The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23 by Rhiannon Rasmussen

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Oct 16, 2014 in Reviews

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I’ll let the strength of this opening stand on it’s own:

Your brother’s bones, suspended in mineral fluids, turn as smoothly and shine as brightly as the oil-coated joints of the mechanism they guide. When you touch the heavy plastic that separates you from his body, it is cold. The iron plate that serves to cover what is left of his face turns towards the tapping, and nausea wells deep in your throat. You catch a glimpse of yellow fat, the hole of a socket, nerves that once bundled into the base of an eye now strung behind the iron half-mask.

Flesh did not make the transit to deep space whole, only guts packed in gel and nerves strung into wires, the delicate threads that extend to outer sensors, thrusters, and lenses. That is what they are now. Not people, not soldiers, but shrikes: the folded warbirds sent through void to cleanse it of the invaders, to impale them on their own stardust ruins, to leave broken chassis and frozen corpses scattered as warning to others who might threaten us. If the invaders left corpses—you have never seen them, only the scars of their passage left across the skin of Earth.

Interstellar war and deconstructed humans go together like peanut butter and jelly. Kind of a literal jelly, too, I guess, with lots of floating body bits.  This story scores high on the ick factor, if you’re into that sort of thing. (**Raises hand**) But beyond that, this is a masterfully written piece of flash that grips you from beginning to end. There’s the lost sibling relationship that tugs at the heart strings. There’s the alien war and morality lines that get drawn in response. While the narrator never leaves Earth, the weight of space is constantly on her mind, across much of her lifetime. We all know that people come back from war changed, but what happens to the people like her brother who are changed so drastically before they even fight a single battle, reduced to strung nerves and gristle? So many deep questions are posed in this short piece and my only response to Rhiannon is: More, please!

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Communion by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Oct 11, 2014 in Reviews

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Chaurin has left the tunnel-cities of his homeworld to find the remains of his brother, killed at a gaudy human city on the planet Kriti. He doesn’t understand what drove his brother to want to live among the humans, so light and slight, and easy to dispose of.  While he is not here to exact his revenge, the thought does cross his mind. He’s more nervous about the state of his brother’s body, six months after his death. Chaurin has gotten here as fast as he could manage, but is devastated when he is presented with the remains in a small box:

Chaurin reached out a hand, and then pulled it back. He’d thought he was prepared, but the shock of seeing the box made his mouth go dry, so that he had to swallow before he could speak. “Is this all there is? Was he . . . cremated?” The word was unfamiliar in Chaurin’s mouth, but he had learned it, just in case. He hadn’t known what he would find on arrival, so had studied human death customs on the long journeys between Jump points. He hadn’t been able to afford a luxury cruise; the clan had barely scraped together enough to buy him passage on a freighter. They had been afraid to wait longer than they had to, afraid of what would happen to Gaurav’s remains.

Amara is one of the humans that had been spared from death due to Gaurav’s bravery. She’s still trying to process the senseless violence and loss of life, and has stepped away from her career in law enforcement to tend to a garden at the memorial site, using her hands to make things grow in Kriti’s stingy soil. When a broad and terse saurian suddenly stands before her, she thinks she’s seeing Gaurav again…no not him, but strikingly similar, and his imposing look suggests he means business.

Mary Anne does an exquisite job weaving together the narratives of these two characters. Each offers a glimpse of the other and the world surrounding them as filtered through their views with all the glory of their cultural baggage. Even more impressive are the turns this story takes. Just when you think you know where it’s going–bam! Didn’t see that coming. The writing is seamless, allowing me to immerse myself in the world, right up until the sad moment I noticed my browser’s scroll bar coming to the end of the page. This is a story of how death and destruction can tie strangers together, even if they’re species from different sides of the cosmos. Some things truly are universal–from the act of bringing life into this world, to the act of commemorating a life extinguished. The customs may be vastly differ on the outside, and they may even seem barbaric filtered through one’s own cultural lenses, but the emotions that rim the heart do no waver. I think it is important to be often reminded that the way one sees things is not the right way, but only a way, so give it a read, or even a re-read. This is one you don’t want to miss.

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“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)” by Holly Black

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Oct 6, 2014 in Writer's Life

Lightspeed, September 2014
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Short Women in Space, Review #6

In this novelette, a young girl stows away on her uncle’s cargo ship, fleeing a homesteader lifestyle on the boring planet her parents immigrated to. Life aboard the ship presents its own challenges when she realizes that her parents’ warnings about her uncle weren’t completely unfounded. He’s an intergalactic smuggler, but there’s no turning back now. She’ll just have to learn the rules so she can properly follow in his footsteps.

She’s heard a lot of bad things about spaceports, but when she lands on Zvezda-9, it doesn’t live up to the hype. No one’s trying to slip her drugs, no flesh-ripping Charkazak anywhere in sight.

Zvezda-9 is a big stretch of cement tunnels, vast microgravity farms, hotel pods, and general stores with overpriced food that’s either dehydrated or in a tube. There are also InterPlanetary offices, where greasy-looking people from a variety of worlds wait in long lines for licenses. They all stare at your homespun clothes. You want to grab your uncle’s hand, but you already feel like enough of a backworld yokel, so you curl your fingers into a fist instead.

There are aliens—it wasn’t like your parents were wrong about that. Most of them look human and simultaneously inhuman, and the juxtaposition is so odd that you can’t keep from staring. You spot a woman whose whole lower face is a jagged-toothed mouth. A man with gray-skinned cheeks that grow from his face like gills or possibly just really strange ears loads up a hovercart nearby, the stripes on his body smeared so you know they are paint and not pigmentation. Someone passes you in a heavy, hairy cloak, and you get the impression of thousands of eyes inside of the hood. It’s creepy as hell.

After she’s over the initial shock of it all, after she’s gotten herself some high-tech threads, some trendy holographic earrings, and a don’t-mess-with-me swagger, she realizes this place is exactly what she was running away from — boring.

That is until her uncle scores a no-questions-asked job of a lifetime, smuggling a cylindrical casket full of something, or more likely — someone — to an unscrupulous genetics lab. And of course, these things can never go well. Will pluck and her uncle’s rules be enough to get our heroine out of an intergalactic bind?

For all of the blood and guts and gore in this story, it’s a truly charming one. On top of being emotionally wrenching, it’s also masterfully written. The first time I came across this story, I moved right past it, thinking the format was a gimmick, but there’s no gimmick here, just pure and awesome storytelling. I’m so glad I went back to give it a full read. It’s really uplifting to see a young woman in space, setting out on adventures, solving momentous problems, and making a name for herself. This one is a bit of a time commitment, coming in at over 8000 words, but I promise, by the end of it you’ll be wishing there were 8000 more.

Sally Ride

REAL Women in Space
Sally Ride
First American woman in space
STS-7 (Jun. 18, 1983)
Creative Commons

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