Short Story Archive

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A Week With Daily Science Fiction

I’ve been an on-again off-again reader of Daily Science Fiction for the last year or so. While I have always appreciated their offerings, I only recently signed up for their story-a-day subscription service. After enjoying two weeks worth of stories mixed in with my morning coffee, I’m left wondering why I waited so long to subscribe. Even when a DSF story fails to resonate with me as a reader, the critic in me finds it impossible to dismiss the quality of the prose, not to mention the editorial variety that founders/publishers/editors Michelle-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden offer on a day-to-day basis.

In that light, I thought I would hide from my ever growing TBR pile and review a week’s worth of DSF short stories.

Image via: jflaxman on DeviantArt

For the People by Ronald D. Ferguson

For the People is a near-future politically themed dystopia, likely representing the worst nightmares of American Tea Partiers and their ilk. The story struck me as a combination of something drawn from Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 cycle paired with a splash of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid “Patriotmythos.

It’s particularly interesting to see how this story explores the line between domestic terrorists and freedom fighters. While hardly a new discussion, Ferguson’s story is quite striking in its attempt to portray the terrorist as a powerless pawn in a larger game. Moreover, elements of horror manage to add an unexpected level of humanity to the main character. Though I anticipated the ending, I don’t think the author is making any serious attempt to dissemble on his denouement. The delivery is strong, the prose is evocative, and the underlying subtext on the dysfunctional elements of American government is not lost on this reader.

The Needs of Hollow Men by K.A. Rundell

Among the five stories within this particular week of DSF content, The Needs of Hollow Men is my choice for first among equals. From the title I had a horrible vision of a story about invisible people. Instead, the text presents itself as a grimy story of individual agency subjected to the good of a city-state amid a period of social decay.

Perhaps the strongest element of this story is its treatment of the psychic trope. Therein an empathic detective takes emotional suppressants as a means of amplifying the residual psychic footprints left on objects and people. The greatest crime the noir narration expounds upon, however, is not rape or murder, but two empathic individuals sharing an emotionally charged memory. It is certainly common enough to see science fiction mobilizing gifted individuals as resources, but the balance between pathos and logos is rarely so evenly struck as it is within this story. Pair this structural strength with the image of the broken down cop who has seen too much and it amounts to a truly compelling narrative.

My kudos to K.A. Rundell.

A Hairy Predicament by Melissa Mead

One of the benefits to a review project such as this is its ability to force me out of my critical comfort zone. Thus A Hairy Predicament is not something I would have read on my own. Yet it is impossible to ignore the inherent cleverness contained within this piece of writing.

The story combines the Brothers Grimm tales of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk, examining the logical aftermath of both stories. In doing so, Mead is able to turn these tired staples of storytelling into something new. With relatively few words she adds a significant amount of depth to what would otherwise be cookie cutter character archetypes. Nobody quite lives happily ever after in this piece, but the application of modern social responsibility to classic, and often grotesque, stories meant to scare children works quite nicely.

Maps by Beth Cato

There’s a definite “real” world setting to the history of a woman who, through some supernatural power, keeps drawing maps indicating the significant life events of loved ones. Yet the story is set within a world where social workers and professional magi exist hand-in-hand. As a result, framing this story became something of a puzzle; is it new age mysticism or outright urban magic? Mayhap I should just call it slipstream and move on.

Since the protagonist, Christina, is something of a self-aware Cassandra, the narrative focuses on her self-imposed isolation from society at large. Naturally it’s hard not to feel some level of sympathy for the character. I initially read Christina’s self-mutilation as an attempt to mobilize body horror for shock value. Upon further thought, I think there’s some merit in seeing her self-harm as an allusion, if not an outright commentary, on society’s perceptions of those struggling with mental health issues.

My only point of contention with this story rests in its ending. The end is both sudden and jarring, leaving me unsure what to take from it. The story flows through Christina’s life, steadily building toward an act which will free her from foreknowledge. Once that act happens, her existence is left somewhat overly ambiguous. Can she actually live without the lifelong companionship of her maps? Or is one act of freedom going to lead to the ultimate act of freedom?

