World Con starts August 9th in Helsinki Finland this year with the Hugo awards ceremony on Friday evening. Best of luck to all the nominees - including Boulder’s own Carrie Vaughn (interview coming soon). Here at Fiction Unbound our regular contributing editors offer a bouquet of reviews, in order by date of publication, of finalists in the short story category:
CS Peterson: A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers, by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
Wong’s story is a heart-wrenching theme and variations on desperate grief. The narrator, Hannah, bends time and space, trying in vain to find the timeline where, Melanie, her sister lives. Melanie tells Hannah time after time that she has no business trying change something that was never hers to control, but the narrator will not let go of the belief that she could have done something:
The sisters are gifted with abilities to manipulate the elemental forces of the universe. Lightning crackles from their fingertips. When they are playing as children Melanie casually says “Here, Hannah. Pay attention, and I’ll teach you how the future works,” and then spins out daisy chains of possibilities. Hannah goes to NYU and studies acting. Melanie stays home and dies and dies.
Melanie is a trans woman, and subjected to multitudes of violent acts, physical and emotional. As Hannah goes further and further back in time, there is one permutation where their mother shares the sad news with Hannah over the phone. The pronoun ‘he’ in the mother’s mouth jars the ear as much as image of Melanie’s body, drowned in their pool.
The beauty of this story is in Wong’s masterful and searing use of metaphor to physicalize the persistent pain of loss. By the end of the story the impossible weight of grief will make your own heart ache.
Lisa Mahoney: That Game We Played During the War, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
Carrie Vaughn imagines a world torn by the nightmare of decades of war where a ceasefire has taken hold at last. One side is telepathic, and the other has to develop methods of conducting war to ensure it does not lose. Vaughn examines comprehensively the ramifications of one-side telepathic encounters, on a scale from war to individuals. Enithans don’t bother lying when taken prisoner, but the Gantish can’t torture their prisoners, as empaths, it would be too painful.
In the midst of the war, an Enithan nurse, Calla, feels pity for her prisoner, a Gaantan, Valk, whom she must keep sedated to prevent him reading Enithan minds and to protect him from hateful thoughts surrounding him. Later their situation is reversed, and she becomes his prisoner, working in a Gaantan prison hospital where she alone works without telepathy. At his request, she teaches him how to play chess but develops a strategy to not lose: she plays childlike, almost at random, preventing him from knowing her next move.
The story is a celebration of empathy and building peace in a shattered world where misunderstanding about the enemy is rampant, something our own world suffers from. Valk’s telepathy gives him a better understanding of Calla’s growing depression than her own, and their interactions force both of them into a more naked openness than they experience among their own people. Their war ended with a ceasefire, much as their friendly game ends in a stalemate, but this is not why they come together again as peace sets in. They hope to heal each other’s wounds and spread peace and understanding by example, and they do.
“An Unimaginable Light” appears halfway through God, Robot, an anthology of stories, each by a different author, but otherwise modeled after Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Foundation books. It takes us chapter by chapter through a history, in this case a history of theological robots. Even the lighter stories in God, Robot are grappling with a heavy premise and will bend even minds well versed in philosophy and theology through the thorny ideas at play when artificially intelligent robots desire to start worshipping Christ.
The first of these robots are programmed to do so as the American robotics monopoly tries to fill a niche left open by a dearth of priests to keep all the churches open. These robotic clergymen retain Asimov’s three laws of robotics but have grafted onto them an additional two laws suggested by Jesus: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And Love your neighbor as yourself.” The manner in which the first three laws come into conflict with the additional two leads to the decision that for the theological bots, the two laws of Christ should be enough. But as thinking machines will go about thinking, some AI robots programmed as three laws robots convert themselves into two laws robots, and the lives of religious robots get increasingly complex.
Now I don’t believe in anything anymore, but I do still appreciate the struggles of faith and intellect and passions that believers endure and put so much of their hearts into. If you can at all empathize with that struggle, then watching intelligent robots sincerely working through these issues but applied to their unique standing as synthetic, fleshless, sexless beings is a surprising treasure.
All of the stories in God, Robot are at least good. But when you reach John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light,” you will understand why it was the one nominated for a Hugo. By this story, we are centuries into human reliance on intelligent robots. Human have ceded so many of their chores and responsibilities to the robots as to leave themselves with little to do. And a remembrance of human distrust of early cultish theobots has led humans to vainly attempt to put limits onto the thinking of robots. Enter Calvin Thales Rossim. An inquisitor of sorts, it is his job to decide the fate of robots who have let their thinking expand beyond the prescribed limits. Will they be reprimanded, tweaked, wiped and rebooted, or given the order to self-destruct into ashes? Of course, this inquisition does not go as he expects and from the very beginning it is an amazing read.
