Novel Reviews (10/7/2019): Gods, Monsters, and Mercenaries

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Tor, October 2018)

monster baru
Cover Art by Sam Weber

Highly Recommended – The start of Seth Dickinson’s sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant backtracks a little, relating moments just prior to Tain Hu’s execution, as Baru fastens her chains and whispers in her ear before leading her down to the bluff where the waves will crush her against stone. That the two lovers share an intimate moment in plain view of witnesses without breaking their cover serves as both a reminder of the shocking events that transpired at the end of Traitor (as if anyone could forget) and of the new normal for readers. Now entrenched as a cryptarch in the Masquerade, Baru still has her secrets from the empire of masks but she can’t hide from us anymore.
The specter of Tain Hu’s death haunts Baru throughout The Monster Baru Cormorant. While her betrayal of Aurdwynn moves her closer to her goal—the destruction of the Masquerade—the loss of her lover at her own hands creates a split in Baru, where she must weigh her desire for revenge against the emotional cost of carrying it out. Her ambition drove her when she started, then quashed, the rebellion on Aurdwynn. Now entrenched in the imperial capital city of Falcrest, Baru finds herself amidst a dizzyingly complex and layered political guessing game with countless enemies looking to expose her secrets. Her mentor, the cryptarch Cairdine Farrier, deposits her right into the middle of a conflict with their mysterious neighbor to the south, the Oriati Mbo. Baru’s journey takes her on a collision course with old friends, vengeful military commanders, and a unique culture that stands in sharp contrast to the Masquerade.
Like its predecessor, The Monster Baru Cormorant has a dense and purposely convoluted plot, though you can add temporal and perspective shifts to all the thumbing through reports and notes and accounting ledgers this time around. If this kind of storytelling wonkiness didn’t put you off in the first book, you should have no problem adjusting to the heightened, brutal swirl of intrigue this time around. The first novel’s greatest strengths—its emotional core and its expansive world-building—remain intact.

Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, October 2018)

Thin Air
Design: David G. Stevenson and Susan Schultz; Illustration: Christian McGrath

Hakan Veil is a gene-enhanced gun-for-hire on Mars, strong-armed by the local police into playing bodyguard for Madison Madekwe, an auditor looking into corruption in the state-run lottery. When Madekwe disappears on his watch, Veil finds himself in a morass of corrupt officials and police, organized crime, corporations with conflicting interests and a revolutionary movement.
Thin Air spins off from Morgan’s 2007 novel Thirteen (known as Black Man in the UK), another noir-ish action novel about a gene-enhanced soldier caught in a whirlwind of corruption. While the action in that novel mostly took place on Earth, in Thin Air we get a first-hand look at COLIN (Colonial Initiative)-run Mars, and what life is like for an exiled “overrider” there.
Morgan’s knack for electrifying, hard-boiled prose and his dark, fatalistic worldview have long been his strongest assets as a writer, and he delivers the goods in Thin Air. He also has a good eye for detail and lived-in futuristic settings and kinetic action. But so much of the novel feels like old hat: the same bitter, violence-prone hero and cynical outlook, the over-the-top, bone-crushing action grind. The novel is fairly long and tries for an epic sweep, but often it is more bloated than sprawling.

Edges (Inverted Frontier Book 1), by Linda Nagata (Mythic Island, April 2019)

