REVIEW: “The Use of Things” by Ramez Naam

Review of Ramez Naam, “The Use of Things”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 151-163 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

[Ryan] was going to die in this ripped space suit, die thinking of Beth Wu, a hundred million miles away, and how right she’d been (p. 151).

I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut. The combination of a space suit and the expanse of space was both too claustrophobic and too agoraphobic for me to ever comfortably consider this as an option. Everything that I find scary about this is encapsulated in the opening scene of Naam’s story. Nevertheless, there is still a fascination about what would it be like, and Naam taps into that as well: The very different physical experience of being in space comes across clearly in this story, and even though I wouldn’t want to be in Ryan’s shoes myself, I really enjoyed reading about him being in them.

I also enjoyed the more theoretical thread of the story, which explores what use human beings are, or can be, in a future of increasing automation. We aim for the stars because it is human nature to explore — but increasingly our best means of exploration involve leaving ourselves behind on earth and sending automated explorers out instead. As Naam points out in the story, it’s just too expensive to send out the humans: “Humans have to go quickly, or not at all” (p. 159), and quickly means expensively. So where does that leave us? Building better and better means of exploration to satisfy a specifically human need and in doing so making it increasingly impossible that we will ever get to explore ourselves.

You might think, given all this, that this is a depressing story. It isn’t. It’s a hopeful, happy one.

REVIEW: “Tangled Nets” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Tangled Nets”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 1-21 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence, bloodshed, community ableism, sacrificial victims, self-sacrifice

The life of a fisher is a life of routine and ritual — mending the nets, catching the fish, sorting the fish: “the routine was comforting in its familiarity” (p. 2). But the routine of Wren the fisher is broken when xer sister Dwynwen dies and xie must continue to care for their mother Eirlys, never strong and frailer now after the death of her daughter. It was no accidental death or sickness that took Dwynwen, and Wren’s quest is to prevent anyone else from ever dying that way again. But the witch had prophesied that “no man or woman” could ever defeat the dragon…

Mardoll gives us history and detail without overburderning us with information, and every step along the way we are rooting for Wren’s success. Sometimes the most satisfying of stories are ones that set up expectations — or play directly into expectations grounded in a shared literary culture (in this case, western fairy tales) — precisely so that they are met. There is nothing unexpected, there is no surprising twist, everything in this story works the way it should and it is so satisfying.

REVIEW: “Party Time” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Party Time”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 68-79 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Gory violence

This is the story of Steve. Steve is a drunken asshole with a tendency to violence, and an overdeveloped sense of possession when it comes to women. Steve is not a likeable person — this is made utterly clear from the very first paragraph. The question that kept me reading was: Does Steve have any redeeming qualities? Does he have any redemption at all?

Unfortunately, no, not really. He gets a comeuppance, but it’s not in any sort of poetic-justic way. Instead, it’s just a successively violent stream of gore.

REVIEW: “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein

Review of Tal M. Klein, “Kerouac’s Renascence”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kerouac is living in Japan, so that his sister will not see his declining health. Now that his illness has reached its final stage, he plans to go to California to grant himself a dignified death, aka euthanasia. Selling all his possessions leaves him with more money than anticipated, so he chooses to travel there by way of a 22 day cruise, as a final treat. Against his better judgment, he makes friends and falls in love. Then things get weird, and we as readers remember that we are reading a piece of speculative fiction.

I did not find Kerouac to be the most likable narrator, but he is engaging and sympathetic. His choice to isolate himself from the people who care about him – a choice made repeatedly during this story – is frustrating to read simply because it is so realistic. It’s such a common (if hurtful) human coping mechanism that I would not be surprised to learn that psychologists have a special term for it. And that’s really where this story shines, in the ordinary. Most of the story takes place in the “real” world, with speculative elements appearing around three quarters of the way through, and Klein captured my attention and my interest without them.

This story is on the longer end of what Apex publishes, which means that it has plenty of time to delve into smaller moments and build itself, yet it never felt meandering. The story is tight.

This piece deals with some heavy topics – chronic illness, assisted suicide, fear of death and pain – without becoming maudlin. It’s not a light piece, but neither would I describe it as ponderous. For all that Kerouac’s life has been consumed by these topics, his conscious thoughts tend to push them aside, which lets the story breath without ever letting us get distracted from the stakes.

The ending surprised me, so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but I will say that the title is a bit of a clue. This is a strong story on a dark topic, but there is hope.

REVIEW: “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Review of Kelly Robson, “A Human Stain”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 129—154. Purchase Here. Originally published at on January 4th 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

A ‘family with a secret’ story that is well executed and unlike any I’ve come across before.

Helen is a penniless bohemian, brought to the Lambrecht family house at Meresee Lake in the Bavarian Alps by her friend Bärchen, with the intention that she can tutor Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter for the summer. Straight away it’s clear that things are amiss, with the servants uncommunicative and unhelpful, Peter vanishing every five minutes and the nursemaid Mimi, whom Helen immediately resolves to seduce, silent and frightened (and what the hell’s happened to her teeth?). The mystery builds to a chilling end through some very disturbing moments and lovely signposting.

