Friday, May 1, 2020

Quick Sips - Tor dot com April 2020

Art by Ashley Mackenzie
So I'm used to Tor dot com releasing up to four stories a month, which means this month's six stories represent something of a surge in fiction. Perhaps it's that the venue knows that more people are home right now, and so might be more available to read some great fiction. Whatever the reason, I'm glad, as the stories are a great mix of science fiction and fantasy, featuring portals inside little free libraries, psychic investigators battling malevolent, and a whole cartography of a new and strange world...that's really not all that strange at all. The works are careful and full of quiet longing and intense action, and I'll get right to reviewing this cornucopia of SFF!


“Cosmic Crust” by Alex Sherman (5597 words)

No Spoilers: Bhu is living in a post-disaster semblance of normalcy, grounded by his work at the single local restaurant and the care for his dog, Lucy, who is older and needs to be assisted to walk. Her care has become most of his world, but she’s been eating less even as Bhu spends more and more on meat for her. When he gets a line on a new source of meat, though, things start to improve for Lucy, even as things don’t quite seem right. The piece is strange and heavy, the world depicted one with a deep sickness to it, a sense of decay and decline. And a pizza oven becomes something much more than just a tool to cook food.
Keywords: Meat, Dogs, Sickness, Overs, Plants
Review: For me, a lot of this story has to do with the weight of the background, the things that aren’t said. The reasons for why this setting is so wounded, hollowed out, so that there are only a few vestiges of the old world, our current world, left. What’s happened is uncertain, but it might have something to do with the sickness that seems to be effected everyone. Otherwise, though, there does just seem to be a general absence in the world, people who are just no longer there, though where they’ve gone isn’t clear to me. What’s clear is that Bhu is dealing with this by clinging to something that makes him feel normal, that structures his time, and that requires him to care for something else. And that seems so important, that Bhu is able to care for something, for someone, because otherwise his world is one that is isolated and lonely, where everyone seems to distrust everyone else, where no one really stops to talk. The only person Bhu seems close to is his boss, and Phan is a strange character, part capitalist, part mystic, perveyor of the strange meat that seems to revive Lucy, but which really provides for her transformation into something new. And the oven is weird, the horrors that it spawns linked to the sickness that is effecting everyone. And in that the oven seems part of the real sickness beneath all of that, which seems to be linked to feeding. Phan wonders if he’s making people sick, but dismisses it because people were sick first. But maybe it’s the system that was sick, but Phan and his oven are leaning into it rather than fighting against him. Which seems to me to say that those who see corruption and decide to double down on it are indeed making things worse. Worse and worse until all that’s left are the horrors. The strange monsters that these hungers have birthed. It’s weird and diseased, and makes for an interesting read. Definitely a story to spend some time with!

“Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer (2489 words)

No Spoilers: Meigan is a recent(ish) resident of St. Paul and is rather charmed by the Little Free Libraries, small boxes placed in public or public-adjacent (along a sidewalk, typically) spaces that house a small collection of books under a take one, leave one system. From the start Meigan’s library seems to be a hit, and the story follows as she comes to form a correspondence with someone using her library. It’s something that seems innocent (if eccentric) at first, but becomes increasingly serious, though the piece as a whole is light and fun, and the ending is a nice twist that opens a lot of possibility.
Keywords: Libraries, Books, Portals, Gold, Eggs
Review: I’m a big fan of Little Free Libraries, which are also really common where I live (Eau Claire, WI). And I love the idea of one becoming a sort of portal into a different world. Not only because I am a sap and the idea that books offer portals to other worlds is one that I’ve always liked. It’s something that the book ties to very tightly with the name dropping going on, too, the story in part a catalog of books that Meigan likes, that have shaped her reading through to adulthood. It’s an interesting mix and I’d hope that readers would find something they could point at and feel a bit of nostalgic welcoming. On top of that, it’s a light mystery as she tries to figure out what might be happening to her books. They disappear, and in their place are strange odds and ends, art and, eventually, gold coins. I like the kind of gentle way the story builds, slowly at first, just some sort of fantasy being reading their way through the books Meigan leaves out. And then a bit faster, as it turns out that the situation in the fantasy world where the books are being taken to is not exactly as relaxed as it could be. Indeed, it’s a sharp tonal shift from earlier, where now instead of just wanting the next Frodo book, the mysterious person on the other side of the portal seems to be under siege, in danger. And I almost felt it too quick a shift, because a moment ago this person was just casually reading The Lord of the Rings. But I think it speaks in some ways to the use of fiction and fantasy in times of trouble. It’s no surprise, after all, that a lot of portal fantasy came out of war times. And so the realization that a real war is going on, and that Meigan might indeed have landed herself in some classic fantasy tropes. It’s a fun and sweet story that brings Meigan through a series of strange events before rewarding her love of SFF books with a living piece of them. A wonderful read!

