Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Quick Sips - Tor dot com September 2020

Art by Audrey Benjaminsen
It’s another full month of original fiction at Tor dot com, with four short stories and a novelette. As the seasons change into autumn (here in the U.S. at least), the fiction seems to be shifting as well. The stories are getting a bit more grim, a bit spookier. The works are tending toward horror tropes and elements with vampires, ghosts, monsters, gods, and apocalypses. The works find characters who are trying to get their lives on track following loss, following disappointment, following…life happening. And their attempts run into shadows, into the strange and dangerous mysteries of the world. And if, and how, they come out of those shadows will determine a lot if they can start to recover and heal from what’s happened to them. To the reviews!


“Wait for Night” by Stephen Graham Jones (5523 words)

No Spoilers: Chessup is working as a day laborer, in part for the new boots, in part because that’s sort of where his life is right then. Helping to clean out a part of a river from trash and wreckage from a flood a few years back. After his car (well, his uncle’s car) won’t start one day after work, though, he gets the idea to get a jump from one of the batteries on site, and that ends up seeing something that should probably have been left unseen. And getting involved in something way outside his comfort zone. The piece takes an interesting look at a classic horror staple, and builds up a rather thrilling and visceral descent into blood, bones, and choices. Choices that don’t really work out well for Chessup, but might open up some strange doors all the same.
Keywords: Day Labor, Cars, Bones, Vampires, Blood
Review: In some ways this story feels to me like a classic vampire story, though with some interesting deviations. I really like the ways it builds up a lore close to what most people might expect, but not quite the same. Chessup begins the piece with only those stories, and they guide him a bit when things start really hitting the fan. But he’s not expecting to have to confront monsters on his job. Just the same old rut he’s been stuck in. And I love how he approaches all of this, with equal parts mercenary and exploitable. Which might seem a little harsh. But part of his problem seems to be that he tries to do the right thing. He’s out to try and get himself into a better place, yes, but the options for that are few and far between. He wants new shoes, so he signs on for this work. He sees a skeleton and thinks he might be able to sell it. His car won’t start to he wants to borrow a battery from the site to jump it. He seems a vampire battling a barely together skeleton and he doesn’t run away. Each time, the choices land him in trouble. The job turns out to have this hidden layer to it. The bones turn out to be not quite as dead as he’d like. The battery ends up getting him caught by a cop. And the vampire fight, well... He’s just this guy with fairly bad luck made worse because he makes kind of garbage decisions, but because he’s trying to do things “the right way.” It’s just that there is no right way, just all the ways other people are trying to use him, trying to push him into increasingly desperate situations. Until, actually, the vampire fight. Which no, doesn’t exactly turn out great for him. But does turn his life in a new direction. Does get him out of his rut. And it’s a solid action horror story, with some nice world building and a great feel. Definitely check it out if you’re looking for a neat take on vampires, and in general it’s a fine read! 

“Hearts in the Hard Ground” by G. V. Anderson (7098 words)

