REVIEW: “Turing Test” by Eric Scheller

Review of Eric Scheller, “Turing Test”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 215-220. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The interior of the case is decorated like a florid setting room, wallpapered, the floor spread with a rug of oriental design. There are three automata and all three are instantly recognizable…

A spec fic story about Alan Turing and automata? Oh, my heart, yes, please! One thing that sometimes frustrates me about science fiction as a genre (painting with very broad brush strokes here), is how narrowly “science” is often interpreted. As a scientist myself, I am often longing to find representation of my kind of science in traditional SF stories. But the laws of logic are desperately hard to play with, almost more so in fiction than in real life, where logicians think nothing of speaking of true contradictions and impossible worlds. So I had high hopes for this story as being “close enough”, not my science but close enough to it.

When one says “automata” in the context of SF, many readers probably think first of dumb robots moving mindlessly — something embodied. The automata that I know and love (and sometimes hate) from my days in grad school are much more abstract: They are (sometimes deterministic, sometimes not) (sometimes finite, sometimes not) state-machines that take as input strings of symbols and after a (possibly unique) computation (or “run”) of the machine either gets into an infinite loop, or accepts or rejects the string (Deterministic finite state-machines will never cycle infinitely, and will always accept or reject the input.) The most general class of automata is the class of Turing machines — and here we circle back to the content of the story as opposed to a mini lesson in computation.

Alan, who “loves permutations and crossword puzzles” (p. 215), enters the Ashmolean Museum and asks to see the automata the curator has in storage. But the automata that he is shown are not Turing machines but the embodied type, three versions of Oscar Wilde each in a different guise and a different pose. I am disappointed that the automata are not the ones I wanted them to be, but this lessens my enjoyment of the story only in passing. Scheller takes us through a story that is both history and fantasy, and captures all of the aching sadness that surrounds Turing and his life. For all that so much of him differs from me, there is so much of him that I can see in myself, and for that, I am satisfied.

(Originally published in Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, Undertow Publications, 2016).

REVIEW: “Memento Mori” by Charlotte Frankel

Review of Charlotte Frankel, “Memento Mori”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 316-319. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

If you ever want to spend a macabre half an hour or so, read up on Victorian death photography. Or, read this story — a creepy little story of competing utilities. Sure, epidemics are terrible things — but not if you are an undertaker, or a doctor…or a photographer of the dead.

It’s a quick little story, so if you don’t have half an hour to spare, you can still get your dose of the macabre here.

REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2017 edited by Steve Berman

Review of Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, (Lethe Press, 2017) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

As a cis woman who is in a happily monogamous het relationship, I am probably the least qualified person to review this collection of stories. But, oh, it has a story about Turing in it, and as a logician who sometimes flirts with computer science and AI, I feel eminently qualified to read about Turing, and for that story alone I bought the book.

As a “best of” collection, it draws upon stories published the previous year, so all of these first came out — in various venues — in 2016. Many are thus things I would not have otherwise come across, which is one of the advantages that collected volumes have — they provide a different type of exposure for the stories and the authors that wrote them. And this particular volume is a physically lovely one — beautiful cover art by Dmitry Vorsin, attractive typesetting, and a suppleness to the pages which reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, of why I love print books so much more than electronic ones.

Each story is prefaced by a short quote from the story, bound to spark the reader’s interest. The tales included are the following:

Each of the stories will be reviewed individually, and linked back to this post when the review is posted.

Overall, the collection is powerful, beautiful, and sad. Every single story is steeped in emotion, and lovingly crafted.

REVIEW: “The Sphinx” by Petter Skult

Review of Petter Skult, “The Sphinx”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 334-336. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Classical myths and stories provide such ripe fruit for the contemporary western author because so many of the characters and the details are already known, and the author can therefore depend upon many of the readers filling in the gaps for themselves. That’s certainly the case with this story, which starts from the assumption that the reader knows who Oedipus is, who the sphinx is, what riddle it is that she is said to have told. While I think that this story would still work even if you didn’t know any of these, the pacing of the story certainly benefits from knowing how it will end.

REVIEW: “Her Beautiful Body” by Adrienne Celt

Review of Adrienne Celt, “Her Beautiful Body”, Strange Horizons 5 Feb. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This is one of those stories that makes you go “hmmm.”

The premise is simple enough. A woman’s body is being featured as a museum exhibit, and you are invited to experience the exhibit. The narrator is your tour guide, pointing out interesting features of her body, as well as commenting on the “activists” who are angry about the exhibit.

On the one hand, wow. What a metaphor for the objectification of women. This is literally a woman reduced only to the value of her body; the guide summarily dismisses the mind, saying that the body “could [not] possibly be improved by something so intangible and distant as consciousness.” The activists who focus on her life, on the things less physical that made her a person, are also dismissed by the narrator. Instead, we are left only with her body as an object to study and worship.

On the other hand, there’s something oddly beautiful and accepting in the description of the woman’s body. She is not perfect, but rather perfect in her imperfection. She has blemishes. And, as the guide states, “there are stories in her beautiful body.” This is true of anyone’s body, and there’s an almost empowering message there for women, who are so often judged by how closely their body meets society’s standard for perfection.

I’m really not sure how to feel about “Her Beautiful Body,” but perhaps that’s the point. It made me think and feel, and that’s some of the highest praise I can give to a story.