“Go Fish” by Ian Rogers (11955 words)

No Spoilers: Charles is an insurance inspector for a company whose specialty isn’t on the letterhead or website. Because the real goal of the group is to contain and protect the public from dangerously paranormal locations. Sites of unexplained and obviously ghost-related deaths and massacres. And along for the ride with him are Sally and Toby, two psychics with different abilities (Sally the telepath who can also astral project, Toby with telekenesis and maybe some latent telepathic sensitivity). For this job they’ve been called out to one of the most haunted places in the country, to see if they can’t put down what could become a grisly series of murders, if they don’t stop it first. If they can avoid becoming victims themselves. It’s a thrilling paranormal adventure, with an interesting threat and some solid psychic combat, all building up to what’s essentially a monster-of-the-week episode of a solid show--er, fiction series.
Keywords: Ghosts, Fish, Psychics, Teamwork, Astral Projection
Review: I like the setup here, the insurance company covering as a sort of secret organization dedicated to curating and securing haunted locations, with a team (or teams, really) of fixers to go in when things go wrong. Charles the veteran, Sally the more seasoned up and comer, and Toby the new guy who has lots of potential but is also annoying as fuck. And yeah, I’m not exactly a huge fan of Toby, but he does bring a bit of tension to the team with how he bristles against Charles’ authority and how he’s rather inappropriately trying to pick up Sally while they’re on the job. And he does show that he has skills and can be serious and helpful. So yeah. The piece actually bounces around from character to character in a way that’s not...quite omniscient and so the way that it’s written reminds of the television show this definitely reminds me of. Not as in I’ve seen it before but as in it reads in a rather visual way, heavy on action, dialogue kept to exposition and quips, mostly. The pacing is tight and when things start going wrong they keep right on going. The back story is certainly grisly and mysterious, and the reveal, the ghost, is terrifying and dangerous. All in all it’s a solid and fun read, something that makes me wonder if the piece could be easily translated to the small screen. If not, it’s still a fun urban fantasy with psychics, ghosts, and enough mystery to keep things interesting and tinged in a light horror. A fine read!

“An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands” by Fran Wilde (3611 words)

No Spoilers: This story opens with a ship that has spent three generations traveling toward a future, toward a place where the ship’s captain and navigator could awaken their sleeping passengers and make a new space for themselves. What happened to the old one is uncertain, but what was supposed to be certain was the destination, an untouched land for them to claim. Except that, upon arrival, it turns out that there are already people there. And the navigator volunteers to go out among these people and find a new home for them, a safe home. What they find instead, though, is something a bit more complex, and perhaps a bit more tragic, as well. It’s a story told in maps, through the definition of map is rather loose, open to interpretation and meaning but never, I feel, inconsistent.
Keywords: Maps, Journeys, Ships, Family, Loss, Disease
Review: This story makes wonderful use of maps, looking beyond just the traditional definitions and looking at all the different ways that people can use things for guidance and for defining their world. Maps are more than just lines on a page, and they can be used to visualize more than just the separation of countries and peoples. Maps are also contextual, and can be almost anything, from a flock of birds to a scrawl of ink to a living, breathing being. All the while the story explores that it creates a map of its own, a sort of meta map of these places, of these different ways of marking the world. Ways that come to incorporate history itself, as the navigator who sets out becomes the historian who records, becomes someone else again. A partner. A parent. A leader. The piece features a history that runs in circles, the same patterns that led the navigator and ship out searching for a new home tracing over the fresh canvas of this other land, leading the people back to the shore. For me it’s a piece that recognizes that maps are different things for different people, that the act of mapping is also a form of storytelling, the mapmaker imposing a narrative where there hadn’t been one before, borders that are arbitrary and yet hold meaning. Hold identity. Hold history and even a future. Maps here are bits of magic, ever changing but definitely telling a story, drawing a way forward for people who have lost so much, who will lose more, but who might still find their way to a place they can be safe and whole. And it’s a bit of a weird read, flowing easily from part to part, building up this navigator and their quest even as they lose it and retake it time and again. And for all the death they find along the way, it doesn’t lose sight of the possibilities that mapping can open up, the beginnings that start with a blank page and quickly fill. A wonderful read!

