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.
Dear state and federal government, tax time is fast approaching and of course there is no time to do it this year. Which is kind of the refrain every year IF anyone brings it up. Few people do. They’re busier talking about “abolish the IRS” because that would totally stop people from cheating on their taxes (or mainly corporations and the people with the largest potential tax liability), or “let’s have a flat tax,” because that wouldn’t hurt the poor far more than it hurts the rich (10% of vitally needed food and rent money vs. 15% or 20% of income that is mostly disposable – I know which side of THAT stick I’m rather be holding and which side would be, ah, fecally augmented) or “STUPID TAXES WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO PAY FOR THINGS I’M NOT USING AT THE MOMENT” like they don’t benefit from stuff like the roads they drive on (and which makes transport for goods easy, which keeps prices lower at the stores) and the fire departments that keep their neighborhoods from burning down, the police that discourage people from breaking into their house and pillaging them, and the schools that educate kids so we’re not drowning in way more unskilled labor than we can use and having a majority of the people being desperate and ready to riot. I could go on, but I’m WAY off track as it is.
Doing taxes. It sucks. If you’re lucky enough to have nobody but yourself in your life (if you call that luck; I have been there and I call it lonely) it’s not too hard to do your own EZ form, though I have seen folks at tax prep businesses shelling out cash to have someone else fill it in, for some weird reason. But for most people (and gawd forbid you own a small business that’s not large enough to have a professional accountant or two on staff) it’s a choice between spending hours poring through instruction books and arcane forms, or paying someone else a few hundred bucks to navigate the occult incantations that result in a refund, or at least the payment that you actually owe instead of more because you missed some credit or deduction.
And if you’re badly wrong to their detriment, the government will send you a letter that basically says, “you really screwed this up – either do over or just send us X dollars to make up the difference.”
Which brings me straight to the point of my little rant: GOVERNMENT, YOU ALREADY KNOW HOW MUCH WE MAKE, WHO IS IN OUR FAMILIES, AND HOW MUCH WE’RE SUPPOSED TO OWE OR HAVE REFUNDED.
Y’all know! And still we have to go through this bureaucratic paper-pushing like it’s 1913 and this income tax crap is new to everyone.
Look, I don’t mind paying taxes. I like good roads and law enforcement when it’s not misapplied by beating the hell out of or killing people who deserve due process like, unfortunately, WAY too many POC. I like fire departments and agencies that tell factories that no, they are not allowed to dump spare chemicals in the water table that feed the reservoirs I drink from. I like agencies that tell employers that it’s better to take some frickin’ precautions than kill off or cripple employees because, hey, a lot of people need jobs, we’ll just get another one when we break this one.
I like stuff like space programs, and even the military if only ours would calm down a bit and stop bombing 47 countries at once (actual count may vary – I really hope not upwards).
I like parkland. I like clean air. I like rivers that don’t catch on fire. I like cities that aren’t obscured by smog.
I don’t mind paying taxes, just like I don’t mind buying a fishing license that goes to support people to make sure we’re not overfishing and to maintain, keep clean, and occasionally restock nice fishing holes.
I do mind the damned paperwork!
There are plenty of countries that just figure your taxes for you and send you a postcard that basically says “please verify this amount and send your payment or receive your refund, or tell us if we’ve got something wrong or you believe you are entitled to pay less or get more back.”
We could do that. Maybe someone could ask those counties how they do it?
But, spoiler: Y’ALL GOVERNMENT FOLKS ALREADY KNOW HOW MUCH WE OWE SO LET’S JUST DO THE ABOVE INSTEAD OF ALL THE STUPID FORMS IN THE HOPES WE SCREW UP AND YOU GET TO SCREW US FOR EXTRA TAX AND PENALTIES.
Thanks for your time, government. I’m sure you’ll get it right. Probably shortly after I go for a nice dirtnap in (hopefully) fifty years or so.
(This post appeared on my Patreon page a week before it appeared here. Why not be a patron and see this stuff early, and sometimes even get a free ebook?)
Food printing right now is limited to stuff like pasta and candy. Simple stuff with few ingredients.
But imagine a day when it’s quick and simple to print a burger or pizza or steak.
I don’t know that day will come — it’s difficult to imagine the incredible advances it would take to do such a thing.
But if it gets done it seems likely to proceed like computer tech, from bulky and expensive to cheap and ubiquitous in a generation or two.
Maybe by 2218 we’ll see something like that. It would knock the guts out of the restaurant industry. Make famine response easier. Probably make us all even fatter. It might kill the cooking professions, or make them boutique commodities for rich showoffs.
I would totally buy a food printer. I’d print a box of meringues right now.
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.
Bamboo skewers, three bucks for a hundred.
No cats get speared because when a cat is looking for a congenial place to poop they sniff around instead of leaping in eyes shut.
They come sniffing around and if you’ve placed your skewers well, they realize it’s too much bother and go somewhere else.
It’s great for planters like this, but if you have a larger garden I’m afraid you’re going to have to invest in a fence if you have the same infestation of pooping cats.
The title kinda says it all, doesn’t it? File this one under “if this goes on…”
It’s going to happen sooner or later. The only question is, will throwing rocks at populated areas like Earth or space habitats or settled moons and asteroids be viewed as an over the top measure and approached with extreme reluctance like nuclear weapons have been following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or will our future Solar-system-wide civilization degenerate into an orgy of caveman rock throwing?
Only time will tell.
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?