Review by Robert Brown
“Our Human” by Adam-Troy Castro
In a galactic comity of worlds, a party of interspecial criminals goes into the jungle of a nameless planet to find and retrieve a greater criminal still, a human fugitive from justice, a man whose crimes are so great they are never revealed. They go for material gain, perhaps for expiation, or maybe just the thrill of hunting someone who makes them seem less monstrous. Four went in, but how many will come back?
Most of the story is related through the thoughts of an extraterrestrial I visualized as a mostly-bipedal cross between a rhino and an armadillo, with the balance of the story coming from a floating sort of composite identity drawn from the primitive natives of the planet who are sheltering the human villain. The action is desultory, almost lazy, a catalog of innuendo and the discomforts of the wilderness. The extraterrestrials are varied and have personalities, and we get hints of their alienness, but they don’t sound like aliens. They sound more like very different humans. Which may be the point of Castro’s story, that we’re all people under the skin…except really we aren’t, and I thought part of the point of science fiction was to expose our species-centric thinking for the facile short-cut it is.
The story is a lengthy mood-piece, with plenty of room for tension-building and scene-setting, and I wish Castro had spent more effort to set up its denouement. He wants us to be surprised at the ending, and wants us to feel the emotional impact, but he doesn’t earn the payoff by carefully constructing the narrative to generate such a catharsis. Done properly, with elements and hints folded in along the way, with subtle mismatches between words and deeds, such an ending can be made to seem inevitable even as it startles. Secrets are most effective when we’re aware they exist, even if we don’t know what the contents of the secrets are. Instead, the story is going along, the moment of crisis is building…and then the whole thing gets whacked from an oblique angle, rendering it all arbitrary and contrived. I was more stunned than moved.
The idea here is that these primitive extraterrestrials need the presence of a monster. The monstrosity gives them meaning, and hope and purpose in some dim, ineluctable way. Does our own—human—fascination with the monster partake of the same deep need? It’s an intriguing notion, but I’m not convinced this story was the ideal conveyance vehicle.
Having said that, the gruesome details of this otherworldly jungle are much in line with extreme conditions here on our own planet, and the mood Castro sets is effective. The story is interesting and the characters lively. But Mistah Kurtz? He’s in another story entirely.
“The Witch of Duva: a Ravkan Folk Tale” by Leigh Bardugo
A story square in the center of Tanith Lee territory, though lacking the Mistress’s enveloping mellifluous cadences. Certainly its perfect for a November evening when the winds are amoan in the eaves and the trees are scritching at the windowpanes. Lots of Russian atmosphere here in what is a fantasy realm, I must suppose. A village girl finds herself playing the frog as the proverbial pot is brought to a boil: missing girls, a dead mother, a conniving widow set on seducing the once-happy father….
The story maintains a solid folktale idiom and pace, unfolding sedately to magnify the horror. This is a nice piece of work, though I think the secrets are over-familiar now thanks to decades of retold and reimagined fairy tales. Naïve readers will find ingenious twists, but more seasoned readers will probably not be surprised.
“A Spell of Vengeanc” by DB Jackson
In eighteenth century Boston, a conjurer and man-for-hire makes a deal with some worried merchants to protect them. However, he may be in over his head as he’s up against a seafaring conjurer of power and finesse.
The story is fleet of foot and spry, the consequences inevitable and just.
In this scenario, magic is accessed by tapping the veins, with ancestors filling in as familiars, har har. The use of Latin as the language of magic seems arbitrary (wouldn’t it be something more ancient?) and the concomitant translations of the Latin into English are distracting. I also found some of the details of setting and atmosphere awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative, breaking the mood a bit, but most readers won’t notice, much less care: it’s a bloody tale, told with flair, very much in the spirit of what book-buyers are hungry for these days.
“Loco” by Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling
A scientist has been flattened by a steamroller in his garage, and his assistants are left to assess the future of their research and their own personal futures, assailed by paper robots dispatched by the landlord to collect overdue rent. The primary novum here is that one can tap into the “pregeometric” logos which underlies spacetime foam and produce a teleportation/telekinesis-like effect, essentially smearing matter or energy on any old slab of spacetime you like, provided you are interfaced with a computerized leech, and have the processing space. So, vintage Rucker/Sterling, basically.
The story is a rough sketch, but so beside the point. The key to this sort of story is to provide instant recognition to the neolingo addicts and delights of tres cool technogeek affect, while skimming the substrate of fringe-yet-plausible sciencey handwavium sufficiently to obtain a sticky eyeball goo that will help what is otherwise a bit of literary popcorn cling to the reader’s cognoception for a satisfying afterthink. There’s certainly plenty of gnarl in this story: as a steaming slab of buzzword-riddled zeitgeistiana, “Loco” is a success.