REVIEW: “Cloth Mother” by Sarah Pauling

Review of Sarah Pauling, “Cloth Mother”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Wow, what a story. It started off so simply: the young girl Mazie asks Vita, her caretaker, for a turtle. A small and simple request.

When it started off, I sort of hated the cloth mother and the way she lived in an uncanny valley. By the end of the story, the cloth mother made me cry. This was a powerful, compelling story.

(First published in Strange Horizons 2015).

REVIEW: “Barcarolle” by Fumio Takano

Review of Fumio Takano, Sharni Wilson (trans), “Barcarolle” in Hirotaka Osawa, ed., Intelligence, Artificial and Human: Eight Science Fiction Tales by Japanese Authors, (AI x SF Project, [2019]): 39-43 — More information here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

V made his debut as a brilliant concert pianist fourteen years ago, and now lives the life of indigent artist who no one cares much, one way or the other, to hear now. When a friend offers him a paid gig to “test” a new music AI that has been made, he takes it up, not for any desire to help science but because he’s not one to turn down the opportunity to make money.

He’s also a little bit curious about what kind of revolutionary new abilities this AI could possibly have — there’s already AIs that compose, AIs that play, AIs that conduct music. What else is left?

Well, what V finds in the test is not what he, or the reader, expects, but it’s something that taps into the deepest longings of any artist. The music was beautifully centered in this story, and I loved the ending.

(First published in Artificial Intelligence 30, no. 4 (2015).)

REVIEW: “Prayer” by Taiyo Fujii

Review of Taiyo Fujii, Kamil Spychalski (trans). “Prayer” in Hirotaka Osawa, ed., Intelligence, Artificial and Human: Eight Science Fiction Tales by Japanese Authors, (AI x SF Project, [2019]): 7-12 — More information here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Contemporary and futuristic technology provides ample scope for crimes that wouldn’t even have been imaginable a decade or two ago. Fujii’s story opens on Kip, in hot pursuit of a tanker housing enough computer power to mine cryptocurrency in sufficiently large amounts so as to undermine Singapore’s economy. He’s got everything he needs to scan the ship and board it, and a support crew to help him get there.

One tends to expect hard SF when reading fiction writing by scientists and computer programmers. So I loved that this, the opening story of the anthology, blew such expectations into the water by focusing on the distinctly unscientific activity of prayer. Technology only gets us so far.

(First published in Artificial Intelligence 30, no. 1, 2015.)

REVIEW: “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 241-256 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: blood, injury, masochism, kinkshaming, misgendering, warfare, mention of slavery.

Take the content note seriously: We are dropped immediately into the midst of blood and destruction when an unexpected visitor arrives on the narrator’s doorstep, begging their assistance.

There are so many aspects of this story that I could highlight, but I will pick out just one, and that is how intensely physical it is, deeply, gut-wrenchingly, in a way that is entire unerotic and unsexual. It hit me at a very visceral level, touched me in a way that no other story in this volume did — as much as I enjoyed all of them — and I have a hard time articulating just how good this story is — one of the best I’ve read this year — in the context of a review. My words fail. I loved it.

(First published in Capricious 2015).

REVIEW: “Increasing Police Visibility” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Increasing Police Visibility”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 111-115 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: Policing.

In this story, Takács plays on the different ways “alien” can be interpreted in a way that chills this immigrant’s heart. Although first published in 2015, the story holds even more resonance now, given the increasing hatred and xenopobia of countries like the USA and the UK.

(Originally published in Lightspeed June 2015.)

REVIEW: “Forestspirit, Forestspirit” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Forestspirit, Forestspirit”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 53-64 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: racism, warfare.

The first thing I noticed about this story (since I had to scroll to the end to find the ending page) was it has notes! Regular readers of this blog know my love of an informative footnote (I’ll even forgive that these were endnotes rather than footnotes). They simple note that the story was inspired by two arXiv papers on neural networks, which made me super excited to read the story itself.

You might think, given the notes, that this is a science fiction story, and perhaps it is that, but it’s also a ghost story. You might also think, given the title, that the ghost in the story is the titular Forestspirit, and perhaps it is that, but they are not the only ghost, the only unseen, incorporeal mechanism that is wreaking havoc on those who have been left behind living after the great human-alien war.

