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

Tor.com -- May 2018

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Special Double Review

by

Mark Suplinskas/Jeffrey Steven Abrams

&

Victoria Silverwolf

 

Tor.com, May 2018

Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar
The Guile” by Ian McDonald
The Flight of Morpho Girl” by Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton
Grace’s Family” by James Patrick Kelly
Black Friday” by Alex Irvine (Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams)

Reviewed by Mark Suplinskas

The Flight of Morpho Girl” by Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton

This is a delightful story on many levels. It is told from the POV of a ‘new’ teenager, Adesina, and is told in the teenager’s voice. Adesina, her friends and family had been affected by the Wild Card virus and have each developed various abilities. Morpho Girl and her friends are ‘Jokers’. Her mother is an ‘Ace’.

The story begins with Adesina, aka Morpho Girl, who has giant butterfly wings. Adesina is in middle school with her best friend, Yerodin, aka Ghost, when Adesina suddenly morphs from a ten-year old into a sixteen-year old virtually overnight. Adesina is moved into high school, leaving her best friend behind. The story is not all drama as there are a few slyly humorous scenes and dialog managing the tension in a clever way.

As Adesina desperately tries to reconcile with her friend, terrible things happen. Her friend disappears. It turns out she was kidnapped by a powerful gang, the Werewolves. They want Adesina to smuggle a gang member into the USA by flying him off a ship at night in New York Harbor, or they will kill her friend. Adesina is a new flyer and can barely carry her own weight, never mind a second person. Can she physically do it? And if she does, what then? This person is coming into the USA to abuse kids as sex workers.

There is a strong subplot involving Adesina’s mother “Bubbles.” Bubbles has killed people as an agent for the good guys and has changed somehow after her last mission. Adesina knows her mother has changed but can’t reconnect to her, until Adesina finds her mother’s diary while searching her mother’s room. It turns out Bubbles has a complex past. A past Adesina was unaware of but can easily relate to. How Adesina reconnects with her mother and saves her friend, making for an upbeat and compelling story.

Grace’s Family” by James Patrick Kelly

This is a coming of age story with a twist. In this universe, starships and drones are spreading out across the cosmos in service of filling the infosphere, gathering information about the universe, charting solar systems, looking for life and habitable planets. The starship in question, Grace, is crewed by a mix of humans and bots. There are two main characters in this story, one being the ship itself, over a thousand-years old, and a nineteen-year-old boy by the name of Jojin. Jojin was born in a crèche on a starship and has never known anything else but traveling through space. His family is a mix of humans: himself, the man he calls his father, and the bots, his mother and sister.

They entertain themselves by being participants in a never-ending story they tell themselves in place of books and movies. Somewhat along the lines of Star Treks Enterprise holodeck. Grace also participates for reasons we find out later.

Their world is shaken when Grace rendezvous with another starship, Mercy, which is highly unusual and often means a crew swap is about to happen. The two ships, with no input from the humans, rendezvous, negotiate, and exchange Jojin’s mother and father for a tall, female human named Orisa.

Now there are just three crew members on board Grace: Jojin, his bot sister Qory, and the new human female, Orisa. The starships are almost completely independent of their crews except, the captain (who was Jojin’s father) must be a human, and only the captain can tell the ship which destination is next.

How Jojin, Qory, Orisa, and Grace sort out their relationships; why the starships are on this quest, what drives them to it, is the heart of the story.

It’s interesting to see the bots, humans, and Grace’s AI each having ‘equal footing’ in the story and how they work out their roles. Grace may be more ‘equal’ than the others.

The Guile” by Ian McDonald

An old, nearly washed-up magician, Jack Carvana, pits himself against a casino’s AI whose specialty is house security. The AI, Remi, sees all things at all times and for some reason calls up Jack each night after his show and explains to him exactly how each trick was done.

Jack’s friend proposes an all-or-nothing contest between man and machine. If Jack can preform a trick that Remi can’t explain, Jack wins. If Remi explains the trick, the trick ‘vanishes’ from Jack’s repertoire and he will never use that trick again. The hype begins; the place is packed, shown live on the web, on TV and so on. Celebrities show up for the grand event.

Then the contest begins. There is a twist at the end, but it left me a bit flat. If you pay attention to what is said about Remi’s capabilities earlier… you’re smart; you’ll figure out why the ending left me flat.

A well written piece, good atmosphere. I learned a lot about the art of magic, real stage magic, not the sword-and-sorcery type. An interesting read, but a disappointing ending.

Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar

This is the story of Esham who ekes out a living selling lottery tickets after his parents’ death. He lives is Yiwu, China in a far distant, somewhat fantastical future. The lottery tickets say, “Whatever your true heart desires.” And, some very odd things happen. One winner smiles, turns into an Ibis, and flies away.

This is a creative, ‘gentle’ story with not a lot of slam-bang action but is interesting nevertheless. There is much mystery about why things happen and how; someone or something is controlling things, but no one knows why or how. This is well done, as it leaves it up to you to make what you will of it. The ending is only a few sentences long, but I liked it. Just remember the title of the lottery, “Whatever your true heart desires.” A good read.

