Monday, July 27, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Marissa Lingen

I'm a bit late again, but here's a Birthday Review for Marissa Lingen, a number of my reviews of her stories -- work I've liked consistently from her earliest publications, and which seems to have gotten stronger and stronger in recent years.

Locus, February 2005

The Canadian magazine Challenging Destiny has gone to electronic publication, through Fictionwise. I can't but regret this (though I can certainly understand the economic rationale). The words of the stories are the same though! The latest issue, #19 (December 2004) is a pretty strong one. Marissa K. Lingen's "Anna's Implants" has an intriguing idea. The colonists on Anna's planet have what seem to be personality constructs of great artists implanted during their teen years. The idea is to foster creativity – but sometimes it leads to madness. And – does it really help truly original art? Anna seems to be a very promising young artist – and her sister begs her not to take the implant. But Anna has a different idea.

Locus, September 2010

I saw a sequence of lush, fascinating, stories at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in July. “The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere”, by Marissa Lingen, is told by one of Madame Lumiere’s protégés, who worked for her in her whorehouse. Naturally, it was more than a whorehouse, and Madame Lumiere had more skills than just as a Madame. In this story a young man comes asking for help for his cousin, a woman with a special talent that has brought the interest of the cruel Rust Lords. The story involves a convincing journey through Faery, an intriguing talent, different villains, and a set of interesting women lead characters – all mixed delightfully.

Locus, January 2011

In Analog’s January/February Double Issue I enjoyed Marissa Lingen’s “Some of Them Closer”, a nicely quiet piece about a woman returning to Earth after decades helping terraform a new colony planet. Between the travel time (plus time dilation) and time spent on the new planet, she is completely out of touch with the people of Earth, but she had also not felt at home on the new planet. Where can she feel at home? And with whom? The answers are familiar, but the story does a fine job getting us there, and a fine job portraying the main character.

Locus, May 2014

In On Spec for Winter 2013/2104 I particularly liked “The Young Necromancer's Guide to Re-Capitation”, by Marissa Lingen and Alec Austin, which is just lots of fun, concerning a boy who collects minions in the form of re-animated fantastical creatures, here trying to recover the stolen head of his latest minion, a dragon.

Locus, March 2015

Marissa Lingen's “Blue Ribbon”, in the March Analog, is a very enjoyable and moving and rather Heinleinesque YA short set in the Oort Cloud. Tereza Pinheiro and her sister have just won a spaceship race but find themselves barred from returning to the station where their parents are: it is in quarantine. The race is sponsored by their 4H club, and there are a lot of other children in spaceships, all of course with no place to go. The problem is how to survive until help can come, how to keep their spirits up (knowing their parents are possibly very sick), and how to deal with sickness if it strikes any of them. This is well and honestly handled … in in the pure Heinlein manner, we also get a glimpse of an intriguing future space-based society. Good stuff.

Locus, July 2018

Analog’s May-June issue includes several intriguing short stories. Marissa Lingen’s “Finding Their Footing” is about a woman and her two children who have divorced their family in the Oort after her husband’s death, and who are moving to Triton to look for a new position, hoping to stop at Callisto to witness a cryovolcano eruption on the way. This is one of several stories Lingen has published about a future society in the Outer System, and they are collectively fascinating in their details about the structure and dynamics of that society. This piece is quiet, a minor work perhaps, but quite enjoyable, and I hope to see many more stories (or a novel) in this milieu.

Locus, August 2018

The purest SF story in the July-August Analog is “Left to Take the Lead”, by Marissa Lingen, another in her extended sequence of pieces set in a heavily populated Solar System. Holly is a woman from the Oort, forced into an indenture after a catastrophe (the subject of an earlier story) cost her family their home. She is working on a farm near Edmonton, with a good Earth family, and a fellow indenture who becomes a friend. The story turns on the struggles of the rest of her family to make enough money to get everyone together again, and Holly’s struggles to adapt to Earth life. (Plus there’s a bit about hockey (Martian hockey), because Marissa Lingen!) This is solid work in what is becoming a really impressive series dealing with very interesting ideas about the social and economic order of this Solar System.

Locus, March 2019

I also liked Marissa Lingen’s “The Thing, With Feathers” (Uncanny, January-February), which is set in a weirdly post-apocalyptic world – a magical apocalypse. Val is a lighthouse keeper on a lake, once a sort of magical doctor, struggling to maintain belief in a possible future. A man comes to her place by the lake, a stranger, asking for her help. The story, quiet, understated, really portrays the blossoming of something that might be friendship, and, maybe, a bit of, well – the thing with feathers.

