REVIEW: “Antarctic Birds” by A. Brym

Review of A. Brym, “Antarctic Birds”, Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Genetically modified lovers live within a compound in the Antarctic sunshine, teaching strange children about rainforests and cabbages. This story was a strange one, rooted in a very human relationship.

Nikau and Charlie aren’t at the best point in their romance; Nikau is preoccupied with his secrets and Charlie despairs of ever connecting with her students. The gradual regeneration of their relationship forms the emotional heart of the story, and it’s a sweet, delicate thread running through the narrative.

The worldbuilding in Antarctic Birds is of the work-it-out-yourself variety, which has both its uses and limitations. While the strong character focus allows readers to zone in on what is relevant –Nikau and Charlie’s feelings– I found that the lack of explanation grew distracting. Nikau can fly, Charlie can’t, and this appears to be related to their students’ burgeoning telepathic abilities. Two factions of an alien species compete for power, Masters and Makers. They have some kind of symbiotic relationship with humans and help our species to evolve, but this is perhaps against our will.

While a reader can discern something of the structure of the outside world from hints, I felt my grasp on the situation was too tenuous. As a result, Nikau’s choices in the conclusion lacked the significance they might have otherwise held.

Antarctic Birds reads like a snapshot into an intriguing narrative universe. It’s a brief glimpse of something larger, framed by the lives of two flawed but lovely characters.

 

 

REVIEW: “Maps of Infinity” by Heather Morris

Review of Heather Morris, “Maps of Infinity”, Shimmer 38: [Read online]. Reviewed by Sarah Grace Liu.

Oh my heart. I loved this story so much. I’m a sucker for mythological retellings, ones that show our monsters and our heroes from other sides. I loved this even more because I didn’t know who Asterion was, and I didn’t need to, really. I didn’t know the name. But I knew the character. I soon caught on through contextual clues, but I love that I didn’t know through his entire first section, preventing me from coming to the story with any preconceived ideas. This probably would not be the case for many readers, but it worked for me. So I won’t tell you. Even if you already know just from what I’ve said.

The story orients us to Asterion by presenting him first, and telling his side through second person, as if the narrator is also addressing the you of the reader, bringing us within his sphere. We can imagine his thoughts, we don’t balk at his agency. It allowed me to encounter Asterion fully, to have empathy for this character who is an outsider and who feels deeply.

I feel ashamed to admit that if the King’s ugly daughter likewise comes from a named mythological character, I don’t know it. She seemed more of a patchwork creation to me, comprised of bits of other characters. Perhaps the moreso because she is unnamed in the story. There are opportunities for deeper interpretation just within that.

Regardless, they play off of each other beautifully, these two creatures who defy categorization of and social box or binary. I simply adored this story.

REVIEW: “Zero for Conduct” by Greg Egan

Review of Greg Egan, “Zero for Conduct”, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series, Vol. 8. Reviewed by Drew Shiel.

“Zero for Conduct” is set in a near-future Iran. Indeed, there’s very little to stop it from being a contemporary Iran of 2017, except for a few details of technology – although they’re important to the story. And the story works around the development of a key new element of technology, invented by a schoolgirl with a brilliant understanding of molecular structure and chemistry. Greg Egan evokes Iran well, as far as I can make out, touching solidly on sectarian and gender issues as well as local flavour. The story resolves satisfyingly, and there’s none of the element of progress-hampered-by-idiocy which often plagues invention stories.

Recommended for fans of strong female protagonists, hard near-future SF, thoughtful examination of the Middle East, and/or ramifications and outcomes of relatively minor technical advances.

REVIEW: “In Strange, Far Places” by Julia K. Patt

Review of Julia K. Patt, “In Strange, Far Places”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

What happens when you fare forth into the stars, searching for a new home, but never find one? What happens when you no longer have the resources to go further — and you also no longer have the resources to get back to where you started? So much speculation about space travel seeks for the happy ending, that we will leave this planet and find a new one to make our home. But in truth, the endings of most space travellers will not be happy, they will be “left to live out their lives in the void until the synthetic atmos failed or the oxygenating phytos died or the food ran out.”

When your resources are used up, when you’re left to the mercies of the passing ships who might stop and pick you up and take you home, that is when this story starts. Em recounts her history and that of her comrades in simple, straightforward words; this is her life, and she knows that she is lucky. Not every story will have a happy ending, and yet this doesn’t mean that the story itself is not happy. But happy or sad, who knows what lurks behind the stars…

REVIEW: Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, ed., Iraq+100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion, with support of Noor Hemani and Ra Page (Comma Press, 2016). Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I discovered this book last year via a random tweet and was immediately intrigued by the premise. Editor Hassan Blasim asked ten Iraqi writers to consider the question “What might Iraq look like in 2103, a century after the British/American invasion?” The result is an eclectic collection of speculative stories, in the most literal sense of the term, which nevertheless are tied together by a very clear and distinctive thread, a thread that Blasim identifies as “the tragedy of modern Iraq—the tragedy of a people that is desperate for just a solitary draught of peace”. It is a sobering read, but it is also a delightful and entertaining read.