No Spoilers: Fiona has bought an old house following the death of her mother. A death that has left her somewhat directionless, given how much her mother’s decline had taken up space in her days. What rushes in to fill that void, though, comes from the house. It’s noises. It’s ghosts. A gull named Marley that died in the flue. A child named Charlie who died on the landing. An old woman named Claire who died in the bedroom. And someone else, a much more malevolent presence, who might not have died in the house at all. But who is there all the same, and who Fiona will have to face eventually. Perhaps not before she begins to put her life back together, though. Meets a woman. Figures out what she wants to do with herself. And why. The piece shows how slow healing can be, how loaded, how fragile. But ultimately how freeing and powerful it is, too. How necessary.
Keywords: Ghosts, Houses, CW- Death of a Parent, CW- Death of a Child, Guilt, Cats, Gulls, Queer MC
Review: This story unfolds over a long time, the piece skipping forward, showing the long arc of Fiona’s moving into the house, meetings its ghosts, and finally putting them to rest. And I love how the story ties the house to Fiona, to her body, to her mind. The two are linked, and I wonder if any ghosts would have shown themselves had it been someone without Fiona’s problems. Not that the ghosts aren’t real, but that they seem to be reacting to Fiona’s desires, her loneliness, her guilt and fear. Their power is in part tied to the power that she gives them, that she imbues them with. And in that they reflect various aspects of her, her life, her inner selves. But I mean they are also other people, and in that, the story does function well and at times chillingly as a ghost story, as a haunted house story. It’s just that it’s not so much about the house. It’s about Fiona, and the emptiness that has been opened inside her. The ways she feels about her mother, the things she misses, the guilty ways she might be freer now that she’s gone. There’s relief and there’s shame, there’s hope and there’s despair. And there’s Annika, the woman she meets, and the life they start to build together. There’s Fiona making room inside herself for more than just clutter. Putting things in order. And eventually crowding out the ghosts that can only exist in the vacuum, in the absence. Without that, they fade, forgotten as Fiona really starts to embody herself, to be present in her own life to the extent that the ghosts cannot touch her, cannot try and force their ways in. And this is just such a careful, aching, but ultimately lifting story about healing, about taking control of a life. Of Fiona going from haunted to...not. And it’s lovely and you should definitely go check it out! A fantastic read!

“Solution” by Brian Evenson (4126 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a husband and father. A husband to a wife who’s died of cancer. A father to two sons and a daughter, all of them working on their own contingencies for the end of the world. One is working on solar technology that might allow people to survive--at least people like him living near to the technology. One is working on an escape from the planet in giant space ships that will allow people to survive--at least people who are ultra rich or, like him, useful to the ultra rich. And one is following in the narrator’s footsteps, working on a possible genetic solution to the problems facing the species. Unfortunately, she might also be following in her mother’s footsteps with the whole...cancer thing. And the story explores how the narrator is working toward a future that...also isn’t really fair, but has a new set of complications and ideals.
Keywords: Climate Change, Extinction, Devils, Monsters, CW- Cancer, Transformations, Genetics
Review: I love that everyone here is a monster. The son working with the solar tech, the son working with the escape ships, the daughter working with the genetic code. They’re all working for survival, and for the survival of more than just themselves, but not for everyone. Each of them hope to be the ones to decide who gets to live and who gets to die, because only then can they guarantee which category they will fall in. The narrator condemns his sons for this, but at the same time shapes his own plans into a similar, if somewhat slanted, arc as well, and takes his daughter along for the ride as well. Together they find a way to survive, but unlike the others, it’s not humanity that’s going to live on, but something made of them. A new transformation of humans, aquatic and sharp, able to pass along their transformation with a bite. Not that that’s going to be the primary vector of the change. No, the plan extends beyond that, and for me the piece really settles into a climate change horror, the narrator just arrogant, just ignorant enough, to be able to denounce his sons but fall into the same problem. The monstrous problem of wanting to decide who lives, who dies. Who deserves to live and die. For the narrator, it doesn’t fit with living close to some technology, or being rich enough to leave the planet, or being important enough in some nebulous way. Instead, he seems to want to judge each person, to personally decide if they deserve to live, and then act as jury and executioner. Which is a grim picture to be painting, but does nicely and sharply show that this kind of thinking is all of a kind. In the same family. Separated only by who was lucky enough to get their plan through first. And it’s a reminder that so long as everyone is working separately, as long as people covetously pursue their own plans, it’s everyone who will suffer. Who will be made monstrous by their desire to save what they care about, and damn the rest. It’s a creepy and great read!

