REVIEW: “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” by Marissa Lingen

Review of Marissa Lingen’s, “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

A little like Doreen Green in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Shuang, the narrator of “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” has a creative approach to solving big problems. Trapped in a cherry tree by her faithless apprentice, Shuang escapes by magically encouraging the tree to merge with her human form. Where other sorcerers might have blasted their way out with magic, Shuang chooses a non-violent path because, as a consequence of being encased in the tree, she understands that the cherry tree ‘mattered’, and that even a non-sentient tree can be hurt.

Whether she is escaping from a cherry tree, or trying to defeat iron giants, Shuang works hard to find solutions which are both effective and empathetic. While other people try to barrel through situations with might and entitlement, Shuang absorbs the concerns of those around her, and designs solutions which allow everyone (or everything) to benefit. She, and her story, are a symbol of what can be achieved when people seek to cooperate with nature rather than to conquer or defeat it. And later in the story, this choice allows Shuang to form a successful plan for passing the iron giants who block the northern trade routes; something no one else has managed to achieve.

“Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” encourages the reader to take a second look at nature; to really think about its value, and its needs. It pushes readers to consider alternative, co-operative solutions to problem solving. It asks readers to think about how solving human problems impacts the environment. And it also critiques the old story trope of humanity conquering nature which I’ve seen crop up in everything from wilderness adventure stories to fantasy novels.

If that makes “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” sound super serious, be assured that this story is full of light humour. When trapped in the cherry tree, Shuang remarks that ‘Though fragrant, this was inconvenient’, and her first person narration is often peppered with sarcastic, or naturally ironic remarks. The conversations between her and her new, exasperated apprentice are a tonic, and reminded me very much of certain exchanges in Terry Pratchett’s books. There’s plenty of fun, and plenty of substance, to be found in this story, so check it out asap.

REVIEW: “The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw

Review of Vivian Shaw’s, “The Utmost Bound”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In “The Utmost Bound” Vivian Shaw uses the routine of everyday life in space to ease the reader into her story. There is much ordinary dialogue, chatter about conditions, and thoughts about the dreary on-board food. It’s clear that the story’s protagonist, Commander McBride, has become accustomed to his life in space. Everything that might stand out as new and strange to the reader is old and familiar to him; even annoying. The view is ‘predictable’ the sky is ‘Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.’

His colleague Artanian also finds that space holds few terrors, and is just a series of regular, fact-finding missions passed down to them by their reliable connection in Hawaii, on Earth. In a way, maintaining the ordinariness of the experience is how they cope with the fact that they are working in extraordinary conditions – ‘The conversation between them was part of the morning ritual: the conversation meant they were still people, out here in the black.’

Of course, this is how many horror movies start – with quite ordinary people, going about their regular lives, until something terrifying subverts all that normality. Often the destruction of all that normal stuff emphasises the horror that comes after. And I think that’s the structure “The Utmost Bound” is playing with, as it builds its own story of space terror. However, this story is more about the cerebral terror of discovering the limits of humanity than about the terror or finding alien monsters in space.

While the story certainly brings some political horror to the surface, it loses some of its impact because the main characters are physically safe (although mentally shocked). It lacks the immediacy of media like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (which it references), because its characters are removed and reporting rather than directly involved. And, while the monstrosity of what they have seen brings a vivid depiction of governmental disdain into the story, it is perhaps too easy for the reader to shuck off their feelings at the end of this story. At least, while McBride remains haunted, and concerned about the scale of what may have happened, these feelings didn’t quite stick with me as I exited the story.

REVIEW: “All of Us Told, All of It Real” by Evan Dicken

Review of Evan Dicken, “All of Us Told, All of It Real”, Strange Horizons 9 Apr. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Well, this one certainly made me go “hmmm.”

“All of Us Told, All of It Real” follows our narrator Martin as he returns home to the small town of Dawson. His mother is dead, and bodies were found in her basement. As he prepares to sell the house and goes through his mother’s hoarded things, he reflects on his life growing up with her–and stumbles upon a disconcerting revelation.

The story is beautifully crafted; Dicken really nails the small-town, “everyone-knows-everyone” feel early in the piece. The level of attention paid to details heightens the story’s creepiness, because when everything feels real, those few things that are off seem even more so.

And at its core, this is a story about story, about memory, about what makes us real. The theme that runs through the piece shows up early and becomes more and more prominent as we slowly clue in to what, exactly, Martin’s mother was doing. It certainly gives new meaning to the “kill your darlings” adage.

Despite a slow start, this story’s central mystery unravels into a satisfying, if a little hair-raising, conclusion.

REVIEW: “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” by Sunny Moraine

Review of Sunny Moraine’s, “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” is a visceral story about love, betrayal, and revenge, which unspools from the opening of a joke – ‘A girl walks into a bar.’ The story’s structure jumps around between a series of close up scenes, and introspective sections; often returning to the joke and its opening line. This anchors the story, which is often deliberately chaotic, by providing a repeating line and theme. By using this repetition, the story allows the reader to collect themselves after another bout of zinging, explosive imagery, and encounters with a timeline which rarely allows the reader to gain a firm grip on reality.   