Black Friday” by Alex Irvine

Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams

This darkly satirical story follows the Mugs, an elite family competing in a Thanksgiving evening reality spectacular known as “The Celebration.” Kaleb, his three children, and fifteen other teams enter the Galleria Shopping mall, each attempting to be the first to collect a designated set of items, possibly win one million dollars, and stay alive. Although the game has a loosely defined set of rules, most are ignored. Safety is of no concern. As the game progresses, The Greenleaf Galleria turns from upscale Mall to a battle field, strewn with the mangled bodies of assault weapon victims/competitors.

In its twelfth season, The Celebration was originally created by television producers to honor Kaleb’s pregnant wife, a woman who’d been peacefully shopping when ball-bearings and bent nails from a terrorist’s dirty bomb tore her apart. Before she died, she gave birth to Lucy, who has become the darling of viewers everywhere. The tragedy became the rallying cry for gun owners, who use the atrocity to form open-carry Mall patrols. The Celebration is the Super Bowl for these right thinking folks.

There’s a Hunger Games-like feel as the Mugs make their way through the Mall. Bursts of fire signal the elimination of yet another team, what rules exist are broken, and old grudges emerge in what leads to a chilling conclusion.

The way Irvine builds tension by interweaving battle strain with family conflicts displays a level of writing skill that makes me jealous. The dialog is purposely sparse, and each carefully placed bit intensifies the plot’s tautness to even greater heights.

In one of the most compelling scenes, Kaleb hands lollypops to his children after they’ve performed checks on their vast arsenal of weapons. For me, this vision summarizes the story’s overarching theme; that while older generations still believe in kindness, ethical behavior, and the inherent goodness of people, the youth, beaten down and numbed by constant exposure to violence, are driven by colder emotions. The story’s ending makes this abundantly clear.

While faults were difficult to find in Mr. Irvine’s story, one issue did make me pause. Since the sixteen teams were supposedly chosen by lottery, the odds would have been extremely remote that they’d know each other. However, the level of familiarity and outright bad blood between many teams makes the lottery idea break down. Television networks would certainly skew the results for improved ratings if they could, but that issue was never explored. It might have been cleaner to never mention lotteries in the first place.

Aside from this trivial point, this was a fast-paced, thought-provoking tale. I just hope it gets read by the right people.

 

***

Tor.com, May 2018

"The Flight of Morpho Girl" by Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton

"Grace's Family" by James Patrick Kelly
"The Guile" by Ian McDonald
"Yiwu" by Lavie Tidhar
"Black Friday" by Alex Irvine

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

A quirk of the calendar provides readers with a bounty of five stories this month. All are science fiction, set in alternate versions of the present, the near future, and the far reaches of time and space.

"The Flight of Morpho Girl" by Caroline Spector and Bradley Denton takes place in the popular Wild Cards universe of mutant superpowers. The title character is a girl with butterfly wings. Before the story starts, a traumatic experience transforms her with unnatural speed from a child to a teenager. Besides dealing with this metamorphosis, she has to confront a personality change in her adoptive mother, a model turned superhero. As if this were not enough of a challenge, criminals kidnap her best friend. Part of the narration consists of excerpts from the mother's diary as a child and young woman. This breaks the flow of the plot, although it strengthens the theme of growing up with new responsibilities. Readers familiar with the Wild Cards series will find much that is familiar. Those who are not may be confused.

The setting for "Grace's Family" by James Patrick Kelly is aboard one of many starships exploring distant solar systems in the extreme far future. The ship is sentient. The crew consists of humans and robots. They have few duties, so they spend much of their time acting out fictional scenarios. When a new crewmember arrives from another starship, she reveals the important role they play in the endless task of investigating the universe. This is an interesting work of philosophical science fiction. It appeals more to the intellect than the emotions. As an allegory of the importance of stories, it may be too self-referential for some tastes.

By way of contrast, "The Guile" by Ian McDonald takes place in the very near future. The only speculative element is an advanced artificial intelligence system. It monitors activities inside a casino, catching cheaters more efficiently than the human employee it replaces. It also studies the techniques used by a stage magician, spoiling his secrets. The magician claims to be able to produce an effect that the AI cannot explain. The battle between man and machine takes place in the casino's showroom on national television. This is a clever, entertaining story, which is quite convincing in its portrait of casino workers and professional magicians. The climax is both logical and unexpected.

The protagonist of "Yiwu" by Lavie Tidhar sells lottery tickets in a high-tech future, when humanity inhabits much of the solar system. The rare winners of the lottery have their greatest desires fulfilled, in seemingly miraculous ways. A woman wins the lottery, but nothing happens. She leaves the ticket with the seller. He investigates her secrets, and those of the mysterious source of the lottery. This is an imaginative story, which creates a complex world. The lottery is so magical that it seems out of place in a story which is otherwise pure science fiction. The lack of a full explanation for its wonders may frustrate some readers.

"Black Friday" by Alex Irvine is a grim, violent satire in which the ritual of hunting for bargains the day after Thanksgiving has turned into deadly battle. Teams of heavily armed consumers fight each other to the death to obtain their desired merchandise. Although the concept will win a nod of recognition from those who have endured frenzied mobs of holiday shoppers, the story is heavy-handed and strains credibility.


Victoria Silverwolf has never gone shopping on Black Friday.