Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 3

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1. Likewise, for stories 3 and 4 see Part 2.

Enough blather! Reviews!

Saturday Night Science
by Michael M Jones

Pulp: 1/7     Slick 3/7      Purple: 3/7      Tech: 5/10

Michael M. Jones has a theatrical background that has (mysteriously, perhaps) led to his active participation in a variety of magazine projects, both as editor and as author. View his full (and impressive) bibliography here. He also has quite a range of titles with his name on them available on his Amazon author page. Mr. Jones can be found online discussing writing and books at his reviews blog Shroedinger’s Bookshelf or on Livejournal, and also reviews SFF for the Tor blog. Naturally he is also active on social media such as Facebook, for those who like to chat with authors.

From the “real life weirdness starts at a fan convention” premise through the deliberately zany (and ironic?) treatment and on to the extreme cardboard cut-out characters it’s hard to fathom how this ended up in a magazine supposedly devoted to “pulp with modern sensibilities.”  But I confess: I really didn’t like this story, so I may be biased.

To be fair there’s a standard SF trope at the core: the protagonist’s (only) foil is a wildly dressed “mad scientist” type she met at the con - and whose get-up turns out not to be cosplay but actual evidence of her origins in a parallel universe. But the “big idea” is not really engaged at all, and merely serves as the backdrop of what I found hard to see as anything but an abusive and ultimately unbelievable romance[1].

In the space of just a few pages we go from what appears to be a con party hookup bondage scene to “let’s travel the universe together while I hold this gun on you.” The breakneck pace of the relationship would be hard to manage in a longer work with more space to develop the characters internally, but in a story so short - and with other moving parts to develop - the end result is impossible for me to swallow.

The problem of course is that we’re given nothing to hold on to.

The first person narrative style helps quite a bit for the protagonist, Camille, but even with her I found it very difficult to get engaged. She has a name, and we learn a bit about her and her life as the story progresses, but we get nothing to justify her decisions or even, really, to make us cheer for her. Part of this of course is that ultimately she does nothing - which means there’s nothing to cheer for. But mainly, and despite Mr. Jones’ quite engaging, upbeat voice in the narration, I found she barely manifests at all in the story.

This feeling is even worse when, on reflection, I realise that her one moment of agency before the flip-flop conclusion is essentially an accident.

As for Daphne the interdimensional traveller - well, her development is if anything worse, though admittedly not as potentially offensive as poor Camille. Again, Mr. Jones seems to have a good hand with energetic dialogue and when Daphne speaks we get the sense of an engaging, upbeat woman who brings a dash of zany to the table. And if you noticed a bit of repetition there, you’ve already sensed my problem: Daphne read to me as essentially Camille in mad scientist cosplay.

On the other hand, Daphne is at least active - and through Camille’s description and engagement with her we do at least get to learn a little more about the situation and its implications. We don’t get much, but at least for me it was enough to shift the story from “animatronic mad scientist’s lab diorama” into “alternative Doctor Who fanfic” territory[2] - it did seem to me as though there was a wider universe out there beyond the story, and the potential for more adventures, but sadly Mr. Jones declines to offer any glimpses of them.

OK so I didn’t like the story – a big part of that is probably personal – but perhaps the most frustrating thing about it was the fact that Mr. Jones does seem to know what he’s doing. As mentioned, the tone is upbeat and engaging, and on top of this the story itself tumbles from moment to moment at a quick pace that kept me reading - and hoping for deeper engagement with the characters or the idea. Likewise, he doesn’t burden the story with detailed “still life” description: he’s very economical and evocative in describing Daphne’s equipment and the events, and does so mainly by presenting them in motion. There is real skill here, and a good handle on the dynamism that would make a good pulp story pulse, but it never really seems to go anywhere.

It’s unfortunate and frustrating that the skill Mr. Jones demonstrates at this level of the story doesn’t translate into the wider scope of character and - more importantly for a piece this short - plot. The placeholder characters are forgivable in a short, fast-paced story like this one. It really does take a master to pack rich characters into such a small space. But it’s not even so much that he dropped beats or was out of tune, Mr. Jones doesn’t really give us any plot at all.

There’s an awful lot of noise and fury in this story, but in the end it signifies nothing: the frenetic action never congeals into a coherent shape.

