Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fantasy and Sci-Fi Collide in an Explosive Supernova of Interesting Characters, Worlds and Concepts

The Curtain Falls and Other Stories by David Wesley Hill is a collection of twelve short stories. 

The connection between all of them is the genre. They all have elements of sci-fi, fantasy or both, some more subtly than others. 

The first is 'The Curtain Falls'. 

First Sentence:

"Dad lost his job not long before mom got sick."

Set in a bleak, dystopian world sometime in the future, the sun blazes ruthlessly on anyone still on the Earth's surface- mostly the poor. Anyone with money lives downtown- underground. It's power is now so strong that extreme protection must be worn whenever you venture under its rays. Incredibly powerful sunscreen, hats, goggles, gloves. Plant and wildlife has been brutally culled by its strength. 

People now fear skin cancer like nothing else- to such extremes that skin grafts are commonplace and highly coveted. There's not enough supply to meet demand, as taking someone's skin involves killing them. When I say skin graft, I mean your entire body's worth of skin. Pawn shops now buy and sell body parts. 

A giant cover is being built over the Earth, to try to lessen the sun's radiation. It is humanity's last hope. Without it, the Sun will get more and more powerful, until nothing can survive. The air itself will become poison. 

In this world lives our young protagonist. He is never referred to by name, so I can't give you one. He lives with his mother, father and older sister. Until their mother gets sick and dies, and the shade (the cover around the Earth) falls. 

The second story is "A Bad Case of the Flu". 

First Sentence:

"When I woke up that morning, I wasn't there."


In this future, everything runs on technology. Door locks are replaced with thumb scanners. Thumbprints are used for everything. ID, to use your credit cards, to open doors, etc. Instead of usual muggers, 'thumbers' are the more general thieves. They inject you with venom and ask for your thumb in return for the antidote. If you agree, they give you a local anaesthetic, slice off your thumb, inject you with the antidote (with added soporific) and you wake up twelve hours later missing a thumb, but generally in good health. With your thumb, they can use your cards and go on a buying frenzy.

Carl Darwin is a thirty-four year old doctorate student. Most of his life is virtual. Even his classes are all on-line, so he rarely leaves the house. Unfortunately, this makes him the perfect target for Los Estados Unidos de la Sud- a group of spies/terrorists who take identity theft to the extreme. Some send out a virus that wipes all your information, and replace it with their own, to basically, legally become you. Others take it further and steal your skin, prints and eyes, so they can pass all scans and DNA tests.

Carl is luckily targeted by the first kind. He wakes up to find nothing works for him. Gets locked out of his apartment, and accused of being the spy by the police. Nothing he says can verify his identity, since it's all been altered by the spy, who has already taken over his life and is comfortable making himself at home- in Carl's apartment.

With no way to reclaim his identity, maybe it's time to create his own.

The third story is 'SQ 389". 

First Sentence:

"What is it?"

Again set in the future, we meet Lieutenant Alphonse Perusquia- better known as Loo- of the police. He is a member of the Silver Bullet Squad, consisting of himself and seven other cops. 

In this reality, people have sockets on the sides of their heads, allowing them to jack into the 'Net'- an entirely virtual world, where most people spend their time. Reality is a ghost town. People shop, work, socialise, everything in it. They can manipulate the world around them, allowing them to change their appearance, and travel huge distances in a single step, as well as many other things. 

Loo and his partner Hennessy are in charge of investigating a homicide. They plug in from their individual homes and check out the virtual scene of the crime. The virtual world exactly mirrors the real one, right down to the people in it, allowing them to survey the crime scene and victim without having to physically be there. 

They suspect the deceased was the victim of a 'wolf'- a person who transforms themselves into a wolf in the virtual world, then tags their victim and traps them in a pocket reality that only the 'wolf' or 'lobo' can control. The 'wolf' then hunts and viciously kills its victim. Why? For the fun of it. If you die in the 'Net', you die in the real world too, and your body sustains the same injuries. 

Now the Silver Bullet Squad are in charge of tracking this 'wolf' down. Loo is afraid that this 'wolf' is more dangerous than any other they've encountered. That it's lost its connection to its own humanity, and its bloodthirst is rising and unquenchable.

In the fourth story, "Dead on Departure" we meet Randall Hightower, a lawyer who has discovered his physical body has been shot while he was in the 'Net'. 

First Sentence:

"I was murdered at five past seven Wednesday evening."

This story is set in the same world as the last one, and Loo makes a reappearance, though this story seems to take place before the events of the last one. 

Normally, if someone dies while in the 'Net', an ME announces their death and their virtual avatar software shuts down too. On the rare occasion, the physical host dies too quickly for the program to shut down properly, and the avatar is left stranded in the 'Net'. They are known as 'ghools' (a combination of ghost and spooled data).

