REVIEW: “Neon” by M. Raoulee

Review of M. Raoulee, “Neon”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 7–27 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This, as they say, is a story with all the feels. Wonder, uncertainty, tugging at heart-strings, strangeness, confusion, delight, tenderness.

“Neon” is the story of motorcycle-builder, combustion-lover, financial-advisor, heretic Quinn, who lives in a realm where electricity has taken over everything, including and most especially motors; few people, any more, care about the old combustion engines, and those that do — the riders — are tarred as misfits and outcasts. His city is filled with Sylphs and Fulminations and Undines and Shades who travel through the aether, and who can be called from the aether to perform services. Quinn’s world is one where enchantment and sorcery is entwined with electricity and salt and heresy. So much of this we can see on the surface of the story; and so much more is hinted beneath. I loved the way that Raoulee built such a detailed picture of the unknown city, and yet so much of the details to the reader to fill in. I loved seeing the way in which Quinn interacted with his friends, associates, and employers, and from the moment he stumbled into Archae and Archae got onto Quinn’s motorcycle behind him, I loved Archae. A stellar start to the anthology!

REVIEW: Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of a City That Never Was edited by Dave Ring

Review of Dave Ring, ed., Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was (Mason Jar Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I first learned of this anthology late fall 2017, when the call for submissions went out. The concept immediately caught my interest:

We are looking for stories that explore the edges of urban fantasy through queer stories. While the city these stories are set in should be vast and unnamed, highly specific neighborhoods and landmarks are encouraged and sought after. We welcome a broad interpretation of the genre that is inclusive of postmodern folk tales, future/ancient noir, and stories that happen both behind closed doors and in plain sight. Throughout, we’re looking for rich, varied and nuanced understandings of gender, family and ethnicity.

I loved the idea of a series of stories that are all connected, but the ways in which they are connected are left to the reader, and not the writer, to specify. So I was extremely delighted to be offered a review copy of the anthology, because now I get to see how that original conception came to fruition.

The 10 stories in this collection spam the gamut of gritty to sweet to sensual to sad. As a whole, they give a sense of a complex and rewarding city, some place I’d like to visit, some place I’d like to set a story of my own in. In his editor’s note, Ring points out the important power of fiction “to bear witness”, and the importance of witnessing queer characters in the forefront of stories, not on the sidelines. These stories come together in a powerful way to bear this witness, and I highly recommend this collection.

As usual, we’ll review each story individually, and link the reviews back here when they are posted:

REVIEW: “High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic” by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

Review of Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, “High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic”, 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, 293-296 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Why is it so easy to write about disaster, and so hard to write about hope? (p. 293).

This is the question that frames Elkins-Tanton’s essay that concludes the anthology. Writing about pain and disaster and fear and darkness brings with it a certain release, an Aristotelian katharsis, which itself can be beneficial. But what about the light? Some people argue that writing hopeful utopias is to ignore reality, to hide our heads in the sand, or, as Elkins-Tanton puts it, “hawking snake oil” (p. 293). Elkins-Tanton argues the opposite: that it is only by exploring images of a hopeful future that we can make that future a reality.

In a number of reviews from this anthology, I’ve focused on this idea, how we need the imagination of SF writers and stories to provide us with an image of how the future could go. Elkins-Tanton focuses on the flip side, which is how to get people involved in building that future image:

If science was taught as a series of questions—which is truly what it is—then finding the next unanswered question would be easy, and there would be openings for anyone who is interested to participate (p. 294).

The question then, is how do we teach the skill of asking the right questions — something every good educator faces. Here is where, again, fiction can provide a very specific set of distinctive tools, a way to coalesce the “What if?”s into something concrete and real.

REVIEW: “Godzilla vs Buster Keaton, Or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map” by Gary A. Braunbeck

Review of Gary A. Braunbeck, “Godzilla vs Buster Keaton, Or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map”, Apex Magazine 114 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Glenn’s sister, Janice is dying of AIDS. She is raunchy and funny and loud, and refuses to sanitize her experience for anyone’s else’s comfort. Glenn is withdrawn and hurting and really, truly trying his best, but he doesn’t think it’s good enough. Before she goes, she arranges for him to receive a gift that she hopes will help him.

