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

Tor.com--August 2016

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Tor.com, August 2016

"Her Scales Shine Like Music" by Rajnar Vajra

"Totem Poles" by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling
"The Weight of Memories" by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)
"Up from Hell" by David Drake
"Ratspeak" by Sarah Porter
"The Key to the Coward's Spell" by Alex Bledsoe

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

August is symmetry month at Tor.com. We get a pair of fiction trios: one of SF and one of fantasy. Each set is composed of a novelette followed by two short stories. Each trio starts well but the tales decline in quality. The only difference is that the fantasy is generally at least a tad inferior to its SF counterpart and there is a steeper decline between the fantasy novelette and the short. Overall, this is an adequate group of stories.

"Her Scales Shine Like Music" by Rajnar Vajra

In this first-contact story, "Poet" is a bodyguard on a small commercial interstellar mission to a planet that's not expected to be very interesting but turns out to have a sort of abandoned campsite with alien tech. Legally, someone must stay behind to keep this claim for the finders and their company and it falls to Poet to be the guy. Some of the story is taken up by the narration of Poet's battle against loneliness and depression and the (cold) elements and so on, in a pretty usual castaway tale. Things change considerably when something emerges from the lake near the two campsites.

The premise and early stages of this tale aren't all that compelling, but the gigantic alien seemed quite novel and fascinating. The depiction of their non-verbal and non-psi contact and growing connection also felt fresh. The narrator's progression towards his final choices is believably done, perhaps due largely in part to the success of the conception of the alien, especially with the concrete manifestation of "longing." The end is somewhat confusing and perhaps a little too ambiguous for my simple tastes, but this was an enjoyable read.

"Totem Poles" by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

Aliens have arrived on earth, apparently in the form of biological flying saucers which can turn into whale-like water-creatures and worm-like earth-creatures and which devour all pollutants, cleaning the earth. After a mystical intro, the story-proper opens with Kalinan, a malignant Russian, and Ida, his artist girlfriend, baiting a giant worm with nuclear waste as Kalinan's goal is to kill an alien. However, Ida has different ideas, being ready to abandon her boyfriend, and he ends up slitting his throat. Then, despite missing asterisks or other signifiers, we change scenes to India, in which a rather dull entrepreneur is misconceiving great plans and trying to wed his own girlfriend. Soon, Ida shows up and Kalinan is resurrected, which tends to change a man. They head off to America for the big finale.

Gonzo Rudy and Futurist Bruce collaborate in this fabular, if slightly less than fabulous, tale in which Rucker seems generally dominant, though Sterling is clearly involved, especially in the concrete specifics. The depiction of Kalinan's initial state as an avatar of a larger slice of humanity is superb.

Kalinin was a veteran of the Russian nuclear-missile corps. During his military career, he'd been at ease with the idea of human beings destroying the Earth. And he felt an instinctive hatred for the flying saucers and their campaign to heal the world. It was a horror to see beings who were immune to human malice.

Bits of wordplay were also good, as were such depictions of random bizarreness as the firing of human body parts at the aerial aliens (who cannot abide human death) which turned the "sky above the radioactive coal-mine into an aerial graveyard of human carrion." But, if I'm not misreading, it basically boils down to "make art, not war" and has the common wistful wish-fulfillment of an outsized artistic potency. It obviously won't appeal to everyone, but I'll basically read anything by Sterling (and have read quite a bit of Rucker) and it should have some appeal to fans of either author.

"The Weight of Memories" by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

A doctor, a mother, and the mother's fetus have a conversation (literally, with character names and colons like a Platonic dialog or a play without stage directions) for the bulk of this story which then breaks into normal narrative for a final scene, with the infodumping shifting into spelling out the theme. Scientists have discovered that vast portions of the brain are filled with ancestral memories that have been blocked off. The doctor makes it so the fetus will remember everything her mother could remember and so on. The fetus is not as thrilled as they might have hoped.

I have to say I'm somewhat stunned by this. I've read some of this author (and translator) but don't have a firm grasp on what to expect. Still, "Yuanyuan's Bubbles," for instance, was good to the point that I wouldn't expect an even more recent story to be so much poorer. I never thought I'd read an "as you know, Fetus" story. I'm also surprised at this story's simplistic style (which is not justified even by the fetus, given its unusual nature), clumsily bifurcated structure, and its obvious ending. The theme (expressed in the title) is not novel, so the story should bring more to the table than the average story and this brings much less.

