Rec: “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak

Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld June 2017, SF novelette

A woman hunting a war criminal gets stranded on a planet with nothing but her drone swarm, the planet’s strange psychoactive alien lifeform, and her prey. Nothing goes as planned and nothing survives unchanged.

While calling this a “sympathy for the devil” story may be a bit much, it is at least a remarkable “let he who is without sin” story. It is perhaps overly reminiscent of things like Alastair Reynolds’ “Turquoise Days” and even Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” except that it is less adroit than either of those tales. It’s also reminiscent of other works I’ve read by Dudak, himself, but is more adroit than those. It’s extremely interesting on both intellectual and emotional levels and feels like genuine science/speculative fiction. It’s an unsettling, uncomfortable read in a good way and I appreciate its lack of self-righteousness and its blending of the thematic focus with an actual dramatic focus and how it wrests such a large scope out of such a seemingly small structure. In sum, a piece worth a solid recommendation.

(It’s also a relief to find something noteworthy in Clarkesworld again. After a strong start to the year, it’s basically been without interest until this story. I look forward to the rest of the issue. Also, since I’ve already read the stories released by the weeklies, bi-weeklies, and other monthlies so far this month, once I finish it and Compelling I’ll be caught up.)

Rec: “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor

Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com 2017-05-03, SF novelette

I’m impressed that this science fictional horror story doesn’t have one of those annoying “trigger warnings” prefacing it. It’s an intermediate-future tale of climatic disaster which has resulted in a few weird folks clinging to an unpleasant life in what used to be the inland (now ocean-front) Southeast. Fortunately, things go downhill from there. In all seriousness, what could have been a dreary, dull “cli-fi” tale becomes a gripping, transporting tale of vivid, energetic horror, largely centered on a somewhat rubberized science of very fast evolution. Rather than preaching “Quit screwing up the environment,” this story is a story first and foremost, which leaves the reader saying, “Holy $#!^, man, let’s really quit screwing up the environment!” My only quibble with the story is that, after being quite deliberate and explicit, it has an oddly rushed and almost coy ending, at least comparatively. But even that is still fairly effective and the whole tale is quite an experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks intensely disliked this but, if it sounds intriguing at all, give it a try. (To be fair, I should note that the story doesn’t initially read too much like horror and it does create a very interesting trio of main characters, so has things that will appeal to general speculative fans… and which make the horror all the more effective.)

[I was going to post this and finish up Tor.com‘s May offerings yesterday but my ISP screwed up my internet connection for over a day. Technology willing, I will get caught up soon.]

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.