on March 14, 2012 :
I first heard about Nancy Fulda’s work through Escape Pod‘s recording of her short story “Movement.” It was a haunting, sad piece with such an expressive reading that I was awestruck. It appears that others agree since the story was recently nominated for a Nebula award.
"Dead Men Don’t Cry" is an anthology of her short stories. Instead of following the “like/dislike” format of earlier book reviews, I’ll discuss each story individually and then provide an overview.
Pastry Run: I’m a sucker for funny stories, so this was a pleasant opener to the collection. Space travel is normally treated with such solemnity in science fiction that it’s nice to see Fulda popping the balloon and showing us the more mundane possibilities it offers. Like, say, a daily run delivering fresh pastries to the moon. The space travel technology described is fairly standard, but the absurdity of it all is polished to a high sheen when you add elements like traffic jams and impatient old French ladies.
Dead Men Don’t Cry: Political intrigue abounds between extra-terrestrial colonies and Earth, now an aggressive home world. An assassination attempt has been made on an ambassador from Earth on the eve of a controversial peace treaty. However, the would-be assassin’s protege, a high-ranking bureaucrat, believes in his now-dead mentor’s innocence and has been tasked with uncovering the truth. It’s not a bad story, but I felt like I was being introduced to too many characters and too much information too quickly.
Blue Ink: Jason is a 6-year-old boy nervous about being cloned. Is the procedure painful? Will people forget about him in the cloning chamber? Most importantly, will his clone be happy doing all of the menial tasks that he won’t have to do himself? All Jason wants is to meet his clone and talk to him. But when Jason wakes up from the cloning procedure, things aren’t quite as he expected… This is a good short story with a realistic-sounding main character, interesting technology, and more than a smidgen of class commentary.
Backlash: Is changing the events of the past ever justified? In this story, the main character is (unsuccessfully) hijacked by his older self from 40 years in the future to prevent a terrorist attack and the eventual collapse of the United States. This story was the weakest of the collection – it contained too much technobabble about the technology that would make this type of time travel possible and too much action for me to feel fully immersed in it. It might have worked better if it had been given room to breathe in novella form.
Monument: A very short but evocative piece about how the human race destroyed its first – and so far only – chance of contact with an alien species. This story displays a great depth of emotion despite its length.
Tammi’s Garden: Tamela is a young girl in a lush garden. Tammi is a young girl in a warren of subterranean caverns. Tamela lives in an intellectual world without deprivation or emotion. Tammi lives in a world where the walls are crumbling and poisonous gas is leaking in, but at least she has her mother’s love. Tammi/Tamela has to choose which world she ultimately wants to live in. An interesting story, but I’m still not quite sure whether the memories Tammi/Tamela experiences are of other worlds, the future vs the past, alternate timelines, or wishes from the subconscious, which I think was Fulda’s intent.
All Praise to the Dreamer: Earth has been invaded by the Zollners, a sentient species with the ability to detect psychic echoes and a painful aversion to the psychic residue caused by death. They offer stability and security in exchange for the souls of children destined for greatness – such children are taken from their families and given to the Dreamer so that the Dreamer may shape the future. Sharon is one of the people who first acquiesced to the Zollners upon their arrival, but now that they have come for her child, she finds she must make the ultimate sacrifice to protect him. This story is short and sharp, with an ending that makes sense in context, but is shocking nonetheless.
The Breath of Heaven: The Three Laws of Robotics are turned on their head in this story of a group of robots that kill a human settlement not because of flaws in their programming, but flaws in the directives which they’ve been given – flaws which now manifest in their quest for an ideal human operator. The protagonist robot, Sacia, now has to reconcile her newfound sense of awareness and self-preservation with her search for an ideal operator. Think of HAL 9000, but with an appreciation of beauty, movement, and the subtleties of reincarnation. This is one of, if not the, strongest stories in the collection, and presages Fulda’s growing skill – reading this story, it is not surprising to see the connections between its strong and elegant prose style and that of “Movement.”
