REVIEW: “A Different Kind of Place” by Tobias Buckell

Review of Tobias Buckell, “A Different Kind of Place”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Zadie just wants to distract herself from the zombies. She goes to the salon to escape from the news stories, but the subject just keeps following her as she deals with the residents of her upper class small town who don’t trust the new vaccine or see the need for any sort of zombie protection. After all, Chester isn’t that kind of town.

I think zombies work best as an allegory, and they work particularly well in this story about the early days of a zombie apocalypse. This is a sharp commentary on how people, especially the well-off, assume that bad things only happen somewhere else, whether that’s another town or another country.

The undercurrent of racism serves to both ground the story in reality and further define the sort of town Chester is. As a brown-skinned school teacher in a mostly white town, Zadie is never sure if she can trust the intentions behind the smiling faces she sees everywhere. These aren’t the sort of people to express overt racism, but they express themselves in small, subtle ways that neither she nor the reader can mistake.

All in all, this is a thoughtful zombie story whose themes are highly relevant to our times.

REVIEW: “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey

Review of Jacqueline Carey, “Suzie Q”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Suzanne thought she’d escaped her painful past when she passed the summoning exam and was accepted into Holyfields, where she’d learn to summon angels. But when the story starts, she’s living on the streets of the neighboring city, dodging shadows that will eat her and bad people who will feed her to those shadows. Slowly, we learn how she got expelled from Holyfields and why she has a demon inside her. In the end, that demon proves itself to be a surprising strength.

This is a story that works as well as a metaphor as it does as a literal story, and I appreciate that. I can’t say that this is exactly an enjoyable read, dealing as it does with sexual trauma and coercion, followed by betrayal, but it is an absorbing one. The lingering effects of abuse and bullying are realistically portrayed in the character of Suzanne, and the world is tantalizingly sketched out. When she finally finds her power, I nearly cheered. She’s able to find the ways that suffering has made her stronger, and learns to use that for herself. The ending avoids the sin of romanticizing suffering, of making it seem that trauma and abuse were somehow worthwhile, by making it clear that her strength is born not just of the bad things that happened to her, but also her own choices.

This isn’t an easy story, but it is a powerful one, though it could be triggering to people who’ve experienced sexual trauma.

REVIEW: “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” by James Beamon

Review of James Beamon, “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Imagine, if you will, aliens who come to earth after deciding that humans make excellent hosts to incubate their offspring. Imagine that this has become a known – if still controversial – aspect of every day life. What might that experience be like for the men so impregnated? The result might be this surprisingly thoughtful story.

I’m going to be honest with you – the premise of this story did not sit well with me. Growing alien fetuses in men’s appendixes seemed too weird, too gross. But the concept is grounded in strong writing, nuanced world-building, and a group of well-developed characters. This is a story that had to work to win me over, but it did a good job.

The world-building starts with the left-handed student desks that the men sit at in their support group, that identifies the group to anyone at a glance, even before the men walk in. See, the alien fetuses grow in their appendixes, so the pregnant men develop huge bulges on the right, rendering them off balance. The desks give them an opening for their side bellies, and something to lean against to counter the unbalanced weight. Every detail in the story is that well thought out.

This is a very human story. Yes, there are aliens, and we have to assume they have spaceships and a planet, but none of that matters here. This is about relationships – between the narrator and his sister, the support group, and his own body. It’s also about choice, as the men struggle to understand why they were picked for this role, what it means.

The problem in this story lies in the gender essentialism, which I did not pick up on the first time through, but which I saw discussed elsewhere and feel the need to address here. It presents the concept of pregnant men as a science fiction oddity, when there are real transmen who can, and sometimes do, carry children. This story does those men a disservice and could be hurtful to certain people, so be warned.

I still  believe this is a good story for people who like human-sized, thoughtful SF, but with some reservations.

