|Art by Soufiane Mengad|
Four works (three short stories and one novelette I kinda missed from the end of January) make for another full month of fiction from Tor dot com. Further, all the stories are science fiction and most focused on the strength and fragility of relationships. They feature characters who are lonely, and who fear being alone, who are struggling against a culture that often doesn't care about them or their happiness, that wants them to bend to its desires and the fabricated needs of its demands. The pieces explore darkness, self destruction, and what peace looks like in a world that might not be full of war but is full of violence all the same, just a kind that is a bit more socially acceptable. And these are difficult, beautiful works that explore futures (and maybe a near-alt-historical past) that are broken, but not without hope. To the reviews!
“Deriving Life” by Elizabeth Bear (9160 words)
No Spoilers: I will collect myself from the small puddle of tears I have become in a moment to try and describe this story, in which Marq is a person whose spouse, Tamar, is dying. But not suddenly or mysteriously—They’re dying from the sentient cancer that they chose to take into themself in part in order to enjoy relief from a chronic immune disorder that otherwise would have left them in constant pain. Tamar’s death has been something that Marq has known about from the start, and yet the prospect of living without their spouse is insurmountable. Shattering. And the piece explores that grief and pain and fear in a very compassionate, very moving way. And it builds Marq into a very complex, very damaged person who is moving through an incredibly difficult period of time and it feels so real, so raw, and so resonating.
Keywords: Relationships, Grief, Therapy, CW- Cancer, CW- Suicidal Ideation
Review: This is a very difficult story for how it handles loss and grief and the fragility that can be identity and purpose. I love how the story captures Marq, so broken by what has happened, what they could essentially see coming and yet it hits like it’s a surprise, like they couldn’t have guessed it. And seeing the kind of weak support network they have is something real and deeply tragic, because they have lived so fully with their spouse. That they have become so much for each other, and now that things are ending, now that things must end, neither of them is handling it quite well. Because the truth seems to be that people can be both unwilling and entirely willing to die all at once, depending a lot on what they can hope for, what they can see in the future. They don’t want the beautiful thing they had to end, don’t want to face a future without them. And yet there is no escaping that, and it’s such a wrenching read, revealing how difficult it is to try and guess what will make a person feel better. What will make them want to live. And, in some ways, whether that should be the priority above all other things. And gah, it’s an emotionally devastating read, one that tore me down and tore me down as I descended with Marq into that despair and hurt and anguish. And I love that the story doesn’t end there, that it doesn’t dwell solely on the tragedy of the situation, but allows for the possibility of a future. One that will have to be renegotiated and reframed. One that still might come apart at any moment. But one that has a chance at moving forward and moving on. One that finds that Marq maybe hasn’t lost all of their progress over their time with Tamar just because Tamar is dying. And wow, it’s a story that hurts but hurts so good. Go read it!
“Articulated Restraint” by Mary Robinette Kowal (5657 words)
No Spoilers: Ruby is an astronaut, but also a bit of a dancer. Since the Meteor hit, her life has increasingly been filled with space and the training for it, but she’s always made time for dancing, for that connection to her life Before the Meteor. It’s a bit of nostalgia that she enjoys, and yet in this story she has to re-examine her decision to place nostalgia on the same level as helping to save lives. And the story is a tense study in what it means to strive for the stars, to go into space. The action takes place entirely on Earth, in a training pool, and yet the stakes are life and death. The piece explores the ways that people feel pressure to add more and more to their plate, and how dire an impact that can have.
Keywords: Space, Astronauts, Dancing, Injury, Priorities
Review: Given the times we live in this is a rather audacious story, actually. Because what’s it’s looking at is the way that people overclock themselves. It’s a tactic that has become increasingly necessary amidst the late capitalism corruption that has seen wealth migrate to a criminal few pushed forward effort (always more and more) as the only way to “earn” safety and security. That’s not exactly what the story is about, but at the same time I do see the piece looking at the practice of trying to do too much and beginning to push back against that. Where a more familiar trope would find Ruby finding ways that her dancing hobby would allow her to do something she might not have been able to do otherwise, here we see the other side of the coin, where dance practice has put Ruby in a position where she risks both herself and people trapped in space counting on her to help them survive. Now, I don’t think the piece is really saying that people have to devote themselves entirely to one thing. But I do think the story is pushing Ruby to confront why she’s still dancing and what she wants out of life. If she’s doing it because she can’t inhabit being an astronaut all the time and living in the world After the Meteor, then I do think it’s really questioning if she should be an astronaut. Because her actions there aren’t the same as some desk job where a mistake might mean some extra headaches for a few people. What she does is life and death, and more than that it’s what she wants to do. More than being a dancer, which she can still do casually. It might mean giving up competitive dance, but that loss pales a bit when compared to a human being. A great read!
