Sunday, August 14, 2016

Short Fiction: May/June 2016

It’s time for another post about recently-published short fiction! I’ve been falling a bit behind on my short fiction reading, due to the challenges of moving. I’m now finally starting to settle in and catch up on things that have slipped in the past month.  Today’s post is going to include short fiction published in May and June.

First, here are a few of my favorite pieces from that long-ago month of May:

We Have a Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You? By Rebecca Ann Jordan (Short Story): This was a funny and sad story about cultural divides and building bridges between them.  The main character was an amoeba-like alien named Filo/Gee, the last of it’s kind, and its endearingly open and cheerful personality provided a lot of the humor of the story.  I enjoyed the relationship between Filo/Gee and its human roommate, Nina, and watching them try to understand one another more deeply.   

The Pigeon Summer by Brit Mandelo (Short Story):  This one was a ghost story, but not a horror story.  Instead, as in The White Piano, the ghosts serve a story that is fundamentally about coping with grief.  In this case, the supernatural elements are very understated and ambiguous. J. has closed hirself off from the world after the suicide of hir best friend.  In hir apartment, si feels connected only to the ghost that may be haunting the room and to the small nest of baby pigeons that is growing outside the window.

The Jaws that Bite, the Claws that Catch by Seanan McGuire (Short Story): As I’m sure one can guess from the title, this one is a riff on Lewis Carroll, specifically Jabberwocky. The worldbuilding is a neat take on a classic work, and the story has an unusual heroine.  It was a pleasure to read.

Now, here are a couple of favorites published during June:

Lost: Mind by Will McIntosh (Novelette, Asimov’s July 2016*): A story of mind uploading and the pain of losing oneself, this story features a man who has his wife’s mind scanned before she succumbs to Alzheimer’s.  Unfortunately, the pieces of her are stolen and scattered when he attempts to smuggle her into the US, and so he must find a way to put her back together again.  It’s an emotional story that also imagines an interesting near future of illegal mind scans.

Filtered by Leah Cypess (Short Story, Asimov’s July 2016): A terrible thing has happened far away, but filtering algorithms are preventing readers from knowing about it.  A journalist must decide how much he’s willing to sacrifice in his attempt to make suffering voices heard.  Filtered is clearly a reflection of the current state of reality, so don’t expect any happy endings.  Of all the stories I read from June, this one hit the closest to home.

*In case you're wondering, Asimov's publishes their month-named issues during the previous month.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Vurt by Jeff Noon

Vurt by Jeff Noon
Published: Ringpull, 1993
Series: Book 1 of Vurt
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel Award
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“In a future UK, everyone hungers for the ultimate drug: Vurt feathers. They can comfort you, titillate you, terrify you, or take you places that no conscious mind should go. As the Vurt expert Game Cat says, “Be careful, be very careful,”--Vurt sometimes comes with a terrible cost.

Scribble, a member of a small Vurt-focused gang called the Stash Riders, knows this all too well. He has lost his beloved sister Desdemona to a deadly yellow feather.  He woke up from the Vurt experience to find her gone and only a “Thing from Outer Space” at his side. He is determined to get her back, no matter what the price.” ~Allie

This is the first book I’ve read by Jeff Noon, and I listened to it as an audiobook during my commute.  The audiobook narrator, Dean Williamson, was fantastic.   He had a great ability to portray the different accents and speaking patterns of all the different characters. On one last note, Noon has a few new books coming out soon from Angry Robot Books.

My Thoughts:

Vurt takes place in an unusual near-future world, which it drops you into with the expectation that you’ll figure everything out as you go along.  I’m generally fine with novels that are light on initial explanation, but this one left me uncertain as to what kind of a novel I was picking up.  I wasn’t really in the mood for a drug addict story (e.g. A Scanner Darkly) or a gangster story, so I very nearly put the book down.  Despite the set-up, though, the basic surface plot of Vurt is a simple save-the-damsel quest story. Beneath this, there is also a level where the story is about the experience of trauma and the unfulfillable desire to escape. There are plenty of missteps and disasters in Scribble and the Stash Riders’ journey, and I appreciated how often they met with failure.  The intended rescue was a nearly impossible goal in their universe, so the story would have felt cheap if they’d been able to easily find their way forward.  

