story confronts directly the specter of being stopped at a border crossing and judged, and perhaps prevented from crossing. It looks at the lengths that some people have to change themselves, the anger and the awful treatment that they have to eat, swallow, and accept while maintaining a shape pleasing enough and convincing enough to still move through the world. On another level I feel like the story is looking at the shape that resistance can take. That resistance, too, is a shapeshifter, and that for some resistance can look like going along with unjust regulations and laws because there is no alternative. Because to fight openly would gain nothing and that it can be revolutionary to survive. To care for your family. To try and keep them safe. Because some battles cannot be won, but the war continues. People, like the main character of this piece, choose what confrontations are worth it. For the others, they persist. It is a beautiful and moving piece that you should definitely read immediately!

"The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor" by Catherynne M. Valente (958 words)

This story does a great job of capturing some of the feeling of living in a world that doesn't seem to make any sense. Run by a man who isn't reasonable, who isn't interested in the wellbeing of anyone but himself. Of having to navigate restrictions and policies that are impossible to follow. The world here is one that moves with an almost-ridiculous motion, full of satire and sacrilege. And like the best satires, hidden among the elements that almost seem ridiculous, there are kernels of terrifying truth. This is a story that does a nice job of containing both shadows and light, though the shadows seem to dominate throughout. They certainly hold sway in this land where a woman (or anyone) isn't allowed a name, or memories, or dreams. Where one woman is brought into the presence of the man in charge in order to maintain the order of things and decides…maybe not… I love the way the world is created and I love the aesthetic that it uses. The attendants as body parts, the descriptions of the emperor's interior, the laws, the threats, it creates this great atmosphere of fear and instability masquerading as order. When the truth is that there is no control, just fear. And that when the main character starts pushing past that fear, past everyone telling her what she can't do, the world is revealed as fragile, vulnerable. It's a great way to flip the narrative of what the emperor wants people to believe, that his world is supreme and strong, that everyone around his is weak. And yet how can she be weak if she has the power to ruin everything? It's a neat story that draws to a close this particular project but also ends it on hope, on the power of one person reaching out, persisting despite warnings and despite explanations. It's great!

"Come See the Living Dryad" by Theodora Goss (8904 words) 

This is a story that explores the weight of inheritance and exploitation. That unfolds as a mystery across time, one woman reaching back into the past to uncover the truth about what happened to her great-grandmother, who had a rare disorder that made her look like a dryad of mythology. Part of what I love about this story is how subtly it explores the misogyny both now and in the past. The story is told as a professor doing research into her family, into the murder of Daisy Potts, later Daphne Merwin. Daisy lived as a sort of performer, under the control of her husband, who was something of a charlatan and conman, claiming to be a doctor in order to give a sense of authority to his sideshow. All he needed to do was affect a certain attitude and call himself a doctor and it was like slipping on armor. People lined up to believe him because he presented them with what they wanted to see. Just like with Daisy, who was not from some mystic forest of Greece but from a poor district of London. He presented her as this myth, as this magical less-than-human, and people ate it up because they wanted to. Because it comforted them. Because it placed that sort of condition far away so that they didn't have to see it all around them. And the modern Daphne, Daisy's great-granddaughter, who is an actual doctor, must deal with people more willing to believe a charlatan than her simply because he was a man and she is not. Even Daphne's own mother wants to defend "Dr" Merwin, who [SPOILERS] might have had everything to do with Daisy's murder, because she doesn't want to see the violence, the misogyny, the horrors right in front of her. It shows how people want to look away from difficult realities and craft fantasies to cover them up, how they will let men get away with murder rather than examine why. It's a fascinating and deep story that crashes through this idea that misogyny is something that only existed in Victorian England. It's alive and well, and the final questions that the story asks, are powerful and hitting and amazing. Definitely spend some time with this story—it's great!

"The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)" by Matthew Kressel (5809 words)

This is a story of longing and of looking back. Of decline—in health, in life. And of finding something at the end of life that is unexpected but wonderful. It’s the story of an old novelist named Reuth who travels across the galaxy to a idyllic planet in order to die. He’s the last of many things. The last of his family. The last writer who prefers to print and bind his own books. Or, he might be last before he meets Fish, a young girl who inserts herself into his life, who inspires him and motivates him to work to finish his last novel. To me, the story is about a lot of things, not least of which the feeling of being out of time. Not just running out of time, not just trying hard to beat the clock of mortality and tell one more story, btu of being out of touch with time. With the direction that art and communication have taken. Reuth is an old man and he certainly has his share of “get off my lawn”-ness when it comes to writing. The way he disdains the push toward digitizing his work. The way he looks down at more modern forms and requirements—the social aspects that fly in the face of more introverted personalities. But in with his hesitation is a deep appreciation for the older ways of doing things. The smell of ink and the feel of the printed page. And that’s something I can appreciate as well. For him it becomes his last comfort, his way of fighting against a world that seems eager to erase him, to forget him. And yet in the scale of that there is one connection that he can still make, one person he can still inspire, and if he can do that then he’s not a failure as he fears. Because he can make universes, and show others how to as well. It’s an inspiring and elegant story and a great read!

