Book review: Shortcuts, Track 1, edited by Marie Hodgkinson

7 01 2018

Shortcuts is an anthologisation of the first six novelettes and novellas released under Paper Road Press’s novella project of the same name. The anthology encompasses some of NZ speculative fiction’s most notable authors. I’ll comment briefly on each story, then do a wrap.

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‘Landfall’, by Tim Jones, is a well-realised climate-dystopia piece that posits a future New Zealand with a ruthless, militarised ‘solution’ to the climate refugee problem. Nasimul, the apparent sole survivor of the deliberate NZ Navy sinking of an overloaded Bangladeshi river ferry off the coast of Auckland, must swim for his life in order to reach shore. Once he makes terra firma, fate decrees that his life depends on the actions of disaffected young Home Guard reservist Donna. This is a gritty, chilling, uncomfortable piece somewhat in the spirit of Greg Egan’s ‘Lost Continent’.

In A C Buchanan’s ‘Bree’s Dinosaur’, Cam is a Vietnamese business student taking an English For Business Purposes course and homestaying with a local couple, Sue and Martin, and their teenage daughter Bree. There’s more than a decade between Cam and Bree, plus a hefty bundle of cultural difference, but Bree’s parents seem to hope that their houseguest can forge a connection with their sometimes-shy, sometimes-abrupt daughter whose time home seems principally to be spent in building a titanosaur in her bedroom. While I’m a big fan of saurian plotlines in general, I found the dinosaur aspect to this story to be something of a hindrance, appearing tacked on to a story which really did not need it. The plot here seems slightly confused, but the characterisation is excellent, strongly immersive and pleasantly detailed.

‘The Last’, by Grant Stone, sees seasoned British rock journo Rachel Mackenzie travel to a backblocks NZ farm to conduct the sole interview that legendarily reclusive singer-songwriter Katherine St John has agreed to offer in connection with her upcoming final album. Rachel has known from the outset of St John’s mysterious past—as an eleven-year-old, Katherine went missing for a week or more in Kent’s Bedgebury Forest during a camping trip with her parents, and was the subject of a major manhunt until she turned up clean, unharmed, and with no recollection of where she had been all that time—but it quickly becomes apparent that the strangeness that surrounded her childhood has taken root, somehow, on the ground of the farm she now calls her home. This is a decidedly eerie tale that draws the reader into its mystery.

In ‘Mika’, by Lee Murray and Piper Mejia, the titular character is an adventurer who’s journeyed from Aotearoa to New York’s Ellis Island in an amphibious vehicle, determined to reach the Las Vegas biotechnology company where, twenty-four years ago, her late father had been working on a gene-therapy treatment for the diabetes that now threatens her pregnant sister Huia. Along the way she acquires as companions a young girl, Bree (no relation to the A C Buchanan character) and a renegade paramedic, Steve. This is a fast-paced, sometimes sketchy story that I felt sought to cram too much in—though I enjoyed the immediacy, the mythological and cultural grace notes, and the crash-through-or-crash enthusiasm, it could probably have benefited from a little more length so as to flesh out its characters and its worldbuilding somewhat more.

In ‘Pocket Wife’, by I K Paterson-Harkness, grandparents Carl and Jenny are half a world away from each other—he’s in Montreal, she’s in Auckland—but they stay connected through their Tinys, miniature simulacra with some kind of optical / neural connection to the brain. So Carl has a miniature Jenny with him, while she has a diminutive Carl. Carl’s infidelity is something he definitely doesn’t want Jenny to know about, but when the little Jenny in his pocket won’t power down and disconnect the way it’s supposed to, it all goes to pot. I couldn’t quite decide how much sympathy to feel for Carl: he is very much a bastard, but it also seems as though he doesn’t manage to do anything right, and that level of failure is always painful to witness. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re his poor always-on spouse.

Octavia Cade’s ‘The Ghost of Matter’ sloshes between pivotal moments in the life and career of physicist Ernest Rutherford. The story’s bookended by the disappearance at sea of his younger brothers Charles and Herbert, in 1886, and by the death, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, of Rutherford’s lone daughter Eileen, in 1930. These events, as much as the struggle to understand the atomic structure hinted at by his laboratory studies, trouble Rutherford across the years, heightened by repeated manifestations—seawater, a girl in a blue dress—that his rational mind cannot account for. Cade is very good at this evocation of the private lives of scientists (I recollect reading her story ‘Eating With Ghosts’ in a recent issue of Asimov’s), and this is an eerily powerful piece with which to close the anthology.

