Review #27: Beach Blanket Spaceship by Sandra McDonald

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Aug 7, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: http://homepage.mac.com/samcdonald/
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, August 2nd, 2010

surfPhoto by Mike Baird Creative Commons

The Story:

Colonel Frank Merullo of the United States Air Force is stuck in a Vee-Reel — a virtual reality movie playing out before his eyes when he’s supposed to be focused on the crew of his spaceship and getting them safely to one of Neptune’s moons. This particular Vee-Reel is his Lieutenant’s creation, an old 1960s teen surf movie with polite, welcoming characters. Merullo is slow to get involved in the movie, sure that at any moment he’ll wake up an be back aboard his ship, but after the Vee-Reel’s failsafe device doesn’t disengage him from the system, Merullo starts to suspect that something else is going on.

The Craft: 20 Master Plot – Discovery

SPOILERS

Stuck in a virtual reality movie that he never authorized, Colonel Frank Merullo does his best to hold on to what ties him to his ship. He refuses to take off his space suit as characters flock around him in their swimsuits at the beach, laying out and catching waves and having the times of their lives. But as the movie progresses and rescue seems less and less likely, Merullo starts to let down his guard some, getting to know the characters and trying to figure out what this simulation is supposed to mean. Away from the Space Corps and its regulations, he finally gets the chance to discover things about himself, of life, love, loss — all the sacrifices he’s made to get to where he is.

The Vee-Reel starts feeling more personal, the characters taking on faces from Merullo’s past. He struggles to hang on to the memories, but they’re slipping fast. He looks for his space suit, his last tie to reality, but it’s gone missing. Five dead gulls lie in the surf, and suddenly Merullo starts to realize the truth, that this is his last chance to deal, to let go of the man that the Space Corps had made him, and reclaim a little bit of himself before his forever is over.

I liked how this story kept me guessing if Merullo really was in a Vee-Reel or simply out of his mind. This journey of his was a very personal one, of him confronting the life that he’d made for himself, fulfilling in so many ways, but lacking in the ways that matter most. This story shied away from melodrama and used symbolism effectively, but I can’t help but feel just a bit slighted by the story, and though it illustrates a good lesson, I wish there was more to chew on.

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Review #21: A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias S. Buckell

Posted by Nicky Drayden on May 6, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: tobiasbuckell.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine

Photo by MGShelton Creative Commons

The Story:

Stuck in perpetual air-debt on a space orbital, professional Friend Alex Mosette is out of options. Well, not completely out of options. There’s always the old fallback of going into hibernation in between jobs to minimize air consumption, but there’s also a new opportunity on a recently docked ship offering half a point on the package, enough for Alex to pay off all air debts and live comfortably — maybe even comfortably enough to upgrade from the cramped, coffin-like quarters Alex now calls home. The details of the contract are sketchy at best, but the risk is more palatable than spending unending days as a corpsicle aboard the orbital.

Aboard the ship, half-truths and strained allegiances are abound as the details of the contract are spelled out: Alex is to serve as a professional Friend to a Compact Drone, an entity detached from the Compact’s hive-mind sent to help determine if ant-like aliens on a newly discovered world qualify as intelligent life. As a Friend, Alex has to gain the Drone’s trust, and keep it sane during their mission. The Drone’s decision could mean the difference in walking away from this gig rich, or filthy rich, though as the truth unfolds, Alex might just be satisfied to walk away from this alive.

The Craft: World Building

SPOILERS

Oh, this is another fun one full of complex socioeconomic structures, artificial gender-bending, and alien botany. Before we talk about world building, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well this worked as a story — tension and mystery in all the right spots, twists and turns, and characters that really bleed when you prick them. What I love about A Jar of Goodwill is that it’s full of delectable BIG IDEAS, and yet they fit so comfortably in this short story, which pushes more into the realms of a novelette at about 8000 words, but every single one of them is worth it, working double time as they draw you deeper and deeper into this world.

