Review of “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

5 Comments

This story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category. It was published in Strange Horizons December 2017, and it runs fairly long at about 8400 words. This review includes spoilers.

Maria is stuck in Athens when the plague strikes. She is 23-weeks pregnant and her elderly father is infected. Taking him with her, she sets off, trying to make it home to Thessaloniki and her husband Simos. There have been riots and the power grid is down. There are birds everywhere. The roads are choked with abandoned cars, and eventually she can’t make any more progress on the highway. Maria leaves her father in the car and goes out foraging for food. She sets birds free that are trapped indoors, finds a shopping cart to load her father into. She meets Elena, another uninfected woman, and the two of them join forces, traveling toward Maria’s home while her father slowly turns into a bird. When they get to the house, it’s empty. Simos has gone to Athens to look for her. Maria is attacked and injured by an infected person, loses the baby. She wants to continue the fairy tale, but can she?

This leans heavily to the surreal, and there’s not much in the way of plot. Elena calls it the “zombie apocalypse but with birds.” The story is very strong on imagery and dwells on words that describe collectives of birds. There are long blocks of Maria’s observations and memories, interwoven with a narrative to her unborn child where she tries to somehow turn the end of civilization into a fairy tale. It did hold my interest until the end, and amazingly, the ending felt uplifting.

On the not so positive side, some readers might feel this is a total waste of time. It’s all about the experience.

Three and a half stars for the artistic effect.

Advertisements

Review of “Utopia LOL?” By Jaime Wahls

Leave a comment

This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, published by Strange Horizons. According to the biography with the story, Wahls works for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that does basic research on the question of how to make super-intelligent machines safe and beneficial. This review contains spoilers.

Kit is the Tour Guide to the Future and full of enthusiasm for her job. When Charlie is thawed out after “like billions” of years in cold storage, she is there to towel him off, get his cancer fixed and give him an introduction to life as it is now. She introduces him to the AI Allocator and offers him simulated Universes to live in. Charlie is unhappy with life as a bird and rejects Kit’s recommendation that he try floor tiles, and chooses a LOTR universe instead. After a few years, Charlie is bored silly, and Kit and the Allocator have to find something else to fill his need to be productive. Would Charlie be interested in a star probe?

In case you can’t tell from the summary, this is humor. Kit is a total airhead, and likes to be a floor tile because it allows her to form complete thoughts. The story also pillories social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other unproductive devotees of popular culture. There is also a serious side, as the Allocator is in charge of providing for humanity. It is constrained by its programming and facing the issue of overpopulation and the ongoing destruction of Earth. If they’re all like Kit, maybe humanity is well on the way to self-destruction, too. The stock of humans in cryostorage represents a resource to deal with these crises. This is pretty clear, but then the story goes off the rails into vagueness at the end when they start talking about a memory wipe for Kit.

I didn’t understand this, so I went looking for other opinions. The best explanation I found was that Kit is valuable for her total air headedness and her enthusiasm, and Allocator wants to preserve this for its next candidate for revival. Presumably this is because of its programming, which requires that humans have to want something from it and provide affirmative consent to its recommendations, and that Kit has a predictable effect on the old-timers. This doesn’t quite hold water for me.

Humans in this future (except the cold storage ones) are post-Singularity, only an uploaded digitized consciousness. I can accept that Allocator’s resources are running low to support the human population, but I don’t see how a digitized consciousness can reproduce at all, much less at an unmanageable rate. Also, I don’t see how Allocator can memory-wipe a digitized consciousness without altering what she is. Couldn’t it just produce a disposable copy? And what’s the deal with sending just one person off on a star probe? If they find a great place, how is one person going to procreate? Cloning? Who’s going to be in charge of this? Hm.

Regardless of the niggling logical failures, this is a hugely successful story because of the scope and humor.

Four and a half stars.

Review of DAS STEINGESCHÖPF by G.V. Anderson

Leave a comment

This is the short fiction winner of the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Strange Horizons.

In 1928 Herr Hertzel has recently been made journeyman, and the Schöpfers’ Guild has given him his first commission. Frau Leitner has written from Bavaria to request a small restoration. Hertzel makes the journey and finds Frau Leitner in a small village. She is an older woman with a bad cough, and she takes him to the piece that needs work, a Steingeschöpf housed in her attic. The piece’s name is Ambroise, and he was carved in Queckstein by the French Master De Loynes during the seventeenth century. Ambroise’s eyes are so deteriorated that he can hardly see to paint, and he shows other signs of decomposition, as well. Hertzel feels inadequate to restore a piece of this history, and he tries to refuse the job, but Frau Leitner talks him into it. There are dangers. The Queckstein dust can destroy the lungs and working it absorbs life and memory. Is Hertzel up to the task?

