Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com May 2017

Well, Tor dot com continues to put a nice amount of SFF short fiction this June, with two novelettes and three short stories. Mercifully for yours truly, the novelettes actually came out first and not on the last day of the month, so I got to do a reviewer happy-dance. And luckily for yours truly, these are some interesting and at times intensely dark stories that show the ways that the darkness swirls around us and takes shape. The way that it whispers to us. The way that it pulls at us and begs to be let in. These are stories of mutants and aliens, ghosts and shadows, and a buried sense of loss and violence. These are stories about the repressed returning, about alternates and news ways of thinking, and they are both beautiful and terrifying. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Robert Hunt

“Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor (8723 words)

This is a dark and rather disturbing post-apocalyptic story about survival and evolution and the life of one young woman, Mir, as she navigates the world as it has become. The mood of the story is one of rising waters and a certain fetid waste. Everything about the landscape is humid and damp and the human survivors cling to hope even as they face the growing evidence that there is no going back to the way things were before. The story also runs with the idea that in the vacuum left behind from humanity’s dominance over the environment, evolution will burst forward as things compete to out-perform each other. What this means in the setting is that behind the daily struggle to survive and get enough food to live is the dangers that this offers, the new predators that are coming out of the sea and onto land. And the new mutations that might be aiming humans back into the sea. Or maybe at that point they’re not quite human any more. In any event, Mir’s life is one of hiding and wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else, knowing that the here and now is a place that offers no safety and no comfort. The relationship between her and her father, between her and Jersey, the boy she has feelings for, are both complex and add much to the darkness of the piece. This is an environment where things are changing, where there is no real hope of staying put. But even the prospect of leaving, of moving forward, is one always frustrated by the sea, by the encroaching waters. Humanity, it would seem, has no way forward, and what is left is something hungry and new and terrifying. It’s a creepy and disturbing story, really, that shows what it means to be caught in the moment of accelerated evolution, and witnessing the terrible beauty and harsh violence it brings with it. And it makes for a rather shocking, tense, fascinating read!

“Hexagrammaton” by Hanuš Seiner, translated by Julie Nováková (10180 words)

This is a strange story full of hauntingly lovely possibilities. It unfolds in a setting where the solar system has been at least partially colonized, and the moons of Jupiter saw a very interesting sort of contact between humanity and the Vaían, a collective of aliens who went around giving other species the opportunity to join in an interstellar commune. It’s something the Jovian people embraced, but that the more affluent from Earth and Mars went to war to prevent, to the extent that contact was cut and most humans believed that reaching out into the stars truly isn’t a possibility. However, a traveler to Earth, to visit some of the ships that have been impounded there that carry the survivors from the contact, brings with her a cipher that might allow that dream to flourish once more. I love the layers of the story. There are sections told in a journal that parallel those told by the main character, a man who in the journals was part of the Vaían movement and in the other was not. And the story really to me becomes about movement and possibilities. It’s about codes and ciphers, with reality itself being no more than a code that, with the right key, can be translated into something else. So the journal portion of the story translates into the story of the man taking this traveler to the ships, becomes something else entirely. The idea that reality can be translated in that way is fascinating and it creates the possibilities by which the story can find a way for humans to push out into the stars. It just lingers on this idea that with a code so complex as reality, each translation loses the code that came before, erases it in the act of translation, and so you have to commit to it fully in order to create this new text. And I love that because the story is translated so it’s a piece that really gets at the nature of codes and ciphers and translations, everything building together to create this mosaic of hope, where the “true” text is always the one that you’re living, always the one that is gone, always the one that will come next. And that in that power comes the ability to reach forward, to right old wrongs, and to hope brazenly against the constraints of what is expected. It’s a beautiful story that changes with each reading, with each new interpretation, and it’s an amazing experience. Definitely give yourself extra time with this one to perhaps read it more than once. You won’t regret it!