Now that Randall is nothing but data, he has no access to anything or anywhere. He has no identity. The moment Randall Hightower was declared dead, his avatar became nothing but unconnected information. In a day, it will start to degrade, and within the week he will be 'dead'- again. 

Without a purpose, he and his loyal AI- Matthew- go on the hunt for his killer. Randall also wants to purchase storage space so he can backup his data and not die. But that costs money and while he had plenty of it alive, he has no legal access to it, because he's just strings of code now. He is nothing but a glitch. A glitch who is rapidly running out of time. 

The fifth story is 'Casper the Unfriendly Ghost'. 

First Sentence:

"They knew by the stench what they would find behind the door."

Unlike any of the other stories, this one provides us with not only a year, but an exact date of when it takes place. That being March 15, 2045.

Again set in the same world as the two previous stories, Loo returns. This time his partner is Felix Naiff- a young newcomer. Whether this is set before or after the other stories is a mystery, but in this one the two are called in on a suspected death.

They travel to the real apartment of Owen Casper- who they soon discover is a junkie. Or was a junkie. 'Junkies' are people hooked to the 'Net'. By law, a person is only allowed to spend four hours in the virtual world each day. Junkies modify the modems used to connect, and can stay in the 'Net' for an indefinite amount of time. They use feeding tubes for nutrients, muscle stimulators so their bodies don't wither, and catheters for the obvious. 

Unfortunately for Owen, something went wrong in his setup. The body has clearly been dead for a while, and is decayed and bloated. Casper's avatar, however, is still in the 'Net', having been there for a month. Junkies are ofter gamers, and enter the virtual simulations of games such as World of Warcraft equivalents. If they spend too much time in the game, they can lose touch with reality and believe themselves to be the character's they create. 

When Casper tries to leave the 'Net', he is met with unfortunate news and an officer who quickly gets on his bad side. No one wants to be on the bad side of a mage- or a man who thinks he's a mage and still has access to the technology in his apartment.

In the sixth story, "Burying Marmee", Phyg and Child wake up to find their Marmee has passed sometime in the night.

First Sentence:

"We never figured out what Marmee died from."

They tell Jo Tree (Child's father) and he leaves her body on the street, to be cleaned up by one of the many other species living on the planet of Ramoravar alongside them.

Phyg and Child and not too happy with this action. Jo Tree tells them Marmee is no longer there. That her soul was her and the body is nothing but a husk. With her soul departed, the meaty home she once occupied is no longer important.

However, Phyg and Child grew up with their Marmee telling them stories of the funeral rites of her people. That's what she wanted and that's what they want to give her. The problem is money. They don't have any. But maybe they can find some charity among the numerous other residents. Perhaps one of their species has a funeral rite that Marmee would approve of and that they can afford.

So the two set off, with their Marmee in Child's red wagon, looking for a suitable service. It seems that's easier said than done, and things go from weird to weirder. Then space pirates attack.

In the seventh story, "The Price of Tea in China", Will was five years old when he pushed Jimmy the school bully out the window. When asked why, he claims Jimmy 'wasn't right', so he 'fixed it'.

First Sentence:

"They took him from his family because of the thing he did in kindergarten."

An incredibly intelligent boy, he is taken to Haldane Federal School, where he gets to play games all the time, but can never again have contact with the outside world. Of course, all the games are actually tests. Holdane is a very special school. It recruits children like Will. There are no adults, only AIs, and no children older than twelve. 

As his twelfth birthday draws nearer, will wants to know why. What happens when you turn twelve? He soon finds out. On the day he turns twelve, he wakes up in someone else's body, in an unfamiliar room. A prison cell. In his hand a note, that reads, 'Something's broken here. Fix it."

The eighth story is "Far From Laredo". 

First Sentence:

"The sun overhead was a feeble orange and red ball very different from the vital yellow orb familiar to Charles Duke."

Charles Duke blinks in one world and opens his eyes to a new one. A Laredo, Texas man from the year 1879, he is a little surprised to find himself in an unknown place, clearly hundreds if not thousands or millions of years in the future. Strange creatures inhabit this world and one of them seeks his help.

It turns out they've summoned him to help with a demon problem. Their town is located near one of the many gates of Hell, and occasionally demons can escape. Most of the locals bait demons with human flesh, then ambush them and put coercive collars around their necks- ultimately letting them control the demons. Who they then use as slaves to work on their plots. 

Duke is sure that the three demons he's hired to hunt are escaped slaves, but doesn't care too much. They are demons after all. He agrees to the job, with the condition that his payment be as much gold as he can carry and that he be returned to his own world and time.

He soon discovers that wit and cunning are much more effective than riding in guns blazing.

