REVIEW: “TheraBot” by Hannah Frankel

Review of Hannah Frankel, “TheraBot”, Luna Station Quarterly 42 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Velma’s got a new task at work — to program her replacement, a TheraBot called JoyCE. Why have people administer therapy when a robot can be trained to do the same? Angie works in customer support at the same company, and she’s one of the first to receive therapy from JoyCE.

The story alternates between the two women, and collects together all sorts of present-day anxieties about the future of employment — how AIs will integrate into the job market, the damage caused by anti-absenteeism culture, the rise of workplace-caused depression and anxiety, the panacea of “wellness” — there’s something in it for everyone to identify with! Sometimes it hits a bit too close to home for comfort. 🙂 But rather than accept these things as merely inevitable, Velma and her partner Todd make a decision to pro-actively embrace the future, turning JoyCE to their own purposes, and affecting the course of Angie’s life. I really enjoyed the optimistic turn the story took at the end.

REVIEW: “Breath of the Sahara” by Inegbenoise o. Osagie

Review of Inegbenoise O. Osagie, “Breath of the Sahara”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 305 (June 4, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Like its companion piece in the latest issue of BCS, this is a story of transformation—physical for one character, psychological for another. The story is narrated by a girl named Obehi Ehichoya, whose feelings for another girl, Esohe Okhah, deepen as the story progresses. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, Esohe is fascinated by and something of an expert on The Order of the Zephyrs, considered by the people of her village to be “our link to the gods.” Among the most striking creations I’ve encountered in recent fantasy fiction, Zephyrs look odd but for good reason. “Zephyrs were wind lovers, even if the wind shrank them; breathed through their skin so that it became loosened enough that it turned floury. They only came to the surface and gratified their wind lust on first Sabbaths . . .”  When the two girls sneak into the Zephyrs’ temple ostensibly to steal gold, they meet a Zephyr who conveys information to one of them that will forever change them both. This is an excellent story, and one I recommend highly. 

REVIEW: “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” by Keffy Kehrli

Review of Keffy Kehrli, “And Never Mind the Watching Ones “, Escape Pod Ep. 725– Listen online. Reviewed by Kat Samp.

This two-part story portrays a cast of teenagers dealing with bizarre alien frogs, on top of all the drama of their daily lives. Each character faces relatable problems with fitting in and forming relationships, and layered onto their stories are their encounters with the glitter frogs, colorful frogs that appeared out of nowhere one day and cover the world. It is one of those wonderful stories where the SFF elements illuminate and strengthen a powerful message about what it means to be human.

The stylistic quirks accompanying some of the perspectives made me prefer reading this story, rather than listening to the podcast. But both were excellent, and I highly recommend reading “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” for a lot of feels, as the teens might say.

REVIEW: “State of Trance” by Chen Qiufan

Review of Chen Qiufan, Josh Stenberg (trans.), “State of Trance”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 147-160 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The anthology closed with a bang, with this creepy futuristic science fiction story. Told in second-person (not normally my favorite), it quickly drew me in and forced me to wander through Shanghai “on the last day of the Anthropocene” (p. 151), to partake in a “world on the cups of disintegration” (p. 157). What I really enjoyed about this story was that not only was it science fiction in content, it was also science fiction in construction: Parts of the story were automatically generated by AI programmes “trained on deep learning of the author’s style, and […] not thereafter been subject to human editing” (p. 160). Wonderfully bizarre, and an excellent concluding piece.

(Originally published in Fiction World, 2018.)

REVIEW: “Suzhou River” by Cai Jun

Review of Cai Jun, Frances Nichol (trans.), “Suzhou River”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 131-146 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

C’s trip down the Suzhou River in his white steel bathtub is one of the more speculative stories in the anthology. His journey is layered with surrealism and dreams within dreams, leaving the reader uncertain, at the end, whether he managed to meet up with his beloved Z or not.

(Originally published in The Lover’s Head, 2003.)

REVIEW: “Transparency” by Xiao Bai

Review of Xiao Bai, Katherine Tse (trans.), “Transparency”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 123-129 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Xiaotong is a PI whose been hired by a woman named Malin to track her husband and send her updates on his life. What is the secret he has been hiding from her? Who is Xiaohua, Malin’s best friend or the woman her husband is seeing behind her back? None of the answers Xiaotong finds are what you’d expect, or what they seem in this quick little mystery story.

(Originally published in Shanghai Literature, 2019).

REVIEW: “The Lost” by Fu Yuehui

Review of Fu Yuehui, Carson Ramsdell (trans.), “The Lost”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 95-122 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was a strange, wondrous story, that can be read on many levels. On the one hand, it’s a simple interrogation of our modern society’s reliance on our technology, tapping into the fear that pretty much all of us probably have, of what it would be like if we lost our cell phone.

On the other hand, there’s a weird layer of fantasy overlying everything, the parts of the story where it’s not clear if they’re really happening or not. Despite being one of the longer stories in the anthology, this was one of the most gripping; it sucked me in and kept me interested from the opening paragraphs right up to the bizarre and unexpected ending.

(First published in October, 2012).

REVIEW: “The Widow” by Emma Torzs

Review of Emma Torzs, “The Widow”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 305 (June 4, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This story of transformation, revenge, and double-crosses takes the form of a confession dictated to a man “in the final hour of his life” by narrator Perrine Mauroy “in the first hour of her own.” As the story opens, Perrine is a battered wife seeking freedom from an abusive husband, but she also yearns for the chance to live a stranger, though—from her point of view—better life. When the blood of a living calf is transfused into her husband, somehow rendering him peaceful, Perrine takes hope, only to have that hope dashed when the transformation wears off. What happens next involves an unusual combination of science, magic, and double-dealing, and ends with an odd, but oddly satisfying, metamorphosis.  

REVIEW: “The Story of Ah-Ming” by Wang Zhanhei

Review of Wang Zhanhei, Christopher MacDonald (trans.), “The Story of Ah-Ming”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 79-94 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Ah-Ming is an unlikely character for a story to center around — “the old lady who lived in a lock-up garage at the end of the estate” (p. 81) who trawls through the trash collecting bottles and cans to trade for money and any other bit of rubbish that one day might be useful. Everyone in the neighborhood had witnessed her slow decline over recent years; but no one expected her to one day be discovered in the trash bins.

The discovery of Ah-Ming in the bin both opens and closes this strange story. I found it a strange juxtaposition of very deftly put together and almost entirely lacking in sympathy, whether on the part of the characters, the reader, or, dare I say it, the author. Strange indeed.

(Originally published in One, 2016).

REVIEW: “The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng

Review of Shen Dacheng, Jack Hargreaves (trans.), “The Novelist in the Attic”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 61-77 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story was the one that intrigued me the most when I read a one-sentence blurb of it on the back. I thought we’d find out, at the start, how the novelist gets into the attic, but the story actually opens on him when he’s already been up there for years.

Part of the premise of the story is extremely attractive to any writer — a quiet space where one can write uninterrupted, without any cares of housekeeping. But the flip side of it — a writer effectively squatting in his publisher’s attic, toiling away without ever producing his third book — is kind of chilling. For awhile, the reader seems to suffocate along with the writer, until one day the publishing house’s previous director retires and a new, reforming, one takes over. The abrupt change shocks the entire system, including the author, and the story takes a sudden, dramatic twist.

The one thing that struck me about this story is how indistinct it was, in the sense that it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. Only the references to the wutong trees outside the building locate the story in any particular place.

(First published in The Ones in Remembrance, 2017).