Tor.com, November 2013
Reviewed by Cyd Athens
Andy Marino’s “The Oregon Trail Diary of Willa Porter” starts out as though written by an ordinary teenager on a cross-country wagon trip. Sixteen-year-old Willa Porter does not want to travel from Missouri to Oregon in a wagon train with an uncle, aunt, and cousin. When the trip begins on May 1, 1846, she does not think well of her relatives, assigning them the respective appellations Barkface, Horseface, and Pinchface. Things change on June 3, 1846 when rain that feels like “a prickly tingling against” the travelers’ skin brings gradual transmogrification. Willa’s diary worms its way into her flesh. Others in the group become one with everything from the animals in the area to the toys with which they have been traveling. Some of the oxen that have pulled their wagons now have small girlish blue eyes. As abruptly as it began, the rain stops. The changes, however, remain. Though this story starts out slowly, it covers the ground necessary to show how Willa changes, both inside and out.
“Feature Development for Social Networking” by Benjamin Rosenbaum is a humorous mash-up between a social networking timeline, and a series of email correspondence. It also incorporates live data links from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Wikipedia, and YouTube. It begins with character Marsha Shirksy reporting to her friends on a Facebook-like social network that she has been bitten, the first stage in Acquired Extreme Rage with Cognitive Impairment (AER/CI) aka becoming a Zombie. The story alternates between how Marsha and her friends are dealing with her new status, and the correspondence that a software development team is having about their “‘Became a zombie’ Life Event.” If you’ve ever chatted with friends on a social network, or been part of a project team with a range of personalities, you will appreciate this story.
Donald. Or Albert. Or Paul. That is the primary character’s name in Su-Yee Lin’s “Thirteen Steps in the Underworld.” The story is told in second person point of view. After using his wedding ring as payment to the ferryman on the river Styx, Donald/Albert/Paul begins his journey. An inability to remember details is, in part, what drives him to continue his search, and he sometimes forgets what he is seeking. The tale’s format imbues it with a sense of a character disassociated from, possibly even at odds with, his surroundings. His introspections coexist with the observations he makes while moving through the Underworld. It is debatable whether the success of his mission should elicit celebration or sadness. This is a story for those who like their speculative fiction seasoned with esotericism.
In “House of Dreams,” Michael Swanwick gives us Ritter. He and a companion, whose identity is not disclosed until later in the story, are to carry out a mission. Ritter has been waylaid by two doctors at a sanitarium. They attempt to learn Ritter’s mission by infiltrating his mind using magic and disinformation. Ultimately, they are unable to get the information. Ritter and his companion go about their business. This labyrinthine story, “set in an alternate fin de siècle Europe,” sprinkles breadcrumbs along the way to a groan-worthy ending that some readers may not understand.
Cyd Athens indulges a speculative fiction addiction from 45ø 29 30.65 N, 122ø 35 30.91 W.