REVIEW: “Beacon of Truth” by Charity West

Review of Charity West, “Beacon of Truth”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The writing, reading, and possession of fiction a subversive act. Fiction is the glorification of lies.

This quote sums up West’s story, which weaves together a number of common dystopian tropes — the forbidden nature of books, technology that prevents people from lying, the one person who can lie and will teach others how to.

The middle part of the story reminds me of China Mieville’s Embassytown, in the way it highlights how difficult it is to use language when it can only be used literally and truthfully. Every single analogy or metaphor or hyperbole that the Glib uses, in his conversation so ordinary, is almost unfathomable to the narrator.

But the real punch comes in the final paragraphs. As a parent of a young daughter myself, I found the lead-up to the ending difficult to read, and the very end brought tears to my eyes — but they were tears of happiness, not despair. It was a brilliant finish.

REVIEW: “Bullets” by Joanne Anderton

Review of Joanne Anderton, “Bullets”, Podcastle: 491 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Content warning for animal death. Podcastle managed to schedule “Bullets” for a week when my environment echoed the opening of the story, what with widespread fires in the North Bay and the pall of smoke hanging in the air. “Bullets” opens in the aftermath of a horrific Australian brushfire when the protagonist, Judy, is engaged in the deeply unsettling but morally necessary task of searching out and dispatching livestock and wildlife fatally wounded by the fire. When she comes across the still-living remains of a wild horse she has run out of the titular bullets. Her heartbreaking frustration is interrupted by a wonder. At this point, it’s impossible to talk about any of the significant themes of the story without one small spoiler, though one that happens very early in the story. But if that matters to you, be advised.

The natural world reacts to impossible tragedy with supernatural transformation: the dying wild horse splits open to produce a naked young man whose body retains enough of the fire’s nature that, if not constantly cooled, he will burn whatever he touches or wherever he walks. And, as we learn, he’s not the only one. Throughout the bush, creatures trapped by the fire have transformed into non-verbal humans that hold within them the destructive heat of the fire. But like fire itself, they are neither evil nor malevolent, they simply are. And perhaps in response to Judy’s attempts at mercy, they gather at her farm in a complicated partnership, to rebuild. The fire-children come with technical skills and understanding, despite the lack of direct communication. They fix and build and tinker, moving Judy’s place beyond simple repair to improvement.

This puts Judy in an awkward position relative to her neighbors, who see her luck as a zero-sum game. And someone or something is setting fires everywhere except on her property. Judy has a modus vivendi with the fire-children, but they can’t help burn what they touch. And she wonders.

The story sets up some deep moral problems, not so much for the protagonist who makes the decisions she considers necessary, but for the listener/reader in working out how to frame the nature of the fire-children and so the context of Judy’s actions to determine the genre of the story. Is there a framing by which Judy’s eventual solution is moral? Or has she jumped to a horrific solution to a problem that might have been solved differently? Are the fire-children sentient beings with agency, or are they a type of revenant–a mere emotional echo of the fire’s horror. I’m not exactly sure that I like that the story left these questions unanswered, but it’s a powerful narrative device that I appreciate. I would say that “Bullets” will provoke at least two very different reactions in its audience, depending on how one fills in the story’s unresolved ambiguities.

ETA: (Originally published 2015 in In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep: An Anthology of Australian Horror)

REVIEW: “Kahramana” by Anoud

Review of Anoud, “Kahramana”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 1-10 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Anoud’s story of a woman pledged to be married to Mullah Hashish, who attacks her would-be husband when he tries to rape her, escapes to the American Annex of Sulaymania and becomes poster-girl for the refugee women the war has left only to be cast aside and forgotten when the media had no further use for her, is the opening story of the anthology, and starts the book off on a remarkably down note. (It does have an Informative Footnote, though, and we know how much I love an informative footnote.)

This story is more prosaic than some in the collection; there is little about it that is either science fictional or fantastic, and the main speculative elements come from simply imagining that the world in 100 years isn’t all that much different from the world now. There is no clear setting, and except for a few sparse details that impact on the plot hardly at all, the story could be set contemporarily. The result of this is that one comes away from the story with the feeling that nothing ever really changes.

The narrative voice shifts from a bird’s eye, abstracted account, to a close personal telling from Kahramana’s point of view, to clips from reporters and interviews. Each is distinctive from the other and together they provide the reader with both close and far views of the world. But whichever view is taken, what is seen is not very hopeful. I’ve actually read this story twice now: Once when I first received the anthology, and then again now to review it. Between starting the anthology off with this story, and the one that follows it (“The Gardens of Babylon”), the first time around I did not get a very good picture of what the collection as a whole would be like — which is partly why I’m reviewing them out of order for SFFReviews.

