Story Reviews: Ramez Naam, Cat Rambo, Robert Jackson Bennett, Chen Qiufan, Lucy Snyder

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In my continuing efforts to read more short stories, I’m reading Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex Magazine monthly.  And I figure I might as well highlight the stories I enjoyed, as to encourage you to go check some new authors out.
(Note: Thanks to medical traumas, I haven’t read this month’s Asimov’s yet.  I’m sure it has some lovely stuff.)
Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable, by Cat Rambo

Antony bought the kit at Fry’s in the gray three months after Mindy’s death. He swam in and out of fog those days, but he still went frequently to the electronics store and drifted through its aisles, examining hard drives, routers, televisions, microphones, video games, garden lights, refrigerators, ice cream makers, rice cookers, all with the same degree of interest. Which was to say little to none, barely a twitch on the meter. A jump of the arrow from E up to one.
A way to kill time. So were the evenings, watching reality shows and working his way methodically through a few joints. If pot hadn’t been legal in Seattle, it would’ve been booze, he knew, but instead the long, hard, lonely evening hours were a haze of blue smoke until he finally found himself nodding off and hauled himself into bed for a few hours of precious oblivion.
He prized those periods of nothingness.
Each day began with that horrible moment when he put a hand out to touch Mindy’s shoulder—hey, honey, I had this awful dream you died, in a boating accident, no less, when was last time we were on a boat. Then the stomach dropping realization, sudden as stepping out into an elevator shaft.
His mother called him every day at first, but he couldn’t manage the responses. Let alone the conversational give and take.
That saddened him. Made him feel guilty too. He was the only child his mother still had nearby. Both of his sisters had stayed on the other coast and were distant now as then. Still angry at his mother for unimaginable transgressions during their high school years. They both had been excellent at holding a grudge all their lives. He was the only child who’d been willing to take some responsibility for her, had helped her move out to this coast in fact.
He loved her. Bought her presents. That was how the cat, a small tortoiseshell kitten, had entered her life, riding in his coat pocket, a clot of black and orange fur, tiny triangular face split between the colors…

Cat Rambo’s tale is a beautiful exercise in both misdirection and knowing when to stop.  This is a complex story on the surface – the cat gets cloned, but is subtly wrong, and the question arises of whether they can clone the dead wife.  In a lesser writer’s hands, this story would have been a novellette, stretching out to explore disaster after disaster, Pet Sematary-style…
…but Cat hits the mark, finishing at the perfect moment, in a story that made me happy with the ending in a way I haven’t quite been happy since Vylar Kaftan’s “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno.”  Sci-fi short stories tend towards conflict and disaster and pain, and rather than dissecting a frog for you, I’ll instead encourage you to head over and read this quite-readable little gem.

Water, by Ramez Naam

The water whispered to Simon’s brain as it passed his lips. It told him of its purity, of mineral levels, of the place it was bottled. The bottle was cool in his hand, chilled perfectly to the temperature his neural implants told it he preferred. Simon closed his eyes and took a long, luxurious swallow, savoring the feel of the liquid passing down his throat, the drops of condensation on his fingers.
“Are you drinking that?” the woman across from him asked. “Or making love to it?”
Simon opened his eyes, smiled, and put the bottle back down on the table. “You should try some,” he told her.
Stephanie shook her head, her auburn curls swaying as she did. “I try not to drink anything with an IQ over 200….”

The fascinating thing about this story is what it lacks: it’s not filled with beautiful prose, it’s light on character, and the plot is on rails.  Which sounds like an insult, but the same can often be said about some of the best news reporting – and what we have here is essentially a newscast from a vividly-imagined future, so perfect in its details that I could have read another hundred pages of it as the ramifications of the smart-water advertisements swirled in and out of affecting Wall Street, affecting grocery-store shelves, affecting passerby on the street…
I’m fascinated by the idea of how super-advertisements will affect our lives (check my story Dead Merchandise for how I get wrapped around the axle about it), and Ramez’s vision of the future is both plausible and world-spanning.  It’s rare that an author can cram the scope of a space opera into 4,000 words or so, but damn if Ramez doesn’t do it.  This is a wonderful example of how details can sell a story, because every section is studded with bullets of plausible speculation that feel like an extension of what we know today.  They tell you that writing is all about characters, but what we have here is a story where worldbuilding is first and character second, and that stylistic choice hints at a cold future where maybe we’re all pushed aside a little by monolithic corporations.
After reading this, I went out and put his award-nominated books on my wishlist, and boy do I hope to get around to ’em soon.

A Drink For Teddy Ford, by Robert Jackson Bennett

It was often said in certain circles of town that no event could hope to match Jerry Ulkridge’s New Year’s Eve parties. The entire year was spent in anticipation of what the next one might feature. Could he possibly beat the ice sculptures of ’21? The champagne fountain of two years back? Would the first chairs of the symphony make an appearance again, performing in their elite quartet? No one could say for sure, and many would have fought or even killed to find an invitation nestled in the corner of their mailbox, promising admission to those merry, oh-so-exclusive wonders.
So it would have shocked anyone to know that Teddy Ford had received such an invitation, but had no intention of attending. He did not plan to go out at all that night, having spent the waning days of the year confined to his one-room apartment, lying on the bed and smoking and sipping wine with the radio on, and he’d decided New Year’s Eve would be no different.
But early in the evening his friend Michael Creamier came calling, and would not be turned away. “Are you completely unaware of what you’re missing, old son?” he called through the closed door. “Are you totally out of your mind? Are you barking, Teddy? Please, tell me.”
Teddy did not answer….

