REVIEW: “Below the River” by Rose Strickman

Review of Rose Strickman, “Below the River”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

It often seems like literature takes a very long time to catch up to technology. The advent of ubiquitous cell phones and smart phones has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other and our world, and it feels — to me at least — that these changes have been so radical in their depth and scope that we are still struggling to articulate this in our writing without making reference to phones, etc., seem “gadgety”.

One of the things I really appreciated in Strickman’s story was the way in which contemporary technology was seamlessly interwoven into the story. None of the awkwardness that I so often see was present.

But that ease displayed there was not always reflected in the rest of the story, which was occasionally somewhat stilted. The opening scenes were filled with mournful portent without giving the reader a clear indication of what the portent was of or why we should be mournful, and the use of a dream sequence to convey memory is a somewhat overused technique. There are a number of places where I think what I wished for most was less vagueness and more distinctiveness. (Not just “ill”, but ill with what? Not just “medicine”, but what kind of medicine?) Lastly, the ending was pretty clearly telegraphed from fairly early on; now, this is not always a bad thing; sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than a growing suspicion of how things will turn out being vindicated when you reach the end of a story. But that vindication only comes if it is clearly possible that that ending would not be reached. Here, there was never really much doubt.

REVIEW: “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki

Review of Khalid Kaki, Adam Talib (trans.), “Operation Daniel”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 107-114 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Operation Daniel” answers the question “What would Iraq be like 100 years after the invasion” with the perhaps unexpected “ruled by China”. This answer forces the reader to consider not only how Iraq might be transformed over the next century but also the rest of the world.

It’s an all too familiar world that Kaki paints, with the repression of the local languages, culture, songs, literature, and names and the introduction of a dictator who rules under the guise of benevolence for all. It is also a macabre world, where people who don’t adhere to the rigid rules of repression are extracted, cremated, and their remains compressed into a tiny diamond to decorate the dictator’s shoes.

The narrator is quite circumscript in their telling, telling us what shouldn’t happen or what cannot happened, rather than what must and what did, and this circumscription fits well with the story. Nothing is ever addressed head-on, only aslant, and this leaves the reader with the lingering feeling that this is a future that might possibly be escaped.

The story is both forward looking (in the sense that it looks forward from the present to the imagined future, but also in that it looks forward from the imagined future) and deeply historical, rooted in the ancient history of Kirkuk — a history one need not know in order to enjoy the story, because there are informative footnotes! Can I just say how much I love reading a piece of fiction that has informative footnotes? One footnote discusses contemporary and historic geography, two discuss the history of Kirkuk, and one provides information about local music. I love informative footnotes.

REVIEW: “Oshun, Inc.” by Jordan Ifueko

Review of Jordan Ifueko’s “Oshun, Inc.”, Strange Horizons 18 Sept. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This story reminded me vividly of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, if the gods in question worked in a customer service center. It has the same old-world-meets-new-world, coming-to-America feel, but with an emphasis here on a specific African pantheon and goddess. As someone unfamiliar with the goddess in question, I appreciated the choice as an opportunity to learn.

Moreover, Ifueko paints beautiful pictures with her words. Her descriptions appeal not just to the eyes, but also the ears, the nose, the tongue and even the fingers–leaving no sense neglected. She possesses the specificity of great writers, using precise analogies and examples to drive home the deeper points and nuances of her story.

The story also displays Ifueko’s talent for worldbuilding. “Oshun, Inc.” touches on the barest edge of what feels like a much larger, more detailed world filled with immortal gods and helpers. Ifueko walks a fine line between explaining terms the reader might not understand and letting the reader discover those meanings for herself, and she walks that line confidently.

I found the first half of the story to be more engaging than the second half, in part because the second half doesn’t actually resolve the problem introduced at the beginning of the story (finding a date for Bola’s problematic dentist). The ending is by no means bad, but I wish all the threads of the plot had found a resolution.

Setting that minor quibble aside, Ifueko is a promising new voice in speculative fiction, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.

REVIEW: “The Call of the Orbsong” by A. M. Matte

Review of A. M. Matte, “The Call of the Orbsong”, Luna Station Quarterly 30: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Dafenid is an Amphibian who steals orbs from the Pavlina, a Biped who either creates or collects them (it is not clear which in the story). Though Dafenid is not able to make the orbs sing, she still delights in them, for she sees having them as an act of defiance on behalf of the Amphibians against the Bipeds.

This we learn at the beginning, but much of what transpires after the initial opening scene is the filling in of back story, which suffers a bit from more telling than showing and a couple of awkward info dumps. We learn quite a bit about the relative power differentials between the Amphibians and the Bipeds, and of illicit attraction, but through the middle part of the story I kept find myself wishing for less history and more of the present.

There is, however, a fun twist at the end, which is no less enjoyable for the fact that about 1/3 of the way through, I suddenly had an intuition that that was where the story would go: It was gratifying to read the rest of the story and be proven right. (Half-way through, however, I did get a bit of a shock, when the object of Dafenid’s love was revealed, since earlier in the story (I had to go back and double check, but the implication was definitely there) I had gotten the impression that he was her brother!) All in all: A fun little fairy-tale interpretation, slightly hampered by presentation.

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.