Five Minutes by Conor Powers-Smith

After reading this story I immediately thought, “This is what that Next movie should have been like.” The film, which drew a loose inspiration from PKD’s The Golden Boy, dealt with a con man who could see two minutes into the future. Five minutes’ protagonist more than doubles the abilities of Dick’s character.

Though five minutes of foresight is by no means a marginal thing, the story itself is a study into mediocrity. The protagonist doesn’t even rate a name; he is simply referred to as “the man” throughout the story, and he’s a Mets fan to top it all off (at least he’s not a Cubs fan). His heroism is a variation of the limited sort demonstrated in Greek myth when Jason carries Hera across a river. But where Jason went on to form the Hellenic Justice League, the man only catalyzes events within an appropriately small scope. We could then best view Five Minutes as a working man’s super hero story. There’s none of the perpetual handwringing of Spider-Man, but it also eschews the fetishes and god complexes of Watchmen. The man, like any normal, non-prescient person, seeks to find a purpose for himself, independent of his particular powers. In that, he is an endearing character in a story which presents a positive outlook for humanity.

Wrap-up

Two dystopias, two stories of ESP, and one twisted fairy tale amounts to a good week of reading. I look forward to seeing what Daily Science Fiction offers up in the future. Also, at the time of this post, all of these stories are available to read, for free, on the DSF website.


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Short Story Review: Silverman’s Game by Matt Moore

Full disclosure: Matt Moore, as anybody who reads this website or listens to my podcast knows, is a friend of mine. But for the sake of this review and per Matt’s request, I’m taking off my Jeff Winger crafted magic friendship hat, and donning my critic’s fez.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Silverman’s Game is a good piece of longish short fiction. The characters are well developed. There’s a perpetually tense atmosphere throughout the narrative, proving once again that the author knows how to set a mood with the written word. The structure of the story, however, tends to get in the way of the plot. Therein I wasn’t particularly surprised with the resolution to this piece of psychological horror/suspense. Arguably, an internal spoiler of sorts is not that big of a deal for most critical readers. I only bring this up because unlike many of Matt Moore’s other stories, Silverman’s Game targets a broader audience.

Silverman’s Game is what Star Trek fans would recognize as a Kobayashi Maru – the no win scenario. When three teenagers break into the eponymous Silverman’s house, he teaches them a lesson at the end of a revolver. Between the narrator, his brother Greg, and Greg’s friend Jack, the trio must decide who among them will die so that the other two may live. First person narration adds a layer of intensity to the story telling as the group scheme, cajole, and ultimately embrace the bizarre test of survival. In that, Silverman’s Game is very much an effort to subvert the literary tedium that is the “coming of age” narrative.

Beyond the inherently macabre nature of the story itself, the characters’ dialogue manifests as an essential asset in the ongoing subversion of the myth of idealised youth and better days gone by. Jack, the established troublemaker of the group, works in profanity, slurs, and racial epithets like an artist sculpting clay. Unsettling as his speech may be, the language echoes the pretensions of maturity that teenage males so often adorn themselves with as a means of demonstrating their entry into manhood. To that end, these characters ring quite true even if their situation is exaggerated for artistic purposes.

Silverman, as a character, is something of a conundrum. In one sense, he’s the embodiment of the “stay off my lawn” old man archetype taken to the extreme. Though he draws a connection to the Second World War when explains that his game originated with an experience his grandfather survived in occupied Poland, there is an odd whiff of Vietnam veteran emanating from this man. Granted there’s nothing explicit to the text that points to this piece of back story, but there is something in the way he oft calls “bullshit” that evokes an image of R. Lee Ermey as Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Once again, high marks to Moore for trusting his readers to craft Silverman’s history rather than explaining it all away in an info dump.

