Special Double Review
Reviewed by Robert Brown & Michelle Ristuccia
Reviewed by Robert Brown
“Wonder” by Debbie Urbanski
The “blues” arrive from their distant planet for unstated reasons with unrevealed purposes (ostensibly they simply crash-landed here on a habitable planet on their way from Who Knows toward Who Can Say, which seems suspicious to me), exuding their characteristic smells and clouds of white vapor when they are under stress, confounding, agitating and amusing the Earthlings in equal measure. The story is narrated by a child whose mother is some sort of medium, counselor or advisor. The local children interact with these aliens as you would expect them to, with equal parts curiosity and cruelty. The world in this story is bleak, grey and pointless; a portrait of the future rendered in dung. The narrator’s mother seems almost delusional in her insistence on optimism and hope, and in disregarding the dark natures and impulses of her fellow beings. The message of the story seems to be that, despite the predictions of all those weird sci-fi true believers, the advent of communications with ETs will (re)solve nothing, that life will go on, just with the added mystery of another sad, forlorn, clueless people lounging about wondering what it’s all about.
“The Message” by Ken Liu
In a story tangentially reminiscent of Tiptree’s “The Only Neat Thing to Do,” a woman dies, leaving care of their teenaged daughter to the father, a xenoarchaeologist who has never met the girl. After arrival at the planet where the father, James, is conducting his last-minute research on the ruin of an extinct ET species, their shuttle malfunctions and the pair are stranded. The terraformers are due, but there’s still time before the comets start plunging. Maggie resents her father’s abandonment, yet James notes hopefully that she seems to share his passion for archaeology. The girl manipulates the AI to uncover some of the history of her parents’ relationship and determines to help her father solve the puzzle of the alien artifact he is studying. The mystery here is a huge installation which carries an obvious message, but James cannot decipher it. He laments that civilizations tend to live in the present, disregarding the needs of those which will come after. The solution turns out to be frightfully important, and sacrifices are made in the line of duty, though those duties are unexpected ones. Too late James learns that sometimes civilizations do think about the future and its denizens. Though the clues are there to be read, I failed to decode the message. Perhaps you are cleverer than I.
“Needlepoint” by Priya Sharma
The origin story of a ghost: a dark story succinctly told, a tragic tale of repression and frustration, and a portrait of life in the cloisters of a feudal society. In the fantasy realm of Albion, the queen wields great power over her court and ladies-in-waiting. One of them, a special favorite of the King’s mother, remains at the indulgence of the king, but the queen would prefer to rid herself of the woman she calls Needlepoint. She gets her chance when Needlepoint unintentionally catches her at infidelity, and the queen murders her gruesomely with a macabre wit. Let the haunting begin.
“Beyond the Light Cone” by C. W. Johnson
I’m not certain about my interpretation of the sfnal aspects of this story, so I’ll describe them as I understand them, accurate or otherwise. Murderers in this future are sentenced to serve as interplanar postal workers, receiving and delivering messages at FTL speed, outside the light cone of the universe in which we exist. They zip around the universe in their FTL ships, using supercooled facilities beyond our ken to deliver the mail. If I read the story correctly, the messages are received first, then transmitted. (If this is the case, this is a funny touch, insert smiley-face emoticon here.) I have no idea why this process cannot be automated through a kind of transdimensional cable, though it might be a question of the exotic physics or simply the need for human ingenuity on the ground, as it were. In any event, these convicted killers are exiled forever to this realm, as return to our slow-poke world is impossible. The story plays out in this hypothetical metaverse in the memoir of one of the “volunteers,” a woman who turns out to have falsely confessed to a crime to save her son. Alas, her son is a recidivist who finds his own path to the same fate. Along the way these thugs murder each other and plot courses to collide with each other in order to wreak havoc, vengeance, or in hopes that enough joules will be generated to close a loop and return them to their lost home. The proceedings make for a story as exotic—and perhaps as unapproachable—as its setting.
“The Remembered” by Carl Bunker
A story of exploration on a distant world inhabited by sentient squids. With a dose of Pohl’s “Day Million,” we are introduced to a brave squid scientist and his quest to understand the dry world above. There’s a cute meet with an artist squid girl and the recounting of an old squid myth about the peril of boldness and the bonds of love. The story errs I think in making the analogies between our own time and the world of the squids a bit too analogous, but that may be more a matter of taste. It’s certainly amusing to watch squids pull up at a streetside café and nosh while flirting. The parallels are meant to demonstrate the universality of the impulse to risk security in the search for knowledge. The benefit of this approach is a story which is accesible and clear to anyone; the cost is the mundaning of the proceedings. From the social milieu, through the myth, all the way to the personal details, these squids seem more like people with fun foreheads than an alien species, always a risk with this approach. The result is a neat story with a whiff of the exotic…but only a whiff.
