Sunday, 18 October 2015

Short Story Sunday 04: Terry Bisson, Spider Robinson, and David Drake

This week I’m reviewing three short stories from three different collections. Two of them will be familiar to regular readers but I’ve added a new collection to the rotation: The Tank Lords by David Drake. Half of this book is made up of short stories and the other half is a small novels. I’ll be reviewing the novel on its own but the stories will continue to be a part of Short Story Sunday. Let’s get to it.

“About It” by Terry Bisson
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published in F&SF (Sept/Oct 2010), edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Terry Bisson was unknown to me before I read this story (regular readers might have noticed a trend) and I’m sorry to say that “About It” is a poor introduction. The story is told by a janitor who works in a laboratory and brings home a Sasquatch. There ol’ Bigfoot sits around, enjoys nature and the companionship of a few neighbourhood kids. He likes watching TV with the janitor. What at first appears to be a nice retirement from the lab out in the suburbs turns out to be nothing more than a waiting room for the afterlife. The Sasquatch inexplicably fades to nothing and dies, leaving me confused and a little sad . . . but the feeling quickly faded after I closed the book and put it down.

Ranking: 1 stars
Bisson managed to make a story about a Sasquatch as boring as possible. The story’s narration makes the characters and the story feel detached. I just read it and already the details are fading from memory. It’s easily forgettable.

“Copyright Violation” by Spider Robinson
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in New Destinies VI (1988), edited by Jim Baen (I think this is accurate, I couldn’t find any indication otherwise but I have some doubts since it wasn’t entirely clear in New Destinies VI that this was the first time the story was being published. If someone knows anything about it please let me know).

What a story! Jim Baen’s introduction informs us how the development of technology has greatly affected the way relationships occur. As if relationships weren’t complicated enough, Robinson gives us a look into the future and shows us an example of how technology will continue to affect relationships.

Fleming is the ultimate loser, and his life is radically changed one day when an impossibly perfect woman initiates a romantic adventure. With the early scenes in which Fleming meets Marga in a bar and they proceed to go to his place, Robinson shows off some really funny narration. About halfway through the story, the plot makes a sharp turn and heads into the direction of speculative fiction. It’s a mighty powerful story that uses neat ideas. Robinson also excels at making you laugh. The story is very exciting and like good science fiction it also manages to make your think.

The only weakness I could find was the main character’s radical shift in personality and temper for part of the story. Robinson tries to account for it with an in-story explanation but it doesn’t work. It’s the only aspect of the story’s structure where both halves don’t match up evenly. There is something disjointed in how Fleming is introduced to us and what occurs in the last few pages. Considering Robinson does everything right, it’s easy to forgive him for a single slip up. 

Ranking: 4 stars
This story could have been the first 5 stars story in SSS, but it didn’t make it because of Fleming’s inconsistent characterization. Other than that, this is a gem of a story. It’s funny, well thought out, and skilfully written. Robinson has what it takes to become a favourite author of mine.

“Under the Hammer” by David Drake
Read in The Tank Lords (1997), written by David Drake
Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers (1979), written by David Drake. Drake mentions on his website that this story was purchased by Jim Baen while he was editor of Galaxy magazine though I can’t find confirmation of this.

I’m not sure when it was exactly that the work of David Drake first caught my eye. All I know for sure is that I’ve been curious about the guy for a couple of years. I’m mostly interested in his stories in the sub-genre of military sci-fi but I know he’s written plenty of other kinds of stories as well, from regular sci-fi to fantasy and a few others. The stories set in the Hammer’s Slammers series are some of his earliest and most popular so I decided to start with them.

“Under the Hammer” starts with a new recruit to Colonel Alois Hammer’s crew, called Rob Jenne. He’s being brought to the training camp by a three man crew driving around in a combat car. Something not entirely unlike a floating tank. On their way to their destination, they spot a guerrilla camp and Sergeant Worzer, having faith in his crew and in his equipment, decides to investigate. Things take a turn for the worse and Rob gets a real good look at the horrors of war as the world around him turns to fire and smoke.

The story serves as an adequate introduction to the Hammer's Slammers series. I'm not sure if it was originally meant to be read as a standalone story, you get a sense that something is missing. The world building is mostly just hinted at what we do see clearly is pretty generic stuff for the genre. That doesn’t lessen the impact of the story or Drake’s skill as a writer. The characters are developed pretty quickly and they have enough depth that you get attached to them by the time the simple mission of picking up a new recruit goes wrong. I’m looking forward to more Slammers stories and hoping that they have more substance than this one.

Ranking: 3 stars
A quick and dirty story. Not much world building takes place and the story itself is familiar for the genre of war stories but it's well done and there is enough promising material here to give more Hammer’s Slammers stories a second chance.

The Tank Lords is available for free as part of Baen’s Free Library. You can download the book from the publisher’s website here.

Next week’s Short Story Sunday will be a special edition for Halloween. We’re swapping science fiction for horror. You won’t want to miss it!

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