Tor.com, July 2013
Reviewed by Jared L. Mills
Tor.com celebrated its fifth birthday with a slew of original short fiction for the month of July and most of it was up to the usual high standards of the website.
“The Ministry of Changes” by Marissa K. Lingen
Fantine works in the Ministry of Changes, an Orwellian agency that is part of a shadowy dystopian society where the walls have ears and the government controls all. It’s a world of perpetual (Cold) war that is a throwback of sorts to the literary science fiction of the mid-20th century. While the story is lush with descriptions of smells, tastes, sights and sounds, the overall plot is so worn and clichéd that not an ounce of originality can be wrung out of it.
“Homecoming” by Susan Palwick
A young girl ostracized for being a tomboy in her village dreams of going to sea with her best friend, Gareth, to experience adventure and a life she thought would be forever denied her. Palwick offers a beautifully written fantasy with exceptionally vivid world-building and populated by characters that you can’t help but hope for sequels to revisit them. While the intro describes this as a dark fantasy, its tension bubbles beneath the surface rather than a flash of grimness. Palwick excels at finding the humanity in her characters and worlds and this short pieces of fiction shows of her talents in spades. A story to treasure and savor with each reread.
“The Plague” by Ken Liu
A slight tale that is part of Nature magazine’s Futures column. In a post-apocalyptic world where a plague of nanobots has ravaged most humans and created a symbiotic relationship as “shkin,” a lone man from a protected dome community ventures outside to help the infected. While the story doesn’t have much in the way of word count, it certainly packs a lot of clever world-building and an ending you won’t see coming. Ken Liu is one of the best in the biz and this is yet another feather in his cap. Highly recommended.
“Dragonkin” by Lavie Tidhar
A hallucinatory, confusing and confused urban fantasy about a human girl who is also one of the dragonkin, a long-forgotten race. Tidhar, who usually writes tight narratives with well-designed worlds, alternates the short story with too many asides and mystical mumbo jumbo that comes from the throwing-a-bunch-of-made-up-words-together school of fantasy. Brief moments of character come through when we see Tarasque. There is no center to hold the elaborate drapes of elves and dragons and murdered gods. It’s a mess of a story that has the dubious distinction of being the talented author’s weakest contribution.
“One” by Nancy Kress
A touching tale that opens with a Flannery O’ Connor quote and explores the fate of a violent young man and boxer by profession who finds himself with the ability to see other people’s actions before they take them, and the problems that causes in his personal relationships. Kress hones in on the realities and price that such a power entails and does it all through the prism of how it affects the characters. The story works as a meditation on love, violence and fate because of Kress's wizardry at seeing an idea through to its conclusion and by giving the reader just the right amount of ebb and flow to the narrative. The ending packs one heck of a punch (sorry, I couldn’t resist), and shows the quality and diversity of writing that Tor.com is publishing five years in.
“Old Dead Futures” by Tina Connolly
John, a young boy confined to a wheelchair and a prisoner in his own body has the amazing ability to change the future, a talent that the US government uses for a variety of national security purposes. The story explores John’s exploitation by the government, but also John’s desire to find a happy future for himself and his mother, even though for some people a happy ending just doesn’t exist. A sobering story that will leave the reader with some disquieting thoughts.
“Contains Multitudes” by Ben Burgis
The Others came to Earth sometime in the 1980s and live amongst us through a symbiotic relationship with certain individuals. The protagonist of the story is a teenage boy named Alex who lives with the alien creature inside of him, giving him a slightly pregnant look, and benefits from the enhanced senses it provides. Excellent world-building and genuine teenage angst makes this story a winner.
“The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn
A scientist discovers an object of alien origin out near Jupiter (a BDO, to us science fiction junkies), but finds that the biggest hurdle to exploring it isn’t technical, but bureaucratic. While most science fiction stories tend to take the view that all of humanity would pull together our vast resources to explore, contact and engage an alien civilization, Vaughn’s story takes a more pragmatic approach and hits interesting results.
“Rocketship to Hell” by Jeffrey Ford
In a small bar outside of a science fiction convention in Philadelphia, an old pulp story writer tells two people the secret behind his lost novel. Cole Werber was a prolific short story writer in his heyday and sold his Pirsute, the alien vegetable-man detective, stories to all the big science fiction magazines of the day. But one day Werber is approached by a mysterious group of millionaires who offer him the chance to become a real live astronaut, though there are ominous overtones to their offer. This charming story is a love letter to the science fiction of yore, both in tone and references. It reads like something Pohl could have written, but with a timeless sensibility that makes it more than just a cheap photocopy. The story gets extra points for using the criminally underrated Tom Purdom as a plot point.
“A Terror” by Jeffrey Ford
A plodding tale based on a poem by Emily Dickinson that involves magic, Death and a witches spell. Miss Dickinson awakes to an empty house where there is little evidence that her family has been there recently. She is soon visited by Death itself, using the name Quill for no apparent reason, who is there to collect her soul unless she uses her prodigious wordsmith prowess to help him undue a witch's spell. The personification of Death is so worn out and tired at this point I’m surprised anyone would write a story using it, let alone an editor buy it. This is Ford’s second story of the month and is by far the weaker of the two. The story goes nowhere, takes a long, uninteresting path getting there and reaches for Gaiman levels of pomposity, but without the flair that make his stories sing. While Ford had an interesting idea by using poetry as a jumping off point for a fantasy tale, this one falls short of its lofty goals.
“All the Snake Handlers I Know Are Dead” by Dennis Danvers
A broken woman attempts to build a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, but finds the area infested with pregnant snakes. A mysterious snake charmer offers his assistance and the possibility of a romance that may mend her broken heart. A sweet and simple tale that perfectly captures the isolation and unmooring of the recently divorced. The magic realism in the story is subtle and just barely in the genre, but it is a worthwhile story deftly told.
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