“Strigoi” by Lavie Tidhar
While some of the details of cultural verisimilitude Tidhar utilizes here are narrative techniques employed to draw the reader into the posited future—the parallels of an internet and webcams and MMORPGs, of references to institutions such as Phobos Studios (an analog of Hammer, most likely) and other nerdy, otaku tidbits of the familiar in the wash of nova—there’s a message in this kipple: in an unintentionally, yet cruel, way the people of the future will be the victims of history. In this story we see the comical consequences of this in the names of contemporary entertainments and their fictional shenanigans and in the immersive computer worlds such as Mars-That-Never-Was (Barsoom, and its ilk), the not-as-comical consequences of leaving the Earth to strive outward into the solar system, mining the rocks, burrowing the planets, bottling ourselves in tiny spaces swaddled with recycled air and human stink, and the not-comical-at-all consequences of the capricious artifice of vampires. Now believe me, I’m as sick of vampire stories as anyone; nonetheless I commend this story to anyone who loves an intense, immersive fictional exploration crammed to bursting with linguistic, cultural, psychological, political, sociological and technological speculation of the intermediate-future solar system crammed to bursting with the human species and its various spores, offshoots, seeds and terrariums. Though essentially plotless, the story’s structure is designed to maximize expository narrative and milieu-as-conflict. This is one vampire story which will not leave you feeling lifeless.
“Wonder” by Debbie Urbanski
Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia
“Wonder” by Debbie Urbanski sees through the eyes of its young unreliable narrator, Daniel, as he attempts to understand the arrival of “the blues,” his fellow humans’ drastic reactions to the aliens, and why his own mother turned their world upside down to leave his father and start a business giving seances. This dark narrative ends around the time that Daniel’s older brother taunts him by relating the rape of an alien friend of Daniel’s.
The setup should have been plenty of fodder for a riveting story, yet it failed to draw me into the character’s lives or any kind of larger plot. Instead, I felt like I was walking a very excitable saint bernard, dragged along to visit mysterious clumps of grass and already-vanished squirrels. There were very few causal links between the characters’ pasts and the events that the reader is subjected to in the present. The story hinges on Daniel’s voice and a theme of irrational fear.
I am not at all against using unreliable narrators to portray gruesome events, but Daniel’s voice leaves too much between the lines and the subtext is not backed up by a strong beginning, middle, and end. The story’s sole purpose appears to be to describe the human condition as terrible and without salvation. All in all, “Wonder” left me dissatisfied.
“The Message” by Ken Liu follows an estranged daughter and father archaeological team, Maggie and James Bell, as they attempt to decipher the ancient code inscribed into a city-sized alien momument by a civilization that has long ago destroyed itself. Equally mysterious to teenage Maggie is her parents’ history, and both she and her father struggle to understand the family’s past separation and how it impacts their family unit after the death of Maggie’s mother and James’ ex-wife, Lauren. In the end, the messages left by the Pi Baeo turn out to be of immediate importance to both Maggie and James, and they almost miss decoding it in time.
I was impressed with how heavily “The Message” depends on events in the story’s past, and yet the exposition never interrupts the flow and pacing. When Maggie or James comment on their past, or watch video clips from before Maggie was born, each bit of data is made clearly and immediately relevant to the story. The parallel mystery of Pi Baeo serves as a more subtle bottom layer, warning of a tendancy to destroy ourselves over misunderstandings and stubborness, whether our weapons are words or bombs.
“The Message” is an intriguing, well-balanced tale of learning from our should-have-dones and pushing forward to a better future. Both Maggie and James get their time in the spotlight, supported by a classic SF riddle, a helpful ship AI, and a shared past.
“Needlepoint” by Priya Sharma tells the first-person narrative of Lady Agnes, a woman trapped in her precarious role as one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, where she is barely allowed to wonder whom she might love, for fear that her future husband will be chosen for her after she has given her heart to another. Just as it seems that Lady Agnes has finally found a romantic interest that might be acceptable to both herself and her betters, Agnes stumbles upon a secret that the Queen is willing to kill for – and does.
