REVIEW: “The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng

Review of Shen Dacheng, Jack Hargreaves (trans.), “The Novelist in the Attic”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 61-77 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story was the one that intrigued me the most when I read a one-sentence blurb of it on the back. I thought we’d find out, at the start, how the novelist gets into the attic, but the story actually opens on him when he’s already been up there for years.

Part of the premise of the story is extremely attractive to any writer — a quiet space where one can write uninterrupted, without any cares of housekeeping. But the flip side of it — a writer effectively squatting in his publisher’s attic, toiling away without ever producing his third book — is kind of chilling. For awhile, the reader seems to suffocate along with the writer, until one day the publishing house’s previous director retires and a new, reforming, one takes over. The abrupt change shocks the entire system, including the author, and the story takes a sudden, dramatic twist.

The one thing that struck me about this story is how indistinct it was, in the sense that it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. Only the references to the wutong trees outside the building locate the story in any particular place.

(First published in The Ones in Remembrance, 2017).

REVIEW: “Wind-Lashed Vehicles of Bone” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Wind-Lashed Vehicles of Bone” in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 235-239 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: Pain exchange, scarification, mention of death and suicide.

Araana is a dreamer, who dreams distant and unknown futures. He’s not sure why — is it magic? Or is it a much more mundane explanation? — but the glimpses he sees appeal to the engineer inside him. Maybe, with the help of Ujabir the town mage, maybe he can make that distant future become present.

This story had almost a steam-punk feel to it, atypical for the other stories in this collection, but entirely suited to this story. The story is full of fierce joy and hope, and I really enjoyed it.

(First published in 2017 on Patreon.)

REVIEW: “To Rebalance the Body” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “To Rebalance the Body” in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 199-212 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I was a bit surprised that this story didn’t come with a content note, so I’ll add one of my own — if body-modification or vampirism isn’t your thing, avoid this story.

Ordinary vampires are generally neither my thing nor not my thing, but Master Viiren in this story is no ordinary vampire. With all their usual skill, Takács takes a character type and turns it into something on the border between creepy and unsettling. Master Viiren has an illness for which they take medicine, a medicine which they receive from vesicles on the skin of their servant, Biruyan. There is a deep physical intimacy between the two, and the narrators obsequiousness to their master makes it almost uncomfortable to witness.

What was not so uncomfortable, for me at least, was the direct way in which both Biruyan and Master Viiren confront the problematic consequences of adherence to a gender binary and a sex binary. While issues of gender and sex are threaded throughout the stories in this volume, only a few of the stories explicitly revolve around the topic, and its strongest in this one. It’s one of the thins that I’ve loved about this collection as a whole: How much gender matters, but how much also it doesn’t have to be central, but (on the third hand) how much it also can be the central guiding force of a story, and also how gender and sex are intertwined.

(First published in Nerve Endings, ed. T. Hill-Meyer, 2017).

REVIEW: “The Size of a Barleycorn, Encased in Lead” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “The Size of a Barleycorn, Encased in Lead” in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 195-198 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: Mentions of nuclear warfare.

The story itself reflects its title, being small, compact, and feeling almost as if it is made up out of little kernels itself. Much of the story is constructed out of quotes drawn from other sources, primarily from the Old Testament and the Talmud, translated by Takács and then woven together into a beautiful whole. It’s just so well-crafted and constructed, there is aesthetic pleasure alone from that level, on top of the enjoyment deriving from the actual story. I just loved this one, possibly my favorite of the volume.

(First published in Uncanny Magazine 15, 2017).

REVIEW: “A Superordinate Set of Principles” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “A Superordinate Set of Principles”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 39-52 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: body horror.

Superficially, this is an aliens-in-a-living-spaceship story — but to characterise it as that would miss the deftness with which Takács takes something alien, strange, foreign, and makes it seem utterly normal. Since the story is told in a first-person POV, we only get bits and pieces of what makes the alien alien, all offered up so ordinarily that it takes a question like

“What could conceivably be wrong with humans?” (p. 40)

to jolt me away from a sense of familiarity to a sense of otherness. I tend to be quite picky about aliens in my SF, because so often they are all too human. But Takács’s narrator Ishtirh-Dunan is not human at all, and delightfully so.

The second aspect that I especially liked about this story was the way unfamiliar language was handled — another tricky thing to do well, especially in a written media. How does one represent in language things that one cannot even conceive of? Again, I found Takács’s execution of this [hmmm, I’d like to say “masterful” but that has problematic gender connotations; and “mistressful” is certain no better. Imagine this long excursus as a placeholder for the right non-gendered synonym].

This story was exceptionally well done.

(First published in Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird, edited by C. Dombrowski and Scott Gable, Broken Eye Books, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus”, in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 25-37 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: death, forced labor, oppression, colonialism.

