REVIEW: “The Joy of Baking” by Holly Lyn Walrath

Review of Holly Lyn Walrath, “The Joy of Baking”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

WARNING: Do not read this story without cake on hand, or you will want cake by the time you’re done reading it.

“The secret to effective baking is patience,” we are told, which is why I am such a bad cook. “Timing is everything,” we are also told, and this as true of comedy as it is of baking, and this story has both cake and elements of delightful comedy. Heaven and hell provide much meat for stories, but how often do you get stories of purgatory? (Dante excepted, of course, and Beetlejuice). Whether purgatory is a waiting place before the ultimate destination, or simply a waiting place before moving on to the next life, a place one will come back to again and again, there is something comforting in thinking that perhaps it is a place where the waiting souls are fed and loved and comforted, where they may rest as long as they need, and where the caretakers have all the time in the world to perfect their baking skills.

Yes, I think I’d rather enjoy visiting Walrath’s purgatory. And now I want some cake. My great-grandmother’s sour cream coffee cake, I think.

REVIEW: “Henosis” by N. K. Jemisin

Review of N. K. Jemisin, “Henosis”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Henosis” is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but with a literary, and structural, twist. Harkim is an author in a world where, each year, the winner of the prestigious Opus Award is killed and portioned up; their parts distributed to large institutions as inspiration for the next generation of writers. If you smell a metaphor for toxic literary culture just wait until you get to the section on Vonnegut.

Harkim is kidnapped by a fan who believes Harkim will win the prize, and wants to keep him alive. Yet, despite the deadly consequences of taking home the prize, Harkim and his fellow writers desperately want to win this award. Winning means they, and their work, will always be remembered, and their great fear is being forgotten. The Opus Award, as brutal as it is, would guarantee Harkim a permanent place in the literary canon.

Harkim’s view is allowed much sway in this story, giving the whole tale a creepy ‘inside the cult’ feel, but the story also interrogates his views on The Opus Award. First, it provides a counterpoint view from Harkim’s kidnapper who values the life of her favourite author. She believes the award means ‘…they think you’ve done all you’re going to do, the best you’ll ever do. It means they stop listening.’ She also presents a forceful argument about the despicable way authors are picked apart after their death.  

And then there are those chapter headings.

“Henosis” is presented in short, out of order chapters, beginning with Chapter 4. By including these chapter headings, N. K. Jemisin deliberately disrupts the connection between the reader and Harkim’s story; pushing the reader to ask whether the story they are reading is the construct of an invisible author (other than Jemisin). Are Harkim and his world “real”, or is his tale of awards and kidnap a story written by an author that Jemisin has created but the reader never meets? If the reader is supposed to suspend disbelief and approach Henosis as they would any other story? And, if Harkim’s story is a work of fiction within a work of fiction, should the reader trust his conclusions about The Opus Award, ‘great men’, and the value of a good death for a writer?

By calling into question the reality of Harkim’s world, Jemisin also places the role of the real life author front and centre. The reader is reminded that each story is created by someone, and that authors make deliberate choices when crafting a story. This reminder that authors shape fiction is reinforced by the story’s subject matter which is all about an author. The out of order nature of the chapters really hammers this theme home as well, making “Henosis” rather a circular puzzle of a story. This makes it both frustrating and intriguing – one of those stories guaranteed to have the reader angrily scowling about ‘what is true’.  And that’s sure to make “Henosis” memorable at least.

REVIEW: “The Day by Day Mosque” by Mortada Gzar

Review of Mortada Gzar, Katharine Halls (trans.), “The Day by Day Mosque”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 81-85 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Gzar’s story is told with language that has a lovely lyric quality, full of beautiful imagery and clever turns of phrase; I can only admire Halls’s translation, which must have been a difficult piece in order to retain this quality of prose from the original language. “The Day by Day Mosque” is quite a short story, and though it is set in the future, I felt like I learned a lot about the present reading it, both when the narrator harkens back to their past and their history, and in the way the future is contrasted with the past, i.e., our present. This importance of the present for a story set in the future is a theme that Page picks up on in the afterword of the collection:

The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict” (p. 175)

Some of the stories in the anthology require the reader to have more knowledge of the current present than others; this one, unfortunately, is one of them. The main speculative thread running through the story was the “Inversion Project, which will convert south to north” (p. 84). The resulting change in orientation seems to be quite significant, but the significance of it unfortunately escaped me, without a deeper context in which to locate the story. In this particular instance, I’m willing to say the defect is in me, not the story.

REVIEW: Steal the Stars [Podcast]

Review of Steal the Stars by Mac Rogers. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.

Please note: This review contains light spoilers for Episodes 12-14, which, as of this review, have not yet aired. Catch up here!

Steal the Stars, a 14-episode sci-fi podcast from Tor Labs and Gideon Media, is a stunning return to the bygone era of radio dramas—though it might be the closest to a prestige TV show the format has ever come. Sleek production values, taut scripting, and next-level performances send this series ricocheting into a new universe of possibilities.

Much of what makes Steal the Stars so appealing is its keen subtlety. Spools of character development, foreshadowing, and worldbuilding carefully unwind through dialogue that, in any other format, might feel like exposition; here, it’s as natural as can be. We see the world through the eyes of Dakota “Dak” Prentiss—an experienced ex-soldier tough and smart, yet heartbreakingly vulnerable—and crucial insights can be gleaned from what she says (and fails to say). Is Dak an unreliable narrator? Not exactly—but there is so much she doesn’t allow herself to see.

