REVIEW: Stories from Daily Science Fiction, September 18-22, 2017

Reviews of stories published in Daily Science Fiction from September 18 through 22, 2017. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

“The City’s Gratitude” by Meg Candelaria, Sept 18, 2017: Read Online.

The narrator of this story is a great cop, but she’s been stuck behind a desk dealing with crazies. The latest one thinks he’s a time traveler. Candelaria keeps us focused on the world of the cop, telling us the story of the time traveler between the lines. What comes out is a sideways look at sexism in the police force interwoven with the uncertainties of time travel.

This story comes with a trigger warning, which Daily SF is understandably coy about since it concerns major spoilers. For those who prefer to know the sensitive material before reading, I have included a more detailed trigger warning below. If you don’t want any spoilers, skip over the paragraph between the bold tags, and check out the next review.

Ready? Here it is:

***SPOILERS AHEAD!*** Trigger Warning:The time traveler fails to stop nine-eleven, and the cop makes disparaging and cruelly ironic remarks about taking down the twin towers.***END OF SPOILERS***

“MAD Men” by Corey Ethan Sutch, Sept 19, 2017: Read Online.

A humorous, satirical look at the concepts of nuclear mutually assured destruction and personal self-defense armaments. Sutch asks us to consider not current situations but an extreme world populated by two companionable and argumentative neighbors. This story is worth a laugh on the first read and some deep thought on the second.

“Farewell, Amanda” by Buzz Dixon, Sept 20, 2017: Read Online.

My favorite story from this week! Check out the full review here.

“Maybe Next Time” by E.O. Hargreaves, Sept 21, 2017: Read Online.

This week’s super-short story about aliens and the nature of civilization, featuring a beautiful mountain backdrop.

“Head Full of Posies” by Melanie Rees, Sept 22, 2017: Read Online.

Steer clear of this one if discussion of Alzheimer’s or Dementia bothers you. This sad slipstream story follows an aging woman and the talking flowers who steal her memories. It is a coldly realistic look at the progression of these diseases, with just a hint at the possibility of dark magic. Rees’s writing is powerful and devastating.

REVIEW: “Farewell, Amanda” by Buzz Dixon

Review of Buzz Dixon, “Farewell, Amanda”, Daily Science Fiction, Sept 20, 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

I used to get recurring calls from a certain telemarketer. After saying “no thank you” and hanging up a few days in a row, I asked her to take me off her call list. It was quickly apparent that I was being called by a recording. “She” would respond when I said “yes” or “no,” but not when I said “take me off your call list” or “customer service” or “are you a recording?” These days it’s still fairly easy to tell when you are talking to a program. But…what if it wasn’t?

In this slightly chilling tale, telemarketer Amanda starts to wonder if she is a real person or if she is just a self-aware AI. Can memories be programmed? How far would someone go to gaslight a robot? The story is told from the point of view of Amanda’s supervisor, Turing, who assures her that “You’re as real as I am.”

Turing is a reference to Alan Turing and the Turing Test, which brings a whole other element to this story: Can you, the observer, tell which characters might be machine or human?

The writing style changes in the last section of this story in a way I found jarring; but at that point it is a short trip to the end, and the style change makes sense once you’ve read it. Throughout the piece Dixon creates a consistent mood which, together with excellently woven emotions, is why this is my favorite Daily SF story from this week.

REVIEW: “In the Frozen, Ancient City” by Sarah E. Donnelly

Review of Sarah E. Donnelly, “In the Frozen, Ancient City”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The short story is a hard length to pull off sometimes. The author has to give the characters enough life and depth for them to be worth the reader investing in them. There has to be enough background to give the illusion of an entire world sprawling out in front of the reader, but not so much that the story is bogged down by information rather than story. There has to something that answers the question “Why this story? Why this narrator?” — there are so many stories that can be told, why was this one chosen? And there has to be some sort of resolution, something that makes the reader feel it was worth their while to have read the story. It’s tough to pull all of these off in one and the same piece.

What this story does well is the characters. Both Nerys and Seika are rounded characters with distinct personalities, and any SFF story where the central characters are women will always get a thumbs up from me. There is also a lot of details about the geography, both natural and artificial, which helps to set the story. However, at times I was left with a desire to have more setting; the little hints that are dropped here and there provide a sketch of the scene but leave more questions than they answer. Where is home? What is the ancient city? Why is it frozen? Is home also frozen? Why are they in the ancient city? Why is it there? None of the answers to these questions is necessary to understand the story, but they do linger and niggle.

