REVIEW: “Early to Rise” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Early to Rise”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 104-132 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Magical curses, non-consensual kissing, mention of self-harm.

Retold fairy tales are tricky to pull off — so when one is done as masterfully as this retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” is, it is a triumph. The best retold fairy tales are ones where the story is not only told again but it’s transformed in a way that makes it entirely new.

There is so much to love about this story — Claude growing up not isolated in a forest cottage, deprived of parents, but kept close within the comfort and love of family, both parents and siblings. The issue of the pressure of finding one’s True Love being addressed head on: When one’s future depends on one finding it, finding it seems inescapably hard. And my personal favorite part, how magic is finally satisfied not through emotion but through logic, and still there is a happy ending.

If you like retold fairy tales, this version of Sleeping Beauty is totally for you.

REVIEW: “Daughter of Kings” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Daughter of Kings”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 74-103 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Misgendering, parental bigotry, mention of parental death.

Long ago when dragons roamed the lands, Ásdís and her golden sword united the clans and brought peace to the land and became queen. But peace did not last long, as her three sons fell to quarreling and war, and when Ásdís died she sheathed the golden sword in a stone and a wand-witch prophesied that one day a daughter of Ásdís’s line would draw the sword and bring peace again to the land.

Oh, how I loved this story too. It has elements of a fairy tale — dragons, witches, enchanted swords, prophesies — but the characters that inhabit the story are not the flat charicatures of fairy tales, they are real and living and breathing, giving the story more the quality of myth than of fairy tale.

There are far too few stories with truly happy endings, but the story of Finndís, king’s daughter and queen’s granddaughter, and how she came into the birthright that had been prophesied two generations earlier made me cry with gladness.

REVIEW: “His Father’s Son” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “His Father’s Son”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 47-73 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence and sexualized violence, bloodshed, death of family and children.

Oh, this story I loved! It is fiercely, surgingly, triumphantly joyful, and though it is predicated on violence, bloodshed, and death, it is permeated with love — love and acceptance that shines out of the characters and gets you right in the gut.

More stories like this, please, kthanx.

REVIEW: “King’s Favor” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “King’s Favor”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 22-46 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: border walls, population purges, violence, mention of self-harm.

I have to admit, my feelings towards this story of Caran the hedge-mage who is sent as a spy into the kingdom of Northnesse with a view towards overthrowing their witch-queen are…ambivalent.

I actually started the story once, broke down a few pages in, and had to start it again from the beginning a few days later. The primary issue the first time around was linguistic: I found the neopronouns ‘nee’ and ‘ner’ difficult to read, because I’d never been exposed to them before. Even uncapitalized, they read like proper names rather than pronouns to me, and when they occurred capitalized, this was even more pronounced.

This is more a matter of familiarity than anything, but given that the neopronouns in the previous story, xie and xer, were different, I did wonder what the utility of having multiple neoppronouns was. Do they carry with them some subtle distinction? I don’t know, but while I feel like I should know, I don’t know how to find out. It’s quite a minor point, but it made me feel I was missing out on an aspect of the story and had no way to reach it.

On second attempt, I found it easier to read the pronouns, though occasionally my brain still wanted to supply ‘nee’s’ as the possessive of ‘nee’ rather than ‘ner’. This time, though, I kept being distracted from the story by all the world-building I was being fed. I felt that the story read more like notes for a novel (and what a glorious novel it would be!), for the author’s own consumption, than something that we, external readers, were meant to be reading.

All the same, these “notes for a novel” were more enjoyable and more satisfying to read than many short stories I’ve reviewed for this site, and the ending made me smile. I also found that the story forced me to push back against the limits of my own authorial imagination — something which is unfortunately still all to parochial for my liking sometimes — and make me grapple with why I, as an author, still find it a struggle to move beyond centering my own cisness. I want to read stories like this, even if I find them a struggle, because I learn something from doing so and come away from them just a little bit edified, as both a writer and a person.