In the ninth story, "The Good Sheriff", Charles Duke's adventures continue. 

First Sentence:

"Charles Duke rode out of the desert after the five hard days and found himself in badlands."

Picking up when the last story left of (don't read this if you don't want spoilers of that one), Duke is again trying to find his way home. He finds a wizard who agrees to send him home if he procures one hundred grains of good. Good in this world is a physical element, but very rare. 

Duke decides to take on the duties of sheriff to help earn himself some of the coveted good. 

The tenth story is 'The Whispering of Flies". 

First Sentence:

"The old drunk staggered across the cobblestones and caromed into the lead horse of the party that had just turned onto the street, causing the stallion to throw its rider, a tall man in the uniform of the imperial bureaucracy."

Glaven Cray is an imperial rider. When he gets knocked of his horse by the local drunk, he is informed that the man is harmless, but has a tale worth telling. Curious, he orders the guards to bring the man home, sober him up and get him presentable.

When the man knocked into Glaven, he was covered in flies. Not things that Glaven wants welcomed into his home. But the flies are persistent. Even after a fully-clothed bath, they still cling to the now sober man.

The man agrees to share his story for a drink, and so begins his tale. He was fifteen when the war killed his family and brought him to the refugee camps. With no money, he sought employment as a thief for a shady man. His cut was small, but more than most people had. Several other boys were in his leader's employment. 

One day he was offered a job which promised riches in return for his service. He and another boy took the job and follow the mysterious man. But things aren't always as they appear. That was when the flies first clung to him.

In the penultimate story, "An Encounter with the Medeoulin", Jamie is running from his father. 

First Sentence:

"He could hardly see the trail for the mist but Jamie was running, keeping his eyes on the ground to avoid the roots crisscrossing the path."

Through the forest he flies as his father chases close behind. How could his father move in with his mistress- the woman who pushed Jamie's mother away? 

He seeks one of the 'fairy houses', where he has relatives through his mother's side, who always have their door open for him. But when he gets there, he finds an unwelcome visitor- the Medeoulin, who intends on eating both his curious family and himself. He'll have to think fast to get out of this one.

The last story is "Traveling Man'. 

First Sentence:

"Traveling Man followed the summons of the drums over the hills where it was always winter."

Traveling Man follows the sounds of the drums that summon him. They lead him to a village under the curse of a witch. The family that resides there implore him to help. 

The people here have many names, for their names are based on relation. First Son can also be known as Second Brother or Seventh Cousin- depending on whom is addressing him. The witch too has many names, but to Father and Mother he is known as Last Son. 

Last Son was always different, and was therefore picked on. He's decided enough is enough and rules the village with his lightning. Traveling Man wants to heal Last Son, not kill him, but to do so Last Son will need to co-operate and Traveling Man will need to keep his wits, as the lightning ignites his curiosity.

An interesting mix of stories. Some continue from others and share characters, while others are stand-alone, unrelated by anything other than genre. There is a lot here to be offered. Each story has an individuality and uniqueness to it. Most are in first person POV, with some even going as far to leave the protagonist unnamed. A couple of them can drag a little, but others fly by.

They all have a unique feel to them, quite unlike any other short stories I've come across. By the time you finish the book, the beginning feels like it was a very long time ago. So much happens and there is a lot of content contained with this book's pages. The stories can even feel like full novels. The whole book is only around 200 kindle pages, but each story feels substantial.

By short story standards, these are mostly average to above average length, with the shortest at 7 kindle pages and the longest at 18 (which is on the longer side for a short story). There is so much description and variety, that they feel a lot longer than they are, but not in a negative way. Like I said, a couple can drag at times, but there's enough of an assortment here to interest most people. 

They do all share the sci-fi or fantasy genre (though aimed more at the sci-fi), with many of them set in the future and/or on other planets. There's a large range of subject matter, and a huge amount of description. If you're not one for long paragraphs of description, this might not be for you, but it adds to the abnormality of the stories and creates a more detailed image of a very different world. 

If I had to pick my favourites, I would probably go for 'The Curtain Falls' for its chilling and creepy ending, and 'The Whispering Flies' for its concept. A close runner up was 'Burying Marmee' for the odd mix of humour in morbid situations. I did also really enjoy the character of Charles Duke. Pulled out of his element, he instantly and easily adapts and never seems very fazed by anything. I can almost imagine his uninterested, almost bored expression. He also has a quick wit, but questionable morals.

Overall, I enjoyed some of these stories more than others, but that is often the case with compilations. There was no story that bored me or that I disliked and I was entertained by the mix of connected and stand-alone stories. Not the best short story collection I've ever read, but certainly worth reading.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through the author. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

No comments:

Post a Comment