Another niggle comes from the resolution. So many short stories end in or involve death, in part because death provides a good resolution; it is, in many ways, easy. It is easier to die than to live. It is easier to tell a story of death than a story of life, because death is neat and simple and final, and life is messy and complex and unbounded. This observation should not be taken as a criticism of this story; but it is perhaps a criticism of the genre and length in general: Why aren’t there more happy endings?

REVIEW: “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, Jonathan Wright (trans.), “The Gardens of Babylon”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 11-33 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

For a speculative story about how the world will be in the future, “The Gardens of Babylon” spends a lot of time looking back to the past, with the speculative (or in this case, properly science fiction) elements primarily a means of allowing the characters to not just look backwards but also experience what life then/now was like. The title itself is intended to invoke a memory of the historic wonder of the ancient world; the titular gardens in this story are very clearly presented as a new vision and interpretation of paradise.

The story is woven out of two threads: One is the story of a present-day man who worked as a translator, translating Raymond Carver stories, and the other is the story of the narrator, in the future, who is tasked with converting the stories of the past — include the tale of the translator — into an interactive game for people to enjoy in paradise. Both the narrator and the translator have similar narrative voices and styles, as well as similar goals — the narrator to preserve history through retelling it, the translator to preserve it through translating it. At times, it is difficult to keep the two speakers and the their two tales distinct; but this confusion ends up being exploited in the resolution of the story.

Two things struck me about Blasim’s vision of the future as depicted in this story:

  • First, this is the second story in the anthology wherein the dominant power is the Chinese.
  • Second, the biggest influence on the future was not the war or the fall-out from war, but rather climate change. The war is basically an afterthought, a nonevent.

This is part of what I have enjoyed so much about this collection — the sheer diversity of imagined futures.

REVIEW: “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love” by Julian Jarboe

Review of Julian Jarboe, “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love”, Strange Horizons 16 Oct. 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

The title is a mouthful and more than a little pretentious-sounding, but this captivating short story based on Minoan civilization is well worth the read. Organized as a series of letters from the protagonist, a snake woman, to Ariadne (yes, that Ariadne), the story focuses on the snake woman as she prepares for her next reincarnation and laments the loss of her world and her love.

Jarboe’s prose is lush with description, painting breathtaking pictures of the scenery and rendering the protagonist’s loss with heart-breaking details. Occasionally, the sentences run a little too verbose, causing confusion until the reader takes the time to go back and re-read, but these small offenses are forgivable for the beauty of the words.

Beyond just superb prose, Jarboe tells a story that delves into deep themes, ranging from the weariness of eternal life to cultural appropriation. There’s so much to unpack in each “letter,” and readers will find new layers of meaning with each new read-through. This story is a rich, thoughtful meditation on all the shades of lost love, and I would highly recommend it.

REVIEW: “You and Me and Mars” by Sandy Parsons

Review of Sandy Parsons, “You and Me and Mars”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Reading a story is a very situated act: Who you are and what you bring to the story will affect not only how you read the story but also the story itself. “You and Me and Mars” is a story told by an “I” to a “you”, and neither the “you” nor the “I” are given any gender in the opening lines. Yet when I read the line:

Or maybe you could have consulted me when you started to design the drones, considering that was my idea.

I, being a woman working in academia (and, further, a science-oriented part of it), immediately read the “I” as being female and the “you” as being male. It is strange how the set-up of the story makes me identify with the narrator instead of the narrator’s “you”. I am not sure why it is, but it provides an interesting experience reading the story. The narrator’s lack of understanding of what is happening bleeds over into my own lack of understanding. I am not quite sure where we are going, or why, or why I have been chosen for the journey.

The feeling persists throughout reading the story, the wonder of why the narrator is where she is and why her story is a story to tell. I reach the end, and I am still uncertain whether this story is supposed to be optimistic or not.

REVIEW: “Beacon of Truth” by Charity West

Review of Charity West, “Beacon of Truth”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The writing, reading, and possession of fiction a subversive act. Fiction is the glorification of lies.

This quote sums up West’s story, which weaves together a number of common dystopian tropes — the forbidden nature of books, technology that prevents people from lying, the one person who can lie and will teach others how to.

The middle part of the story reminds me of China Mieville’s Embassytown, in the way it highlights how difficult it is to use language when it can only be used literally and truthfully. Every single analogy or metaphor or hyperbole that the Glib uses, in his conversation so ordinary, is almost unfathomable to the narrator.

But the real punch comes in the final paragraphs. As a parent of a young daughter myself, I found the lead-up to the ending difficult to read, and the very end brought tears to my eyes — but they were tears of happiness, not despair. It was a brilliant finish.