Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 1

stories

Okay, so I’m “cheating” for my first installment in this read through. The first story is *not* part of the ebook compilation, but how could I resist after seeing that intriguing cover art? Besides, the other two are from the collection, so no harm in straying from the course. I’m really excited about this batch of stories, so let’s begin…

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Ø. “The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn

This story was a real treat. “The Best We Can” is told in first-person from the perspective of a woman known simply as “Jane”. She along with a team of other dedicated astronomers have discovered the first globally recognized object of alien origin designated “UO-1”, or “Unidentified Object One.” Almost instantly the international community, from NASA to the United Nations to China to half a dozen private space tourism firms leap up to lay claim to this spacecraft floating in an aimless orbit around Saturn. Unfortunately (and predictably), reconnaissance and retrieval efforts are dead-locked in a maze of bureaucracy and legal roadblocks that each country and company tries to put against one another out of spite. Jane despairs, desperately trying to petition for new and riskier programs to fulfill what she claims to be The purpose of her lifetime.

Carrie Vaughn’s writing is exquisitely plainspoken, accessible and sympathetic. “The Best We Can” presents a plausible scenario for what might actually happen if alien contact came to our solar system, but remained just out of reach by the fault of petty misdirected squabbling and slights made by the International community. But the story does end on a hopeful, almost Sagan-esque note, as one edge of the cosmic shore throws a message in a bottle in hopes of one day being received by someone or something on the other side.

If you’ve ever wanted a story to remind you of the Earth’s place in a cosmic perspective, I highly recommended that you give this one a read.

“The thing is, you discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and you still have to go home, wash up, get a good night’s sleep, and come up with something to eat for breakfast in the morning. Life goes on, life keeps going on, and it’s not that people forget or stop being interested. It’s that they realize they still have to change the oil in the car and take the dog for a walk. You feel like the whole world ought to be different, but it only shifts. Your worldview expands to take in this new information.”

….

“Is the universe half full or half empty? All we could ever do to solve the riddle was wait. So I waited and was rewarded for my optimism.”

Doctorow_RedNose_354_40045. “The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” by Cory Doctorow

The story opens with an 3-line epigraph quoting the story’s quirky namesake, a song called “The Future Soon” by Jonathan Coulton (of Portal and Code Monkeys fame), so I loved that.

Things that…Get Engineered Away” follows the story of Lawrence Lester (or Lester Lawrence, alliteration plays tricks on the mind), a thirty-seven year old “monk” who works for “The Order of Relfective Analytics. After sixteen years Lester must leave the Order’s walled compound and venture out into the surrounding city (New York) to investigate an “Anomaly”, one of many suspicious irregularities in the Order’s incoming/outgoing data that are indicative of illicit behavior. If Lester can find and resolve this Anomaly, he will be promoted through the Order’s ranks, something that he desperately wants.

The presence of “The Order” in this story reminded me a lot of the premise of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, as it features a cloistered monastic order of number-crunchers and coders similar to the latter, nestled within the bureaucracy of a totalitarian police state ominously known only as “The Securitat”. There’s also a point later on in the story that felt strongly reminiscent of the Justice League Unlimited story “Task Force X”, which I can’t go more into but thought was really entertaining. This was a really engrossing, tightly written piece of sci-fi detective fiction that hooked me upon first reading just the first paragraph,

“Lawrence’s cubicle was just the right place to chew on a thorny logfile problem: decorated with the votive fetishes of his monastic order, a thousand calming, clarifying mandalas and saints devoted to helping him think clearly.”

I can’t wait to read more from Cory Doctorow. This story was definitely a good first impression!

500x500_2557421_file11. “The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder” by Elizabeth Bear

Em is a former lead guitar player for the band “Warlords”, a typical late-70’s rock band that rose to prominence in the 80’s but fizzled out in the early-90’s. The band’s lead singer, and Em’s former lover, Seth died from a heroin-fueled suicide six years prior to the story, and Em has not picked up a guitar to play since their breakup. She also has cancer. Grade four astrocytoma, inoperable.

Em is backstage visiting her sister Agne on the eve of her new band’s performance. Throughout the night and later next day, Em is confronted with the reality of what it means to be a rock star living past their prime, to be pulled by a crowd of old fans that clamor for “More!” but very seldom for anything “New”. Morbid mediation on mortality creep in. When Em realizes that Agne’s recent rock star resurgence is not all that it seems she then has to make a choice, one that will affect her for the rest of her life…and perhaps even beyond that.

I didn’t know how to feel about this story at first. I feel as though the “point” of “Rose Madder” never really touched home for me. Something about choosing eternal life versus a finite life being the motivation to create art(?). I picked it because I was intrigued by the cover art (something that looks like a cross between the Corpse Bride and a Mariachi player at an open mic night). I feel like “The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder” would have resonated with me more if I was more intimately attuned to the glamour and fallout of aging classic Rock and Roll, instead of just peripherally aware of it.

If you like reading about the lives of former rock stars, their assimilation into “normal life”, and the challenges that come with living a creative working life and a personal one, then this one is for you.

That’s it for this week’s batch of stories. Since I announced this read-through series I’ve finally done the math and estimated that it would take me an uninterrupted 50 or so weeks (just short of a year!) to finish the entire collection. So, in the interest of preserving my own sanity and present obligations (school, internship, editing student newspaper, etc.) I will commit to at least 16-17 weeks for this series. Just over third of the collection sounds fine to me.

See you next Sunday, September 15th!

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