There is also the snag that I keep wanting to compare one story to another and while that's reasonable perhaps in a single collection, it may be less so later, if I'm expecting a reader to refer back a dozen posts.
Anyhow, hi-ho hi-ho to story two we go... and to be perfectly honest next time I read this collection I'll likely skip from Jackalope Wives to If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love, because life is too short to reread things that don't come near working for me. Your mileage may vary, especially if you haven't as much on the clock as I do.
This is liable to go long because I really don't like the story and feel the need to justify not liking something that's been picked as the best of stories published by Apex.
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS - ALTHOUGH IT'S POSSIBLE FAIR WARNING ABOUT THE INTENT OF THE PIECE WOULD BE OF HELP - ANYHOW YOU CAN READ THE STORY AT
Going Endo by Rich Larson
I didn't connect with this story for a number of reasons, not least that if I pick up a book of SFF short fiction I'm not looking to read a sexual fantasy. It feels a lot like a name-erased slashfic for a manga or anime -- where only the sexual content of the story is developed because the reader is supposed to know everything else, including the majority of characterisation, from the source material. When I got to the end I felt cheated because it's pretty much the build-up to a sexual encounter, and though it throws out a good half dozen SFF questions it gives no answers other than 'sex will make everything okay'... except no it won't and I'm left with a sexually happy ending pasted over a really dark and desperately sad (which I'm fairly sure RL doesn't care about because... well... sexual fantasy...)
And yeah, the main kink is sex with an animal/slave.
There are also a bunch of bits that go astray if you're not reading for the eroticism(?)
Let me just demonstrate a little with the first paragraph
They say the reason it’s mostly fems who go endo is because of the whole penetration thing, like us sirs can’t handle the wet interface, but once on leave I got my face pulped in a blood-brawl at Decker’s Draughts & Dopamine, and since the autosurgeon took five whole hours putting my jaw back together I woke up with a supersize catheter stuffed up my cock. Going endo can’t be worse than that, I don’t think.
The story is in first person, which people often think makes it automatically more immediate, more likely to draw you in to the character -- this is not true. There are lots of tricks to help draw a reader in, first person alone is not one of them, and neither is a high density of future jargon/slang thrown at you in a super-sized first sentence. It's bold, it's dramatic, it... fails really easily. The unfamiliar words force you to either surf over them and hope to connect with WTF is happening in the next paragraph, or to create meaning from what you've got...
fems/sirs - this is a future which has had a period of increased patriarchy between now and then, women (and gays?) are termed from 'female' while the word for men is derived from the honorific, if all men are sirs and all women females...
Then there's the penetration bit -- women (and gay men? are there gays?) can go endo because they're accepting of penetration where men (real men?) don't tolerate that kind of thing. The exageration of the pain involved in having a catheter inserted while you're under anaesthetic makes damn sure you know how not masculine any kind of penetrative act is. Sure, women go endo but that's because they're women and not because they're particularly talented in any way.
blood-brawl - I would expect blood from a brawl so if it needs the emphasis I'm expecting deaths. This does not seem to have been more than a plain brawl. And as a side note, five hours for a machine to put his jaw back together... would seem to indicate either a jaw so badly smashed that there'd be other serious injuries, or an autosurgeon that's a cut-rate version of a human one. Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to replace the jaw rather than putting it back together?
Yes, if you don't sweep me up and carry me away somehow, I will ask questions and I will want some kind of answers before the end.
In Jackalope Wives the first section of exposition is an easy and beautiful read, it informs and welcomes one into the story. Here the expositional introduction requires work and doesn't provide much definite information for the effort. (And some of what you think you've understood falls into question afterwards.)
There are endos, usually female, who interface with exos -- which can move in vacuum. The un-named narrator is a tech and looks after the exo called Puck. Exos are kind of small, only slightly larger than humans. They kill... people(?) in space. Puck's endo is Cena.
So they're some kind of soldiers? In a fight against... something/one? Endo's are human and exos are... alive? Aliens? Engineered armour? They age... and endos can let themselves go physically so... maybe not military? Or are they bonded so the endo can't be got rid of for getting fat... as long as they fit... well I guess totally inside if the pair work in vacuum with the connections not through a mini-airlock... But why so many connections? I mean a bunch of nerve data from the spine wouldn't be particularly useful in combat and people don't have a brain in their tails. How can the exo swim through space with at least five foot of it's seven foot length taken up with a not particulalry supple human body that it's presumably not supposed to bend, fold, or mutilate?
If you make me do brain work...
The exposition at the start of the next section... (more?) tells me they're killing space pirates(?) and have been for a month... and they're contract killers/police/soldiers? But it's clear they've been killing in space for more than a month... why do they exist, who did they kill before and who will they kill next?
Exos feel pain... which makes me think they must be found creatures, because who'd engineer a living spacesuit to be that sensitive to pain, but an alien species that can be used as a spacesuit is... TELL ME!
The protagonist caring about Puck getting hurt should make me like him... but... it doesn't entirely work. Maybe because he hasn't got a name, and so far what personality he has is... kind of obsessing on Cena's looks and her being penetrated by Puck's tendrils...
