Monday, July 1, 2019

Quick Sips - Tor dot com June 2019

Art by Gregory Manchess
Two short stories and two novelettes make for a fairly full month from Tor dot com. On top of yet another Mongolian Wizard story, there are works about inter-dimensional airships, torture in the name of psychological research, and a group of young women camping in the woods. The pieces lean on the dark side, highlighting drain and the stress of living in situations where exploitation is the law of the land. But some also find people trying to break free of the cycle, even as others show people being consumed by it. A nice range of stories, which I'll get right to reviewing!


“Any Way the Wind Blows” by Seanan McGuire (3665 words)

No Spoilers: Isabelle is the captain of an airship cruising through parallel dimensions as part of the Cartography Corps, a group dedicated to mapping the levels of reality so that any alterations or manipulations (such as a dimension being devoured entirely by some cosmic horror) can be detected and reacted to. It’s a job she started with high hopes and a sense of adventure and, after five years, one she continues with a sense of bitterness and seething resentment. But the show must go on, the mission continue, yada yada yada. The piece picks up as the airship enters a new dimension—one that promises to be as dull and frustrating as the rest. But one that might have at least one surprise up its sleeve. The story is framed by the publication as a farewell of sorts to the Tor offices in New York’s Flatiron Building, and it touches a bit on employment, wonder, and getting the job done.
Keywords: Parallel Dimensions, Airships, Travel, Employment, Looting
Review: Okay first I have to imagine that there’s probably a lot of Easter Eggs in this story for people familiar with things that I am not. There’s that feeling for me, though I cannot confirm this at all. Still, it’s not required to enjoy the story and I feel like this piece really digs into the ways that adventures can shift and twist into something different. For Isabelle, it’s something that’s taken some time, but the constant strain and stress and tedium and frustration of running the ship, keeping it on schedule and pointed in the right direction, dealing with the personalities of the crew and strangeness of the job, it all just becomes A Bit Much. And really it seems like any venture where someone goes into it with passion and with gusto and finds that the field largely survives because it eats those things and leaves naught but bones and bruises. So in some ways it seems (perhaps especially with the framing of the move of the Tor offices) like a commentary on how it feels to be at the helm of something large and wondrous, but at the same time bogged by the grim and gritty realities of the universe and the business. Because Isabelle really can’t enjoy the journey as much anymore. She can appreciate part of it, but her joy in what she’s doing has been taken from her in any one of an endless stream of misadventures, deaths, and disasters. This latest world is boring, is plain, and the captain approaches it like another torture. Only...I don’t think the story is solely doom and gloom. While it definitely deals with the burnout of being in that kind of position, I feel like it does show that there’s still a glimmer left of why the captain went into this in the first place. Some of the old passion, the old caring, that still keeps her going. She still cares about the crew, the ship, and the mission, but maybe now it’s much more those first two that keep her going, that push her to continue, rather than the mission, which is present but no longer the point. Still there is the journey, and while it might lose its glimmer a bit amid the sweeping and fantastical worlds, there’s still plenty of beauty, and mystery, and hope still to hold to. A wonderful read!

“Skinner Box” by Carole Johnstone (11037 words)

No Spoilers: Evie is part of a research mission through space with her abusive husband, Don, and Mas, the man she’s having an affair with. As part of her project, she has a Skinner Box for nannites, trying to find ways to condition them and mostly not having much success. The real experiment, though, isn’t really revealed until much later in the story, and even then, it might be just a single layer in a much deeper game. This is an intricate and intense story that really carries with it the sense of being trapped in a box, inside an experiment, and never quite knowing how deep that goes. It explores how people are effected by being experimented on—how it changes them. And it looks at captivity and conditioning and resistance and freedom in very interesting ways, while often being very viscerally unpleasant and unsettling. It’s by no means a happy story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a wonderfully or powerfully constructed one.
Keywords: Space, Experiments, CW- Abuse, CW- Rape, AIs
Review: This is a rather difficult story, in part because it deals with some very intimate abuse and torture, and in part because it’s got a lot of layers to it, pulling out surprise after surprise after a certain point that really ratchet up the tension and tragedy. But I also do very much like how it handles scientific experiments and grief and guilt, how it builds this situation where everyone thinks they’re testing one thing, and they’re actually doing something else. Which feels very real to me, because as much as science tends to believe that we can isolate variables, that’s basically impossible when it comes to people. You can never get just one thing to test. People are complex and have so many moving and stationary parts that trying to change one things changes everything. Only when looking at it at that level does it become clear that this “science” is really only torture with the aim of making it so that those with power can control those without. So that people like Evie can be manipulated and made to do what other people want for the benefit of corporations who want to exploit the solar system and beyond. What they don’t see is that they are blinded by their greed (the allusions to Alien are great in that regard, where this company is essentially trying to make a monster they can control and instead creates something that gets away from them—though this outcome is not a horror so much as a release and the closest thing the story gets to joy, when Evie realizes that recognizing that she’s been forever changed by the experiment doesn’t mean she has to submit to it). And I just really like how the story brings Evie from this hell she thought was at least partly under her control to a place where she feels completely powerless and then through that to the realization that she has to give people the power to accept their hells. So she doesn’t. And it’s a wonderful journey, so dark and so difficult at times but with a great payoff. A fantastic read!