As mentioned earlier, the only potential problem in this story, I say potential in that it really comes down to what a reader wants out of a piece of fiction, is that its construction gets in the way of the plot. Deft use of the first person narrative is sine qua non in a story like this; Moore pulls that off with polished aplomb. It’s the opening sequence, with an adult narrator reflecting on the events of his youth, which ruined the ending for me. Within a few hundred words of the present to past perspective shift I knew how the game was going to end. While that in no way invalidated the journey, I do like to be surprised from time to time.

Should you buy this story? Absolutely, yes. It’s a well crafted piece of writing that revels in eviscerating a protagonist’s psyche without so much as a single physical scar. All the while it undermines any romantic notions that a reader may hold toward childhood innocence and teenage shenanigans. While predicting the ending won’t require a visit to the oracle at Delphi, the trip from beginning to end ultimately proves to be a satisfying experience.

Silverman’s Game was written by Aurora Award nominated science fiction and horror author Matt Moore. It is available as an e-book from Damnation Books.


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Short Story Review: The Visible Spectrum

Summary Judgement:  Though the story is heavy with world building, its subject material is unique enough as to easily make up for any thinly developed narrative.

Story by: Julian Mortimer Smith

Image by: Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain

Within the confines of science fiction, disabilities are often portrayed as inconveniences that are meant to be conquered.  Consider the classic example as found in Star Trek’s Geordi La Forge.  Even in a setting where computers have voice interfaces, they are still dependent on sight for tasks such as firing phasers or scanning for life forms.  Star Fleet, for all its vaunted principles isn’t made accessible for Geordi, rather he is given a visor wherein he can work within a sighted world.

The Visible Spectrum takes the opposite approach as it illustrates a future world that reshapes itself to accommodate widespread blindness.

The story begins at the end as an old woman regales her grandchild with the history of humanity’s gradual transition into a sightless species.  As a result of an unknown solar cataclysm, humans are rendered sightless over the course of forty years.  Though this catastrophe precipitates some clever, imaginative and wholly plausible writing, it’s also one of the two flaws to this story.  Try as I might, I can’t imagine a solar phenomenon that could blind an entire planet without burning, irradiating or otherwise devastating all plant and animal life. Be that as it may, I freely admit that my knowledge of stellar science is neither vast nor comprehensive.  For all I know the science is on the mark with this story and I’m the one at fault.

Science questions aside, The Visible Spectrum is quick to reward readers for their suspension of disbelief.  Much of the story is spent exploring how humanity could re-order itself to compensate for widespread blindness.  As a strong piece of speculative writing, Mr. Smith’s words explore sightless transportation, art, literature, sport, romance and even extend to educational pedagogy.  Moreover, the technology that empowers the sightless future is all based on currently existing accessibility devices and models of accessible urban planning.  There are no Trek-style visors or gene therapy treatments to give people Daredevil level hearing.  For its lack of techno-jargon The Visible Spectrum offers a nice sense of symmetry wherein a story about accessibility is accessible to all readers.

As the narrator tells her story, a distinctly egalitarian tone emerges from within the structure of the narrative.  That isn’t to say that the story is utopian in its vision – no pun intended.  Indeed, capitalism flourishes under the looming threat of planetary blindness.  Yet, Mr. Smith’s words left me with a distinct impression that people within a sightless world are on a more level pegging with each other.  At one point the narrator states that the sighted world viewed visual sensory perception as a “direct and unmediated experience of reality.”  Of course from physics and philosophy we know that is certainly not the case.  But how many of our great prejudices are based upon sight?  While Mr. Smith isn’t so bold as to come out and say that a world without vision would be a better one, his story reflects a conviction that humanity could happily carry on without sight if not become better, through technological innovation and social engineering, for want of it.

Fascinating as I found The Visible Spectrum’s exploration of urban spaces predicated upon auditory and tactile queues, it didn’t ameliorate the fact that there is a good deal of world building and not a lot of narrative development within this story.  In fairness, the world that the story builds is amazing.  It’s refreshing, perhaps even revolutionary, to see a genre tale that doesn’t use technology, magic or some combination of the two to “fix” a person with the disability.  Impressive as that may be, it doesn’t change the fact that this story reads more like a very strong first chapter of a novel rather than a self contained story.  While the thin plot is by no means a deal breaker when set against such an ambitious and well crafted world, it is noticeable.

