Review of “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This story was published in Strange Horizons. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Sergio is a maintenance worker (in New York City?) with a work order to remove a graffiti mosaic from the wall of the Westchester Building. However, when he touches the mosaic, he has a vision, as if experiencing the scene where police evict a boy’s parents and shoot his father. It’s like an electrical shock. Not sure what happened, he goes home to his wife Carolina, who suffers from dementia. The next week, he avoids destroying the mural. On the way home on the bus, he sees another one on the side of an auto repair shop. He gets off the bus, climbs the fence and touches the mosaic, experiences a girl having a traffic accident. He’s nearly arrested by security, gets home late. The next day he calls in sick to work and rides the bus around town, locating more of the murals. In the evening, he’s approached by three people who seem to be the artists. He asks them to make a mural for him. The woman agrees, and puts together the bits of Carolina’s life into a mural that makes her remember–at least for a while.

Okay, I’m sort of charmed by this one. It’s another of the sentimental works that’s so de rigueur lately, but I like Sergio and his devotion to Carolina. It’s an interesting idea to put together the bits of her life into a magical image that will make her remember. There’s also a philosophical statement, that life is about loss, and a political one, that we should remember the ones lost and name the ones responsible. These messages are fairly subtle, pretty much obscured by the main theme about Carolina. The ending seems to be a bit abrupt.

Three and a half stars.

Potential nominee.

Review of “Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson

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This short story was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It currently has six recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Kavian is a sorcerer of the Cteri, the people of the dams, making war against the Efficate that wants the water they have captured in their reservoirs. The Efficate have wizards, too, but they are weak in comparison to the weapons of the Cteri. These weapons are abused children called abnarch who have been kept in dark, solitary confinement for their whole lifetimes. Kavain is given the abnarch girl, Irasht, to use as a weapon in the war. Her own abnarch daughter, Heurian, is given to another sorcerer, Fereyd Japur. The two use the girls to destroy the Efficate armies. Heurian dies, but Irasht is saved when the Efficate break off the war. Kavian then revolts against the system, challenging the female warlord Absu to release the imprisoned children.

This is a fully developed story, very personal and written in the present tense. Because it’s about abused children meant to be used as vessels, it’s very emotionally charged for our society that protects children so heavily. Absu is very pragmatic, without any apparent feelings clouding her decisions. However, both Kavian and Japur are plagued with guilt and get attached to their charges. By the end of the story Kavian has taught Irasht to talk and think, and uses her to press the revolt.

This is a very competent work meant to be emotional manipulation. I’m impressed at Dickinson’s skill at putting it together–he hits on a lot of current memes, strong females and disadvantaged men, etc. However, I’m a little hard to manipulate emotionally, so this just comes across as offensive because of the child abuse. There are also some other issues: First with the Cteri, who seem to be hogging all the water in the region and then abusing the children as a means of defending their civilization—there’s no mention that maybe they should just share. Next, I doubt very much that sorcerers who have grown up within this system would wallow in guilt or even question how it works—that’s imposed from our culture. Last, children who have been kept in the dark this way will likely be insane and not loving or trainable in any way. It’s also likely they will be blind.

I’ll give it some extra credit for the quality of the writing. Excellent imagery, character development and world building.

Four stars.

I think this one is a potential nominee.

Review of “The Curse of Giants” by Jose Pablo Iriarte

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This story was published by Daily Science Fiction. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Danny was born a “giant,” which means he never fits in. He is clumsy and is called Dumbass Danny at school, where he sometimes responds to the bullying by acting out, knocking over chairs and tables and kicking things. When this happens, he gets disciplined at home, as well. He tries to report that he’s being bullied, but nothing happens. When the acting out happens again, his father beats him with a belt. Danny goes to the principal’s office and lifts his shirt, showing the marks.

This is another feel good story with strong anti-bullying and anti-child abuse messages. However, like most of the stories I’ve read on the Nebula Reading List this year, it’s not fully developed. Danny has made a strong statement at the end, but the story should have gone on to tell what happens in Danny’s life when Child Protective Services intervenes. Also, I don’t think this one is SFF. I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy content at all, except that Danny thinks he’s a “giant” instead of a disabled child.