For anyone wondering, Steingeschöpf roughly translates as “stone creature” or “stone golem.” The imagery and characterizations here are first rate. You can smell the snow, and feel it crackle underfoot. Hertzel is a Jew in the years between the World Wars, and working the Queckstein reveals his story of love and loss. The tale also reveals the love between Ambroise and Frau Leitner, and how little time they have left. It’s a very touching story, without a lot of plot, but filled with subtle, understated emotional content. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

World Fantasy Awards

Leave a comment

While I’ve been doing my own thing, the World Fantasy Awards have happened. Here’s the list of nominees. Many of these are the usual suspects, but I’ll try to do some reviews to fill out the rest of the fiction categories. Many congrats to the winners!

Novel
• Winner: The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (Redhook; Orbit UK)
• Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
• Roadsouls, Betsy James (Aqueduct)
• The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
• Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff (Harper)

Long Fiction
• Winner: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
• The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
• Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
• “Bloodybones,” Paul F. Olson (Whispered Echoes)
• A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Short Fiction
• Winner: “Das Steingeschöpf,” G.V. Anderson (Strange Horizons 12/12/16)
• “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” Brooke Bolander (Uncanny 11-12/16)
• “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
• “Little Widow,” Maria Dahvana Headley (Nightmare 9/16)
• “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me,” Rachael K. Jones (Clockwork Phoenix 5)

Anthology
• Winner: Dreaming in the Dark, Jack Dann, ed. (PS Australia)
• Clockwork Phoenix 5, Mike Allen, ed. (Mythic Delirium)
• Children of Lovecraft, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse)
• The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Karen Joy Fowler & John Joseph Adams, eds. (Mariner)
• The Starlit Wood, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga)

Collection
• Winner: A Natural History of Hell, Jeffrey Ford (Small Beer)
• Sharp Ends, Joe Abercrombie (Orbit US; Gollancz)
• On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, Tina Connolly (Fairwood)
• Vacui Magia, L.S. Johnson (Traversing Z Press)
• The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu (Saga; Head of Zeus)

Artist
• Winner: Jeffrey Alan Love
• Greg Bridges
• Julie Dillon
• Paul Lewin
• Victo Ngai

Special Award, Professional
• Winner: Michael Levy & Farah Mendelsohn, for Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction(Cambridge University Press)L. Timmel Duchamp, for Aqueduct Press
• C.C. Finlay, for editing F&SF
• Kelly Link, for contributions to the genre
• Joe Monti, for contributions to the genre

Special Award, Non-Professional
• Winner: Neile Graham, for fostering excellence in the genre through her role as Workshop Director, Clarion West
• Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies
• Malcom R. Phifer & Michael C. Phifer, for their publication The Fantasy Illustration Library, Volume Two: Gods and Goddesses (Michael Publishing)
• Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny
• Brian White, for Fireside Fiction Company

Review of “The Right Sort of Monsters” by Kelly Sandoval

Leave a comment

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

Anabeth has bought back a son with crocodile teeth from the Godswalk. Her sister Viette wants a child, too. She has suffered a succession of miscarriages, and her marriage is failing as a result. The Godswalk is a beautiful oasis that appeared suddenly in the marshland after bright stars appeared in the night sky. Since then, the villagers have grown barren. Anabeth advises Viette not to go to the blood trees and ask for a child, because there are costs. Regardless, Viette sets off. She meets a monster child in the Godswalk, and finds that the trees not only want blood, but produce a crop of children that are mostly monsters. She is pleased with all the children she gets in return for her blood.

This might be slipstream, as I’m not sure whether to take it as science fiction or fantasy. It’s another story that plays on emotions, a mother’s desire for children. There’s a little social commentary, maybe, about how mothers are willing to accept the flaws in their children, and about how all children are monsters. I’m not sure this is intended.

Viette is expecting to cause trouble by accepting all her crop of monster children, but I’m not sure this revolutionary theme is justified. Is she expecting the villagers will attack her for bringing all her children home? That the children will be bullied? Everyone who has these children knows the truth about their birth, after all. This is a fully developed story, including imagery, character development and world building. Slight horrific undercurrent. Very sentimental, but no political messages that I can identify.

Four stars.

Potential nominee.

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

Leave a comment

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.

Comments on the Nebula Reading List top five short stories

23 Comments

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?

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: