Review of Kameron Hurley, “Tumbledown”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston
“Tumbledown” is a short story that feels like a novel. It’s expansive. It takes its time. It develops an entire alien world, and it doesn’t take any short cuts. It’s also unusually long for a short story, coming in at 8700 words. Most venues have a cut-off at 7500, or even 5000 words.
The epic scope is both this story’s greatest strength, and its only weakness. A strength, because there is a lot going on in this story. Not only does Hurley build a fully realized alien world and colonial society, she grapples with the experience of disability. The main character, Sarnai, is paraplegic and living on an inhospitable ice planet where survival of the fittest reigns. But of course, Sarnai is surviving, and continues to survive a heck of a lot as the story progresses. From my perspective as an abled-person, she is a bad-ass, not because she overcomes disability, but because of who she is as a person. We repeatedly see how she has to act as if she were less-than, in order to make the people around her comfortable, and how their perceptions restrict her more than any physical limitations.
The length is a weakness because it’s hard to hold the whole story in your head at once. In a novel, there are natural breaking points, and the tension rises and falls, so you can pause and reflect. Here, the tension keeps rising until the denouement. There is no way to safely step back, and yet there is so very much to take in. I recommend saving this story for a time when you can focus and read it uninterrupted, for maximum enjoyment.
Beyond all of that, beyond the length and the deft handling of disability, this is a fantastic adventure story, a true SF example of the “man v. nature” plot-type. I tend not to love those stories, but “Tumbledown” was an exception.