Edges // Linda Nagata
Cover Art by Sarah Anne Langton

Must Read! – The remnants of humanity hide in the furthest reaches of known space on the planet Deception Well, on the lookout for any appearance of the Chenzeme, automated alien warships programmed to eradicate all life in the universe. They believe their worst fears realized when a Chenzeme ship arrives in their system, but the crisis is short-lived: Urban, a long absent member of the expedition that founded the settlement on Deception Well, discovered how to overtake the Chenzeme ships and has piloted this one, called Dragon, home. The new scientific endeavor he proposes would take humanity backward through its frontier to the Hallowed Vasties—the legendary systems surrounding the cradle of their civilization devastated by the Chenzeme incursion—to uncover both the artifacts of their past and to discover what has replaced them.
Edges is the first volume of a new space opera series by Nagata, who most recently has penned a sequence of stunning near-future military thrillers (The Red Trilogy, The Last Good Man). If it sounds like a lot of backstory for a first-in-a-series novel, it is. Inverted Frontier is a sequel series to her Nanotech Succession, four standalone novels that speculate, across huge leaps in time, how humanity might evolve through the use of nanotechnology. While there is a lot of future history to unpack, Nagata provides more than enough background for Edges to work as an entry point for new readers. I would also propose that new readers then take their own backward journey of discovery and read the Nanotech novels in reverse chronological order, starting with its far-future conclusion Vast, and ending with the near-future prequel Tech Heaven.
Edges takes its time setting the table: it is more than a third of the way through before the expedition makes its first major discovery. The slow burn is worth it; Nagata depicts a human civilization so far removed from our present understanding that time is almost meaningless, and the notion of life correlating to physical presence was long ago abandoned. Its technology a hybrid of human and alien, both near-unfathomable in complexity and capability that even the brilliant minds who wield it don’t always fully understand it. All this background comes in handy when the crew of Dragon encounter something so sublime and terrifying it regards the Chenzeme with little more than curious indifference. Nagata raises the tension one notch at a time as the ship moves closer to its destination, and by the end, somehow creates stakes that even a god would fear. Edges will satisfy any readers of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy jonesing for a new “big idea” space opera operating on that scale.

 

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 2)

Featured Image from the Cover Art for “Yiwu” by Feifei Ruan

My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.

Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could work in more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update the links when possible.

Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)

Earthbound Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory [Tor.com, September 19, 2018; 11,913 words]

nine last days on planet earth
Cover Art by Keith Negley

In 1975 a meteor shower seeds the planet with strange alien life forms. This story looks in on nine different days throughout the long life of LT, who seeks to understand them and help the world adjust to this new reality.

This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore.

The Best of the Rest

“Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by G.V. Anderson [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 4557 words] 

Ellen is doing a field study of a newly discovered, intelligent sea creature. She is also searching for her father, who disappeared in the midst of his own study. Ellen hopes to get one of the creatures, a female, to trust her enough to show her where she keeps her eggs.

Ellen wonders if their mutual subjects entranced him as much as they do her, whether he ventured out against his better judgment for another blissful hour in their midst.
The ice below her creaks, creaks, creaks – footsteps on an old staircase. She shivers, burying herself into her oversized thermal jacket. She replaces her headphones and listens to the colony’s chatter from below. The twist of a dial slows it down, makes it indecipherable. Makes language out of noise.
She closes her eyes, leans against her rucksack, and clicks her tongue in near-perfect mimicry.

Meat and Salt and Sparks” by Rich Larson [Tor.com, June 6, 2018; 7373 words]

Cu is an uplifted chimp, the only of her kind, who works as a police detective. Her current case has her investigating a murder that appears to have been committed by remote control.

“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”
Acting under instructions, Cu suggests.
Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.”
Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior.
Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.

What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 95, April 2018; 10,145 words]

lightpeed 95
Cover Art by Elizabeth Leggett

Ben is shipped off to a new school with the other “good kids”, the ones who follow instructions and always behave and turn in their homework and get good grades. They are told they have a special new classmate, and that it’s important to act normal around her. It’s not easy to act normal around Eve.

It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe.
The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire.
“Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”

Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata [Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 7247 words]

Yaphet is a “player” living in a simulated reality ruled by an AI called Goddess. He dreams of flying, though their laws forbid it.

A burnt leaf, edged in incandescence, rose up into the fog, higher and higher, halfway to the treetops before the glow of heat left it.
Never before had Yaphet seen a leaf fall up. He stood entranced, watching the flight of the embers, until his father called him again.
When he was seven – almost eight – after much experimentation and failure and reassessment (though he was too young to know such words or describe what he was doing) Yaphet launched his first successful fire balloon.

“Love Songs for the Very Awful” by Robert Reed [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 5785 words]

Bodden volunteers for a radical new brain experiment. The researcher, Heidi, can’t help but fall for his charms, even though she knows he’s a creep: she has the data to prove it.