Locus, December 2019

In the November-December Analog Marissa Lingen contributes a strong well grounded story, “Filaments of Hope”, about Lif, who has been planning to go to Mars as long as they’ve been able to, and who is left at loose ends when the mission in canceled. So they visit relatives in Iceland, and they find, perhaps, that what they’ve learned about adapting to Mars still has meaning on this ever-changing, ever-challenging, world. It’s a quiet story, with no bombshells: just solid and believable characters.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Mercurio D. Rivera

Today is the birthday of Mercurio D. Rivera. He's been publishing short fiction since 2005, always interesting, and increasing in power, I think. At least, his Asimov's story from this year is very impressive. Here's a collection of my reviews of his work from Locus.

Locus, September 2006

“Longing for Langalana”, by Mercurio D. Rivera (Interzone, June), is a sad story of humans colonizing a planet in partnership with an alien species, the Wergen. The aliens have a couple of intriguing features: on marriage they are physically connected, growing ever closer over years. And they are obsessively attracted to humans. But the colonization of Langalana runs into problems (due to a cleverly depicted native species) – and in parallel the relationship of humans and the Wergen deteriorates. This is movingly portrayed by the relationship of the story’s narrator, a Wergen female, with the human boy she meets and is inevitably drawn to as an adolescent.

Locus, April 2008

The first 2008 issue of Abyss and Apex is a good one. Two particularly sharp-edged pieces work best: Mercurio D. Rivera’s “Snatch Me Another” deals with the implications of a technology that can “snatch” conjugate items from parallel universes, and the effect on one mother and her partner, as we slowly realize that they have “snatched” a replacement for their dead child.

Locus, July 2010

I also quite liked Mercurio D. Rivera’s “Dance of the Kawkawroons” (Interzone, March-April), about a couple of rapacious humans coming to the planet of the alien Kawkawroons to try to retrieve an egg with some precious properties. Still, though I enjoyed it, I thought its focus slightly off – the aliens fascinated me, and I’d have liked to learn more.

Locus, October 2011

Mercurio D. Rivera’s stories about the Wergen, an advanced alien race bound by chemistry to obsessively bond to humans, have been consistently interesting, and “For Love’s Delirium Haunts the Fractured Mind” is a particularly strong piece, from the July-August Interzone. Joriander is a Wergen serving a human family on Mars, as something of a guardian/pet for a young boy. He loves this role, but we see, over the length of the story, by observing the way his “owners” act, and by confrontations with his brother, how degrading it is. In the end, one is reminded of Lee’s feelings, that slavery is worse for the owner worse than the slave – and reminded as well that bad as it is, especially morally, for the owner, it really is actually worse for the slave. Even when they are conditioned to love it.

Locus, June 2012

June sees the Asimov's debuts of three newish writers who have been doing strong work for other magazines. None is quite the author's best work, but all three are enjoyable stories. And Mercurio D. Rivera, an Interzone regular, offers “Missionaries”, which has plenty of intriguing elements but doesn't quite close the deal, telling of a religious group coming to try to speak to aliens on a distant planet.

Locus, April 2020

The March-April Asimov’s features Mercurio D. Rivera’s “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars”, an impressive story in the lineage of Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God”. It’s told in two threads – one follows a series of entries from the chronicles of an alien race, as they deal with a series of catastrophes; and the other is told by a journalist involved with an old friend of his, who has created something remarkable: a virtual simulation of an alternate world; in which she subjects her simulated creatures to horrible crises, in the hope that their ingenuity will create something she can use in our Earth to deal with our problems. The story deals effectively with the ethical issues this raises – and the ethical issues surrounding the journalist’s motives – and also with the reactions of the simulated creatures, leading to a striking and dark (if ambiguously hopeful, but for who?) conclusion.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Leah Cypess

Leah Cypess had a birthday recently, and I prepared this set of reviews of her work I've done for Locus, but life intervened, and I didn't get around to posting it. So -- finally! Happy Birthday, late! I like how these reviews, to me, show a writer, though always interesting, growing and growing.

Locus, September 2013

I wanted to like Leah Cypess' “What We Ourselves Are Not” (Asimov's, September) more than I did, because its central idea is interesting – an implant that gives people access to real memories of people of their culture, with the idea that this will help preserve diverse cultures. Alas, the main characters (two teenagers) don't convince, and the story is given to somewhat loaded arguments for both sides of the (worthwhile) question considered.

Locus, August 2016

Leah Cypess’ “Filtered” (Asimov's, July) concerns a journalist struggling with getting a story he thinks important noticed in a world where online filters tailor what everyone sees so much that nobody sees anything that will challenged their preconceptions. It’s further complicated because his wife is also his boss – and their ambitions, and their slightly different focus, might threaten their marriage.