The first big idea of this world revolves around air rationing, not an entirely new concept, but the execution of it in this piece reads like mind candy. Sure there’s only so much air to go around in space, but what happens when a person uses more than their quota and can’t pay? What are the options? Bottom feeders like Alex don’t have a lot of options, but you can bet on a space orbital, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people going paycheck to paycheck, their priority not being food or shelter, but air, something that we earthbound fools take for granted every single day. So while in this story we don’t spend a lot of time on the orbital, we do get a sense of the desperation for those living in cubbies, and when Alex sees the spacious 5×7 living quarters with free air on the ship, we can instantly relate to the thrill.

Putting a price tag on first contact is also a great idea. The planet Ve is a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Someone will get rich off of it, but now it’s only a matter of who, depending on whether or not the ant aliens are intelligent. The reader knows they are, the characters know they are, but that’s not what’s important. It’s all about what they can do about it to serve their own agendas and fatten their own wallets. The Vesians are doomed either way. Let me also say that Ve is a jewel of worldbuilding, with acid spewing plants, leaves like black Glad bags, and dog-sized ants breathing green atmosphere that’ll melt your skin off. But to the Vesians, it’s a little slice of heaven, and perhaps they too think it’s worth fighting for.

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Review #19: Torquing Vacuum by Jay Lake

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Apr 17, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: www.jlake.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, February 2010

cocktailPhoto by Rick Creative Commons

The Story:

Engineering Supervisor Domitian Spanich is always falling for the wrong type of guy — the young, pretty kind who don’t stick around once they’ve spent his pay chitty on fancy drinks. Half the guys torquing vacuum on Estacada Orbital swing his way, and yet Spanich finds himself hopelessly captivated by Austen, Spanich’s dull-witted sometimes lover, whose finer attributes include a tight body, crooked smile, and violet eyes. But then Austen shows unexpected interest in Mare Imbrium {13 pairs}, the starship Spanich had been working on for three straight shifts, and Spanich’s world changes overnight.

The Craft: World Building

SPOILERS

Torquing Vacuum has a lot going on world building wise, and yet it’s all integrated into the story in a way that doesn’t leave the reader’s head spinning. (Though I do admit, I had to print this one out so I could better digest it.) Immediately the world feels foreign, right from the mention of Spanich’s name (pronounced Span-ick, or Spinach if you really want to piss him off.) We quickly learn that Spanich is a drive tech on Estacada Orbital. He’s working on a ship, the Mare Imbrium {13 pairs}, which has a shipmind — a bit of world building that really stands out in this piece. Here, the shipminds aren’t subservient as they are in so many science fiction stories, but revered and their ship’s names demand respect, like the credentials of a honored official.

The ambiance of Estacada Orbital is set with a mix of tech and culture, introduced with conflicts related to the story. We learn of the monetary system through Austen’s frivolous spending of Spanich’s pay chitty, local thalers, and Imperial schillings, the latter of which also hints at the greater political structure of this universe. The cybernetic waiter at the bar seems like it’s just as likely to kill Spanich as it is to serve him a drink, which suggests that Estacada Orbital is the kind of place where you watch your back. The colloquialisms also add a touch of charm, like: “Thank the pressure demons this place was so dark.” and I particularly enjoyed the line about how “Austen could scent ‘broke’ the way a sniffer could find a carbon dioxide breach in a scrubber tank.”

We’re also given a broader view of the universe with mentions of the Mistake, an event that is never explained, but its effects weigh heavily on the story in the form of genetically altered humans. The glimpse of the Imperial family is a small one, but is also very telling. Watching Spanich’s reaction as he realizes who Austen really is gives us insight into the hierarchy and ruling class, though their interaction is of a personal nature rather than political. Overall, this story gives the reader a lot to chew on, but it’s presented in manageable chunks. The details of the world are specific and fun and are worked into the story in a natural, tidy, entertaining way.

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