REVIEW: “The Volcano Keeper” by Jenny Wong

Review of Jenny Wong, “The Volcano Keeper”, Luna Station Quarterly 34 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a relatively short story, filled with descriptions. There is only one character, Ari, but the way in which she interacts with nature, including the volcano, with her history, and with the looming future makes the story feel richer.

It’s a quiet little allegory of ecology balance, quick and pleasant to read.

REVIEW: “The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine

Review of Arkady Martin, The Hydraulic Emperor, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

At one point Mallory, the protagonist of The Hydraulic Emperor, describes an artistic influence ‘unfurling’, and it struck me that this is the perfect word to describe the story itself. Arkady Martine has written a slow-burning story, which uses the focus and fascination of the narrator to lull the reader into a state of curious contentment. I, for one, was happy to follow as this story slowly stretched itself in interesting directions.

The Hydraulic Emperor is powered by the attraction of a Macguffin; in this case a ‘Qath puzzlebox’. Kinesis Industrial One engage film collector Mallory Iheji to acquire the box. In return, they offer her the chance to finally view The Hydraulic Emperor by obscure filmmaker Aglaé Skemety. Neither the film or the puzzlebox are important on their own, although Martine skilfully makes it feel as if they are both extremely significant. Instead, The Hydraulic Emperor is all about the journey. The crucial quest’s the thing in this story.  

As Mallory journeys towards the defining point in her collecting career, Martin unspools a languid meditation on sacrifice, anticipation, completion, and enticing art. In some ways its themes and structure bear comparison to Moby Dick, although in this story film occupies the space religious themes take up in Melville’s work. Martine complements these thematic strands with smart world-building, an original plot, and interesting hints about Mallory’s past life.  

Sadly, for a story which often delivers a slow, lush examination which rewards the reader’s attention, the ending of this story left me a little bit unsatisfied. I wanted a little bit more closure when it came to the relationship between Averill and Mallory. I also really wanted to know what happened to Mallory’s bidding partner, Julie, after Mallory was awarded the puzzlebox. What happens to her when she is left without the puzzlebox or her precious Old Earth sacrifices? Unlike the unanswered questions Mallory is left with by the end of The Hydraulic Emperor, my unanswered questions feel like untidy, loose strands, and I’d have loved to see a fuller conclusion.

REVIEW: “Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

Review of Eugenia Triantafyllou, “Cherry Wood Coffin”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Imagine a world in which a coffin maker begins plying his craft three days before someone dies, woken in the night by whispers of wood and the dead, telling him what size of what material to make the coffin. This is the poignant story of one day in that man’s life. The result is a tiny slice of horror perfection, a chilling ghost story in only 750 words. The language in this story is perfectly restrained, letting the tone build from a quiet sorrow to outright horror, and each of the three characters is sketched in clear strokes, despite the minuscule word count. An excellent example of flash fiction.

REVIEW: “Campfire Songs” by Kimberly Rei

Review of Kimberly Rei, “Campfire Songs”, Luna Station Quarterly 34 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a shadowy story of post-war/post-apocalypse horror. It breaks upon a narrator running from wolves (and other, worse, howling beasts) through the dark and alone. There is no place to hide, and no one left to fight with.

It is, altogether, a relatively typical sort of scene, and the details of the horror are vague enough that I struggled to find anything that made this story distinctive. Even after the narrator, Sura, finds an unexpected house with an unexpected object left behind in it, and we are introduced to one of the antagonists, Auntie, I never quite got into the story. Auntie felt like she could’ve been a complex and majestic character, but all that we got to see of her made her feel a bit flat, cruel and autocratic simply for the sake of it, and not stemming from any deeper reasons or nature.

I do not usually go for horror stories, and this one similarly ended up not really appealing to me.

REVIEW: “Midsummer Night’s Heist” by Commando Jugendstil and Tales from the EV Studio

Review of Commando Jugendstil and Tales from the EV Studio, “Midsummer Night’s Heist”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 117-140 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story is jointly written by not one but two writer’s collectives — Commando Jugendstil is “a real-life small collective of Italian solarpunk creators” and Tales from the EV Studio is “a posse of emigrant Italian writers who specialise in historical fantasy”. The two come together to collaborate on a story that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, as the main characters are Commando Jugendstil themselves. As each member is introduced — Loopy, Sparky, Dotty, Sprouty, Stabby, Webby, Leccy — it’s not clear how much of this is made-up and how much of this is autobiographical, leaving the reader to decide. I opted to read the story as closer to fact than fiction, and was well-rewarded in doing so, but I believe it would’ve been just as rewarding to read it the other way: It’s a fabulous heist story that hit all my buttons. I loved it.

REVIEW: “Frost” by C. L. Spillard

Review of C. L. Spillard, “Frost”, Luna Station Quarterly 34 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a story with a repeat title (cf. “Frost” by ‘Nathan Burgoine). But this is a very different sort of story than Burgoine’s fairy tale. This story is told in sparse, spare sentences with a tight, quick structure that reflects not only the tension and anxiety that Hu Tao wears on her sleeve but the same nerves that the unnamed narrator seeks to mask with a calm clarity of purpose.

The entire story is so short that it feels like a handful pebbles. But they are exquisite pebbles, and the way the author shifts POV partway through the story illustrates the old adage that rules are made to be broken, and Spillard breaks some canonical rules in the most perfect and necessary way. I enjoyed this short story very much.

