“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs


This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Uncanny Magazine, in the March-April 2018 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Adrianna’s best friend and housemate NPW is a taxidermist who picks up roadkill for subjects and works in the basement. Lately, he’s working on some kind of new technique that involves chanting and incense. Adrianna has no siblings and works for an estate sales firm that empties houses after someone dies. Her father is dead and her mother is in a nursing home with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Adrianna and NPW have been friends since they were kids, when NPW was a girl, and now NPW never hears from his parents except for regular prayer cards. NPW is moving up North to live with his girlfriend Robby, and Adrianna is sad. She has dreams that leave real artifacts behind, like blades of grass and wet clothes. When NPW leaves, the house seems filled with ghosts.

The most noticeable feature of this story is the imagery. The description, the sensory elements, and especially the narrative of the dreams, is exceptional. The characters are also strongly developed through both description and dialog, and the text is full of understated emotion related to Adrianna and NPW’s relationship and the hardship that is life and death. The dream artifacts are an evocative mystery that remains unexplained. The story ends with a final gift from NPW.

On the not so positive side, this is another story with a lot of decorative elements and no real plot. Adrianna and NPW talk and she dreams. NPW takes her to see her mom, and on the way back home they pick up another dead dog. They say good-bye and NPW leaves. That’s about it. The dead animals are sort of a gross-out, and adding horrific elements like this is starting to seem like a marketing gimmick to me. For anyone OCD, the loose ends here are also likely to be annoying. NPW’s new technique remains a compete mystery, and the dreams seem to have no function in the story, except to increase the artistic and fantasy feel of the narrative.

Regardless of the negatives, this is a highly artistic and well-developed short story, a glimpse into the life of a lonely girl with strange dreams who is losing her best friend. The artistic elements push up the rating.

Four and half stars.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in April of 2015, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, DeKnight Productions and Goddard Textiles. Steven S. DeKnight served as the showrunner. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

Matt Murdock is the blind, orphan son of a dead boxer in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, and Foggy Nelson is the son of a local butcher. Matt and Foggy graduate from law school together, form a partnership and set up a law practice on their old home turf. One of their first cases is defending a woman named Karen Page from murder charges, as she has been found in her apartment covered with blood, leaning over a dead co-worker. They are later approached by a man named Wesley to defend another questionable client, and with info from this case and from Karen about bookkeeping at the company Union Allied, they start to make connections about local organized crime. They hire Page as an office manager/legal assistant and begin investigating. Matt was blinded by a toxic waste spill in a car accident when he was a child, and after his father was killed by organized crime, the orphanage staff brought in an old martial arts expert, also blind, to help him cope. Matt learned how to compensate with unusually sharp senses, and unknown to Foggy and Karen, starts to work as a vigilante at night to take care of problems the law can’t reach. Local residents begin calling him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. When Foggy finds out about the extralegal activity, the two have a huge fight that endangers the practice, but they manage to bring down crime boss Fisk regardless.

The strongest of Marvel’s superheroes are that way because of how Marvel creators connect with the murky symbolism of the ID. That’s one of the things that makes Daredevil hard to carry off, but also makes it resonate. Matt’s blindness and his search for a moral compass in a complex world where good and evil intertwine is the heart of this show. He channels his rage at the world’s injustice into his nightly endeavors, while seeking the counsel of his local priest by day.

This show looks expensive because it is—the creators have been given artistic license. It spends huge amounts of time in character development and suspense, as we watch Fisk linger over his morning omelet and follow Matt’s difficult childhood. There is also a constant stream of imagery featuring blood, fire, hell and the devil. The award-winning opening sequence paints blind justice, the city and Daredevil’s mask all with red. Matt is constantly scarred and bloodied by his encounters with the world’s realities; the yakuza call him “fire demon,” and he sees the world in burning flames instead of black. His priest Father Lantom provides us with philosophical discussions about the nature of Satan and how good and evil reside within all of us—trying to help Matt sort it out.

The show isn’t for the faint of heart because of the violence, and it may seem to move slowly for the action-oriented because of the time spent in suspense and character development. Matt wore black for most of his nightly activities in this season. The Daredevil costume debuted toward the end of it and was criticized as pretty ugly. The first season made the show 7th most popular on TV, and it was nominated for a slew of awards. Cox was honored for his portrayal of the blind Matt Murdock at the American Foundation for the Blind’s 19th Annual Helen Keller Achievement Awards. He deserved the honor.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories


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?

Review of “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander


This story was published in Uncanny Magazine. It currently has 10 recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

I’m not sure what the narrator here is (angel? harpy?), but she is part of a sisterhood with pointy teeth, has wings and can appear as a human woman. In this guise, she is killed by “a nice young man from a good family.” Her spirit flees while the coroner puzzles about the wing stubs, and she hatches again from an egg incubated by her sisters. They all return for revenge, riding up to the guy’s house in a 1967 Mercury Cougar.

The story is fairly short, and the format is creative with a big chunk of it presented in bullet points. Bolander has a tough style that I like, and I also appreciate that she has challenged the reigning trend for sentimentality here. However, the story just looks to me like a statement of anger against rapists and murders with a feel-good ending that suggests the strong sisterhood will prevail regardless of violence against the female kind. There’s a great hook and it’s entertaining, but there’s nothing much in the way of character development and very little in the way of details here. It doesn’t say much except the obvious statement. I expect lots of readers will like the message, but I’d rather have more substance for a Nebula nominee.

Three and a half stars.

Review of X-Men: Apocalypse

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Have been to the movies again. You can tell from the reviews that I’ve got action adventure taste and that I’m a Marvel buff. This outing was to see X-Men: Apocalypse.

