REVIEW: “Forestspirit, Forestspirit” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Forestspirit, Forestspirit”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 53-64 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: racism, warfare.

The first thing I noticed about this story (since I had to scroll to the end to find the ending page) was it has notes! Regular readers of this blog know my love of an informative footnote (I’ll even forgive that these were endnotes rather than footnotes). They simple note that the story was inspired by two arXiv papers on neural networks, which made me super excited to read the story itself.

You might think, given the notes, that this is a science fiction story, and perhaps it is that, but it’s also a ghost story. You might also think, given the title, that the ghost in the story is the titular Forestspirit, and perhaps it is that, but they are not the only ghost, the only unseen, incorporeal mechanism that is wreaking havoc on those who have been left behind living after the great human-alien war.

(If you want to know more about how bad neural nets can be at classification tasks, check out Janelle C Shane on twitter, who pranked her neural nets with sheep.)

(First appeared in Clarkesworld 105, 2015).

REVIEW: “A Superordinate Set of Principles” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “A Superordinate Set of Principles”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 39-52 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: body horror.

Superficially, this is an aliens-in-a-living-spaceship story — but to characterise it as that would miss the deftness with which Takács takes something alien, strange, foreign, and makes it seem utterly normal. Since the story is told in a first-person POV, we only get bits and pieces of what makes the alien alien, all offered up so ordinarily that it takes a question like

“What could conceivably be wrong with humans?” (p. 40)

to jolt me away from a sense of familiarity to a sense of otherness. I tend to be quite picky about aliens in my SF, because so often they are all too human. But Takács’s narrator Ishtirh-Dunan is not human at all, and delightfully so.

The second aspect that I especially liked about this story was the way unfamiliar language was handled — another tricky thing to do well, especially in a written media. How does one represent in language things that one cannot even conceive of? Again, I found Takács’s execution of this [hmmm, I’d like to say “masterful” but that has problematic gender connotations; and “mistressful” is certain no better. Imagine this long excursus as a placeholder for the right non-gendered synonym].

This story was exceptionally well done.

(First published in Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird, edited by C. Dombrowski and Scott Gable, Broken Eye Books, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 25-37 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: death, forced labor, oppression, colonialism.

I was wondering when the titular octopuses would come in, especially since the only reference in the first story was to a settlement called Blue-Ringed Octopus Settlement. But I didn’t have to wait long, as the narrator of this story is themself an octopus.

Given that none of us know what the inner mind of an octopus is like, it’s hard to describe a first-octopus POV as full of verisimilitude, but that is what Tackas manages to give us here — it all feels so real and accurate. The way the octopuses interact with each other — not just through changing patterns on their skins and complex motions of their limbs but also through what is describe as only “the field”, the collective knowledge and memory (maybe even ‘consciousness’ is the right word to describe it) that allows short-lived generations of octopuses to pass on their history to the next generation.

But now the octopuses, Scrape, Pebblesmooth, the narrator, others, are faced with an impossible decision: They have discovered an object which if opened could help them understand the furthest reaches of their history, their very origin itself — or it could destroy the field and all their collective memory.

So what about the title? Well, what matters most in reproduction — that we reproduce, or that we pass on a legacy? The entire story offers us two parallel accounts of how such a legacy can be created and maintained, through very different reproduction patterns. Who’s to say which, if either, is better?

(Originally published in Clarkesworld, no. 127, 2017).

REVIEW: “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 15-23 — Purchase hereReviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: warfare, injury, colonialism, suicide, blood.

In the opening story of the anthology, we are dumped immediately into a chaotic world of struggle between land settlements and sea settlements. Î-surun, the narrator, is in the captivity? care? it’s not clear of Enhyoron, and they themself are like a microcosmic reflection of the external struggle between land and sea. Just as land converts to sea and sea converts to land, so has the narrator’s own body been first opened at the veins and filled with metal, and then had that metal removed, carefully, by Enhyoron.

This is a story of the horrors of colonialisation, patriotism and a desire to serve, and coercion, but also a story of redemption, escape, and how to make decisions.

(Originally published in Glittership no. 3, 2015).

REVIEW: The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This debut short story collection by Bogi Takács contains twenty-three stories (what a wealth!). Most of the stories included here have previous appeared in various other journals and anthologies. I know some people complain about “double-dipping”, but in my mind, this is precisely what short story collections are about: Bringing together the oeuvre of an author that had been previously disparately scattered, often inaccessibly a few years after publication, into a single accessible source.