I’ll avoid invidious comparisons in giving a summation on the anthology: the stories, really, are each too different to effectively compare and contrast. The volume does give an effective overview of the range of NZ speculative fiction talent, and for that reason it’s well worth seeking out for those interested. It would also be interesting to see further volumes in the series, though since as I understand it the ‘Shortcuts’ programme is currently in abeyance, that’s probably some distance off.

 

 

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Review: Asimov’s Magazine, October / November 2016

23 02 2017

This is a double issue of Asimov’s (although I understand this size is about to become the ‘new normal’, as the magazine reduces in frequency from ten issues per year to six larger issues). It would also appear to be the mag’s Halloween issue for the year, since it’s labelled ‘Special Slightly Spooky Issue’. It has four short stories and four novelettes—i.e., about a typical issue’s worth—bookended by a pair of novellas. (Plus, of course, all the other usual issue contents, which I’ll excise from this review.)

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‘The Forgotten Taste of Honey’, a novella by Alexander Jablokov, posits a society in which one’s regional gods demand the return of any travelling citizens’ bodies to home turf, should they die away from home. Tromvi is a trader, looking to make it home very much alive–but she needs to find the appropriate corpses to safeguard her passage. This is a richly imagined second-world fantasy story: it’s an impressive example of its kind, but it didn’t really strike a chord with me.

Octavia Cade’s pittoresque novelette ‘Eating Science with Ghosts’ is, perhaps, less a story than a prose poem, with the narrator holding a globetrotting nine-course meal for a series of ghost scientists. There’s plenty of mood, and detail, and reflection; it never quite transforms into a tale, as such, but it manages to convey depths nonetheless.

In Sandra McDonald’s ‘The People In The Building’, an ancient horror lurks, waiting to pick off the workers on an office building’s various levels. This is a somewhat insubstantial story with a good line in horror-movie-grade suspense.

The ‘Wretched’ in Michael Libling’s novelette ‘Wretched the Romantic’ is Richard, a weathergirl-obsessed no-hoper whose (non-weather)girlfriend dumps him on the afternoon he botches an ash-scattering task for an elderly widow. That’s not the only, nor even the most dramatic, way in which his life changes as a result of that day. This is a black comedy with a deliciously bad attitude and an enviable sense of pacing.

Rich Larson’s ‘Water Scorpions’ is a compact little study in first-contact grotesquerie, well-executed and grim, though somewhat elusive.

In Will Ludwigsen’s novelette ‘The Leaning Lincoln’, Scott, the ten-year-old narrator, lives in fear of his violent and unpredictable father. When Scott’s father’s friend Henry presents the boy with a home-cast and misshapen figurine of Abe Lincoln to add to his toy-soldier collection, it initially seems like a good thing in a life too-often beset by bad. But things start going wrong in unpredictable ways, and Scott becomes convinced that the figurine is cursed. This is an effective and moving coming-of-age tale.

In ‘Lucite’, by Susan Palwick, tech geek Andrew is on a guided tour of Hell when he finds a display of lucite ‘souls-of-the-damned’ paperweights in the tenth circle gift shop. He buys one on a whim and then sets out to find out more about the old man whose soul his paperweight contains. It’s wistful and tense.

I had to check that Dominica Phetteplace’s novelette ‘Project Extropy’ actually had a different title than her July Asimov’s offering (nx, if you wish to be formulaic about it); it is, at any rate, a continuation of, or a companion to, the July piece (and there are, I understand, a few other iterations in earlier issues, which I haven’t sighted since my subscription only commenced with July). This one focusses on Akira, the seer whom Angelica contacted in the earlier story. These are, it would seem, the various facets of an upcoming mosaic novel by Phetteplace, and it does indeed read as an extract from a novel: while the characterisation is vivid and the extrapolation interesting, it didn’t entirely resonate as a story for me.

‘When Grandfather Returns’, by S N Dyer, is a triumph: a timecrossing multigenerational story that starts with Thunder Cries’ relentless tricksterism and finishes with a phantasmal incursion that sees retired professor Strong Horse and his disrespectful great-grandson Dylan unite against a foe from the past.

Michael Blumlein’s novella ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’ rounds out the issue. Violet has travelled to the seaside tourist spot, Villa Gardenia, to take her own life, but another tourist, Shep, fights to talk her out of it. Violet’s fate is linked, metaphorically, with the separate stories of Daisy and Rose, two women who have somehow been marooned on the two offshore islands Violet can see from the beach. This is one of the issue’s strongest stories.

As (loosely) themed issues go, this isn’t a bad one overall (though I reckon Asimov’s is a shade better when it isn’t looking to maintain a dark theme throughout). Forced to pick favourites, I’d opt for ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, ‘When Grandfather Returns’, and ‘Wretched the Romantic’ as the issue’s highlights.