REVIEW: “Love Pressed in Vinyl” by Devon Wong

Review of Devon Wong, “Love Pressed in Vinyl”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 209-224 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was quite a creepy little story, of Malik and his childhood friend Josh, and of Josh and his boyfriend’s death, and of a vinyl record that was left behind. The title of the story says that it is love that was pressed into vinyl, but what sort of love would be so heartless and destructive?

This sort of story isn’t particularly my kind, but even so I enjoyed the artistry with which it was written.

(Originally published in Strange Horizons, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Review of Greg Egan, “Uncanny Valley”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 173-208 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: minor spoilers.

The original Uncanny Valley is the “the proposed relation between the human likeness of an entity and the perceiver’s affinity for it” [1], the gap between things which appear to be human but not quite human enough. All the baggage that Mori’s original definition and paper have given rise to feeds into Egan’s story, a lot of baggage for it to carry, even before one begins to read. What would be populating this uncanny valley, and why? This will depend on the reader. What falls into that valley, and why, depends on the individual, precisely because it is about the discrepancy between perception and representation, both of which are individual.

For me, it actually took awhile before I realised who I was supposed to be putting into the valley; but even after it was explicit that Adam was not a man but a robot, he stubbornly refused to go into the valley, for me. It’s not so much that highly-enough developed robots are indistinguishable from humans to me; but that I find it a lot easier to interact with humans if I think of them as a bunch of highly-enough developed automata. So, robot or human, for the most part, it doesn’t make any difference.

But only for the most part: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story was the moment Adam did something that did dump me into the uncanny valley — and that was the moment Egan made it clear that a robot could experience sexual arousal and desire.

I have no idea how many other people will share that experience with me, or if they’ll find their own methods of populating the uncanny valley. I certainly recommend that everyone read the story and try it for themselves.

[1] Masahiro Mori, Karl F. MacDorman (trans.), and Norri Kageki (trans.), “The Uncanny Valley”, IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine 2012: 98-100.

(Originally published at Tor.com, 2017.)

REVIEW: “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” by Izzy Wasserstein

Review of Izzy Wasserstein, “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The city of Traverse huddles atop a giant spiderweb, with strands for streets and buildings perched atop it all, stretching out from the Drop in the center. Many of its residents are magic workers, but magic has a side effect in this place – its use slowly transforms the practitioner. But all of that is simply the stunning backdrop upon which this story takes place.

Danae thinks that Pliny, the bookseller and Bibliomancer, has given her a job like any other: to deliver a package to a client in the further out along the web. The adventure than ensues forces her to confront some truths about the people and the world she lives in, but also about herself. At it’s heart this reads as a coming-of-age story, at least to me. Danae must decide who and what she wants to be, and reach for that potential.

The story is good – I enjoyed Danae and wouldn’t mind reading more about her – but what I truly fell in love with here is the world. I would happily read another dozen stories set in in Traverse. It’s not just that it’s unique, but that the city feels like it could easily contain that many stories. It feels rich and nuanced with shadows and layers that we can’t quite see.

REVIEW: “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 155-171 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: drug addiction and abuse.

Reading this story put me through the ringer. It is raw, and hard, and harsh, and dark. It is so masterfully put together that as a writer myself, I read it and despaired of ever writing anything ever again, because it was so good, and I could never do anything that good. At the same time, reading it made me want to write, because it was so good, and that means people can write things so good, and maybe I could too, someday.

But what amazed me most about it was not its depths, not the quality of the writing, but the way in which Miller took such a sad story that could have been sordid and turned it into something beautifully redemptive. The moment of hope at the end left me in tears.

(Originally published on Tor.com, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Bone Song” by Aja McCullough

Review of Aja McCullough, “Bone Song”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Featuring a miller, a dead woman, and a macabre violin, this story has all the pieces of a dark fairy tale. In fact, I recognized aspects of “The Two Sisters,” a murderous folk song with many variants. However, picking up on that reference is not necessary to enjoy the story.

Bone Song” packs a surprising amount of heartbreak into less than 800 words, but also a lot of beauty. The crux of this story is communication – what the dead woman wants to say from beyond the grave, and what the miller hears, and the vast chasm between the two. It’s a subtle story, as is befitting its brevity.

REVIEW: “The Exile” by Cathal Ó Sándair

Review of Cathal Ó Sándair, “The Exile” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 253-260 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The final story in this anthology was originally published 123 years after the first one — so far into the future of the early 19th C as to be almost unimaginable (though that didn’t prevent the early authors from trying!). The contrast between this story and the previous ones was marked: This one felt modern. This is in part because, although it was written in 1960, it is set in what is still the future of 2019. (Although it’s not our timeline, that’s for sure; we did not make contact with the Selenites, those who live on the moon, in 2007 as happened in this story.)

Seán Murphy was a young man when he first read an advertisement in the paper calling for young men to emigrate to the Moon. Despite his mother’s desires, and promising to come back within 5 years, Seán went. But when his mother died before the five years was up, there was — for many years at least — no reason for him to return home, no reason, until he himself was old and grown, his wife dead, his children scattered. Then it seemed to Seán that his life on the Moon was an exile, and he desired to return to Ireland, to die there.

The joy in this story is the way it pokes sly fun at the loyalty that the Irish have for Ireland — “the nicest place under the sun” (p. 257) — in the face of the width and breadth of the solar system for comparison. But the grass is always greener on the other side, and what Seán finds when he returns to Ireland is not quite what he bargained on.

(Originally published in 1960; this translation by the present editor.)

REVIEW: “The Chronotron” by Tarlach Ó hUid

Review of Tarlach Ó hUid, “The Chronotron” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 241-249 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: contemplation of self-harm and suicide.

Ó hUid’s tale is a cautionary tale of time-travel gone wrong. Seosamh, the narrator, is the friend of one Professor Ó Neill, who has long been working on “a contraption that could travel through Time” (p. 242). When the machine, the Chronotron, is finally complete, the Professor invites Seosamh over for dinner, one night in 1985, and to join him in testing the contraption.

This story is perhaps the most Irish of all the ones I’ve read in the anthology so far. The Professor interrogates Seosamh on “which event from Irish history is most to blame for the hideous state of the country today?” (p. 246); Seosamh is at no loss for options, including the Norman invasion, the Famine, or the Civil War. What better use for a time machine than to attempt to avert one of these crises? But never forget the consequences of meddling with history…

(Originally published in 1946; translated by the editor in 2018).