Rec: “Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow

Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow, Tor.com 2017-08-30, SF novelette

Lenae and Shirelle are a couple of students who are about to graduate into a world of haves and have-nots where their odds of ending up “not” are very, very high. With a positively rebellious attitude, some technical know-how, and a lot of unusual friends, both old and new, they try to strike a blow against the empire.

This is similar to, and not as good as, the author’s earlier “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and probably to much more of his work (this may be related to other stories, for all I know) but it’s still such a complexly imagined milieu with such appealing characters and engages in the concrete near future (present, really) with such “hopeful dystopianism,” so to speak, that I just feel it merits wide reading. It is too long and the ending, while correctly trying to avoid extremes, isn’t entirely satisfying, but its virtues more than outweigh those quibbles.

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Rec: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com 2017-08-09, SF novelette

Adam Morris struggled up from nothing to become a big-time writer/creator in Hollywood before dying. This story’s protagonist is the new Adam: about 70% of the original’s consciousness sideloaded into a humanoid robot. The missing material is partly due to technological limitations and partly due to what the new Adam discovers were intentional “targeted occlusions.” Between a legal system that doesn’t recognize the new Adam as a person, angry descendants of the original Adam contesting the will, difficulty making a life on his own, and a sense that the original may have created a “director’s cut” of his life because of a very nasty skeleton in his closet, the new Adam is having a hard time. Full of questions, he becomes a sort of detective, investigating himself to find out what’s missing and why.

This novelette’s eleven sections, which are full of fresh, clever metaphors and expressions, keep the tale moving, seamlessly weaving in new information and complications and backstory. The main character is very well drawn, as are his loved ones and even the minor characters such as Sandra, the tech/handler. The only thing I could think to say against it, without risking spoilers, are that sideloads and edits have been covered frequently (though rarely as well). It’s a very skillful exploration of people through technology and possibly the best story so far this year.

(Digression: what odds? The flux of the web and my game of catch-up has resulted in reading consecutive stories by Vernor Vinge (from Nature), Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan (both from Tor.com). All are pretty big guns in my book and most live up to that here. I’ve already recommended the Vinge and now the Egan. This particular Baxter is more in the ballpark of an Honorable Mention, though. He might be given points for cleverly weaving together Mythago Wood (by Robert Holdstock, to whom the story is dedicated) and Wells’ The Time Machine and “The Crystal Egg” but it’s hard to find much in there that doesn’t seem to derive from the unlikely pair of Holdstock or Wells. And he might be given points for making such an interesting middle of a story but the opening runs in place for too long and the close is pretty predictable. Still, people who, unlike me, are fans of retro-pseudo-AltHist “SF” may like it a lot. And given all that, for me to like it as much as I did means the story’s strengths are very strong.)

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.)

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.