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.

Review of Little Green Men–Attack! for Tangent

In this, Michelle Ristuccia reviews the first half of the book and I review the second:

Review of Little Green Men—Attack!, edited by Robin Wayne Bailey & Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Recommended: no originals (but it was mostly quite readable; the Cato, Steele, and Ball would be honorable mentions or close to it; and the reprint of Robert Silverberg’s “Hannibal’s Elephants” (1988) is highly recommended.)

Rec: “Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss

Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss, Tor.com 2017-03-09, novelette

A woman in the present investigates the murder of her great-great-grandmother who was part of a “freak show” as a “living dryad.” (She actually had an extremely bad (and non-fictional) skin condition.) The story is told through narration in past and present as well as by means of sometimes nested letters, book excerpts, and other sorts of things (such as a box of evidence at a police station), producing the effect of looking through a scrapbook or mementos and family heirlooms which is basically what the present-day protagonist is doing.

If you need this story to have a revelatory twist, you’ll likely be disappointed as the whodunnit is pretty clear early on. Perhaps more problematically, this story’s vegetable love grows more slow, as Marvell might have it. However, while I value pace more highly than most readers, even I found the backstory, foreground, phrasing of the tale, and strokes of characterization sufficient to keep me involved. Perhaps the most problematic issue is that this is basically a mainstream story (and closer to SF if anything, despite being billed as fantasy). Unless I missed it, nothing supernatural happened and nothing scientific was projected though the story was reasonably scientific in both medical and criminal terms. All that’s particularly “made up” are the plot and characters, as in any fiction. But, much like Apollo 13 is sometimes lumped in with SF because “a space movie equals a science fiction movie,” so this “feels” a bit like SF and a bit like fantasy, so is “of interest” to the field. And, speaking of movies, I feel like anyone who enjoyed The Elephant Man would enjoy this story. There are so many similarities that this story could be dismissed as “derivative” but I feel it would be fairer to say it was partly “inspired by” the story of Merrick (who is name-checked in this tale). Finally, another of this novelette’s better features is its humanist theme which is certainly clear but handled reasonably lightly. While the heroes and main villain conform to today’s standards, the story does not settle for simplistic praise or condemnation (when it has more reason to than many stories) but remains true to its universal theme.

Rec: “Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold

Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #219 (2017-02-16), fantasy novelette

Jeone Serrica is climbing what seems to be a world entirely of mountainside or cliff-face when, after scaring off a giant lizard, she encounters a village of strange women. After being somewhat ambivalently welcomed and despite being told to remain in her guest quarters, our intrepid explorer sneaks a peek at the villagers’ rites. What she sees mystifies and horrifies her but, before she can even try to come to terms with it, she’s snatched by a giant bird and taken off to an even stranger realm and an encounter that requires much more from her than even facing down giant lizards.

There’s a joke to the effect that, if you want to get published in The New Yorker, you just need to throw away the last three pages of your story. A similar joke could be made about BCS but it would seem to take more work: just extract the middle third of your tale and send that off. This story, as many BCS stories do, implies backstory so strongly that it feels like there must be a prequel story and, while its particular action is completed, it ends with an intimation that there must be a sequel story yet to come. Also, the style of this story is peculiar. Tunnels twist beguilingly, light is pearlescent, and gazes are chatoyant. (I had to look that one up. Very—almost too—precisely chosen.) Referencing them together like that makes the style sound better and more consistent than it actually is because the bulk is strongly written and these words seem like coruscating excrescences. A final relevant quibble could be that the action-oriented climax is too talky and slightly awkward. Also, probably irrelevantly, this story was fundamentally fantastic but kept making me want to try to read it as science fiction and to force it to make more sense. But that’s probably just me. Point is that, all that aside, the imagination brought to bear in conceiving this doughty protagonist and this amazing world and the entities she interacts with was extremely impressive and I thought the mix of conflicting social and individual perspectives and desires was handled very well. The main thing is that it was fascinating throughout and will live in the memory for quite some time.

Rec: “Tav” by Dustin Kennedy

Tav” by Dustin Kennedy, Compelling #5 (Feb/Mar 2017), science fiction novelette

This story takes place in the near future when VR is quite advanced. William and Tav have been the primary movers behind a company that has gotten phenomenally large and powerful. After a celebration party for William at his home, Tav (the viewpoint character) is invited downstairs by the host of honor where William’s very special VR, and an entity in it, is revealed. The three then tour the realm and have a psychologically and existentially loaded conversation that creates a remarkable degree of tension and even spookiness. It leads Tav to make a radical move.

Between the VR and the existential question of “is it live or is it Memorex?” that occupies a good chunk of the story, it’s not the most original thing I’ve ever read but it takes an unusual approach in terms of its viewpoint character. It is also not unusual in being mostly conversational but, as I mention above, it makes that conversation unusually dramatically effective. Also, it doesn’t use its VR basis as an excuse to write a fantasy in SF’s clothing, hewing to merely “enhanced” reality, and provides fairly detailed descriptions of the VR tech and the entity, which were deftly exposed mostly via the subjective experiences of the viewpoint character and only minimally via the conversation. The one serious criticism I might have involves the finale but even though it feels a bit easy, it’s in keeping with both William’s and Tav’s characters and seems plausible in that sense. The story maintained my interest, was sharply delineated and, unlike much other webzine fiction, felt like genuine science fiction, and I definitely enjoyed it.

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.