Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 1

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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!

New Read-Through Series: The Tor Stories!

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This summer, Tor. com celebrated its fifth anniversary and to mark the occasion and promote one of their most well-known projects, the Tor original short fiction series, The website has released a whopping 151 story ebook collection to reward both dedicated readers and curious newcomers alike. I count myself in the latter category, because although I’ve scanned the website before (and looked with envious eyes at the gorgeous original cover art published authors get for their stories…) I haven’t done much in the way of reading a lot of their content.

So, I’ve decided to start a new read-through series! Every week I’ll be reading three of the stories in the collection (some in order, some at random), and on sundays-mondays I’ll post an article recapping what I liked/thought was interesting/would have liked to have seen from these selected stories! I’m really excited to start this new series and I hope this will provide incentive for any other avid sci-fi readers to go check Tor.com out!

See you next Sunday, September 8th!

First Read: Oryx and Crake Chapter 4-6 (Crake-Roses)

The sections of Oryx and Crake comprising of the middle of Chapter 4 and onward into chapter 6  are chock-full of vivid sensory details, ghastly descriptions, startlingly elucid revelations, and chilling insights  into the darkest appetites of the human condition. All experienced through the perspective of  an otherwise dispassionate, disinterested adolescent Jimmy.

The reader is finally introduced to the infamous Crake (then known as Glenn), a classmate and  boyhood friend of Jimmy’s from the HelthWyzer enclave ,who appeared only a couple of months before his mother’s escape. A prodigal polymath, Crake exudes a mental sharpness, a cold detached wit divorced from human sentiment, and a keen intelligence whose appeal has a lasting influence on Jimmy’s behavior and self-image. “He generated awe – not an overwhelming amount of it, but enough. He exuded potential, but potential for what? Nobody knew, and so people were wary of him. All of this in his dark laconic clothing.” ( Pg.173, End of Crake)

Crake’s semi-misanthropic musings become more distressing and eerily on-point as his and Jimmy’s friendship develops.

In the chapter Brainfrizz, we learn more about the darker inscrutable routines of sensory desensitization the boys pursue and submit to, and how might the example of their callous spectating submission be indicative of the culture and world they live in. Twice a week, Jimmy and Crake meet up at Crake’s home to play video games revolving around crude caricatures of past atrocities and despots, (Kwiktime Osama, Barbarian Stomp, Bloods and Roses, EXTINCTATHON, etc.), combined with nihilistic depictions of how the legacy of the arts & sciences will ultimately be  negated by the cycle of Pyrrhic annihilation and societal malaise that perpetuates throughout history,

“That was the trouble with Blood and Roses: it was easier to remember the Blood stuff. The other trouble was that the Blood player usually won, but winning meant you inheirited a wasteland. This was the point of the game, said Crake, when Jimmy complained. Jimmy said that if that was the point, it was pretty pointless.” (Pg. 178, Brainfrizz)

We also finally learn the origin Crake’s name, a codename used between himself and Jimmy while playing the ecological disaster game EXTINCTATHON, a online trivia game centered around recently extinct animals such as the Rhino, Manatee, and the Komodo Dragon. Eventually the two become tired of these games, choosing instead to numb their senses by smoking pot stolen from Crake’s stepfather “Uncle Pete”, and by watching horrendous atrocities accessible through a pirated connection into the seediest bowels of the Internet.

Animal snuff films, live-broadcasted open-heart surgeries, ritual be-headings in Asia, public access executions of participating death-row inmates and televised assisted suicides of voluntary contestants; not to mention gratuitous amounts of horrifyingly hardcore BDSM porn. These depraved indulgences take on a ghastly form of poeticism through Jimmy’s desensitized descriptions. “But the body had its own cultural forms. It had it’s own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.” (Pg. 184, Brainfrizz)

While frequenting one of their usual porn destinations “Tart of the Day”, a site devoted to sexual masochism centered around the consumption of confections, Jimmy and Crake are finally introduced to the young woman whom they will one day come to know as Oryx.

“This was how the two of them first saw Oryx. She was only about eight, or she looked eight. They could never find out for certain how old she’d been then. Her name wasn’t Oryx, she didn’t have a name. She was just another little girl on a porno site.” (Pg. 193, HottTotts)

Oryx’s blithe on-screen demeanor and fierce appearance shake Jimmy tremendously out of his adolescent stupor of insensitivity, prompting him to feel ashamed for what he has done for the first time. “Jimmy felt burned by this look – eaten into, as if by acid. She’d been so contemptuous of him”  (Pg. 276, HottTotts). He and Crake become transfixed by this mysterious young girl, a girl they would not meet until she was already a young woman many years later, unashamed and equally indifferent to the things done by her and to her.

