|Art by Max Loeffler|
2020 continues to be a rather busy one for Tor dot com, and May is no exception, with three new short stories and a novelette that's almost a novella. The pieces take on some interesting SFF contents, from the superpowered world of Wild Cards to trying to bring back extinct animals to wars that span planets and galaxies. They feature characters mostly just trying to do their jobs, and finding that those jobs are complicated by the need to please bosses who can be at times a bit authoritarian, and a bit unreasonable. But the job still needs doing, and these works find ways to keep that moving and tense. To the reviews!
“Berlin Is Never Berlin” by Marko Kloos (17388 words)
No Spoilers: Khan is a joker-ace who is, for lack of a better description, half tiger, where one half of his body resembles a tiger and has supernatural strength and agility (and apparently healing). He works as a bodyguard, mostly, or maybe an enforcer occasionally, for various clients, most of them criminal. For his current job he’s looking after the daughter of a money launderer. The daughter is a socialite, good at being rich mostly, and with some friends and Khan she’s bound for Berlin for some social events. Unfortunately, there seems to be a bit more going on, and what was supposed to be a rather boring (if annoying) assignment soon turns far too interesting for Khan’s tastes. The piece is full of action, following the tried true approach of bodyguard loses client, bodyguard must get client back with some superpowers thrown in for good measure. Which makes for a largely entertaining experience.
Keywords: Nightclubs, Superpowers, Bodyguards, Kidnapping, Police, Wild Cards
Review: This setting is definitely one that likes its honorable criminals, and Khan fits the bill pretty well, working as muscle and easily annoyed by the people around him but mostly just a big ol’ teddy bear...er...teddy tiger? In any event, the story follows a lot of fighting, a bit of talking, and generally just Khan keeping his eye on the prize, hoping to come through everything in one piece. For that, it certainly works. The action is well captured, Khan actually a much more reserved fighter than his animalistic qualities might imply, and he’s first a professional, not trying to do more damage than necessary. Even so, he’s backed into a corner a number of times, and the results are messy. The character work, too, is decent, with Khan, the socialites, and even some German supers rendered well and in a way to keep the story moving and interesting. And while I’m not sure the explaination of why this happened really landed for me personally, it’s no worse logic than any action movie that follows the same general premise. The piece is fun, and has a nice energy and pacing to it. Khan might not be all that different from a standard action antihero, but he’s got a neat look and powers and he uses them well. Otherwise, it is what is says on the box, and for me there aren’t any big missteps or points that kicked me out of the experience. For a Wild Cards story, it’s fun and leans into the criminal elements while showing that there are some things more important than money...at least to some people. A fine read!
“Benjamin 2073” by Rjurik Davidson (6111 words)
No Spoilers: Ellie is a geneticist working on a project to bring back the thylacine, an animal that went extinct under human guardianship (in a zoo) after having been hunted out of the wild. Now, after climate change has completely restructured the way the world works, wiped away a lot of the accepted realities of politics, and made a quasi utopian state (that’s still very much dealing with the ongoing pains of climate damage), there might be the chance to revive the species. Except that the project has been cut back again and again, and funding and staffing are now hanging on by a thread. A threat that Ellie refuses to let go of, even as it’s being snipped. The piece is wrenching, Ellie’s struggles with the thylacine standing in for a larger struggle in the world, one that has a lot to do with damage and healing.
Keywords: Genetics, Thylacines, Rewilding, Extinction, Queer Characters, Disabled MC, Assistive Devices
Review: I love the way the story approaches the idea of harm and healing, of the wounds that have been inflicted on a person, on a planet, that seem impossible to deal with. That really aren’t reasonable to deal with. Because they can be ignored, or avoided, and in a world that runs on exploitation and corruption, avoiding and ignoring are more valuable than actually taking significant action. But Ellie wants to take action, seeing as she does that the world at large has no chance if people don’t, if people lose the momentum of the change that brought about a cleaner world, one that stands a chance of surviving, but not if people slide back into complacency because they feel that they’ve done good enough. The thylacine is her hope for a future, or maybe her metaphor, her way of imagining a place for herself in the future, because her condition doesn’t give her a great prognosis, because she expects to be dead, too, and wants something not exactly to distract her from that, but for me it seems she wants something to let her see that it’s not all pointless. That positive change is possible. Not going back, despite the nature of rewilding projects. But seeking a way of healing an ecosystem and situation that has been fundamentally altered and injured by human intervention, and recognizing that unless the solution is complete human eradication, there must be a way for humans to have a positive impact on the environments they touch. One that restores something of the balance that humans threw out of control for so long. Not to go back but to give everyone a second chance. A second chance that she fears humanity doesn’t deserve, and in her cynical moments doesn’t think it deserves. But that she wants to contribute to all the same. And it has some great character moments and a sweet, hopeful ending that’s very much worth checking out. A great read!
