September 2005: The Martian • 1949 • SF short story by Ray Bradbury

★★★+

Summary: Mars is in the first phase of colonialization. LaFarge and his wife Anna retired on Mars, leaving their old life and their dead son Tom behind on Earth. One night, a thunderstorm startles them, and they see someone standing outside. LaFarge thinks it was Tom.

Review: The story is taken out of context of the Martian Chronicles. I think it makes far more sense within that collection instead of as a standalone story.

Here, the Martians embody the wishes of humans, letting the dead come back in a different form of reincarnation. I really liked Bradbury’s quiet narration, the Old Mars setting, and the characters with their sorrows and hopes.

Compare this magical realism setting on Old Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Hard SF Mars trilogy or Andy Weir’s newer take on Mars. I love Bradbury’s take and highly recommend it as an alternative view on Martian storytelling.

Meta: isfdb. Published 1950 in The Martian Chronicles (and before that Super Science Stories, November 1949) . Read in The Big Book of SF.

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White Lines on a Green Field • 2011 • Magical Realism novelette by Catherynne M. Valente

★★

Summary: Coyote is the legendary trickster god. Here, he knocks up all cheerleaders, and wins all football matches as a quarter back.

Review: I didn’t care – neither for the teenage sex, nor for the American Football scenery, nor for any of the highschool characters. Coyote’s animalistic and ambiguous character is drawn convincingly. But plot and setting was over the top. I guess, if you’re in one of the topics, one might really love the story.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Fall 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online. It won the Locus Award 2012.

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Younger Women • 2011 • Weird short story by Karen Joy Fowler

★★

Summary:  A mother sniffs after her teenage daughter who’s got a new boyfriend, apparently a vampire.

Review:  Why would a sexy vampire go for a teenage girl instead of her middle aged mother? It started as a Twilight parody but turned into a different plot. I didn’t much care for setting, style, or plot.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Summer 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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Last Breath • 2005 • Weird short story by Joe Hill

★★★

Summary:  A family visits a museum – only confusing the „museum of science“ with the „museum of silence“ where they arrived. It specializes in the exhibition of last breaths: One can hear or feel the literal last breaths of persons, e.g. from E.A. Poe. The museum’s owner is a doctor who collects and buys such last breaths. The son and father are both very eager to experience it, but the mother is far more reluctant.

Review: With just a couple of pages, this lives from the atmospheric setting and the plot twist. The story is nothing horrific, just a bit weird. There is also a beautiful 8 minutes movie available online.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2005 in Subterranean, Issue #2. Read in The Best of Subterranean.

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Balfour and Meriwether in the Vampire of Kabul • 2011 • Steampunk novelette by Daniel Abrahams

★★★★

Summary:  It is Victorian 1880 in London, and the time of the Great Game when Britain and Russia struggled over control over Afghanistan, when the series‘ heroes need to catch a supernatural opponent. Soon, their enemy – the adventurous Russian Czarina – joins their force, because the Czar and the Empress both are in danger of taken over by the Afghan wizard.

Review: The two main protagonists form a kind of Sherlock and Watson. Far more engaging and entertaining was the Russian Czarina Maria Feodorovna, an adventuress with a history with those two Victorian gentlemen. Djinns, warlocks, shooting mixed in the London atmosphere. Abrahams knows how to catch your attention, provides a fluid narration. Read this in between longer novels to clean your thoughts.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Fall 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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Desertion • 1944 • SF short story by Clifford D. Simak

★★★+

Summary: It is Old Jupiter, i.e. a planet with a solid surface, no radiation, not too much gravity, and it is inhabited by humans living in domes and intelligent aliens called Lopers. Survey teams are biologically converted by a futuristic machine into those aliens, go out but fail to return. Military commander Fowler volunteers himself and his dog to transform and investigate the mystery.

