Category Archives: Short story reviews
Spoiler Warning: I try to avoid the worst spoilers, but as one of those weirdos who doesn’t care about spoilers I can easily miss them. Assume there are spoilers!
(Also, this appeared about a week ago on my Patreon page — become a patron and you’ll get to read my posts early, too — and sometimes get a free ebook in the bargain!)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (you’ll find it in Uncanny Magazine’s March/April 2017 issue – it’s a public read at this writing) is an alternate worlds yarn. It’s not the standard “let’s see history if X battle were won instead of lost” or “what if dinosaurs evolved human-scale intelligence” alternate world story. It’s still a familiar take, and also a good read.
Standout features: There are some pretty excellent passages pertaining to regrets in life, satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction with your life (yes, yours. I know “universality” is a hotly debated point right now, but regrets are about as universal as you can get I think), as well as love and work-life balance and “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Impressions: As soon as it became apparent this was a multiple versions of one person story (and that is made obvious quickly), I had a moment of fear that it would be in some way a Citadel of Ricks ripoff. My next thought was that an editor for a prozine or semiprozine would almost certainly not buy a story like that. It isn’t at all such a story.
With the ‘coincidence’ of suthor name and character name(s) I wondered briefly how much author self-insert there was and where. And then I forgot to wonder and it didn’t matter at all. I was too busy reading.
The story maintains a blend of serious and light as it progresses to and through the central, darkish, murder mystery (is a murder ever not dark to some degree or another?). The mystery takes on an extra dimension given the premise. How much of our lives are shaped by self-harm, here being the kinds that don’t show in cuts and balding patches and so forth? What would we do or suffer to change our choices and their ramifications? Why do we spend so much time (well, I do, though I’m (no, really, I’m serious) trying to cut down) maundering over what could have been instead of looking to what tomorrow can be? This story makes you look at that perhaps more than is comfortable, as good stories tend to do with the issues they highlight.
There’s also, by the way, an amusingweird aside in which two Sarahs are clearly contemplating making out. Is that masturbation, incest, or a unique, um, phenomenon? You decide.
The writing isn’t strongly descriptive (which I’m fine with, by the way, even though I’m a description guy most of the time) and tends toward a lean narrative – except when we see the feelings of the main Sarah. Then we get soulful and evocative without the reader getting all covered with syrup or angst. Which was nice; as a Gen-Xer I’m steeped in angst from my foundation and a break from that is always welcome.
The action of the story is clear, though the multiple selves in a convention center aspect (one of those selves being the hotel manager was a touch that makes a lot of sense, and its cleverness should be appreciated, by the way) made me go back and reread a couple of paragraphs a couple of times to be sure I was understanding. I didn’t mind it at all. It seemed natural given all the Sarahs. The minor confusion also lent itself well to the mystery part of things, which resolved in a not unexpected way. I really didn’t care (I feel like I’m saying that too much, but here we are) that I had guessed the general shape of the mystery’s resolution. I was still engaged by the particulars of who exactly did what and why.
The wide range of Sarahs didn’t play a whole much with variability in world events as an influence in what might change a person’s life, though that aspect was there to a small degree and was integral to the resolution. It concentrated way more on reactions to events in one’s own life and how a very small change butterfly-effects a person into something radically different given a decade or two to diverge – we see musician Sarahs, and addicts and alcoholics and scientists and humble insurance investigators (our main Sarah), and equestrians and concentrations of similar types that reflect high likelihoods and foundational traits (the gay Sarahs – I wasn’t quite sure if any were straight, but then we don’t see the sexuality of every Sarah, and we mainly know because most have a girlfriend or wife but not present – the crowd is Sarahs only). Others are outliers, like apparently insurance investigator is not a popular career choice among Sarahs, and only a small handful were transgender.
I appreciated the choice to make the setting an isolated island cut off from outside contact by not only its remote nature but also a nasty weather system. This story had enough on its plate without dragging the wider world into things.
I’m happy to have read this story. It gave me a good plateful of food for thought, and those are my favorite kinds of stories in all their multiplicitous glory.
This is the first time I’ve reviewed a short story here. I’m pretty sure, anyway. At the very least, it’s the first time I’ve done it with the intention of doing them as a regular feature of my blog-slash-authorpage. (Note: this first appeared on my Patreon page 8 days ago — become a patron and see blog posts a week-plus early, even if you pledge just ONE dollar.