REVIEW: “Cardinal Skin” by Bo Balder

Review of Bo Balder, “Cardinal Skin”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 5-17 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The opening story of Galuschak and Cornell’s anthology dumps us immediately into an empty plain of glass, across which Teio and her brother and father are skating to reach the mountains on the other side, the mountains on top of which

they hoped to find the sanctum where the Cardinal Skins were hidden. Many heroes had tried to acquire a Skin, trying to save the world from its ruined state after the Cataclysms.

Teio’s mother, Haio, had been such a hero, but she had failed. Now her family come, hoping both to succeed where she had not, and to find her body and bury it.

The story has all the elements of a classic quest tale, but it is more than that: It is a ghost story. It is a story of family bonds and family places. It is a story of learning that everything you knew is wrong, and a story of a place that is not quite as abandoned as everyone thought.

Balder’s writing was quick paced and precise. An unfortunate quirk of typesetting marred the story throughout, however. In a number of places, quoted material coming after another sentence lacks the space after the preceding period, meaning the quotation marks end up curled the wrong way.

REVIEW: “Obscura” by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “Obscura”, Strange Horizons 29 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There are plenty of stories floating around the world about Faustian bargains and cursed objects. The trope is commonly associated with musicians and artists. So it’s no surprise that in “Obscura,” as the name would suggest, the object in question is a camera which takes pictures of absences.

The fourteen-year-old narrator (it’s never definitively established whether the narrator is male or female,) meets a strange man with a stranger camera, and the stranger ends up bequeathing the camera to the narrator after warning the narrator not to use it on people for fear of what it might show. Humans aren’t so great at resisting temptation, however.

The story showcases Lee’s gift for words. The sentences are rarely long or flowery, but there’s a power in the bluntness, in a single, precise sentence of description. The camera itself is fascinating, as are the brother and sister who bring it into the narrator’s life. However, I found myself a little confused at what, exactly, the camera’s powers were. In a novella or novel, there would be more time to learn by osmosis, but here I would have loved a slightly clearer explanation.

That said, the story is still captivating. It draws you in easily, hooks you just as the narrator is hooked, and its climax and denouement are equally memorable. Well worth a read.

REVIEW: “Going Forth by Day” by Andrew Johnson

Review of Andrew Johnson, “Going Forth by Day”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 73-97. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is one of the longest (if not the longest) in the anthology, and that’s partly why I saved it for one of the last. I wanted something that I could settle down in and sink my teeth in to, to revel in the development of world and story and character that simply can’t be done in 2 pages but can be done in 25 pages. From the start, Johnson doesn’t disappoint, introducing us to Neferkaptah, recently deceased, and yet about to become a central character of the story. On the second page we meet Cleo, the sorceress who has summoned an ancient Egyptian back from the dead, whose surprise at her success made me burst out laughing.

I really, really enjoyed this romp of a story, following Cleo and Neferkaptah’s adventures through early 20th C New York City, with funny little injokes and all the unexpected gaffes and amusements that naturally follow upon reviving a four thousand year old mummy. And revivified mummies are not the only supernatural characters to take their places upon the stage…

This story was worth saving for the last. It was witty and entertaining, and the way in which Neferkaptah interacts with a world thousands of years separated from his own is skilfully written.

REVIEW: “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad

Review of Senaa Ahmad, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls”, Strange Horizons 15 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

What if the U.S. hadn’t just developed nuclear bombs, unthinking, cold machines capable of obliterating cities? What if they had also developed people who were capable of the same devastation?

That’s the premise behind Senaa Ahmad’s “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls.” The narrator, an unnamed member of the eponymous group, is a girl from a poor neighborhood who volunteered to become an experiment. She and her sisters are walking bombs, capable of setting themselves on fire, of detonating and destroying a city. But humans aren’t meant to take that much radiation, and so not only are they prisoners of a sort – they’re also dying.

Ahmad does an excellent job of characterizing these women, of showing how the shifting political winds and the havoc they wreak affects them. She unfolds their collective emotional distress through the slow death of Nabeela, once their most glorious sister, featured on talk shows and interviews. Are they victims? Are they criminals? Ahmad never comes down strongly on either side, perhaps because there is no easy answer. They have killed so many, but they also chose this life because they thought it was their best option.

Ahmad’s prose draws the reader in as she unspools the story of these women, and her descriptions of the fires are evocative and powerful. “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is a story that will stay with you after you read it.

REVIEW: “Ghost Marriage” by P. Djèlí Clark

Review of P. Djèlí Clark “Ghost Marriage”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Ayen is wandering the desert, exiled because of her husband, who has been wreaking chaos and death ever since he died She just wants to unbind herself from his restless spirit so that she can return home and live her life in peace. From this unsettling start, the story unfolds with slavers, a witch, a penitent bull, and forgotten gods in order to tell a story about a young woman finding her own way and her own strength.

It’s nice to see a story that incorporates multiple African cultures, instead of homogenizing the heritage of an entire continent for purposes of fantasy. I’m not sufficiently informed to say how well each was handled (I’m pretty sure they were all based on cultures that exist in our world, as I recognized the Himba from Okorafor’s Binti trilogy at one point), but I enjoyed seeing the attempt.

This is not a particularly short story, coming in at almost 12,000 words, which gives it plenty of space for twists and turns. This story has more scope than most short stories (possibly because it is a novellette), so we get to follow Ayen on a real journey. That being said, be sure to set aside enough time to enjoy it and not feel rushed. It’s certainly worth the time!