Through her eyes, Matt Salem (Dak’s colleague and eventual lover) is an enigma. He is described as a “beautiful boy,” with a wounded expression that “makes you want to protect him”—the type of sensitive, attractive lover Dak has always wanted but never believed could want her. However, while we get a sense he’s a good guy, Matt remains distant from listeners throughout the podcast; we never know what he’s thinking, or if he’s who we think he is . . . or, in Dak’s case, who she wants him to be.

While their fervent need to stay together drives the plot—after all, they burn all their bridges and formulate a heist—what of the speculative elements? The scriptwriter, Mac Rogers, is in a class of his own when it comes to formulating effective science fiction. Some writers throw in a spaceship here, an alien there, and call it good; Rogers sets the speculative to work in service of a greater cause: theme. After all, the best science fiction isn’t focused on cool tech, phenomena, or even extraterrestrials.

It’s always, always, always about people.

And make no mistake, Steal the Stars is an incredibly human tale. Its characters long for purpose, to feel grounded in something bigger than themselves. Whether it’s the quirky scientist Lloyd, whose chatty exuberance hides a deep well of sorrow, or the unwaveringly loyal Patty, whose friendship with Dak is doomed to wither on the vine, that desperate need to connect is a constant undercurrent beneath the surface of the story.

If you’re looking for an engaging story that will leave you thinking about its implications for weeks, Steal the Stars is for you. It’s science fiction at its best and most thoughtful, a paradigm-shifter that, I hope, signals a glorious new era of prestige podcast serials.

REVIEW: “Two Dimensional” by Kellee Kranendonk

Review of Kellee Kranendonk, “Two Dimensional”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was, sadly, not the story for me. Our first introduction to the heroine is a scene in which she takes psychotropic drugs. It’s not that I think all fictional heroines should be held to a high standard of conduct, or that drug use should be erased from the stories we tell, it’s just that such stories are not the stories for me. I say this even given that the drug plays an integral role in the plot — or even perhaps because of this.

Despite this, I think I may have been more disposed to positively review the story if the language were beautiful and well-crafted. Instead, I found it a bit stilted at times, and with a couple of rather abrupt info drops. I found the explanation of the relationship between the two races on the planet a bit strained; the concept is interesting, but could perhaps have benefited from being introduced slower and with more words, i.e., perhaps this would’ve been better suited to a novella than a short story. I also found the ending somewhat unsatisfying: I do not understand why Valo would take the risk that he did if he knew, in advance, that these risks would benefit neither him nor Binya.

It’s never fun to write a downer review, but the flip side of reviewing everything a journal publishes is that sometimes you get a story which just doesn’t measure up — by whatever measure is being used — to the other ones in the same venue. Alas, I think for this issue of Luna Station Quarterly, this story might be the one.

REVIEW: Stories from Daily Science Fiction, September 11-15, 2017

Reviews of stories published in Daily Science Fiction from September 11 through 15, 2017. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

“The Depths To Which We Sink” by Melissa Mead, Sept 11, 2017: Read Online.

A tale of mermaids looking for their souls. Mead creates a pervasive resonance with the darkness of the deep ocean. I found the unfolding of events in this story a bit confusing, but it packs a poignant heroic ending.

“Ships Made of Guns” by MV Melcer, Sept 12, 2017: Read Online.

What would you do if your planet was invaded by an overwhelming force? Would you fight, would you hide, would you plot rebellion? Or would you surrender? A gripping story with a vibrant narrator and a gratifying twist.

“We Always Remember, Come Spring” by Michelle Muenzler, Sept 13, 2017: Read Online.

This action-focused scifi story follows the grueling “races” held by planetary colonists. An enjoyable story marred only by a passing hint of colonialism. Muenzler efficiently delivers backstory and takes a sharp look at people pushing their bodies to the limit. Her narrator strikes a hard-hearted tone that invites us to explore the meaning of sentimentality.

“Smile” by Emilee Martell, Sept 14, 2017: Read Online.

Super-short even by flash standards, “Smile” is a satisfying revenge story for those fed up with being hassled as they walk down the street.

“You Can Adapt to Anything” by John Wiswell, Sept 15, 2017: Read Online.

My favorite story from this week! Check out the full review here.

REVIEW: “You Can Adapt to Anything” by John Wiswell

Review of John Wiswell, “You Can Adapt to Anything”, Daily Science Fiction, Sept 15, 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

They say that people are endlessly adaptable. Sometimes that is a blessing; but, perhaps it is sometimes a curse. “You Can Adapt to Anything” follows two scientists, Miguel and Juniper, as they develop trans-dimensional travel. The two are the ultimate pair, united in love, purpose, and excitement. But after their portal breaks down, Juniper finds herself stuck in a different dimension – with a different Miguel.

Wiswell takes us on a technology-filled exploration of the nature of love. Alternately sweet, scientific, and sad, this story is an exquisite orchestration of emotions that never becomes sappy or trite. You’ll have to re-read this one to pick apart the layered questions of love and identity.

This is my favorite Daily Science Fiction story from this week because of the detailed relationship between Juniper and Miguel, paralleled by Juniper’s exploration of her own identity. The ending perfectly highlights the emotions of the piece and wraps up the story while opening the door for the characters to continue on.