Three stars.

Review of “Things With Beards” by Sam J. Miller

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This story was published in the June issue of Clarkesworld. It currently has 10 recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. (I’ve revised based on comments.)

MacReady is one of two survivors of an incident at an Antarctic research station. His lover Childs is the only other survivor. The station has been found burned down, with the residents blown to bits and only two apparently frozen corpses perfectly preserved. There is also something that resembles a spacecraft in the wreckage. Thawed out in surprisingly good condition, MacReady rejoins life in New York City and takes up the fight for civil rights in a society where gays are ravaged by AIDS and the police target blacks. His old lover Hugh takes him to a meeting where he joins a plan to bomb NYC police stations. MacReady thinks something is wrong with him, but can’t put his finger on it. He has gaps in his memory. He starts to jump off the George Washington Bridge, but reconsiders. He carries out his part of the plot, leaving a bomb at a precinct station. On the way home, he has a profound realization about monsters.

This story is a sequel to the John Carpenter move The Thing, which is adapted from John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella “Who Goes There?” The two survivors of the destroyed station are infected by an extraterrestrial creature that emerges to claim other victims when conditions seem safe. At those times MacReady and Childs have memory lapses, realizing that something isn’t right, but with no idea what it is.

This is fairly long, written in present tense, and follows MacReady’s efforts to find a place in society again. It gives glimpses of the world around him, of what went on in Antarctica, glimpses of his past, and makes connections with issues current in society. It’s interesting as an extrapolation of the movie, but like most of the Nebula Reading List stories so far, it’s message fiction.

I’m certainly not the expert on literary criticism, but I think this is a postmodern work. It has a scattershot approach where Miller throws out a lot of different bits and leaves the reader to try to put them together into some kind of cohesive whole. Note: The following discussion contains spoilers.

Message 1: As far as I know neither of the works this sequel builds on has any mention of sexuality or racism. That suggests Miller has introduced the gayness of the characters and MacReady’s allyism with the Black Liberation movement to make some kind of statement. Progressive is what’s going to jump out at most people.

Message 2: Miller uses gayness as an excuse to bring up the AIDs epidemic, which was in full swing in the 1980s. He draws a parallel to the spread of the alien life form, as in the story MacReady trades the alien for AIDS through casual sex. This is interesting but not very deep, and I find the references dated. We’ve come a long way in prevention and treatment since 1980 and still referring to AIDS as the “gay flu” struck me as victimization.

Message 3: Through Hugh, Miller sends MacReady to a Black Liberation meeting. He’s right the movement was in sharp decline in the 1980s, but I get the feeling he’s not talking about 1980 here, at all. The issue of police shootings is current and has sparked a new movement, Black Lives Matter, with retaliation against the police from either inside or outside the organization. The fact that MacReady and the others agree to bomb police stations so readily is a questionable suggestion. Is violence against the police progressive, or something beyond that? Neoleft? A return to radicalism?

Message 4: Miller winds this up in the last paragraph by letting us know we need to make peace with the monster within.

Okay, so what’s this all about? Editor Neil Clarke’s estimation is apparently that it will piss a lot of people off. Because he runs a progressive magazine, I suspect he’s identified Message 1 and considers the story to be progressive because it’s about gay men as victims and defending African Americans from the police through retaliatory measures.

However, does it really say that? The problem with postmodernism is that the disorderly presentation means readers can draw different conclusions from the text. I can interpret the gayness and bombings to be just interesting sidelines to the main story here, but when I get to the main theme as stated in the last line, then I need to look back at what’s been said. If Miller has been talking about monsters, then gay men with AIDS carry a monster within that they communicate to others. Also, people who ally with the Black Lives Matter organization to retaliate against the police are monsters within. But this is all okay. Just make peace with yourself and go on spreading it around.

Actually, that reading could piss off a few progressives.