REVIEW: “The Mercenary” by Beth McCabe

Review of Beth McCabe, “The Mercenary”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

“The Mercenary” is a classic story of boy-ditches-girl, girl-becomes-a-time-traveller. Oh, wait, that isn’t actually one of the classic story lines? Well, there are worse reasons to become a time-traveller than being ditched for another girl.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other reasons why a girl might join a guild of time travellers, and sometimes it pays to extend beyond the standard tropes whereby the heroine needs to be thwarted in love before she can assume her agency as a heroine. When a narrator tells me

But I had never let go of my heartbreak – or my obsession.

my first thought is “Well, here’s a character who’s got a long arc ahead of her.”

Unfortunately, much of the early part of the story is spent rehearsing the past, rather than actually traversing that needed arc. When we do start moving forward, it doesn’t take long until we reach the “ahah” moment — the moment at which I go, “I bet I know how this is going to end.” I do like moments like that because then I can spend the rest of the story feeling smug, either to have that smugness confirmed when I am proven right or to have the delightful surprise when I am proven wrong. [Spoiler: In this case, I was right!]

On the other hand again, what I really want is a story that doesn’t have any of those moments, where every step is a surprise, where I have no idea where things are going to end up. Familiarity is comforting, but this story could have made me a bit more uncomfortable.

REVIEW: “The Corporal” by Ali Bader

Review of Ali Bader, Elisabeth Jacquette (trans.), “The Corporal”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 35-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Many of the stories in Iraq+100 betray a deep sadness and fear about the future — but not this story. Bader’s story is a mix of exuberantly hopeful, riotously funny, and — in places — scarily prescient. Bader’s vision of the future is told through the eyes of someone from the past. The Corporal was killed by a sniper during the original invasion, and ends up in limbo while awaiting to learn whether or not his death made him a martyr (as a philosopher, I love the idea that the reason why the limbo queue in the afterlife is so long is because Socrates won’t stop asking God questions!). Eventually, though, he gets sent back to earth as a prophet — 100 years in the future. In that future, the American invasion “worked”; Iraq is now a democracy, a place of peace and calm, and a beacon of democracy in the rest of the world. The cities of Kut and Nasiriyah are quiet and clean and filled with happy people.

The speculative element of the story is quite minimal, especially in the beginning, simply there to scaffold the juxtaposition of the two Iraqs; this does not make the story any less gripping.

Reading the story, it’s hard to remember that these were written before November 2016 and the aftermath of the US election. For example, a 21st-century man explains to the Corporal:

“Just take America: now it’s an extremist state, gripped by religion…The extremists found refuge in America, and that’s the problem now. America has become an extremist state, overrun by religious intolerance…”

“Are you telling the truth, sir?”

“Yes, America is a rogue state now. It’s part of the axis of evil. The civilised world is trying to bring the country back to its senses and bring back democracy.” … “The problem is with the West — that’s right, the problem is with the West, which has been transformed into an oasis of terrorism, a haven for religious intolerance and hatred” (pp. 56-57).

It’s hard not to read this and reflect on how much truth resembles fiction sometimes.

It was a brilliant story with a brilliant ending, and one that hits a little too close to home for comfort. My favorite of the book so far.

Awards Season is Nigh!

One of the ways in which review sites like SFFReviews can serve both authors and readers is by pointing people towards things they might wish to read when considering their nominations for various awards. In order to maximise the usefulness of this site for such people, we’re adding a new category to the tags that we include for each post (in addition to reviewer, author, genre, and venue): year of publication. You can now get by a single click all reviews of:

If there is any other way that we can make this site more useful for you — whether you are looking for reviews of stories you’ve already read or looking for pointers to new stories you should read — please do contact us or leave a comment on this post!

REVIEW: “Kuszib” by Hassan Abdulrazzak

Review of Hassan Abdulrazzak, “Kuszib”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 115-138 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Of all the stories in this anthology that I’ve read so far, this one is by far the most strange. Abdulrazzak imagines a world a century from now where aliens have taken over and humans are reduced to the status of farm animals, and it is from the point of view of the aliens that the story is told (this confused me at first when wine-drinking was mentioned, but was cleared up quite quickly). Through their eyes, we are given a picture of humanity which picks up on all our flaws, our hubris, and our lack of civilization. When the aliens land at Centre Point, which used to be called “Baggy-Dad” in the archaic human language of “Arabaic”, they laugh at the fact that the people of “Newey Pork”, “Lindon”, and “Beige-inn” are all insulted that their cities were not the ones chosen as the invasion site. But “humans were never that good at logic”, the aliens are all taught, and they are uncivilized too, whatever they think. It is easy for those newly arrived conquerors to conclude that their technological superiority translates into superiority in all contexts. From there, it is an easy step to the hunting, herding, and farming of human beings, a thread running through the story whose treatment is just casual enough to make it entirely unsettling.

The story contains more erotic elements than others in the book — fair warning for anyone who would prefer to avoid anything explicit — but these elements are handled with a good measure of humor. It is refreshing to see that alien sex is amusing not because it is alien but because it is sex.

This is the first story in the collection where I have noticed some editorial issues. There is a distinct lack of commas setting off the addressee of speech, and two typos — one “it’s” for “its” on p. 124 and one “pour” for “pore” on p. 123.