Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Quick Sips - Tor dot com November 2017

November is another short one for Tor dot com, with a pair of new SFF novelettes. The two stories couldn't be much different if they tried, with one a near-future sci fi with a YA flare and the other...just...weird. The stories deal with themes of deceit and discovery, exploration and growing, but in some starkly contrasting ways. I'm not gonna lie, the first story is a lot easier to parse than the second, but that doesn't mean that both don't have interesting depths to mine. The world building in each is stunning and the character work compelling with flashes of fun. So let's get to the reviews!

Art by Armando Veve

“The Tablet of Scaptur” by Julia Keller (9438 words)

This is a rather fun and tense story of rebellion, honestly, and hope. It features a group of friends and at their head Violet, the daughter of the president of New Earth, a floating civilization which looks down on the Old Earth which has been devastated by climate change and war. All is not all roses on New Earth, though, which has something called the Intercept that reads and catalogs all the strong emotions of every citizen via an implant. It’s a nicely bordering-on-dystopic setting that is no Hiding Big Secrets about something that Violet and her friends will probably stumble across. Which, in fact, they do stumble across to some degree, in the form of a Martian stone covered in strange writing. A Martian stone that none of them can seem to figure out, until the youngest of them, Rachel, decodes it all in her head and gives Violet a very tricky moral knot to untangle. It moves quickly and it does a nice job of introducing the characters, but the scope of this story is rather limited, giving Violet and Rachel a chance to shine mostly away from the rest of the group. The secrets that they learn from the stone, too, aren’t quite as shocking as they could be, though the implications of them certainly resonate with what’s going on in this supposed utopia. What’s more revealing is that the whole system is viewed as fragile, as needing to be protected. Violet is put in the position of having to defend her father’s vision, and the shape it takes, offering only the assurance that things could be much worse as a justification for going along with something that seems so obviously wrong. There’s a question here about information and the power of it, and whether something that’s potentially damaging should be released to the general population. And I’m not sure I’m happy with where Violet comes down on the issue. It’s a rather uncomfortable moment and the story doesn’t offer much in the way of comfort. As a jumping off point, though, it’s effective, with the hope that maybe in time she’ll see things differently (there is a novel that unfolds after this that might offer that added journey). As it is, it’s hard to feel good about the ending, but as a whole the story is certainly fun and nicely paced and very much worth checking out.

“This World is Full of Monsters” by Jeff VanderMeer (100448 words)

This story is very weird. There is a part of me that wants to just write that, as some sort of anti-review, but perhaps that’s me being just a bit too playful with what is an at-times confounding, dense, and yes, fucking weird story about stories, about contagion, and about change. It features a man who is a writer who finds what he takes to be a story but that turns out to be something very different and it changes him, and not only him it changes the world—changes the very way that the world works, so that it creates something twisted, something quite Different from what he had known. And then he wakes, changed and in a changed world, and tries to figure out what comes next, only to in some way become one with this anti-story that he didn’t create really but that he did incubate, that he did allow into the world somehow. It’s a story that’s difficult for me to make much literal sense of, because while it does move with a plot that probably can be mapped very standardly, it won’t sound like a standard plot. It’s a sort of twist, a scar, showing how stories can act as seeds, as corruptions, as viruses. It’s the viral nature of stories that for me the story seems to play with, the way that it can get into people’s heads and rewrite how they experience the world. Which, in the end, is as good as changing the world itself. It’s a very odd story, but I think it’s also playing a bit with the way that stories work, walking a line between a dream, a hallucination, and a sort of creeping madness. The effect is creepy and disconcerting at times while being compelling, each layer pulled away taking the narrator and in some ways the reader away from human ways of thinking while revealing just how much that can still make sense, that it can still feel like a story, its pacing rising and falling but still pushing forward to some end that is both triumphant and terrifying. So yeah, it’s a bit of a weird one, but also a captivating read!


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