Helen is an interesting, tough and level-headed protagonist so we’re rooting for her from the start. I also found it refreshing that Helen and Bärchen are both gay, so there’s no romantic element to their relationship, a simplicity that stands at odds with the mystery of the situation Helen finds herself in. All the half-truths and misdirection in the story work really well (especially on a re-read) and the ominous atmosphere created is excellent. I had quite a few questions at the end that I couldn’t satisfactorily resolve, and I really wanted to know more about the — without giving too much away — natural history of the family Helen has found herself among. Some readers will love the unknown and unknowable elements of the story but I found I wanted more, because there was such potential for mining the idea further. It’s a gripping read.

REVIEW: No Man of Woman Born by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a book of stories written for the “trans child hiding with a book under a pink duvet” (p. x), of stories that center the trans, nonbinary, those whose genders “break, subvert, and fulfill” prophecies (p. xi). It is the stories of heros and heroines who “aren’t special because they are trans, they are special and they are trans” (p. xi).

I’d been hearing the hype about this book on twitter for a few months, but somehow it wasn’t until about a week before it came out that someone actually mentioned that it was a book of short stories, at which my “want-to-read” radar started dinging even louder. Hey!, I thought, I could review it for SFFReviews, and therefore justifying buying it! (I have a very complex relationship with purchasing new fiction, and it involves intricate justifications to stave off irrational guilt.) But one thing that worried me was that I wasn’t at all sure that my cis-woman’s opinion about these stories was really one that needed to be all that loud in the conversation — or even if it should be present at all.

But Ana is a truly excellent human being, and when I expressed my uncertainty to xer on twitter, xie responded immensely generously to my worries, and encouraged me to not only buy xer book (as well xie should!) but also review it. I’m so glad, because it is a real treat, and while I am manifestly not the target audience for these stories, it is my hope that I can boost the signal not only for those who are, but for others like me, who simply want to read beautiful stories well written. These stories may not have been written for me, but I have been benefited, entertained, and enthralled by reading them.

As is our practice on this site, I’ll review the stories individually and link them back to this post when they’re published. Each story comes with their own content warning, which I reproduce here so that people are informed before clicking through to the review.

  • “Tangled Nets” (content note: Violence, Bloodshed, Community Ableism, Sacrificial Victims, Self-Sacrifice)
  • “King’s Favor” (content note: Border Walls, Population Purges, Violence, Self-Harm)
  • “His Father’s Son” (content note: Violence and Sexualized Violence; Bloodshed; Death of Family, Parents, and Minor Children)
  • “Daughter of Kings” (content note: Misgendering, Parental Bigotry, Parental Death)
  • “Early to Rise” (content note: Magical Curses, Non-Consensual Kissing, Self-Harm)
  • “No Man Of Woman Born” (content note: Governmental Oppression, Emergency Cesarean Births, Rape)
  • “The Wish-Giver”

The stories are all long and lush, fully developed and described. I have only two complaints about the book: First, it isn’t long enough — only seven stories! I want more! — Second, it doesn’t have any pictures. I’d love to read these stories to my 6 year old daughter, but she still doesn’t have enough patience for long stories unless there are pictures. Both of these complaints are solvable: Ana Mardoll can write more stories, and I can sit down one day with my paints and paint my own illustrations for my daughter. Maybe I’ll read her the stories in pieces and we can paint pictures of them together.

REVIEW: “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” by David Erik Nelson

Review of David Erik Nelson, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 107—127. Purchase Here. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2017. Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

You know when you come home from work early and your wife’s in bed with a cop, and then said wife shoots you in the face with your own gun? Yeah, this is one of those stories. And it’s great. The three short opening paragraphs alone are a textbook example of how to start a short story to get maximum impact – we have action (sighting of a hanged woman, narrow escape from a car accident), location (somewhere in the sticks near Calcutta, Ohio), context (the protagonist — Lyle —isn’t thinking straight) and mystery (he doesn’t want to think about his ear, his wife, the detective or the gun he’s carrying, though we don’t yet know why). What I at first thought was going to be a simple revenge story (once we find out what happened with the detective and Lyle’s wife) then takes a sharp left into something else when he sees the ‘hanged’ woman, and all the parts roll together into a pleasingly twisted ending.

Nelson also plays with our expectations and perceptions. For example, the section with the hanging seems believable because of the community involved and the way they are characterised, yet they are validated in the end — making the story more horrific. I enjoyed the way the tale played with the idea of being hagridden, and who is doing the riding and why. My only slight disappointment was that I was rather hoping that the lack of emotion on Lyle’s part, whether through shock or a more profound mental imbalance, would allow him to change the ending, which felt a bit inevitable. But then, this is a horror story. And a thoroughly enjoyable one.