We’re in the 1980s. Professor Xavier has established his school for exceptional children and has it up and running. He’s concentrating on helping mutants learn to cope with their extraordinary powers and fit into society more comfortably. Meanwhile, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, investigating ancient Egyptian gods, accidently awakens powerful mutant En Sabah Nur (Apocalypse). Mayhem ensues, as Nur notices that a powerful civilization has arisen to challenges his rule while he has slept under the ruins of a pyramid. Can a young team of X-Men defeat him?

I wasn’t happy with this, or with the last X-Men film, either. The X-Men should be a really strong franchise because of the theme and symbolism—this represents hugely talented people who just don’t quite fit in and are ostracized from society because of it. There a really strong cast of characters here including Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, Hank and the young Jean, Cyclops, Quicksilver, Angel, Storm, Havoc and a really charming Nightcrawler. They’ve also put their money into a couple of A-list stars, Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Hugh Jackman puts in a quick appearance as Wolverine. This should be great. Problem? The script sucks. Instead of character development that would have let us get to know these wonderful people, we get tedious posturing from Apocalypse and over-wrought but stereotypical emoting from everybody else. Then there are some special effects for the climax and we’re done.

This hasn’t performed well in theaters, and I suspect part of that may be because the last film was lacking. I saw another review that said this franchise needs to be shaken up with more diversity, but I don’t think that’s the issue. Marvel produces great (and diverse) characters, but they have to have decent scripts and decent production values to let them work. You just can’t crank out hit films based on a tired formula.

Two and a half stars.

Colorless prose


More today on Michael A. Burstein, who’s been nominated 10 times for a Hugo but never won. Just achieving the nomination shows he was a very popular author during these years. His nominations include the short story category, which requires at least 5% of the cast nominations in order to appear on the ballot. So what’s the problem? What was he missing that would have put him over the top?

Burstein has the requirements to write good hard SF. He’s a physicist and a graduate of the Clarion Workshops. He’s a thinker, and structures his stories around ideas. Besides his Hugo nominations, he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1997 and received three Nebula nominations. But interestingly, I found one review that says Burstein favors “colorless” prose. The reviewer suggested this was in the style of earlier, traditional hard SF writers, such as, presumably, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, etc. Is colorless prose one of the requirements to write hard SF? Is it one of the requirements to be published in Analog?

What does it mean to have “color” in prose, anyway? Checking around, I find definitions like “to paint a picture with words,” or “to involve all the senses in your prose.” This has to do with characterization and description, in other words. It means the writer has spent a bit of time in presenting the setting and the characters so we have a mental picture of who’s who and where they are.

It’s true the most beloved authors from hard SF were trained on the technical writing side rather than the literary side, but with the entry of MFA’s into the SF market, the standards for writing style have changed. In 2004 Vernor Vinge got away with fairly colorless prose, but in 2005 Burstein didn’t. Instead, he lost to Mike Resnick’s little romance that gives us a endearing picture of Miss Priscilla Wallace and her two cats draped across Ethan’s porch swing. Colorful prose is now the norm for SF writing–and for the awards. It’s what everyone expects to read.

Analog at the 2005 Hugos

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After nailing the Hugo in 2004, Analog entered a long dry spell. However, they did continue to receive nominations. In 2005 they got four:

Best Novella:
“Time Ablaze” by Michael A. Burstein [Analog Jun 2004]
In 1904, Adele Weber and her mother take in a man named Lucas Schmidt as a boarder. He claims to be a reporter for the New York World, but when Adele goes to visit him at work, she finds he doesn’t work at any New York City newspaper. Playing detective in his room, she finds a history of a fire on the steamboat General Slocum that killed over a thousand people. The book was published in 2003. Adele wants to save the people, but Schmidt is only a time traveler there to record. Well-written and heart-breaking.

Best Novelette:
“The Clapping Hands of God” by Michael F. Flynn [Analog Jul/Aug 2004]
Multicultural teams of investigators find a world that seems to be paradise, inhabited by a sapient species. Although the residents are charming, team leader Hassan Maklouf is cautious. When the locals suddenly start to prepare for war, Hassan’s team is caught in the conflict. Diverse, well-written and with strong character development. Also heartbreaking.

Best Short Story:
“Shed Skin” by Robert J. Sawyer [Analog Jan/Feb 2004]
George Rathburn has had his consciousness uploaded to a robot, who now has legal title to all Rathburn’s assets. The “shed skin” is imprisoned in a luxurious institution where he’s unhappy. He takes a doctor hostage, demanding to be let out. The robot version of himself has to decide whether to relinquish his legal position in order to save the doctor’s life. The story raises arguments about racism and civil rights. Mainly focused on the issues, with low literary development.

“Decisions” by Michael A. Burstein [Analog Jan/Feb 2004]
Astronaut Commander Aaron Eliassen is imprisoned on his return to earth, because he has returned a week before the shuttle launch. Escaping from his cell, he returns to his room at the base and finds himself. He takes his own place and goes through the launch and time portal again, this time ending up with aliens who explain they mean to lock the solar system out of the universe because humans are violent. Eliassen pleads for more time, and is returned to his own reality.

What’s notable about the 2005 nominations is the swing away from hard SF to the more dramatic, sentimental work that’s been popular at the Hugos more recently. Only Analog’s short story nominations come across as hard SF, and are more involved with the legal issues of the singularity and how to deal with aliens than either science or the literary elements of the stories. (BTW, isn’t meeting yourself a paradox? Burstein totally fails to deal with it.) The Best Novella and Best Novelette winners in 2004 were both fantasy. Tomorrow, a review of the short story winner.

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