REVIEW: “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 106-117 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

You’ve been selecting women with the traits you like, whether you know it or not… Independent legacy women join our branch. Legacy men keep joining the male branch. You belong to a dying species. 

A strange story that considers gender and long-distance space travel. Revali and Kemen are to be the sole human occupants on a voyage outside the galaxy. Along the way they will undertake their own research projects and participate in a long-term research project that seeks to answer one of humanity’s most pressing questions: is the splintering of the human race inevitable with the ability to create companions with genetics and personalities compatible to the other gender? Can men only cohabit successfully with women who have been designed to please them? And vice versa? Will ‘legacy’ humans die out because they are unable to coexist successfully long-term with other genders, or because they keep ‘defecting’ to cohabit with the kind of gender partners designed for them? Will the two legacy genders just give up trying to work out relationships with their legacy counterparts as just too hard?

The trip will take them thirty-six years and involve periods of hibernation and waking, as well as gender swaps for both of them across the journey. At the end Kemen and Revali have committed to undertake a ceremony in one last ditch attempt to show humanity that, from outside the galaxy their differences are minuscule and that unity between the two factions is possible. 

The approach to gender here is an interesting one – essentially considering the question of whether men and women can ever really understand each other or cohabit for long periods of time, or if there are fundamental personality differences and tendencies that both work together and don’t. But I found it a bit binary and limited. While there is gender changing here the gender roles being considered are between ‘legacy’ men who want compliant women and legacy women who are not suitable to work with legacy men long term and have instead also created partners they can work with. In short, I would have liked a more nuanced look at gender and cross-gender relations that the premise could have provided than was covered here. Despite this, the stated conflict has been fully thought through and Purdom explores it well, using the length of the trip and the discussions between Kemen and Revali as they move through their different physical bodies to cover the problem’s intricacies.  

REVIEW: “Skipped” by Emily Taylor

Review of Emily Taylor, “Skipped”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 100-105 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

“This is awkward,” I said. “But one of us has skipped.” 

Sometimes the transport architects get it wrong and you bounce through a space-time pocket in transit and swap places with another you in the multiverse. You have to sign a waiver to travel accepting the risk. It’s not common, but it’s the situation Taylor’s protagonist finds herself in and one she must live with until she reaches the transport station and is swapped back in to her own life and universe again. 

I really enjoyed this one – it’s a great example of a simple, punchy idea thought all the way through. The real story here is less about how the protagonist gets back and more about her considering the contrasts between her own universe and the life she has left behind, and the one she has found herself in. Children she did and didn’t have, partners and life trajectories, and how the moon she lives on differs to the one she finds herself in. The way the memories of the past and the experience of the present, which isn’t really ‘real’ alternate give the piece a dreamy feel, too. The reveal of the protagonist’s change in perspective and what she’s bringing back to her own universe is developed really well despite the short length of the piece and lands on a satisfying end point. 

REVIEW: “Demon in a Copper Case” by Damon L. Wakes

Review of Damon L. Wakes, “Demon in a Copper Case”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 135-137. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

When times are hard, heresy no longer seems like such a bad idea. The people of Singstoat are suffering from a decline in industry, and many people are debt-ridden and struggling. In such a context, the temptation to call upon the demon in the copper case is too strong to resist…

This was a fun little story, quickly told but with plenty of detail and characters. It’s a classic plot line but there is something satisfying in reading a good retelling of an old tale.

REVIEW: “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” by Iona Sharma

Review of Iona Sharma, “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World”, Strange Horizons 8 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Some stories only work because of their fascinating concepts, and that is the case for this particular story. “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” is told by an old woman who runs a sort of mystical shelter for those who are on the run. Some brand of magic, never fully explained, brings people across time to her door and the doors of her people. The strangers can rest for a brief time and recover their strength before they return to their world.

As I said above, it’s a fascinating concept, and the story is couched in an inventive format that reveals it piece by piece. There’s a sense of history and a large world behind it, in the one-off comments made by the narrator and the hints of her lost love. Moreover, it’s clearly tied to our world somehow; the narrator mentions a Starbucks early on.

Without the novelty of that central idea, however, this story is a lot less engaging. There’s not really a plot here; ostensibly, it’s the appearance of the boy Corbie and the narrator’s interactions with him until he leaves, but these are covered only in brief sketches. We have the narrator’s presumably tragic love story with Kiran, but this too does not truly create any forward momentum. I’m left wishing for a full story featuring this old woman and the refugees she aids, something that introduces a conflict and grows toward a resolution.

