Continuing from yesterday:
“Mithridates, He Died Old,” by Nancy Kress. A little over 3000 words, third person past and limited. The POV switches back and forth between two characters: a woman who has just suffered traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and her physician, as the woman endures an experimental drug intended to rouse her from an otherwise permanent coma. As I get back in the habit of reading short fiction on some kind of regular basis, I get better at seeing the different effects a short story can be aiming for: stories that are mostly about a neat event that takes place in a neat backdrop; stories mostly about an event, neat or not, that has meaning for a neat character; and stories mostly about hitting a mood, that don’t waste time sticking around once they’ve pushed that mood button. This attempt at a taxonomy sometimes fails me — turns out I’m not as clever as Aristotle, who’d have thought? — and this story is a good example. Margaret’s in a bad way, medium sympathetic and not particularly likable, and hallucinating apologies and accusations from who have wronged her, or who she’s wronged, over the course of her life. Meanwhile her doctor frets about the drug’s possible side effects. Margaret certainly seems to have undergone a personality shift by the end of the story, not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, but the longterm effects of the event are unclear. By the end of it I have a sense of who Margaret is, and a sense of how her doctor feels about experimental medication used in extreme circumstances, and I’m not sure what it adds up to. A story last issue inspired similar doubt in me, “the Black Feminist’s Guide to Science Fiction Film Editing,” but where there I suspected I was missing something important, here I just feel I’ve been given half a story.
“The Legend of Troop 13,” by Kit Reed. A novelette according to Asimov’s, which I estimate at 6500 words, ish, and multiple POV characters with overlapping narratives. By all rights I shouldn’t like this one at all. It’s basically a shaggy-dog story, and it’s two or three times as long as its central twist justifies. Big portions of the story make no sense at all, and I found myself overly sympathetic for a character I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to like even a little. I’d be grumpy too, under those circumstances. But I do like this story, and it’s the first one I’d feel guilty about spoiling by writing too much about its plot. Once upon a time, a troop of Girl Scouts went feral in the woods near the Mount Palamountain observatory (not to be confused with the much less remote Mount Palomar observatory), an institution which may be VIP toured for a fee. Now a busload of VIPs hope to get in a little nocturnal Girl Scout hunting, assuming they’ve grown up enough to pass the age of consent. That’s probably as much as I ought to say about it. But, in hopes that Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams will appear and correct me again, I assert that there’s no explanation for the lack of common knowledge of very basic and presumably obvious facts about the troop among the public, and that the bus trip appears to be hideously mismanaged in a way that demands some kind of explanation but receives none. We’re talking criminal negligence on the part of the bus trip organizers (and who are those organizers and why do they organize the trip?). But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like this story, maybe the most of out this issue’s six.
“Hotel,” by Susan Palmer. A novelette on the long side, around 14000 words. POV shifts around, but is mostly third person objective or limited, with multiple viewpoint characters but sufficient clarity as to never be confusing. It’s Die Hard in a theme hotel on Nazi Occupied Mars! Not really. The small staff of a hotel on Mars, remote enough to have its own pressure dome, puts up with the eccentricities of their guests and the demands of the local law; these eccentricities include trying to murder one another. Plot drives the story, far more than mood or character: it’s firmly in the “neat event happens in a neat location” school of SFF short fiction. The location is neat enough, though it doesn’t grab me, and the event takes several twists to unkink, but the relatively large cast and relatively limited character development kept me from feeling especially invested in their struggle. The various dropped hints imply a thuggish Earth planetary government, suffering from increasingly tense relations with their many alien trading partners; I’m more interested in that story than this one.
So, six stories in total, my favorite “the Legend of Troop 13” I endorse only after acquainting you with its flaws, and my least favorite “Mithridates, He Died Old” I condemn only by asserting it didn’t really work for me. While none of the stories convinced me my time was being wasted (unlike a couple of stories in the Oct/Nov 2012 issue), none of them hit my particular sweet spot. Partly that’s a coincidence of setting; I tend to like futures I might plausibly live to see, though I may judge those stories more harshly.