Despite the aforementioned short comings, The Visible Spectrum remains a thoroughly enjoyable short story. The ideas in play more than make up for any shortage of plot or the potentially problematic science that catalyzes the story.  It is my hope that Mr. Smith will continue to write within this universe as his style combined with the world he has created teems with literary potential.

Overall Score: +3

Click here to read The Visible Spectrum on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.


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Short Story Review: Breakaway, Backdown

Summary Judgement:  James Kelly de-romanticizes life in space with such skill as to make me thank the gods for gravity and magnetic fields.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that this story only qualifies as a story by the thinnest of margins.

Written by: James Patrick Kelly

Image from: NASA’s Ames Space Colony Art Gallery

Originally Published in Asimov’s Science Fiction

Republished in February’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine, James Kelly’s Breakaway, Backdown seems, at first, to be a rather pedestrian affair.  The story consists of one half of a conversation between Cleo, a would-be astronaut who “backs down” from a permanent commitment to life in space, and Jane, a girl working at a shoe boutique.  At no point in the story does Jane actually speak.  Readers must fill in her dialogue on their own as they read Cleo’s reactions to Jane’s rather obvious interrogatives.  This odd narrative construction leads me to my first question about the story: if a female character talks to another female character who never speaks back within the text, does the story pass the Bechdel Test?

For the moment, let us set aside the sociological issues and explore the potential advantages of such a unique writing style.  Forcing the reader to fill in the blank dialogue has the benefit of directly inserting said reader into Jane’s character.  There is an instant empathy for poor Jane as she has all of her naive thoughts on life in space summarily blown to smithereens.  The counter point to that benefit is that the story seems to presume that Jane, and by extension anybody reading the story, is ignorant of the science facts that Cleo dispenses.  While this approach might work for some, those familiar with “hard” science-fiction would be well advised to prepare for a sermon on the rigors of life outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Both the story’s style and content had me set to write it off as a thorough waste of time.  Then I found out that the story was originally published in 1996.  The story’s age forced me to reconsider my initial line of inquiry.  Make no mistake, I’m not backing down on the clumsy style.  This isn’t a story; it’s a preachy sermon.  However, the content within that lecture has more weight when its age comes into play.

Cleo lived in space for eighteen months before backing down from a life as a spacer.  In relating that story to Jane, she discusses some of the very real problems that humanity will have to endure when living in deep space: osteoporosis, muscle atrophy, clogged sinuses, nausea/space sickness and the very real dangers of leukemia from direct exposure to cosmic and solar radiation.  Cleo even manages to make sex sound tedious and underwhelming for want of gravity.

““Most hetero temps use some kind of a joystrap. It’s this wide circular elastic that fits around you and your partner.  Helps you stay coupled, okay? ”

Upon a first read through, none of these insights seemed particularly interesting to me.  I’ve read my fair share of Robert Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson and Issac Asimov thus I’m well aware that space is a nasty place that would probably kill me before it gives me a chance to have a roll in the holodeck with an open minded and uninhibited Orion slave girl.  But what about fifteen-year-old Adam?  What would he have thought if he read this story back in ‘96?  He wouldn’t scoff at James Kelly and say, “If we can go to Saturn then we can use gene therapy and advanced engineering to endure the rigors of space.”  No, fifteen-year-old Adam would have read this story and asked himself why nobody in the Babylon 5 universe seems to suffer from any of the above problems.  There’s no deflector shields a la Star Trek and a bunch of Earth Alliance starships have no artificial gravity.  Somehow, though, everybody is good and healthy in the Earth Alliance military.  For that reason, fifteen-year-old Adam would have been floored by the horrors of space travel as portrayed by Kelly.  Star Trek, B5, Blake’s 7, Space: Above and Beyond, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica and other staples of my childhood never bothered to explore the real dangers of space.  They made it seem easy.  This story draws upon now established, then theoretical, science to prove that it will be hard.

