Review of “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com in September 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

On a day in 1975, LT is ten years old. His mother wakes him to watch meteor showers, but something else happens, too, canisters falling from the sky with seeds that take root and sprout strange, invasive plants. In 1976, his mother has a new boyfriend and brings home a fern man in a pot. LT names it Slo Mo, and it soon gets too big so it has to go live with his dad. In 1978, a thistle cloud overtakes East Tennessee, blotting out the sunlight. Angered by an argument, LT’s dad tries to shove Slo Mo into the fireplace but it survives. In 1981, LT’s mom takes him to see the Dragon Tails, alien plants growing in Arizona. In 1986, drunk with his friends, LT wonders where the space bees are? How do the plants propagate without bees? In 1994, LT and his husband Doran adopt an Indonesian baby daughter they name Christina. Agriculture has failed in Indonesia because of the alien plants, and people are starving. In 2007, LT is reading to Christina and their son Carlos when his dad’s neighbor calls and tells him he needs to check on his dad. The house has been overtaken with vines, and inside Slo Mo is pressing against the roof. His dad has cancer, and LT and Doran make plans to move him into their house. At Thanksgiving in 2028, Christina announces that her research team has found a bacteria is evolving that will consume some of the alien plants. There is a potential for these bacteria to become part of the human gut flora, which would make the alien plants edible for people. In 2062, LT is ninety-seven. Doran is gone, but his family is still around him.

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm, slightly wry and very inclusive. At the risk of dissing East Tennessee, LT’s parents seem fairly typical. Mom has serial boyfriends and dad is God-fearing fundamentalist, but LT and Doran still manage to put together a nice, normal marriage and a great family. The dates in the story make up a Fibonacci series, like the spirals made by the Dragon Tails or a nautilus, and give us glimpses into LT’s life as the alien invasion takes root and grows. At the end of his life, LT is assured that his children will survive.

On the not so positive side, the story structure leaves us as mere observers skipping through the years. We can assume LT’s dad dies of his cancer, but there’s no info on what happens to Doran and Slo Mo. The plants apparently wreak havoc, but we don’t experience any of this, just a brief storm of thistles and vague reports of people starving in Indonesia. LT and Doran seem to have a comfortable life. Nobody really does anything that produces a solution to the problem except the lowly bacteria, mutating away in the background to take advantage of a new opportunity.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog in November 2018. (Maybe a bit of competition for Tor.com?) Zen Cho is Malaysian and lives in England. She is also the author of the short story collection Spirits Abroad and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. This review contains major spoilers.

Byam is an imugi. That means he’s an ugly, earthbound worm with the potential to be a glorious dragon if he could only become elevated enough. He spends his first thousand years in a cave, studying the Way and trying to improve himself. Finally he feels ready and begins his ascent to Heaven. However, he’s been distracted by an empty belly just recently and dined on some livestock, so the farmers curse at him, which drags him back down to earth. Byam comes up with a strategy for his second attempt at ascension. Hoping to win the acclaim of humans, he creates a beautiful dragon of cloud and light in the sky. However, the sailors below fail to recognize it as a dragon, and when he’s identified as only a worm, Byam falls to earth again. On the third attempt he’s interrupted by a female hiker taking a selfie, who catches him on her phone’s camera. Angered, he disguises himself as a human female and goes to her office, where he finds she is Dr. Leslie Han, an astrophysicist. He is charmed by her research, and they strike up an acquaintance that soon becomes a serious relationship on human terms. Byam manages to learn about human ways, and supports Leslie when she fails to get tenure, encouraging her to go to work for industry instead. Finally, she confesses she knows what he really is. The end of Leslie’s life comes too soon. Can Byam fulfill her final request?

Aww. This is a really sweet story about how the way others see us either pulls us down or elevates us to reach wonderful accomplishments. It’s full of love and humor and includes a hissy cat. What else can I say?

The only complaint I can come up with is that the lead-in to the relationship with Leslie seems long. I can see the reason for this, though—it’s to clearly establish how the anger and contempt of others pulls Byam down to earth at the moments he’s ready to become something exalted. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of “The Thing about Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine, November-December 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Leah is working on her dissertation in folklore, and her mom helps her by critiquing and editing the manuscript. Although Leah experienced a ghost herself when she was five, she is now more interested in how people attach meaning and purpose to their ghost stories. Leah’s mom is diagnosed with dementia. She urges Leah to go on and publish the manuscript as a book, but she doesn’t live to see its publication. After successfully getting her doctorate, Leah takes a job in academia and continues with research for another book, interviewing people about ghost’s they have seen and experienced. A couple of these interviewees tell Leah her mom is sitting right there next to her. Is there’s something unresolved in her mother’s death?

