Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com August 2017

It's a rather big month of releases from Tor dot com this August, not because there's an unusual number of them, but rather because so many of them are...big. There's five stories, four of them novelettes and three of those over 13k, so these are mostly stories that you can really sink you teeth into. Many of them examine what it means to be lost, what it means to be out of place. Whether the reason for that is magical, or because the person has been left behind, or because society itself isn't making room for people to be, the result is that the stories circle around loneliness and hurt, hope and despair. These are characters trying to find how they'll fit into a world that doesn't quite fit them, and finding that things are more complicated than they originally thought. Demonic weapons, stranded aliens, awesome libraries, and missing memories all weave deep narratives that deserve some serious time and attention. So before I take up too much of yours, let's get to the reviews!

Art by Red Nose Studio

“The Martian in the Wood” by Stephen Baxter (16605 words)

This is a very long novelette that deals with the aftermath of the War of the Worlds, or the First Martian War as it is called in the story, and in particular of a peculiar event that took place in an old wood with a woman, Zena, her brother Nathan, and Walter Jenkins, the original chronicler of the War of the Worlds. The story does a great job of capturing that older style of story, heavy on narration and with the feeling that harkens back to early science fiction and all of the wonderful things that it had terribly wrong about science, from the state of life on Mars to what our own geological past looked like. And it’s a story with a rather interesting frame as well, told by Walter’s sister, the executor of his estate, after his death, revealing this small episode that he wrote, that is mostly about what Zena experienced. So it’s a story told across layers of narration, which lends to it an air of distance, of remove that takes away a lot of the immediacy of the emotion in favor of seeming more objective and true. The story still does manage moments of intense horror and strangeness, though, Zena becoming the main character as she witnesses her brother sinking into danger and a wild abandon, unable to do much because of the situation and because as a woman she isn’t someone people listen to. Instead she tries to reach out to someone who can help her, who can perhaps stop a new tragedy from unfolding so soon after the death of the First Martian War. I love the world building of the piece, taking the original text of Wells’ story and fleshing it out, imagining implications that play out in rather fantastic fashion. Keeping to the older style, it’s not a piece that captures a great urgency, but rather lingers on the difficult questions and images it evokes. And the story really is about loneliness and distance and the aftermath of war and trauma. It introduces a lot of new elements to the original text and it’s certainly an interesting take on an old classic, not exactly a reinterpretation or update but rather an attempt to leap back into the old text and give it new life. A fine read!

"Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan (13237 words)

This is a moving and powerful story about identity and memory, about art and survival and love. It finds Adam one of a small number of side-loaded individuals, people who have artificial bodies and the downloaded memories of others. In Adam’s case, the old man who dies leaves him his entire estate but not, it turns out, all of his memories. Things seem to be missing, and as Adam is pulled into trying to figure out what exactly, he has to face his own nature, and his relationship to his past self, and those people his past self loved, and cared for. The story plays out in a world not quite caught up to its technology, where Adam’s rights are nebulous, though living on the edge was never something that his predecessor shied away from. Having had to build himself up from starving writer to something of an influential force in Hollywood, the old man lived a full life, if not exactly one free of regrets. And I love how Adam is thrown into that, into this life that is mostly long gone, people who are long dead, loves and hatreds and feelings that aren’t quite his and yet they are. In many ways he is the previous Adam, the old man, and yet he’s someone completely different as well, not sure if he’s earned all the wealth he’s been given, but also not sure if he’s earned all the distrust and anger that people feel toward him because of his nature. I like the mystery, too, and the way that everything weaves together, creating this vision of struggle and love and eventual success, a true Hollywood story complete with secrets, violence, and loss. And I love how the story makes the reader ask why the old man has done this, why he’s created this situation for Adam. As a way to stay immortal? Out of pride? Or guilt? And ultimately I like that Adam has to find his own way forward, regardless of what the old man might have wanted, regardless of what anyone would have wanted. It’s a complicated web of a story that is unraveled with care and grace, and it’s a fantastic read!

