Monday, May 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Adam-Troy Castro

Today Adam-Troy Castro once again is as old as I am. Every October I inch ahead of him, but every May he catches up again -- I just can't shake him! Anyway, he's one of the SF's finest storytellers, and a writer intimately concerned with moral questions, always wrapped in story. He also has exceptional range, of both tone (he can be silly funny and sharply funny and tragic and coolly logical) and genre (he's arguably more at home with horror than anything else, but he also writes fantasy, and SF (sometimes hard SF), and YA fiction, and mysteries, and exceptional pop culture exegesis, and more. So here's a selection of my Locus reviews of his short work.

Locus, July 2002

Analog's yearly July/August double issue is out. Adam-Troy Castro's "Unseen Demons", a related story to his earlier Nebula nominee "The Funeral March of the Marionettes", is long and intriguing but also a bit frustrating. Andrea Cort has been brought to the planet Catarkhus to determine what to do with a human who has brutally dismembered several members of the indigenous species. The problem is, settled law demands that he be tried under the indigenes' laws, and nobody has been able to communicate with the Catarkhans.  This is a political issue because humans have a reputation for violence, and the other alien species on Catarkhus seem convinced that the humans are going to try to let the criminal get away unscathed.  The problem is further complicated by the Catarkhan nature: they are almost unaware of their surroundings, and indeed the victims may well not have even known they were being murdered.

So we have a setup for a nice Analog-style problem story, interesting enough though as usual the alien species seems a bit too specifically created to set up the problem.  The other interesting part of the story emerges slowly, and it involves Andrea Cort's personal history, which, too coincidentally for my taste, also involves brutal murder of aliens.  The solution was somewhat disappointing – basically, the central problem is pretty stupid, and the solution is common sense. Other aspects of the problem were solved nicely though – such as establishing at least a very rudimentary communication with the aliens.

From my review of Imaginings, Locus, October 2003

Two stories struck me as particularly good.  First, Adam-Troy Castro, a writer who is always a threat to do something really good. "Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs" seems to me among his best few stories.  A man escapes his boring job to an exotic and romantic destination, and once their meets a sexy and willing woman who only enhances his enjoyment. But there's a catch -- visitors must stay the full duration, and the tenth day is given over to horrible experiences of war and suffering.  Is it worth it?  This is a sort of "Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" variant, with a twist to be sure, and Castro does an excellent job portraying both the idyllic and horrific aspects of this experience, and of asking but not answering his central question.

Locus, April 2009

So far the two remaining monthly (or almost) magazines forge on. Analog’s April issue’s lead novella, Adam-Troy Castro’s “Gunfight on Farside”, is the “real story” of the only Lunar gun battle, reluctantly told by the aging survivor of that battle to a persistent … well, why she’s so persistent is a cute secret of the story. Analogies with Wyatt Earp suggest that the legend has outpaced the facts – except that the “real” facts turn out to be even stranger than the legend. To be sure, as readers of the linked story “Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s” will remember, these “facts” are fantastical, despite Analog’s hard SF reputation.

Locus, September 2010

Lightspeed in its third issue features two original stories distinguished by the originality of their ideas, and by some distinctiveness in the telling. Adam-Troy Castro’s “Arvies” has a truly striking central idea. Arvies are human bodies grown to be hosts for unborn humans in the far future, who live for centuries serially riding and wearing out host bodies. This story in particular focuses on one such “human” and her latest arvie, and her perverse decision to bear a child in this latest body. Castro tells the story quite straight-facedly, and the horror but plausibility of the central idea is thus well depicted. Full marks for that – alas, the very effectiveness of the dry depiction of the morals of that future also, to me, made the story a bit hard to like, as opposed to respect.

Locus, October 2012

Adam-Troy Castro's “My Wife Hates Time Travel” (Lightspeed, September) is very sweet, about a couple that learns that one or the other of them is fated to invent time travel, and the logical consequences of such an invention. Castro cleverly ramifies these consequences and paradoxes … and also makes the story a love letter to the wife of the title.

Locus, February 2014

The best stories at Lightspeed for January are very odd pieces. Adam-Troy Castro's “The Thing About Shapes to Come” is easily enough described – it's about a girl who gives birth to a cube, amid a rash of births of geometric figures – it's Castro's deadpan description of the child (called, of course, Di) and of the working out of the whole situation that makes the story strangely effective.

Locus, September 2016

Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Assassin’s Secret” (Lightspeed, August) is amusing as well, a slightly over the top tale of the world’s greatest assassin, who can kill with a stroke of his pen. Castro has a fair amount of fun describing his way of life, and his ways of death, but the center of the story is how the assassin deals with those who come asking for his services, and in particular the one secret he holds.

