Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Quick Sips - Tor dot com February 2018

February brought something of a return to Tor dot com, which has been going through a rather sporadic publishing schedule since November. Three novelettes and a long short story makes for a lot of words of fiction to get to, and the pieces move from post-disaster SF to horror to SF-Horror to contemporary fantasy. The stories carry with them a lot of darkness, too, from a world where doctors are struggling to stay neutral in the face of a change in everything to a war with an unknown enemy from the sea. All of the stories stay rooted on Earth in these pieces, but that doesn't mean that they lack for weird and imaginative takes on what Earth can look like and contain. So yeah, let's jump right into the reviews!

Art by Jon Foster

“Where Would You Be Now?” by Carrie Vaughn (8998 words)

No Spoilers: Kath is a young woman living in a country, maybe a whole world ravaged by a mysterious (or just undisclosed) series of disasters that has left people without power, without most communication, and without a whole lot in the way of food or infrastructure. Kath is part of a small community of mostly doctors and nurses who have established a clinic, in the hopes of keeping medical knowledge and practice alive. The story follows what they do and what they hope to do, and the small losses and victories they experience. The story has a feel of almost being in shock, most people remembering what it was like before and knowing how far things have fallen. There’s a grief for what’s happened, but also a slow moving toward...well, not a hope that things will go back to the way things were. But perhaps a hope that things will keep going, and can move in a better direction.
Keywords: Post disaster, Medicine, Doctors, Queer MC, CW- Childbirth, Trade
Review: You know, it’s rather refreshing to find a post-disaster/post-apocalyptic story that features discussions of the importance of medicine and birth control. In many ways a lot of the story focuses on that, on the importance of not giving into the slide of things that will pressure women into roles that will mean added risk of death and added control by men thinking of them as breeding vessels and little more. Often in these kinds of stories there’s such a focus on re-population that everything else gets pushed aside when of course that’s not really the primary threat to humanity. Lack of knowledge and lack of stability are the greater threats, and this story seems to acknowledge that and move forward, revealing a cast of characters very much caught between the harsh reality of their new world and the might-have-beens of their lives before. Each person is caught in a crisis, wanting so badly for things not have gotten this bad and yet also here, now, having to deal with it. For Kath, it means giving up on going to college, of fitting into the life that her family envisioned for her. It means coping with the loss—her family and a lot of her security and all the stuff she can no long has—but also dealing with the grief about not having the opportunities and comforts she was essentially promised. It’s a wrenching thing, and especially for those who do have to deal with a world so very different from the one people were preparing them to expect. This is obviously an extreme example, but still.

And for me, the story stands out because of the more hopeful way that it handles this devastating series of events. It doesn’t imagine humanity completely losing its technology, its knowledge. It doesn’t posit that people will slide back into a feudal dark age. Instead, it shows people holding on to what they can, aware that they’re going to lose things, that they won’t have the tech to really hold onto everything, but that they will keep what they can alive, and more importantly they will keep the knowledge alive so that when people can get the power restored, they’re not starting over from scratch. They see the value of medicine and seek to use it as a tool to keep peace, knowing that everyone will need healing, knowing that everyone will need what they have to offer. And I just like how Kath begins to embrace her present, the potential of it. Because she has a woman she cares about, a place she believes in, and a future worth fighting for. It’s a slower, tense read that resolves into something bright and resilient and wonderful. Go check it out!

“Evernight” by Victor Milán (16787 words)

No Spoilers: A return to the Wild Cards setting, with an Ace named Candace who has the ability to control and see in complete darkness. Tracking her brother, who she’s believed dead for a long time, she travels to Paris, and the labyrinth beneath it, in order to try and negotiate his release. Unfortunately, the political situation there, the multiple agendas and bloodlusts, make what could have been a simple situation much more difficult, and more violent. A will paced descent of a story, events drawing Candace down into the dark even as she tries to rise above it. Very long for a novelette, it manages to stay engaging, with some interesting character work.
Keywords: CW- Torture, Indoctrination, Siblings, Betrayal, Underground, Darkness
Review: To me, a lot of this story has to do with the ideas of loyalty and betrayal. Candace is someone who has been hurt many times, taken as a child and exposed to the Wild Card virus in order to force her to either die or express powers. She worked for one organization only to betray it, only to be betrayed, only to join another organization, only to...well, you sort of get the idea. She’s a person who’s been cut off from her homeland, from her family, from so many things. When her brother surfaces, it’s like finding something she thought lost forever, and she rushes to try and reclaim it. Only...well, the story explores how loyalty works, and how it can express itself. People put expectations on Candace, to be loyal to the organizations that seek to control her. To be loyal to the people who seek to exploit her. They call her traitor when she acts how she thinks best, because they were counting on being able to coerce and manipulate her into doing what they wanted. Instead, Candace makes the case for being loyal to herself and making others earn her trust. That, once she has been betrayed, she owes no real loyalty to anyone. And she gets betrayed fairly often. But I like how that plays out in the story, with her trying to navigate this very messy maze of intentions, agendas, and prejudices. I wasn’t the hugest of fans of the inclusion of the “main” villain, a bit because of just how many Awful Things he did that, yes, were framed as wrong and punished within the text, but that made some of the decisions Candace makes in the text (to torture torturers, basically) a bit uncomfortable for me. Still, on a whole the story does a lot of neat things and I feel like it’s a solid addition to the larger setting and story. A fine read!

