So, I’m not behind, exactly, since I’m still well on track to finish this project by March 30th, but the last couple of days have not been particularly productive ones. Bad news always puts me in a bit of a funk, and it hasn’t helped that my partner has been home sick for a couple of days, which is a huge distraction. In any case, by the end of day on Monday, I was about a full day ahead of my reading schedule, and I don’t expect to be fully caught up until probably the end of day tomorrow. That said, I plan to finish the reading part of this project by Sunday evening and have the final few parts up by Wednesday afternoon.
On the bright side, today’s group of writers are some of my favorites yet, and there are several very strong possible nominees for Best Short Story in addition to at least one author that I can already tell you is likely to make my list of Campbell nominees.
“Rain Like Diamonds” is a slightly underwhelming fairy tale, with an ending that is just a little too expected to be truly clever or particularly impactful. However, I adored “The Tea-Space Continuum,” which has a delightfully funny time travel paradox. Unfortunately, “The Book of Futures” was another miss for me. I like short detective stories, and I found the steampunk-ish setting intriguing, but the story just didn’t work. It actually had two endings; one was pedestrian, and both were trite.
I rather liked “Arise to the Surface” at first, even if it was obvious very early on what the story’s “twist” was, but it lost me when it had an alien woman with sexualized breasts. Randomly mammalian space people, seemingly for the sole purpose of describing sexualized breasts, is a major pet peeve of mine, and the rest of the story wasn’t good enough to overcome my distaste for that uncreative nonsense. “Razor Bill vs. Pistol Anne” is a very short, mildly amusing post-apocalyptic gladiator story, but it’s not particularly memorable.
“Of Blood and Brine” is a superb example of short fiction world building, and Megan E. O’Keefe backs it up by telling a compelling story as well. This one is eligible for the Best Short Story Hugo Award as well, and it’s definitely one to consider. I did skip her novel excerpt, however, as I’d like to read the whole book, though I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it.
“Tear Tracks” is a very good, but not great, first contact story. Malka Older does an amazing job with her world building, and I love the alien culture she’s conceived here, but the actual story is fairly slight and it gets a bit info-dumpy at the end, which makes it slightly insincere feeling. A+ ideas, but C+ execution.
“The Box Wife” was hard to read as it features one of my all-time least favorite sci-fi tropes: a sexbot. Even when it’s used in the best possible way, even when it’s done to interrogate or subvert as it is here, I find this trope viscerally upsetting. Still, it was promising enough for me to move on to Emma Osborne’s other stories. I rather liked “Zip” which is reminiscent of good Star Trek, but “Clean Hands, Dirty Hands” was another fairly dark and unpleasant story to read; I liked its Australian gold rush setting, which is pretty unique, but it’s an extremely grim tale, and I increasingly find these days that I’m simply not in the market for that kind of bleak grimness.
“Upgrade” has a moderately interesting premise, but it reminds me far too much of last year’s film Advantageous, which explored similar ideas much more effectively. “Peace for Our Times” has got to be at least the third or fourth “deal with the devil” story in this collection, and it’s one that doesn’t manage to be either very insightful or fun. “Behind Grey Eyes” does manage to be fun, but I’m unfortunately just not a fan of zombies-as-metaphor in general. I’m not super impressed by any of Chris Ovenden’s stories here, but he’s objectively talented and I feel like he’s an author who is going to publish something any day now that I’m going to love. In the meantime, I could easily imagine any of these stories being someone else’s favorite even if they aren’t for me.
Steve Pantazis’s novelette, “Switch,” would make an excellent episode or two for a futuristic cop show that I might enjoy watching, but it’s of a genre that I find unreadably boring. I can tell that it’s well-written and nicely structured and paced, but there’s no more boring protagonist for me to read about than a slightly dirty, but essentially decent policeman.
Carrie Patel is an author who has gotten a good amount of buzz in the last year, but this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to read any of her stuff. I don’t know what I was waiting for. “Here Be Monsters” is a shipwrecked story that is fantastic and horrific in turns, with a wonderfully ambiguous ending. I’m not always into unreliable narrators, but I enjoyed this one. Also, the abyssus is a great creepy monster. “The Color of Regret” is a total change of pace, and its speculative elements aren’t as central to the story—in fact, Nasrin’s ability to see auras is almost incidental to the plot—but the tale straddles the worlds of family drama and revolutionary intrigue in a compelling fashion. The Buried Life is a novel that’s been on my to-read list for ages, so I skipped the excerpt from it here.
Sunil Patel’s first contact tale, “The Merger,” is one of the funniest stories so far in Up and Coming, and I laughed out loud more than once while reading it. Paresh is lovable, and his wife Sita is a constant delight. Plus, there’s very little that I find funnier than unconventional contract negotiations. Especially with aliens. In contrast, “The Robot Who Couldn’t Lie” had me in tears well before the end. It’s nice to see an author with this sort of range in their writing, and this is further highlighted by Patel’s third story, “The Attic of Memories,” which I didn’t like as well as the first two but which is something entirely different again. The only thing that all of these stories have in common is a professionally polished quality that is often lacking in work by writers at the beginning of their careers. I can’t wait to see what Sunil Patel does next.
From Laura Pearlman, we get a trio of very amusing stories that made me laugh even more than “The Merger.” First up, “I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything” is exactly what it sounds like—an AMA with the leader of an army of radish-loving alien invaders. “A Dozen Frogs, a Bakery, and a Thing That Didn’t Happen” is a fabulous and very clever modern fairy tale. I wasn’t sure at first about “In the End You Get Clarity,” but it’s not like other superhero stories, and by the end I loved it.
Carrie Patel and Laura Pearlman are both in their final year of eligibility for the Campbell, and either could be a strong choice, but the sheer versatility of Sunil Patel is what I found most exciting in today’s reading. I wouldn’t pick Megan E. O’Keefe and Malka Older for this year’s award, but they’re both writers to watch for, each with a first novel being published this year.