Bodden’s name would float over the table, and people would look at me, signaling their curiosity if not out-and-out concerns. The man was gorgeous, sure. Maybe that was reason enough. And he was certainly young and possibly vigorous. Was I the sort of lady that liked lustful distractions? Bodden also had a talent for funny words and warm, caring noise. When empathy was necessary. But he was one of three sociopaths in our study. Every week, without fail, he came into the shop, undergoing another comprehensive scan for money. And every week, he proved himself to be a self-absorbed boy. No smart professional woman could have feelings for a creep like that. That’s what the glances were saying, and the silences, and those thoughtful sips of coffee while the tea drinker offered little details from last night’s date.
Bodden and I were together for ten weeks. Then it was finished, and I was shocked to discover how sad that made me feel.

Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 136, January 2018; 6447 words]

clarkes 136
Cover Art: “Vukileyo!” by Artur Sadlos

Teenager Ghost is an orphan under the care of The Agency, who hold onto the troubling memories of their wards’ prior lives and return them when they come of age. Ghost learns that the new girl, Princess, still has all her old memories and Ghost resents her for it.

“You really fucking don’t,” I said. “Me, Flash, Whispers . . . we don’t have something real to share. All those cute, sweet memories of being a kid? Snatched off us when we got to the Agency and locked away where we can’t get ’em. All we know is school and the third floor and a few fosters who couldn’t be bothered to keep us. That’s it. That’s all we fucking got.”
Princess stared at me for a second, eyes wide, then walked out, saying I didn’t know and Sorry under her breath like she was doing a Whispers impression. I stayed for a while, playing back the couple of half-decent memories I did have, like the day I figured out how to get the computers in the back to do what I wanted, like a real hacker, or the times the Agency let us go down to the first floor and play with the babies, and then the ones that made my neck shiver, like all the times fosters sent me back ’cause I didn’t fit into any of the smiling family photos—too old, too dark, too “hard to handle.”

The Emotionless, In Love” by Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #246, March 1, 2018; 28,352 words]

Colton escaped the influence of the nanobots called “grains”, and in doing so he sacrificed his emotions. Now he is helping a caravan escape them as well.

“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.”
“Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.”
“Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.”
Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx.
Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back.
Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.

Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar [Tor.com, May 23, 2018; 5305 words]

Esham works in the market selling lottery tickets that instantly grant the winners their heart’s desire. One day, when one of his regulars, Ms. Qiu, buys a ticket, something unusual happens and he can’t understand why.

It was just an ordinary day, the way Esham liked it. Order and routine, a knowing of what was expected. At the usual time, Ms Qiu emerged from the market doors. She crossed the road. She came to the stand and smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and asked for a ticket.
He sold her one. She scratched the silver foil with a 10-baht coin.
She looked at the card, almost puzzled, then shrugged and left it on the counter.
“No luck?” Esham said.
She pushed the ticket towards him. He glanced down, barely registering the impossible at first: the three identical symbols of a beckoning gold cat that meant it was a winning ticket.
He glanced up at Ms Qiu.
Nothing happened.
“Thank you,” Ms Qiu said.
She gave him a last, almost bemused smile, then turned and walked away.
Still nothing happened.
He stared at the good luck cats.
Nothing.
Ms Qiu crossed the road and walked away the way she always did, until she turned a corner and was out of sight.

First World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer [Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018; 4871 words]

apex-magazine-112
Cover Art by Joel Chaim Holtzman

At age fourteen, Amelia is supposed to find and catch her fairy soon. Every girl does: it’s a rite of passage. But Amelia just wants to use science to figure out what the deal is with all these stupid fairies.

When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs.
Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited.
The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away.
It came closer.
Closer still.
She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.

The Best of the Rest

The Ghoul Goes West” by Dale Bailey [Tor.com, January 17, 2018; 13,285 words]

Ben learns that his estranged brother Denny, a failed screenwriter, died of a heroin overdose. He travels to Hollywood to deal with Denny’s affairs and finds some things in his brother’s apartment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world anyway: a stack of videotapes of movies that were never made.

