Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Lightspeed, Omenana, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com
Strange Horizons 6/21/21
Tor.com 6/9/21, 6/16/21, 6/23/21
June’s Lightspeed features some interesting scenarios in both the science fiction and fantasy sections. Timothy Mudie‘s “Different People” imagines that an unmarried man is contacted by the woman who was his wife in the parallel universe she had to flee from. She finds him and they start a relationship; when she starts to dive back into her physics research he contacts the version of her native to his world. The Gordian Knot of his personal life might get sliced through by the aforementioned physics research. Adam-Troy Castro’s “A Tableau of Things that Are” imagines a world where a typical punishment is to be turned to stone and forced to be a statue for years – but upon release you are still stone, although mobile. Holt, our stone protagonist, plods home without need for rest or food and with almost no ability to feel passion. His wife Ariella has since taken up with a real jerk of a partner, one who starts taking out his rage on both Holt and Ariella. The scope of the story leads to a beautifully evocative final image. Then Adam R. Shannon, a firefighter/paramedic himself, imagines what might happen “When You Die on the Radio“. A member of Trish’s firefighting crew died while calling for help; no one could get to him in time. She takes it hard, and in this world, when you die on the radio your final calls echo across that frequency on repeat, rendering it useless for a time. She’s visited by a salesman with a radio that has unusual powers, one that holds out some hope of a posthumous rescue. But nothing comes easy, not even for heroes.
“No Ordinary People” by Kingsley Alumona is the lead story in the Spring issue of Omenana #17. The narrator here is a nine-year-old girl in the future who develops telepathy – and incisively uses it to hurt people. Almost anyone who speaks to her will get something they’re most shameful of thrown in their face. Her mother takes her to doctors, religious healers, almost anyone who might help. But nothing makes a dent in the girl’s cruelty until she meets a psychologist who has the same power. As I was reading I kept trying to figure out what drove the girl in such a vicious direction, but the ending convinced me. Psychology also features prominently in Nick Wood‘s “A Pall of Moondust“. Dr. Matala is the survivor of a freak accident on the lunar surface in a future where the Moon frequently hosts scientific teams. Now she’s feeling enormous guilt and is highly resistant to the idea of returning to the surface. She’s helped by a psychologist who has familiarity with and respect for her Zulu heritage and culture, which is reinforced for us by flashbacks of her grandfather. A much more twisted psychology comes outin “Jimmy Black” by Sea O. Weah. Jimmy always refers to himself in the third person, even when he springs a trap on the police officer who comes to investigate him as a possible serial killer. In their dialogue he reveals how much he was obsessed with her as a teenager (she barely remembers him since she was wrapped up in her own teenage problems). The ending is perhaps not the most satisfactory, but the story really builds up the tension and creep factor throughout.
In Strange Horizons throughout June I most appreciated “Temporal Slider” by Blaze Forbes, a working class slice-of-life story set in a near-future Wellington, New Zealand. Our narrator starts out as a late teen sleeping rough and looking for work. In this world there are workers who stay conscious and those who volunteer for the temporal slide, in which most of their brain and personality switches off while their body continues to work. He starts out conscious but eventually agrees to slide, even as he moves up from construction work to catering. This is a perspective we get too little of in speculative fiction, and the narrator’s voice here is wonderfully distinctive.
The longest story I saw in Tor.com in June was also my favorite: “The Red Mother” by Elizabeth Bear. Set firmly in the world of the Icelandic eddas of her 2020 novelette “Hacksilver”, Auga is a man with some magical ability who is fulfilling a duty to his brother. He travels through a landscape that is unusually volcanic, active even by Iceland’s standards (and his affection is clear for both the horses he ends up traveling with). As he reaches a village he learns that one of his old viking colleagues has set up a farm, and he goes to visit. As it happens the man demands a favor, and the end result is our hero entering into a riddle contest with a dragon. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s certainly not what Auga had in mind at the beginning of the story. Carrie Vaughn‘s “An Easy Job” is a prequel to her 2020 story “Sinew and Steel and What They Told” (also published at Tor.com). We know from the outset that our hero Graff is a human-passing alien, and even his closest friend and colleague Captain Ransom doesn’t know it. In their usual line of work (tracking down pirates) there’s little reason to expect Graff’s alienness to cause any problems or to be revealed: his race sends people out to gather memories by living lives all over, the more vivid the better, and then relying on a network of chance encounters to get those memories back home. At first it seems like a happy occasion when he meets one of his kind on the space station he’s scouting – but when they shake hands to exchange memories it turns out that Perce is a key link in the smuggling ring Graff is trying to take down. Hilarity ensues as the men argue and try to figure out some way out of their mess without anyone dying or having their human cover blown. Finally “The Far Side of the Universe” by noc (translated by Michelle Deeter) is far less adventurous and far more contemplative. The narrator and their colleague work at the Gateway to Heaven, a chamber that ceremonially prepares people to have their consciousness beamed more than 6,000 light years away to Cygnus X-1 in the hopes of traversing an Einstein-Rosen bridge through a black hole to a new and different life, leaving only a dead husk behind. The narrator has been noting down some numbers and is starting to think that the process and the motivation behind it are not what they’ve been told.
“No Ordinary People”, Kingsley Alumona (Omenana 4/21)
“The Red Mother”, Elizabeth Bear (Tor.com 6/23/21)
“Temporal Slider”, Blaze Forbes (Strange Horizons 6/21/21)
Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non-Fiction category of the British SF Awards.
This review and more like it in the August 2021 issue of Locus.
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