There I was, sitting with my feet propped up on my desk one dark Monday morning, chipping away at the last third of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker when she walked through my door. And by “She”, I mean three new stories out of the Tor Anniversary Collection.
Each of them was a sordid character in their own right; an assorted rogues’ gallery of lovable misfits with more stories than they cared to share. Pouting paragraphs, snarling sentences, and the shape of secrets perpetually enshrouded in the silhouette shade of Venetian blinds. I should have known they were trouble from the start. As a matter of fact, I did. But a case is a case, and week five of the Tor stories waits for no-one. Kick your feet up and sit a spell, I got a tale to spin for ya…
47. The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday by G.D. Falksen
Inspector Wilde is a rabid fan of tit-tat, the broadsheet arguments that get printed several times a day; the Chief Inspector thinks he’s an idiot, but Wilde’s strange reading habits may just crack this case wide open.
The world of “Mr. Salad Monday” is a Neo-Victorian steampunk metropolis divided into a series of multi-stratified columns, all governed over by a censorship state comprised of “peace-keepers” and “special peace-keepers” who call themselves “the Legion of Peace.” Inspector Wilde is a benign cog in this otherwise lumbering totalitarian machine, occupying most of his time reading through the open-gossip columns of newspapers and chatting up the Chief Investigator’s blushing secretary Marguerite. But when a un-crackable case of supreme treason and sedition is foisted on the Legionaries, it’s Wilde’s peculiar hobby that offers him the tools to see “Justice” done.
I don’t know why, but my impression was pretty lukewarm to this story at first. That is, until I got to the meat of world-building that Falksen offers through Wilde’s clumsy yet comprehensive exposition about what exactly “Tit-Tat” is to his commanding officer. Then I was laughing my ass off.
“Tit-Tat” is basically a satirical print media equivalent to the Internet forum phenomena (4chan, Reddit, Usenet, etc.), a series of publications that “refreshes” everyday through periodic issues posted three to four times a day. “Tit-tat” pokes fun at, or perhaps sheds an uncompromising light of truth on the habits of human conflict through written argumentation, with Tit-tat scuffles known to stretch on for days or weeks with no end in sight. People have their own inclusive acronym lingo (IMOT; ‘eye-moth: “It is my opinion that…” or IHN: “In Heaven’s name…“) Corresponding strings of response comments are tacked with code numbers (i.e. trip-codes, time-stamps), and persistent commentators attract an aura of prestige and begrudging respect for their terse insults and quippish reparte. One of these Tit-tat heavyweights is “Mr. Salad Monday”, a person of indistinguishable gender or origin seemingly as old as the Tit-tat itself, that no-one knows quite for sure who they are. Until now.
What started out as a straight-laced, albeit fantastical detective drama later became an “Existential Thriller” akin to that of G.K. Chestorton’s “The Man Who Was Thurday.” In hindsight, I suspect that the use of week-days as a naming convention was likely intentional on Falksen’s part in order to illicit such a comparison.
But who is this mysterious Mr. Salad Monday; This socialist sympathizer, this instigator of public dissent, champion agitator of civil liberties, health-care, and the voice of the people?
You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you. Falksen’s definitely on my radar now, this story certainly didn’t get published by mistake.
50. A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings by James Alan Gardner
Award-winning science fiction author James Alan Gardner brings us Damon Runyon-esque tale of courteous guys, bulletproof dolls, and the fedora-clad spacemen that bring them together.
An un-named cleaner in a retro-futuristic New York is tasked with disposing the body of a ventilated, formerly homicidal “spaceman” in a robotic brothel. A professional; he is asked and promptly delivers the specialty of his trade, “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings”, cleaning up the evidence of the spaceman and planting diversionary evidence to throw the “J Edgar Hoovers” off the scent of alien blood. It’s a standard job, that is until he meets Kitty, the “bullet-proof doll.” A “Doll” like that can make a man’s head all screwy, and our unlikely hero is five different shades of smitten. Then the spacemen come.
This was a very convincing, very “noir” story with a great deal of science-fictional creative license. One thing about reading alternate history speculative fiction is that the reader is constantly coaxed into finding the fork in the road, the point where the timeline diverged down the alleyway of olive-suited, fedora-totting, green-blooded spacemen with palm lasers and a replicant woman whose physical features and abilities morph in response to external male psychic stimuli. I myself couldn’t, but it hearing pistols referred to as “John Roscoes” and an interplanetary force of G-men collectively as “Mr. J Edgar Hoover” made me chuckle something fierce.
