Nineteen Jabs to the Gut
It’s hard to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Word Puppets just one extra star. Every story in the book sparkles, but none in the same way—plot, character, concept, pathos, she’s got it all. Plus, some (for lack of a better term) raw weirdness that deserves its own (weird) star. Short story collections often lack the wallop of a good novel, but the best of them (and Word Puppets is) hit you enough times in rapid succession to still leave a good bruise.
Setting. MRK is great at writing good stories into cool contexts—like the saga-era Iceland of “The Bound Man,” weather-controlled Indian wine country in “Waiting for Rain,” or the sodium-starved colony planet of “Salt of the Earth.” Her settings go deeper than just place or concept—in each she sketches a people and culture well-researched and well-imagined for the concept, adding power to already-punchy stories.
The stories themselves. You are never bored by this book. No tale is any longer than it needs to be (we often feel the opposite), and they either take unexpected twists or slam you straight into emotional walls you dread from the start. She knows how to put her characters thru the wringer, and we love coming along for the ride.
Best of all are the stories that explore the human side of emerging technologies. Though not fantasy (forgive us, dear reader, though there are enough fantasy stories in the book to qualify), the nuanced look stories like “For Solo Cello, op. 12,” “For Want of a Nail,” and “The Consciousness Problem” give to the ethics of biotechnology, and the pathos of those most affected, are both moving and thought-provoking. What happens when your husband’s clone loves you too? When you’re a physically handicapped artificial intelligence? When a new arm means giving up the blastocyst that would be your child? It’s hard, in a short story, to bring us up to speed with speculative aspects, tell an interesting story, and get us to care about characters we’ve just met, but MRK does it, jab after cathartic jab.
Well, a few of the punches are off. Though “We Interrupt This Broadcast” does a great job of nailing a big (global) scope onto a simple two-character interaction, “American Changeling” feels too big and fast (queens and faeries and centuries-old spells!) for its length. “Salt of the Earth,” though a sweet setting, doesn’t convince us the villain is evil enough to do what the main character suspects, and the revenge falls a little flat..
And then there are the weird stories. Chief among these is “The White Pheonix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas.” We shall say no more, but some feel as though they were written on a dare (or a joke: read “Chrysalis” thinking about social butterflies). “Evil Robot Monkey” should be one of these, and it was written on a dare, but instead it packs a big punch into a 900 word story about an uplifted primate.
Word Puppets throws a lot of punches, and if some of them are off, you still get a good bruising. Underneath the fun and the gee-whiz and the weird, that’s what the book does best: gives us the cathartic beating we look for in good fiction.