“Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone (Oct. 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
A young woman, Delilah Dane, moves from Savannah to New York City to pursue her theatrical dreams; the cost of living in NYC being what it is, she supplements her waitressing income by posing for artists. (Nothing more than posing — she has very strict rules about conduct and respect.) After an extremely weird interview and some ground rules which are eccentric even by artists’ standards, she contracts with Arthur Dufresne Crispin, a slender and pale young man who paints still lifes and portraits unlike anything she’s ever seen before. He pays handsomely, and he’s obviously talented, but his Boston accent and odd behavior should be setting off alarm bells for Delilah long before she receives an invitation to his opening at a chic gallery.
Savvy readers, of course, will know immediately why Delilah has signed on to a terrible bargain, though there’s so much about “Crispin’s Model” that will surprise and delight those of us who recognize colors out of space and shadows over Innsmouth when we see them. Max Gladstone plumbs the depths of Lovecraftian mythos, bringing in touches of weird and ultra-weird from the very beginning and gradually ratcheting up the tension and utter strangeness right up until the very end. At the same time, he examines the transformative and transportive power of art, toying with concepts like the relationship between viewer and object, or between creator and subject, and the question of whether a particularly unique vision might be organically created or, perhaps, a result of divine inspiration.
It was smart of Gladstone to make Delilah the storyteller, since she spends so much time under Crispin’s gaze; to let him relate events, rather than her, would have been to double down on her identity as his subject, rather than giving her an individual voice and important role to play. Like all of Gladstone’s fiction that I’ve read so far, “Crispin’s Model” was inventive and haunting, with an otherworldliness that’s a perfect complement to a chilly autumn evening. ~Jana Nyman
“Margin of Error” by Nancy Kress (2003, free sample story at Baen, anthologized in Nanotech)
A tale of two sisters: both scientists specializing in genetic modifications using nanotechnology, but with very different personalities. One of the sisters, Paula, is obsessed with achievement and public recognition, and has a lifelong pattern of ruthlessly using and abusing her sister Karen. Karen, the quieter and more intellectually gifted sister, silently puts up with Paula’s taking advantage of her until the sisters go their separate ways, for reasons disclosed in the story.
Now, years later, Paula ― sporting flawless and youthful good looks as a result of her genetic modifications ― appears on Karen’s doorstep, asking for Karen’s help while sneering at her lower class lifestyle.
I said, “How did you find me?”
“It wasn’t hard,” Paula said, and I knew she didn’t understand my smile. Of course it wasn’t hard. I had never intended it should be.
Perhaps the sisters have more in common than it initially appears?
Like many of Nancy Kress’s stories, “Margin of Error” deals with humanity’s use of nanotechnology, its drawbacks as well as its benefits. This story packs a particularly serious punch, one that has remained with me through the years and comes to mind whenever I think of Kress’s fiction. “Margin of Error” is included in Baen’s Nanotech anthology, which currently is available on Kindle for $3.82. ~Tadiana Jones
“These Deathless Bones” by Cassandra Khaw (July 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
A familiar fairy tale setting: A witch of a stepmother nursing a secret hatred for her stepchild, an eleven year old boy who is the prince of their country. The king, the boy’s father, is oddly absent. But gradually the reader’s expectations are cracked, then shattered, in this dark and disturbing yet morbidly satisfying tale.
As the prince and the stepmother have dinner, they begin to argue and insult each other. The stepmother, who narrates the story, excuses the servants and then magically shields the room so no sound within it can escape, while she and her petulant stepson let loose with all their frustrations and venomous hatred for the other. In between, she gives us a few glimpses of her past: her desires and her regrets, and some unspeakable things she has seen and experienced.
There was one thing [the king] wanted, and such a simple thing, too, such a compassionate desire. More than anything else, my husband yearned for me to love his son. The little prince was all that remained of the boy’s venerated mother; a pale wraith, sweet if slightly stupid, given to whimsy. She was beloved by the court, I’m told, an overgrown pet whom no one saw reason to censure, charming enough in brief doses. When she died, they mourned for weeks.
Small wonder they feared me: the flint-eyed, sharp-mouthed wildling the king brought home from a distant land, mere months after the tender one’s tragic demise—midnight and bone to my noonday predecessor.
“These Deathless Bones” frankly explores the dark side of life with lyrical and expressive writing. It engaged me with its strong-willed and unrepentant protagonist and its gradual and chilling subversion of my expectations. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Whale of Tikpiti’I” by Tariro Ndoro (Sept. 2017, free at Fireside Fiction)
This piece of flash fiction is short, but by no means sweet. “The Whale of Tikpiti’I” is about a girl demanding to be seen, and about the stories that brought her there.
Without giving too much away (it really is quite a short read), “The Whale of Tikpiti’I” is full of emotion. It speaks about sexual assault and power in a very specific way that I found thought-provoking. I found it deeply compelling in its brevity, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of history given in so few words. ~Skye Walker
Hexagrammaton by Hanuš Seiner, translated by Julie Nováková (May 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
Hexagrammaton is an ambitious and challenging SF novelette by Hanuš Seiner, a Czech author who holds a PhD in applied physics. It begins in an alien Vaían ship, whose crew, all disfigured by a mysterious virus, recites an oath together, reminding each other of their destiny, the gift they bring to humanity. But what is that gift, and will it benefit or harm humanity?
The scene then shifts to its primary narrator, a former Ganymede-based diplomat, who now lives on Earth and guides visitors into the five remaining alien ships that are on Earth, encased in vast manmade cones along with their crews. A young woman, Janita (her name, by the way, means “Gift of God”), comes to him, asking to be let into one of the ships to visit her father, who is a crew member on one of the ships. It sounds innocuous, but he soon discovers that Janita is carrying on her body a form of the alien virus, visible to him as mobile Maori tattoo-like markings. He knows that if it comes into contact with the human crew of the alien ship, already incubated with a form of the virus, it might fundamentally change humanity’s future.
Hexagrammaton seems relatively straightforward at first, but rapidly gains in complexity: Vaían is an intricate language with many coded layers, requiring cipher keys to decode the meaning (a three-letter cipher key is a trigrammaton, a four-letter one is a tetragrammaton, and so on). The meaning of the Vaían symbols changes with the cipher that is applied. The hexagrammaton ― the unique six-letter combination of Vaían symbols that will translate sequences of the virus into executable programs transforming the alien ships and their once-human crews ― that is a thing only of legend. Or so the narrator has always thought.
Another layer of complexity is added when the main storyline begins to alternate with musings from a prisoner, one who had been working with the aliens until they fell into disfavor among humans. Who that prisoner is, and the relationship of his story to the main plot, is eventually disclosed, but his comments on the multi-layered nature of the Vaían language and its levels of encryption keys are critical.
On my first read of Hexagrammaton it struck me as a story that teeters on the edge of being fantastic, with some bits of great writing and some mind-bending ideas, but then crumbles under its own weight in the end, losing its way (and the reader) in the last quarter. Initially I was going to rate it 2.5 stars. But in the process of writing this review and trying to explain the plot, I ended up reading the whole thing a second time … and suddenly a lot of the events and ideas in it became much clearer, even the fractured timelines and slippery reality. It was a significant investment in time and thought, and several elements about it are opaque or left incompletely explained, but in the end I thought it was definitely worthwhile. Read it ― twice if necessary ― if you’re looking for a mental challenge. ~Tadiana Jones
Great analysis of “Crispin’s Model,” Jana! I loved the descriptions of his art in that story.