“The Perfection of Theresa Watkins” by Justin C. Key (12694 words)

No Spoilers: Darius is a cancer survivor and programmer who helped pioneer a kind of neurotech that can help people keep kinds of neural scans of themselves to help with various issues. Further than that, the tech might also make it possible for someone to take their consciousness and transfer it to another person. Though experimental, there is some promising signs, and when Darius’ wife’s cancer returns, he becomes increasingly desperate not to lose her. Only what that means might not be what he thinks it is. And when he loses her, and why, are things the story keeps front and center as things go from hopeful to bleak to devastating.
Keywords: Mental Transplants, CW- Suicide, CW- Cancer, CW- Abuse, Relationships, Neurotech
Review: So much of this story deals with addiction. With power. With death and how people respond to it. Darius is someone who has known death in a lot of intimate ways, staring it down as he went through his cancer treatment. And it seems as if he comes through it thanks to Theresa, his wife. Only...the piece really looks at Darius and his approach to life, his desire for control. He’s a programmer, a coder, and he jokes a bit that it means he needs things to have fixes. Solutions. Theresa becomes his fix, the thing that gets him through, and for as long as he can hold to that, things go well for them. They are happy, and they joy in each other. Threaten to take that away, though, and the cracks begin to show. The complicated ways that Darius has been using this relationship, using Theresa as something more than she really gave him. He becomes convinced he can’t be happy without her, can’t be whole without her, but she becomes a passenger to that, a hostage as he uses his need for that fix to make him cold to her wishes, ignoring of her refusal to do what he wants. He leverages everything he can to make her agree to his plan, to force her to do something she never wanted to do, all because he wants, he needs. And the piece really does look at the ways people can be addicted. The way people turn to these sorts of controls when their life otherwise seems powerless, lost. I just really like how that’s handled, how these people with good intentions end up doing some terrible things, and how their paranoia ends up poisoning their relationships, because at the heart of those relationships is something toxic. Not just love but something insidious, rotten, that turns their desire and their joy into sorrow and loss, that makes them into monsters, caught in the gravity of their own insecurities and betrayals. And that makes for some difficult reading, because it’s hard to see that potential for happiness to slide so steeply into tragedy. But it looks at faith, and the fragility not of belief, but of people, when faced with hardships, grief, mortality, and loss. A wonderful read!

“The Ashes of Around Twenty-Three Strangers” by Jeremy Packert Burke (6067 words)

No Spoilers: In a world that might just be a strange future, the storms have moved indoors. Rain no longer falls from the sky, but from the ceilings of houses, which subsequently destroys them. It’s a world of growing scarcity, in which Lucy is living with Carve following the destruction of her house, an event that also took the life of her brother, Noel. Now she wants to take a road trip to visit the silent Gods, beings who seems like enormous statues half buried in the earth, which many worship. Which Noel worshipped. It’s a story heavy with grief and uncertainty, a world that has been wrecked by climate change already, where now the weather is sort of pushing back, hitting people where they otherwise were trying to avoid the effects of the changes. It’s strange and powerful, a journey of perspective, Lucy struggling to make sense of what’s happened, a world caught in the same situation.
Keywords: Rain, Storms, Religion, Gods, Family, Grief
Review: I love that the world here is so messed up, to the point that weather is now happening only inside. Inside, where otherwise people had been successfully shielding themselves from the effects of climate change. It’s made intimate and immediate what had once been distant, detached. And the story just takes that and does some great things with it, building up this situation where everyone has lost, where Lucy has already lost her parents and how has to contend with losing her brother, too. To death, yes, but also to a religion that doesn’t really make sense to her. That offers answers that Noel found comfort in, but that she can’t. Because once again it’s too simple, to binary, too black and white. Noel believed first in science, then in these gods, his belief in the second almost more profound than the first because the first one he thinks failed him when the rain stepped in. It became something that _had to be_ divine, because it was essentially magic. Because it seemed so pointed, so much a result of what had happened. And I love the way the story sets up the confusion and desperation that comes as a result. All these people, waking up and thinking that religion must be the answer because there doesn’t seem any other answer. Only no god is speaking, is asking anything of them. No god is commanding them something or offering them a way to be saved. They make it up on their own because in the absence of that the task, the situation, seems too lost, too big. And that’s where the story really gets me, in the way that it seems so big and you are left with all these small ways of coping. Lucy going into the buildings for salvage. All the while the truth might be that there’s no easy answer, no one thing to do. As always, people are left to their own devices, but that sense of despair and desperation, of wanting so badly to be told what to do, really comes through and anchors the story. Gives it a kinda doomed, kinda bleak feel that still holds something beautiful and human. A great read!


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