(If you want to know more about how bad neural nets can be at classification tasks, check out Janelle C Shane on twitter, who pranked her neural nets with sheep.)

(First appeared in Clarkesworld 105, 2015).

REVIEW: “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 15-23 — Purchase hereReviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: warfare, injury, colonialism, suicide, blood.

In the opening story of the anthology, we are dumped immediately into a chaotic world of struggle between land settlements and sea settlements. Î-surun, the narrator, is in the captivity? care? it’s not clear of Enhyoron, and they themself are like a microcosmic reflection of the external struggle between land and sea. Just as land converts to sea and sea converts to land, so has the narrator’s own body been first opened at the veins and filled with metal, and then had that metal removed, carefully, by Enhyoron.

This is a story of the horrors of colonialisation, patriotism and a desire to serve, and coercion, but also a story of redemption, escape, and how to make decisions.

(Originally published in Glittership no. 3, 2015).

REVIEW: “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Do Shut Up, Mister Simms”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 87-130 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In “Blood at Elk Creek,” we’re introduced to Mr. Simms as Captain Ramos’s right-hand man, the voice of sanity to her wild ways, whom she very specifically left behind when she headed north to the Black Hills. While not physically present, he still managed to have

In the present story, Mr. Simms takes center stage. His one instruction from Captain Ramos, before she headed north, was Don’t do anything silly.

The very idea. Simms didn’t do silly things, ever. The whole point of his existence, it often felt like, was to stand by in horrified fascination as Captain Ramos did every silly thing her more cracked mental faculties could invent, as if natural law demanded the presence of a witness at all times (p. 88)

Neither these instructions, nor Mr. Simms’ natural predisposition to not being silly, though, prevent him from striking a bargain with Deliah Nimowitz — she’d help him spring one of his men from prison, he’d scrub up clean and attend a ball as her plus one — both of these, from a certain point of view, very silly things.

I think I enjoyed this story even more than the first one; Mr. Simms is a charming, engaging character, and Acks did a stellar job of introducing his backstory and history with references to the previous set of Ramos stories (I’m presuming; not having read them myself yet) without getting bogged down in oversharing. The result was a character far more three-dimensional and complex than you usually get in a novella.

And Deliah is deliciously amusing. I think pretty much anyone could read this story, not knowing anything of either Captain Ramos or Mr. Simms, and enjoy Deliah.

(Originally published in Sausages, Steam, and the Bad Thing, 2015.)

REVIEW: “Blood in Elk Creek” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Blood in Elk Creek”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 8-84 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

In “Blood in Elk Creek,” we are introduced to Captain Marta Ramos in media res: her aeroplane has crashed and she’s in a pretty bad way — and things are about to get worse if she comes in contact with the Infected. Those who come to this anthology having read Acks’ previous collection of stories about Ramos already know her — this was my first introduction, and even though I didn’t know anything about her or her background and history, Acks was quite skilled at making me interested in her from the very start; and after two dozen pages or so, I began to care about her.

Half-way down the first page we also meet Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, who at first seems almost like a charicature of a steampunk character — mustachioed, military, masking a sword with a cane for his limp. I struggled a bit more to get involved in his story line, in part because military strategising isn’t particularly my thing, especially when much of the activity is predicated on politics that I was not familiar with, not having read the previous anthology. Indeed, there was a while where I wasn’t sure this story would be one for me — not only because of the military line but also due to the presence of the Infected, described only as such but quite clearly fitting into the “zombie” archetype. Zombies and armies? Ordinarily, no thanks. But Acks managed to keep me reading and keep me interested.

(Originally published in Sausages, Steam, and the Bad Things, Musa Publishing, 2015).

REVIEW: “Long Man” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Long Man”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 152-162 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The only thing scarier than childhood nightmares of the Long Man is finding out you’re not the only child the Long Man visited at night. For then they’re no longer merely nightmares, but something in need of an explanation.

We’re aren’t given any explanation in this story, merely carnage. I find myself disappointed; so many stories in this anthology rely on the shock value of gore to make themselves scary that they stop being scary. I would have loved to see a twist in this one to tell us more about who the Long Man is and why he is doomed to haunting mirrors.

(Originally published in Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups), 2015.)