Still, Heinlein, Robinson and Asimov were writing about the biology of space travel well before Kelly published his story.  Why then was it worthy of publication in the gold standard of sci-fi magazines?  In my estimation it has nothing to do with empowered females, implied lesbian liaisons or other elements better left to sociologists – all of which are present, all of which are notable but none of which seem particularly avant garde for ’96.  The strength of Kelly’s writing is that it manages to create a group of post-humans entities without resorting to the tropes of genetic engineering.  “Breakaways”, the subset of humanity that have committed to living and working in space, are the product of their environment. There are absolutely no references to re-sequencing genomes for these space people.  As a result, life among the void becomes a life of biological sacrifice.  These astronauts regularly cut away parts of themselves that serve no purpose in microgravity.  In some instances, “Breakaways” endure body modification surgery to make gravity-evolved limbs more useful in space, an opposable big toe for example.  This is a terrifying example of the post-homo sapien evolution that space exploration could precipitate.  Futurists may wrap themselves in a Gattaca-esque mythos of gene therapy when they dream of life among the stars, but the cold hard reality of Kelly’s vision should always be lurking in the background.

Veterans of hard science fiction literature will likely find nothing new in this story.  Despite its potentially condescending tone, the story remains unapologetic in the details that it offers.  Never before have I read such a clear vision of what the rigours of life in space could demand of us.  Even Heinlein and Robinson seem candy coated compared to the evolutionary crossroad that Kelly offers.

Click here to read Breakaway, Backdown for yourself.

Overall Score: +3

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Short Story Review: Full Moon Hill

Summary Judgement:  With very few words, Full Moon Hill offers an airtight story that is as bio-politically disturbing as it is utterly compelling.

Written by: Matt Moore

Photo by: AP/Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic

This story has left absolutely no doubt in my mind that Matt Moore is a master of mood.  Full Moon Hill immediately establishes a literary space that is grim, driven by greed and powered by self-serving men.  The characters in this story show such a striking disregard for individual life that it evokes memories of OCP’s appropriation of Alex Murphy’s body in Robocop.  I dare say that is no small feat for seven hundred words of story.

Although Full Moon Hill can be classified as science fiction, there is no escaping the story’s macabre and supernatural elements.  At the same time, the story suffers from none of the weaknesses endemic to any of those genres.  In short, the narrative is absolutely airtight.  Without giving anything away, I can say that the story plays with a contemporary issue that many of us would rather ignore.  Using this issue proves brilliant on two points.  On the one hand, the story works in an area where Western civilization’s track record is utterly underwhelming.  Our collective inability to address this issue goes so far as to put readers in a place where they are invited to empathize with the questionable deeds of the central characters.  Rest assured, there will be people who see the idea presented in this story as common sense, rather than miscarriage of human decency.  For my time, that is powerful writing.

Were it not for the strength of Matt Moore’s language, there’s no way the story could convey so much in so few words.  The narrative’s prevailing tone pairs a sales pitch with dispassionate dialogue to eliminate the need for exposition or back story.  Although the details are a little sub-textual, the story gives readers everything they need to understand the characters’ motivations as well as what will likely unfold after the story finishes.

Ultimately, Full Moon Hill is the kind of tale that sets a benchmark between a good story and great literature.  A good story leaves me with a few talking points and nothing that merits serious complaint.  A great work of fiction keeps going in my mind long after I’ve finished with the text.  I anticipate that Full Moon Hill will be rattling around in my brain for quite some time.  Why not give it a read and see if it can take up residence in your cranium?

The full text of Full Moon Hill can be found at Lightning Flash Magazine.

Overall Score: +4


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Podcast #6 A Conversation with Susan Forest

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and Susan Forest.

Topics under discussion include Susan’s recent publications, the Aurora Awards, Canadian copyright legislation and the online writing market.

Make sure you visit Susan’s blog where you can read her musings as well as full-text versions of the stories we talked about in the podcast.