It takes a while to get a good sense of the structure and details of Noon’s world, but I enjoyed the process of learning.  The novel feels cyberpunk-ish, but with more of a fantastical flair than I’d expect in the subgenre.  Most of the technology has very little explanation, such that it might as well be magic.  Disregarding how exactly they work, I could see how Vurt feathers would be so addictive (especially the comforting variety).  I’m not really sure I understand why exactly anyone would want to do a yellow feather, though, since most of them seem mortally dangerous and not fun at all.  There is a bit of weird background sexuality to the story as well, both from Scribble’s love for his absent sister and the presence of other sentient modes of being (robo, vurt, dog, and shadow).  As long as this doesn’t bother the reader, the world is very vibrant and creative, and it still retains some mystery in the end.

The language is another aspect that I enjoyed about the novel.  I’m curious to read another of Noon’s books, to see if the style works as well written as it does while listening.  The audiobook narrator gave an poetic shape to Scribble’s rambling narration, with its frequent repetition and emphasis, giving it a naturalness that made it feel like the story was meant to be performed.  The unusual style also made me feel closer and more sympathetic to Scribble, who had already endured so much before the novel even started.  I enjoyed seeing through his perspective, especially since he grew so much throughout the story. He moved from a passive young man trying desperately to avoid his own pain, to someone who could face the ugliness of the world and take action.  His journey was difficult, but I appreciated how it ended.  

My Rating: 4 /5
I was not sure what to expect from Vurt from the beginning, but it was a very engaging and creative novel.  It was also particularly fun as an audiobook, so I would recommend that format.  The story concerns Scribble’s efforts to rescue his sister from the alternate reality of a yellow Vurt feather, as well as his own desires to escape pain through various means (such as drugs).  The world and the fictional drugs were really interesting, and Scribble’s journey was emotional and compelling. I can see why this debut novel received award attention, and I expect I will read more of Noon’s work in the future.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Farewell, Ain!

In case you’ve been wondering why I’ve suddenly vanished, I’m in the middle of a transcontinental move with my husband. We’ve been planning to move from a little French village in Ain to Michigan for quite some time, so it feels a little surreal now that it’s actually happening. 

Goodbye, Ain! I'll miss the views!
As we approached the actual move date, things began to get more and more chaotic, and it seemed like tons of disasters started to pop up out of nowhere.  A water pipe in our bathroom broke, and we had to somehow move a harpsichord down three flights of stairs with less than 48 hours notice.  Some of the folks who planned to take our furniture backed out, so we spent more time than expected sawing apart large wood and metal structures for disposal.  During all of this, we were trying to prepare our stuff for the movers, sort through what we would ship and replace, inventory and value all our belongings, clean the apartment, and also try to keep up with work.  It was a nightmare, but at least one that had a definite end.

Finally, it was move-out day!  This was the day where we had to cancel all our services, close bank accounts, and move out the remainder of our belongings in our tiny car.  Soon afterward, we realized that our plan for departure might have been a little more ambitious than anticipated.  We were heading down to Monaco for a week, and had planned to drive all the way through southern France instead of taking the usual Mont Blanc tunnel. 

Our first evening featured a drive to Lyon and a dinner at a traditional bouchon restaurant.  Unfortunately, we made the reservation by phone and somehow managed to forget the name of the place.  That wouldn’t have been a major problem, except the highway was closed, and the mountainous countryside through which we were detouring did not feature any kind of cell phone network.  It took several hours to search our phone history and find the name of the restaurant, but at least we found it before we arrived.  

The bouchon was lovely, and we had some excellent tablier de sapeur and quenelle.  We also had a kir and a glass of wine, which in our hungry, dehydrated, physically and mentally exhausted state, was enough to make us more than usually tipsy. As we finally made our way to the hotel, I managed to catch a nice photograph of what our experience of moving was so far:

Moving is about as easy as swimming while encased in rock.

The next morning, we were well rested, stocked up on sunscreen for the drive ahead, and ready to face the day… or so we thought, until the car didn’t start.  I still have no idea what was up with the car, but it managed to give us a nice 15 minutes of raw panic before it mysteriously started working again.  From there, all we had left was the drive to Monaco, but that carried with it a few unexpected quirks.

Arguably, all we had to do was follow the highway, but traffic was horrific.  We relied on Google maps to find our fastest route, and it often sent us on whimsical trips in the countryside.  At one point, the ‘optimal route’ involved driving directly through Crozes-Hermitage, an appellation that we both love.  We were surprised to see how tiny a village it really is, given how much wine they seem to produce.  

It was so tempting to just stop here for a day...

The other thing we didn’t take into account was exactly how grueling it would be to drive through south of France in July, in a car without AC or tinted windows.  We both crisped a bit, even with the sunscreen, and the heat and sweat was just torture.  Finally, though, we arrived in Monaco, and our journey is now on pause as we rest and recover for a week.  More adventures lie ahead!

Monaco, the land of peace and rest!