The horror ending surprised me because the setting and plot progression are medieval fantasy to the core. Priya Sharma does such a good job with the interplay between the characters and their restrictive society that I actually felt sorry for every single one of them, even Jane and Anne, who aid in the murder attempt. Each of the characters, from the adept Queen to the dense Stephen, can be seen as controlled in equal parts by their individual emotions and their societal roles, which often come in conflict with each other. Agnes attempts to circumvent these dangers by curbing her tongue and staying out of other people’s business, but unfortunately for her, she fails at both and lands herself in the Queen’s hands.
“Needlepoint” is a pleasant diversion that adeptly walks the line between subtext and internal dialogue, and it ends with a heavy dollop of poetic justice to top it all off.
“Beyond the Light Cone” by C. W. Johnson follows Marga, a criminal exile, as she is forced to reconcile her love for her son, Boyo, and the man that he could have been, with the heartless serial killer that Boyo is now. The first-person perspective begins with a short lament that foreshadows the sorrowful, introspective ending. C. W. Johnson quickly transitions into the plot, introducing us to the only other character we will see in the present, Zweik, who serves as a voice of reason against Marga’s twisted subjective view. From the beginning, the text expertly incorporates the backstory we need to understand that Marga and Zweik are exiles on a spaceship that has been purposefully stranded beyond the speed of light, and therefore beyond the light cone. As Marga describes her desperate search for news of her son, their poisonous relationship becomes painfully clear to the reader, but it is not until she learns of Boyo’s malicious plan that she realizes that her “babe” was lost to her long ago.
“Beyond the Light Cone” is one of my favorites in this issue because it has clear character development spearheaded by a crisis that puts no less than the entire galaxy on the chopping block. While C. W. Johnson offers the reader plenty of hardcore science fiction as setup, the true genius of the story lies in the fact that Marga must accept a shameful aspect of her own self before she can fully acknowledge the monster that her son has become under her guidance. Marga’s story is all about realistic personal responsibility and owning up to her mistakes before her universe explodes.
“The Remembered” by Karl Bunker describes the innocent love affair of “Sam” and “Sarah” right before Sam’s untimely death. The story focuses on what Sarah does with her grief, and how her loss is analogous to the loss that threatens all living creatures capable of love. All living creatures indeed, for Sam and Sarah are Other.
Sam’s death fits the quaint, rose-colored tone of the peace perfectly, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Part of me balks at the idea that Sarah’s sculptures can somehow “right” the “wrong” of Sam’s death. For me, the depersonalization of Sam and Sarah went a tad too far, painting them more as metaphors and less as individuals than I prefer. However, I wouldn’t call the characters flat – more like fuzzy at their rounded edges, especially where their lives are compared to their gods, Jason and Janice.
On the other hand, “The Remembered” invoked a strong reaction in me, as opposed to ambivelence. Karl Bunker writes Sam and Sarah as if these alien creatures who live under the water were humans in body suits. Every action of Sam and Sarah reminds us that they are Other, yet the reader is not only able to empathize, but to extend that empathy to all higher order creatures. I found myself thinking of this story and its meaning after many of the others in this issue had begun to fade. I suspect that this was the true point of the narrative, that things and people become important when they leave a mark on those that they touch, even after they have gone away.
“Strigoi” by Lavie Tidhar is about a life and a relationship made complicated by the fact that Carmel is a cybernetic vampire who feeds on virtual data, sustaining herself on the kind of intimate memories that make a person an individual. After her first lover, Stolly, kills himself for the sake of her as his muse, Carmel seeks out Boris, a man she knows is immune to her Trigoli nature.
Lavie Tidhar provides the reader with a captivating translation of vampirism to a high-tech universe. Like classic vampires, Trigoli need to feed, can paralyze and charm their victims, and can just as easily and accidentally kill as if it were blood that they were siphoning. Even when Carmel exercises restraint with Stolly, she still ends up damaging his physical health through her repeated feedings. Yet, it is not this that kills him, but his damaged mind, leaving Carmel to despair of ever establishing a relationship that is more symbiotic than parasitic.
I especially like how Tidhar’s reimagining of vampires leads the reader to focus on the alienness of the Trigoli, so that life, food, and love must all be redefined. Too many urban fantasy stories misuse this archetype as an excuse to glorify abusive relationships. In contrast, Carmel and Boris are perfectly aware that their relationship is far from perfect and may need to be terminated before it ends in trajedy, as it did with Stolly. The question, put to Carmel at the end, is whether she will give the relationship a fair shot, or give up on ever finding love because of her nature as a Trigoli.
Reading this story made me want to seek out Lavie Tidhar’s other stories set in his Central Station, where “Trigoli” is set.
Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.