I was wondering when the titular octopuses would come in, especially since the only reference in the first story was to a settlement called Blue-Ringed Octopus Settlement. But I didn’t have to wait long, as the narrator of this story is themself an octopus.

Given that none of us know what the inner mind of an octopus is like, it’s hard to describe a first-octopus POV as full of verisimilitude, but that is what Tackas manages to give us here — it all feels so real and accurate. The way the octopuses interact with each other — not just through changing patterns on their skins and complex motions of their limbs but also through what is describe as only “the field”, the collective knowledge and memory (maybe even ‘consciousness’ is the right word to describe it) that allows short-lived generations of octopuses to pass on their history to the next generation.

But now the octopuses, Scrape, Pebblesmooth, the narrator, others, are faced with an impossible decision: They have discovered an object which if opened could help them understand the furthest reaches of their history, their very origin itself — or it could destroy the field and all their collective memory.

So what about the title? Well, what matters most in reproduction — that we reproduce, or that we pass on a legacy? The entire story offers us two parallel accounts of how such a legacy can be created and maintained, through very different reproduction patterns. Who’s to say which, if either, is better?

(Originally published in Clarkesworld, no. 127, 2017).

REVIEW: “Like a Bell Through the Night” by Kayla Bashe

Review of Kayla Bashe, “Like a Bell Through the Night”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Jaffa Volkovitch like many other women had a childhood penfriend. Unlike many other women, Jaffa’s penfriend was a fairy, Rihannon; and unlike many other woman, Jaffa herself was a werewolf. Now Jaffa’s grown up, and Rihannon’s letter catches her by surprise: I’m coming. Help. But what kind of help can a fairy need? And what kind of help can Jaffa offer?

The story itself was fun enough, but I found the presentation/narration of it confusing; it started off in 3rd person, from Jaffa’s point of view, but scattered throughout were 1st person portions, which I never quite figured out who they were, no matter how many times I went back and re-read it. At first I thought they were actually Jaffa’s internal thoughts, but there was never anything that marked them off as such; however, after the third or fourth try, I suddenly realised that the POV had switched to Rihannon, which made me think then that maybe they were her internal thoughts. In the end, I felt the narrative issues in the beginning of the story preventing me from fully enjoying the plot, sadly, even once we got past the issues.

REVIEW: “The Incident at Women’s Town” by Lara Ek

Review of Lara Ek, “The Incident at Women’s Town”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The thing I struggled with the most was the fact that the story was written in dialect, specifically one that is intended to mimic the white American idea of how Black people, especially in the South, speak. It always makes me uncomfortable. In my own writing, I try to avoid phonetically representing dialects, because most of the time this sort of language is used as a means of othering a certain class of people/characters who don’t fit a particular set of linguistic norms — white, well-educated, English-speaking norms. As a reader, I am deeply uncomfortable when white authors try to write in a “Black” voice; on the other hand, I don’t think white people have any business policing Black authors who are writing in their own vernacular. So this is a particular stylistic choice where knowing the background of the author affects the way I interpret the choice. Unfortunately, spending all this time worrying about who the author was meant I never get to quite enjoy the story itself.

I’m also not sure how much I would’ve enjoyed the story without the issues of style, because of the unpleasant and sometimes disappointing nature of the content. The inciting incidents require a content note, of murder and sexual assault of a minor. Sarah, the FMC, turns out to be ace — which made me happy when this was first made clear, ace heroines are hard to come by! — but we find out she is ace just after she’s propositioned by a man, and just before she decides to go against a lifetime of, as she describes it, “I ain’t had stirring toward women nor men since I was born”, and agree to sleep with him simply because it “‘Could be interesting. Something I never done’.” Someday the default will be ace characters who are ace because they are, not because it can be turned into a plot point. But not in this story.

REVIEW: “Sex After Fascism” by Audie Shushan

Review of Audie Shushan, “Sex After Facism”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The story kicks off with Kris on her way to who-knows-where for who-knows-why, but she’s in the company of her new-boss-cum-new-crush, so she doesn’t mind. Her narration is filled with a wry humor, poking fun at the experience of being a modern woman (and reading modern women’s magazines) and constantly second-guessing and revising her descriptions. She is entirely engaging and loveable — except I have to say, who doesn’t like pecan pie?!

But the story itself seemed a story of two parts; and the quirky, enthusiastic Kris of the first half gives way to a much weirder and darker story in the second half. Without the second half, there would’ve been no speculative element to the story; with the second half, I’m not entirely sure how well the story functions as a whole.

REVIEW: “Genie’s Retirement” by Sarah Newman

Review of Sarah Newman, “Genie’s Retirement”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Retirement doesn’t mean quite the same thing for a Genesis Model household AI robot as it does for a human person. It’s not like robots have hobbies, after all, or need to move to warmer, sunnier climes to soothe their aching bones. But robot bodies get old, software gets outdated, and eventually their “life” must come to an end. Newman’s story explores what this end might look like, in a sympathetic and touching way.