REVIEW: “Toward Asteroid Exploration” by Roland Lehoucq

Review of Roland Lehoucq, “Toward Asteroid Exploration”, 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): 165-172 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Mars is usually the destination that captures our collective imagination in the context of human-possible space exploration. Asteroids are, if anything, objects of destruction of humanity, not objects of their preservation. And yet, as Ramez Naam explored in his story “The Use of Things” (read the review), asteroids may in fact provide us with the crucial stepping stones humanity needs. In the nonfiction companion piece to Naam’s story, Lehoucq explores the conditions under which asteroid exploration can be undertaken.

First, there is the paradox that any asteroid to be close enough to be of use may also be, potentially, close enough to be of danger. To determine which are threats and which are not, we “must be able to…accurately predict their flight path” (p. 165). Only the “near-earth asteroids” (NEA) are suitable for the type of exploration that Naam writes about; but there are plenty of options within that subset: “As of 2016, around 15,000 NEAs are known” (p. 166), and it is quite likely that there are many, many more, especially ones of smaller size which are harder to detect.

In addition to knowing where they are and how big they are (and how fast they are rotating!) we also need to know their geological make-up — what kinds of minerals are present, how dense is the asteroid, how porous, how much water does it (possibly) contain? The difficulty here is that “this kind of information is very difficult to accurately determine using Earth-based surveys; it will require physical sampling” (p. 166). Because of their near-earth status, however, it is possible to send surveying equipment to the asteroids and back, and a handful of such missions have already been successful.

Once the likely candidates have been identified, they must in fact be mined — for water, for gold, for nickel-iron alloys. Lehoucq is optimistic about the technological possibilities here:

Such ambitious plans may seem like the mirage of a far-distant future, but the groundwork for a realistic implementation of asteroid mining is already being laid. In 2012, NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts announced the Robotic Asteroid Prospector project, which will examine and evaluate the feasibility of asteroid mining in terms of means, methods, and systems (p. 168).

The mining activity will have to be run by robots, programmed not only to run the mining equipment but also to separate the output, and to box it up for use elsewhere. All of this activity requires energy, which raises the next issue: How to provide that energy. Lehoucq offers two feasible options: solar power, for below 100 kilowatts (p. 170), and small fission nuclear reactors, for more efficient energy production (p. 170).

The remaining question, then, is what to do with the materials once mined: Do they get sent back to earth (probably the more likely, at least in initial stages), or are they processed on the asteroid to provide the materials for further space exploration (as in Naam’s story)? That question is one only the future can answer.

This may seem a tall task: But the point of Lehoucq’s article is that each individual step is not only feasible, but we already have been taking steps towards achieving it. When it comes to asteroids, mankind needn’t make one giant leap all in one go, but can many small steps, one by one.

REVIEW: “All Clear” by Hao He

Review of Hao He, “All Clear”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In the near future, the world has fragmented from what we know. Zhang Dong’s father blames technology and change, and has founded a village that rests on family and tradition, a culture that Zhang Dong chafes against, at the same time that he struggles to communicate with his own son. All of this comes to a head when members of several other villages or enclaves come together to attack.

This story has it all – fear and rejection of technology, psychic powers, the collapse of our current world-order, inter-generational conflict, and of course, fighting and intrigue. It’s a lot, but the story carries it well, balancing world-building with plot and character to create a harmonious whole.

Zhang Dong is a truly sympathetic protagonist. He wants to be a good person, a good son, a good father, but he also wants to happy, and he senses that these things may be mutually antagonistic. I suspect that many people know that feeling. He has been toying with the notion of moving away and founding his own village, a concept he returns to a handful of times during the narrative. Again, many people today daydream about running away from their lives (often to start a goat farm, but that may just be the people I know). By the end of the story, Zhang Dong comes to believe that maybe he can shift his current circumstances to both facilitate communication and maybe better line up with his moral compass, which is a hopeful note for all of us.

For all that the conflict is fairly action-oriented, this story felt like a slow build, once the initial action-scene wraps up. And that’s a good thing! It gives the reader time to get to know the characters and the world and the background up until this moment. I would recommend this for anyone who likes human-centered near-future science fiction with subtle themes.