"Excerpts from a Film (1942-1987)" by A.C. Wise (9721 words)

This is an elegant and gripping story that revolves around a young woman moved out to Hollywood to become a star. And who, in fact, succeeds to some extent. But it’s also a piece heavy with ghosts and loos and the ever-present threat of violence. And to me the story is about visibility and about being forced to confront the uncomfortable and upsetting without turning away, without seeking some frame that will make it comfortable and in being comfortable allowed and reinforced. The actual action of the piece circles in time, told in scenes and edited together like a film, made into a single narrative of a man and a woman and, through them, all men and women. It’s about Mary, who ran away from an abusive home to try and find something better and finds instead ghosts. Ghosts that could be her. And in seeing them, and in accepting them, she faces the grim reality of the world, is made to face it because this is the fate always stalking her. It is not something that George, her to-be producer and the other main character of the story, sees until much later. Until he made to see it. And here the story gets a bit meta, dipping into the role of art in revealing the truth of the world. The story says multiple times that the camera doesn’t lie. But that the people using the camera can. That they can use tricks to make truths softer, more uncertain. So that instead of showing an injustice in an attempt to cast it out it shows an injustice as just exciting enough to sell tickets, to make money, and to reinforce that injustice. And the story is full of layers and uncertainties, giving readers distance from the ugliness that transpires but daring them to look, letting them see the horror of what unfolds, of what Mary wants to show the world. The reader becomes a part of this system, as we all are, as this is not a cycle of violence that has ever been broken. Here we return to the same ideas, to the same screens, to the same words, just as the story circles. Just as it points people to confront the darkness and the violence, to see it so that something can be done about it. Because as long as it’s ignored, as long as the ghosts linger unrecognized, there can be no real progress or justice or compassion. It’s a wonderful story that builds as it weaves through time and characters providing an emotionally resonant and rather sharply devastating final sequence. A great read!

"Ecdysis" by Julianna Baggott (2545 words)

This is a difficult story for a great many reasons, about a trans boy who runs away from home to escape an abusive household. And it’s a piece that’s very concerned with avatars and skins, with layers and identities. The boy doesn’t end up running too far, and I’m unsure exactly what to think about where the story has him go. It’s a piece that in many ways is about bodies and how poorly they fit, and the boy is given the chance to leave his behind, though not permanently and...well, I have personal reasons for why the situation of the story is rather disturbing. But it does give the story some space to explore how the main character moves about a world that isn’t bound to bodies, where form and choice are important and consensual instead of being the providence of how a person was born. And the story does try to stay very affirming of the character’s gender, his identity. It’s just a very difficult story in part because it’s so about that aspect of his life, to the point that it eats everything else about him. But the prose is haunting and deep, and the action keeps things in question, in doubt. There are layers of so much in the story and it seems that there are layers to the reality it presents, how it questions what is real and what is illusion, what is avatar and what is body. It’s strange and tinged with the threat of violence, with the anxiety of abuse. It is not exactly a happy story, either, though I’m not sure I’d call it bleak. It just focuses on the way people hurt each other and are hurt, about the way that families can be toxic and while the ending seems to offer some hope in the face of that, it’s a hope that for the main character comes after a long life where what he wanted most was always unreachable. So yeah, it’s certainly a story I recommend people check out to make up their own minds about.

"The Scholast in the Low Waters Kingdom" by Max Gladstone (6743 words)

This piece confronts war and the gravity of it, all the while exploring a world, or worlds, touched by an ancient conflict and a bend toward war that the main character, the Scholast, is trying to set straight. The framing of the story is interesting, part myth based around the figure of the Scholast, who arrived into a fantasy-seeming world with a dire warning—invasion is imminent. The mission of the Scholast seems easy enough, to make war difficult, and I love that goal. That what she’s doing is not trying to help any one side, really, but to stop war from breaking out. Because however it is used to create order and borders and kingdoms, war is something horrible that should be avoided. And I like the way that the Scholast goes after that, which is to say without much in the way of sentiment. She does excel at strategy and at getting people killed, but it’s work against war and invasion, work to try and punish people away from seeking conquest. That her actions weigh on her is obvious, and that she struggles with caring about the people she helps is also clear. The story really becomes about the gravity of war and violence, about the paranoia that leads to war and the horrors it inflicts. That really what people need is trust and without that there can’t really be peace. But that trust is difficult because it’s easier to believe someone who is certain over someone who has doubt. And the Scholast has great doubts. Admits her ignorance. And it’s a wonderful thing to see, because it puts as virtuous the admission of ignorance. That we don’t know something, and want to. And that if we allow ourselves to be drawn together in that pursuit instead of into conflict, we can find wonders, make wonders. And this feels like part of a larger conflict going on but the story does a great job of establishing the stakes and telling a concise and moving story in the space it has. It’s not exactly a fun piece, as it is steeped in blood and violence, but it is a fascinating setting and features compelling characters. An excellent read!


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