Already one can tell that there is a very strange contest of will and power tugging back and forth between Oryx, Crake, and Jimmy; with the casual and quick revelation that , under as-of-yet unknown circumstances,  Jimmy and Oryx might one day come to love one another. “Oh stolen secret picnics. Oh sweet delight. Oh clear memory, oh pure pain. Oh endless night.” (Pg. 287, Birdcall)

“Even in Snowman’s boyhood there were luminous green rabbits.”

Jumping back to the present, we see Snowman embarking on a pilgrimage to accept tributes of food in exchange for stories with the Children. This time we learn more about the Children of Oryx, a race of female counterparts to the male dominant Children of Crake. These children are Chlorophyll-skinned, Jelly fish luminescent beings with pale personalities and perfect complexions, devoid of physical flaw or fault.

This quality stirs up a complicated mixture of feelings in Snowman, who values and professes being sexually attracted to these supposed breaks from what is typically considered physical beauty, “It was the thumbprints of human imperfection that used to move him, the flaws in the design: the lopsided smile, the wart next to the navel, the bruise […] But these new women are neither lopsided or sad: they’re placid, like animated statues. they leave him chilled.” (Pg. 231, Fish)

Snowman has, by way of not only revising his own memories but actively rewriting the history of his relationship with Oryx and Crake, molded himself as being the sole prophet, historian, and living medium between the Children of Oryx and Crake and their namesakes, earning himself a special kind of reverence and authority that helps him to survive in this post-apocalyptic world.

Having woven an elaborate lore of half-truths and exaggerations about the origin of the world and of the children, Snowman has pulled bits and pieces out of the lives of himself and his late(?) friends in order to acquiesce some small measure of authority and influence. The children, who apparently had been “saved” by Snowman, supposedly have never talked to or met with their namesake forebears and so they hang on every word that Snowman tells them and accepts it as Dogma.

But with every subsequent lie, Snowman must be cautious in not contradicting himself lest the children become wise to his deception. “At first he’d improvised, but now they’re demanding dogma: he would deviate from orthodoxy at his peril. He might not lose his life – these people aren’t violent or given to bloodthirsty acts of retribution, or not so far – but he’d lose his audience.” (Pg. 246, Fish)

After the children have left him, Snowman proceeds to raid a nearby apartment building of anything resembling liquor in order to numb himself from the truth behind his deceptions. Defeated in his search, he finally decides to drink the last third of Scotch he had chosen to save up until then.

Perching himself in the canopy of a tall tree far from the ravenous Wolvogs (Wolf/Dog hybrids) circling him for an easy meal, Snowman drinks his scotch and drifts into a hallucination of Oryx perched alongside him in the tree, wrapped in darkness and tantalizingly within his reach,

“Oryx,” he says. “I know you’re there.” He repeats the name. It’s not even her real name, which he’d never known anyway; it’s only a word. It’s a mantra.” (Pg. 252,  End of Bottle)

“You know I love you. You’re the only one.” She isn’t the first woman he’s ever said that to. He shouldn’t have used it up so much earlier in his life, he should’t have treated it like a tool, a wedge, a key to open women. By the time he got around to meaning it, the words had sounded fraudulent to him and he’d been ashamed to pronounce them. (Pg. 255, Oryx)

Questions after reading:

  • We know when Jimmy and Crake first learn of Oryx, but how do they actually first meet?
  • What is the meaning behind Oryx’s name?
  • Why does Snowman hold so much resentment for Crake? Could it have something to do with Oryx?
  • Is Crake human; a eugenic experiment or just a fledgling sociopath?
  • How did Snowman “save” the Children of Oryx and Crake? Is it tied with the apocalyptic event that made this world?

Oryx and Crake; Fan Cover Art by Angelica Alzona

(Next Installment: Oryx and Crake Chapter 6-8 (Pixieland Jazz-Asperger’s U.)

First Read: Oryx and Crake Chapter 1-4 (Mango-Hammer)

“He undoes the plastic bag: there’s only one mango left. Funny, he remembered more.”