REVIEW: “The Auteur” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “The Auteur”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 98-115 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Simon, Cate, and Edwin all work in a movie rental place, and Cate — self-described “in-house horror specialist” (p. 99) — spends a lot of time rehearsing the merits and demerits of various horror movies to her co-worker Simon. None of them are what he really wants to watch: What he wants access to are the movies Cate, “world-changing auteur of pure horror” (also self-described, p. 101), makes.

It’s difficult to describe a movie in words, and even more difficult with a movie that relies so much on timing, pacing, angles, and sounds, as horror movies do. But that’s what we get in this story when Simon finally gets a chance to see one of Cate’s movies, alternating description of the movie, recounting of dialogue in the movie, and Simon’s reactions to it. In the end, this story felt much more like a clinical description of horror than actually horror itself.

(Originally published in Turn to Ash, 2016).

REVIEW: “Mired” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Mired”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 82-96 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Unlike some of the other stories in this collection, which go more for the grisly and the gory, this story opens with a nightmare scenario so parody-like it’s more amusing than horrifying: A researcher confronts a neon green blob in his closet, while the blob eats his research. (What kind of research? you might ask. Apparently Randolph is the type of pretentious guy who reads Derrida, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He is also the type of guy who when confronted with a neon green blob panics and calls a woman (whose name he doesn’t even remember correctly) to come and sort things out for him — but he’s not even got enough courage to go through with that!)

I sort of feel like I should’ve come away from this story with some great weighty reflections about man’s relationship to his work, and the weight of ideas that are never read or grappled with, or even some sort of sense of kinship to Randolph, an academic philosopher like myself; but he was never really sympathetic enough for me to be all that bothered by what ended up happening to him.

(Originally published in Double Feature Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “The Use of Things” by Ramez Naam

Review of Ramez Naam, “The Use of Things”, 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): 151-163 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

[Ryan] was going to die in this ripped space suit, die thinking of Beth Wu, a hundred million miles away, and how right she’d been (p. 151).

I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut. The combination of a space suit and the expanse of space was both too claustrophobic and too agoraphobic for me to ever comfortably consider this as an option. Everything that I find scary about this is encapsulated in the opening scene of Naam’s story. Nevertheless, there is still a fascination about what would it be like, and Naam taps into that as well: The very different physical experience of being in space comes across clearly in this story, and even though I wouldn’t want to be in Ryan’s shoes myself, I really enjoyed reading about him being in them.

I also enjoyed the more theoretical thread of the story, which explores what use human beings are, or can be, in a future of increasing automation. We aim for the stars because it is human nature to explore — but increasingly our best means of exploration involve leaving ourselves behind on earth and sending automated explorers out instead. As Naam points out in the story, it’s just too expensive to send out the humans: “Humans have to go quickly, or not at all” (p. 159), and quickly means expensively. So where does that leave us? Building better and better means of exploration to satisfy a specifically human need and in doing so making it increasingly impossible that we will ever get to explore ourselves.

You might think, given all this, that this is a depressing story. It isn’t. It’s a hopeful, happy one.

REVIEW: “Tangled Nets” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Tangled Nets”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 1-21 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence, bloodshed, community ableism, sacrificial victims, self-sacrifice

The life of a fisher is a life of routine and ritual — mending the nets, catching the fish, sorting the fish: “the routine was comforting in its familiarity” (p. 2). But the routine of Wren the fisher is broken when xer sister Dwynwen dies and xie must continue to care for their mother Eirlys, never strong and frailer now after the death of her daughter. It was no accidental death or sickness that took Dwynwen, and Wren’s quest is to prevent anyone else from ever dying that way again. But the witch had prophesied that “no man or woman” could ever defeat the dragon…

Mardoll gives us history and detail without overburderning us with information, and every step along the way we are rooting for Wren’s success. Sometimes the most satisfying of stories are ones that set up expectations — or play directly into expectations grounded in a shared literary culture (in this case, western fairy tales) — precisely so that they are met. There is nothing unexpected, there is no surprising twist, everything in this story works the way it should and it is so satisfying.