Click here to read Susan’s latest story Orange on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

NB: After the interview I found out that you can self-publish through Kindle and iBooks.  Writers set their own price; Amazon and Apple take 30% of whatever you sell.  Canadian writers shouldn’t get too excited about the iBooks option as it requires a US tax number.

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Short Story Review: Touch the Sky, They Say

Summary Judgement:  The story is moody and there’s no doubt that the words create an interesting world.  But like the lady in the commercial said, where’s the beef?

Story by: Matt Moore

Touch the Sky, They Say offers an unusual vision of the future.  In sum, the “sky” has fallen and either destroyed or cut off the Earth’s higher elevations from the lowlands.  The story itself is set on the roof of a forty-one story building where people gather to touch the dome/force field/Petri dish that now encloses the world.  With rare exception the narrative is told through the thoughts of an unnamed protagonist.  This character stands and muses while half a dozen people from various walks of life touch the sky.  My problem with this story is that despite its abundance of subtext and a potentially intriguing back-story there’s not much in the way of a plot.  As a mood piece, it’s quite good.  For want of actual plot development, the story feels more like an introduction to a larger work.

While there’s no doubting Mr. Moore’s ability to build a world, the story’s omnipresent pessimism doesn’t seem in proper alignment with the setting.  For a vision of Toronto that has been horizontally bisected at 41 stories, there’s too much order.  Children still go to school, even if they hate having to wear a tie as part of their uniform.  Polite bureaucracy remains the driving force behind daily life.  For all the malaise that the protagonist offers in his “gone are the arts” diatribe, you’d think that he was stuck in a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Yet, Vancouver and Los Angles are both at sea level so shouldn’t there still be some movies and music in the world, popular fluff though they may be?

Without a plot to keep my attention, I find myself dissecting the subtext of this story.  Yet the more I analyze the text, the more I find myself unsatisfied with the idea of a fallen sky.  If the sky is impenetrable and opaque, how does the Earth dissipate heat?  How does urban infrastructure stay intact within an atmosphere that is so much more sensitive to industrial pollutants?  With the sky surrounding the earth at 41 stories, what’s going to happen to the weather cycle?  If the Earth is now permanently grey, shouldn’t all plant life and thus all terrestrial life have died off for lack of sunlight?  At the very least, shouldn’t the survivors all have a nasty case of Rickets.

To the story’s credit, I’m not asking these questions just for the sake of picking on Mr. Moore’s work.  My incredulity toward the idea of the sky falling wouldn’t stop me from reading a novel length work set within this world, so long as it promised to clarify some of my aforementioned queries.  As the story currently stands, I expect that the protagonist should have greater concerns than a lack of music in his life.  The fact that there is still order and electricity tells me that things can’t quite be as bad as a McCarthy novel.  If you really want to get my attention, tell me what has happened to create an environmental equilibrium for the survivors?

For people who want a thousand words of mood, this is going to be a fantastic read.  If you’re the type of person who enjoys plot, you’ll likely find this story wanting.  Touch the Sky, They Say can be found on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.  Here’s a link.

Overall score: +1.5


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Fiction Friday Short Story Review: Orange

Summary Judgement:  Orange is a wonderful read that blurs the demarcation between short story and flash fiction.

Written by: Susan Forest

Photo by: Spencer Jones-Getty – originally found on the Guardian Blogs.

Style defines Susan Forest’s Orange almost as much as its content.  Rather than follow a single protagonist through the end of the world, the story is a fusion of a half-dozen pieces of flash fiction.  These smaller narrative units are connected together through the exposition of a photographer who produces time lapsed images of an orange impaled upon a spike.  Trust me, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.  Although the format is unusual, it offers a uniquely cohesive story in relatively few words.

As I already mentioned, Orange is a story about the end of the world.  Although the details of this particular apocalypse are limited, the relationship between The Earth and “The Orange” offers ample back story.  Within the text, Orange presents snapshots (my words are chosen specifically to fit in with the motif ) of would-be survivors who have taken temporary refuge in the offices of a fictional multinational called SpaceCorp.  I’ll let your imagination take it from there as further details would spoil the story.

