REVIEW: Flash Fiction Online, September 2017, edited by Suzanne W. Vincent

Review of Flash Fiction Online, ed. Suzanne W. Vincent, September 2017 [Read Here / Purchase Here]. Reviewed by Meryl Stenhouse.

Stories in this issue:

“Listen and You Will Hear Us Speak” by A.T. Greenblatt

“The Last Man on Earth Crawls Back to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel” by John Guzlowski

“What Lasts” by Jared W. Cooper

“And All Our Bones Were Dust” by Steven Fischer

Editorial by Suzanne W. Vincent

Vincent quotes Ray Bradbury in her editorial, to point out that a science fiction story is any story about an idea that changes the world. It is the art of the possible, not the impossible, says Bradbury. Three of the four stories in this issue touch on the impossible, one of them blatantly, so my acceptance of them as science fiction is incomplete.

That said, if the stories were presented without genre boundaries, I would have enjoyed them unreservedly. A well-curated collection.

Listen and You Will Hear Us Speak by A.T. Greenblatt

Being the science fiction pedant that I am, I will say straight out that this is science fantasy; there’s no scientific method to remove voices the way they are removed in the story. It’s a magical box. Let’s move on.

There are layers to this story, which is an achievement in so few words. The unnamed narrator is one of the voiceless – people stolen from their home, their voices taken away from them, sold into indentured servitude from which they cannot escape – because how can the voiceless have a say in their fate?

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I do like the way that Greenblatt’s victims win by embracing their difference and finding the power to control their fates, and their oppressors. The parallels to the voiceless in our current society can’t be ignored. Uplifting, tightly written, delicious rebellion story.

The Last Man on Earth Crawls Back to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel by John Guzlowski

The concept of this piece appealed to me. The last man on Earth chooses suicide, but then finds himself unable to follow through. The rest of the story answers the question of why.

I winced at the recitation of his bird list. I doubt very much that, at any stage in history, this observation: “they were everywhere: In the trees and on the sidewalks, between houses and abandoned cars, on the empty roads…” would include birds such as “emus and antbirds, cassowaries and penguins”, especially not in the middle of the USA. Besides, a cassowary on the footpath is a suggestion that you should find another road to walk down, mate. The comment that the narrator had seen Mousebirds (denizens of sub-Saharan Africa) hints that he had travelled widely before deciding to kill himself, and this raises other questions that, on close examination (food, fuel, ocean crossings), start to unravel the worldbuilding.

Best to stick with your local birds.

The rest of the story is beautiful. It’s about loneliness, and a personal concept of God, and the recognition that humans, social animals, start to unravel when left alone. It’s a sadness reminiscent of the death of the last of any species; the endling (a name coined by Robert Webster in 2004 to denote the last member of a species). The thylacine, the passenger pigeon, soon the white rhino. To consider a human to be one of these lonely beings is humbling. The fact that the author doesn’t give this endling a name says everything. It could be any one of us.

What Lasts by Jared W. Cooper

This is a love story.

It’s also a story about pain that won’t go away, that you wish you could excise from your body and throw away.

It’s a story about loss, and a story about gain. Losing your old self, finding someone knew in the ashes, someone stronger.

It’s beautiful.

Well played, Mr. Cooper.

And All Our Bones Were Dust by Steven Fischer

This story is the opposite in so many ways to What Lasts, and reading them one after the other felt like two halves of the same symphony. It’s a love that crumbles, rather than a love that builds.

I’m going to comment on the visions, because I have opinions on what makes a story science fiction, and this one edges into science fantasy again. Not only for the visions, which have no explanation, but for the use the narrator makes of those visions.

In her editorial Vincent considers this story heartwarming, but I would call it frustrating. It’s a classic case of seeing the disaster coming but being unable to change it. The frustration comes with the narrator not even trying to save both of them; he follows the path set out for him, right to the final moment, with no attempt to reclaim or understand.

The story is beautifully executed, but not for me. I don’t like watching the axe fall. The joy in a story comes from the struggle, not the chop.

REVIEW: “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney

Review of C. S. E. Cooney, “Though She Be But Little”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

C. S. E. Cooney has produced a distinctive world full of pirates, animated stuffed animals, and world changing magic. Readers who enjoy stories from the New Weird genre will find plenty of surreal, unexplained fantasy in this tale. Readers who like their weird mixed evenly with charm will enjoy “Though She Be But Little” even more as Cooney mixes in wry pirate jokes, and off-beat details, with her more bizarre, haunting creations.