(It’s been nearly two months since I’ve updated this blog with a new article. That bothers me, as I have an extensive backlog of topic drafts that I’ve been meaning to revise and upload but whose priority has otherwise been overtaken by my commitments to school. So, instead of waiting for the storm of assignments and papers to blow over, I’ve decided to try and bridge the gap between the two. I’m currently reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood in my Contemporary World Lit. class. As I have not yet read it before and have heard such good things about it, I’ve decided to post my response assignments here, so as to extend my in-class conversations and reading observations into a digital space. Alright, feet first; Here we go.)

There’s a lot to cover in the first four(ish) chapters of this novel. The main character of O&C is the mysterious “Snowman”, a man who by all appearances seems to be the last normal human being living in a post-apocalyptic Earth ravaged by untold ecological disasters and runaway genetic technology. The Snowman is a pitiful character; a man plagued by bug bites, blisters, hunger, pent up sexual frustration, all the while trying to function and survive with a mind frayed at the corners by insanity.

Despite this, Snowman is surprisingly adept and  tenacious in maintaining his survival. Building temporary hammocks, insulated sleeping quarters to protect from acidic rain water and lightning, all conveniently within safe distance of the feral eugenic monstrosities that freely stalk and roam across the now abandoned post-human world.

Then there’s the mysterious but benign “Children of Crake”, green-eyed creatures who appear human in all but name who seek out and interact with the Snowman as though he were the last living relic of a now extinct race, the abominable boogey-man of the post-apocalyptic world.

Snowman, because of his fragile and fractured state of mind, must constantly reassess and sometimes revise his own memories in order to understand the world around him and how exactly things got to the way they are now, “He can’t recall ever having read such a thing  but that means nothing. there are a lot of blank spaces in his stub of a brain, where memory used to be.” (Pg. 36, End of Mango) These revisements come in the form of verbatim quotes from innocuous textbooks and irrelevant information that seems to have congealed into the inside of his memory, along with recollections of his early childhood and life which make up the majority of the story.

“Don’t fall in,” said his father. “They’ll eat you up in a minute.”
“No they won’t,” said Jimmy. Because I’m their friend, he thought.

Snowman’s real name is Jimmy, a boy who was born sometime after the turn of the century to eugenic engineers living in a corporate-sponsored think tank/enclave. The world outside, the so-called pleeblands, is teetering on the cusp of the apocalypse that the Snowman is now witnessing.

The world behind Jimmy’s life is rampant with corporate espionage, genetic warfare, organ farming, eugenic manipulation, capitalistically-obscured cannibalism, and general misery. But life within the corporate compounds is safe, people living lives of relative ease and comfort save for the special misery that they often afflict upon themselves.

Jimmy is caught in the middle of the marital strife of his father, a cheeky-grinned geneticist who has long since traded in his ethical scruples to fit into a life of conscious-less comfort and his Mother, a woman torn by her steadily deteriorating mental and emotional state who frequently lashes out at Jimmy only to attempt consoling him afterwards. The reader witnesses not only the abuse of his parent’s neglect, but Jimmy’s subsequent attempts at manipulating that neglect to his benefit. Cruelty comes in all kinds of forms.

Eventually his father is scouted for a position with another company (NooSkins, a eugenic skin-graft manufacturer)  and Jimmy’s family is relocated to a different enclave. The tension between his father and mother reaches its breaking point and she escapes the security of the CorpSe officers to defect to somewhere in the pleeblands, abandoning her son but not without stealing Jimmy’s genetically engineered pet rankunk (racoon skunk hybrid) in order to release it into the wild.

Jimmy’s father eventually recovers, shacks up with his doe-eyed number-crunching assistant Ramona, and Jimmy is left with only the occasional succinct, deliberately mis-named post cards from his fugitive mother to keep him company in the presence of his lingering guilt and grief that his very existence may have been the cause of all this turmoil.

Questions after reading:

  • What has happened to Oryx? Who or what are Oryx and Crake?
  • Has Crake asserted some kind of authority in this post-apocalyptic world? Given that genetic manipulation takes such a huge role in this book, are the “Children of Crake” his genetic descendants, or are they just the product of his own genetic tampering?
  • Who causes this apocalypse? Crake, or Snowman? Someone else?

Oryx and Crake; Fan Cover Art by Angelica Alzona

(Next Installment: Oryx and Crake Chapter 4-6 (Crake-Roses)