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm and slightly humorous. The characters are very engaging, and you’re pretty well hooked by the third paragraph when mom puts in an appearance. This is a poignant glimpse of what it’s like to lose a family member to dementia, as mom goes from being reliable to an unreliable editor and confidant, and finally Leah starts giving her fake documents to edit and then throws them away at the end of the day. She labors to finish her doctorate, trying to balance the demands of school with neurologist appointments, and then carries on with a career after her mother dies. The situation unfolds gradually, as we find her mother is trying to communicate from beyond the grave, and then ends gently as the situation is finally resolved.

On the not so positive side, I thought the tone was offensive and disrespectful to sufferers of dementia. This condition isn’t anything at all humorous. It’s a huge tragedy, both to the victims who feel their mental capacity and independence slipping away, and to family members who have to support them and deal with often challenging mental symptoms. Phrases like, “…figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on,” and “Mom really started to lose her marbles,” show us Leah’s exasperation, but completely ignore the pain and fear that her mother must be experiencing as her mental faculties start to fail. It’s no wonder she comes back to haunt her daughter. Kritzer soft-pedals Leah’s burden, too. It’s not going to be as simple as just taking Mom to adult day-care while you continue on with your studies–this condition is a nightmare for caregivers.

Dementia seems to run a close second to endangered children as a device to create emotion in a story, but if we’re going to do that, let’s have a hard, clear look at it, please.

Four stars.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

Review of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine July-August 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, there were three raptor sisters named Allie, Betty and Ceecee. They are happy, but one day a fair but stupid prince totally ignores all the signs in the surrounding lands and rides into their forest, whereupon Ceecee eats the prince’s stallion. He seems unconcerned. Suspecting treachery, the three sisters confer and Ceecee volunteers to accompany the prince to his nest to find out what is going on. At the castle, she is greeted by the prince’s fiancé (who is also a witch), and lodged in the stable. At first there seems to be no treachery, but eventually Ceecee is drugged and trapped by iron shackles to become the prince’s personal plaything. Meanwhile, her two sisters set out to look for her. The princess witch comes to their rescue, casting a glamour to make two raptor sisters look like humans and unlocking the shackles so Ceecee can escape. The sisters take the witch away with them to live in their forest, and all goes well for a while. Then the four of them have occasion to ride through the prince’s lands again and encounter him on the road. The hunt is sweet.

On the positive side, the narrative here reflects the sisters’ point-of-view and unfolds like a fairy tale that a raptor parent is telling her brood. The narrator’s tone is warm and entertaining, and the humans are generally characterized as terrified and inferior; except the princess witch, of course, who is a huntress and one of their own; and the prince, who is exceptionally stupid and obnoxious besides. One interesting detail here seems taken from tiger lore: the farm workers wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage the raptors from attacking. The picture of the witch living in the forest with the raptor sisters also evokes some fairly strong archetypes.

On the not so positive side, this feels long and is easy to predict. Although the raptor sisters are an interesting take on dragons, they still end up lacking depth, and the human characters tend to be totally flat stereotypes. It’s a fairly long story, and most of the words are used in creating effect rather than revealing what this world is like. Of course, the story is quite sexist, too. The ending where they all go back to the prince’s lands seems pasted on, as if Bolander thought the story wasn’t strong enough when the women just went off and did their own thing. Instead, it has to go on to demonstrate how stupid the prince’s assumption of authority over them is. And of course, they eat him up in the end.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine November-December 2018. For anyone who doesn’t know, T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon that she uses for adult works. This review contains spoilers.

Rose MacGregor has a problem keeping up with her sheep. She continually meets handsome faery men and uses the sheep as a pretext for striking up an uh-hum…relationship. However, Rose is not about to pine away over anybody. Instead, she’s married the blacksmith. The faery men discuss this around their campfire, and how hard it is to keep up with her in a physical way. They trade stories, the selkie and the pooka relating how Rose used them and tossed them away. Meanwhile one of the men weaves a bouquet of foxglove. Rose is at home with her granddaughter, carrying an iron nail in her pocket to remember her husband by. There’s frost in the air, and her granddaughter reports there are flowers on the step. “Ah… that time of year already, is it?” comments Rose with a smile.

This is a sly little story that turns the issue of pining after faery men backward and has them pining after Rose instead. It’s lightweight and fun, and the granddaughter turns out to look a lot like the selkie. On the not so great side, this hasn’t much in the way of substance other than the statement about pining. There’s room for some darkness, as dealing with the faery is supposedly full of pitfalls, but maybe Rose’s nail protects her from all that. This also has a definite sexist feel, which I’m sure is the author’s whole point.

Three and a half stars.

Spot Sleeps on Davidson

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Spot is now a media star. She’s made a second appearance on File 770, entitled Cats Sleep on SFF: Avram Davidson. Check it out here.

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