“You Know How the Story Goes” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (7033 words)

No Spoilers: A man makes a poor call in not getting a ride home and compounds the mistake by walking into the cold night. Trying to hitchhike his way back home, he’s picked up by a strange car and, well, you know how these stories go. The piece tells a ghost story in the format of an urban legend, framed as this guy posting about his experience online. Dark and creepy as fuck with both a slow-burn psychological aspect and an oh-shit-it’s-coming-for-me physical aspect, it’s an effective bit of horror storytelling. The style is conversational and quick, getting distracted occasionally but always circling around what happened, and the larger implications.
Keywords: Urban Legend, Ghosts, Hitchhiking, Driving, Tunnels
Review: I like how this story both embraces the sort-of-common trope that it uses (hitchhiking and ghosts) and yet breathes new life into it, reversing a lot of the standard hallmarks of the legend. Here, the hitchhiker is not the ghost, but the bystander (or victim), picked and and made a passenger and witness to an unfolding horror. The ghost herself, the tall lady, becomes the aggressor, though one that operates by a lot of rules. And in that I like how the main character continually misses what he might draw from this story, the ways that he was himself aggressive and fairly predatory. He missed his ride because he wanted to try his luck with a woman who didn’t seem interested in him, tried and tried despite that lack of interest, and while he didn’t assault the woman, his lingering circling of her was in no way desired. And yet he claims that he did nothing morally wrong that would make his brush with death in this ghost car to be justified. Which for me gets at the heart of the mystery, the heart of what makes the main character’s reaction to it interesting. That he doesn’t seem to care too much about the lady herself. He’s obsessed with the urban legend, with the events of the cases that mirror his own so closely, but he doesn’t dig back farther than that. Despite that he was given clues that might have helped him discover why this was happening, that could have helped him bring peace to this ghost. Instead he gets caught on the way this impacts him. And perhaps that’s just me overthinking things, but I find myself drawn to that mystery, to the things that she said, to the story that she was revealing that the main character largely ignored. It’s a wonderful horror, all about the immediacy of violence, the looming threat of death. It’s about him not being listened to, being taken to an edge he didn’t want to brush. And it’s an exhilarating, terrifying read that you should definitely check out!

“Breakwater” by Simon Bestwick (15239 words)

No Spoilers: Cally is an engineer working in an underwater compound she (along with her now-deceased husband) designed. Though it was supposed to be for scientific research, maybe even recreation, the design has become about militarization as an ongoing war between humans and unknown beings living beneath the sea escalates. Now Cally operates a communications array hoping to make first contact (well, first contact that isn’t an attack) with these unknown beings of the deep. Surprisingly sensual, the story follows Cally through a series of desperate situations, pushed along by disaster and sudden desires before having to face her own goals and the implications of what she’s trying to do. Tightly paced, strange, and kinda hopeful?
Keywords: Seas, War, Queer MC, Attraction, Communication
Review: This is a surprising story in many ways, in part because it’s a bit of a disaster story, unfolding around a traumatic attack on an underwater base where Cally sees her colleagues die rather gruesomely. Except it crosses from there into more of a romantic attraction story where Cally and the woman who saves her, Jen Hanover, must struggle toward the hope of an escape pod while also kinda falling for each other. Except it also crosses into something close to a horror story as Cally learns some things about Hanover that, well, change things a bit. It’s a tight read, moving relentlessly onward toward the end. And it does have the space to contain all of these different parts. For me, the effect is rather fun (romantic horror disaster, yay), though some parts of the piece did feel a bit...rushed, perhaps? It’s a story where everything just sort of happens, and the implications are left for a later that the story doesn’t have to deal with. It’s a fascinating setting, and the conflict between the humans and the beings who live in the oceans is compelling. I...perhaps both what I like and hesitate about with this story is that it’s...well, kinda messy. There are “sides” and there are sides and there is violence all the way around, violations upon violations, and it makes it a bit tricky to navigate. It’s...look, I really like Deep Blue Sea. Perhaps that’s close to the best explanation I can give. I feel the story is making a point about how, in war, in conflicts, there is no real way to escape the violence that has been done. That it doesn’t mean we can’t still strive for peace and justice. But there are aspects of the story that are just too immediate, too jarring and traumatic, that makes this situation a really, really weird time to be negotiating peace. Still, it’s a fascinating story and I definitely recommend people check it out and see how it strikes you. Indeed!


No comments:

Post a Comment