Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Quick Sips - Tor dot com November 2019

Art by Red Nose Studio
I was actually anticipating Tor to start to slow down, given their tendency to take most of the end of the year off of new releases, but November actually saw three original stories from the publication. The stories mix a sense of almost child-like wonder with some grim realities. In each the main character is sheltered in some key way, locked away, and is waiting for their moment to escape. Some of them don't know it yet, are convinced of the completeness of their isolation, their prison, but as time goes on they all find reason to see that their lives are only being partly lived, kept back from exploring the universe and all its secrets and magic. And what they do about that defines their arcs and their stories. To the reviews!


“In Xanadu” by Lavie Tidhar (5953 words)

No Spoilers: Nila is eleven but already active in protecting a secure Core of the Conversation on a moon where no one is supposed to know about it. From the earliest age she’s been trained to help protect the Core, to protect the Others, native digital beings. But for all that she’s been taught over eighty ways to kill a person (eight of them silently), she’s bored. Nothing ever happens and for so long peace had made the role of the protectors one of watching and waiting. Until, of course, something does happen. And then it’s up to Nila to try and protect a robot she finds within the security perimeter, one being chased by sophisticated and deadly drones that resemble tech-enhanced wolves. It’s a rather action packed story that weaves into the larger setting that the author has been exploring, and it certainly is exciting and mysterious.
Keywords: Space, Security, Robots, AIs, Networks
Review: This story is a lot of fun, and introduces the setting well for being a part of a larger series. The voice is great and full of energy, full of youth and that feeling of wanting to be Doing Something rather than caught in a state of peace and relative boredom. In some ways it’s a Be Careful What You Wish For kind of piece but wrapped up with the idea that sometimes young people get so enamored with conflict because they don’t know all of what it really means, which is largely terror and pain and sorrow. And I like the mystery of the piece, too, the way that it sets up Nila as suddenly in the middle of something so much larger than just a raid, or a random occurrence. People are dying but even on top of that there’s something big going on, something that might have implications for the entire solar system—for all of not just humanity for all live, organic and digital. And that scope and scale is captured nicely and this episode gives a taste of what is going on. Alas, it’s only a taste, and though it stands on its own as Nila’s Big Day, it also doesn’t really answer any of the questions it asks. So much is left open that there must be another chapter, and while that’s great for me, and I hope I get a chance to read it, it means the reader is left with a lot of anticipation and not a lot of closure. But again, with this story it’s part of a setting that has been unfolding for quite some time (at least if my memory serves me), so at least I get the feeling that there will be closure at some point. And the ride is fun enough and I really don’t mind that it didn’t bring me to the end. It’s a wonderfully rendered piece full of action and intrigue and I’m excited to see where it might lead!

“The Touches” by Brenda Peynado (7152 words)

No Spoilers: The world that Salipa lives in is one defined by risk. By disease. By drug-resistant superbugs so potent they have pushed humanity into isolation. People grow up in sealed cubes where their needs are seen to mostly by a personal robot. Everything else that doesn’t need embodiment (so everything but eating, evacuating waste, and cleaning) is seen to in a virtual reality called the clean. The “real” world is the dirty, and the distinction makes clear how this setting has been taught to the characters. They are terrified of the dirty, and not without cause. But their isolation makes them vulnerable, and the lack of human touch is something it’s very hard to deal with. It’s a rather wrenching story, about the continued pressures of money, fulfillment, and intimacy in a world where the lines between illusion and reality are blurred, and maybe obscured entirely.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Diseases, Isolation, Contamination, Research, CW- Pregnancy
Review: This setting is striking and Salipa’s situation is at the same time strange and deeply familiar. Because isolation seems to be more and more deal with dangers. With uncertainty and fear. Here it’s been taken so this extreme, where people have largely abandoned the physical world and entered into a digital one, one that is viewed as safe. But even by Salipa’s own observations, the safety of the cubes, of the isolation, is mostly anecdotal. It’s an illusion itself, because problems in the system still mean people die. Paranoia about it means that people die. It might be designed to keep people safe but it makes them dependent on robots that can break down and it means that people lack the skills and their own natural defenses to try and fight back against these resistant bugs. And for me the story is about Salipa struggling with the feat she has about the dirty and the pull she feels toward it. That once she feels what it is to touch and be touched by another person, the clean just doesn’t feel the same. The clean becomes too sanitized, too bogged down. Which I’m a little conflicted about in part because the clean does have benefits and does break down some the bullshit around gender roles and such, but I get here how it’s something that is holding people back rather than really protecting them. That this protection is a sort of psychological placebo that Salipa begins to see and reject in favor of something more physical and, perhaps, to her at least, more real. I also like how the piece is framed, as a sort of recollection of the touches that Salipa has had, the times when she was in physical contact with another human. And it’s a complex and well rendered world with some messy, wonderful characters, and I definitely recommend checking it out!

“Precious Little Things” by Adrian Tchaikovsky (6921 words)

No Spoilers: The story opens with a small wooden man climbing up well above his station. He’s a laborer, somewhat crudely made, but he has hopes for the daughter he is crafting. But he knows that no matter how well he builds her, she won’t have the shine needed to lift her to something better without something more—without some gold, horded by the magicians made of folded paper who live high on the Shelf and guard their arcane knowledge from the rest of the Tower—from the rest of the homunculi made of wood and cloth and wax and metal and paper. So he climbs up to them and pleads for what he needs. The piece follows not his journey after, but his daughter, Liat’s, as she learns and grows and discovers truths that will push the whole Tower to tremble and, just maybe, to change.
Keywords: Homunculi, Magic, Gold, Wealth, Ravens
Review: This story has both a certain kind of shadow to it but more than that a whimsy tinged with danger. The characters are all homunculi, beings who have been made from inanimate objects, who make each other and then wear out as part of their life cycle. They have developed a complex society over the years, ever since the magician who made the first of them might have become trapped in his own spell. And I just love the feel of the story, the magic and the wonder but also the injustice and the danger. Liat is the child of a laborer, and as such she knows what it’s like to have people treat her as lesser. When she goes to study to be a magician, the other students look down on her, but she has patience and resilience and isn’t about to be dissuaded. Barriers to her are meant to be broken. Questions are meant to be answered, no matter how dangerous it might be. But the system she comes up in is a conservative one in part because they have limited resources in the Tower and need to be careful with what they have. That need to conserve, though, isn’t really going to allow them to thrive and continue. It’s going to preserve them as they are until something happens. Something like more humans arriving to loot the old wizard’s treasures. In the face of that, the people of the Tower could either try to save what they can or they can fight back. Or they can see that the world stretches beyond their home and if they are to have any chance of surviving they need to spread out. They need to find new homes, build a network that can’t be wiped out in one place. And they need to find a way to do more than just survive at the whims of the humans that might chance by. They have to be proactive, and they can’t be so stuck in their own corruptions and prejudices to lose sight of what’s important—helpings each other, and expanding their understanding of the larger world. Because only armed with that knowledge might they stand a chance of being considered equals with the larger peoples. And it’s a fun and vaguely haunting but ultimately beautiful story about exploration and survival. A fantastic read!


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