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.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1)

I’ve finished reading the stories with multiple “year’s best” appearances as listed in Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016. My reactions pretty thoroughly undercut the gist of Year’s Bests and My Recommendations, that gist being that I was on the same page with the big editors with just a couple of reasonable exceptions.

It’s not that I hate the stories (I actually like a surprisingly high percentage of them) but that I don’t love them and wouldn’t have recommended very many. At least, I don’t think I would have. Given that I come at these stories as “bests” there is an assumption that someone thought they were good which is a bias in favor of them coupled with a higher chance of unfair expectations and disappointment which gives them an extra liability. It’s hard to say what my reaction would have been if I’d encountered them in the wild.

First, my idiosyncrasies: I didn’t read the de Bodard as I seem to have some blind spot there (at least with the Xuya stories) that I’ve experienced often enough to cause me to give up. And I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Tidhar story but have come close enough to keep trying but this one wasn’t especially close. I much prefer Dickinson’s SF to the fantasy story from this list. The three or so Miller stories I’ve read have been about the same, though this one probably was the best but seemed derivative of a derivative (Miller via Watts via Campbell). The Campbell and Watts were sufficient.

As mentioned in the second post linked above, I didn’t recommend the Gilman when I read it last year, but its pick (by Clarke, Dozois, and Strahan) is explicable to me. (Even so, that doesn’t much affect the irony of preferring the stories two editors selected to those three or four editors selected.) The Valentine was perhaps in Gilman territory and the DeLancey was good, but read like an excellent episode of a TV show more than a great story.

I’m not sure if I would have recommended Nina Allan’s “The Art of Space Travel (Dozois, Strahan) but I certainly would have thought about it. Stories published as science fiction which have titles like this and turn out to be about the head of housekeeping of a hotel wondering who her father is tend to really disappoint and annoy me but Allan had previously caught my attention for her somewhat oblique stories and this is another one of those. It is a long story and has relatively little action, yet reads quickly. The protagonist is compelling (her blindness to the obvious strains credulity but Allan doesn’t seem to be hiding it from the reader and it would obviously look different to the protagonist) and the story is about a sort of space travel, ultimately, and in a broad way. All in all, I’m glad I read it, so I suppose that’s a recommendation.

Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War (Dozois, Horton) is also in that borderland of good/honorable mention/recommendation. Taken literally, as actual capital “S” science fiction, this is quite a silly story. Two societies of apparently basically the same species in the same part of a world have just concluded a war. One of them is telepathic and the other is not. If you swallow this premise for its metaphorical purposes, you get a very nicely done story about a non-telepath and a telepath who had been each others’ prisoners at various times during the war. During one of these times, the telepath had learned chess from the other. The game and their situation is then exploited for its thematic richness. Again, not an action-packed riot of hard SF adventure, but an interesting tale.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Mika Model (Dozois, Strahan), however, is certainly recommended. Sexbot stories are nothing new and this is a very brief handling of the subject but idea- and emotion-packed concision is a virtue to me and this additionally has a rather extraordinary event near the end. My only problem with the story is that, no matter what you think of the status of the robot regarding her sentience, liability, or crime, there is a crime the other main player in the story should have been charged with, but I can’t get into that without spoilers. Either way, it’s a very effective dramatization of a very interesting issue.

Finally, there’s Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays (Dozois, Horton). It’s a story about aliens who arrive on Earth and don’t want to blow us up or steal our resources or even invite us into a galactic federation. They just want to have sex with us. Problem is, they are really, really ugly. But, after our ad exec protagonists succeed in their job to “make ugly sexy,” it turns out the aliens are pretty sexually satisfying, too. This has apocalyptic ramifications (in the nicest way).

My reading of this was a comedy of errors. I went to this story directly, so didn’t realize it was part of Lightspeed‘s “People of Colo(u)r” issue. While I know there is a Steven Barnes and there is a John Barnes who both write science fiction and one collaborates with Niven and I have a couple of books by the other, I can never keep them straight for some reason and thought Steven Barnes was John Barnes until I got to the author blurb at the end. (And the errors may still not be over: I get at least some aspects of the punning title but have never read or seen Fifty Shades of Gray so, if there are any important allusions to that in this story (beyond the bondage references), I’ve missed them.)

I tend to read (or want to read) the science fictional aspects of SF much more literally than seems fashionable. So I just read this story as a wildly conceived, briskly told tale of one of the stranger alien invasions ever and enjoyed it immensely. The ad execs reminded me of Pohl and Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants, the ugly aliens and the efforts to make them acceptable reminded me of Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe. The blurb eventually informed me that Steven Barnes has written for television which may help explain the lack of faux literary pretension and the vigor of the dialog and storytelling, though this story is far more than your average TV fare.

So then I got to the end, saw the author blurb, and realized one mistake, then read the “Spotlight” interview and it told me that the story was written “for a non-white audience” and was supposed to depict “the sickness of being human and trying desperately to fit in with a dominant culture.” Some of that further puzzled me until it dawned on me that this may have been from the PoC issue so I looked and, indeed, it was. In retrospect and knowing that this was for an ideological issue of a magazine, I see that there were all sorts of racial references in the story and that they should apparently have greater weight than I realized but, even on a re-read, I still see many things in the allusions and symbolism that don’t fit and/or are offensive if they do. To me, if the aliens have to symbolize anything, they’d better serve as corporations which, after all, are the ugly things advertisers sell and which provide the products we “need” and which wish to dominate all things. Either way, as a didactic piece it becomes much less interesting and more problematic as a story but is still obviously loaded and interesting (however much one may agree or disagree with it). As a story, it’s much more interesting and enjoyable to me. And, again, either of those ways, it’s certainly a fascinating and provocative something that shouldn’t be missed.

(This doesn’t really fit above or bear mentioning, but it bothers me (and, given my recent Elvis birthday post, that should come as little surprise). The lead alien calls himself “Elvis” and it’s explained that the aliens learned about us by picking up 50s television broadcasts. There are innumerable SF stories involving Elvis so I just took it as one of those quirks. My only problem with the story, on a first reading and apart from the “transmissions” cliche itself, was that the alien Elvis was depicted as wearing the rhinestones of 70s Elvis. While the aliens certainly could have continued to follow his career through the transmissions of Aloha from Hawaii and beyond, this was never made explicit and it still gave the appearance of an error in the story. Beyond that, if we’re to take this story as a racial metaphor, then the alien’s being “Elvis” could be more significant than I initially supposed. If anything, in racial terms, Elvis could work as a symbol of interracial harmony. Yet now I have the disturbing feeling that he may have been intended as a symbol of the current meme of “cultural appropriation” which I wouldn’t appreciate.)

An interesting thing to me about these four stories is that, while Horton and Strahan picked two each, Dozois is the only editor common to all four. Also, while I often like a lot of Clarkesworld stories (and really hate an occasional one) Clarke is the only one who picked none of these (or any twofer story). Next up will be the stories that only appear in one anthology, so we’ll see if those trends continue or change.

Edit (2017-01-21): Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)