Retrieving The Ghoul Goes West, I glanced at the sticker on the case: Dimension Video. Then I turned on the television and slotted the tape into the VCR. The film opened with a black-and-white shot of the Amazing Criswell seated behind a desk, delivering a bizarre monologue about “the mysteries of the past which even today grip the throat of the present to throttle it.” The speech was portentous and theatrical, overcooked, the framing static. Then the image faded, to be replaced by a flat desert landscape with a saguaro cactus, obviously fake, on the right side of the frame. The credits came up on the left, each new name preceded by the sound of a pistol shot. Autry had first billing, Lugosi second, both of them above the title. The rest of the cast followed, among them Vampira and Paul Marco and Tor Johnson, Wood’s usual suspects. My only thought as the attribution credit came up—
Written Ÿ Directed Ÿ Produced
by
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
—was that I was looking at some kind of bizarre forgery. Then Lugosi, in full Dracula garb, appeared on screen, rising from a casket in a dim crypt that looked like a suburban garage. It was unmistakably him. By that point in my thesis research, I’d seen virtually every movie Lugosi had made three or four times. I knew the shape of his face almost as well as I knew my own.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark [Fireside Magazine Issue 52, February 2018; 3649 words]

From a one line entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon account book (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”), historian Clark spins nine fantastical stories of the men and women those teeth originally belonged to.

The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death. Unlike the other slaves bound on that ship who came from the hinterlands beyond his kingdom, he knew the fate that awaited him–though he would never know what law or sacred edict he had broken that sent him to this fate. He found himself in that fetid hull chained beside a merman, with scales that sparkled like green jewels and eyes as round as black coins. The Bonny man had seen mermen before out among the waves, and stories said some of them swam into rivers to find wives among local fisher women. But he hadn’t known the whites made slaves of them too.

Flow” by Marissa Lingen [Fireside Magazine Issue 53, March 2018; 2956 words]

fireside 53
Cover Art by Galen Dara

The magical forest-dwelling naiads know Gigi is one of theirs by her “flow”, the way she carries herself, which marks her as her father’s daughter. Things change when a sinus infection permanently damages her equilibrium.

I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream.
The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask them.
They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile.
“Guys, come on, what’s your problem?”
The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?”
The naiads don’t recognize me.

“Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018; 4704 words]

Bette is devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, Cary. She longs to experience his last moments, and she believes her schoolmate Hiram can help her with that.

“Hey,” I said to Hiram Raff, who was right where I thought he’d be, polishing shoes in a corner where hardly anyone ever looked. Off the high school baseball field, Hiram was all awkward stammers and intentionally poor posture, ashamed and afraid of the adulation he had unwillingly earned.
“Hey,” he said, a little nervously, like What does this person want from me?
“How you doing?” I asked, fingers rubbing at an invisible spot on the counter.
“I’m all right,” he said, and his ruddy, lovely face said he most certainly was not. I felt awful, like I was frightening a small animal for selfish reasons, but I could not stop now.
“I heard you can make people see things,” I said.
Lines appeared between his eyes, and at the edges of his mouth. Poor boy looked close to bursting—into tears, maybe, or, simply bursting. I was a monster, I knew, but I had to say what I’d come here to say. I owed it to my brother.
“Can you help me? Can you come on a road trip with me?”
I had two pieces of information about Hiram Raff, both of them ill-gotten, gossip-derived. Common knowledge. Things he was deeply, irrationally ashamed of, for reasons that were his own. The first was what I’d already said: that under certain circumstances he could cause visions—of the past, of the future, of fictional scenarios that had never been and would never be, and whether he or anyone else could tell the difference was subject to much conjecture. The second was that he was had a congenital, terminal case of politeness. Hiram was a boy who could never tell anyone No.

(Unlike most Lightspeed stories, Conspicuous Plumage is not currently available to read online, but only in a purchased copy of the issue.)

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap [Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018; 7016 words]

The Filipino deity Mebuyen helps guide innocent souls to the afterlife. Usually she only gets infants, but now older children and adults who have been murdered by the police are coming her way. And her river isn’t washing them clean like it’s supposed to, so she can’t even send them on their way.

I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot.
Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?”
“It’s not,” Mebuyen says.
“But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?”
Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”

Parts 1 and 3 have the rest of my faves for 2018.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

The Best Short SFF – November 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

I haven’t read the new F&SF or Uncanny yet so any recommendations from those issues will be in December’s column.

