Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Quick Sips - Tor dot com April 2016 Part 1

Okay well when I said last time that maybe Tor dot com was slowing down to normal levels of output (like one story a week), I wasn't aware just how wrong I was. The first week of April alone saw three stories release, so I'm splitting up the content again, looking at the first four stories released so far. Two of the stories are extensions of settings and series that have appeared elsewhere, which offer teases and glimpses into deep worlds while maintaining a light-hearted sense of adventure and fantasy. The remaining stories dive into darker waters, revealed different takes on our own world, one through a fantastical lens and another with an eye to the future. Both show people dealing with growing older, seeing the world with different eyes, and yearning for something undefined. It's a very powerful batch of stories, and I'll get to those reviews! 

Art by Richie Pope


"From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review (A Lady Trent Story)" by Marie Brennan (1984 words)

Okay, yes, this is a great and period comedy involving science and gatekeeping and misogyny and dragons (and maybe some taxidermy). I love scientific hoaxes, and this story does an excellent job of showing one at the same time as it demonstrates the many ways that people (and especially women) can be bullied and kept out of scientific circles because of institutionalized misogyny. What fun! I actually have no experiences with the Lady Trent stories, but the truth is that it does take these rather depressing and oppressive realities and tell a rather fine and entertaining story around them. It's delightful to listen to Isabella go after what is obvious scientific malfeasance and do so in one of the only ways open to her, which is very publicly. Because she is dismissed, because she is kept out, some men think they don't have to be answerable to her expertise. Which is a notion that doesn't really hold up. It's a fun story told through letters to a third party, and the actual action and plot are all implied, not shown. For all that, though, there is still a great tension and a great energy to the prose and to the story and despite the fact that it's not a time or place that I would want to live it's great fun to read about. A great start to the month's fiction!

"Freedom is Space for the Spirit" by Glen Hirshberg (14759 words)

This is a long and rather strange story about bears and about Russia and about resistance and art and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In it, Thomas, a German professor but once an activist, an artist, a quasi-revolutionary in the Union proceeding its fall, travels back to St. Petersburg, back to where everything happened, to meet an old friend. What follows is a surreal journey through a city Westernized, a city that has won and lost what it was trying to do. A city where there are still people struggling for something but it doesn't seem like freedom any longer. There's a great commentary on what happens after the revolution, on what happens after the victory is more or less won and you are left to grow old. That is what Thomas has done, and the story explores his guilt at having quieted. Having adopted ways that he once would have scoffed at. But it also shows how the world changed. Away from things that could be battled so easily. The oppression, the corruption, it still exists out there, and Thomas finds it, but it's a different creature. One that is nameless and shapeless. A shadow that can't be directly confronted. And that lack of shape makes any resistance to it lacking in voice. Without a name. And that's mirrored in the mouthless bears, students hoping to fight against something they're not quite sure of. An oppression that is no less real but…softened in some ways from the obvious, traditional tyranny. It's a story about resistance and the power of art, of symbols. There's just a lot going on in this story, which makes sense given its length. But there's also a strong momentum to it, all rising to that scene on the bridge which is haunting and unsettling and so good. A great read!

"There Will Always Be a Max" by Michael R. Underwood (5785 words)

This story is set within a larger story, within the world of the Genrenauts, or the worlds really. It's my first experience with the setting, and perhaps not the most natural of stepping-on places. But it does capture an interesting feeling and set of rules. Indeed, the setting seems to be about a group dedicated to keeping things running smoothly across many world. Through stories. By helping or inhabiting the roles of heroes, maintaining a balance and a health throughout a system. It's an interesting premise and setup and the story drops into a post-apocalyptic waste (and given the title I'm guessing it just might possibly be an homage to Mad Max) where a small group needs some help getting home. King, the character stepping into the role of Max, is a Genrenaut, and I quite liked the theory behind all this, that there's a logic behind all these actions, that King is conscious of how the stories work and how they are used to keep these places stable. The action is solid, visceral, the characters all well rendered for being kinda clichés. But then, the whole point is that the clichés are intentional. Necessary to this world. That knowing the stories, knowing the conventions, is what gives King some of his power. Which is a nice way to complicate the story while reveling in the guns and glory of the action. It's fun and it's fast and it does a nice job at hinting at what might be the shape of the larger setting. At the very least it teases at a lot. Probably it's a bit more for people who are already familiar with the setting, but even for those who have never heard of a Genrenaut before, it's worth checking out. Indeed!

"Terminal" by Lavie Tidhar (5941 words)

Well shit. This is a story about destination, about people leaving Earth behind at a chance at…life on Mars I guess. Only not everyone leaving Earth is doing it to have some sort of nebulous redo. Not everyone is really concerned with reaching Mars at all. It's a story about journeys, about endings. I love the way that it plays with the idea of terminal, which is used both to describe illnesses that are deadly and stops on journeys, train stations and airports. All of them places of endings. The entire story moves from people deciding to leave to them in transit. Moving toward Mars. [SPOILERS] And I really like how the story refuses to actually reach Mars, how it keeps things pulled back, concerned with the journey. Like actually reaching Mars isn't the point. It's just the station at the end and what's important is the leaving Earth, setting out on the journey. The reasons people go and the hope they have, the hope they don’t even understand, the hope for something different, something magical. And the growing realization that hope has little to do with the task. That it's a more existential journey than a physical one. The text slips between characters, a man leaving his wife and family for a chance at space; a woman with cancer who knows that she'll never live on Mars; a nurse working to help people leave, watching the progression through space. It's a rich tapestry of voices, a story that captures a yearning fear. A drive to flee Earth that has nothing to do with the destination. It's stark and it's moving and it's beautifully rendered, haunting in its descriptions and in its echoes. Another great story!

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