Despite the brevity of these snapshots, Orange is remarkably nuanced.  To call Ms. Forest’s writing rich and evocative is to commit a crime of understatement.  However, it’s not just the details that make this story work; the very structure of the text is essential to overall experience.  Short narrative chunks add a consistent sense of urgency to the story, even when characters find a reprieve from the anarchy of armageddon.  In keeping dialogue terse and descriptions to a pithy minimum, the tempo of the story is similarly accelerated.  Such natural pacing happens without the use of extreme violence, immediate doom or other such tropes in the arsenal of plot hastening.  Rarely do I find a story offering so much depth for so little investment.  Of course, that usually means the story’s imagery is going to live in my head for a while.  In this instance, I’ll roll out the red carpet.

I find myself wanting to return to the relationship between The Earth, “The Orange” and the photographer.  There’s a certain perfection in having decaying fruit as an analogue to the Earth; the symmetry says so much without having to say anything at all.  However, the photographer, the voice that connects the narrative bits together, oozes subtext.  It’s taking every ounce of my writer’s discipline to avoid turning this review into an exercise in literary deconstruction and analysis.  Come on, you know you want to hear me wax poetic about textual nuances, right?  Wait, where are you going?  Don’t leave.  I’m just kidding, I promise, I’ll behave.

With an abundance of books and movies jumping on the apocalypse bandwagon, it is wonderful to see a story that taps into popular culture without depending on popular tropes to tell a story.  Although Orange’s format is a little more challenging than some other pieces of short fiction, it is absolutely rewarding for those who give it a few minutes worth of thought.  The full text of Susan Forest’s Orange can be found on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.  Here’s the link.

Overall Score: +4


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Fiction Friday Short Story Review: A Better Offer

Summary Judgement:  An intriguing narrative that literally tells the story of a mission to the stars.

Written by: Jamie Mason

Photo by: NASA’s National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

Jamie Mason’s A Better Offer managed to surprise me.  When I learned that the story is told through the transcripts of fourteen voicemail messages, I feared that it wouldn’t work.  After all, the golden rule/tired cliché of writing says that you should never tell the reader a story; you must use your words to show the audience a transcendent creative vision.  Therein lay the potential paradox as voicemails embody the efficiency of telling somebody something important.  Rather than trying to parse a metatextual awareness that might resolve this paradox, I’ll just say that A Better Offer is an exception to the “show me don’t tell me” rule.

Set in the year 2025, A Better Offer tells the story of an American company’s discovery of a superluminal engine.   The Kuyper Drive boasts the ability to propel a ship from “Earth orbit to Pluto in no time flat!”.  When a test flight to the Horsehead Nebula discovers something so unexpected that the military moves in on the project, the situation gets appropriately complicated.  While the theme of government versus free enterprise is nothing new in science fiction, it feels remarkably fresh in this story.  In fact, Tom, the leaver of messages, speaks with a tone that reminded me of Jubal Harshaw in Robert Heinlien’s Stranger in a Strange Land. He’s brilliant, but slightly subversive and irreverent; his belief in the rule of law while surrounded by a military junta is inspiring to say the least.  Perhaps that is how this story gets around all the telling?  Tom’s voice is so clear that I couldn’t help but probe the subtext of his character, thus drawing me into the story.

The lack of technobabble accurate to seven decimal points may disappoint some hard SF fanatics.  However, there’s really no way details like that could have been worked into the story without making it seem like pointless exposition.  Why should two business men need to talk to each other about the nuts and bolts of the Kuyper Drive?  They’d likey leave details like that to the techies and R&D team.  If anything, the choice to eschew hard SF tidbits broadens the story’s potential audience.

I also had a little giggle when the story mentioned Winston, the chimpanzee who pilots the first superluminal flight to the Horsehead Nebula.  The discussion of how the Chimp would press the launch and come home buttons reminded me a little of this…

My only criticism of the story is that Murray, the man on the other end of Tom’s phone calls, never seems to pick up his phone.  Events that have the potential to affect the whole planet, as well as their company’s bottom line, are unfolding, and Murray can’t pick up his damn phone?  What could he be doing that is so bloody important?  I know, he can’t pick up without causing a jarring shift in the story’s format.  While I don’t hold that little detail against Mr. Mason’s very well put together story, it did stand out while I was reading.