REVIEW: “Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

Review of Eugenia Triantafyllou, “Cherry Wood Coffin”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Imagine a world in which a coffin maker begins plying his craft three days before someone dies, woken in the night by whispers of wood and the dead, telling him what size of what material to make the coffin. This is the poignant story of one day in that man’s life. The result is a tiny slice of horror perfection, a chilling ghost story in only 750 words. The language in this story is perfectly restrained, letting the tone build from a quiet sorrow to outright horror, and each of the three characters is sketched in clear strokes, despite the minuscule word count. An excellent example of flash fiction.

REVIEW: “Fifteen Minutes Hate” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Fifteen Minutes Hate”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It’s a common set-up: somebody wakes up with the mother of all hangovers and no memory of the previous night, and tries to piece together what happened. “Fifteen Minutes Hate” gives us a vicious social media twist on that premise.

Our protagonist wakes up to find that she has been Blacklisted. Whatever she’s done has been broadcast to the world on some sort of social media feed and reality TV show. On top of that, it seems the the reality TV outlet has access to every message she’s sent, and every video that’s shown her face. The world is dissecting every instance of cruelty or selfishness in her life, a social media pile-on for the ages. The host of Blacklist is walking towards her house, on camera, taking bets on whether she’ll run or not. Her friends and family are texting to ask how she could do such a thing. Strangers are hoping someone will cut her hands off. And until the second to last paragraph, she (and by extension, we the readers) have no idea what she’s done.

The clips that people are dissecting and commenting on online – the events from her past, not the big thing she’s trying to remember – are the kinds of everyday cruelties and follies we all engage in. A video of her failing to help someone after they fell. A message to a friend in which she calls a hated professor by a cruel nickname. A video of a sex act that she regrets. These are normal things, ordinary indiscretions, now being used as evidence of her lack of humanity in light of the act that got her on the Blacklist.

My one complaint about this story is that I found the use of the second person point of view distracted me from the story, and I didn’t think it added anything. I suspect it was intended to promote empathy, helping us put ourselves into the main character’s situation, but the writing was strong enough to do that on its own. Still, this is an engaging, interesting read.

REVIEW: “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” by Cherie Priest

Review of Cherie Priest, “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

I love political fiction. I particularly love when it’s well-written and thoughtfully constructed, tying past and present together with real human emotion and nuanced sentiment. “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” is somehow both vague and direct. The speaker is never named beyond the title, and the listener not at all, though it’s pretty clear from context that Mother Jones (the historical figure, not the magazine) is speaking to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

There isn’t much of a plot here, in the traditional sense. It’s more a story of the legacy of one woman, who fought and struggled and endured insults from her enemies, speaking to another such woman still in the midst of her own story. It’s a call to action for all of us, to not give up even in defeat, to stand up, brush ourselves off, and continue with whatever long, slow fight we’ve committed ourselves to in this life. It’s refreshingly lacking the cliches and saccharine sentiments usually present in such stories, and more inspiring than most (at least to me).

Depending on your political leanings, this story might not land as well for you as it did for me, but I thought it was timely and well-done.

REVIEW: “Cold Blue Sky” by J. E. Bates

Review of J. E. Bates, “Cold Blue Sky”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A robotic AI was used to commit a felony. Her memory has been wiped, but the police bring her chasis in to see if they can find any scraps that might help. The twist? She remembers everything. The narrative switches back and forth between her present day observations of the police, and her memories of the crime.

The most interesting part of this story is probably the choice of protagonist. The story is told from the point of view of the AI, who has very little idea of what is going on. She has almost no experience beyond her programming, and is not depicted as particularly intelligent. In fact, the AI’s are repeated described as “nascent sentience” and “below legal limits,” implying that they are not quite smart enough to quality as truly sentient. It bring up questions about what makes a being self-aware, a person, without really dwelling on the matter. The fact that she can narrate a story and be a point-of-view character answers the question by itself.

The world could be a near-future of our own, but the themes of AI exploitation and the sabotage of a huge corporation strongly suggest a cyberpunk influence, which I quite enjoyed. The caper itself seemed unique, relying entirely on her use as a computer. It’s more common to see AI robots interacting like humans, whether they are our equals, superiors, or slaves. Here, she is clearly something other, and that makes for an interesting dynamic and point-of-view.