Rec: “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy

Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed June 2017, short story

This is billed by Lightspeed as fantasy but it’s only fantasy if you want it to be. It also discusses the scientific concept of entropy but isn’t really SF unless you really want it to be. This is sort of indicated in the story itself when, after meeting an old man stuck on a fence and helping him over, the protagonist/narrator says,

I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.

Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man….

Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil.

I’ll grant that this story may not have the tightest structure or the most climactic of climaxes and that I’ve had a weakness for Pat Murphy stories for many moons now. Still, it’s a good, quirky, San Francisco treat and I hope folks will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

Rec: “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister

This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed May 2017, SF short story

Another short-short (~1200 words). This one involves a boy, who has recently returned from an alien world, giving an extraordinary painting to the girl he has a crush on. Some people may grok it immediately but I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling it for others. While not the most unique tale in some ways and not exactly to my taste in every way, I thought it was very well done and I especially liked the understatement and indirection.

Rec: “Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather

Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather, Lightspeed April 2017, SF short story

Still pouring. (Coincidentally, it’s literally pouring where I am, with flood warnings and everything.) Lightspeed achieves the remarkable feat that BCS just achieved of impressing me twice in the same month. And Lina Rather has now impressed me twice in three months. I first noticed her February FFO story, “Marking the Witch” and I was wondering if she could do it again without doing it again, so to speak.

Rather than a fantasy about a romantic connection, this is a sort of SF story about a familial connection. Something horrible is going on with a woman’s daughter (Elena) and that woman (Sarah) happens to be a mathematician/physicist who has been and is exploring the worlds of the multiverse in order to find a pattern in which the daughter and family are happy. She hopes to see that it’s possible, understand it, and perhaps apply it.

The structure of the “permutations on a theme” is very familiar and even the “scientist uses special knowledge to pursue a personal goal fervently” is familiar. But, somewhat as the virtues in “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” compensated for the familiarity of some of its elements, so the emotional freight of this story (which it shares with “Marking the Witch” but even exceeds) serves to make this story special. It’s so easy for stories aiming for passion and emotion to fall flat on the one hand or to seem overwrought on the other. It’s so easy for stories about pain to be aesthetically painful for the reader. But this story excels at finding that emotional pitch where the character feels genuine and she really, really wants something and it’s easy for the reader to sympathize.

Also, somewhat akin to “When We Go,” it has a strong, direct style which I appreciate. For a sample of that and the emotional pitch, I like lines like, “I will tear space and time apart for you, Elena. I will remake the world for you,” placed in stories in which they seem appropriate and credible. Further, the last line is superb.

Rec: “Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick

Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, Lightspeed April 2017, fantasy novelette

Win is a chaplain charged with providing spiritual care as mandated by the JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) which is sending an inspection team to Win’s hospital. The problem, as his boss and her boss both inform him, is that they’ve found out about the skeleton in his closet – or, more accurately, the ghost. Most people die and move on, either pushed with enough love from those on earth or pulled by those who have already gone before. Maisie, however, is one of those who’s gotten stuck between planes and is lingering around the hospital, talking with and comforting patients and even employees. This will cause significant problems according to the JCAHO rules but does a lot of good as well – breaking the letter of the rules but not their “spirit.” There is a further complication in that Win has to question both his motives for not having helped Maisie across and his thoughtlessness in certain regards. The main plot tension revolves around the inspection and possible closure of the hospital and Maisie’s status, particularly as it involves a recently arrived homeless patient.

This story includes a mainstream feel with the hospital, an SF feel with the telepresence, and a fantasy feel with the spiritualism. Some stories do such things and feel like “mash-ups” or ostentatiously “genre-bending” stories (or just bad SF) and often don’t work at all, but there’s a harmony to this fantasy that doesn’t feel “mashed” at all. It is also a nominally Christian tale, but is ecumenical in the broadest sense, dealing with love and compassion. Further, it has a genuine plot, is directly told, and shows all the professionalism one might expect from a writer with over thirty years of publications. For instance, the emotions are neither suppressed nor mawkish but are simply appropriate to the depicted people and situations. My only quibble is that, while some of the backstory anecdotes exemplify why some people have a hard time crossing, Maisie’s inability to cross didn’t seem adequately explained. On the other hand, I’d recently complained about telepresence technology constantly being used in SF as a “distancing” trope and I particularly appreciate it being used in this fantasy to facilitate connection. I enjoyed this well-told, fairly novel, and touching story.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Rec: “The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert

“The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert, January 2017 Lightspeed, fantasy novelette

In 1987, a young social misfit who is fascinated by the paranormal has a mystery close to home to deal with. Kids have been disappearing from his neighborhood, which he decides is the “West Topeka Triangle.” Not only that, but he has to deal with a kid who particularly picks on him.

The very insufficient synopsis is because I really don’t want to give away anything at all. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, in large part due to all those little things (quirky little observations and descriptions) that, individually, don’t have to be in the story but make it concrete and detailed and believable and without any of which, the story likely wouldn’t work. For instance, when a kid’s video game malfunctions and the other kid has to leave hurriedly, the story continues:

“I’m going to call the Nintendo hotline and yell at them until they send me a new game,” Brendan says, red-faced and sweaty. I let myself out as he dials the number, apparently from memory, and begins yelling.

The detail of “apparently from memory” instantly paints a picture of all the previous phone calls the kid has made and what a big part of his life is like and noting it as “I let myself out” gives it a wonderful off-handedness.

This may be part of a general “80s nostalgia” and when Brendan says, “I get to be player one,” I immediately thought “Ready,” even though I haven’t even read Ready Player One. But I don’t think the story relies on its 80s-ness for its core effect. It relies more on its characterization and how life of any era would be for such characters. As the other details do, the period details simply bolster the tangibility of the tale. Either way, it avoids being sappily sentimental or nastily bitter but approaches the historical and personal eras with equanimity.

Another part of the tangibility derives from the fact that this is hardly speculative fiction at all. If anything, from the junk science and rudimentary rationalism of the protagonist, this is almost pseudo-SF more than pseudo-fantasy (though Lightspeed is publishing it as a fantasy) but there’s little in it that requires it to be read as anything but the perceptions of an imaginative kid. (The end of a dinner table scene is perhaps the strongest indication of an actual fantasy element but even it could be dismissed.)

Odd thought: anyone who’s more than glanced at this blog or Tangent knows how I feel about present tense narration, even though it’s become virtually omnipresent. This is a present tense story yet I scarcely noticed. Perhaps because it fits with how children often tell stories, “I says such and such and he goes this and that.” Kids are often very in the moment. It doesn’t feel like it was chosen just as the trendy technique but because it was right for this tale. (An opposite argument could be made, though, that a “retro” tale should have especially been told in past tense.)

Whenever it is and whatever it is and however it is told, I thought the results were excellent.