I’m also going to give an approving nod to Mr. Mason for coming up with an idea that I’ve never seen in a SF story (perhaps once in a movie, but I hated that movie so it doesn’t count).  I won’t give away too much for fear of ruining the ending.  Sufficed to say, the choice of astronauts for humanity’s first manned superluminal flight is wonderfully clever.  Moreover, the astronauts’ back stories act as a clear focal point for the civil rights outrage that lurks just beneath the story’s surface.

A Better Offer proves that you don’t need to spend years researching theoretical physics to tell a compelling story about man travelling faster than the speed of light.  The story can be found on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.  Here’s a link, go read and enjoy.

Overall Score: +3


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Short Story Review: Carbon

Summary Judgement: Carbon successfully taps into the frustration and fatalism that orbit discussions of global climate change to present an evocative story that is as poignant as it is pithy.

Written by: Jef Cozza

Photo by: Chris Gold

If you’re the type of person who wants to read the story before reading my review, here’s the link.  Everybody else can read on and I’ll link you again at the bottom of the page.

Every so often I come across a piece of writing that leaves me absolutely awestruck.  Jef Cozza’s Carbon is a work of such sophistication that it absolutely floored me.  Given that this story so effortlessly harnesses the zeitgeist of climate change, it is no wonder that it won the fiction category of IO9’s environmental writing contest.

Set in the not too distant future, Carbon paints a chilling picture of life in a world where manmade climate change is simultaneously drowning and starving the world.  The story’s events unfold around its narrator, a seemingly burned out New York journalist named Beedie.  Beedie resonates the scepticism and resentment of a generation that grew up believing they would be the ones to save the world.  His story begins when a college friend turned Fortune 500 CEO sets into motion a series of events that have the potential to not only reshape the world but to redefine Beedie as a person.  What makes this story interesting is that neither of those changes are guaranteed to be a good thing.

Cozza’s ability to construct a winning narrative begins with his talent at extrapolating the future of our world based on current issues.  Despite the all too palpable ecological damage in Cozza’s vision of the future, greed and profit remain at the forefront of private ventures into environmental reclamation.  During an editorial meeting, Beedie’s colleagues pitch story ideas that echo the odd mixture of hubris and denial that drives our civilization’s faith in technology as an inevitable salvation.  As if these ideas were not insightful enough, Cozza pairs them with strikingly deep characters.  Keeping character development at the story’s forefront allows Carbon to plumb another unique theme, the despair that comes with knowing there is nothing you can do to fix the world.

Precious little doesn’t work in Carbon. While the romantic sub-plot felt a bit tacked on, it in no way detracts from the story at hand.  In fact, a dash of romance and heartbreak probably helps the story reach out to a broader audience.  It is a boon to the story and a testament to Cozza’s writing that there’s nothing happening in Carbon that will strike the average reader as unfamiliar or alien.  Despite that nod to accessibility I suspect a fair number of people will come away from this story feeling unsatisfied.  Carbon grabs its readers by the neck and forces their collective heads out of the sand.  While his vision of irreparable climate change may not be prescient, dear god I hope it is not prescient, it is certainly plausible and quite likely in some aspects if things do not change.  Gods know it is hard to look at the flooding in Australia and pretend that it is just ecological business as usual.  While that plausibility worked for me, it might strike too close to home for some readers.  Much like the actual global warming debate, it is tempting to ignore Carbon’s message lest it undermine a life of privilege and ignorant bliss with a sense of stewardship for the future.

For those of you with the nerve to read something that is both unique and wholly thought provoking, you can find a link to the story here.  In the meantime, if Mr. Cozza, who has a surprisingly small internet footprint, should find his way to my little corner of the internet, please email me (adam@pageofreviews.com) as I would love to interview you about this story.

Overall Score: +4