Ghost Chimes: In Alicia’s world, death is not an impediment towards getting involved in the affairs of others – especially if they are those of your orphaned but now adult daughter. Alicia’s mother, a devout Catholic, gave up her chance on the Afterlife by undergoing a neural procedure that would allow her to remain on this earthly plane after she died. When she was 10, Alicia needed her mother’s care, but now that she’s all grown up, she resents her mother’s constant intrusions, and has to figure out how to gain her independence. This story has an interesting concept, but it rang hollow to me – I lost my own dad when I was young, and I’d leap even now, as an adult, at the chance to see and talk to him. This story mines a very strange vein of humour that I felt was at odds with the character’s circumstances.
The Man Who Murdered Himself: This story examines the central element of “Blue Ink” – human replication – but inverts one of the circumstances of the first story. In “Blue Ink,” clones were imperfect replicas of a perfectly normal person. But here, the person being replicated is already imperfect – a man with a painful infliction who is hoping to use cutting-edge technology to reform his misshapen body. Based on the title, though, I’m sure you can guess the ending. This one is just as sad as “Blue Ink,” but for entirely different reasons.
A New Kind of Sunrise: Fulda takes us to a planet with dramatically lengthened day and night cycles – it rotates so slowly that the land bakes to a crisp in the sun, and is deathly cold at nighttime. The only habitable portion of the planet is the thin band of clouds that rotates across it as twilight approaches, bringing rainfall and rejuvenation.
Mikaena is a nomad travelling with her tribe underneath the planet’s rotating band of cloud cover when she finds a young man near death on her tribe’s caravan route. He claims to be from the northern polar region of the planet, where a great Brotherhood protects the ancient scientific secrets of its original colonizers. However, this Brotherhood has forsaken its duty of helping all of the planet’s inhabitants, and it is the young man’s goal to make a new settlement – to Colonize the Day – and spread the Brotherhood’s knowledge far and wide. Mikaena finds herself drawn to the young man and his new ideas, but accepting them means moving beyond the practices of her tribe and facing her father’s disapproval.
This is the longest story in the collection, and one that is ripe for a full-length novel treatment. The characters themselves are a tad too familiar – the young man who disrupts the status quo, the young woman torn between love and tradition, the stern and unaccepting father, the wise healer woman – but the physical characteristics of the world itself are so fascinating that I want to hear more.
Overview: Now that I think about it, one of the themes that plays throughout the stories – most evident in “All Praise to the Dreamer” but also visible in almost every other story – is the conflict between freedom and security.
Throughout, these stories ask us what price we’re willing to pay for our safety. That alien ship may be full of unknown biological threats, but is it really worth it to destroy our only chance of interacting with another form of sentient life? What risks do we entertain when we try to change the events of the past? Should we sacrifice the souls of a small number of our children to ensure the stability of the future? Is it worth it to live in a world of intellectual pursuit when you can’t feel love or fear?
This is a great story collection full of clear yet thoughtful prose. The stories within range from humorous to poignant to macabre, with side stops to analytical and hopeful in between. While this collection rarely reaches the heights of emotion offered by “Movement,” these stories bring up a host of meaningful questions and ideas.
(reviewed 62 days after purchase)
on Oct. 3, 2011 :
(Cross-posted from the Adarna SF book blog)
This is a solid, well-written, and intelligent science fiction anthology. I’m giving the stories themselves four stars out of five. My main gripe is with the minor editing errors, but I’ll get to that later in this review.
The stories move fast and pack a lot of punch. This collection contains both action-packed and high-concept stories. It has thrilling race and chase sequences while it explores classic sci-fi themes such as artificial intelligence, cloning, and first contact.
It’s difficult to pick my favourites, but “The Breath of Heaven” has to be one of them. It’s about artificial intelligences gone “rogue” on the human space colonists. It turns several tropes upside down, and it’s told from the POV of a very sympathetic AI character. The ambiguity in the artificial intelligences’ directives leads them in the search for the ideal human operator, and consequently puts them in conflict with the imperfect colonists they’re supposed to be answering to.