REVIEW: “Everybody and His Mother” by Agrippina Domanski

Review of Agrippina Domanski, “Everybody and His Mother”, Luna Station Quarterly 32 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I struggled with this one. I struggled with reading the story, to the point where I eventually gave up about half-way through, and then let it sit for another month before coming back to reread it. It’s not that it was poorly written, it’s not that it contained elements I found problematic, I just found it a difficult story to engage with. Part of it is that it seems quite atypical for Luna Station Quarterly‘s usual offerings; it very much felt like an ordinary story, of ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places and that’s all it was for the first three-quarters of the story or so. In another venue, this wouldn’t have even been worth mentioning; but reading this story in a spec fic journal, I found myself waiting for more, wanting more. So I’m in the strange position of having to say that even if the story itself is good, the venue choice isn’t. It just didn’t work for me, and that ended up affecting my interaction with the story.

The story deals with the permeability of memory, and involves a lot of double-talk; I’m never quite sure what or whom to believe, never quite sure what the truth is. Part of this is because the narrator, Jemima, is not entirely reliable; part of it is simply because many useful pieces of information are omitted from where I would want to have them, or even omitted altogether. For example, both “Jack” and “the kid” play central roles both in the story and in Jemima’s life, but it was unclear for quite awhile what the relationship was between the kid and Jemima, or between the kid and Jack, or between Jack and Jemima. Clues and puzzle pieces were given, but I put them together in the wrong way, only to find a significant portion of the story later that I’d missed the mark. All of these things conspired to my finding this a difficult piece to read.

REVIEW: “Big Mother” by Anya Ow

Review of Anya Ow, “Big Mother”, Strange Horizons 1 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There’s something both horrific and beautiful about the story Anya Ow narrates in “Big Mother.” It effortlessly combines the terror of meeting something strange in the dark with a childhood nostalgia and sense of loss for the wild places of the world.

In “Big Mother,” the narrator recounts an experience she had as a young girl with her brother and three neighbor children. The children go fishing in the dark, searching for a snakehead, and accidentally hook something more dangerous. When the lure proves too strong for the oldest boy, the narrator must lead the other children to his rescue.

The story has something of the feel of Stranger Things to it, in that its climax revolves around one child going missing and his friends searching for him. It’s got a creepy creature too: the eponymous Big Mother, which the children dredge out of the canal. Though it starts a little slow, the horror element pulses strongly in the story’s middle and through the climax. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Our heroine is exactly what you would want in a horror story, bold and brave despite her fear. It is she and she alone that walks into the water to meet Big Mother, and she rescues the oldest boy by talking the monster down. The story concludes with a present-day epilogue, where we see how this childhood event resonated down through the narrator’s life and how sad she is that the modern world is swallowing the spaces where magic once dwelt.

It’s a beautiful tale, well-told and memorable in its execution from start to finish.

REVIEW: “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

Review of Natalia Theodoridou, “The Birding: A Fairy Tale”, Strange Horizons 18 Dec. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Fairy tales, when they’re done well, are some of the most exquisite stories to read. Even when they’re set in our world, they have an otherworldly, dreamlike quality that sets them apart. In this regard, “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” lives up to its name.

Set in modern-day Greece in the aftermath of a plague that turns its victims into birds, this short story follows a pregnant woman named Maria as she searches the plague’s wreckage for her husband. It feels like “The Birds,” if the birds were mostly peaceful and the result of humans metamorphosing.

The story is engaging from the beginning; it starts with the classic of post-apocalyptic literature and film, the highway full of empty cars a direct sign to the reader that something is not well with the world. Maria is a sympathetic protagonist, and it’s easy to put ourselves in her shoes. She makes the choices we hope we would make, and the dashes of backstory Theodoridou inserts are just enough to paint a picture of her life and loss.

I had hoped for a different, happier ending – not the “and they lived happily ever after” sort, because that would be trite, but perhaps something that suggested a way for Maria and her child to move forward in this new world of birds. While it wasn’t what I wanted, Theodoridou does deliver a denouement full of poetic lines and beautiful imagery, and in the end, that beauty is what I like most about this modern-day fairytale.