And what Cena does makes me dislike her, but also feel uncomfortable about how exos are treated. If tendrils need to be in sockets why would you cut one off? Are there spares? Won't Puck be put off putting it's tendrils in when they get painfully cut off? Having taken on a previously ill-treated dog I can assure you that she never got entirely over her fear of wellington boots (as worn by the farmer where she was being used to breed puppies) . Cruelty doesn't breed trust or co-operation, it creates wariness. And um, why do endos have ninja(?) blades fitted subcutaneously? She's inside all the time she's in action, no? Or is life outside that violent? And how does she get that blade round behind her to cut a tendril she can't see? She's not a cat... And if it's still connected doesn't it hurt her too or is this entirely one way communication with Puck? And how is she going to get the lump of dead flesh out of a hole that has a cover close over it... (automatically?) or does she now have to wander around with her spine open to the outside world while she finds someone to poke the dead tendril tip out?
Does Puck have the sentience to offer thank you gestures? Or is this just our nameless narrator being unreliable? And... wait... this is a story about people wearing something as intelligent as a dog, maybe?
Also, the tendril that's cut off is an inside one but Puck grabs the narrator's hand with a tendril next to the cut one - so it's insides are open all the time when there isn't an exo inside? Or not?
Then more exposition, but this section seems to contradict the first description of exos... because I don't see how they can hold a human being and have lengthy grapplers and still be only seven feet long.
Once I hit contradictions...
Apparently pirates don't have ships, just suits that may or may not be alive. I am dead curious as to the biology of the exos... they move like fast metabolismed creatures... squid say... but in vacuum... and full of people (who need to breathe?) How do they propel themselves? Or are they not swimming but launching from one mass to another?
Oh, and the nameless faceless narrator is stalking Puck (and Cena?) and is making me think of a creepy young Malcolm McDowell even though I have zero idea of him, outside or in, besides his obsession with Puck.
The next section is creepy sex with a person he has no emotional or physical interest in. My interest level is likewise zero. The sexism level is high. The woman has to have an added shock value kink. And disturbingly, so many people want to apply the skin of an exo to themselves or a sexual partner that it's a premade option on a system affordable by lower scale folks. Ewwww. Plus you can apply a skin to your partner over the skin they've selected to be. More ewww. (And in the very first sentence of the story he had a cock but now it's his prong...) Feris is annoyed by the change of skin but only leaves after she comes... You know if you have this super virtual reality that can create a feeling of exo flesh where the woman doesn't have flesh... why does she need to stay? Can't the VR fake the feeling of a prong? Why are partners you don't give a fig about necessary at all?
Another 'They say' section. which would be neat if these were tell sections interleaved with show ones... if the repetition meant something, but there's exposition and action scattered throughout 'they say' sections and the others.
In this one we discover the narrator really is creepily fixated, because you'd hardly know from what came before that he tends other exos -- especially since in the first section he seems to be criticising techs for not keeping their exos as well as he keeps Puck... but some of those others are presumably looking crap because he's spending all his time on Puck and not getting his job -- (done)
And then we hit the longest section of the story, which is also the last, in which the narrator happens to have to get in Puck's tank naked and climb in and all is sexy, but then he's discovered by Cena, has a jealous row over how he cares for Puck and she doesn't, which is settled with a few words and an off-stage threesome.
I am curious as to how the narrator witnessed Cena talking in half-VR but didn't hear what she was saying. It makes me question exactly how that works.
Also, they have a heap of security on old footage of the exos, but no surveillance cameras in the holding pens? Not worried about the enemy bribing someone to poison or drugs the exos...
Anyhow, the sex is the climax of the fantasy and that's it.
We now know that Puck is old and probably going to be killed soon. Maybe not this time round, but that's why there aren't any older exos. They get killed. Used and killed. They're slaves, made or captured, forced to serve, and then killed. No one even seems to show them much genuine affection either, to the extent that the narrator's fixation seems to be the closest to an emotional return for the exo's service. Does Puck want a threesome? Do we have any understanding of whether Puck is consenting, or is this two people agreeing to rape a companion animal? Meh, the nameless narrator isn't thinking about anything but sex with Cena inside Puck, and I'm not sure I'm supposed to think of anything beyond that either.
But eh, it has shiny SFnal trappings (that aren't followed up or don't make sense) to distract from unquestioned or justified bestiality.
There were potential interesting ideas, none of which were explored. There was fighting, that we never saw or had reason for. But that's how you can tell it's a sexual fantasy rather than a story. The narrator is a blank (except for where the attempt at a slang makes me think of A Clockwork Orange -- with it's slang being futuristic and yet somehow old-timey) and he doesn't manage to convince me that what's happening is in any way a romance. Maybe if we'd got to know him, maybe if he wasn't hidden behind a screen of slang. If Puck wasn't observed entirely through his male gaze -- I don't know anything but that it feels pain and may appreciate kindness. Cena is almost as much of a blank -- but for the sadistic edge to her relationship with Puck. And I don't know if she's fighting to save Puck for Puck's sake, or because she's too old to be assigned a new exo once Puck is 'recycled'.
All I know at the end of the story is that Puck suffers inside and outside its cage and won't get to retire but will end its life in the knackers. And I don't think I'm supposed to care.
Writer's write, but an editorial letter to point out the differing measurements and other minor quibbles, or even that a little tidying could do wonders... that would have been a decent idea. Even if the sexual fantasy matched your kink, a little tidying could only have made it better.