Full disclosure: I’m pretty much a Robert Jackson fanboy, as I’ve enjoyed everything he’s done.  (Try American Elsewhere, you won’t regret it.)  And again, what we have here is an exercise in plot-on-rails, as Teddy goes to the party, discovers a mysterious bartender who promises to make him the drink of his life, and then starts plucking ingredients straight out of people’s sorrows…
It’s a Twilight Zone-style riff – but like any good riff, success is all about the style, and RBJ really has voice down to a startling extent.  He somehow manages to nail that 1920s-1950s-style machismo, with drinks and men in ties and friendly joshing, but he does it in a way that’s not a carbon copy and somehow not excusing the excesses of the period but somehow pointing slyly at them.  And his prose is delicate and distinct, with mixing horror and beauty in evocative bits like this (and a trigger warning for those who need them):

It took some time for Teddy’s eyes to adjust. He saw people in the room, but they had not noticed his entry. He made out the considerable bulk of Michael Creamier on the bed, and below him a flash of a white calf and a slippered foot, and the pale ring of a petticoat. Michael’s hand slowly crept under the petticoat, and the leg tensed as his hand advanced.
“Michael,” said a girl’s voice. “Please, I don’t . . . I don’t want to.”
“But you do, really,” he said huskily. “Don’t you?”
“But I’ve never . . . Oh, I don’t know about this.”
“Don’t you love me?” The soft tap-tap of drunken kisses in the dark.
“Yes, but . . .”
“Then be still.” Michael’s backside shifted, and there was the tinkle of a belt buckle and a shifting of clothes. “Let’s get these . . . off . . .”
“Michael, no,” whispered the girl. “Michael, please . . .”
But Michael’s back flexed, and a soft cry came from beneath him. “There,” he said, his voice trembling. “There.”

That’s a lot of characterization for a hundred words or so, and I have to admire the economy.

 The Mao Ghost, by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

I still remember that evening: In the heavy air, the plastic dragonflies hovered just below the eaves like miniature helicopters, drifting about slightly even though there was no wind.
I came home, and Dad was already in the house but kept the lights off. The setting sun came in through cracks in the window, and his face seemed indescribably thin in the dim, yellow light, like a stranger’s. He extended an arm toward me and the sleeve hung loose as though it contained only bones and no muscle. Without even realizing I was doing so, I tried to hang back, staying away from him.
“Qianer, come here. Let Daddy get a look at you.”
I struggled to understand the meaning behind his words. He tried to look at me every day, regardless of my wishes. It seemed that other than looking at me, he had nothing else to say or do. He was always getting my age wrong. Sometimes he would ask me if I was getting along with the other children, and I felt that he was only making conversation because whenever I brought up Xiao Qing or Nana, he always put on an expression that said I’m-interested-but-who-is-that? even though I’d already repeated those names for him at least eight million times.
“Qianer,” he said, and seemed unsure if he should go on. “I want to tell you something….”

This was a happy surprise to me, as I’m usually not big on uncertainty – I want to be rooted in the world right away, to know whether magic is real, to know whether man can fly to the moon, to know what era it is.  And yet this is a wondrously soft story, centered around magic, where “not knowing if magic works” is part of the delight of the story.  Dad thinks he’s turning into a cat-spirit, and Mom agrees with him, and so do many of the legends and history, but… is Dad insane, and Mom simply humoring him, and Qianer caught in the middle?
It’s delicate and beautiful, with a subtly broken family hanging in the center of it all, and the tension wrought from an unusual source.  I adored the quietly unobtrusive way this story made you work to meet it, and the ending is, like Cat Rambo’s, quietly perfect.  A lovely tale.

Antumbra, by Lucy Snyder

I woke in the afternoon gloom to the sound of my 20–year–old stepsister Lily dragging something heavy and wet up the back patio steps through the kitchen door. The smell of blood and brine smothered me the moment I sat up.
I swore to myself and called down to her, “What did you do?”
“You’ll see,” she sing–songed.
“Pleasant mother pheasant plucker.” I lay back on the sweat–stained sheets for a moment to gather my focus. Four hours of sleep wasn’t enough to keep my head from spinning, but it was all I could seem to get these days. The cells in my body kept waiting for the moon to move, despite all my meditating to try to tell them that the big rock blotting the sun wasn’t going anywhere.
I kept having nightmares from everything I saw in the months after the Coronado Event. In the worst dream, I was sitting in my bedroom when an earthquake hit. The walls would crack, revealing not drywall and wood but rotten meat, and cold blood would pour in, flooding everything. The red tide would sweep me off my bed and press me up against the ceiling. My stuffed toys turned into real animal carcasses floating by my head. I’d be struggling to breathe in the two inches of air between the gore and the plaster when I felt something grab my ankle. And then I’d wake up…

I find myself drawn to stories that accomplish things I usually hate.  And this is a tale that has the subtlest of errors in it, the only you only really see if you read slush for a magazine: it feels more like the first chapter in a novel than a short story.  Normally that’s a dealbreaker, because first chapters are more setup than closure, and so the story leaks out of the edges.  But with Antumbra, the ending promises at more horrors, and I want to follow those horrors to even greater depths.
And yet what a chapter!  The world is changed because the moon’s blotted out the sun, and wretched changes have flooded across the city, and everyone is mutating, desperate, and starving.  Meanwhile, one sex-obsessed sister is coming of age, and the other (entangled in an incestuous relationship) wants to save her from getting pregnant.  This is a boiling cauldron of pure body horror, done effectively; I heard Lucy read it at ConFusion, and read it to see if it held up.  It does.
The ending’s a little abrupt.  But I can forgive that when I enjoyed the journey sufficiently.  And I hope she does expand this at some point, because it’s a Joe Lansdale-style cavalcade of ick, and I kinda like that.



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