Tor.com, October 2016
"The Three Lives of Sonata James" by Lettie Prell
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
Tor.com's October offerings include two science fiction tales (one post-apocalyptic and the other scarcely utopian), two fantasies (one with a vampire), and a horror story (also with vampires, and the best of the lot). This is also a very style-heavy and plot-light month.
"The Three Lives of Sonata James" by Lettie Prell
Sonata James is an aesthete who lives in a society in which people have theoretically infinite "iterations": once they die, if they have enough money, they buy a robot body and have their consciousness loaded into it. If the robot wears out, they iterate again. James has decided that she'll limit herself to three iterations like the movements in (some) sonatas as a way of giving her life a clear beginning and ending, making it a more definite work of art. However, early in her life, some people don't feel kindly towards the iterations they see as soulless and, as her existence winds on, more and more people become more and more negative until the iterations’ existence is put in doubt.
I didn't find this story very compelling initially but, as it described the experiences and viewpoints of iterations it became interesting. Then, once it tried to ratchet the tension up in the fairly formulaic way described above, it began to lose me again. Towards the end, its sort of final metaphysical loop just seemed like a nice try. Ultimately, I feel ambivalent towards it. It's an oddly flaccid short novelette that might have been better served to focus on the individual or to devote more space and energy to the social but instead seemed to chase both hares and catch neither (not to mention trying to cover aesthetics and philosophy and so on at the same time).
"Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light" by Sarah McCarry
An assistant to a literary agent critiques vampire fiction while conversing with her real vampire companion and lamenting her miserable existence.
This metafiction with a "literary" structure and style starts with an italicized section of what turns out to be the writing being critiqued but the italics can signify many things so it's not immediately clear that this isn't actually a horrible story on its face. It is soon clear that the metafiction is not so bad as the fiction contained within it but the initial bad taste is never entirely washed away, especially as it is replaced with merely a different bad taste (that of artful ennui and despair). But there is some clever stuff in here, such as the odd blend of decorous wistful cynicism when the narrator reflects on why she and the vampire met: "It has occurred to me since that perhaps his initial motives were not entirely aboveboard; I was obviously someone no one else would miss. It seems gauche to broach the topic now." There is also some amusing venom, such as when the assistant considers her boss: "I think about telling the vampire how much I hate the literary agent in a significant sort of way." Fans of stylized voices narrating minimal plots may well appreciate this work.
"Everything that Isn't Winter" by Margaret Killjoy
A couple of women in what used to be Washington state fight off an invasion of their—I kid you not—tea-growing commune which is all window-dressing to a love story between one of the women and her near-estranged boyfriend.
If you're not utterly sick of post-apocalyptic stories and don't mind a thunderingly obvious and common conclusion and theme (and don't mind an unclearly narrated and not very believable crucial action sequence), you may enjoy this story which is otherwise competently told.
"Clover" by Charlie Jane Anders
A beer-brewing Muslim and his husband are given a cat named Berkley and nine-years' good luck. After the nine years, they're given a second cat (originally named Patricia but renamed to Clover) but their nine years' of luck runs out. The couple has nearly split when the second cat starts—and stops—talking and strangers (or a metamorphic stranger) starts popping in more frequently with strange comments about the strange second cat. The nature of the cat and the strangers and the fate of the couple's relationship are the focus of the conclusion.
This is apparently related to another work of the author and may have more resonance to people familiar with it. Otherwise, it's a mostly painless but somewhat pointless read whose delivery and weirdness may satisfy some readers but will leave others desiring more "there" there.
"meat+drink" by Daniel Polansky
Tired of romanticized aristocratic vampires described in luxurious prose? Then this is the story for you. Somewhat as Max Schreck's tick-like Nosferatu is to Lugosi's Count, so this is to most post-Rice vampire fiction. We gradually learn of a "family" of "meat" living in the slums of Baltimore and the conflict between what was a young "brown" girl and the even younger "pink" boy she manages to feel something for vs. the sire and his female meat and another meat. The crux of the story is about whether the group will split and whether our girl and her companion will survive if they do.
I think I understand the style this story is told in, as its lack of both capitalization and almost any punctuation besides the occasional period as well as its frequently faltering grammar all convey the kind of listless, apathetic, sloppy existence meat has but I still feel it puts an unnecessary layer of obfuscation between the reader and the story. Still, I found myself brought into the worldview of these creatures in a very thorough way through confident understatement. Vampire stories are a dime a dozen and I'm sure even this take is not unique but it was certainly fresher than most and quite compelling. But it certainly won't appeal to all readers, as it is decidedly bleak and dark and sometimes genuinely horrifying in a circumspect way.
In the following sample, "flesh" is the living that the "meat" get their "drink" from:
i still do not know why bill decided to make edmund. perhaps it is only that sometimes misery seems to ease when spread about, or that spreading it seems to provide some purpose to the misery. perhaps that is the same reason that flesh makes more flesh. i am not sure.
Jason McGregor's space on the internet (with more reviews) can be found here.
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