My final reviews for 2018! I’ll piece together my best of December column in a couple of days, then get cracking on my Best of 2018 lists.
The future is just as demoralizing as the present in Allison Jamieson-Lucy’s “Sequestration; Vitrification”, there’s just more radioactive waste to deal with. Lynn is a scientist trying to engineer diatoms to collect and store radiation while the world falls apart around her. Abandoning the pretense of non-proliferation, the world is producing nuclear waste at a rate faster than it can be “safely” stored. On one hand, Lynn is trying to get ahead of the money as government contracts and grants are likely to come pouring in; on the other, she longs for results that justify her labor for its own sake. “No! No, I can’t. I Like it. I’m happy when things work,” Lynn exclaims, half defensive and half trying to reassure herself, when a friend suggests she take a break. She has made a life surrounding herself with artists and activists, whose goals correlate with hers in fascinating ways. Their work is undervalued and over-scrutinized, while they all try to do the thankless job of cleaning up everyone else’s messes. This is not the type of story where you read for the plot, but it is terrific, character-and-science-driven sci-fi.
A good dentist is hard to come buy in the post-apocalyptic story “Mouths” by Liz Huerta. Fai broke two of her molars and travels to El Oasis so the dentist El Buitre can fix her, but she must work off her debt to him. Eventually, her lover Flaquis comes looking for her. The plot and characters take a back seat to evocative descriptions of this post-collapse world.
Seanan McGuire’s gift for slow-simmering terror is on display in “Under the Sea of Stars”. Set in Victorian England, Amelia Whitmore leads a diving expedition to the mysterious Bolton Strid, a gorge of unknown depths where no one who has fallen in has ever been recovered. Decades before, Amelia’s grandfather discovered the woman who would become Amelia’s (illegitimate) grandmother standing “naked and confused” on the banks of the Strid, and now Amelia determines to find her ancestor’s origin. There are inconsistencies and question marks in the story’s internal logic, but otherwise builds great atmosphere and a sense of dread that progresses from a tickle to a stab. The morbid finale is predictable, yet effective. An entertaining diversion.
In Lightspeed’s author spotlight, Ashok K. Banker reveals that his new novelette “A Love Story Written on Water” is the first of a series of stories connected to his forthcoming epic fantasy novel Upon a Burning Throne. “Love Story” is intriguing enough to generate interest in future works. Bhi’ash was a beloved king granted residence among the Stone Gods after his death. However, the gods punish him for letting his gaze fall too long upon the naked form of the river goddess Jeel and send him back to the mortal realm as one of his own descendants, Sha’ant. Jeel finds the brash king enticing and enters the mortal realm to become his bride. Their union does not come about without considerable cost. This story does a good job of teasing a broader mythology for the series.
Shaenon K. Garrity’s “Grandma Novak’s Famous Nut Roll” is a long faux-Facebook post where the narrator transcribes directions for Grandma’s infamous dessert recipes, some of which have magical properties. Sinister references to “the hunt” hint at the magic’s utility.
Chalcedony is a Martyr, someone who can take physical damage, and even death, in place of someone else, in J.P. Sullivan’s “A Martyr’s Art”. When we first meet Chalcedony, she is standing by her master’s son Tymon as he faces a duel with Niko, a far superior swordsman. Chalcedony’s contract only obliges her to die for Tymon’s father Sebastien, so when Chalcedony refuses to die in Tymon’s place, Sebastien challenges Niko as revenge against them both. But Niko has other plans. A lot of things work in this story. The premise is great, and I appreciated the legal and moral conundrums surrounding the divine “gift” of martyrdom. A lot of little inconsistencies crop up throughout though; e.g. if everyone who has a Martyr is so eager to show them off as a status symbol, I’m not convinced that Chalcedony and Tymon wouldn’t know beforehand that Niko also employed a Martyr. I wish some early reader or editor would have pressed questions like this to the author before its publication.
Someone is killing and mutilating Prussian soldiers in the medieval historical fantasy “A Circle of Steel and Bone”, by R.K. Duncan. They can’t find a suspect among the Knight Brothers, and evidence backs up a strange story about a “devil” in the woods who murders people in the same manner. The company leader, Meinrad, faces a dilemma: let the Knight Brothers take out their rage on the local villagers, or risk accusations of heresy by suggesting devilry is to blame. The solution to Meinrad’s problem is too convenient, and the final battle with the monster is overlong and frantic. Until then, the story is entertaining and well written.
