Thursday, August 3, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com July 2017

The stories from Tor dot com this month offer a bit of everything—shared universe urban fantasy, far future space opera, near future apocalyptic science fiction, and a sort of twisted fairy tale. And the stories are about resistance and standing up to bullies, or at the very least standing up for the vulnerable, for those who society has let slip into danger, pain, and erasure. The stories sing with a power that crosses galaxies and makes bones dance for justice, and they center characters in some ways just trying to get on with their lives who must stop and take stock…and then take action. To the reviews!

Art by Victo Ngai

“When the Devil Drives” by Melinda Snodgrass (12983 words)

This story visits the Wild Cards setting, and sets up something of a mystery for Noel Matthews, who is informed at the story’s onset that a body has been found in a building his company was demolishing. And not just a body, but the body of one of his business rivals. What follows is a story about Noel, an intersex teleporter and former MI-7 assassin turned tortured father, dealing with this situation and his own feeling about his relationship with his wife and child. Now, Wild Cards stories, being written by a wide range of people, can be somewhat hit or miss for me. Noel is an interesting character, and the way he is able to shift his body is used to good effect through the story, but he’s not really a character that I was ever rooting for. He might be the first person to point out his own moral failings (which is at the heart of why he wants to distance himself from his family—in order to keep them safe from his negative influence), but that hardly washes him of the harm he causes. Indeed, I’m more on the side that he’s right, that he would be a terrible influence on a child given his casual misogyny and the way he doesn’t value human life. The plot moves quickly, though, as the cops suspect Noel of the crime and he is forced to go under the radar to figure out what happened. And there are moments of humor and action aplenty—there’s even a computer hacking scene in this story that made me downright nostalgic for television, full of dramatic typing and I found that rather charming. I just don’t think that I’m the audience this story was hoping for. The Wild Card stories I like most tend to be ones that examine the structures and intricacies of the setting, that look at how people view Wild Cards and how Wild Cards view themselves. For what it is, though, it seems fun and fresh enough, and I’m certainly not surprised the setting is getting optioned for television. So yeah, if it seems like your thing, definitely give it a read!

“Waiting on a Bright Moon” by JY Yang (9872 words)

This is a beautiful story about song and connection, and rebellion and war and love. It’s the story of Tian, a woman who has been used by a great Empire because she has magic and because she loves women, which apparently makes her good for nothing but being an ansible, someone who can open portals to connect the far-flung colonies of the empire. It’s a time of unrest, and an executioner is stopping by their colony to take care of a traitor, and at this pivotal moment Suqing, one of the most powerful mages of the station, shows interest in Tian. What follows is a sensual, lyrical story that weaves song and longing together, the two women trying to find something beautiful and redeeming at a time when everything seems ugly and brutal and full of danger. I love how the story moves, and how it builds up Tian’s character as someone who has lost so much for her love, for who she is. That it was because of her love that she was forced to become an ansible, and yet she found something in that to keep going, to sacrifice for. time goes on she realizes that all the empire has done is take form her, and it won’t think twice about taking her life, and the story really gets into the ways that people rebel, the quiet ways and the loud ways, and the audacity of trying to love when everything might fall apart at any moment. It’s a story that brings a bracing action with it and a dazzling visual and auditory experience with magic and light and wonder. The universe it reveals is full of violence and betrayals, and yet there’s still something worth fighting for, worth surviving for. It’s a captivating and powerful story and you should go and read it right now. Go!

“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata (5908 words)

This is a wrenching and beautiful story about the end of the world, and about hope. It features Susannah, an eighty-year-old architect who is using her remaining years on a ravaged Earth to build something a world away, a great spire on Mars that will act as a bit of human art to survive the human-wrought catastrophes of Earth. It’s a story that sees the world not ending with a whimper, but also not with a bang big enough to put it out of its misery. It’s a story about age in some ways, and slow declines. Susannah is part of one of the few remaining stable areas of the globe, and her project of building the obelisk on Mars takes up all her time and passion. The story is about loss, and about the numbness that can come from it, and the anger. Susannah herself has lost a family, and yet remains resolute in her desire to leave something behind. Until. Until something threatens the obelisk on Mars and Susannah has to start making choices that are impossible to make. And the story begins to examine what hope is in situations like this, when true survival and recovery seem impossible and foolish. And in many ways, to me, the story is about how that wish to survive, to push on, is never entirely foolish. That doing the right thing in the moment, on the small scale, has to be important. Because it’s always been decisions on the larger scale, on the national scale, that have doomed us. Individually, humans are capable of so much good, and so the really important decisions have to be about those individual choices. They have to be about doing the right thing, and valuing human life, and letting that be its own monument, rather than the grand gestures we try to leave behind. Those grand gestures have a way of being built on corpses. and I love how the story shows Susannah struggling and yet still resolute. Not giving up. Still believing that there is something to be done. It’s an intimate and emotionally powerful story that shows the price of doing the right thing, but also the reward. A fantastic read!

“These Deathless Bones” by Cassandra Khaw (2756 words)

This is a decidedly dark story about natures and about magic. About cruelty and power. It centers a woman who has married the king after his fair and kind wife passed away. Which makes her something of an evil step-mother, though the truth of the matter is that it’s her step-son who carries a malevolence inside him. The story is really a confrontation between the two of them, the boy the product of the worst kind of entitlement and violent impulses, the main character a much more seasoned and complex thinker, who has watched as her step-son has grown into a monster. And because he is a prince, and because people think that being a monster might be an asset for them, they do nothing to curtail the violence, the abuse that he perpetuates, even when it graduates from animal victims to human ones. The action of the story is intense and immediate. The prince is all the things that are easy to hate—the brutal cunning of a child who is used to getting everything he wants, who doesn’t have many weapons but those he has he practices constantly. The main character, by contrast, is a woman who stays mostly to the shadows, who people assume is a threat, an evil, because she speaks her mind and because she doesn’t submit. So the battle is one that’s rather satisfying to watch, the prince so sure that he can always win because people always let him win, but still very much a child and in a situation where he is outmatched. It’s still tense and difficult, because despite everything the story does a great job of selling this feeling that the prince is still not the underdog, for all that he’s a child and the main character has magic to call upon. He has the magic of privilege, which is powerful indeed, and if she had moved any slower... Well, the story does a great job of pacing and keeping things moving unstoppably to the end, which reaches toward a justice even as true healing is impossible. It’s a nice and punchy piece, though, and definitely worth checking out!


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