“Of Roses and Kings” by Melissa Marr (8094 words)

No Spoilers: In a new and rather sexy take on Wonderland, Beatrice is another person from the “Original World” to end up in in the land of playing cards and madness, where Alice is now the Red Queen who has lost a bit of herself and her sanity in the role. Beatrice is made her maid, but in truth is much more than that, and the piece revolves around the idea of portal fantasies as well as around the roles that people have to play and the desperation people might have not to have to face the world they’ve escaped from. It’s a dark story, full of murder and lust, but it seems also about two rather broken people finding and holding onto each other in a world that’s not meant to be safe of comforting.
Keywords: Wonderland, Treason, Royalty, Queer MC, Portal Fantasy, Roles
Review: I’m a big fan of Alice in Wonderland takes and this one, offering both an interesting sequel and explicit queering of the text is one I appreciate. And I like that a big part of the piece is on the escape that Wonderland offers and the kind of prison it then becomes, taking people rather specifically who have been abused, who maybe have already Done Some Shit, and bringing them into a place where things are a bit mad. And violent. And beautiful. The mind behind Wonderland seems a bit twisted, cat-like, not above reveling in some injustice. Because for Wonderland, that’s part of the appeal. The danger, the proximity of death, heightens the way that the setting is striking, that it’s immediate, that it’s beautiful. There are threats all over, and the sense that almost anything could happen. For a little girl, it’s hardly a place that’s safe compared to the neat gardens of home. Not a place someone would want to stay in...unless those neat gardens hid something that was even worse. In some ways it’s awful, because the story does show that victims like Alice, like Beatrice, are only further victimized by Wonderland, made into monsters and tyrants. Mad Killers. Because it gives them something else that they need--power. And it’s the power that’s really what keeps them there, the ability to finally set their own boundaries, even if those boundaries are mercurial, even-changing. Beatrice and Alice embrace the chaos of Wonderland because for all its obvious teeth and pitfalls, it is better than the alternative. Something that the true master of the realm seems to know, and use to keep them there, but even so. It’s not a false escape, at least. And the ways they’re being exploited now is at least kind of consensual. There’s just no good way forward, no way to unbreak them or their situations. So they embrace what they can, empower themselves as they can, and devote themselves to each other, to survival, and to power. It’s a gripping and wonderfully imagined story, and it’s definitely worth checking out, especially for fans of the source material. A frabjous read!

“Anything Resembling Love” by S. Qiouyi Lu (5615 words)

No Spoilers: This story takes place in a world where uncomfortable or unwanted touch causes insects (or other insect-adjacent creatures) to emerge from people’s skin. Perhaps to ward off whatever is causing the unpleasant sensation. But it’s something that has been incorporated into gender roles and co-opted by misogyny so that women are expected to comfort and apologize for “provoking” the emergences of men while trying to hide their own. Sylvia learned from a young age how to try and conceal her disgust and dislike of certain touches by redirecting her centipedes into her mouth, where she can eat them. Of course, swallowing down her disgust doesn’t exactly get rid of it, and it might be swallowed with some deeper issues, too.
Keywords: Touch, Centipedes, Sex, Roommates, CW- Rape
Review: A lot of the story is, for me at least, pointedly uncomfortable, following the ways that Sylvia is taught to be ashamed of something that is only natural, taught to be a “proper lady” about her centipedes, taught that a lot of her value and power comes from how she can swallow this reaction and convince men that she’s clean, free of emergences. Which, in turn, gives her a rather toxic self image and a heap of other issues to deal with, which come to a devastating and visceral head when she goes with her boyfriend to a vacation with his friends and ends up getting raped. The piece is powerful in its portrayal of the uncomfortable, showing how some people don’t really get the choice of avoiding the things that make them squirm with disgust. Sylvia is encouraged to force herself through those things, is told by society that her strength comes from how much unwanted touch she can endure. All the while her one friend is about the only one telling her that she doesn’t have to, that she’s strong regardless, that there’s nothing to be ashamed of about her emergences. And the piece is careful even as it is rather wrenching and difficult, because while Sylvia fights with herself and her self-worth, the story never condemns her, never blames her for what happens. And it never denies her someone who understands and cares for her, even if the two are very different when it comes to sex and physical intimacy. And for me the impact is gutting but resilient, recognizing the ways that people and especially women are pressured into giving up their bodies and hiding their discomfort for the benefit of men while being buried by the double standard that they also comfort men for those same discomforts. It’s a sharp piece definitely worth checking out!


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