“The New Prometheus” by Michael Swanwick (6332 words)

No Spoilers: After only about a month there’s already a new Mongolian Wizard story, this time bringing Ritter to the arctic to confront a strange man (or homonculus) with extraordinary powers. The piece is mostly a one sided conversation, with Ritter in large part playing the part of priest taking confession. Only the person he’s listening to, the main narrator of the piece, isn’t asking to be forgiven. But he has a story to tell, and is glad that he has someone in Ritter who will hear it. It’s a bit of a philosophical piece, illuminating the state of a man stitched together from animal parts, immaculately conceived and brought to life, and taught what it means to exist from a complicated set of teachers. It’s mostly quiet, studious, and rather sad.
Keywords: Mongolian Wizard, Homonculus, Telepathy, Loneliness, Snow, CW- Suicide
Review: This story sees Ritter taking a back seat to this other narrator in a move that deepens some of the world building of the piece as well as plays somewhat with the settings’ fascination with monster movie-style characters but with some new twists. I mean, Ritter himself is a wolf-man, and the narrator here is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, to the point that he’s referred to as a creature on numerous occasions, despite the fact that he looks handsome, according to Ritter at least. It’s a move that sets up in some ways the inhumanity of the character and in other ways the all-to-human-ness of him. Because while there are aspects of him that indeed seem super-human (his talents with magic, his ability to kill, his size and strength), it’s his mind that is much more central to his character. The mind of someone who must have been alive up to the point it was removed from their brain. Or brains, if it was more than one person. The monstrosity of the character for me comes more from how they are born, from the horror and pain that heralds their arrival. But that sin isn’t theirs, and they do try to understand the world and themself. They do try to find a way to live morally, despite having been brought into the world to be a vessel for the Mongolian Wizard, to be a weapon and a beast. For all that, their differences and the way they were brought up impart on them a deep trauma, showing them the darkness of the world and, for them at least, the futility of it as well. Though I don’t know, given his logic at the end one almost wonders if the whole point of this wasn’t to make him into a vessel for the Wizard but to make him into the mate of the Wizard. Because if his most logical course for obtaining a mate would be to build an empire to do just that and that’s...what the Wizard did, then it...just might be possible that that is why the Wizard did all they’ve done, in order to build a mate who would understand them. Not that I want that to be the explanation, but I did think while reading how truly sad that would have been. Anyway, the piece is another rather fun one, though obviously dark. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan that the only course this “creature” sees is self-destruction, but it makes sense given the circumstances of his life. It’s an interesting read, and definitely one to spend some time with!

“A Forest, or A Tree” by Tegan Moore (8125 words)

No Spoilers: May, Piper, Ailey, and Elizabeth are all on a hiking adventure, camping in nature and hoping to make some memories. They start out promisingly enough, though Piper ends up not feeling too well. But they make camp and they tell a few stories, and they toast how camping in the woods is actual safer for them than spending time at a frat party. Which in horror-land means that they’re being set up for a fall, for a twist, for something to be waiting for them out in the woods. Something they should have left alone. It’s a story that does a good job with voice, making each of the women distinct and full of personality while building to the horrifying climax of their little adventure. At the same time, there are some elements that I personally struggled with, that for me made me a bit conflicted about it as a whole.
Keywords: Forests, Camping, Sickness, Friendship, Stories
Review: I really do like how the story builds. It’s classic in its take on horror as a genre, setting these women out in the woods, isolated, and with a sense of safety. And slowly taking all of that away until the world is a very harsh place, full of hungry shadows. At the same time, it moves in some directions that I’m not wholly comfortable with, because for me the story ends up feeling at odds with itself, though I might be missing something. It’s just that the women talk about danger and talk about stories and talk about the horror tropes that the story itself ends up using and leaning on. It’s a group of women who see in nature a relative safety because it’s absent men there to put them in danger. And maybe the point of what happens if that there is no getting outside the reach of men. That there are penises everywhere in nature, as one of the characters points out, that maybe nature is a masculine force out to violate them. But...that reading leaves something of a bad taste in my mouth because it sets these women up to be punished for thinking that they could be safe, which makes part of the message as I read it that there is no safety, that women are always in danger and can never be safe no matter what they do. May especially is the story’s main character and doesn’t like the horror trope that humans disturb something that they shouldn’t. She believes that humans she go where they need to, that keeping people pinned in reduces them in ways that is often utilized by racists to target marginalized people. Which is a good sentiment to me, pointing out that a lot of horror tropes are rooted in xenophobia and racism, a clash of civilization against the “savage” and untamed. Except that the story ends up putting her in her place, as it does the rest of the characters, in the form of a monster that hunts them and terrorizes them, and doesn’t seem to be able to be stopped by means conventional or not. And there is some uncertainty surrounding the ending, about what happens, about whose story is being told, and that might leave room for this to have a very different outcome and impact. Given the lead up to that moment, though, and the actions of everyone/thing involved, I can’t easily see that not ending poorly. Already May is bleeding and terrified, and things don’t seem about to get better. But I also very much like the characters and the voice of the piece, the darkness that it reveals, and I recommend people check it out for themselves to see what you think.


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