This is the longest of all the stories in the anthology, and makes for a stellar capping off of the collection. The pin is somewhere in the Caribbean, and the story is a classic creepy zombie story. It is totally not the sort of story that I would ordinarily seek out to read, because I’m not a zombie story person. I’m also not really a lonely-space-traveler-with-companion-AI story person either, or a horror story kind of person, and this story was all three of these. And yet, it was also exactly the sort of story I want, not because it was a horror-zombie-lonely-traveller story, but because of the way it was these things, because of the diversity of characters, because of the one who thinks like me, because of the roller coaster of hope and despair that Bovenmyer takes us on. It was very satisfying.
Once again, Podcastle demonstrates the value-added not only by presenting certain stories in audio format, but by carefully matching the narrator to the material. I don’t usually call out the narrators in my reviews, but Solomon Osadolo was magnificent in interpreting the rhythms and flavor of this story. (There was one unfortunate technical recording glitch that marred the production values, but that’s neither the author nor the narrator’s fault.)
The protagonist’s ordinarily terrifying experience of meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time is given a fantasy twist by his profession: the newly government-authorized and licensed field of traditional Nigerian wizard. In explaining his profession to his potentially future father-in-law, the listener also receives the essential grounding in what this means and how it works. What confuses him is why he needs to explain it in such detail to the man. Although only recently made respectably legal, surely the man would be familiar with the basic principles? That’s when he discovers the magical shroud clouding the man’s understanding and awareness of wizardry.
Why that shroud exists, and who created it, forms the tension of the rest of the story. It is, in essential ways, a story about consent and about the limits of what is acceptable to do to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from cultural prejudice and danger. As the title says, “When you find such a thing [i.e., love], you do anything to keep it.” But who decides what that “anything” includes? In the current climate of discussion on informed consent and allowing people agency in their own lives, a surface reading of the story puts the protagonist (and the second wizard in the story) in a somewhat horrific light. But life isn’t so simple, as that other wizard points out. Government sanction and legality isn’t the same thing as acceptance, and a history of persecution and prejudice can’t be wiped away by a law and a license.
I was able to step away from the specifics of the story and feel the complexities more when I “translated” the core ethical situation into one of sexuality rather than wizardry (although there’s absolutely no basis in the story for this specific connection–it’s just one that has particular resonance for me). Is it right to deceive your loved ones about some essential aspect of your identity if full disclosure would destroy that love and put your life at hazard? We don’t have the luxury of waiting for an ideal and accepting world in which ethics can be treated purely as a philosophical exercise. We live in the world as it is. And sometimes that world has things that are precious enough that you do anything to keep them. Even if what you do is wrong by certain lights.
A separate, purely technical note on the episode: I have a certain degree of auditory processing disorder, which means that when I’m listening to speech with unfamiliar rhythms and accents, I can have difficulty processing it adequately. I needed to listen to this episode twice: once to calibrate my hearing to the narrator and language structure, and once to actually listen to the story itself. This is a defect in my neural processing, not in the story itself. If you find yourself having a similar experience, I urge you to give the story the benefit of a second listen, or try the text version instead. It’s worth it.
For a short story to take on the story of a generation ship is ambitious, to say the least. This is a tale of several of those generations that interact cleverly with the key being the relationship between the ephemeral biological humans and the permanent uploaded personalities in the ship.
The scope of the story makes for a necessarily spare narrative for each generation presented, creating a rather elegiac effect at times. No character really made a play for my interest though, the closest being the personality Penny, but she is something of a lost soul wandering through the generations.
The ending is bittersweet, as the colonists abandon the tools – the ship, the personalities – that brought them to their new home. You could say that they were callous, but of course they simply didn’t view the personalities as real people. A harsh ending, but I can’t argue with Jessup’s conclusion that humans often act this way.
I am a huge fan of the recent trend of people deconstructing Lovecraft’s work to create new stories, particularly when those stories tackle the racism that crept through his oeuvre. “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” is an excellent addition to that growing collection.