Locus, February 2018

One more issue from 2018, then a look at some of the later work from 2017. The January Lightspeed is full of fable-like pieces – even the SF, as Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Streets of Babel” is presented. It’s clever work, about a man living in the wilderness who is captured by a living city and made to endure the most dehumanizing aspects of city life for some months. Clever, as I said, with a distinct satirical point, though it didn’t quite sell me.

Locus, August 2017

Lightspeed for July includes a fine Chinese-flavored fable – or morality tale – from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Adam-Troy Castro (conspiring as ever to make me misplace the hyphens in one of their names!), “A Touch of Heart”. Dou Zhuo is a farmer whose land produces little, and he becomes envious of his more successful neighbor. Eventually he finds the means to hire an assassin of the notorious Black Touch, which endeavors to fulfill their contracts with the least possible effort. When Dou asks for his neighbor’s death, the assassin arranges to kill him, by removing one second from his life span. Dou is furious, but learns to make his requests more specific – and eventually learns what will satisfy him with the least effort expended.

Locus, January 2018

Adam-Troy Castro and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro give us another of their Chinese-flavored morality tales in the November 21st issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The Mouth of the Oyster” tells of a fortunate couple who fall victim to a terrible plague, that leaves the husband blind and his wife somewhat crippled. But their love is if anything intensified, and so is their commercial success. Then a magician offers his product – eyes that can restore sight to the husband – but only one facet of sight – he might ask for beauty, or the ability to see deceit, or anything he can think of. But will the effect of this special sight be an unmixed blessing?

Locus, March 2018

Analog opens 2018 with “Blurred Lives”, a novella from Adam-Troy Castro, the latest in his stories of Draiken, formerly an operative employed in a number of interstellar conflicts. He had retired to an out of the way planet, trying to avoid the attention of his former employers, but was unsuccessful. Here he and one of his former enemies, Thorne, are joined in hunting the “puppet masters” who directed their operations, and who thus forced them into complicity in what they now see as crimes. Thorne’s escape over time has been pure escape – into a sensory deprivation box, and she remains more likely to simply want to forget, while Draiken is driven by a desire for something like justice. This leads them to Liberty, a cylinder world whose inhabitants live luxurious lives, but who are subject to random selection for “disposal” at the behest of the rulers, one of whom is the man Draiken and Thorne seek. And they find him – ready to die – and he offers Draiken a deal: enter one of the – call them “prisons” -- and escape, and Draiken can have what he wants (freedom for all the prisoners). But if he doesn’t escape, he stays there forever. This is the occasion for one of Castro’s specialties – particularly inventive horrors that humans can inflict on others, and I’ll leave the nature of that to the reader to discover, but it’s horrifying and morally awful. There is also a nicely put dilemma at the resolution. Strong stuff, with perhaps a hint of over-constructedness to the setup – but that’s in service of a worthwhile moral.

Locus, October 2018

I also liked Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Unnecessary Parts of the Story”, which cleverly deconstructs an all too familiar scenario: the Spaceship with the Captain and the Professorial Type and the Hot Girl and the Forgettable Guy etc. etc. as they deal with a horrible alien plague in mostly very stupid ways. Point of view is everything in this story, and that leads us down a path to a not quite expected conclusion.

Locus, February 2019

In the January-February Analog there is also a novella from Adam-Troy Castro, the latest of his Draiken stories, “The Savannah Problem”. I was particularly struck by the structure here – the story seems all exposition, in a way, as Castro depicts Draiken’s pursuit, capture, and extraction of a gangster thug from a space station. All this is interesting – Castro is good at action and tactics – but it seems extended, as we wait and wait for his purpose in capturing this man. A risky tactic in a storyteller – but Castro pulls it off with a brilliant rapid thematically relevant conclusion.

Locus, March 2019

Speaking of “challenging”, the January/February F&SF, which is through and through a strong issue, has several stories that are borderline horror, with the horror turning on the question of personal responsibility. Adam-Troy Castro’s “Survey” is one of those stories told entirely in dialog, depicting a college student taking a survey, seemingly one of those psychology research projects, this one an “exploration of stress on the human animal”. The means of putting stress on the young woman in the story is quite horrifying (I leave it to the reader to learn it), and when it’s married with a certain ambiguous offer of a kind of power, the questions the story asks – about the nature of responsibility, I suppose – become even more queasy-making.

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