Today’s group of authors was refreshingly free of urban fantasy, which was nice. While the actual reading took me longer than I’d hoped, it was definitely more enjoyable than yesterday’s crop of stories. There are definitely a couple of turds in the punch bowl, but overall today’s selections were excellent, with more than the usual number of standout pieces.
Sadly, things didn’t start off so well. Elad Haber’s “Number One Hit” isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing special, either. The Mad Max-ish, post-apocalyptic aesthetic is overdone, and Haber even highlights some of the more absurd aspects of it; his descriptions of people and places sound just too much like something out of Beyond Thunderdome. Even the idea of scavengers hunting for the detritus of the old world is nothing new, and Haber doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about the matter. Worst of all, Haber casually includes, albeit not in an explicit fashion, a casually brutal rape that happens for no real reason—aside from, perhaps, increasing the grimness of the world Haber is creating—and doesn’t seem to have much effect even on the woman who is raped. That there is some amount of narrative justice in the end doesn’t really make up for this. There’s no real moral complexity here, just a lot of bleakness and cynicism, which is, ultimately, boring.
“Adaptation and Predation” is an excellent piece of world building, something that is often lacking in short fiction but which Auston Habershaw accomplishes here with panache. His cast of alien species is wonderfully imagined and described, and this short exploration of life in their highly stratified society is simply riveting. There are a few copy editing issues that stood out to me, and I usually like for professionally published work to be somewhat more polished, but the story was so good it didn’t signify by the time I finished reading it.
Habershaw follows up his sci-fi tale with a very good piece of fantasy, “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration,” which begins with a teenage boy making a bad bargain for a magic book. It’s an interesting hybrid of high fantasy and post-apocalyptic genres, with an ending that was genuinely surprising and downright hilarious. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the ending was seeded early in the story, which prevents it from feeling like a too-easy solution to Abe’s problems. I feel like I’ve read a lot of stories lately that deal with bad bargains or deals with devils, but this one is a nice, if not groundbreaking, twist on the theme.
Even though I take notes while read, I have a hard time remembering much about Philip Brian Hall’s three stories. “Spatchcock” is listed as a novella, but is obviously not even close to novelette length. It’s the best of Hall’s selections, but is nonetheless entirely unremarkable. “The Waiting Room” is predictable, with an absolutely groanworthy ending that is aggressively trite. “The Man on the Church Street Omnibus” fares slightly better, but this time travel story is another dully average piece that didn’t make much of an impression on me one way or the other.
“The Antares Cigar Shop” is another one of many stories in Up and Coming that were originally published in an anthology called The Immortality Chronicles, which seems to have been really superb collection of work. The type of immortality explored here is unusual and compelling enough to make up for the Shyamalan-level “twist” at the ending. Gaston is a fascinating character, and while there’s not any character growth or progression over the course of this story, it’s a wonderful portrait of a unique type of existence.
I enjoyed both of Nin Harris’s stories, but I didn’t love them. The Malaysian mythology Harris utilizes is interesting, and I like that there’s no handholding to help white folks understand what she’s talking about, but there’s not quite enough information in “Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman” for it to be easily understood without the help of Google. At the same time, the bunian—as they appear in this story—have so much in common with European fairies that they’re nearly indistinguishable, and I’m not certain if this is because of real similarities in the folklore or if it’s due to the author being influenced by Western fairy stories.
All that said, with “Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman” providing some sort of background, “Your Right Arm” works really well. I was a little taken out of the first story by having to pause and google things, but by the time I got to “Your Right Arm,” I felt a little more confident in my basic understanding of the mythological paradigm Harris was writing within. It also helps that “Your Right Arm” is more thematically coherent than “Sang Rimau” and therefore much more emotionally impactful. It reminded me a little bit, and in a positive way, of Kurt Vonnegut’s short play, “Fortitude,” though the similarities are primarily superficial.
“Y Brenin” is a novelette with a particularly fraught and wonderfully compelling almost love triangle, with a gay knight trying to broker a peace between brother kings. There’s not a huge amount of story here, but it’s a great example of a time where less is more. I’m always fond of stories that do something simple and do it really well, and “Y Brenin” definitely falls into that category. Sadly, after deeply enjoying “Y Brenin,” I was pretty disappointed with “Murder on the Laplacian Express.” It’s not awful, but it is deeply unmemorable, and the story, when it unfolds, doesn’t live up to the dramatic promise of its cold open.