“The Song” by Erinn L. Kemper (7013 words)
No Spoilers: Dan is an underwater welder working in a place that specializes in rendering whale meat for consumption. It’s a job that has a lot of dangers and drawbacks—the long relentless hours, the gory nature of the job, the isolation, the violence that eco-activists might visit, and the nature of the whales themselves, their feelings and their song. For Dan, who has lost his wife and has little but the job to keep him going, and for Suzanne, a scientist studying whale song and behavior, they both are touched by a song many different whales have taken to repeating. It’s a strange read, dreamlike at times and haunted, about the horrors of consumerism and consumption and the grinding despair that exploitation, the cornerstone of our society, can bring.
Keywords: Whales, Butchering, Oceans, Songs, CW- Suicide
Review: This is not an easy story to read. It’s heavy in many ways, including multiple depictions and mentions of suicide, so definitely know that going in. But I do love the statement it makes about consumption and about sentience and about the way that being ground up constantly is soul crushing. Annihilating. And that it cuts both ways. The workers who do the butchering are doing it knowing the intelligence of the whales, knowing the song. And so both livestock and butchers here are suffering to further this work that ends up destroying them both. That robs them of everything but this death, this bloody tragedy, and I like how the story renders that down, carves out the heart of the ways that people lose hope. For me, at least, it’s a statement not just on whales and raising them for food but rather dealing with the knowledge that you are locked in a system that is concerned only with your transformation into a product. Into money and profit. For the whales, this knowledge carries with it a kind of song, one that they all begin to echo. Because they can all mourn the lives they won’t be able to live. Because they are alive only at the whims of the company wanting to sell their lives and bodies. Because they don’t have much left. And it touches Dan and Suzanne because thye can’t avoid it either, can’t help but see that their fate is linked to the whales, that if one sentient species is on the menu then we all are, and that’s a truly crushing through. It’s certainly not a happy piece, but then I feel that it’s something very much worth facing, and that the story frames viscerally well. A haunting read!
“Old Media” by Annalee Newitz (5380 words)
No Spoilers: John is a former slave, not enfranchised and living with the bot who saved him when his last owner fled to avoid being caught by some unsavory characters. The world he inhabits now is almost...normal, but always defined in the context of what it allows to those who are enfranchised. For John, it’s a past that he mostly wants to forget, though it’s also something he doesn’t want to erase. It’s complicated, which is how it goes for the story as well, which mixes a sort of slice-of-life feel with a strong focus on his relationship with the bot, Med. The two of them share something deep and nuanced, and the story does an amazing job exploring it and revealing its beauty. It’s a story about intimacy and trust, safety and art and recycling, and it’s utterly heartwarming.
Keywords: Media, CW- Slavery, Sex, Love, Libraries
Review: I love the way this story explore relationships. Not just the stunning example of John and Med, former-slave and bot, the two dealing with the ways that they are seen by society, fearing and hoping what they see in each other. Not just that, though it really is a joy to behold, and I love John and his energy, his peppiness despite or perhaps because of the incredible difficulties he’s faced. That they are finally able to have something that seems at least safe and secure, that is theirs, is just really beautiful and fills me with warm fuzzies. Still, though, I feel like there is an underlying tension in the story for me. A sort of tightness that comes not from what they have managed to do but from the fragility of it. The fragility that they can mostly avoid or ignore, because what they have is so freeing, but for me at the distance I have to them there is this weight in my chest about them, a worry because the world is Not Okay and there are so many ways that what they have can be threatened. Can be destroyed. And I think that’s what gets me most about this story, that this beauty is blooming amid a world that is pretty fucking dystopian, where slavery is widespread and people are really only people to the extent that they can own themselves. It’s frightening and though John and Med can have this moment when they completely trust each other and can believe in the safety of their apartment, there’s a part of me that fears them learning that the safety they feel is illusory. Is good only until someone with more power wants something. And then...well...fuck. And I love that, love the complexity it requires and the care it shows for the characters while also reminding the reader of the dangers here, the warning signs that all is not well, even if we all root like hell that John and Med are just going to get to be Okay. So yeah, go read this one. It’s AMAZING!