I'm looking at the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies today. As with many of the issues of BCS, the two stories have some similarities that make a good pairing. Both are looking at somewhat gritty settings, with destitute main characters and secondary characters trying to raise themselves out of their situation. The first story, though, ends on much more active and optimistic a note, whereas the second takes a very different track. But the stories play well off each other, and neither are all that long, so hurrah!
"Steady on Her Feet" by K.J. Kabza (5705 words)
This story starts out with a charming advert about a procedure to surgically and mechanically augment personality, character itself. Holliday, a young and poor girl, finds herself drawn to the advert, and then inside for a free consultation to find that she has excellent character. A trait that earns her a job at the surgery, a job and something sinister lurking over her. Because why would a well-to-do man be interested in keeping her employed. She's poor, a nobody, caring only for her little sister. She's desperate, and the men of the surgery are anything but benevolent. Still, the inevitable betrayal is well done and built to have the most impact, when Holliday is trying to protect her sister after her job got her thrown out of her home. I loved the idea of the automations that basically act as nanotech but that use the outdated/old ideas about how the body works and what parts are in charge of what attributes. It's a nice blend of the pseudoscience and biology of the time set in a steampunk framework filled with rich men willing to experiment on the poor. But of course, things don't turn out quite so bleak. Holliday isn't quite the damsel that the men hoped she would be, and she manages to free herself, filled with rage at their actions, at what they did to her sister. And she starts something that will roll out of that small surgery and into the world. Revolutions start somewhere. A nice story, though the shift in tone and style at the end was a tiny bit jarring. Still, it was effective at conveying the altered state Holliday found herself in. Good stuff.
"A Screech of Gulls" by Alyc Helms (4121 words)
Well that was...sad. Quite effectively sad, really, because it leaves me just sort of staring and empty. And for that it's good. the prose definitely hits well, shows a man who has lost everything and just keeps losing. It actually reminds me a lot of Peter Orullian's story from last month's Tor.com offerings, though this one seems to be a bit less focusing on the nobility of a man kicked and kicked again. Perhaps that's a bit of it, that here is a man beat down and beat down and yet still finding the strength to keep going, but I think here it's a little different. Here is a man who is broken and just still alive. At least to the outside world. He keeps up the semblance of life because of his gulls and his one friend and by not thinking too hard on what he's lost. But the truth is he's broken since the loss of his wife, and there is no fixing that. The story seems to end on that, that there is no fixing some things. That some wounds are too deep, that some people just never recover from every blow. And Tutti is broken. Nico, the villain of the piece, is similarly broken. They are similar in that, that they hold onto some semblance of life only with a purpose. I think I like this one a little more than Orullian's story because I feel that the story isn't really saying how terrible the world is. Sure, the setting is gritty in this story. There is poverty and there is filth. But there not everything is crap. It's just that Tutti is broken beyond wanting to be fixed. As long as he grasps after the memories of the past there's no way forward. A sad story, but I liked Tutti and his birds, and so I ended up more positive than not about the story.