Grade: F

Island of Skulls (part 1)
by Matt Spencer

Pulp: 4/7     Slick: 3/7     Purple: 2/7     Tech: 5/10

Matt Spencer is another established author with an impressive bibliography (in fact, this magazine has done well to attract some experienced talent). He’s known for his Deschembine trilogy (The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast and the forthcoming The Blazing Chief (Damnation Books)) but his bibliography includes a wide range of books and anthologies in which his stories appear. Most are also available on his Amazon author page. He bills himself as a writer of hard-boiled and horror fiction on his Facebook page, and he can also occasionally be found lurking on Twitter as @MattSpencerFSFH.

This one is more firmly in pulp territory than some of the other stories in Issue 1 of B&B, but is unfortunately to some extent missing some of the motivational elements - replaced by others - which makes it feel a lot more like a rough-edged 70s era story than something from the pulps’ golden era.

There’s an effort to build richer imagery via more extensive description, which is great, but in the first half of the tale this translates into awkward doubling of adjectives and other words that occasionally had me grinding my teeth. It was clear what Mr. Spencer was aiming for, and he seems to achieve greater control in the second half - just illustrating how much better the story could have been with careful editing, which is doubly frustrating since the story definitely has promise:

Mr. Spencer starts fast in the middle of the action and gives us a good look at the main players early on. The story moves ahead to follow Tia and Ketz as they investigate strange goings on and discover a troubling connection to a past disaster. At each stage more of the world - and the situation - is revealed to us, and the exposition was skillfully done, without much reliance on info-dumps. Though some of the early description is awkward, as mentioned, the story certainly provides a clear view of the landscape and enough handles on the two protagonists to get a good grip right from the beginning. It’s not quite clear who is meant to be the main character, as the author hovers between the two in terms of interior view, but his intent will no doubt be clearer in Part 2 (due in the next issue) - asked to guess, I’d say that despite the early focus on Ketz either Tia is the primary[3] or that the aim is for a kind of shared place at the very center of the story. Despite preferring Tia myself, the second possibility is intriguing as I’d like to see how Mr. Spencer handles such a challenging approach.

Overall, the story arc given to us in Part 1 is well timed and energetic, driving along from scene to scene in a manner that really reflects the earthy flavour of the characters and setting. I personally found the rather rough tone and language of the dialogue off-putting at times[4], and while Mr. Spencer did a good job of pulling me along it really weakened my ability to like the characters. I get what he was trying to achieve, but it came across as perhaps trying too much. This kind of heavy handed dialect building really works best when there’s some purpose to it - in this case it was simply jarring.

One puzzling element to both the characters and the plot, though, was the question of time. Not the time in the tale, though: the deeper time of the setting. Mr. Spencer is careful to build his exposition mainly into dialogue and description, but at times it’s very difficult to grasp history.

As an example, the initial impression given of the characters is that they are teens - still building up to adult skills and responsibility but with more independence and ability than children[5]. However, as is made very clear later in the story they are also hard-bitten veterans of a conflict some years ago. How old are they, really, and what is their place in society? It seems as if this would have important consequences, but these points are very slippery.

Similarly, the timing of the war, the expansion of an empire that seems like an important force lurking in the background, and even the history (and geography) surrounding the weirdness being investigated all hint at much longer periods of time than the timelines presented in exposition either explicitly or as a consequence of logic given what we are told.

The whole world feels compressed, with things somehow both closer together and further apart than they ought to be.

Still, despite the stylistic flaws and the occasional “huh?” moments inspired by apparent temporal scales this is a solid story, and Mr. Spencer does make me feel that something mysterious is afoot that requires my attention in Part 2. That alone, really, is a pretty good win.

Grade: C+

[1] This was a difficult story to read, because all I could think about was how horrifying the opening scenario was even if clear consent got them there.

[2] An improvement, even if it’s not exactly glowing praise.

[3] A good choice if so, as I think she is definitely the more interesting character.

[4] I’m not prudish about language, and I suppose it was realistic for the sort of setting we find in this story, but sometimes “realism” needs to be set aside.

[5] And this is a logical choice for this sort of story, as it gives the characters the ideal combination of competence and naiveté (and of freedom and constraint). 

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