Review: One of the first stories about Pantropy, or transhumanism as we’d term it nowadays. A more contemporary setting of transhumanism around Jupiter would be the story The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pad Cadigan. There are a couple of plot holes in the story: Fowler didn’t use any means of surveillance of his survey teams in the form of sensors, or roboters. Although Fowler’s dog is very important for the plot, I don’t believe the setting where old dogs get to military space stations. And last, I simply cannot believe that none of the military trained persons would get back just for a short while and report to his base. On the other hand, the story feature an exceptional strong woman: the operator Miss Stanley, who acts as Fowler’s disapproving conscience and dares to disagree with her military leader, and argues logically to stop the suicidal missions. I liked the description of Jupiter from the alien’s fascinating point of view adding a contrary view from the humans on Jovian reality. Given its publication date, it raises the question if the story was related to WWII desertion, but I don’t have answers to that one.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1944. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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Hide and Horns • 2009 • Western novelette by Joe R. Lansdale

★★★

Summary:  Buffalo soldier Deadwood Dick encounters a black man with one leg pinned under a dead horse and the white men on his trail. A bunch of Chinese girls and racist white men from the eponymous settling add additional colours to the shooting action.

Review: I never expected to read a piece of Western fiction with zero connection to speculative fiction. So, this is a premiere for me, and I stumbled over it in an anthology, and I can say that it was a happy accident. Don’t expect an objective assessment in this case. The author choose the setting from his home turf, which gave a nice background touch – not that the desert atmosphere has a huge impact on the course of the story. The perspective of Deadwood Dick with his dialect and hilarious deadpan humour contrasts the grim killing action. Lansdale knows how to transport a tension arc with more than one peak.

Meta: isfdb. Published Subterranean Online, Spring 2009. Part of the Deadwood Dick series. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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A Boy and His Dog • 1969 • Post-apocalyptic novella by Harlan Ellison

★★★★★

Synopsis:  In a post WWIV world of 2024, fifteen year old Vic roams the post-apocalyptic world together with his telepathic, intelligent dog Blood, who sniffs food and girls for Vic. During a skin flick, Blood detects a girl Quilla June in the movie theater, and Vic follows her in order to rape her. Vic gets parted from Blood when he tries to find out about the girl’s origin in the sterile happiness of underground Topeka.

Review: The vivid pictures in this novella have been most influential in the building of popular imagination of a gritty, post-apocalyptic world: More than the movie adaption of the novella it influenced the visuals of Mad Max movies and contemporary computer game series Fallout, just to name a few samples. Ellison’s clear, and graphical visions of fights and a rape scene are necessary components for the story’s ending. Central to the story is the question „do you know what love is?“ The answer is expected and surprising at the same time, they lead to a very satisfying conclusion of the relationship between nature, intellect, and community, each represented by one of the three main characters. All of them are drawn authentically and believable with their range of emotions, loyalities, and reactions to complex situations. At the same time, the story is very easily accessible and doesn’t provide analysis headaches like many of Ellison’s more experimental forms of fiction.

Meta: isfdb. This novella appeared April 1969 in New Worlds. I’ve read it in German in his collection Ich muss schreien und habe keinen Mund. It won the 1970 Nebula award and was nominated for the Hugo award.

 

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Tanglefoot • 2008 • Steampunk novelette by Cherie Priest

★★★

Summary: In a sanitarium of 1880, young Edwin helps the formerly ingenious Dr. Archibald Smeeks who is now slowly slipping into dementia. Ed takes the Doctor’s spare parts and builds a clockwork doll, declares it as best friend. Things get slowly creepy, as the doll behaves strange.

Review: I’ve got Boneshaker from the same series sitting on my TBR shelve since forever, I just haven’t manage to read it. This story brings over the mix of supernatural and technology setting very nicely and can be considered as a standalone. One of the most interesting character – insane Madeleine who helps Ed – needs more background story. The pacing would have needed more work, as the setup is way too slow, and the last third too rushed. Genre-wise it isn’t exactly Steampunk but a kind of gothic story with a hint of horror.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Fall 2008. Part of the Clockwork Century series. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Bohemian Astrobleme • 2010 • Steampunk novelette by Kage Baker

★★★★

Summary:  The Gentlemen’s Speculative Society dispatches prostitute-spy Lady Beatrice in an operation regarding the acquisition of gems which is used to produce electric charge together with acetic acid. They know that the titular impact of a meteroid is located near the Bohemian city Budweis where those red tektites are found.

Review: Deadpan humor, quaint characters, briskly paced plot, and a wonderful steampunk setting of London and Bohemian 1845. Those are the ingredients to an extremly entertaining detective thriller. The novelette is set in a series centering around those prostitutes and with the time-traveling Company series, but it doesn’t need much context to be enjoyable as a standalone. What a loss that the author died in 2010.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2010 in Subterranean. Part of the Nell Gwynne’s setting. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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