In D.A. Xiaolin Spires’ “Marshmallows”, implants allow Chunfei to see festive holoforms painted over the drudgery of the cityscape (rats become elves, gingerbread houses replace boarded-up buildings, etc.). But it turns out her little sister used up all her creds, forcing her to experience the glamour-free world for a time. This is a marvelous concept for a sci-fi Christmas story, and Spires illustrates it well. Where it fell short for me is that all it did was illustrate. Chunfei makes a minor dramatic choice at the end of the story, but until then “Marshmallows” is an anecdotal piece about Chunfei’s reactions to her encounters.
American corporate interests harm a local Tibetan economy in Alan Bao’s “Bringing Down the Sky”. In a pollution-choked future, Wesley and Stephan travel to a remote mountain region to capture the clean air and sell it for a profit. Their actions benefit wealthy countries at the expense of poorer ones, as capitalism is wont to do, and subsequent events bring about corruption and ecological disaster. The set-up for Bao’s story comes across as dated, recalling the eco-fiction of the 60s and 70s rather than the more recent trends in climate fiction. However, considering today’s political landscape it’s not too much of a stretch to see governments rolling back climate protections and making this future happen. I liked that “Bringing Down the Sky” casts the system as the enemy rather than any one individual. No one in the story is inherently evil, they are just acting out of personal interest rather than for the common good – behavior that unfettered capitalism promotes and rewards. Bao cycles through different character perspectives, examining different links in the chain of events that make the outcome inevitable. It’s a little too long and some of the expository dialogue is awkward, but is otherwise an effective and engrossing tale.
Eleanna Castroianni’s “When We Find Our Voices” takes place on a planet where the Sons of Man, migrant human males, must mate with the native, bird-like Sintar to procreate. They do so by forcing the “Adapted” onto an island where they join in slave marriages for breeding. The Sons of Man also steal the Sintars’ “Voices” (which appear to differ from just regular voices) to power their “Tek”. There is potent, triggery material in the story (loss of bodily autonomy, cultural genocide), and Castroianni has dealt with similar themes in her other works. This one didn’t quite captivate me. Even if you swallow the fantasy genetics built into the premise, the setup consumes so much of the word count that the plot doesn’t get going until the last third of the story. The hero, Nyalu, makes a disturbing choice at the end, and while I could get behind it in an intellectual sense, I didn’t quite connect to it the way I think the author intended.
Cassie was born with a deficiency of empathy, a fetal developmental issue related to her mother’s drug use, in Sheldon J. Pacotti’s “The Names and Motions”. After Cassie almost kills her best friend Noah while “playing too hard”, she undergoes treatments to fix her brain. The treatments work, though like everything else to do with Cassie, they lead to unintended consequences. Cassie and Noah are brilliant characters: the sympathetic psychopath and the perpetual victim of her misadventures. It’s a perfect irony that the empathy forced on Cassie doesn’t suit her one bit. The unfortunate flipside is that the story moves too fast to work, shuffling through Cassie’s memories like someone scrolling absent-minded through their twitter feed. Cryptic interjections from Cassie’s brain implants break up the story’s beats, a conceit that doesn’t land even though its purpose is clear.
Food delivery man Zhao sits down with his regular customer Zhang to explain the story of his many lives in Zhang Ran’s “Master Zhao: The Tale of an Ordinary Time Traveler” (trans. Andy Dudak). Zhao claims he has lived in multiple divergent timelines, only to snap back to the “original timeline” after living for years or even decades with the choices he made. At the heart of all his travels is his wife, whose recurring illness and the financial strain it places on them motivates the choices Zhao makes. I was impressed with how “Master Zhao” established and explored its themes. Zhao’s wife suffers from repeated growths of neurofibroma on her spine, which, if left untreated, will cause paralysis and death. But Zhao’s affliction is just as tragic. He doesn’t know if he is living a divergent timeline or the main one, or at what point in the timeline he will travel back to. The story goes to some dark places; Zhao often makes choices believing the outcome will be of no consequence, and at other times he doesn’t know whether the consequences will be permanent and makes bad choices anyway. It’s not a dreary story at all, though. In fact, it is a joy to read. Zhang and Zhao trying to sort out their theories on how the timelines function is a hoot (complete with ever-changing diagrams), and the story keeps coming up with inventive new ways to live up to its premise. There is an undercurrent of financial anxiety compelling both men’s life choices that anchors it in the real world. A great story for Clarkesworld to finish up the year with.
Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)
* “Bringing Down the Sky”, Alan Bao – Novelette
** “Sequestration; Vitrification”, Allison Jamieson-Lucy – Short Story
*** “Master Zhao: The Tale of an Ordinary Time Traveler”, Zhang Ran (Trans. Andy Dudak) – Novelette