Sunny Moraine’s story follows its unnamed female narrator as she careens through a messy, passionate love affair with another woman. Both of the women have extraordinary powers. Their relationship begins with a fistfight and ends with an apocalyptic collapse. In other words, it’s complicated. Moraine uses intensely physicality, and often violent, imagery to build a poetic language which emphasises the intense emotion the two characters feel. It is a joy to see this kind of language used to show the female leads active in the creation of violence and passion, rather than static objects on which violence and sex are visited.

As in her story “Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams” Moraine brings a strong feminist line to “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor”, particularly in passages like:

They teach us not to be angry, she says. Y’know? Heard it in a Women’s Studies class in college, and yeah, there was some bullshit in there, but that rang so true, like a fucking bell in my fucking head. They teach us not to be angry. No one likes a bitch.

However, through the narrator’s interior monologue, the story shows how a single person’s conception of feminism and justice can be multi-layered, conflicted, and difficult to articulate; especially when feminism intersects with violence and romance.  

“Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” is yet another valuable addition to the ‘monstrous women of SFF’ feminist sub-genre. And it’s a complex story of what happens when love is damaged by revenge and manipulation, but still somehow persists. Read it alongside “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander and “A Fist of Permutations and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong.

REVIEW: “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” by Cherie Priest

Review of Cherie Priest, “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

I love political fiction. I particularly love when it’s well-written and thoughtfully constructed, tying past and present together with real human emotion and nuanced sentiment. “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” is somehow both vague and direct. The speaker is never named beyond the title, and the listener not at all, though it’s pretty clear from context that Mother Jones (the historical figure, not the magazine) is speaking to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

There isn’t much of a plot here, in the traditional sense. It’s more a story of the legacy of one woman, who fought and struggled and endured insults from her enemies, speaking to another such woman still in the midst of her own story. It’s a call to action for all of us, to not give up even in defeat, to stand up, brush ourselves off, and continue with whatever long, slow fight we’ve committed ourselves to in this life. It’s refreshingly lacking the cliches and saccharine sentiments usually present in such stories, and more inspiring than most (at least to me).

Depending on your political leanings, this story might not land as well for you as it did for me, but I thought it was timely and well-done.

REVIEW: “Cold Blue Sky” by J. E. Bates

Review of J. E. Bates, “Cold Blue Sky”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A robotic AI was used to commit a felony. Her memory has been wiped, but the police bring her chasis in to see if they can find any scraps that might help. The twist? She remembers everything. The narrative switches back and forth between her present day observations of the police, and her memories of the crime.

The most interesting part of this story is probably the choice of protagonist. The story is told from the point of view of the AI, who has very little idea of what is going on. She has almost no experience beyond her programming, and is not depicted as particularly intelligent. In fact, the AI’s are repeated described as “nascent sentience” and “below legal limits,” implying that they are not quite smart enough to quality as truly sentient. It bring up questions about what makes a being self-aware, a person, without really dwelling on the matter. The fact that she can narrate a story and be a point-of-view character answers the question by itself.

The world could be a near-future of our own, but the themes of AI exploitation and the sabotage of a huge corporation strongly suggest a cyberpunk influence, which I quite enjoyed. The caper itself seemed unique, relying entirely on her use as a computer. It’s more common to see AI robots interacting like humans, whether they are our equals, superiors, or slaves. Here, she is clearly something other, and that makes for an interesting dynamic and point-of-view.

REVIEW: “Reflections on the ‘Dual Uses’ of Space Innovation” by G. Pascal Zachary

Review of G. Pascal Zachary, “Reflections on the ‘Dual Uses’ of Space Innovation”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 23-30 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This non-fiction piece is the companion to Carter Scholz’s “Vanguard 2.0” (read the review). Zachary highlights one of the most significant tensions that faces the development of space technology:

The expansiveness and idealism of the rhetoric of space exploration means that
technologies developed in pursuit of those lofty goals are open to a broad range of interpretations and applications, both military and civilian (p. 23).

On the one hand, we pursue space travel, space exploration, and space technologies because we think it is an intrinsically important end in itself; on the other hand, it is not always possible to prevent the technologies developed for being used for other, perhaps more sinister ends. The ‘dual-use’ that Zachary mentions in his title is the fact that any tool developed for outward facing purposes can also be used for inward facing purposes: A technology that can destroy an asteroid and prevent its collision with earth can also be turned upon earth to destroy rather than protect it: “Who actually could be sure that working on civilian applications would not help militarists in the future?” (p. 26) This is two-faced nature of space technology is not unique to it; there is a long history of technological developments which can both promote humanity’s wellbeing and safety and destroy it. Nevertheless, Zachary wants to argue that space technologies have a “special nature” (p. 25), because of the social context — the Cold War — in which they first developed in earnest, and because of the current social context which perforce is involved in “how public funds for innovation in space can support public goods” (p. 27).

What role, then, does fiction play in all of this? Fictional explorations work “best in filling critical gaps in human knowledge” (p. 29); they provide us with possibilities and potentialities that go beyond the state of knowledge that we are currently in. Focusing too much on what Zachary calls “targeting” — picking a specific problem or application and developing tools for that alone — is how we build gappy knowledge; fiction can fill those gaps.