The sky in Emma Anne’s world went silver one day, and suddenly everything changed. Overnight, Emma Anne went from being ‘Mrs. Emma A. Santiago,Navy widow, age sixty-five’ to ‘eight years old in her jimjams and Velcro sneakers. One belt, one tin can on string, two stuffed toys the richer. Sans house, sans car, sans monthly Bunco night with her girlfriends of forty years, sans everything.’ “Though She Be But Little” has a keen eye for subtler horrors as well as presenting a truly terrifying monster in ‘the Loping Man’ who is coming for Emma Anne.

“Though She Be But Little” is ultimately a story about transformations, good and bad, and quietly about female friendship. The ending, which presents a fantastic scene of monstrous women coming together, was my favourite part.  

REVIEW: “The Drover’s Ghost” by Melanie Rees

Review of Melanie Rees’s “The Drover’s Ghost.” Persistent Visions (21 July 2017) Read online. Reviewed by Essence B. Scott.

“The Drover’s Ghost” by Melanie Rees confused me. I had a hard time differentiating between the two protagonists, Stewie and Mutton; their voices sounded too much alike in my head. I didn’t feel drawn into the story or the setting. The story also seemed like it wandered a bit, much like the main characters in the story.

Everything in this story felt flat, from the characters to the world. Honestly, this story could have been better had Rees just sat with it a little more. Generally, I am intrigued by ghosts that haunt; however, the ghosts here seem overzealous to keep the peace. I wonder what would have happened if the ghosts had awareness. These ghosts that haunt only know bloodshed, and one seems attracted to Mutton.

The dream sequence in this story feels obviously like a surprise. One minute I’m reading about the ghosts that come because of bloodshed (even accidental bloodshed) and the next minute I’m in a sequence about Mutton’s past with a guy named Philip (we learn that Mutton’s real name is also Philip, only adding to my confusion).

Overall, this story was not one of Persistent Visions’ best and felt that they could have chosen another story.

REVIEW: “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Review of Eric Schwitzgebel, “Little /^^^\&-” , Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Works of science fiction and fantasy produce an inordinate amount of unpronounceable names. Say, for example, Kvothe (Cough? Voth? K-Voth-ee?). Or, in the pre-HBO days, Daenerys Targaryen (Day-ne-rice?).

Or /^^^\&-. On reading this story, my first thought went out to whoever was responsible for the podcast. It transpired that Clarkesworld’s Kate Baker opted to use musical tones to represent the names of the entities in this story, which I found to be an elegant solution. More so than, say, ‘slash-up-up-up-slash-ampersand-minus’.

/^^^\&- is by no means little. She is a planet-sized consciousness, or perhaps a planet with a consciousness. For the purposes of this review, she can be seen as a bored computer intelligence powered by ‘chambersful of monkeys’. She’s serving out a jail sentence in our solar system, and the place is a dump.

The monkeys are biological humanoids living within /^^^\&-, a fact which becomes apparent later. She is both their home and their creation; their work powers her thoughts and actions. Without diverging too far into the realm of interpretation, through /^^^\&-, the monkeys are collectively their own god, a point which becomes increasingly thematically resonant.

With little else to do, /^^^\&- decides to teach Earth how to speak. This takes a while, and the narrative strays from /^^^\&-’s perspective while Earth reconfigure itself into ^Rth^. I found this to be a weaker section of the story, and preferred the scenes that were more firmly rooted in character.

/^^^\&- is a funny and likable protagonist. Both she and the narrative tone sober as the story progresses, and she grows increasingly attached to ^Rth^ and her own monkeys. She affirms the value of the small and powerless, particularly after an incident of carelessness renders their fragility apparent.

The story juxtaposes the colossal and the minute in touching ways, and ultimately builds to a conclusion that is tragic and uplifting.

