Rec: “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Clarkesworld July 2017, SF novelette

The cons of this story are that it’s a tired post-apocalyptic tale; that it’s an unsurprisingly unrelievedly bleak story for the bulk of it; and that, while there’s something to be said for concise endings, this was a bit too compressed. The pros are that it’s a near-perfect exercise in narrative voice and the naive narrator, using an apparently “slow” child as the window into this world; that it tackles its triteness with gusto, as though such post-apocalyptic stories weren’t trite; and that, even as a longer story, it reads quickly (allowing for a slight drag in the middle when the bleakness needs some variation).

So, yes, it’s a story in which the girl and her mother are off to visit the king of a nearby place so that mom can torture people for that king. On the way back, they are seized by the scavengers of the wasteland and it gradually becomes clear that this is a post-apocalyptic earth (or post-apocalyptic, anyway) and that the girl has slight mental challenges and is quite a charming person despite being the child of a torturer (who, herself, seems to be a fairly good mother, all things considered). Once put on the chain gang to scavenge for pre-apocalypse treasure/junk in collapsed buildings, we get to the pivot of the story which isn’t entirely surprising but is appealing.

If I read such a synopsis, I wouldn’t be interested, myself, but it’s all in the telling and in the characterization and I recommend it for that.

(I usually save such things for the monthly summations but I’ll go ahead and mention that Robert Reed’s “The Significance of Significance” gets an honorable mention though its ontological relativism (a facet of which has long interested me) makes me queasy and its “we all live in a yellow VR machine” is tired. Further, if Larson didn’t seem to be stuck writing the same SF/horror story over and over, “Travelers” would probably have gotten that, too. Finally, Balder’s “The Bridgegroom” was another familiar post-apocalyptic tale but was readable even so. Overall, this issue of Clarkesworld was pretty good.)

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4 thoughts on “Rec: “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

  1. No comment about “Age of Ice?” šŸ™‚
    I didn’t think the Larson story was a repeat of his own previous stories so much as a take-off on the movie “Passengers.” Which of his stories did you think it was similar to?

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    • I assumed “Ice” was a translation and I tend to skip translations and reprints, just reading all the English original pro stories I can. If it’s not a translation, I’ll go back and give it a try. Did you review it? I went back and read your reviews of this issue that had popped up in my Reader but I didn’t see your review of that. (By the way, it looks like you liked Alois more than I did (he was fine to me, but not especially special) and I liked Aneko more than you did. :))

      I haven’t seen Passengers but, as far as the Larson, I may be guilty of overstatement. It’s not that he’s exactly repeating a particular story in detail but he’s beginning to seem like his own micro-genre to me. “The Ghost Ship Anastasia,” “Extraction Request” (both of which I did rec), “You Too Shall Be Psyche” (“You Too Shall Be Like ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream'”) are all Larson-y SF/horror stories of a particularly violent and bloody kind that just start to feel “same ol’ same ol'” to me. Even the fantasy “Dark Warm Heart” is still a horror story. Lots of cannibalism and Reynolds/Asher-ish autodoc saws and whatnot. The stories he wrote in 2015 were all different from most of the 2016-7 stuff and different from each other.

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      • I did review Age of Ice and gave it one star. Like most translated stories, it’s something that never would have got out of the slush pile if the editors could have read it before they paid 25-cents/word to get it translated. (This is why Ken Liu’s stories are the exception: he reads them in Chinese first and only picks the good ones, and even then, his translations go into the slushpile like any other English story–he doesn’t get paid just to translate them.)

        I felt Alois had a lot more “agency” than Aneko did. He knows what he’s doing, and he knows why he’s doing it. Aneko is helpless, her situation is hopeless, and someone else has to come in and figure out what to do with the stuff she’s discovered. She has a more interesting “voice” than he does, but that ranks way down my list of criteria.

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      • Maybe the infodump is very poetic in the original. šŸ™‚

        As far as Alois and Aneko, I can see that. I can see a counter-argument where Al’s also helpless, being used by his society and the AI and can’t do anything without the AI’s help whereas An has agency brought about by her compassion for Nina – having taken the initiative to take Nina’s place, and being so determined to find something, she indeed makes her big find, which drives the reversal/climax. But I figure both are a mix like everyone is, even if the mix is different.

        Another thing I liked about An was her backstory/surround. The dissonance of her and her environment. The child of a torturer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland living with a murderous gang and she’s basically aware of this but with a weird refracted effect. And she’s still trying to help folks like Nina. Al was just kind of a student-doctor or whatever. A sympathetic character and well-drawn and interesting but not as unusual. šŸ™‚

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