Jim Payne just wants to sell his great-grandfather’s letters from Lovecraft, get his money, and go home. He has no skin in this game (beyond the desire to get out of debt), and no interest in either his great-grandfather or his famous correspondent. But when he drives down the rutted, unmarked, dirt road dotted with bestial statues, and knocks on the door of a ramshackle house in the hills of New England, it’s no surprise that things get complicated.
Everything about this story fits together nicely. Jim is a wonderful narrator: observant, wry, and with a low tolerance for bullshit, which makes it easy to follow him through his adventure. The plot itself is perfectly compressed without feeling either too big for the word count or too small to be interesting; it’s just right. I thought that the racism – both in Lovecraft’s work and in modern America – was deftly handled, but as a white woman, I defer to the judgment of those who have personally experienced it.
Recommended for fans of Lovecraft, low-key horror, or either The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle) or Lovecraft Country (Matt Ruff).
Review of Patrick S. Baker, “The Siege of Battle-Station Camelot”, in Starward Tales II, edited by CB Droege (Manawaker Studio, 2017): 119-131 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
Sometimes, what the myth being retold is is obvious from the title, so it will come as no shocker here that the pin is placed in England and that this is the story of Arthur Pendragon, excuse me, Captain Arturo Penn Dragon, his wife, Lieutenant-Commander Gwen Dragon, maverick fighter pilot Commander Lance Lake, and an omniscient AI named Merlin — plus a huge host of other characters that are not so familiar from traditional Arthurian myths, such as strike leader Mai Kono and merchantship owner Dirk van Doorn.
And that is where part of my issue with the story lies. Half-way into the story, we know more about the ships and the weapons and the battle than we ever know about any of the characters; it sometimes feels as if the author feels he doesn’t need to tell us anything about the characters because they are already known to us — and that works for the ones which are known, but for the ones which are new additions or are not immediately correlatable to someone known, it leaves them mostly flat. (Though not entirely: we learn a little bit about Mai Kono’s backstory, and she develops into a character worth knowing. But it is precisely this development and backstory, so out of place from the standard Arthurian cycle, that makes her insertion puzzling.)
The most peculiar part about the story is the end, and the fact that Camlann is nowhere mentioned. (I’ll say no more, for fear of spoilers).
There are a handful of typos, including one sentence that ended up being utterly unparsable, and it should also be noted that the pagination in the table of contents does not match the actual pagination (given in the header above).
“Skin Deep” was a fun read. It was well written and easy to follow along. That being said, the only problem I have with it was the fact that it’s easy to figure out once the plot is introduced. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however.
He wanted to behold such beauty, nothing more.
This quote allowed me to find the main character likable. He wasn’t a creep, wasn’t focused on lust or prizes to be gained. He had his own reason for this adventure, and I appreciated that. Although, I’d be lying if I said the ending didn’t contradict the above quote in an indirect fashion. It’s hard to describe without spoiling, and I would rather not do that. Don’t you just hate spoilers in reviews?
All in all, I enjoyed “Skin Deep”. I recommend this if you like action-oriented fiction.
Well, this story certainly gave new meaning to the word “face-plant.”
This odyssey of a short story (or possibly a novella–it’s rather long) follows our narrator as he is taken over by a “story-creature,” some kind of alien being that takes over the Earth and transforms our narrator bit by bit into something more like itself.
VanderMeer has a wondrous mastery of description, and the tale reads like a vivid nightmare or hallucination. His word choices paint an exquisite picture of a world gone mad and a narrator struggling through a metamorphosis he does not comprehend until the very end.
It also contains beautifully poetic moments, such as when the narrator remembers that he used to write obituaries; in a sense, this story is the narrator’s own obituary for his past life. There’s a sense of loss buried here, but also a sense of wonder and joy and potential in this new world. Indeed, the narrator wonders if he had slept a century and returned to a still-human world, would he have recognized it any better?
This weird tale manages to take what should be frightening body horror and alien invasion and turn it into something oddly uplifting by the end. It’s well worth your time to read.