Review: “A Study in Oils” by Kelly Robson


Release Date: September 2018, issue 144
Publisher: Clarkesworld Magazine
Genre: Science Fiction

Welcome to Short Fiction Week, a biannual feature of five days of reviews of short stories and novelettes from across the science fiction and fantasy spectrum. All of the short fiction highlighted in this series is available free online, but please support the author and publications hosting this incredible work.


My Thoughts


Zhang Lei is on the run. Back in his hab on the Moon, Zhang was a popular athlete in Luna’s uniquely brutal form of ice hockey. At first the fans love his acrobatic intensity, but when he goes a step too far and accidentally kills an opponent, everything falls apart. He’s fitted with a “disable” button which, when pushed, cuts off blood to his brain and knocks him out. Everyone with a feed – and everyone has a feed – can see and press that button, and they do, with alarming zeal. As the violence perpetrated on his unconscious body increases exponentially, so to does his fear. With the help of an old friend, he escapes to a small, rural farming village in Southern China. On Earth he seeks asylum from Lunar brawlers who want to beat him to death. Zhang wants to live, but a not so small part of him thinks death might be just what he deserves.

Set in the same universe as Kelly Robson’s excellent novella from earlier this year, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, A Study in Oils continues her exploration of how some use technology as a tool and others as a weapon. Robson gives us little background on Zhang’s worlds – the story takes place on Earth and the Moon – but the tantalizing tidbits she offers hints at a technologically advanced world where everyone is connected by a social networking feed, where humans left Earth decades or centuries before to establish colonies on our planetary neighbors, and where most Earthlings live in habs rather than surface-level communities.

The village Zhang hides in is rare in that they maintain their old traditions and cultural beliefs alongside new tech. In order to sustain their “less efficient” way of life, they allow tourists a peek at their way of life. And here’s where Robson demonstrates why she’s one of my favorite science fiction writers. Too often, SF treats Indigenous cultures as “primitive” or “backwards,” as if their traditions should be discarded simply because they’re old. But here, Robson shows the old and the new blending together in a way that supports culture without technology eradicating or overwriting it. We see that again with her brief mention of disabilities: “Some pinged for mobility assistance, and rode float chairs up the road, but most walked.”

Zhang’s teammates and Lunite co-colonists, technology has become a weapon first and foremost. What harm can they cause each other using tech? What can they gain by using it to steal from someone else? For the Miao villagers, it’s a useful tool that can enhance their ability to engage with tradition. It’s a subtle theme that Robson explores a lot more thoroughly in Lucky Peach (which I HIGHLY recommend you read, if you haven’t already), but the little taste we get in Oils is *chef’s kiss*.

Halfway up the winding cliffside guideway, Zhang Lei turned his bike around. He was exhausted from three days of travel and nauseated, too, but that wasn’t the problem. He could always power through physical discomfort. But the trees, the rocks, the open sky above, and the mountains closing in—it was all too strange. He kept expecting something to drop on his head.

He pinged Marta, the social worker in Beijing Hive who’d orchestrated his escape from Luna seventy-two hours earlier.

Forget Paizuo, he whispered as his bike coasted the guideway’s downslope. This is too weird.

Read the full story online.

Buy a copy of Issue 144 here and don’t forget to support Clarkesworld Magazine.

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