Friday, August 31, 2018

Quick Sips - Tor dot com August 2018

Two short stories and a novelette round out the SFF originals from Tor this month, with a definite focus on science fiction, on futures of humanity interacting with the universe and, perhaps more importantly, with the Earth. Whether that means dealing with the touch of climate disaster and change, or working to move beyond the bounds of our terrestrial home through uploading and flight, or gaining a new and non-human presence to co-inhabit the planet with, the pieces look at how humans see the Earth, and how that perspective shifts as the gaze becomes less incorporated in a human body. It's a month full of strangeness and longing, risks and looming dangers, and it makes for a fascinating bunch of stories. To the reviews!

Art by Victo Ngai

“Loss of Signal” by S.B. Divya (2048 words)

No Spoilers: Toby is in the space program, though not how he might have imagined when he was a child looking up at the stars. Instead, he’s the first experimental spaceship, his mind uploaded in order to advance the possibility of manned space travel that doesn’t require a body. Only as he nears the crucial testing phase of his mission, the sort of litmus test to see if this kind of travel is possible, he finds himself cold and afraid. And the reality of being a nineteen-year-old in a very strange and rather dangerous situation comes crashing home. It’s a story of distance and bodies, of minds and family. Of pain. The piece traces the contours of Toby’s pain and contrasts it with the pain he experienced while alive, the pain he witnessed in his mother and those around him. And, for me, the story is a moving look at the cost of opportunity and the beauty of success in the face of adversity.
Keywords: Space, Sentient Ships, Terminal Illness, Uploaded Consciousness, Family
Review: There’s a lot about this story that speaks to me of opportunity. Which, I mean, America is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity. The place where people can go to fulfill their potential. For many, though, the opportunities available offer little more than poverty and pain. And yet there is a chance to strive for something. To reach for the stars. To, through effort and luck and support, grab hold of them in triumph. Toby’s story is of the child of someone who gave up a lot, who suffered a lot, in the hopes that she could give him better. And yet he’s also someone with a great deal of bad luck, a nerve condition that means he’s not got a lot of life to expect. Except that even that turns out to be its own kind of opportunity. Not one without risks or without pain. But really for me what the story explores is that opportunity doesn’t often mean that things will be easy. Often it means that things will be very difficult, will hurt, will make you want to quit and cry and retreat to some sort of comfort. Only also often there is no comfort. No retreat. And in the face of that it can be heroic to take the risk and try for that opportunity, because however slim it might seem, however difficult it might seem, on the other side of that is something wonderful and beautiful and alive. Again, it might never be easy. For Toby, it doesn’t seem like this will ever get easy. But he’s doing something meaningful, working toward something that could make life better for a great many people. Like his mother worked for him, pulling at opporunity to try and give him a better life, so he is pulling to try and give humanity a future. In the face of the cold and lonely reaches of space. It’s a powerful but quiet story about distance and about hope and about working through pain, and you should definitely check it out!

“No Flight Without the Shatter” by Brooke Bolander (8511 words)

No Spoilers: Linnea is a girl, a survivor of the great conflict that humanity has fed and fed until it’s consumed everything and everything. The world is still there, but the life on it...well. She lives with three Aunties—three women who are decidedly not human but who wear humanish skin in order to build a ship. A sort of Ark. And Linnea is stuck in the middle of it all, caught with a legacy that she can’t escape or look away from. It’s a story of decline and death, of extinction and the coming end. But even so, the story is also very much about hope, and life, and starting over. Not blindly. Not so that everything will just fall back to how it was. But starting over to learn from the past mistakes. To do better. To hatch into something alive with potential and hopefully grow into something will last. Sharp, tender, and laced with shadow.
Keywords: Extinction, Flight, Shadows, Transformation, Skins, Apocalypse
Review: For me this story is about coming to terms with what it means to be human on a planet haunted by the ghosts of the species we have destroyed. That we have pushed into extinction. The Tazmanian Tiger. The Dodo. The Passenger Pigeon. The Rhinoceros. Animals who have lit our imaginations and been used for profit or war. Animals we have exploited into dust. And now with the whole world ending there is something like a reckoning that the story settles on, where every species has a chance to say their piece and then join a great procession out and away. To crack the shell of the Earth and let hatch whatever has been gestating inside. And Linnea, who must be the witness to this procession, to this confrontation, has to decide what to do. Has to face the weight of what humanity has done. And must choose, ultimately, whether humanity should be allowed that same chance to start again. And I love how the story balances the recognizing of harm done with the hope that maybe humanity isn’t completely beyond salvage. Though the impact on the environment has been toxic, the species itself has also done some amazing things. And for me, the piece does a great job of looking at humanity in a...well, in a naked way. In a rather honest way. And bringing humanity through the judgement and the guilt and to a place where it can still move forward. Because guilt without resolution is rather worthless. And it’s a lovely and detailed look at extinction and at destruction and at hope. Linnea as a character is scared of so much, but learns slowly what she needs to do, what she needs to surrender to (the truth about what humanity has done) and what she needs to do about it. It’s quiet and full of loss but it never gives up, and it’s a wonderful story!

“The Kite Maker” by Brenda Peynado (7023 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is living not just with an Earth that has taken on some new inhabitants in the for of an insectoid people dubbed the dragonflies, but also with the memories, guilt, and shame at what she took part in when the dragonflies appeared on Earth, their ships crashing against the atmosphere in a desperate attempt to escape their own planet’s ultimate destruction. The narrator here was part of the mob that attacked the aliens when they first arrived, assuming that they were an invasion force. But the dragonflies didn’t attack back, didn’t resist at all, and panic turned quickly into horror at what they had all done. Now, fifteen years later, and the next generation is falling for the same bigotry and hate that led to those massacres, the lessons of the past clouded by time and by the messy reality everyone is living with. The story is stunning and brutal in its open depiction of loss and guilt and the layering of hurts. The narrator is trying to do better but mostly trying to assuage her own guilt, seemingly less interested in actually helping the dragonflies than in earning their forgiveness, something that they can’t or won’t give because of the way their culture handles forgiveness. And it’s a portrait of disappointment in one’s self and in one’s people, a deep well of anger and despair at finding that humanity constantly dips back into the same stagnant and bloody waters.
Keywords: Aliens, Kites, Bigotry, Violence, Immigration, Loss, Family
Review: This piece takes a very real and uncomfortable look at guilt and harm, where the narrator has committed great wrongs against these aliens and feels in some ways indebted to them, and at the same time she doesn’t really stop her harm. Because she’s still very focused on herself, on her guilt and being absolved, she never really gets to the point where she’s able to interact with the dragonflies with some toxic expectations. Where she is essentially demanding yet again that they cater to human desires. She’s better than everyone else, she wants to believe, needs to believe, and yet at the same time she doesn’t really do anything to help the situation. In fact, she profits from it and call it contrition. And there’s just so much going on in this story that works very subtly to examine what prejudice looks like and how people can recognize that it’s wrong, can recognize it in themselves in a way that cannot be denied, and yet refuse to have an honest discussion about it. Refuse to actually be called to answer for their crimes. The narrator buries what she did, hides it from the world, hope that no one knows. But she doesn’t really believe it was something she should be punished for. Because to her it was reasonable. She didn’t know. She was afraid. And that same shield that she uses to try and avoid blame is what allows the bigotry to spread and continue. It really is a lovely and powerful story about aliens and about humans, and about atrocities and distance and comfort. And fuck, yeah, it is a fantastic read, and you should definitely carve out some time to spend with this story!


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