REVIEW: “The Chronotron” by Tarlach Ó hUid

Review of Tarlach Ó hUid, “The Chronotron” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 241-249 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: contemplation of self-harm and suicide.

Ó hUid’s tale is a cautionary tale of time-travel gone wrong. Seosamh, the narrator, is the friend of one Professor Ó Neill, who has long been working on “a contraption that could travel through Time” (p. 242). When the machine, the Chronotron, is finally complete, the Professor invites Seosamh over for dinner, one night in 1985, and to join him in testing the contraption.

This story is perhaps the most Irish of all the ones I’ve read in the anthology so far. The Professor interrogates Seosamh on “which event from Irish history is most to blame for the hideous state of the country today?” (p. 246); Seosamh is at no loss for options, including the Norman invasion, the Famine, or the Civil War. What better use for a time machine than to attempt to avert one of these crises? But never forget the consequences of meddling with history…

(Originally published in 1946; translated by the editor in 2018).

REVIEW: “Twenty-Nine Responses to Inquiries About My CraigsList Post: Alien Spaceship for Sale. $200, you Haul.” by Tina Connolly

Review of Tina Connolly, “Twenty-Nine Responses to Inquiries About my CraigsList Post: Alien Spaceship for Sale. $200, you Haul.”, Unidentified Funny Objects 6, 2017.  pp. 64-67. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

This one is pretty funny overall. Personally stories have a high chance of growing old quickly when it’s a clever/funny epistolary story, especially in the form of a quippy instruction manual or the like. But this one developed fairly well, pulled some genuine laughs from me, and didn’t overstay its welcome.

With Tina Connolly having the pedigree she does, I’m not surprised she pulled this one off so well. Recommended.

REVIEW: “A Vision” by Art Ó Riain

Review of Art Ó Riain, “A Vision” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 233-237 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story, originally written in Irish and newly translated by the editor, is ostensibly a story of the Professor and a new-fangled device that he has modified so that “you can see anything you want” through it now. His friend, the narrator, is the first to see the results.

But the story is less about the technology and more about…I guess I’d describe it as being about the futility of life. That no matter how far we move forward, we always come back to where we began. It’s the circle of life, but not in an uplifting, positive, Lion-King sort of way.

(Originally published in 1927.)

REVIEW: “With These Hands” by LH Moore

Review of LH Moore, “With These Hands”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Simeon, a free black man, is working on the construction of the White House, as a bricklayer. While he daydreams about a quiet life after this job, perhaps meeting a nice woman and settling down to have children, his friends Eugene and Clifford are not so lucky. They are slaves, on loan from their master, and will have to return to Virginia when this project is over. The speculative element of this story comes from what they decide to do to avoid that fate.

Simeon is a quietly perceptive narrator, but he can not see everything. Because the story is told through his point-of-view, we never find out exactly what Eugene and Clifford did or who they struck their bargain with. That uncertainty provides the impetus for Simeon to write down this story.

Juxtaposing the White House – symbol and seat of the U.S. government – with the reality of slavery, is a bold and decisive move. It forces the reader to confront just whose labor built so many of our monuments, all while telling an emotionally compelling story.

REVIEW: “A Story Without an End (For N.C.)” by Dorothy Macardle

Review of Dorothy Macardle, “A Story Without an End (For N.C.)” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 225-230 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is a story designed to intrigue before one even reads the first word. How can one write a story without an end? Who is N.C.? And what is the significance of the note following the author’s name in the table of contents: “Mountjoy Gaol, December 1922”?

The latter question is answered in Fennell’s brief introductory notes to the story. In December 1922, Macardle was in prison for Anti-Treaty activities (the treaty in question being the Anglo-Irish treaty that split the Irish island into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State). When Fennell picked this particular tale for the collection, he could not have known just how important the ramifications of that treaty would be, just a few years shy of a century later, as the question of the “Irish backstop” plagues the British government as it tries to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union.

All that, before we even read the first word! The story opens, not in Ireland as one might expect, but in Philadelphia, where Nesta McAllister has recently arrived to join her husband Roger. She is a quiet woman, not accustomed to grandiose speech, but there comes a night when in the company of a circle of friends she speaks of dreams that she has had, dreams that have come true. Then she speaks of another dream she’s had, one of which has only partially come true, and which she fears the future will someday bring the second half.

The “story without an end” ends quite simply, on a precipice of fear for the future. But it also does not end, because the Irish troubles did not end with the treaty, or the civil war that followed, and even now, a century later, still plague us. What would Macardle have made of that?

REVIEW: “The Small White” by Marian Coman

Review of Marian Coman (Translated by Sebastian Simon), “The Small White”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Overnight, giant painted butterflies appear on the walls of some apartment buildings, to the delight of some seventh grade boys. As one boy discovers the secret behind the paintings, he also discovers the dark secret being concealed by a classmate’s family.

Though this is not South American (the author is Romanian), this story seems to me to follow in the tradition of magical realism. There is a dream-like feeling to this story, a sense that reality may come untethered at any moment, and the narrative does not attempt to explain the strangeness.