This story is a poignant, realistic depiction of people dealing with death in all of the messy, ugly, ways that real people do. And yet, in the end, the story circles around to a kind of peace that defies expectation. If I give you too many hints into how we get there, it might deprive you of fully experiencing the journey, and that would be a shame.

REVIEW: “Dark Clouds & Silver Linings” by Ingrid Garcia

Review of Ingrid Garcia, “Dark Clouds & Silver Linings”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 309-319. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

What a peculiar story. It’s a strange mix of stream of consciousness, name-dropping, song lyrics, and snippets of poems. There are characters, and a narrative driving the main one, Ada, forward, but I found the telling of the narrative very blunt; at times the piece read more like notes for a story than an actual story.

I suspect others will enjoy the experimental nature of this piece more than I did; I kept wanting more to sink my teeth in to than I got. But I applaud the inclusion of it in this anthology, because it was distinctive from all the other stories in both form and content, and helps demonstrate the diversity of ways a single theme can be interpreted.

REVIEW: “The Practical Economics of Space” by Clark A. Miller

Review of Clark A. Miller, “The Practical Economics of Space”, 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): 275-290 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The concluding pieces of the anthology focus on practicalities and pragmatics. Miller’s contribution addresses two questions:

  • “how human activities in space will get paid for” (p. 275).
  • “What—and who—will we value in the human future in space?” (p. 275).

And it does so in two ways: One, by focusing on the specifics of the economic aspects that go into space and space-travel. The way Miller goes about addressing the questions assumes no background competencies in economics in the reader, and yet manages to present the basic mechanisms underpinnning human financial transactions in a way accessible. Two, by showing how each of the stories in the anthology highlights different aspects of these factors, in a lovely summing up way.

The important take-home message is that if we are going to be able to fund near-earth space travel, and travel beyond, then we need to find things in space that people value, and are willing to give money to obtain. The stories in this book already offer a wide variety of options: Space-tourism, water and minerals, safety leaving behind a planet that has been destroyed, intellectual curiosity, satellites and communication infrastructure; planetary defense systems; souvenirs. Miller’s discussion of all the aspects that feed into the economics of space and space travel itself reads like a laundry list of ideas for SF authors to explore in future stories.

One of the “great strengths” of science fiction, Miller claims, is that it “reminds us that all kinds of people inhabit the future, not just those with a job to do” (p. 287). It’s not just the scientists and the governments, and the rich business owners. It’s the bakers, the cleaners, the AiIs, the people who look to the stars and dream. “Let’s make sure we write them, and all of humanity, into our future plans” (p. 290).

REVIEW: “The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century'” by Kim Stanley Robinson and Jim Bell

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson and Jim Bell, “The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century'”, 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): 265-273 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This fascinating piece is a conversation between Jim Bell, “project collaborator, planetary scientist, ASU professor, and president of The Planetary Society” (p. 265), and SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. The goal in the interview is to

get [Robinson’s] take on how the last few decades of Mars exploration have unfolded, and what that might mean for the realization of the kind of human exploration endeavor that will hopefully unfold in the next few decades (p. 265).

At first, Robinson’s answers seem relatively pessimistic; while we have made incremental advances in knowledge and technology, “not very much of fundamental importance to the humans-to-Mars project has changed” (p. 266). While human interest in Mars and travel to Mars remains strong, “too much fantasy projection onto Mars and it obscures the project as it really exists” (p. 268).

But layered underneath that seeming pessimism is a fundamental optimism. Even when funding is low and opportunities even fewer, our interest in and our desire to travel beyond the confines of our own planet, to places like Mars and beyond, has not waned. It is that — human desire and persistence — more than money or technological advances that will determine whether we eventually make it, argues Robinson. We must still sort out the fantasy from the reality, true, — and in Robinson’s view the reality is that “we don’t have an intrinsic interest in places where lots of people can’t live” (p. 272), so that Mars, rather than being an eventual replacement for Earth will more likely be a second Antarctica — but the reality will then become something that is in fact feasible.

It’s a fascinating conversation, and Robinson pulls no punches in answering Bell’s questions. In the final question, Bell asks Robinson to reflect on why he has spent so many decades writing science fiction, and trips to Mars in particular. It’s an interesting answer that he gives:

I think now that space science is an Earth science, and getting things right on Earth is the main task for civilization (p. 273).

So there you have it, people. The best way for us to sort out how to get to Mars is to sort out the problems here in Earth first.