“Beyond the Dragon’s Gate” by Yoon Ha Lee (3922 words)
No Spoilers: Anna is a scientist in a setting where there’s a war on spanning planetary systems. A war in which Anna’s sister is a soldier, and a war that Anna has done her best to stay far away from. Not that her work has been peaceful, punctuated as it’s been by an incident that took the life of the woman she was working with, after which she’s tried to keep her head down. Not enough, though, as she’s summoned by the Marshal of the armed forces itself to look into a problem they’ve been having with some of their ship AIs. And it’s a story that deals with war and peace, with bodies and perception, in some interesting ways.
Keywords: Ships, AIs, Uploaded Consciousnesses, Military, Family, Queer Characters, CW- Suicide
Review: This story deals with AIs in a rather interesting way, building up a setting where people can kind of be uploaded, can be “upgraded” into a sentient ship’s AI...with some drawbacks, of course. Not least of which is that a human mind isn’t really used to a ship’s body, and the more the body diverges from what the mind was comfortable in. the more issues can arise. For the military this is something they never really thought about, never really considered, because they were so busy trying to make weapons, trying to win the conflict, that the needs of the soldier were kind of lost. And the piece really does a nice job of tackling dysphoria in this sense, outside of how it’s normally conceptualized, outside of the same constraints of gender. It’s a piece about bodies, about the stress that can happen when a mind suddenly finds itself in a much different situation, one where it’s supposed to adapt but isn’t exactly able to. And in looking at that it looks at consent and the grinding wheel of debt, the setting feeling much deeper than is really revealed here, as the action is very limited to just a few exchanges, just this single mystery. I hope there’s more to the story, though, as I kind of wanted to see Anna reveal more and confront more about her past, about her sister, and the issue with the ships doesn’t really feel complete. But as an introduction to the ideas and characters, I really think the story works, and it makes for a great read!
“The Tourist” by Alex Sherman (5028 words)
No Spoilers: An anthropologist working on their dissertation comes to a mining operation that has a strange and rather unique feature--a secondary colony of “squatters” who have altered their DNA and live in complete darkness in the tunnels, stealing supplies from the operation and living “free” from the constraints of the rest of civilization. Their world is violent and not at all understood by the outside. Hence the tourist is there to learn, to try and figure out more about the people and their culture. But that act of “learning” is also a kind of violence, and every act of violence in this place tends to be met with an equal or greater violence. It’s a difficult read because it’s very violent, and while I understand that violence has a purpose, I’m not sure I care for it.
Keywords: Tunnels, Darkness, Music, Anthropology, Genetic Manipulation, CW- Violence
Review: This story has a lot of violence in it, a culture where people are “free” because they have escaped from the rest of humanity. And yet their freedom is to hurt and be hurt. Their interactions are almost always bloody, and there’s not much in the way of compassion in this place. Because they don’t have resources? Because they’ve rejected the idea of “compassion” as a prison that was holding them in along with the rest of the things that made up “standard” human organization and culture? What I get from the story is that the tourist doesn’t realize that their presence is a violence, one that is met by the setting, by Chocky, who is the viewpoint character through most of the story. That the way that the tourist moralizes and describes the world and its rules is colonial and...if not racist, then xenophobic? And maybe the story is meant to be a shock, to push back against the way that SFF is often about tourism among different worlds, different peoples and ideas. Maybe it’s a statement against the ways the stories are often designed to feed into that, and how toxic that is when applied to actual people, in the “real world.” But if there’s a deeper message I’m just not that interested in it. Reading the story was unpleasant for me, and in unpacking why I don’t find myself with much to take away. I don’t like and can’t recommend the story, but as always I encourage people who think it will appeal to them to check it out. Indeed.