REVIEW: “Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit” by William K. Storey

Review of William K. Storey, “Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 51-61 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This non-fiction piece is a companion both to Steven Barnes’s “Mozart on the Kalahari” (read the review) and to Carter Scholz’s “Vanguard 2.0” (read the review). In it, Storey picks up on the dark side of space-exploration — that one cannot explore and settle new lands without colonizing them. Storey argues that “the U.S. has never been entirely comfortable with colonizing or dominating other societies” (p. 54) — a somewhat surprising thing to say, I’ll admit — but also points out that the aspects of colonisation that are picked up in each of the stories “reflect the times that we live in and the aspirations that we have, rather than being problems that are somehow inherent in the stories” (p. 55). And this, after all, is one of the great joys of fiction, that in it we can explore issues of the present under the guise of issues about the future, and that we can choose what to foreground and what to background. When Storey says “the future of the nation and the world are linked, in these stories, to decisions about colonization” (p. 60), the “in these stories” phrase could just as easily have been omitted: What is explored as fiction in Barnes’ and Scholz’s stories is, in its barest form, true for reality as well.

As Storey makes clear, the colonisation inherent in space-exploration cannot be understood except against a political backdrop, a context where private (often capitalistic and corporate) and public aims are in conflict with each other. These tensions are seen quite clearly in Scholz’s story, but Storey wants to highlight these same tensions in Barnes’s story, albeit perhaps less front-and-center:

Both stories contrast a bleak future on Earth and the possibilities of exploring in Low Earth Orbit (p. 54).

Storey also highlights another, internal, tension of both stories: If things on earth are going so badly that our only hope is to head out into Low Earth Orbit, who is it paying for the development of technology that allows us to do so? We already have first-hand experience of how unlikely it is that such developments are government funded; but it also isn’t clear that private corporations will be able to provide the financial support necessary. Looking to history to see how large-scale explorations have been funded in the past gives us many examples of public-private partnerships. On one measure, these joint endeavours are wildly more successful than any only-public or only-private venture. But on another measure, they were the cause of some of the worst acts of humanity: “public-private partnerships in the form of chartered colonial companies helped to produce some of the worst cases of misrule in modern history” (p. 57). All of these threads come together in Storey’s concluding remarks:

If NASA has a role in the future colonization of Low Earth Orbit, it is not only to promote and develop technologies; it is to articulate a vision of what that colonization might look like. The stakes are high. One can only hope that the Earth’s health will be greater than the authors of these stories suggest (pp. 60-61).

Let us hope.

REVIEW: “Conversation, Descending” by Richard Dansky

Review of Richard Dansky, “Conversation, Descending”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 25-28. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

Reading Richard Dansky’s profile in the magazine, I fully expected to like this story. He’s a veteran video game writer and has seven novels and a story collection under his belt as well. Do I think this is a bad story? Not necessarily. All I can say for sure is this one was a bit of a dud for me, but I’d still recommend reading it yourself and forming your own opinion.

“Conversation, Descending” is a steampunky fantasy that opens with a fellow falling through the sky after he’s ejected from an airship. As tends to (in my opinion, unfortunately) come with the territory there’s a lot of pseudo-Victorian/Romantic era stilted language that in other subgenres might be pegged as thesaurus abuse. The first page is almost all repetition of the fact that our main character is falling and he’s just in his underwear.

There is a conversation with another character further in, as well as a few moments that would have struck me as particularly humorous or clever if the writing style, particularly that of the main character didn’t remind me so much of Harold Lauder from The Stand, chock full of m’lady-ish phraseology that I could all but see this character in a trench coat and fedora, fingerless gloves grasping the edge of his hat as he talked to other damsels along his way.

There is a nice sort of bait-n-switch toward the end but I hate to admit by that point I’d sort of half checked out. I do still recommend checking this one out for yourself, as hopefully you don’t have my hangups. There is humor and wit in here, so I hope you are able to appreciate that more than I was.

REVIEW: “Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes

Review of Steven Barnes, “Mozart on the Kalahari”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 33-48 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story lends itself well to a bullet point review:

  • I really liked the title, and I liked that we got an explanation of it by the end.
  • The author appears to have missed the memo (most eloquently outlined by Writing With Color on Tumblr that describing skin tones with food terms is maybe not the best route to go.
  • I found it hard to connect with Meek, the MC, in those initial, all-important, opening pages; if I wasn’t reading this for review, I’m not sure I would have persevered. But I did, and he began to grow on me (pun not entirely intended).
  • The lack of women with real agency irritated me; those that were in the story seemed placed there to drive forward Meek’s story, not live out any story of their own.
  • Even though more of the points above are negative than positive, I liked Barnes’s views of how human adaptation in the near future might go.

REVIEW: “Things That Happened While We Waited for Our Magical Grandmother to Die – No. 39” by Kuzhali Manickavel

Review of Kuzhali Manickavel, “Things That Happened While We Waited for Our Magical Grandmother to Die – No. 39”, Strange Horizons 30 Apr. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

If there was ever a story I had mixed feelings about, it’s this one.

This story follows our narrator and two other characters, Kumar and Mythili, presumably as they wait for their grandmother to die (although the grandmother is barely mentioned and does not factor into the story). But the house they live in is strange, mazelike, and it is not easy to escape. Yet Mythili is determined to get out.

I like Mythili a lot, her determination to escape the house and the life it traps her into. She’s immediately empathetic. The narrator and Kumar don’t think she can escape and assume bad things would happen if she did, but Mythili doesn’t let that daunt her. Really, she’s more the main character of the story than the narrator, who does little other than simply watch and comment.

On the other hand, I cannot stand Kumar. The way he treats Mythili is reprehensible, and it almost ruins the story for me. I have no patience for a character who tries to get the house staff to sing a chorus of “stupid b****” and assaults another character and yet never gets any comeuppance for his actions.

But in a way, Mythili gets her revenge. She gets out. She escapes. And like the narrator, I too hope she forgets about the house and its inhabitants.