The book begins with an introduction by Blasim, describing how the collection came about, but also discussing the state of Iraqi science fiction:

Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing and I am close to certain that this book of short stories is the first of its kind, in theme and in form, in the corpus of modern Iraqi literature (p. vi).

Blasim discusses why he hopes that this will change in the coming years, but also speaks to the question why there is such a dearth of science fiction in Arabic literature more generally. He notes that:

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that science fiction in the West was allowed to track the development of actual science from about the middle of the 19th century onwards (p. vi),

and that during this period, there was no similar corresponding technological growth in Iraq, so Iraqi science fiction is still in a sense playing catch-up.

I wonder, though, if one couldn’t dig a bit deeper. Just as the roots of contemporary western science fiction go back further than the 19th century (Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (1666) is often hailed as a forerunner of modern science fiction), speculative stories have a long and venerable history in an Arabic tradition—it’s just that these stories weren’t necessarily written or told as fiction! Instead, the very best of historical Arabic speculative story-telling can be found in the medieval Arabic philosophical tradition. To give just one example, in his Kitab Al-Shifa (On the Soul), ibn Sina (Avicenna) begins the following story:

One of us (i.e. a human being) should be imagined as having been created in a single stroke; created perfect and complete but with his vision obscured so that he cannot perceive external entities; created falling through air or a void, in such a manner that he is not struck by the firmness of the air in any way that compels him to feel it, and with his limbs separated so that they do not come in contact with or touch each other (Read the Arabic here).

This is the beginning of the so-called “Floating Man” or “Flying Man” thought experiment, but one philosopher’s “thought experiment” is another speculative author’s “science fiction”: For what is science fiction other than a great big “What if?” thought experiment by another name?

This is all to say that if one digs just a bit deeper, there is a wealth of speculative and science fiction material ripe for the delving in the Arabic tradition. Blasim’s collection may very well be unique in its kind right now, but I dearly hope it won’t be for long. I would love to read more stories like these, by more authors like these.

Some of the stories were written in English; some of them have been translated for this collection. Below is a list of the contents; I will review each story individually and when the reviews are published, link to them from this post.

  • “Kahramana”, by Anoud.
  • “The Gardens of Babylon”, by Hassan Blasim.
  • “The Corporal”, by Ali Bader.
  • “The Worker”, by Diaa Jubaili.
  • “The Day by Day Mosque”, by Mortada Gzar.
  • “Baghdad Syndrome”, by Zhraa Alhaboby.
  • “Operation Daniel”, by Khalid Kaki.
  • “Kuszib”, by Hassan Abdulrazzak.
  • “The Here and Now Prison”, by Jalal Hassan.
  • “Najufa”, by Ibrahim al-Marashi.

REVIEW: “The Moon, The Sun, and the Truth” by Victoria Sandbrook

Review of Victoria Sandbrook’s, “The Moon, the Sun, and the Truth”, Shimmer 38: Read online. Reviewed by Sarah Grace Liu.

Truth riders in the West race through the desert and carry data chips on horseback—data that preserves what the Directorship would kill to eradicate: the last images of their hostile takeover.

Sandbrook’s tale is vivid, plausible, and engaging. She seamlessly blends a wild west atmosphere with nuggets of technological detail that take us beyond the here and now to a place where we are at once comfortable and disoriented.

If I were to lodge one minor complaint, it’s that the story doesn’t seem to be in complete control of psychic distance at points. It opens with a classic tale or fable narrative distance—with Andy’s perspective, yes, but at a far enough remove that the narrator has a distinct presence. Yet we sometimes get Andy’s immediate thoughts in a way that doesn’t jive with this narration. It’s an easy thing to overlook and doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it pulls me out of the story.

Sandbrook offers a perfect balance of details that gives us a sense of the larger world behind the story without bogging us down in lengthy passages of exposition. I enjoyed “The Moon, the Sun, and the Truth” thoroughly, and will keep an eye out for more of Victoria Sandbrook’s work.

REVIEW: “The Salt Debt” by J. B. Rockwell

Review of J. B. Rockwell, “The Salt Debt”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

What struck me first about this story was the beautiful language, with a handful of phrases painting a detailed picture. What struck me next was how Rockwell can make the extraordinary seem ordinary. Too often that which is foreign to our own lived experiences appears in stories as foreign as well; but not here. Whether it is an old man with a clockwork heart, a girl with the body of a kraken, or a knitted cat, each of the extraordinary characters in “The Salt Debt” are presented as utterly ordinary. The story the narrator tells is also utterly ordinary — we grow old, we love, we die — and that ordinariness is what makes the ending sweet rather than grotesque.

It is a short story, but at the end I am left with a fleeting happiness of having read it and a desire to read more by this author.