Check out, God, Robot. For a $5 ebook, I was surprised to find it not just a good book, but an important book. Christianity is important to everyone, not just believers, because of the way it has shaped and continues to shape Western society. Watching it shape a new society is intriguing as hell. As good as John C. Wright’s story is, try not to skip ahead to it and you’ll enjoy it even more. And then read the stories after that. They’re good, too.
CS Peterson: The City Born Great, by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
Jemisin’s lively lyrical love note to NYC jumps off the page with singing poetry and driving rhythm. It is a story chock-a-block full of references in conversation with: contemporary culture, ancient heroic birth traditions, and the personalities of the diverse neighborhoods and constituencies that together combine as the entity that is the five boroughs plus Hoboken (honorary membership via the Port Authority connection). If you have never been a New Yorker, some notes would enhance the enjoyment of the clever and deeply apt descriptions of various aspects of the living breathing city and its birthing. A passing familiarity with Lovecraftian tropes will enrich your appreciation of the monstrous attacker who seeks to consume the infant entity of NYC as it enters into the world.
My favorite moment in the story comes at the moment of birth. It is the where the story turns and instead of the harried expectant parent hiding and running from threats the hero child confronts the monstrous assailant and calls out a challenge:
It is the story of a city attacked that turns and defends itself with the tenacious resilience of its many parts. The most joyous and hopeful note to be sounded from the midst of Manhattan in years. Whitman and Hughes would be in raptures at hearing the voice of Jemisin’s song.
Tabitha walks and thinks of shoes.
Amira makes an art of stillness.
Amal El-Mohtar’s new fairy tale evolved from a bedtime story told to her niece and the desire to rewrite the traditional canon of tales to include women strengthening women. Tabitha must walk in seven pairs of iron shoes, only changing pairs when the ones on her feet have worn out. When all seven have been worn down, her bear-husband will turn into a man. Probably not a nicer man, though, as he’s the one who tasked her to spend years in agony traversing the globe in phalange torture traps. Ah, the things we do for love. It’s not all bad, though. Tabitha’s iron shoes enable her to see the world, including sights as beautiful as geese taking flight from a river, “like the river itself is rising, lifting its skirts and taking off.” The shoes possess magic abilities to walk where ordinary shoes can not: across water, between stars, and up glass hills.
Amira lives on a glass hill. She needs only a golden apple to eat, and isn’t bothered by the changing seasons, loneliness, or a rudimentary need to stretch her legs. She’s not downbeat about her stationary predicament; she chose it to save her father’s kingdom from being torn in half should she marry, or worse, be abducted because of her beauty and inheritance. On top of the hill she has a nice view of the stars and the men on horseback attempting to ride up the glass to claim her, but not of much else. Until Tabitha arrives. Iron shoes are handy.
The two women spend a season together as Tabitha circles the glass hilltop, wearing down her iron shoes (if she had a Fitbit, she’d have all her steps in by breakfast). When spring arrives, the topic of their varying incarcerations finally arises. Both are appalled at each other for willingly placing themselves in their prisons: Tabitha chides Amira for locking herself on top of a hill with no chance of experiencing life, all to protect the virtue her father emphasized as her greatest asset. Amira is aghast that Tabitha schleps the world in pain at the behest of her abusive husband. Both ladies have an epiphany: they elect to not spend a single second longer in self-imposed captivity, and will lean on each other for the experiences and tools they lack. Spring becomes more than a season for Tabitha and Amira.
The story is beautiful, a mix of traditional fairy tale cadence and poetry that is at home with imagery like “frost rimes the glass hill into diamonds.” At the end there is no prince to wake the girl or change from a frog, there’s only two women - one a princess, one not - helping each other across the borders they’d built of their own fears.
El-Mohtar referenced the theme of borders in her acceptance speech for the Locus Award for best short story:
El-Mohrar, a Canadian-Arab writer, writes Tabitha and Amira as allegories for overpowering fear and the prejudices inherent in them. Hopefully, with the extensive recognition and accolades the story has garnered, the world is listening.
Sean Cassity: Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is a visceral revenge story. It grants a satisfaction not just to the injured protagonist, but to everyone who must live in a world where the threat of this kind of random violence is a very real possibility. However small a possibility, it is real, and it lingers in the back of the mind of anyone vulnerable. So even if it’s fictional, it provides a good hit of justice being done that just feels good. Maybe it is more satisfying being fictional because we do not have our better natures suggesting mercy and/or forgiveness as options. It’s a story, a fable even, and it’s out of our hands, so can we please just enjoy this supernatural comeuppance and watch this guy get what he’s just got to get?
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is quite short, so that’s as much as I’ll say about it. You should just read it. Again, it’s short. Jump in. Here’s the link again where you can read it at Uncanny Magazine’s site. And then if you want more of that immediate charge Brooke Bolander can bring to you check out her Nebula nominated novelette, “And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead,” at Lightspeed Magazine.