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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Tor.com -- April 2017

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Tor.com, April 2017

"When Stars Are Scattered" by Spencer Ellsworth

"Mental Diplopia" by Julianna Baggott
"Dark Warm Heart" by Rich Larson
"A Burden Shared" by Jo Walton
"The Awakening of Insects" by Bobby Sun

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

In "When Stars Are Scattered" by Spencer Ellsworth, Ahmed is tasked with curing a mysterious illness running rampant through the alien kite population of the planet Isach. It would be a difficult undertaking under the best of circumstances, but Ahmed finds that his placement on Isach has landed him in the midst of an ideological struggle between the minority Muslim missionaries, and the Christian homesteaders of Novo Christos. An atheist himself, Ahmed would like to do his job without getting too deeply involved with either faction. Unfortunately, with the Islamic Confederation responsible for paying for his medical schooling, and the imam of Isach convinced that the homesteaders are to blame for the virus afflicting their newest converts, being completely secular may be impossible for Ahmed.

"When Stars Are Scattered" scrutinizes spirituality in the face of adversity from both a theistic and an atheistic point of view. Readers are given moments of perspective inside the heads of all the major characters, as well as the colonized and converted kites. It doesn't comment on any direct conclusion, but leaves it up to the reader to decide what role, if any, spirituality plays in our lives, and how we ought to approach hardship and tragedy with this in mind. There is plenty of detail driving the world and the characters, however—possibly due to the short length of time the reader spends in the story—it is difficult to find solid footing and experience the full depth of richness that is so obviously here. This is made more difficult by the ever shifting perspectives and serves to keep readers perpetually unseated in the role of distant observer.

Julianna Baggott's "Mental Diplopia" sees humanity struck by a sudden viral—and very fatal—epidemic of nostalgia. All over the world people are falling victim to an unending mental loop of a moment in time from their pasts, only to have it all end, suddenly, with a deadly aneurysm. The few people who manage to escape create a bunker colony of sorts, desperately watching the public webcams for any signs of survivors. But life in hazmat suits and constant paranoid fear of the outside has its downsides. Eventually, a sort of non-viral nostalgia leaks in, which has it's own potent dangers.

Baggott is unapologetically philosophical in "Mental Diplopia" and readers can hear echoes of her speculation in the thought processes of her characters. What are life and death and time itself but manifestations of our own consciousness? The narrative itself doesn't do much but progress—like the virus—but readers can see the direction the plot is going, and make internal bets on who will crack first. "Mental Diplopia" is a post-apocalyptic set within our own minds, which is perhaps more terrifying than anything the zombies could bring.

In "Dark Warm Heart" by Rich Larson, Kristine is ecstatic to finally have her husband home. She's been faithful and patient and is ready to pick up where they left off. But something happened to Noel during his time in the North West Territories. Something more than just getting lost in a storm. Now, in order to save her husband and her marriage, Kristine must prove herself by showing just how much she's willing to sacrifice for his well being.

"Dark Warm Heart" is a deeply disturbing story that takes its horror in part from the supernatural and in part from the relationships between its characters. The narrative and the pacing of the plot are well-constructed, making the reading tense and suspenseful. The mystery at the heart of the story unfolds right where it should, though is somewhat predictable. The story unravels a bit at the end, however, with Kristine's bizarre final decision in a no-way-out situation that clearly has several escape routes available. Perhaps there was something cut from the story that may explain things further, but left unsaid the reader is left with pity for Kristine, and contempt for Noel.

Penny has been shouldering the burden of her daughter's pain for a long time now in "A Burden Shared" by Jo Walton. But as much as it hurts her to live daily through her daughter's joint pain, Penny can't help but be grateful that the technology exists that allows Ann to transfer her pain and live her life freely. However when life interferes in this selfless exchange Penny and Ann must make a decision on the repayment of years of kindness.

"A Burden Shared" explores many facets of motherhood, including unconditional love and the willingness to sacrifice life, career, and well being for one's child. That said, it feels as if this story is a bag of concepts tied up without much plot. Walton gives readers relationships with little context, emotions without progression, and conflict without conclusion. The final revelation ramps the tension up to soap opera levels and then leaves it there without so much as an open-ended question for readers to speculate on.

Bobby Sun's "The Awakening of Insects" takes readers to Earth-IX, a colonized research planet full of interesting animals and strange weather patterns. When a storm threatening Jingru's sensors sends her out on a routine collection mission, she finds herself suddenly facing just such a weather anomaly: one of the regular but dangerous flashes of intense heat capable of boiling alive anything in the immediate vicinity. After a close call, Jingru can't help but be curious: just what are these flashes? Despite the danger and the fact that she may never make it back to Maia alive, Jingru is determined to unravel the mystery once and for all.

"The Awakening of Insects" is a very immersive story that takes readers so close to Earth-IX that they can sense it with picture clarity. With detailed scientific world-crafting, this story is perfect for readers who prefer hard science fiction. The plot is difficult to predict which makes the ending pleasantly surprising and the journey there pleasant, for all the harrowing danger in which the characters find themselves.