REVIEW: The Book of Shanghai edited by Jin Li and Dai Congrong

Review of Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The Book of Shanghai is part of a series of books which pick a city and then collect stories from/of that city. In the introduction to this volume, Jin Li provides a nine page overview of the history of literature and authors from Shanghai, from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, charting the evolution of the modern period of Shanghainese literature and the influence of western culture upon its development. It was fascinating and accessible and I learned a lot about a topic I had previously known very little. Thumbs up for that alone.

This isn’t the sort of collection that we normally review here, as most of the stories in it are of a more straight-up literary flavor, with little to no speculative elements in them; only a few stories fall under the spec-fic umbrella, to a greater or lesser degree, despite the blurb on the back making the stories sound much more fantastical than some of them are. Nevertheless, when I was offered a review copy, I jumped at the opportunity, having previously read and deeply appreciated two of Comma Press’s spec fic/SFF anthologies. This volume also didn’t disappoint. As usual, we’ll review each story separately and link to the reviews below as they are published. As is not usual, however, we’ve put an asterisk (*) next to the stories that do fall in the SFF/spec fic remit of this blog, so that if for whatever reason you wish to avoid the non-speculative stories, you can (though we don’t recommend that — they’re all good).

REVIEW: “A Deal is a Deal is a Deal” by Beth Anderson

Review of Beth Anderson, “A Deal is a Deal is a Deal”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 349-362 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was probably the most hilarious story in the volume. I laughed out loud more than once at this clever take on two people who bargain their first-born child for everything their heart could desire.

REVIEW: “Sweet Little Lies” by Lindsey Duncan

Review of Lindsey Duncan, “Sweet Little Lies”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I really loved this story, one of the best in the issue. It was set in a richly, wildly full world (the opening scenes and characters felt like they could easily support a complete novel), and it was full of beautiful language and parts that made me laugh. This is exactly the sort of fantasy I want to read, and I look forward to reading more by Lindsey Duncan!

REVIEW: “What the Gods Left Behind” by Genevieve Gornichec

Review of Genevieve Gornichec, “What the Gods Left Behind”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content warning: Death (including death of children and parents; oblique mention of war).

Apocalypse, ghosts, a destructive plague, a lone walker, a talking dog, Norse gods…there’s a lot crammed into this story. I’m always a little wary of stories that open with a single person striking out on their own after an apocalypse, because it’s hard for a single character to carry an entire story, even a short one. But despite Katla being “more or less the last woman on Earth”, there’s a rich cast of characters, and enough interaction for Katla to become sympathetic.

I think I would’ve gotten more out of the story, though, if I knew my Norse myths better.

REVIEW: “A Life in Six Feathers” by Kathryn Yelinek

Review of Kathryn Yelinek, “A Life in Six Feathers”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Oh, I loved this story. It combined intriguing and realistic science with a depth of character and a sweet thread of love and romance, and hope — so much hope. Beautifully constructed, a real joy to read. If you are looking for a “cosy SF” story, this is one for you.

REVIEW: “Mouse, Crow, Cockroach, Valkyrie” by Tiffany Meuret

Review of Tiffany Meuret, “Mouse, Crow, Cockroach, Valkyrie”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is the story of an invasive plant species that kills almost everything it comes in contact with, experienced through the titular characters — a mouse, a crow, and cockroachs.

While I liked the rotating points of views, overall I’m not sure how successful this story was. One the one hand, the experiences of the mouse, the crow, and the cockroach felt too human, too complex, to be believably animal. On the other hand, their experiences and impressions of the “plants” were not enough for me to really understand what they were (were they really plants, or some type of machine?). In the end, the arrival of the valkyries felt strangely out of place.

REVIEW: “Uncompromised” by Ike Iblis

Review of Ike Iblis, “Uncompromised”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 341-348 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The dystopian possibilities that AI opens up are easy to exploit in SF stories, whether it be medical diagnoses by machine, or letting an algorithm find you your next date, or something else. Iblis’s story takes these already-existing things and pushes them to their extremes, to give a dark, depressing story. Short, but successful (though better proofreading to put in a bunch of missing commas would have been helpful).

REVIEW: “Meat Me in the Livingroom” by Michelle Enelen

Review of Michelle Enelen, “Meat Me in the Livingroom”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 325-340 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Before reading this story, whenever I saw this title I kept interpreting “meat” as a verb, a la its homophone “meet”, but no — Meat Me is a person, who is confined to the livingroom. She is visited regularly by Selene, who comes to tell her about the world outside (note: I was somewhat confused by Selene. First, Selene’s pronoun is “they/them”, except in the plural not the singular. And yet, when they refer to themselves, they use the singular “I”. Later on, “she” is apparently used in reference to Selene), as well as the egotistical, jerkish Poppy, who forms the final third of the trio. We never learn why Meat Me cannot leave the Livingroom, only that she is lonely there, despite visits from Selene and Poppy…until the Shipman arrives. Shipman brings with him many things Meat Me desires: he is new and exciting, he is interested in her and her life, he brings company to lonely days. But he also brings with him new, unpleasant ideas, and a purple-black smoke that follows his footsteps and leaves death in his wake.

The allegorical nature of Shipman is quite overt in the story, almost heavy-handed at times. Still, it wasn’t so overt as to make the ending foreseen, and I continued to read with interested to see who would win out in the end. I did feel that the Epilogue had no place in the story, though; it raised more questions than it answered.

REVIEW: “Four Horsemen of London” by L. H. Westerlund

Review of L. H. Westerlund, “Four Horsemen of London”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 309-323 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: References to bulimia.

Premise: When the apocalypse is cancelled, the four horsemen are left at loose ends, so they relocate to London.

Execution: Pretty much no attempt to execute this premise is going to surpass Gaiman and Pratchett’s, and every attempt to do so will be unflatteringly measured against theirs. Alas, this one is not the exception.

REVIEW: “Good Riddance” by Jennifer Worrell

Review of Jennifer Worrell, “Good Riddance”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 291-307 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Do you want to be a hero?” the story opens up: Who wouldn’t want to say ‘yes’ to such a question? Robert, the main character, is also tempted, and signs up for the info session to learn more.

What both he and the reader learns is quite an interesting proposal — from the point of view of present-day medical technology, it’s hard to believe the proposal could ever be actually realised, but, hey, this is fiction, I’m willing to give it a pass. The result is a comfortable piece of dystopian fic, well set up enough that I did feel a pang of sympathy for Robert at the end of the story, even if for most of it he comes across as a rather self-absorbed jerk.