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

Tor.com -- September 2016

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Tor.com, September 2016

The High Lonesome Frontier” by Rebecca Campbell

Burned Away” by Kristen Simmons
The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones
The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

Reviewed by Seraph

Tor.com’s September offerings consist of four different genres: SF, Horror, Dystopian/YA, and Fantasy. It is approaching October, and thus All Hallows Eve, so the macabre tone of the final two offerings is somewhat warranted, if a bit premature. The SF offering is only loosely attached to the genre it claims, but managed to surprise and fascinate me. I have a love/ hate relationship with dystopian stories, especially those of the YA variety, and this one is no different. All in all, this is a month of wide spectrums, from the genres, to the craftsmanship, to the talent, (or the unfortunate lack thereof).

The High Lonesome Frontier” by Rebecca Campbell

When I first read through this, I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. In the beginning segments of what feels very much like a non-linear stream-of-consciousness, you find yourself confused: Didn’t the genre label speak of science fiction? For most of the story, with the exception of a single segment set in the near future of 2068, it feels like a meandering sonnet of memories. It immediately reminded me of stories my grandfather would tell, memories he had held on to during his fight against dementia, stories that had no chronological order to them. But they were so pristine and vivid in their own right, so descriptive, such tiny details that gave the memories so much volume and weight. Memories made so much more precious for the fading of all others. And then, as I drifted along these memories of the man who wrote the song, and the woman who sang it, and the mother who loved it, and the granddaughter who wasn’t even sure it was real yet loved it anyways… I realized the true beauty of this story, and the legitimacy of its claim to being science fiction. This story is of a 4th, or perhaps 5th-dimensional viewpoint, following the thread of this one song in a direct course from one life to the next, experiencing it all as a single moment in time, yet never in a linear fashion, as if the story itself is the river of which the song forever echoes, where does that water run. Magnificent.

Burned Away” by Kristen Simmons

Calling this a short story perhaps is too generous. More of an excerpt, or an anecdote, really. It is well-written, for the modern versions of its genre, which must always contend with the spectre of the past Colossi, such as Brave New World and 1984. Unfortunately, without knowing the world it is set in, it is hard at first to find the connection with the characters that really drives home dystopian fiction. The story yields a slightly steampunk feel to the Industrial-age conflicts between greedy factory owners and disgruntled factory workers, from which Unions eventually sprang. This world calls them charters. Much of the spirit of that time in history finds its way into the story, and for that I commend the author. Perhaps if I cannot connect with the character directly, I can understand them through the context of their time in history. From that viewpoint, the story proceeds to draw me in, and I feel the edge, the grit, of the world. An adventurous teenage girl, chasing the dream of being a reporter falls straight into the arms of two men bent on making the very same deadly news she wants to report. She is then saved by a brash young pyro, whom she had seen during the protest, from a fate that, while not described outright, leaves little to the imagination. Simply put, it isn’t ending well for her, until this young man brazenly frightens off the two thugs. You can genuinely feel this casual chemistry building into a flame between them, the promise of something deeper to come, should either of them survive their mutual aspiration of joining the war-front effort. Overall, it falls slightly short in that you would benefit so greatly from knowing the world it is set in. Otherwise, there is little to find fault with, and much to appreciate for anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction.

The Night Cyclist” by Stephen Graham Jones

I was saddened by this story, which seemed quite promising at first, but slowly decayed like the flesh of the Night Cyclist, thirsting and gasping for life, yet slowly losing it like sand through a tightly clenched fist. An utterly normal, middle-aged character who didn’t end up how he thought when he was younger? Fair enough. A chef? Even better. A broken string of relationships and an addiction to the rush of cycling? Totally plausible. Then it slowly becomes a bad Twilight parody, with even less panache. Maybe if the main character had actually become a vampire by the end, it would have made some of that lost value back. Who would have trouble understanding why a washed-up college athlete wanted to be eternally young, with infinite stamina and freedom to cycle for eternity? Instead, the reader is left with the sour taste of a man who abandons his humanity not for the promise of immortality, but for no apparent reason at all. Just becomes a psychotic murderer, scares a pregnant woman and her husband, and just cheerfully walks away to take some food to the woman he used to live with. I find no lack of skill or talent in the writing or wordsmithing, but macabre for the sake of being macabre is no literary achievement. The only positive I can really justify is that it is certainly horror. I am horrified. Well played, sir, well played.

The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

A profanity-riddled, drug-induced psychotic episode of a paranoid-schizophrenic young man, with no justification for an abrupt and unconnected ending. That’s really the most positive I can be about what should be an amazing work, if the author’s recent Hugo award were to be any indication. Rather than a great work, the story demonstrates little talent, and less imagination. I was genuinely very excited when I saw that a Hugo-awarded author was among the September offerings. After reading this story however, I'm left feeling sorely disappointed, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I can't speak to anything about the author, or the Hugo awards themselves, except to say that this was surely a poor showing from someone so highly acclaimed. I have a hard time imagining that the author intended to write about the tragedy of schizophrenia, but even if I generously assume that they did, it is by far a gross trivialization of a serious malady, that ends with “I got rich, somehow, and the city is somehow better for my psychosis.”