Locus, June 2017

From the May-June Asimov's, “On the Ship” is another impressive and thoughtful idea piece from Leah Cypess. The narrator is a child on a spaceship searching for a new home planet. (A perhaps too explicit analogy is made with the horrible treatment of the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis before World War II.) Life on the ship seems fairly happy, and every time a new planet is reached there is a party while it is tested. But the narrator soon realizes that something strange is happening, especially when a mysterious woman keeps showing up unexpectedly. The secret isn’t much of a surprise to SF readers, but it’s used and resolved effectively here.

Locus, July 2017

Leah Cypess contributes “Neko Brushes” (F&SF, May-June), an effective retelling of a Japanese folktale about a boy who can paint things so well they come to life – mostly cats, but eventually a magic sword in service to a woman in revolt against the Emperor.

Locus, August 2018

And, finally, don’t miss “Attachment Unavailable” by Leah Cypess (Asimov's, July-August), a short and sharply funny story told as a comment thread from a social media group of new parents, discussing the offer of some aliens to help their babies sleep better.

Locus, April 2019

Leah Cypess, in “Parenting License” (Analog, March-April), takes on the notion that prospective parents might need training before insurance companies will pay for the costs of pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. Melanie, thus, is panicked when she turns up pregnant by accident before she and her husband have had gotten their Parenting License. At first blush it seems poised to be a satirical take on the issue, but instead it too looks quite soberly at the problem.

Locus, May 2020

What matters most? Plot? Character? Prose? Something else? The answer is all of the above, I think, and more importantly, each reinforces the other, ideally. These thoughts are prompted by an exceptional novelet in the May-June F&SF, “Stepsister”, by Leah Cypess. At first look, this is as cleverly constructed a plot as I’ve seen in some time. It’s a Cinderella retelling, from the point of view not of a stepsister, but of the Prince’s stepbrother. He’s absolutely loyal to his Prince (now King), partly, to be sure, because any sign of the bastard son of the former King being less than loyal would mean his life. But now the King wants him to fetch Queen Ella’s stepsister from the refuge the King allowed her when Ella insisted her sisters and mother be killed. There’s a tangled mesh of personal issues to deal with – Ella’s hate for her sister is justified: she really was an abuser; however the King had fallen for her just enough to save her life; and the stepbrother – had completely fallen for her. But what now? Does the King want a new Queen, as Ella has proved barren? Has Ella discovered she is still alive, and does she want her killed? What will the stepbrother do? Does the stepsister even have a voice in this?

All these snarled threads are just beautifully resolved. And we realize, that much as this expertly constructed plot snaps shut perfectly, we’ve seen a story of character wonderfully resolved as well – the beautiful plot wouldn’t work if we didn’t believe in the motivations – in the love! – of each of the characters. Even the character we don’t know about until the end. Excellent!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Revised Review: The Other Nineteenth Century, by Avram Davidson

The Other Nineteenth Century, by Avram Davidson

a review by Rich Horton

A little while ago, for Avram Davidson's birthday, I posted a "review" I had done of this book for my blog, almost two decades ago. It was a carelessly tossed-off piece, arguably OK for a blog post (though still wrongheaded as I have found!), but I never should have reposted it.

I got some criticism, gentle and very fair. And I thought, "Rereading Avram Davidson is never a bad thing! Why not reread the book!" And so I have.

To begin with -- stupid things I said in that first review -- for one thing, I complained that not all the stories are really set in the 19th Century. To which the simple answer is, "So what!". In fact, most at least touch on the 19th Century, and those that don't are either from a bit earlier, or at least have a certain redolence of that time about them. (Indeed, if you choose to end the 19th Century not with the calendar's demarcation but instead the beginning of World War I, as some do, just as some end the '50s with Kennedy's assassination, a couple further stories come in, including one which explicitly is placed right at that event.) Second: I bitched about "Mickelrede", a rather strange piece that Michael Swanwick put together from notes Davidson had left for an abandoned novel. On rereading that piece, I wonder what the heck I was thinking when I read it the first time.

Anyway, to the burden of my new review. The Other Nineteenth Century was the third Davidson collection in four years to come from St. Martins or Tor, after The Avram Davidson Treasury and The Investigations of Avram Davidson, so in a sense it was picking through leftovers, especially as all three books mostly skirted his two acclaimed short story series, the Eszterhazy and Limekiller stories. (This book does include a later and rather short Eszterhazy piece, and one story that appeared in the Treasury.) But the richness of Davidson's catalogue is thus revealed -- even with that constraint, and with the thematic constraint of choosing pieces that at least vaguely suggest the 19th Century, the book is worthwhile throughout, and includes a few pieces that stand among his very best stories.