I thought Kitty herself was an interesting twist on the Detective story dame; a perfectly oblivious, tragically flawed Ingenue in every sense of the word. Totally aware of the mutability of her own body and personality by the external thoughts of men who desire her, but specifically designed to have no desire to change it. This rings with particularly sexist overtones to me, but I’ll have to think more on the objectives of the story before reaching a conclusion as to personal opinion. She reminds me a lot of the subject of the Electric Light Orchestra song, “Yours Truly, 2095.”
“There, there,” and one thing and another, but I do not think any man alive knows how to deal with persons of a female nature in such situations. When a doll cries, it is about something very small or very big, and both ways, a guy is out of his depth.
I Say, “Smile,” and she smiles so brightly, it is like she has never shed a tear in her life, even though her cheeks are still drippy.. I think of other things I can tell her to do, and she will likely perform those actions too, and once again I feel as sad as a sack, although this time it is for Kitty, not me. She is a book everyone gets to write in except herself.
103. Jack And Queens At The Green Mill by Marie Rutkoski
Few know that the Great Chicago Fire was started deliberately, as a genocide of deadly creatures called Shades. Fewer still know that they didn’t die, not quite…but one human will confront the truth when an ominous beauty makes him gamble for his life.
On October 8th, 1874, in an alternate universe, the people of Chicago orchestrated the mass extinction of a race of amorphous creatures known as the “Shade.” This genocide was disguised under the pretense of a massive firestorm that near burnt the entire city to cinders, the so-called “Great Chicago Fire.” But this was not the end of the shadow war, as another alternate universe of Shades immediately felt the excruciating absence of an aspect of themselves; a sort of “phantom-limb” sensation of the body and soul. Zephyr is one of the last of the shades in this universe and is determined to amass a stockpile of weapons to go to war for the existence of her people. The only thing between her and what she wants however happens to be a young Mafia guard with a disfigured face and a knack for sweet-talk.
I was surprised with how short this story felt overall considering its approximate 32 page length. It was a total breeze, undemanding and wholly comprehensible. The explanation of the alternate universes and how the shades’ empathetic link allows them to feel and traverse across different dimensions could have been better explained, but overall it felt like a serviceable story.
The central “conflict” and it’s “resolution” felt a bit ham-handed. Why would Zephyr spare Joe? Some reluctant affection for an individual funneled through the misguided indignation and resentment of an entire race? I don’t know. It was an okay story though. Not great, not euphorically prosaic and life-affirming, just okay. Besides, for such an average story there’s a ton of really great descriptions and line in this one. And Okay stories are…okay. They do what any story is supposed to do, to brandish the words of Stephen King, “These are great stories, and we’re lucky to have them. To read Now, and maybe again Then, later on, when we need what only a good story has the power to do: to take us away to worlds that never existed, in the company of people we wish we were… or thank God we aren’t.”
“When I step into my body, it feels like water before it hardens into ice. Like silk before it’s stretched and stitched onto a wire frame and called a lampshade.”
“Silk and ice,” he said, running the words together so that they sounded likesilken ice. “That’s you, all right.”
“It doesn’t exist,” she said. “Jazz was never invented. And here . . . the Green Mill has the best jazz. Your employer demands the best.”
Music floated out. It infused the night, rich as brassy ozone, light as pattering rain. An upright bass plucked throbbing notes, a drummer brushed the cymbal, cartwheeled a stick across his set. Zephyr heard the trumpeter mute his horn, and it all flowed out into the alley, a music made of the unexpected. A loose-limbered sound, one that made a philosophy of choices, highlighting the fact of them by pretending they didn’t exist, by tripping lightly from one rhythm to the next, from key to key, as if nothing was certain, improvisation was everything, and practice was for fools.
Zephyr knew better. She knew that the musicians practiced for their master. But this was their art: to make their work seem like a game.
As I walked away from the exploded shipyard warehouse thrown up in a firestorm, roaring “Everything must go!”, I was relieved. My suit jacket ventilated by stray and true bullets, ballistic nubs of coarse metal compressed hard against the mesh of my bullet-proof vest. I was exhausted, my chest as heavy as a pound of cinder blocks, the incessant pulsing ring in my ears showing no signs of failure. But I was relieved. I won. Another installment in the Tor Let’s Read Series was behind me. Another job, well-done. I lugged my way back home and collapsed into bed. There was only one thought that traced my mind before I passed out,
“I’m dreaming…of a Red planet…”
See you next Sunday, October 13th!