Must Read

Asimov Nov18Theories of Flight”, Linda Nagata (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

Linda Nagata revisits the artificial world of her 2003 novel Memory in “Theories of Flight”. The world is ruled by the AI “Goddess”, and its code-built inhabitants – called “players” – live multiple lives, remembering the skills they honed from past lives each time they grow to adulthood. Goddess has outlawed flying machines, but Yaphet obsesses over them. As a child, he makes one in secret, but the disaster that ensues traumatizes his cousin Mishon. Years later, he builds an aircraft capable of bearing his weight in the air, but the long-estranged Mishon follows him to his secret lair to sniff out his plans. “Theories of Flight” could pass for high fantasy if not for its Hard SF casing. The players’ culture is based around myth and folklore, not science, and the Icarus-inspired plot is a classic “hero’s journey” archetype. Yet the players also know their world is a construct, and the enigmatic Goddess almost dares her creations to break the rules designed to hold them back. Yaphet and Mishon are wonderfully drawn characters with a complex relationship that pushes the narrative in surprising directions. A captivating story from the first sentence to the last.

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child”, Isabel Yap (Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018) Short Story

Fantasists often walk on eggshells when depicting real-life horrors in their fiction; the result, no matter how well-composed, can be too sober to draw anything more from the reader than an immediate visceral response. Isabel Yap avoids this trap in her story “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child”. Its backdrop, the extra-judicial killings taking place in the Philippines, is as monstrous as one can find in the modern world. But instead of severity, Yap taps a store of vitality and humor in her prose to temper the horror without diminishing it. Mebuyen is the deity in charge of helping the innocent dead move on to the afterlife. Her usual charges are infants, but now older youths and even adults are coming to her realm: Adriana, a young girl shot by accident while police searched for her grandfather; Babygirl Santos, a transgender singer who may have occasionally sold drugs in her distant past; and Romuel, a pleasant and optimistic teen who wanted to be a policeman himself before the cops framed and murdered him. Mebuyen must find out why her river has stopped flowing so she can cleanse the innocents and send them on their way. The hallmark of a great story is characters you want to spend more time with after the last sentence is read. Such is the case with Yap’s story. The three souls who find kinship and joy in each other after the trauma of their deaths are among the most engaging and memorable I’ve encountered this year.

Highly Regarded

BCS 263The Oracle and the Sea”, Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #263, Oct. 25, 2018) Short Story

Composer Kashmai wasn’t executed for her part in the resistance because she has the Oracle inside her and the President wants to know the future. She refuses to give him the satisfaction, but like the music she feels in her bones, her prophecies want to break free. Her friendship with a prison guard, and her knowledge of his future, complicates matters. Megan Arkenberg’s “The Oracle and the Sea” is a mature and well-structured work of fantasy, a story that feels grander than the limits of its physical space thanks to the author’s careful attention to the internal and external workings of its characters. Kashmai’s prophetic abilities, like her relationship with the sea that surrounds her island prison and the music her jailers still expect her to make for them, elicit conflicting emotional states. Of the Oracle, “Kashmai finds it ugly. Sick jokes played by time and circumstance.” Walking down to the sea, she “breathes in the stink of it, the plant and the salt and the musk of distant seals. Breathes in her hatred and her enemy’s cruel approximation of mercy, this torture disguised as a reprieve.” I like the way Kashmai envisions both her music and the Oracle as things that exists outside of herself, for which she is a vessel containing the tools for their expression. It is a position that not only saves her from madness and despair but allows her to assert her will despite the confines placed on her body and mind. Well done.

Talk to Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy”, Theodore McCombs (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 102, November 2018) Short Story

At some point it will dawn on someone to publish an anthology of “rogue app” stories, where I doubt any judicious editor would fail to include this story. Two-Tongued Jeremy is the lizard avatar of a mobile learning app that helps kids stay ahead of the curve. The app’s main feature is that it also learns as it goes, and tailors its strategies to the individual child. David is a goal-oriented eight-grader looking ahead to his future at the local magnet high school and eventually college; Two-Tongued Jeremy was built for students like him. Before long, though, the program’s motivational strategies take on a sinister bend, as it keeps finding new ways to push learners to the limit. A lot of things ring true about this story: the way adults are more and more willing to let technology regulate their children’s habits, further isolating the disparate generations from each other; the way tech companies will blame the users for using their products “wrong” instead of admitting fault; and most of all, the way tweens and teens will magnify small problems into large ones, and how easy their emotional immaturity is to manipulate. “Two-Tongued Jeremy” is more than just clever high-concept sci-fi. Its characters and setting, relayed by the author’s effective use of collective narration, stick with you after the story ends.