So, before I begin, some notes.
I think I’ll always lead with a spoiler warning, just in case. Like this: there may be spoilers in here, because 99% of the time I just don’t care about spoilers.
And that’s true. I’m one of those weirdos who can have the ending and twists of a movie, book, or story revealed to me and fully enjoy the thing anyway. I’m kind of a fan of spoiling as a device in fiction, in fact. Stephen King loves to do that. He’ll tell you someone is going to die a hundred pages before they die, and the story of how they die is still delicious. More delicious, I think. The flavor is in the telling.
And I’m not going to give stars. Screw grades, especially when they’re nothing more than my opinion. I always feel awkward trying to give a numerical value to how much I like a thing. I’m also the person who says “well, I don’t really have a favorite, but I do like (names five things)” when asked what their favorite whatever is.
I don’t think less of you if you give stars to things, though. Or have favorites. You do you – and I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way.
Now, the actual review:
Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley, found in Drowned Worlds, editor Jonathan Strahan. It’s the kickoff story.
My experience: it was easy to read, but also easy to put down and finish tomorrow, which I did. Neither of those traits, speaking of “put down,” is a putdown. I didn’t find it highly impactful, but it was still worth my time.
Standout features: the worldbuilding was excellent and detailed, as was the backstory of the main character. The story is a fine tour through the state of ecological affairs in the next century, and I found it much in the tradition of Hugo Gernsback with his worldbuilding-heavy “look! It’s the future!” stories. McAuley, however, has not built Hugo’s cardboard cutout characters. While the other characters aren’t fleshed out any more than their cosmetic roles demand, protagonist Mike Torres is a deep and rich character – if the worldbuilding wasn’t so significant to current climate change events, I’d take it for an excuse to plumb the depths of his angst, hope, and his curious entanglement with the phenomenon of the elf stones scattered across the partially uniced landscape of coastal Antarctica (which are inscribed in “elvish,” though are we talking Tolkien’s elvish? How else would people recognize and read Elvish? Maybe I missed the mention of Tolkein – or maybe not. The estate is famously litigious. I was reading this part at three in the morning jotting notes sideways in bed, so who knows what I might have missed in a moment of fatigue.
The stones are mysterious, or not. It’s hard to be sure, and that’s a fine note of humanity in the story. They’re probably placed there by humans, but the “stoners” (distracting name for elf stone enthusiasts, by the way) are happy to muse about mystical origins anyhow. They’re kind of a stand-in for stories in that way – we all know Star Wars is fiction, but there’s a Jedi church anyway. Two of them. Maybe more.
I wasn’t terribly excited to discover that this was a “something happened” story. Don’t come for the wrapup or a hint of conclusion. It’s not there. Which is a thing in the short story world, and there’s still plenty to be had in the reading. I’m just one of those people who favors a more concludey conclusion, even a “let’s just hint at what happens next” ending.
The writing is pretty spare for the most part, definitely in the “just tell the story” tradition – except when it comes to describing the natural world. There, the descriptions become more literary (if maybe prone to cliché phrases like “snow-capped mountains”), a bit closer to poetry, definitely richer and more emotionally evocative. I appreciated it as a touch that created focus on the heart of the story without dragging the reader over and rubbing my nose in it.
Overall, I found it a good read and an excellent way to start an anthology as it takes the reader through a lot of potential developments that are likely to come with a changing climate.
There are a lot of book bloggers reviewing books. But it’s rare to see them review a short story collection, and a review of a single short story is practically a unicorn.
So maybe as a short story writer I ought to step into the vacuum and review some short stories?
On the con side, I have long shied from writing reviews. I have a past of avoiding conflict and writing a review, especially if I’m not impressed with the story, has the potential to create conflict.
Sometimes that kind of conflict has gotten over the top and bizarre.
But people have probably been hunted down over tweets and I don’t pull a lot of punches as @Tao23.
I haven’t written a ton of reviews. But on the other hand I’ve picked apart plenty of stories, in constructive ways and adversarial, as a reader, as a gabber with fellow sci-fi fans, and as a student while working on my English MA.
And, on the pro side, I do have the qualifications of writing and reading a crapton of short stories.
What do y’all think? If there a place for this kind of thing?