Review #6: Spar by Kij Johnson

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 19, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: www.kijjohnson.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2009

The Story:

Despite the sexually explicit nature of this story, it is more a chronicle of the mind and madness of a woman forced to share a cramped, dank lifeboat with a non-humanoid alien. After an unlikely mid-space collision tears apart her ship and kills her lover Gary, she finds herself in a lifeboat ill-equipped for humans. The ship consists of a tube for feeding and another for refuse, beyond which is only the alien — something like a pungent jello-mold with cilia. The only diversion from their unending days adrift is the act of constantly raping each other.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

Written in a series of twenty compact scenes, some as short as a single sentence, this story quickly immerses the reader in the awfulness of being trapped in a bad situation from which there is no escape. Nothing changes. There is only anger and resentment and vengeful sex with an alien she’s not even sure is sentient or some sort of alien houseplant. It doesn’t attempt to communicate with her, only forces its Outs into her Ins while she does the same to it. And sadly, this sparring is preferable to trying to remember the pleasures that life used to hold.

Structurally, the sentences are short and choppy for the most part, and the tone of the story comes off as mechanical and repetitive, and sort of leaves you feeling seasick, but in a good way. It encompass what life must be like for the character. Her situation degrades, though her mind keeps going back to Gary, shedding a light on the humanity she finds is quickly vanishing. By the time the ship arrives at its destination, she is so lost, not even knowing what she is anymore, and all because of a random and infinitely improbable collision in space.

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Review #4: Bad Matter by Alexandra Duncan

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 11, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: http://ashevilledilettante.blogspot.com
Published by: Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 2009

The Story:

Dr. Saraih Hertz is a professor at Baghdad University, whose interest in paleography is piqued when she receives an oddly worded letter intended for her recently deceased father. In the 26th century, parcel post is all but obsolete, except among the merchant trans-celestial crewes that ferry specialized cargo across the galaxy. One of these crewes is captained by Parastrata Harrah, the man who sent the cryptic letter that speaks of a woman named Ete, a woman Saraih’s father had never mentioned during the recounts of his dealings with Harrah’s crewe.

Saraih decides to look into the matter and books a flight to the sub-orbital station where Harrah’s ship is docked. There she encounters Harrah, his wives, and the curious, rich culture of the ship’s inhabitants.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

Saraih feels like an awkward schoolgirl when she boards Harrah’s ship, her brightly colored headscarf and dark skin in stark contrast with the sallow, nearly translucent skin of Harrah’s aloof crewe. They’re more than hospitable, but all eyes are upon Saraih — a woman who has stepped upon the earth — a privilege reserved only for men within the crewe’s culture. Slowly, she teases out the information about this mysterious Ete, the details of her secretive relationship with Sarah’s father, and why Ete’s presence is bringing bad luck to Harrah’s crewe.

There’s not a lot I can say about this story without spoiling the plot since there’s so very little of it, and yet this is probably one of the most enjoyable short stories I’ve read in a long time. The meat of this story lies in a meticulously constructed culture that even now I have a hard time getting into my head that it’s only fiction. The footnotes give the story an extra punch of believability and are well-written, informative, and add just a touch of humor to the piece.

This story has a re-readablity factor of 10 out of 10, and its only fault is that it leaves me wanting more. I hope to see a novel set in this universe from Ms. Duncan very soon.

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Review #1: A Rose is Rose by Georgina Bruce

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 7, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: http://thebeardedlady.wordpress.com
Published by: Strange Horizons, December 21st, 2009

The Story:

A Rose is Rose is a colorful, sensual tale that intertwines the stories of a body paint artist named Sashi and storybook illustrator named Sarah. Both artists struggle with their needs to express their creativity as well as their sexuality in what creates an interesting pair of love triangles, both tender and twisted at the same time.

Sashi finds herself in very intimate quarters with the King, fending off his advances as she paints his body in preparation for his upcoming nuptials, which are to be carried out in a grand style befitting India’s royalty despite the war and famine that has swept the land. The King and his bride will ride atop two adorned elephants through the streets in a wedding procession, and Sashi is tasked with painting the elephants as well. It becomes her obsession — these elephants being an emotional tether to the only memory she has of her mother.

Sarah is caught in a love triangle of her own, and it’s wreaking havoc with her creativity. She’s embarrassingly behind on the storybook illustrations for Ravi, her not quite friend/not quite lover, and in her compulsive delusions, Sarah has snaked her way into a metaphysical threesome involving sketches of Ravi’s wife.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

The interplay between first person (Sarah) and third person omniscient points of view worked well, sort of a sling-shot of momentum propelling the story along. The characters were instantly distinctive, and though there wasn’t much physical description, after finishing the story I felt as if I’d be able to pick them out of a lineup. The images the author painted in my head were incredibly clear. I could see the elephants parading through the streets, the intricacy of the postcards painted on Sashi’s nails, and the haunting, resonant image of the bloodied meat parcel.

The story is subtly otherwordly, with the characters from the two different worlds encroaching on each other until the clever twist at the end. I enjoyed how delicate this story was, though I found myself wishing the reveal about the elephants being eaten hadn’t been quite so harsh of a statement. I would have preferred to see Sashi discovering the elephants’ fates herself, or figuring it out on my own as a reader. Also, I had a hard time placing the setting of the story — the where and the when seemed somewhat generic. I think my mind settled on a near-future post-war India for Sashi’s story and a present-day India for Sarah’s story, though it’s quite likely that I missed some cues.

A Rose is Rose serves as an example of great character development, as each character has his/her own goals, fears, and desires — all of which inevitably clash with the other characters, making tension mount through the entire story. The characters have interesting backstories and histories that affect their actions, which are well-placed in the story and add depth without slowing the story down. The characters are both cruel and loving, which makes them realistic and easy to identify with and feel for.

Overall, this story is an easy, enjoyable read, and although subtly is its strong suit, it doesn’t leave you digging aimlessly for meaning and answers.

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