The ending felt abrupt to me, on my first time reading it. Nothing is really resolved or explained, yet the longer I sat with it, the more right it felt. I don’t think the mystery of the butterflies is really the point – the heart of this story is how people react to the unknown, how they interpret what they can’t explain, whether that’s impossible paintings, or other people’s secrets.

REVIEW: “Salamander Six-Guns” by Martin Cahill

Review of Martin Cahill, “Salamander Six-Guns”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 95-111 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I remember this story getting quite a bit of buzz when it first came out (we’ve even already reviewed it on this site!), and it was the only one of the anthology that I recognized, so I was super interested in reading it for myself.

Usually I come to the stories I review here without any preconceived notions of what they are about; not so this one. But while I’m not sure I could tell you what I thought it would be about or be like, what it was about/was like was not anything like it.

I found Copper, the MC, deeply unsympathetic. He is insecure and xenophobic, and at times reading his prejudice to the newly arrived stranger, known as the Mayor, hurt — even while at the same time I marvelled at Cahill’s skill in developing such an unlikeable character. Copper does get a bit of a redemption arc, over the course of the story, and I liked the way how both men, both Copper and the Mayor, ended up becoming what they feared most. But I’m not sure that I enjoyed the story.

(Originally published in Shimmer Magazine no. 38, 2017.)

REVIEW: “The Sorcerer” by Charlotte McManus

Review of Charlotte McManus, “The Sorcerer” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 209-221 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The story of the Sorcerer is the story of William Carney, “who had a charm” (p. 209). There is a pleasing uncertainty and ambiguity to this charm — is it charm in the sense of being charming? Or is it more concrete, more explicit, is there some tangible magic spell that he holds? McManus is never explicit, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps as they will.

This unclarity concerning the Sorcerer’s charm is in interesting contrast to another character in the story, whom we only know as the Experimenter — he is never given a name. His experiments are scientific in nature:

He was engaged on experiments of light, and sound, and electric waves, and psycho-activities, and was just then experimenting on sound in its relation to the rest (p. 213).

His particular interest is in animal magnetism and odic forces, and the ways in which all of these forces interact is described sometimes in great detail. It makes for an interesting experience: The magic, less detailed, is described in such a way that one can yet believe in its veracity; the science, more detailed, has become dated, so that it is hard to willingly suspend one’s disbelief. It’s an example of a broader phenomenon — that fantasy can stand the test of time better than science fiction sometimes can.

(Originally published in 1922.)

REVIEW: “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves

Review of Clotilde Graves, “The Great Beast of Kafue” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 193-205 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Some science fiction themes are perennial: And in the case of this present story, the theme which feels just as current now in 2019 as it must have in 1917 when it was originally published is dinosaurs. Modern SF dreams of extracting dino DNA and splicing it in to eggs to create new dinosaurs; and apart from science people still dream of one day finding the Loch Ness monster or her cousins. In “The Great Beast of Kafue”, the narrator, tells us of an incident that happened when he was a young boy, living with his Dutch-descended father in Rhodesia, some years after the death of his Irish mother, concerning the titular Great Beast, whom newspaper reports had said had been sighted in the wild depths. A mysterious, fantastical beast, that few had seen — and in fact, seen by only one white man, and the narrator dreams of the day that he might find the beast himself, and with his father’s elephant gun kill it. But when he tells his father this, he finds himself drawn into a story he’s never heard before, and being asked to promise something that would mean forfeiting those very dreams.

In a weird way, this is almost a love story, more than anything, and its strengths lie in the timelessness of its topics (both dinosaurs AND love). But it’s not entirely timeless: It’s unreflectively colonial in a way that would’ve been unremarkable a century ago but which is somewhat uncomfortable now. I liked the way that Graves incorporated the narrator’s father’s Dutch heritage so seamlessly into the story, even while my appreciation of that warred with how problematic the framing itself was. It’s hard to know what to say about a story like this: I don’t want to excuse the author, but I also don’t want to say “don’t read it”. So I guess the best thing to do is to flag the issue, and let the next reader make an informed decision for themself.

(Originally published in 1917.)

REVIEW: “The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar

Review of Lavie Tidhar, “The Great Train Robbery”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Train robberies are a staple of the movie western, a genre most people are at least passingly familiar with, and so sometimes they find they way into speculative fiction, warped and changed when divorced from their original context. This is a particularly trippy example.

On one level, this is about two gunslingers –one older and grizzled, the other young and reckless – on a train that’s about to be robbed. That part of the story is normal. Beyond that, we have a mysterious drug that gives people glimpses into parallel lives in another world – our world. We have monsters and thieving acrobats and a war between unexplained factions warping their world.

Reading this, I was tempted to ask which world was real – the fantastical one that contains most of the plot or the simulacrum of our mundane reality – but I suspect that is missing the point. My interpretation is that reality is fluid within this story, and can not pinned down by logic. Both worlds are real. Maybe differently real, but real all the same.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes their fiction on the mind-bending side.