"Up from Hell" by David Drake

In an era of Celtic and Roman conflict, Taranis is leader of the Crow's foraging band. One day, in what should be an ordinary raid of a village, he kills a man (who turns out to have been a surprised wizard), allows his friend to keep a trophy from that victim (which turns out to be very precioussss), and frees a mysterious woman who'd been held prisoner (who turns out to be a perplexing witch). This is all prologue to the real adventure, which involves the friend (mis)leading them to a sealed up cave, unsealing it, and unleashing two kinds of hell on the trio. Exciting (and disgusting) combat ensues.

Sometimes you'll read books of older authors, especially poets, whose archaic spelling and punctuation has been kept "for flavor" which always annoys me. There was no such "flavor" when those writers were alive: they were fully modern to themselves. Thus, to get a clear view of them, spelling and punctuation should be modernized. In a way, this story reads as a "modernized" historical fantasy. The style is plain and straightforward and Taranis seems like a very believable human being. There is no faux heroic "thees and thous" to this. But there is definitely a different social structure and there are different moral values and assumptions, which do partly reflect the times properly. So that's good as far as it goes. But there is a sense that this has been overly modernized. Taranis is a bit too breezy and down-to-earth and the woman's charms might be more effective to modern folks than to ancient ones and so on. But taken as fiction, and as fantasy fiction, more than history, this is a fast, exciting, and psychologically loaded tale that should appeal to most who are fans of the general type and even some who aren't. The only other caveat is that the whole thing feels like the first in a series of stories or a part of a novel more than a completely self-contained story, though the story's main plot arc is resolved.

"Ratspeak" by Sarah Porter

A boy wants to learn the language of rats. He encounters some fratboys tormenting a rat and saves it. The mother of the saved rat offers him a reward such as riches for his family and so on. As he selfishly saved the rat, he selfishly demands to know ratspeak. The rat unhappily agrees and the story turns into even more of a bad acid trip.

Um. This is... imaginative? So that's good. And that's about all the good I can think of. This may well appeal to some folks who like singing rats and gelatinous houses and repressive morals about how kids' dreams can all turn out to be crap and how they were likely doomed anyhow, but I just couldn't connect with it in any way. There are also bizarre failures in characterization. Show me any young boy who would ever think anything like the following:

It's so kind of our home to bring me here! And just in time for the ball! I suppose I'm not looking my freshest, but now that I think about it a little grime is probably the fashionable thing. I wouldn't want to look like I was trying too hard.

"The Key to the Coward's Spell" by Alex Bledsoe

Eddie LaCrosse is a "sword jockey" in a kind of medieval Anywhere and has recruited Jane Argo to help him as he goes to meet a possible informant who could help him in his effort to locate a stolen child. Then he leaves her behind for the actual meeting, which involves a lot of the usual pawing the ground and preparing to fight or flee along with the informant pretending he's merely a go-between and so on. Eventually, the information is duly given and Our Hero heads off to the house of ill-repute to free his assignment from what is now known to be child sex slavery. The house is guarded by a fear spell but Our Hero happens to have come across an amulet (or is it a placebo?) that makes the bearer immune. So, the end addresses whether there's a double-cross and whether Our Hero will free his assignment and what happens to the other sex slaves and so on.The editorial blurb warns that "this story deals with difficult content and themes involving children." It is odd that this story deals so easily with them. There is also some almost aggressively bad writing. Quoting the opening paragraph and next line may illustrate both issues:
"That's it," Jane Argo insisted. As always, her girlish voice contrasted with her height, her broad shoulders, and her aggressively strong but no less feminine physique. She was a woman and a half, no matter how you sliced her. And if you tried to slice her, you better not miss, because she would most definitely slice you back. Which is exactly why I brought her with me.
The building she indicated was almost aggressively nondescript.
That kind of breezy half-heartedly, half-humorous approach dominates this tale of child sex slavers. There are also logical and logistical elements which make no sense: why open the story with Argo and talk about her a lot but continually leave her behind and have her basically do nothing? Why make such a big deal about how difficult it is to approach the slavers and then show it to be not only fairly easy, but easy for more than just the protagonist? (I can't discuss this much without perhaps excessive spoiling but there seems to be a massive plot-hole involving this.) Mainly, this was far too trivial a story with which to address such a non-trivial topic.
Jason McGregor's space on the internet (with more reviews) can be found here.