“Sanctuary” by Allen Steele (5283 words)

This story is to me about colonization and reversals. About the arrogance it takes to set out into the unknown with the hope of taking something for yourself but also the need of having left whatever was home behind and being defenseless in the face of the vast uncertainty of the universe. The story is framed as a series of logs and reports made into a physical artifact of a human colonizing mission featuring two ships and over 2000 people. They arrive at their target planet only to discover that it’s already inhabited, but insist on pushing forward regardless because these inhabitants don’t have advanced technology. Of course, there ends up being a reason for that. And I like the way the story moves at first slowly but with growing speed and momentum to challenge this idea that these brave human colonizers are really in control of their situation. They seem so sure of themselves, and yet the story strips them of their tools, the things that they depend on to make their decisions and keep them safe. It’s like the one thing they couldn’t believe was that they would find themselves suddenly without the fruits of humanity’s collective labors—the ships and the probes and the sensors and the even the clothes that they wear. It’s a neat setup and one that borders on horror with how deep the implications run. Things are not going well at all for the people of the ships, and their future goes from assured to perilous very quickly. It shows just how vulnerable they are, just how powerful the elements are that they’re playing with. Being in space for so long has made them familiar with it, but has also erased some of the fear they had, a fear that returns quickly when things start going south. And the ending is interesting, the close of one chapter of this expedition and the beginning of another, the fate of the people a giant question mark and left for the reader to guess at. A fine read!

“Red” by Ramsey Shehadeh (4345 words)

This story to me seems to be about games and loss, shock and doubt and guilt and the structure of the universe. Ansel is a young person who is moving through life in a daze following the disappearance of his younger sister, Louise. For all that the younger woman’s disappearance fueling the emotional angst of an older male relative isn’t precisely untrodden ground, I do love the framing of the story, which takes place party in and around a board game a bit like clue where Ansel plays a blue detective searching for a missing person. And not gonna lie this sounds like a pretty awesome board game, one that I can totally imagine existing, and I love the art style and how it gives this almost nostalgic feel to the story. And there’s where I find a lot of the meaning of the piece, as well, where this game intersects with Ansel’s reality. The game is not only familiar to Ansel, it gives rules and structures to a situation that otherwise might seem too nebulous and dangerous. The game is the world of Ansel’s childhood, where everything is clear and concise and manicured to make it seem like the detective always finds the missing person quickly, that every problem as an easy solution that can be found just by following the sequence of the game demands. And yet life offers no such comforts. The world where his sister disappears is one where he cannot simply interview the people involved to find the answer. There is no sense that the game will ever be over, that it will ever be complete. And because of that he becomes stuck in the game and in the doubt and guilt of what has happened, in the uncertainty of the crime that has most likely taken place. It’s a jarring and wonderfully weird story that hits a lot of solid emotional beats. The absence of the red player is a palpable thing, revealing Ansel’s disillusionment with the supposed rules he’s been taught about life and showing just how random and devastating violence can be. A fascinating read!

"Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color" by Sunny Moraine (4337 words)

The month closes out at Tor with a story that is...well, really strange. And poignantly so, as it tackles the ideas of shadows and shapes, certainty versus something more liminal and nebulous. The main character is a writer, and the genre is probably best described as horror, though I'm not one for needing to define specific genres in SFF. What I see, though, is a look at the mentality of writing, and especially the space between trauma, inspiration, and urge to create. The main character here is not a writer who approaches the craft from any sort of distance. Writing for them, as I read it, has always been about running, partly about escape. The creative impulse is both one that brings beauty and nightmares. Because while it gives the writer the tools to imagine vast new worlds, it also plagues them with seeing the possible nightmares all around them. That creativity becomes a presence, and that presence becomes something of a threat within the narrator's mind, pushing them on and on to run or stay, to harness the energy of creativity or fall victim to the way it can warp reality and let in the darkness. The story brushes against mental illness and [SPOILERS] suicidal ideation to some degree, showing the narrator in this push and pull with a man who seems nurturing and another aspect of him that seems violent. There is a definite uncertainty to the piece, to the action, to what real and what's not real and I love how that comes through, how we as readers get to experience the way the dark pulls, the way that imagination is not always this innocent and childish thing. The story exudes the dark in this interesting way, giving it voice just at the periphery of the narrator's world, making it always present and tugging and the narrator in varying levels of being able to resist it. It's a terrifying piece that doesn't try to fix or harmonize the main character, that lets them be this way without judgment or condemnation, just with the brutal fear that any moment might bring the dark rushing in with the beat of wings and the taste of blood. A haunting, amazing read!


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