“The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright (5879 words)

Imagining a library of lost books, those deleted or burned or half-formed, this story builds itself around an old grief and an ongoing tragedy, and manages to pull from that something tender and heartfelt with just a feeling of resistance in the face of brutality. Tom has come to the Library to work as an Indexer, one to wades through the constant incoming stream of lost texts and sorts them. Under the watchful gaze of the Librarian, Tom works to maintain a distance and a passivity that will hopefully allow him to get at his true objective—a lost book. Meanwhile life in the Library reveals a vibrancy among the crushing weight of all the lost literature. In the background there is the constant reminder of danger, of violence, the presence of the Nazi book burnings and the need for Tom to hide, to pretend to not care, to be objective. In the foreground the denizens of the library celebrate as they are able, gather at the Speakeasy in order to revel in the works they are only supposed to catalog and not read. The book burning and the need to disguise himself are further complicated by Tom’s queerness, by the memory that many of the books burned in Germany were on queerness, represented a level of study and expression that was completely erased by hate, by history, and Library represents a place where that art and knowledge still exists, and yet must remain unread because of the mandates of the Librarian. At the Speakeasy the characters can come together to actually read and to mingle, to lust and to flirt and to find a temporary reprieve from the realities of their daytime lives. Tom cannot completely hide who he is, though, or the mission that brought him to the Library. And his mission is heartbreaking, wrenching. It challenges the Librarian not violently, for Tom really is rather passive, though by no means weak. Instead, he opts to fight his battles without fists or fire, choosing instead kindness, and language, and words that he’s not supposed to say, passion he’s not supposed to act on. It’s a lovely, moving story about loss and about fighting back against the forces of erasure. About confidence and about compassion, and it’s amazing, and you should read it. Go on!

“The Lamentation of Their Women” by Kai Ashante Wilson (9141 words)

When Tanisha is informed that she has a very short window to pick over the apartment of her recently-deceased aunt, it means reconnecting with her man, Anhell, so she can check things over in hopes of finding something valuable. What they find instead is an enchanted machete and shotgun with the power of hell behind them, and from there the two decide to take some serious vigilante justice in their own hands, trying to navigate a path of being evil without being bad. The story shines because of its mix of humor and gore, the voice of ‘Nisha carrying the prose through with style and flow. It’s a piece that also blends in some very serious themes and ideas—police killings, white supremacy, politics—and wraps them with irreverence and a sense of...fun, I guess. The relationship between ‘Nisha and Anhell is interesting and complex, their regard for each other strong even as they’re dealing with their own dissatisfactions, their own tragedies. Together, they are not always free of dysfunction, but their relationship carries a certain over-the-top truth to it, the two joined by their desire to just live, to live free from the constant hassle and constraints put on them but society at large, by the various ways people of color are taxed for existing. I’m almost hesitant to say that a story about police massacres could be fun but, well...it is. And it’s violence is almost cartoonish, capturing this bad horror movie level of gore that pales in the comparison to the sharpness of the critique of the text, ‘Nisha and Anhell watching the state funeral following the chaos and horror they unleash. It’s not really about the violence, but rather about confronting this system and drawing new lines in horror tropes. This level of violence is not new, after all—it’s just more common in zombie fiction. And in many ways the tone captures that as well, a zombie horror/comedy, except here the main characters aren’t white guys slaughtering their way through zombies but ‘Nisha and Anhell killing their way through waves of cops, trying and eh, mostly succeeding in only killing those they want to. It’s unsettling but not because of the gore. Rather, it asks what is funny, and what is right, and what is good, and who’s allowed to have fun and right stories about catharsis. And it makes for one hell of a read!

“Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow (15146 words)

Tor once again saves a very long story for its last release of the month, and this weighty novelette is a great quasi-dystopia piece about resistance and growing up, about education and opportunity and celebration. Lenae and her best friend, Shirelle, are seniors in high school facing the prospects ahead of them in a future that I call quasi-dystopia because it seems more and more likely, full of crushing student debt and a quickly shrinking job market, where the richest get richer and everyone else guts pushed into poverty and loss. The future looks rather bleak for people graduating high school without huge amounts of money, forced to either forego college to avoid the massive debt but also find very few prospects, or else try to navigate school and work, debt and still a shrinking field of opportunities. Lenae wants to do something with her last bit of childhood, and her grand idea is to host a Communist Party, where people will take part in resistance while also dancing and having a good time. For all that it’s her idea, though, she doesn’t really understand what it means to do, and the story does a great job of exploring how things come together, and how her understanding of the project, the work, changes as it gets closer and closer, and changes again as she actually takes part in everything. The setting here is oppressive, crushing, and yet all too real. Lenae’s future is one that offers no promises of security. It promises...a chance, and a very slim one, the margin of error between being okay and being out on the street incredibly small. Yet the story manages to find the joy of the characters, the way that they still live and love and celebrate themselves. And it shows the power of that as well as the way that power can be frustrated and diverted. And yet at its core the story is hopeful, about both the ways that people can seek to work within the system for change and progress and how people can also go outside the system. And how both are dangerous, and how both can help each other. It’s a fun and flowing story that’s definitely worth the time to really check it out. Indeed!


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