|Art by Rovina Cai|
One short story and two novelettes makes for a pretty standard bunch of fiction from Tor dot com this month. And the genres span science fiction and historical fantasy, with two pieces that look at how things might have been if magic (or superpowers) were a bit more real. And really in many ways the stories are about isolation, about people who are on the outside looking in when it comes to community and acceptance. Each has a place they feel like they belong, be it a physical location or personal relationship, and the works show how that effects their lives and decisions, how it leads some down some very dark paths, but maybe eventually into light. To the reviews!
“More Real Than Him” by Silvia Park (7451 words)
No Spoilers: Morgan and Di are robot designers and programmers working for a large corporation. Both come from messy, traumatic family environments, and both have some serious intimacy and trust issues. They find in each other a kind of friend, a kind of rival, and their relationship in part circles a robot that Morgan has inherited from Di, who seems in many ways to be self aware and who throughout the story surfaces only briefly. It’s a portrait of the pressures the two women face, though, not just professionally (to succeed, to live up to expectations) but personally, to be “strong” and independent and self sufficient, even as both are desperate for connection and a bond where they can be vulnerable and safe.
Keywords: Robots, AIs, Family, Friendships, Employment
Review: I really like the way this story builds up the characters of Morgan and Di, who people who have been betrayed by people who were supposed to be constant. Morgan’s mother. Di’s father. Holes in their lives that have left some deep scars and an aversion to intimacy. That has left both of them chasing after something that they suspect isn’t real. But that, too, might just be them holding themselves back from a possibility they can’t quite handle yet—that there is a way to break through their isolation, that there is a way to reach out to someone, to one another, and start to heal. I really like how the story shows the way that they begin to reconstruct their trust, the way each woman begins to open up to the other, caring more and more until they’ve created this deep bond that is still so fragile, undermined by jealousy and resentment. It seems real to me, because so often this is how people respond to being hurt, to losing someone who they had trusted completely. And where that puts Stephen, the robot that the two women create, is very interesting, because he represents someone caught in the wake of these cycles of trauma and pain. He’s viewed as a thing, and yet he seems to have this spark to him, seems to be self aware. It’s like the two women couldn’t even entertain that they might have brought real life into the world, because that’s something they aren’t ready for, something that’s complicated by the hurt they’ve felt and no doubt not wanted to pass along. But it’s a beautiful story that follows the two as they begin to confront some of their issues and open up about what happened to them. So that their wounds can stop festering and begin to close and heal properly. It’s not exactly a fun read, though it has moments of humor and a general messiness to the characters I really appreciate. It’s tender and it’s real and it’s very much worth checking out!
“Seonag and the Seawolves” by M. Evan MacGriogair (8456 words)
No Spoilers: Told as a story of an old narrator looking back on a time when they were much younger, this piece reveals wolves and hunters on a small Scottish island. The story is a memory, and a warning, and a wound that has never fully closed. It centers a young woman named Seonag, who was always viewed as peculiar, as different, as somehow foreign despite the island being her home, a place she loved above everything else. Despite the way that the people on it treated her. The narrator is a young person a bit infatuated by her, and drawn in as a witness to what happens to her. The story looks at freedom and wildness, at tragedy and violence and magic, and provides a stirring, chilling experience.
Keywords: Wolves, Stories, Transformations, Swimming, Trees
Review: I like how the story sets up this...almost reverse gothic mentality. The island and Seonag’s situation create a sense of isolation and danger, but it’s not that she’s sent out into the desolate countryside to fall victim to the strange supernatural forces there. No, rather it’s that she’s a native to this place that is full of darkness, where she’s never really safe because the men there don’t mean her well. And she has no interest in a protector, wants only to be free and to live in the place she loves. Only she’s continually kept out, othered, teased and gossiped about. When her family goes to move to Canada, one might almost expect she’d be happy to escape, only the land is a part of her. She stays, and in doing so she becomes “someone who’s running.” And it trips this switch in the hunters of the island, that she’s suddenly game. So she runs. And they follow. But again, where gothic stories tend to either feature a rationality winning over the supposed supernatural or else a kind of destruction, here it’s the rational and civilized that Seonag must reject, embracing instead the wildness that is her only freedom. If she’s to be game, then she’s going to be a dangerous kind, the kind with teeth capable of rending those pursuing her. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is the only one that allows her to remain free, and it’s the warning that she asks the narrator to deliver. That pushing people to the margins makes them targets for the hunters of the world. That it puts them in danger. And that when that happens, the outcome normally involves death, because with wolves and hunters, violence is pretty much a given. A stunning read!
“The City That Never Sleeps” by Walton Simons (11726 words)
No Spoilers: It’s a new Wild Cards story and Spector (formerly known as Demise?) has the ability to kill anyone he locks eyes with. It’s a useful power for an assassin, which is more or less what he’s been ever since his card flipped. After a particularly deadly falling out with his former boss a little while ago, though, he’s been trying to lie low. So when he finds out someone is following him, the same someone who got him into the big and bloody mess he’s still recovering from...well, he decides he wants to know more. The piece is violent and grim, embracing Spector’s particular brand of lack or morals or scruples. He kills for money and because he’s generally a mean person, and the story is certainly the more action-packed because of it, even if the larger story seems to still be hidden in the shadows.
Keywords: Superpowers, Assassins, Basketball, Bargains, Eyes Wild Cards
Review: Most of the Wild Cards stories I’ve read have featured what I’ll call “good guys,” so to find this one centering a flat-out villain is an interesting mood. Unfortunately, the choice also comes with some added baggage, because while it’s different than I’m used to, I’m not really interested in getting into the head of a person who simply views human life as pretty worthless. He’s been through a lot and is living with constant pain from what’s happened to him, but at the same time it makes his entire motivation numbing that pain and taking out his frustration at that pain by killing whoever annoys him. Which ends up being a lot of people. Along the way he’s drawn into a number of plots, fights, and the rumblings of a coming war. The piece is set in the early 1990s or late 1980s going off of who’s playing basketball (which, I’m not going to lie, was a bit of a weird aside in a story that was mostly about assassinations and gang politics). And it’s certainly got its moments of fun, where Spector basically falls in with a large joker that looks like a newt (but is the size of a car) as the two have a drug and booze fueled outing not only through Jokertown but, as I mentioned before, at an NBA game that ends with a number of fans dead and Larry Bird almost retiring. So...it’s pretty odd as far as my experience with the Wild Cards stories is concerned. A number of locations are visited, and characters make their cameos. For Spector, the piece seems largely to be about him starting to work on his own, trying to survive and maybe find a way to be in less pain but really only succeeding in getting into more and more trouble and almost dying. A lot. Which is fine and fans of the series should find plenty to like. For my tastes I’m not really sure what to make of it, as I’m not a huge fan of the character and I really don’t get a larger sense of what’s going on so for me it’s a bit opaque and a bit unpleasant, but I definitely think people should check it out for themselves to see how it strikes them. Indeed!