REVIEW: “Toward a New Lexicon of Augury” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Review of Sabrina Vourvoulias, “Toward a New Lexicon of Augury”, Apex Magazine 114 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In this magical post-apocalyptic story, the Mole Street Mob, composed of witches, brujas, and cunning folk, only wants to protect their community from gentrification. Of course, that puts them at odds with the city government, and that rarely ends well.

The world-building really makes this story. It’s drawn in light brush strokes, but the result is evocative. There was some terrible event years ago that restructured society. Electricity is dearly expensive. Witches exist not only on the fringes of society, but in law enforcement and city planning. And yet, in some very fundamental ways, their society is very similar to our own. Racism still keeps some people marginalized, and those at the top still abuse their power. Which means that the disenfranchised need to be all the more cunning with their use of magic, since it is neither secret nor rare.

I loved how Alba, the main character, used her augury to plan the big magical working they need to do. It didn’t deliver a fully formed plan for the gang to use, but offered her hints and glimpses and partial instructions that she had to piece together. Divination is too rarely used to good effect, and this felt like a unique and rewarding interpretation of the subject.

All in all, a moving story about the power of resistance, and of love.

REVIEW: “Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration” by Emma Frow

Review of Emma Frow, “Negotiating the Values of Space 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): 253-259 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this second non-fiction companion piece to Vandana Singh’s “Shikasta” (read the review), Frow focuses on the ways in which which personal narratives are essentially intertwined with the “facts” of science, even when these narratives tend to be lost in the academic (or journalistic) presentation of these scientific findings. This is where collections like the present one can play such an important role: Fiction is always eternally, inescapably personal.

Frow argues that recognising the central role that personal narratives play in science shines a line on a “critical topic” for future science:

how to orient our scientific investigations and expeditions so as to further our social and cultural values, alongside our scientific priorities (p. 253).

The desire to learn more about the universe, the desire to determine whether we are alone in it, the desire to find resources to exploit, the desire to build or augment a position of military power — these are all priorities that one might have in space exploration, and they are, quite naturally, often competing. One of the things Frow is keen to point out is that it isn’t enough to recognise that these end goals may be in conflict with each other; we must also understand that the ways in which we reach these goals can end up orthogonal. For instance:

Because the 2035 space mission being run by Chirag, Kranti, and Annie is motivated by a different set of core values from the space science establishment, they turn to a different model for funding their work: crowdfunding (p. 254)

On the flip side, the reasons we have for pursuing certain goals can in themselves shape those goals; and in discussing this we see Frow picking up a similar theme as Walker (read the review), namely, that how we search for life depends on how we define life.

Frow covers a lot of ground in this quite short article, but each point she makes is one worth making.

REVIEW: “The New Science of Astrobiology” by Sara Imari Walker

Review of Sara Imari Walker, “The New Science of Astrobiology”, 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): 243-250 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

I love the title of this piece. “Astrobiology” by itself is a fascinating word full of potential; when you put “science” in front of it, you get something tangible and concrete, not merely imagination. When you add “new” to the front of that, then you’re back in the border between fiction and fact again, forging a way from what we can imagine to what we can actually know.

Astrobiology seeks to address one of the most difficult open questions in
science: Are we alone? (243)

Walker cuts right to the chase: The reason this question is hard to answer is not merely because of the technological complications involved, but because it requires us to first answer another, more fundamental, and much more difficult question:

What is life? (243)

Scientists have no answer to this question; even philosophers stumble when they attempt to; but are we surprised that it is the tellers of stories, the fiction authors amongst us that have the best attempts? Waker analyses how Singh in “Shikasta” (read the review) manages to present a fictional planet which is both exotic i>and realistic, where the concepts of ‘living’ and ‘life’ are realised in ways radically different from how they are realised on earth.

This is the key point that Walker makes in her paper: When astrobiologists team up with space exploration projects to find signs of life in the universe — so-called “biosignatures” — they are looking for biosignatures like ours (Walker goes into a lovely amount of detail in the biochemistry of earht-like biosignatures, for those who are interested). How can we even know what a biosignature not like ours would looke like? This is where the imaginists, the authors, the speculators come in. Stories like Singh’s, Walker argues, provide us a means for conceptualising a different approach to what it means to be alive, and hence different paths to answering the questions “are we alone?”, and, more fundamentally, “who are we?”