The Palace of the Silver Dragon”, Y.M. Pang (Strange Horizons, October 1, 2018) Novelette

This is my first encounter with Y.M. Pang, whose credits only stretch back to June of this year. The evidence suggests we will see her in this column again. “The Palace of the Silver Dragon” is the story of Aliah, a young woman who throws herself into the sea upon hearing the siren song of the Silver Dragon, Karonin. He shows her his palace with its rooms full of stories and takes her as his lover, but there is more to Aliah’s motives than just an escape from the hopelessness of her life. This story is a pure metaphysical fantasy, wherein the dividing line between mind and matter is all but erased. It is a difficult mode to pull off even for an experienced writer, so finding it done this well by a newer writer is impressive. Aliah’s delusiveness and amorality are intriguing qualities in a protagonist.

“Joyride”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2018) Novella

Kristine Kathryn Rusch diverges from the main storyline in her Diving Universe to tell the story of Fleet cadet Nadim Crowe, who goads his rival classmate Tessa into joining him in a bit of extracurricular malfeasance. Crowe and Tessa scheme to “borrow” obsolete shuttles and race them to the Scrapheap, a floating junkyard for old Fleet ships. Crowe has the superior plan to win the race until Tessa activates her shuttle’s anacapa drive. Regular readers of Rusch’s Diving novels and stories will know right away that things will go sideways at first mention of the anacapa; otherwise, Rusch deposits enough background information to clue new readers in. I am impressed with Rusch’s ability to keep things fresh and exciting for the stories set in this universe 13 years after the “Diving into the Wreck” first appeared in Asimov’s. Like her other excellent Diving story from this year, “Lieutenant Tightass”, the long denouement is more suited for the novel this story will eventually be part of than for this standalone version.

Also Recommended

Analog Nov18“A Measure of Love”, C. Stuart Hardwick (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

C. Stuart Hardwick’s “A Measure of Love” is the gentle, affecting tale of Apollonia, orphaned at a young age and raised by an AI foster parent called Uncle Inky. As an adult, Apollonia must look after the machine that has outlived its function as her guardian, and this causes a strain on her career. This is as light-hearted as an Analog story gets, but the poignancy of Inky and Apollonia’s relationship stuck with me, as did the crafty humor. The images of Inky terrorizing stray animals with neutering chemicals and lecturing public bathers about their nudity contrasted with Apollonia’s anxiety over his well-being makes for a memorable story with a pitch perfect ending.

The Hollow Tree”, Jordan Kurella (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #264, November 8, 2018) Short Story

Pira wants to protect her mother from her abusive father, but there doesn’t seem to be any way out for them – except for the fairy that lives in The Hollow Tree and grants wishes, for a price. The author finds a nice balance between foreshadowing future events and subverting expectations. Even the warning given to Pira, that the fairy will give you what you “want”, not what you “ask for”, yields surprising results. “The Hollow Tree” is well-paced and perfectly toned, and Pira provides a sympathetic and intelligent narrative voice.

“Smear Job”, Rich Larson (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

18-year-old Jalen has a consensual, but illegal, sexual relationship with underage Stef, and has a choice between jail time plus sex offender registry or an implant that blurs out anyone under 18 from his sight. He chooses the implant because it is better than the alternative, but there are sadder consequences in store for him. “Smear Job” is a solid story from the prolific Rich Larson, understated with a bittersweet ending.