Regardless of the politics, I think this story is complex and well-developed enough to rate a possible nomination. I’d be happier if the messages were more subtle.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Girl in Blue Dress (1881)” by Sunil Patel

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This story was published by Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. It has 6 recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

A girl in a blue dress looks out from a painting. She has no name and people speculate on what she might have been to the artist. He promised to immortalize her. She posed for him and he captured her in the paints. Dissolving as he painted, she found her vantage had shifted to looking out. In the dark of night, she acts out her anger, kicking at his name.

This is flash fiction, very short. It’s a creative idea, and I wasn’t sure it was going to be speculative fiction until she got sucked up into the painting. It also has a nice symbolic feature in that the subjects of great paintings are often immortalized this way, even though their names are lost. After they’re gone, the painting is all that’s left of them. Again, because of the length, this story has little substance and no ideas other than this subtext.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong

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I’m continuing down the Nebula Reading List. This story currently has 6 recommendations. It was published by Tor.com.

Hannah and Melanie are sisters with powers over reality. As children, they crackle with lightning, weave daisy chains in the sky. As they get older, Melanie warns Hannah against changing things. “It’s not that easy to get it right,” she says. Hannah breaks away from family and runs to the opposite coast, while Melanie stays home. Eventually Melanie ends the world, immolating herself. Arriving just too late, Hannah tries to fix things, going back further and further in time as we follow the iterations. During this process, Hannah reflects on her sister, their childhood and their mother, a visit Melanie made before she ended the world.

The story has a creative organization, as it repeats different permutations of Melanie dying and the world ending, each with added reflections on the sisters’ lives and relationship. It had a strong hook and started with a magical feel, but I was eventually disappointed when it didn’t fill out with more substance. It remained all just suggestion, the whole situation vague and undefined, snapshots in time continually shifting until it ends. I’ll give it a little extra for style.

Three stars and a half stars.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

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It takes 10 nominations to make a story a Nebula finalist, so these five stories I’ve just reviewed look to be the ones with the best likelihood to make it.

Since I’m reading down the list, there are a few trends sticking out. As far as I know, only SFWA members can make recommendations. Because the listing has been recommended by professionals in the genre, I’d expect to get good quality on the list. These stories I’ve just reviewed have recommendations in the double digits, but I’m just not finding a lot of what I’d call substance in the content. I’m thinking all those people are clicking the “recommend” button because they want to affirm the message. If I’m looking for quality stories to nominate, does that mean I can put any confidence in the number of recommendations the stories have gotten at all? Hm. Maybe not. Does this mean the trend to sentimental stories has shifted and this year message fiction is the in thing? Hm. Maybe so. Hopefully there’s more substance further down the list.

Next, I’m seeing a lot of repetition in the names. Caroline Yoachim, for example, has 5 stories on the list; A. Merc Rustad has three; José Pablo Iriarte has three, etc. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that these people must be very consistently high quality writers.

Third, I don’t see any real, serious hard SF in the top five. I commented on this trend a couple of years back after the awards cycle, the fact that hard SF is in trouble, being replaced (this year) with somewhat humorous message fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of SF or fantasy. I have to agree that the stories are entertaining and fun and that the messages are progressive, but there are no fully developed short stories in this group of five with, for example, strong character development, great world building, vivid imagery, thoughtful themes and universal questions about the human condition. What’s happened? Is this the influence of “Cat Pictures Please,” last year’s Hugo winner? Or has pressure from the Puppies encouraged the SFWA to promote progressive political messages at the expense of well-developed, serious science fiction and fantasy stories?

One last observation is that just a few magazines seem to be dominating the list. For example, Lightspeed has 20 entries in the current list, Daily Science Fiction has 12, Clarkesworld has 10, F&SF has 10 and Strange Horizons has 10. Glancing at the titles, I don’t think hard SF is the reigning paradigm. This isn’t a new trend, either. Analog did make a better showing this year than it sometimes does, with 5 entries. Where should I look for stronger substance? Is Asimov’s still the indicator there?

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