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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Tor.com -- October 2015

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Tor.com, October 2015

Hold-Time Violations” by John Chu

Variations on an Apple” by Yoon Ha Lee
Tear Tracks” by Malka Older
Some Gods of El Paso” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

Ellie is a builder in John Chu’s “Hold-Time Violations.” Her job is to construct and deconstruct within the universe’s skunkworks—a vast matrix of pipes and valves that transmits and translates data into the real-life properties of physics. Given the complexity of the whole thing it’s not unusual for things to go awry like, say, for the measurement of the kilogram to tip slightly off kilter. When this happens, builders like Ellie must go in and adjust the configuration of pipes and valves until the universe is running smoothly again, as per the specs of the architects. But today’s patch is different. Instead of needing to fix the timing of a few valves and maybe re-direct a data flow or two, Ellie finds a whole mini pipe system nested in the larger skunkworks. While it is certainly doing the job it was designed for, this tumor in the universe’s blood is messing up a whole lot more than it would save.

Hold-Time Violations” is a strong story with deep ties in familial duty and the dilemma of long-term terminal care. The premise, as much rooted in fantasy as it is in science, forces the reader to view the mechanics of reality as a sort of pre-modern mythology with a steampunk twist. The narrative gives little lead up and does almost no explaining as it plunges readers deep into the belly of the world and how it functions. Ellie and Daniel work together to deliver cryptic exposition via dialogue in a way that is mostly natural, and what isn’t is masked in concepts that the reader naturally wants to untangle. I was a bit disappointed by the role of the Isolationists. They felt like a red herring by the end of the story. Despite being mentioned multiple times as a danger to the protagonists, they play no other role than a ticking clock. When the clock runs out and the promised Isolationists finally appear, neither Ellie nor Daniel are concerned and in fact, dispatching them seems as if it could be an easy task for either of them. But the conflict of “Hold-Time Violations” was never about the Isolationists. It’s an internal conflict from beginning to end. Given the amount of time spent discussing the potential threat of this group, however, I was expecting a bit more for when they actually showed up.

In Yoon Ha Lee’s “Variations on an Apple,” Paris has doomed himself, the love of his life, and all her people, all over the gift of an apple. Of course, he knew the moment the goddesses gave him the ill-fated fruit and asked him to choose who was worthy of it that there was no chance this would end well. But as the final recipient of the apple, Ilion, ever flamboyant, ever rising to the challenge, looks to the coming war with a twinkle in her eye. If she is to be destroyed, she’ll go like the shattering of a crystal vase: beautiful even in death.

Variations on an Apple” takes the classic story of Paris and the battle of Troy and adorns it with modern imagery, giving it hints of the surreal that go beyond the supernatural origins of the source material. Just when the reader feels comfortable in the ancient Greek setting, Lee throws in some physics jargon, gun ships and modern mechanics. The story is given a new breath of life, and the old and the new are woven together so seamlessly that the reader exists in two worlds as much as the story does. Those familiar with the original Greek epic will find Lee’s quirky variations charming and clever in how they manage to deviate as much as adhere to the precepts of the Judgment of Paris. With simple yet elegant prose and lively characters, readers will find they are happily lost in Ilion’s streets before too long.

Flur and Tsongwa are on a very delicate mission in Malka Older’s “Tear Tracks.” As the first ambassadors from Earth to an alien civilization, it’s up to them to make the best impression possible for their extra-terrestrial hosts. Between radio contact and video communications, Flur and her commander know some of the language and physicality of what the media has helpfully dubbed the Cyclopses, but not nearly enough for Flur to be entirely comfortable in her mission. After all, getting the Cyclopses to sign the contact agreement will require a very careful interpretation of and reaction to an alien culture. Flur must be cautious and tactful at every corner, but even that may not be enough to make up for the sheer amount of differences between their two worlds.

Tear Tracks” takes readers to a very tangible, very imaginative world and spares no detail in the experience. From the descriptions of the aliens and their home world to the intricate variables in their society and manners, the reader is given all the tools needed to become quickly and completely immersed in the setting. As a first contact story it constructs a very believable narrative as to how humanity might interact with another sentient race. While parts of the story do appear sped up to conserve length, they aren't the parts that are the key focus in the story, and more or less pass by the readers notice. Unfortunately, the dark parts of Flur’s history, which are more integral to the story than travel time, come a little late in the narrative. Flur’s struggle between truth and tact that hinges on this information also comes a little too late in the story, and leaves the reader with more of an ‘oh’ moment, rather than ‘ah-hah.’ However, if one reads this narrative choice as a deliberate means to affect the juxtaposition between an in-the-moment rush decision with hindsight reflection, the late inclusion of Flur’s history becomes more understandable. Whether or not this effect is reached with individual readers is of course subjective.

Everybody’s got needs and wants. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Some Gods of El Paso,” some people’s needs are more emotional than physical. They either need what someone else has got, or they’ve got what they don’t want. Either way, business is booming for Lorna and Vix, who have only ever been about healing people who need a little something removed. But when demand shifts from negative emotions to positive ones, things start to spiral out of control. Suddenly they’re more than just famous emotional miracle workers. To the law, they’re public enemies; to the people, they’re gods; to the criminal underworld they’re dealers, supplying them with all sorts of pure, stolen emotions to cut with whatever is on hand. What started out as a simple service to those in need has become an unstoppable addiction, and with the law hot on their heals and no place for them to lay low, they’ve only got one last desperate stand left to make a clean break into retirement.

Taking place in Prohibition Era America, at the beginning of the Great Depression, “Some Gods of El Paso” pulls out the despair and the anger of the time and gives it center stage. These emotions, which are so strong that they’re almost characters themselves, form the backbone of the magic in the story. Especially pleasing is the transformation of tangible emotions into a consumable drug. While at times the concepts of supply and demand of these emotions is vague and causes the reader to backtrack to regain their footing, there is nonetheless a strong grounding in reality with this story that lends the fantastical elements a good amount of familiarity that might otherwise be lost in a different setting.