If I were to identify an overarching thread or theme that runs through the stories, it is — sadly — not octopuses but rather a paradoxical lack of care for gender entwined with a deep, abiding care for gender. Many of the stories are in 1st person POV, and we can go an entire story without learning the narrator’s name or gender or anything else; but in others, trans and nonbinary characters are strongly represented, in a wonderfully positive and affirming light. I really appreciated how Takács was able to use the medium of fiction as a means to explore both the importance of gender but also how very unimportant it can be.

I also appreciated very much how many of the SF stories were based in actual science, complete with footnotes at the end of the story for further research or to pieces that formed Takács’s inspiration. The very best of SF fiction is, in my opinion, indistinguishable from fact, and I wish more authors would cite their sources in the way that Takács does!

As is usual, we’ll review each of the stories individually, and link the reviews here when published:

Detailed content notes for the stories are available — but at the end of the collection, which puts the onus on the reader to seek out the warnings to doublecheck that each story will not be problematic. (As opposed to when the notes are either collected and presented before the stories, or when each story is accompanied by its own note.) Some of the warnings cut across stories: There are quite a lot that are labelled with ‘body horror’. I will label each story review with the content warnings from the book.

Though I’ve been a follower of Takács on twitter for awhile now, this was my first exposure to their fiction. It’s also the first time I’ve actually reached out to request an ARC of a book, and doing so all I could think — and all I could think while reading and reviewing the stories in the anthology — was I hope I do them justice. I sometimes marvel at the fact that I get to live in an age when we have #ownvoices books representing so many different experiences. We are privileged to have these authors and their stories, and I’m privileged to read them. You should read them too!

REVIEW: “Streuobstwiese” by Steve Toase

Review of Steve Toase, “Streuobstwiese”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 27-33 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The jerky cadences of this story gave me little snapshots of the world in which it is set, but never quite enough for me to feel like I knew what was going on. While I like writing slice-of-life/vignette fiction, I’m never entirely convinced how well it works as a story-telling technique, and in this case, I don’t think it quite worked for me.

When I finished the story, I went to translate the title — I recognised it as German, and recognised part of the compound, but did not know the sense of the whole thing. Unfortunately, the translation I got — “Orchard” — did not help shed any light on what, exactly, was going on.

REVIEW: “Rotkäppchen” by Emily McCosh

Review of Emily McCosh, “Rotkäppchen”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 7-18 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I enjoy fairy tale retellings that give me something new. At first, I thought this was a retelling from the point of view of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother; but then some ways in it became clear that in “Rotkäppchen”, McCosh is telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood grown up, and now a grandmother herself, living alone in the forest. Her son is dead and her granddaughter, Fern, lives on the edge of the woods.

When Fern comes to visit her grandmother, there is a sense of the story cycle repeating itself, for Fern, too, finds a wolf in her grandmother’s cottage. But there is always so much more to a story than what you are first told, and this story is as much the wolf’s as it is Little Red Riding Hood’s.

REVIEW: “From the Void” by Sarah Gailey

Review of Sarah Gailey, “From the Void”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 95-104 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

There are so many stories of space ships full of crew in stasis pods, and then inevitable things-going-wrong when they come out. This story is yet another one.

I would’ve sighed and shook my head (and continued reading nonetheless) after seeing that this was the case, were it not for the very interesting way in which religion plays counterpart to the traditional sci-fi model these stories usually fit — there is a lot more praying, creeds, baptisms, and high priestesses in Gailey’s story than in the usual space odyssey story. A lot more religion, and a lot more horror, too. It’s not a pleasant story, though it is finely constructed.

REVIEW: “40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 44-47 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

1. I love the title.
2. This piece is exactly what it says it is.
3. It’s surprising how well you can tell a story through a series of facts.
4. Ordinarily, strip malls feel to me like the last defense of a city against the end of civilisation: They are horrid and desolate things. But this one is not; perhaps because it has already gone beyond the pale.
5. I find it hard to believe that no one ever buys the butter pecan. Butter pecan is one of the top three ice cream flavors (joint first with mint chocolate chip and caramel cashew).
6. Sprinkles should never be optional.
7. Instead of giving you 40 facts about this story, I’ll end with a seventh and final one: You ought to read it.

And that’s a fact.

REVIEW: “Thistledown Sky” by Stephen Case

Review of Stephen Case, “Thistledown Sky”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 107-111 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This story is told in five parts, moving from factual to elaborate to finally each more spare and pared down than the last. Ostensibly it’s a story of faster-than-light space travel, but really it’s that story from the point of view of those left behind. How does one cognize what has happened when one’s child or friend or parent or lover has slipped beyond the bounds of lightspeed? “I just called it death,” the narrator tells us, but this is not because FTL travel is an irrevocable severing, but because maybe perhaps death is not.