REVIEW: “Down and Out in R’lyeh” by Catherynne M. Valente

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s, “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Down and Out in R’lyeh” is like A Clockwork Orange with demonic gods in waiting. Catherynne M. Valente has built a story with its own street language of drugs, fashion, and class politics that works just as well as the patter of Anthony Burgess’ novel:

Be me: Moloch! Dank as starlit squidshit, antique in the membrane, maximum yellow fellow! Only five thousand years old, still soggy behind the orifices, belly full of piss and pus and home-brewed, small-batch disdain for all he beholds. Keeps his tentacles proper pompy-doured and his fur 100% goat at all times. Keeps his talons on the sluggish pulse of the nightmare corpse-city that never sleeps…

The language that Moloch (‘not THE Moloch’) uses to narrate this story asks the reader to do a lot of work in order to parse his meaning. He obscures his tale with slang and eldritch references, and so it takes a while to adjust to his way of speaking. However, the meat of his story quickly becomes clear. Moloch is part of a disaffected generation, trapped in a small town, waiting for his elders to yield the field so they can have their go at destroying the human world. In the meantime he, his girlfriend, and his best friend spend their days getting high or ‘mundane’ in a variety of elaborate ways. When that’s not enough they go out looking for trouble with the ‘gloons’ or the poseurs of their world. While they may be supernatural creatures who look and behave so differently to humans there’s a very basic relatability at the heart of this story. It’s a smart and inventive science fiction parody of stories like A Clockwork Orange but it also works as its own entertaining tale of one long hazy night.

“Down and Out in R’leyh” is a story I think I would have got a lot more from if I had read Lovecraft’s original Cthulu stories. However, I did know enough to see that two female characters burning down Cthulu’s house, while he’s inside, could be interpreted as a feminist strike in the heart of Lovecraftian territory. Even without knowing much about Lovecraft’s original stories, I had a lot of fun threading my way through Moloch’s story (even if the imagery is quite deliberately gross which is not usually my thing).

REVIEW: “Bad Penny” by Carrie Laben

Review of Carrie Laben, “Bad Penny”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

If there’s one thing that irks me (and there are many things that irk me), it’s making history too tidy. I hate it when people assume that any one group or country was a monolithic entity with everyone in agreement. No, people of the past were as fractured and contentious as we are today. Which is one of the reasons why I so enjoyed reading “Bad Penny” – the whole story is about a town in western New York that ceded from the Union to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. Enough Northerners supported the Confederacy (or at least objected to the war) that there was a derogatory nickname for them: Copperheads. Real life details about the nickname and its overlap with the name of a poisonous snake not native to the region are both used to excellent effect in this story.

You’re going to want to pay attention to names and family relationships as you read, because this story takes place in 1946, but deals with the aftermath of a decision made in 1861. I didn’t play close enough attention to the third paragraph, leading to confusion until I started again from the beginning. This was my fault, and not a flaw in the storytelling.

This is a ghost story, but it’s the most complex ghost story I can remember reading. It’s about history and family and the difficulties of righting a wrong decision, how people get swept up in romantic notions and what that can lead to. It’s a story that rewards rereading; there’s too much nuance and foreshadowing and layers of detail to pick up in one go.

REVIEW: “Bonding with Morry” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Bonding with Morry”, Clarkesworld 132: Read Online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Morry Largen is a retired professor with a very pragmatic attitude towards artificial intelligence. He wants robots to look like robots – metal, boxy and functional. As he lives alone and has health concerns, he purchases the ugliest robot possible to assist him around the house. He names it Clank.

This story was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a subtle, thought-provoking and satisfying read, and Morry’s grumpy reluctance to have Clank in his life is endearing. He is clear-eyed in his understanding of what Clank is and isn’t. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that other people lack his insight.

For me, a highlight was his wry discussion with his daughter regarding his reluctance to make Clank prettier.

It’s the emotional bonding I object to. Pretending a machine is a person.”

“I understand that. But do you have to go to extremes?”

“I’m a sentimental creature, daughter. Who knows what I’d do if I had a thing that looked like a cute pet? There were times when I even felt sorry for some of my students.”

“So you’re living with a metal monster just because you’re worried about your own feelings?”

I felt that was incisive. The same gentle humour pervades the story as a whole. Morry’s refusal to pretend a computer program is equivalent to a human mind serves as a kind of tragic affirmation of the worth of humanity – for genuine feelings, for our fragile animal lives.

A lot of the sadness of this story is unspoken, but remains compelling: Morry repeatedly insists that he has friends and has no need for a companion, he plays video games intended for his granddaughter’s entertainment. “Bonding with Morry” never comes across as morose, however. It maintains a kind of charming lightness throughout, and the prose is clean and pleasant.

I also think that the title is excellent.