Author: S. L. Huang
My rating: 4 of 5
The world is only just beginning to learn about the atargati, a second race of sentient beings who dwell deep in the ocean. And while no human can really be said to know them, Dr. Cadence Mbella comes the closest of anyone, having actually interacted with them, studied them extensively, and learned to speak their language. Her professional life comes to an abrupt halt, however, when she discovers one of the atargati has been kidnapped for study. Unable to let this stand, Dr. Mbella rescues the atargati, but in doing so, she loses everything . . . and yet, even on the run from her country, she finds her curiosity unsated as she yearns to learn more of this culture.
In The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, Huang gives a dark, reverse retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” And let me just say, this short novelette packs a punch. It’s lovely and moving, but it’s also absolutely heartbreaking. Not a happy ending; consider yourself warned. I really enjoyed this story, though. It’s presented as a log of Dr. Mbella’s that she records as the story progresses, and I enjoyed both her unique voice and the way in which you get snatches of the story as it happens with all the emotion and urgency that each moment entails. The author does a great job of giving us that without losing the flow of the narrative. The portrayal of this utterly alien submarine culture is fascinating–and very notably alien. I loved how Huang uses both details that are rooted in scientific actualities and the strangeness of the unknown and possibly unknowable to flesh out the narrator’s understanding and depiction of the atargati. Dr. Mbella’s moral and ethical quandaries in dealing with this culture–and in interacting with her own in relation to the atargati–is compelling and adds depth to the story beyond a simple fairy tale retelling. Additionally, the author does a good job of portraying the narrator’s struggles with identity as she identifies as lesbian yet finds herself falling for someone of a completely different, non-binary species. On the whole, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist was a fascinating, thought-provoking story that breaks from a lot of traditional molds while giving a solid retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairy tale–non-Disney-fied, just the way I like it.
Author: Charles Stross
The Laundry Files, vol. 3.5
My rating: 4 of 5
Lucky for him (ha), Bob has pulled the distinct privilege of working the night watch at the office over the Christmas holiday–by virtue of being out sick while everyone else was putting in their vacation requests. Go figure. Oh well, theoretically, it should be a boring job sitting around babysitting a phone that never rings . . . unless the unthinkable happens. But then, considering Bob works for a secret government organization whose sole purpose is protecting the world from the things that go bump in the night and considering his stellar run of luck so far, why shouldn’t the unthinkable happen, right?
When I picked up Overtime, I was definitely expecting the fabulous combination of eldritch horror and office mundanity that it offered. What I wasn’t expecting was the Christmas theme. And yet, it works marvelously, providing a delightful comedy-horror plot that ties this little novelette together brilliantly as Bob deals with temporal anomalies, an eldritch interpretation of Santa Claus, and the challenges of fighting back the apocalypse using only office supplies, used Christmas decorations, and leftover treats from the office Christmas party . . . theoretically the last Christmas party the Laundry will see if the predictions offered by a Mr. Kringle (that only Bob can even remember now) are to be believed. The writing offers the same engrossing, droll style found in the earlier Laundry books (and yes, I would recommend reading at least The Atrocity Archives first for some context), but with a slightly more story-based focus and with less techno-babble . . . probably due largely to the short length of the story. Recommended for those who enjoy a sardonic tone and a solid urban fantasy and/or comedy horror story.
Author: Hao Jingfang/Translator: Ken Liu
Published in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 2 (January/February 2015)
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Lao Dao has spent his entire life in the “Third Space” of the folding city of Beijing, a monument to human ingenuity in combating overcrowding that his father helped to create. Being of the lowest of the three social classes, Lao Dao works hard in waste processing for low wages, so when he is offered a small fortune to run a rather illegal errand smuggling a message to “First Space” during the Change when the city folds in on itself, he can hardly refuse the offer. He needs the money to get his adopted daughter into a good kindergarten, after all.
Folding Beijing is an intriguing little novelette that I first heard of through Fiction Fan’s post on it. The whole concept is quite fascinating and rather jarring–a whole city that folds into the ground in a regular cycle, allowing different social classes time in the sun while letting the others safely hibernate until it’s their turn again. Certainly a novel way to deal with overpopulation. The way in which this operates in this particular tale, however, is perhaps most notable for the way in which it brings to light the shocking differences between the upper and lower classes in the city . . . perhaps a commentary on present-day conditions? For me, I think the best thing about this story was the way in which the author unfolded the concepts gradually, showing the reader just a bit more of what’s really going on with each paragraph, like a flower slowly blooming. It’s actually really beautiful, although a bit perplexing while in the midst of reading it. I also have to note that Folding Beijing is rather more literary in tone than what I usually read–not that that’s particularly good or bad, just something to be aware of. It was nice to get to read something by a Chinese author; I feel like that is a culture and literary group that I have largely missed. So if you know any good suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments. I would be grateful!
Folding Beijing is available to read online at http://uncannymagazine.com/article/folding-beijing-2/.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Eddie Campbell
Long ago in Scotland, a man of child-like stature hires Calum MacInnes to lead him to a secret cave on the Misty Isle. It is said that this cave is filled with more gold than you can carry, but that gold’s protected by an ancient curse. Calum MacInnes should know, for he went to that cave himself once when he was much younger–went and came back with enough gold to buy himself a good life . . . and with an emptiness inside that could never be filled. As the two journey to the island together, their thoughts are both filled with secrets, darkness, regrets, and schemes they can never reveal to the other–at least not as long as the other is alive.
If you’ve read this blog for long at all, you know I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Having said that, while I was reading The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, I was honestly wondering if this particular book was just a miss–I really wan’t feeling it at all. But by the time I’d pushed through the first third of the story, things began changing quite a bit as the underlying motivations and interlacing background stories were laid bare. Because these aren’t simply two men who are randomly using each other; they have a dark, tragic connection in their past, one that is closely tied to the revenge one seeks on the other without his ken. This is a dark, psychologically involved, emotionally taxing story–but one that is rewarding in a brutal sort of way to those who push through to the end. Particularly notable about this book is Eddie Campbell’s art–it’s truly a hodgepodge of paintings, photographs, and even comics. It’s unusual, unsettling, but highly effective in this context. I certainly don’t think The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is for everyone–maybe not even for all Neil Gaiman fans–but if you enjoy unusual, dark short novels and have some patience for a slower start, you might want to check this novelette out.