REVIEW: “Lowlife Orbit” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Lowlife Orbit”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 94–95 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Earth is slowly dying, and in an effort to provide a new home for humanity, the governments of Earth have started terraforming Mars. Unbeknownst to many, however, this process will take a long time: up to 1000 years. That is why a team of smugglers – uncle and nephew – have decided that it is OK to steal some of the terraforming materials in low-Earth orbit and sell them in the black market for profit. The uncle has no moral qualms about the operations since he believes the Mars terraforming project is nothing but a pipe dream. On the other hand, the nephew is more apprehensive about the future. However long it takes, he argues, one day Mars might be the new home of Humanity.

A thousand years means nothing to the human brain […] We evolved to deal in seconds. Minutes. Days. Years. A millennium, we’re not equipped to imagine that.

Despite its brevity (~1000 words), “Lowlife Orbit” is a story with a lot to unpack. It simultaneously deals with human shortsightedness, as well as the human tendency to ignore the problem at hand. In Larson’s version of the (near) future, Earth is presumably ravaged by climate change and humanity has given up trying to fix it. Instead, they’ve piled all their hopes on the possibility of a habitable Mars. At the same time, the protagonist of the story can’t help but point out the futility of that hope.  Whether it is because of indifference, pessimism, or simply pragmatism for the present, he resigns into a sort of unhealthy apathy that satisfies neither side of the argument. As usual, Larson is able to imbue a lot of personality into his characters in a brief and concise manner. The story ends with a glimmer of optimism, before circling back to the same status quo.

REVIEW: “The Sniper and I” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “The Sniper and I”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 299 (March 12, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Rich Larson is one of the field’s best and most prolific writers. Fans of his work and military sf more generally will almost certainly find this story appealing. As its title implies, “The Sniper and I” is primarily about the relationship—often clinical, sometimes adversarial—between a nameless narrator and an unnamed sniper amid a seemingly endless war with no apparent purpose. The nature of the sniper and the motivation of the narrator are what the story revolves around; to say anything about either would get us into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that it’s a dark story made even darker by the discovery of which of the two characters is the more cold-blooded.  

REVIEW: “All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “All Electric Ghosts”, Clarkesworld Issue 157, October (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

Right off the bat, the world building is detailed and intense. Benny is a man in grief, taking the help of whatever he can to help him survive his loss. There is mention of drug usage, but in a very matter of fact way, which lent yet another nuance to the story. Make no mistake, this is a very nuanced story already. In fact, it feels like the beginning of a much larger story. I would definitely like to read the larger work this seems to be a part of.

Benny gets involved with some aliens, and he quickly forms a bond with them, because they’re the best way he has found to deal with his grief and survive in a better way. He needs them for his next hit, and they need him for vaguely nefarious purposes. Along the way, he finds a tenuous friendship, which hints at the possibility of it turning into a stronger one.

This story will leave you wanting more.

REVIEW: “There Used to be Olive Trees” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “There Used to be Olive Trees”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 225-247 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: minor spoilers.

Valentin is one of the Town’s two prophets, fitted with an implant so that he can talk to the gods. The only problem is: He can’t. Three times he has tried, and three times he has failed, when no one else has ever required more than two times. Once more he will be given the opportunity to try — but “anything was better” (p. 224) than trying and failing again, so the story opens with Valentin scaling the wall that separates the Town from outside, where the wilders are.

Once Valentin gets over the wall, the story goes pretty much as one would expect: He meets someone, and runs into difficulties, he must do what that someone requires of him before he can claim his freedom, and eventually, out in the wilds beyond the Town he learns how to finally speak so that the gods will listen. But by this time, he no longer has any desire to return to the Town to be their prophet; instead, he and Pepe are striking out on their own.

Nothing was especially surprising about the story, but there were little bits that I really appreciated. The tech was novel, and exceedingly believable (can I have my own nanoshadow, plz kthanx?); and there was a poignancy to the story that left it ending on a hopeful, rather than sour, note.

(Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2017).

REVIEW: “Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Dark Warm Heart”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 239—255. Purchase Here. Originally published at Tor.com on April 12, 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

As others frequently note, one of the joys of reading anthologies is discovering authors you haven’t come across before. Rich Larson has an incredibly impressive publications list for someone who’s been writing for less than ten years, but I haven’t (I don’t think) read anything by him before. Dark Warm Heart is a wonderful story and a great introduction. It’s a wendigo tale: Kristine’s ‘s husband Noel has returned from fieldwork in the far north of Canada having been caught in a bad snowstorm and miraculously survived. But he has little appetite and is obsessed with transcribing the interviews he’s conducted with the Inuit to learn more of their folklore. He does seem quite keen on nibbling on Kristine, though.

The story is well-written with great pacing, and the ending was pleasantly surprising. I’m not overly familiar with wendigo folklore or wendigo psychosis (though I’ve read a bit about it now) — for those with more knowledge the tale might be a bit predictable but it wasn’t for me. The most chilling part was the translation of the wendigo folk tale; only a short paragraph, a series of short statements like a song or poem, but with a real sense of menace. Very enjoyable.

REVIEW: “Fifteen Minutes Hate” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Fifteen Minutes Hate”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It’s a common set-up: somebody wakes up with the mother of all hangovers and no memory of the previous night, and tries to piece together what happened. “Fifteen Minutes Hate” gives us a vicious social media twist on that premise.

Our protagonist wakes up to find that she has been Blacklisted. Whatever she’s done has been broadcast to the world on some sort of social media feed and reality TV show. On top of that, it seems the the reality TV outlet has access to every message she’s sent, and every video that’s shown her face. The world is dissecting every instance of cruelty or selfishness in her life, a social media pile-on for the ages. The host of Blacklist is walking towards her house, on camera, taking bets on whether she’ll run or not. Her friends and family are texting to ask how she could do such a thing. Strangers are hoping someone will cut her hands off. And until the second to last paragraph, she (and by extension, we the readers) have no idea what she’s done.

The clips that people are dissecting and commenting on online – the events from her past, not the big thing she’s trying to remember – are the kinds of everyday cruelties and follies we all engage in. A video of her failing to help someone after they fell. A message to a friend in which she calls a hated professor by a cruel nickname. A video of a sex act that she regrets. These are normal things, ordinary indiscretions, now being used as evidence of her lack of humanity in light of the act that got her on the Blacklist.

My one complaint about this story is that I found the use of the second person point of view distracted me from the story, and I didn’t think it added anything. I suspect it was intended to promote empathy, helping us put ourselves into the main character’s situation, but the writing was strong enough to do that on its own. Still, this is an engaging, interesting read.

REVIEW: “Carnivores” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Carnivores”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 239-256 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The restaurateur leaned forward. “You’re a survivor from the original batch, then? From the Bangkok biolabs?”

This story wears its Sci Fi badge with pride, announcing its genre in many different ways in the first few sentences. We have decaying engineering AIs, neural implants, Neanderthal hybrids, and autocabs before we finish the first page. Rather miraculously, these details don’t come across as info-dumping, nor as overwhelming.

Finch and Blake are planning a heist, of a restaurant “kitschy as fuck” (p. 241). The modus operandi involves getting Finch in under false pretenses — and prepared to make false promises. Once inside, what they find is more valuable, and more dangerous, than their wildest imaginings.

The story is visceral, it is tender, it is horrific, and it is sweet. It’s a mess of contradicting experiences, yet nevertheless all balancing each other. And for all of its darkness, it ends with hope. We always can do with a little more hope in our tales.

(Originally published in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts 2016).