REVIEW: “A Bouquet of Wonder and Marvel” by Sean Eads

Review of Sean Eads, “A Bouquet of Wonder and Marvel”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 267-283 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Marvels are constructed — engineered — while wonders happen naturally (p. 270).

So says the Irishman visiting Leadville, CO, to Benson, desperate to find anyone who can help out him and his employer against everything that’s going wrong in Georgetown. And who is the Irishman who’s willing to take Benson’s money when no one else will? Why, Oscar Wilde himself!

This is a queer story, in the very most old-fashioned sense of “queer”. At times it is a gunslinging romp; at other times, it is a commentary on magic vs. science; while at still others it turns almost didactic.

But for all it’s uncertainty as to what type of story it was, the tale makes a good ending, not only to the anthology but to the Wilde Stories series. Oscar Wilde will always be the patron saint of gay literature, and having lent his name to the series for a decade, it’s only fair that he got a starring role in the final story.

(Originally published in Georgetown Haunts and Mysteries, 2017).

REVIEW: “The Secret of Flight” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “The Secret of Flight”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 249-266 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Wise’s story was a step out of sync with the other stories in this anthology — quite firmly falling under the horror umbrella, as opposed to SF, fantasy, or weird fairy tales. It’s also narratively distinctive, being told through a series of snapshots — play scripts, letters, newspaper clippings, drafts, etc. I don’t often see that sort of structure (more usually found in “literary” circles) deployed in spec fic, and I wish I did see it more. Everything all came together into a wonderfully deliciously creepy story, whose incidental queerness (almost entirely incidental to the plot) only enhanced it.

(Originally published in Black Feather, 2017).

REVIEW: “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions” by Wole Talabi

Review of Wole Talabi, “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about revenge. Yemi Ladipo is on a quest to murder the man who took everything from him, Professor Olukoya. It would do the story a disservice to say that Yemi learns that the truth is more complicated than it seems, because this story is so much richer than that cliché would suggest. The truth does not exonerate Olukoya, so much as flesh him out.

The story really picks up – transitioning from pure revenge in a science fiction setting to something unique – when Professor Olukoya begins to explain why he did what he did, so many years ago. His reasons are not enough to move Yemi, but it’s up to each reader to determine whether or not one death is worth it for the greater good. It would be easy to make the professor either tragically misunderstood by the protagonist, or a simple villian, and I’m glad that the story went in neither of those directions. Talabi does not let this story rest in simplicity, which I appreciate. The conclusion goes one step further, forcing Yemi to really confront difficult truths.

I haven’t touched on this yet, but the fact that this story takes place in a science fiction future in which an African country is at the forefront of technology is both a lovely change of pace (and something we should see more of), and a relevant plot point that I will not spoil for you. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their science fiction both character driven and fast-moving.

REVIEW: “There Used to be Olive Trees” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “There Used to be Olive Trees”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 225-247 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: minor spoilers.

Valentin is one of the Town’s two prophets, fitted with an implant so that he can talk to the gods. The only problem is: He can’t. Three times he has tried, and three times he has failed, when no one else has ever required more than two times. Once more he will be given the opportunity to try — but “anything was better” (p. 224) than trying and failing again, so the story opens with Valentin scaling the wall that separates the Town from outside, where the wilders are.

Once Valentin gets over the wall, the story goes pretty much as one would expect: He meets someone, and runs into difficulties, he must do what that someone requires of him before he can claim his freedom, and eventually, out in the wilds beyond the Town he learns how to finally speak so that the gods will listen. But by this time, he no longer has any desire to return to the Town to be their prophet; instead, he and Pepe are striking out on their own.

Nothing was especially surprising about the story, but there were little bits that I really appreciated. The tech was novel, and exceedingly believable (can I have my own nanoshadow, plz kthanx?); and there was a poignancy to the story that left it ending on a hopeful, rather than sour, note.

(Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2017).

REVIEW: “Love Pressed in Vinyl” by Devon Wong

Review of Devon Wong, “Love Pressed in Vinyl”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 209-224 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was quite a creepy little story, of Malik and his childhood friend Josh, and of Josh and his boyfriend’s death, and of a vinyl record that was left behind. The title of the story says that it is love that was pressed into vinyl, but what sort of love would be so heartless and destructive?

This sort of story isn’t particularly my kind, but even so I enjoyed the artistry with which it was written.

(Originally published in Strange Horizons, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Review of Greg Egan, “Uncanny Valley”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 173-208 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: minor spoilers.

The original Uncanny Valley is the “the proposed relation between the human likeness of an entity and the perceiver’s affinity for it” [1], the gap between things which appear to be human but not quite human enough. All the baggage that Mori’s original definition and paper have given rise to feeds into Egan’s story, a lot of baggage for it to carry, even before one begins to read. What would be populating this uncanny valley, and why? This will depend on the reader. What falls into that valley, and why, depends on the individual, precisely because it is about the discrepancy between perception and representation, both of which are individual.

For me, it actually took awhile before I realised who I was supposed to be putting into the valley; but even after it was explicit that Adam was not a man but a robot, he stubbornly refused to go into the valley, for me. It’s not so much that highly-enough developed robots are indistinguishable from humans to me; but that I find it a lot easier to interact with humans if I think of them as a bunch of highly-enough developed automata. So, robot or human, for the most part, it doesn’t make any difference.

But only for the most part: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story was the moment Adam did something that did dump me into the uncanny valley — and that was the moment Egan made it clear that a robot could experience sexual arousal and desire.

I have no idea how many other people will share that experience with me, or if they’ll find their own methods of populating the uncanny valley. I certainly recommend that everyone read the story and try it for themselves.

[1] Masahiro Mori, Karl F. MacDorman (trans.), and Norri Kageki (trans.), “The Uncanny Valley”, IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine 2012: 98-100.

(Originally published at Tor.com, 2017.)

REVIEW: “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” by Izzy Wasserstein

Review of Izzy Wasserstein, “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The city of Traverse huddles atop a giant spiderweb, with strands for streets and buildings perched atop it all, stretching out from the Drop in the center. Many of its residents are magic workers, but magic has a side effect in this place – its use slowly transforms the practitioner. But all of that is simply the stunning backdrop upon which this story takes place.

Danae thinks that Pliny, the bookseller and Bibliomancer, has given her a job like any other: to deliver a package to a client in the further out along the web. The adventure than ensues forces her to confront some truths about the people and the world she lives in, but also about herself. At it’s heart this reads as a coming-of-age story, at least to me. Danae must decide who and what she wants to be, and reach for that potential.

The story is good – I enjoyed Danae and wouldn’t mind reading more about her – but what I truly fell in love with here is the world. I would happily read another dozen stories set in in Traverse. It’s not just that it’s unique, but that the city feels like it could easily contain that many stories. It feels rich and nuanced with shadows and layers that we can’t quite see.