I’m also fond of “Dead Men Don’t Cry” and “Backlash”. The former is a whodunnit murder investigation in the context of Earth vs. Colonies politics, and the latter is an action-packed time travel story with some interesting characters. “Monument” is a poignant reflection on first contact; while it’s a bit of a downer, I think it’s the most likely scenario. “A New Kind of Sunrise” is a set on a planet where human colonists have lost technology, and have become nomadic tribes who must cope with the extreme climate that comes with a brutally hot sun. The author has an upcoming novel set in this world, and I’d love to read it when it comes out.
Fulda’s writing is so tight that I think that you should only read this when you’re alert. The world-building and character histories she covers in one paragraph would require an entire page from other authors. This is evident in the first few pages of “Pastry Run.” So if you sample the book and the details fly over your head: get some sleep, then read it again. Trust me.
I received my review copy from Smashwords, and there could be improvements to the editing. I noted about 13 errors. It included some typos, line breaks within sentences, and dialogue that clumped together in a paragraph which made it difficult to figure out who the speaker was. Maybe I’m just picky, but I found these distracting enough to dock off one star. It’s possible Amazon copy does not share these, or that these errors have already been resolved, but I can only provide my rating from the review copy I received. Once the errors are fixed, consider this a four star review.
This is a solid sci-fi book and it’s definitely recommended. I’d just wait until a more polished version comes out before purchasing it at Smashwords.
Note: A free review copy was provided by the author.
(reviewed 42 days after purchase)
on Aug. 9, 2011 :
Dead Men Don't Cry, by Nancy Fulda, is an eclectic collection of 10 science fiction short stories. I don't often read short story collections, but I enjoyed this one. I received it as a review copy via Smashwords. Some of the stories took me on adventures while others made me think, even as they made me cringe. Here's a brief rundown of the stories, without giving away too much.
Pastry Run - This was a fun romp of an adventure, all in the name of a fresh morning pastry. Forget Paris to New York and try Charles de Gaulle to the Sea of Tranquility. This story quickly pulled me into the collection.
Dead Men Don't Cry - Whodunit with a science fiction twist and a bang of an ending. It has been a while since I read a mystery, but this took it to the next level by introducing my beloved science fiction. I enjoyed the experience, even though I guessed the solution before the main protagonist.
Blue Ink - Six-year-old Jason doesn't like the funny smells, the scratchy hospital gown, or the idea of being cloned, but all the grown-ups say he's very fortunate. Nancy does a good job of addressing a complicated debate through the eyes of a child. I thought this story was fascinating.
Backlash - Eugene's much-anticipated daddy/daughter dinner becomes too exciting with the addition of an unwelcome boyfriend and a strange fortune. I loved the take on time travel in this story.
Monument - A traveler on the way home from Thanksgiving stops to stretch her legs and finds more than she bargained for. This one made me think, though it almost felt like the message was being shoved down my parched throat.
Tammi's Garden - Tamela lives in caverns that protect her from the bad air above, if you can call barely surviving living, but at least she has her mother. That is until she wakes in an almost idyllic garden. But which is the dream? Read this and let me know if you can answer the question.
All Praise to the Dreamer - A new mom's pleasant day turns deadly serious as she tries to save the life of her two-month-old baby. This one reminded me of The Twilight Zone, but I really disliked it. That might have something to do with the fact that I'm a fairly new mother myself.
The Breath of Heaven - Computers grapple with emerging sentience and how they should follow their directives to establish a human colony. Does the ideal human operator exist? Sacia is an AI with an interesting and surprisingly likable point of view. I loved this story.
Ghost Chimes - Ghost chimes ringing at 3AM make Alicia wish that she had unplugged the machine, even as she settles the glasses on her nose to answer her mother's call. Her mom can be a bit nosy sometimes, but that's not the half of it. I didn't like this story, though the concept was clever.
A New Kind of Sunrise - Young Mikki finds a dying stranger. Her clan chief agrees to take him in, little knowing the profound impact the man will have not only on Mikki but also on the entire clan. This story built a rich and believable world in relatively few pages. I loved it and look forward to reading more in future.
Even though I didn't like all of the stories, even those made me think. Dead Men Don't Cry is a highly enjoyable, well written collection. I look forward to reading more of Nancy's writing, particularly when she releases her upcoming novel.
(reviewed 47 days after purchase)