I’ll start with a story from the November-December Asimov’s that doesn’t really qualify as SF or fantasy, but that will appeal to many of our readers. This is Connie Willis‘s latest Christmas story, “Take a Look at the Five and Ten“. Ori is telling about her Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with her ex-stepfather, who has a habit of inviting almost everyone in his widely extended family (extended particularly by his half-dozen or so marriages). The latest Thanksgiving dinner is hosted by Dave’s latest wife, Jillian, who has a stuck-up blond daughter, Sloane, about Ori’s age. Sloane brings her latest boyfriend to the dinner, and among the other guests are cranky Aunt Mildred and boring Grandma Elving. Why is Grandma Elving boring? Because she has just one story to tell, and tells it again and again, about her time working at Woolworths in Denver one Christmas decades in the past, in interminable detail. This time Grandma Elving is telling her story again and, oddly enough, Sloane’s boyfriend Lassiter is intrigued by it, and mostly because Ori is rather intrigued by Lassiter she ends up roped into Lassiter’s project, investigating Traumatic Flashbulb Memories (TFBMs). Lassiter is convinced Grandma Elving’s memory is a TFBM, but the problem is what was the trauma that triggered her memory? There’s not a ton of suspense here – this is a romantic comedy, so we know Lassiter and Ori will get together. And Willis is reliably fun, especially her snark about Jillian’s cooking and Sloane’s character and Aunt Mildred’s get-off-my lawn attitude. What really shines, though, is the wholly convincing nostalgia for Christmas in Denver in about 1960, and the utter warmth of the depiction.
The same issue features a nice generation starship story from Kevin J. Anderson & Rick Wilber, “The Hind“, in which the title starship has been damaged, and the survivors, a generation or so later, are forced into such strategies as murdering the least “essential” of them, until one inessential old woman’s stories make an impression. “Pull It From the Root” by Zack Be is a solid adventure story set in another star system, in which Gaiel Gold, on the run after being framed, has the misfortune to encounter a “slake” (cyborged human) who might remember her previous career as a slake mechanic. The milieu is intriguingly alien, especially the Lyssan pods that threaten to take over one of Gaiel’s friends, and the noirish tale is good fun – more stories about Gaiel would be worth reading.
A couple of short stories impressed me in the November-December Analog. Marissa Lingen‘s “Peaceweaver” is a very brief piece, about a composer who visits the alien Keroshans, who seem to have figured out how to maintain peace, apparently by exchanging art – but how to appreciate their “perfume compositions”? Is it really the art, though, or just communication that matters? Gregor Hartmann‘s “Brought Near to Beast” is a nicely cynical story about Peng, who is trying to gain what status he can while serving the enhanced Cho-Ren as a veterinarian to the mammoths they have restored to Earth. As enhanced as the Cho-Ren may be, though they may still be “beasts,” and Peng may need to understand that before it’s too late.
Interzone closes 2020 with one of its stronger issues. There’s another of John Possidente‘s Humboldt Station stories, “The Ephemeral Quality of Mersay“. This story nicely balances its journalist narrator’s cynical attitude with a subtly dark plot. The station goes into lockdown because of a solar storm, and the narrator, while worrying about his girlfriend who might be in danger because she, as essential personnel, isn’t in the extra safe “core,” starts to hear a story from a cargo pilot about her visit to the strange planet Mersay. Then something weird happens – the station moves unnaturally – and he fears the worst. He manages to get involved in the investigation that follows, which concerns a couple of mysterious dead bodies and, eventually, a potential attack on him. He also hears the rest of the pilot’s story – and realizes that something a bit more sinister might have happened. Possidente doesn’t tell us what really happened, but the reader can figure it out. Nice, twisty semi-noir SF mystery.
Matt Thompson‘s “Smoke Bomb” is pure Andy Cox-era Interzone, with its essentially Gothic atmosphere: a nearish future in which people can be modified so that their internal organs brew special drinks, flavor apparently enhanced by whatever emotions they are feeling. Riku Oe is employed as the legal custodian for one of these people, Jung-Mi, and we soon realize that Riku has fallen for her. Now Jung-Mi is hired, repeatedly, by a notorious woman who, it becomes clear, may have her own plans for Jung-Mi. The question is – what does Jung-Mi want? The atmosphere, the emotional heightening, is well done, and the extravagant weirdness of the tech is fun, while the story makes sense from a character perspective.
Finally, the great James Sallis has been a regular contributor lately, and “The Way of His Kind” is a particularly fine short example of his work. A woman – who claims she is dead – tells of her child and the strange “new people” who appear in the ruined near-future Earth. Something happens – something to do with the new people, and some variety of revival of Earth, and with the disappearances of children. The story closes appropriately, with the narrator saying “We didn’t understand” – and the readers don’t either, but such ambiguity is part of what makes his lovely story work.
“Pull It From the Root”, Zack Be (Asimov’s 11-12/20)
“Peaceweaver”, Marissa Lingen (Analog 11-12/20)
“The Ephemeral Quality of Mersay”, John Possidente (Interzone 11-12/20)
“The Way of His Kind”, James Sallis (Interzone 11-12/20)
“Take a Look at the Five and Ten”, Connie Willis (Asimov’s 11-12/20)
Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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