“The Ascension”, Jerry Oltion (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2018) Short Story

Jerry Oltion’s 95th (!) story to grace the pages of Analog is a splendid example of why that partnership works so well: he has mastered the efficient, classical short story structure long-time Analog readers expect. “The Ascension” takes place on an alien world where the native inhabitants obtain knowledge and aptitude by eating other people who have the skills they want. The leaders of this world maintain their power by consuming the learned young. Iffix, the supreme leader, presides over a banquet where he interrogates a youth offering himself for consumption, but his test of the child’s abilities doesn’t go as planned. Oltion takes a novel concept and delivers it with clear, effective plotting and characterization, and wraps it up with a delectable twist.

The Last Good Man by Linda Nagata

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

There’s a chapter in Linda Nagata’s The Last Good Man where one of the main characters, a military contractor, is walking through a parking lot with his teenage daughters. The scene perfectly illustrates Nagata’s vision of what a future saturated with technology has in store for us:
Lincoln is hit with a presentiment of danger.
He’s coached his girls to be alert, encouraged them to always be aware of their surroundings. He’s trained them how to recognize potential threats and how to react. It’s a game for them. Not for him. He shifts both collection bags to his prosthetic hand. His skin prickles, puckering around his scars as he tries to figure out what’s wrong.
Anna is partly on his blindside, cast half in amber by the building lights, half in black and white. She turns to look at him. He’s confused to see her smiling—proud, excited—not scared at all. When she’s sure she has his attention, she points—using just her finger, not extending her arm, exactly the way he’s taught her. She indicates the unlighted access road that leads to the highway. Then she flattens her hand, wobbling her palm. It’s their sign for a drone.
The generational divide is what I find captivating about this scene. Lincoln’s job makes him paranoid, but he is also old enough to remember a time when one needn’t concern oneself with spy drones lurking in the shadows, certainly not enough to train one’s children how to respond and react to them. Later, while the family is driving home, Lincoln is still anxious and upset; the girls already have their minds occupied with something else.
Linda Nagata’s brand of military science fiction does not take technology for granted. She does not write “boys with toys” adventure stories or jingoistic thrillers where the good guys and their gadgets save the day from the fearsome foreign menace. In her acclaimed Red trilogy, as well as this novel, the intricate web of political and industrial forces behind the development of advanced weapons systems does more than just impact how battles are fought and won: they reshape the cultural landscape as well as the human mind, both within the military and in society at large.
The Last Good Man is the story of True Brighton, a former army chopper pilot working for a private military contractor called Requisite Operations. The company’s founder, Lincoln Han, started ReqOp because he was fed up with the gray area morality of the missions he and his Army special forces unit were sent on; he wanted to engage in “right action,” to use his military training and expertise to help people and make the world a better place. But a strange hiccup during an otherwise successful mission dredges up a terrible episode from True’s and Lincoln’s shared history that puts the two friends and colleagues at odds and the future of their company in jeopardy.
Nagata’s directness and clarity of purpose are her strongest attributes as a writer. She does not mince words:
It isn’t hard for [True] to imagine a future in which programmers set up battles conducted between machine armies without immediate oversight, not a single soldier on the field—though vulnerable civilians will still be there. Or a future in which a narcissistic leader orders a machine invasion of a weaker nation, with no risk of creating grieving parents on the home front. Or one in which a military option in the form of a PMC powered by robotics is available to anyone with the money.
These are scenarios that offend her martial heritage. She imagines the consternation of bow masters when guns first appeared on battlefields. Like those bow masters, she has adapted.
Technology changes.
War is eternal.
Throughout the novel, Nagata’s language is precise, delineating all the implications of her novel’s premise through the sharp observations of her characters. This rigorous expressiveness – in her thematic illustrations as well as in the near-perfect symmetry of action and drama – makes the novel a consistently captivating and thought-provoking read.
Looming over the story is near constant presence of surveillance technology – and the casual acceptance of it – in everyday life. This coincides with the gathering storm of fully automated weapons systems capable of completely removing the human element (but not the human cost) from military operations.
By the end, there are two kinds of people in The Last Good Man: those who are disturbed by what this brave new world has wrought and fight to keep their humanity intact, and those who succumb to it and lose their souls in the process. Nagata spins a crackerjack tale in The Last Good Man – from its eye-opening first act twist through the tense and explosive finale, she skillfully balances her tightly paced plot with the psychological implications of the all too near future she envisions.