When I read the title of “Boomer Hunter” I didn’t think it could possibly be what it sounds like, but it is exactly what it sounds like, with every bit of cynicism you might expect from a story about a presumably near future (well, it would have to be) in which the government, instead of just paying to feed old people, decides to hire expensive mercenary bands to murder aging Baby Boomers. Because that is definitely a thing that totally makes sense and is even remotely plausible.
“Entropic Order” started off a little better, but it quickly went south. There’s a monk, Benedict, (yes, that Benedict), a Christ figure robot, and an alien that looks like a demon (clearly shamelessly cribbed from Childhood’s End). It’s free of the deep cynicism that characterized “Boomer Hunter,” but that’s about all the good that can be said for it.
“Chandler’s Hollow” is the Hazlett story that really goes for the gold medal of awfulness, though. There’s enough 101-level exploration of class and gender here to at first suggest that Hazlett actually has something useful to say about something, but it’s all heavy-handed, cringeworthy stuff, couched in hilariously bad dialogue and a profoundly silly B-movie aesthetic. The character who seems to be the protagonist—a young, vaguely feminist-y reporter whose career is sunk because of her reporting on the misdeeds of a wealthy man—ends up being an alien bug queen in the end, which is sort of mixed messaging.
Holly Heisey isn’t my favorite author of the day, and both “The Monastery of the Parallels” and “An Understanding” are just competently written, though enjoyable. However, “Contents of Care Package to Etsath-Ta-Chri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)” is one of the more interesting stories in this group, a somewhat unique take on a trans narrative.
Both “Revolver” and “Preservation” start with interesting ideas. The first is about a woman participating in a television show in which people commit suicide in order to get money for their families in a the dystopian hellscape that Republicans are trying to bring to America. The second is about a cyborg ex-soldier who is now waging war against poachers of elephants and rhinos. The problem with both of these stories, though, is that they’re about twice as long as they need to be. At least.
“Revolver” just goes on and on and on, until it’s almost a punishment to read, and the violence that Cara is subjected to over the course of the story are a little too on the nose. It’s not that women don’t have to deal with any of these issues, but Cara’s trials in just the few hours described in the story are so extreme as to feel almost mocking of actual women’s complaints about the sometimes daily indignities of womanhood. That Cara does get manage some kind of resistance by the end of the story is gratifying, but the journey to that point is such circuitous and deeply unpleasant reading that I just wanted it to be over with about twenty pages before then.
“Preservation” is slightly less meandering, but Hicks again seems to dwell on the brutalities of the situations he describes, and though it seems a little optimistic to imagine that rhinos will still be around by the time humans come up with the advanced tech that Akagi uses, the story is overall profoundly pessimistic. The sheer bleakness of the story makes it difficult to keep going at times, especially when so many of the story’s details are drawn straight from the real world. I suppose this could be an eye-opening piece if I lived under a rock, but as an informed person I just found it depressing.
I didn’t read the excerpt from S.L. Huang’s novel, Zero Sum Game, because I intend to read the whole thing at a later date, but both of the short stories included here are superb. “Hunting Monsters” is a fairy tale retelling of sorts that is too clever and creative for me to spoil by telling you all about it. Suffice it to say that I am something of a connoisseur of retold fairy tales, and this one surprised and delighted me for multiple reasons. “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” sounds like a much stuffier story than it is. In fact, while it’s certainly cerebral enough, it’s also highly readable and its big ideas about disability, identity, and transhumanism should be very accessible even to those who don’t know much about these things. Huang perfectly captures some of the ambiguous feelings that exist surrounding technology, and “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” is a smart examination of the contrasts between our ideals and reality and the intersection of the personal and the political.
S.L. Huang is a prolific writer who should be a strong contender for the Campbell this year, but Auston Habershaw and John Gregory Hancock also turned in excellent pieces for Up and Coming. I intend to keep an eye out for Nin Harris, C.A. Hawksmoor, and Holly Heisey going forward, but I wouldn’t say their work so far is quite to the polished standard to win awards. I could see any of those three popping up on best short story or best novelette lists in a year or two, but not just yet.