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.

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.