For example, "Dragon Skin Drum", which I prefer to his slightly better known story of post-War China, "Dagon". "Dragon Skin Drum" is told from the viewpoint of an earnest and naive soldier, who visits a restaurant in the Forbidden City in the company of his more rough-edged friend, Gunnery Sergeant Jackson. Howard tries out his knowledge of Chinese, and tries to understand the local guides/interpreters he must hire, and puts up with Jackson's crudeness, and hears the story of the title drum ... and we learn a bit about these two characters (Jackson not surprisingly the savvier), and about this particular time, right as Mao is marching.

Also, "The Montavarde Camera", a really effective biter bit piece about a man who buys a camera from one of those mysterious little shops you can never find again. The camera has a sinister background -- people whose pictures are taken tend to die soon. And the man has a nagging wife ... We see where this is going, and it gets there just right.

Certainly among the best of Davidson's late stories is "El Vilvoy de las Islas". Many have noticed that his style grew more mannered, more prolix, late in his life. Sometimes this habit was taken to excess, but sometimes it worked, as here. The narrator seems to be the author himself, on a trip through South America. Feeling too tired to continue, he stops in a country called Ereguay, and eventually hears the story of "El Vilvoy" -- a young man from the Islas Encantadas, who, visiting the mainland, saves a woman from an attack, and becomes a sensation for a while. It eventuates that he and his family, on a nearly deserted small isle, live a simple life ... but there are mysteries. And so Davidson wanders through various newspaper accounts, oral stories, and so on, letting us piece together the story of the "Wild Boy".

"What Strange Stars and Skies" has been a favorite of mine for a long time -- telling of a Dame Philippa, who does charity work in the slums of London, and when ministering to the poor near a sailor's house, encounters a very curious press gang. The last line is wonderful.

I first encountered "The Man Who Saw the Elephant" in this book, and it delighted and moved me -- it's about a Quaker couple, the wife hardworking and only just tolerant of her husband's dreams ... one of which is to see the elephant that a traveling showman advertises. In the end, the husband does get to see ... well, if not an elephant something quite wonderful anyway, it seems to me.

I don't perhaps have time to discuss every story. Many turn on portraying a reasonably well known historical incident, or set of characters, from a slant -- and letting the reader figure out what's really going on. Davidson also delights in Alternate History, such as "O Brave Old World!", about the radically different history of America had Frederick of Hanover survived and moved to the Colonies; or "Pebble in Time" (with Cynthia Goldstone) in which a Mormon travels back in time to witness Brigham Young reaching the Salt Lake and unexpectedly changes history, leading to a different 1960s in San Francisco (though concluding with a labored pun that doesn't land as easily now as it might have when first published.) The stories are a mix of historical fiction, mystery, and SF/F, from a very wide range of sources. The editors and a couple more people contribute short afterwords, rather a mixed bag -- some add intriguing detail (including, in one case, Davidson's editorial interaction with Robert P. Mills), others, alas, rather clumsily step on the subtle point Davidson is reaching for.

Finally I need to address a quite odd posthumous collaboration that closes the book, "Mickelrede", put together by Michael Swanwick from a set of notes that Davidson left for an unfinished novel begun in the early '60s. In my previous review, I was very dismissive of the story, which I really failed to understand. Honestly, I'm ashamed, because actually it's not that difficult to follow. It helps somewhat to get the context right -- now I can see that the notes really do look like they might plausibly have become a novel very much in the mode Davidson was using for his earliest short novels, such as Masters of the Maze. The novel involves a contemporary academic thrust into another world (possibly the future) to serve in some sort of combat games, and also to deal with the Green King and the holy Mickelrede, a sacred object that seems to be a slide rule. There is a woman involved, of course, and Swanwick advances some alternate plot points, such as changing the slide rule to a Difference Engine, and the woman to Ada Lovelace. Davidson's novels, at this point in his career, were not his best work, and I can imagine well enough the novel which might have resulted, which would have been enjoyable but not great (sort of a better written Ken Bulmer, for those who remember Bulmer) -- the possibility of a later true collaboration between Swanwick and Davidson, incorporating Swanwick's ideas, is intriguing but likely would not have been the best use of either authors talents -- though who knows? The prose in this fragment seems more Swanwick than Davidson, but that's hardly a complaint, and there certainly are hints of Davidson as well.