Tor.com, February 2017
“The Greenest Gecko” by Ploy Pirapokin
Reviewed by Rebecca DeVendra
Ploy Pirapokin gives us a history lesson about a Gecko incident in “The Greenest Gecko,” a cautionary tale about the perils of luck. The story follows Fon, who is assigned with the job of making a Gecko Cannon at the Ministry of Merit. In a world where a gecko has become a symbol of good luck and divine providence, its image and presence in affairs of state becomes political capital. Entire departments exist to ensure the appearance of geckos during public moments.
This premise is a bit absurd, but that’s part of the story’s charm. Pirapokin can be imagined giggling behind every word. What, really, in politics isn’t absurd? And yet, under this amusing veneer is something darker: politics, and business, are savage affairs where people are pitted against each other. Fon, dissatisfied with the way her coworkers treat her and steal her ideas, is eager for the opportunity to become someone important. She pushes her luck and ends up paying for it. This one is well worth the read and the image conjured up in the closing paragraph will leave an impression.
“The Old Dispensation” by Lavie Tidhar is a space opera set in a world run by Jewish religious authorities. Shemesh is being held by the authorities, an adjudicator who is described as an instrument of their will. They find out that he has come in contact with a heretical android that has changed Shemesh’s perception of reality by exposing him to telepathic parasites. The story is told from two alternating points of view.
The narrative is riddled with religious phrases, most of Jewish origin and some, bafflingly, of Christianity. “Pontifical consent” and “holy see,” for instance, are used to describe the authority of Rabbis and Talmudic engineers, phrases normally used for juridical (Catholic) church matters. There is a scene where the water of the mikvah, normally a ritual purifying process for Orthodox Jews, becomes a pool full of bacteria used to torture Shemesh. It is perhaps the author’s intent to use these phrases and terms in odd or downright incorrect ways, but anyone with knowledge of Judeo-Christian terms will be a bit jarred. Perhaps this is exactly the point of the story. This world is obviously a corrupt one, as power can consume even the most pious and reduce something once sacred to something meaningless.
While the concept is intriguing, the changing points of view and the superficial use of loaded religious phrases fails to achieve genuine mystery, and instead conjures mystification.
Yoon Ha Lee packs quite a lot of plot into “Extracurricular Activities,” a space opera adventure set in the same world as the author’s novel Ninefox Gambit. While having read the novel would no doubt enhance the reader’s experience of this story, I have not and still found it to be entertaining on its own.
The story follows Shuos Jedao, an agent with a complicated past, assigned to a secret mission behind enemy lines. The opening scene describes Jedao’s reaction to getting a package from his mother, adding a little bit of humanity and levity to the narrative. This delightful mood is maintained throughout the story, and it acts as an anchor for the reader as they navigate through Lee’s very complicated world. I found myself smiling and laughing at character interactions, appreciating the intimate details that were dropped for me like crumbs. Plot threads were resolved in unexpected ways: whenever I hesitated with my mouth open, like a baby bird, the story eventually satisfied.
Jedao, at first, seemed to me to have no flaws; he figured out all of the puzzles presented to him, knew his way around weapons, was a competent medic, and possessed sex appeal. He divulges to the reader that he is not musical, something that hardly seemed like a flaw since all of the other character’s skills were valued for their utility in the field. To my immense pleasure, the final act of the story knocks him down a peg, and in a very creative way that has to do with his inability to carry a tune in a bucket.
The overall pacing of the story could be a flaw for some readers, as the multiple characters, plot threads, world details, and tight action scenes lend themselves to breathlessness. Space opera fans will be delighted instead of befuddled, I think, as there’s plenty to love and appreciate.
“Losing Heart Among the Tall” joins a list of stories set before author A. M. Dellamonica’s Stormwrack books (Child of a Hidden Sea). The opening is strong, intriguing the reader with a slain merman who acts as an intelligence gatherer for the nation of Tallon.
The descriptions of the creatures found in this world have a definite resonance: the man-eating specter with translucent skin and no eyes heightens the tension and doesn’t fail to be interesting. While the world and the people in it are fascinating and elaborate, the narrative momentum lags quite a bit in the middle due to the fact that the characters are not very engaging. Dellamonica is obviously an expert world builder. The story has a definite, beautiful structure and the characters are fascinating by virtue of what they are. Yet, we never quite know who they are. A balanced meal requires more food groups than relish, but perhaps fans of the Stormwrack stories will bring their own meat and cheese to the table. Readers unfamiliar with this world and these stories will have more difficulty.
Rebecca DeVendra is a figure artist and Speculative Fiction writer living in Boston. She grew up in Ohio and went to school there, and has a background in curriculum writing. She's also a mom to three cacophonous, early-rising children. She's probably in her pajamas, but she has an emergency collar shirt for video calls. Check out her blog.