REVIEW: “Cracks” by Xen

Review of Xen, “Cracks”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 113-154 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I’ll admit, I started this story, struggled some ways into it, quit, and moved on to the next one in the anthology, promising myself to revisit it soon. “Soon” ended up being more than a month later, after I’d finished all the other stories, and had only this one left to review.

The second go at it went better, because it was more familiar; I wasn’t constantly double-checking who was who, or trying to compile all the little details of world-building that I was being fed, sometimes too obliquely to really understand how they fit together. But I still struggled; the process of reading it was simply a lot of work and I never felt like I was getting close to the characters. It’s also long — one of the longest, if not the longest in the anthology — and ended up taking me two nights to get through. Finally, by about 3/4 of the way in, I felt like I’d slipped into the rhythm of it, and knew enough of the background/history to be able to follow what was happening.

Ordinarily, it’s not a story I would have finished, but I did, and the ending rewarded my persistence. It has the sort of sweet, hopeful ending that marks out so many of the stories in this anthology, and in the 2017 edition of the same. That sort of happiness in the face of bleak despair is worth reading for.

REVIEW: “A Bouquet of Wonder and Marvel” by Sean Eads

Review of Sean Eads, “A Bouquet of Wonder and Marvel”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 267-283 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Marvels are constructed — engineered — while wonders happen naturally (p. 270).

So says the Irishman visiting Leadville, CO, to Benson, desperate to find anyone who can help out him and his employer against everything that’s going wrong in Georgetown. And who is the Irishman who’s willing to take Benson’s money when no one else will? Why, Oscar Wilde himself!

This is a queer story, in the very most old-fashioned sense of “queer”. At times it is a gunslinging romp; at other times, it is a commentary on magic vs. science; while at still others it turns almost didactic.

But for all it’s uncertainty as to what type of story it was, the tale makes a good ending, not only to the anthology but to the Wilde Stories series. Oscar Wilde will always be the patron saint of gay literature, and having lent his name to the series for a decade, it’s only fair that he got a starring role in the final story.

(Originally published in Georgetown Haunts and Mysteries, 2017).

REVIEW: “The Secret of Flight” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “The Secret of Flight”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 249-266 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Wise’s story was a step out of sync with the other stories in this anthology — quite firmly falling under the horror umbrella, as opposed to SF, fantasy, or weird fairy tales. It’s also narratively distinctive, being told through a series of snapshots — play scripts, letters, newspaper clippings, drafts, etc. I don’t often see that sort of structure (more usually found in “literary” circles) deployed in spec fic, and I wish I did see it more. Everything all came together into a wonderfully deliciously creepy story, whose incidental queerness (almost entirely incidental to the plot) only enhanced it.

(Originally published in Black Feather, 2017).

REVIEW: “There Used to be Olive Trees” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “There Used to be Olive Trees”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 225-247 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: minor spoilers.

Valentin is one of the Town’s two prophets, fitted with an implant so that he can talk to the gods. The only problem is: He can’t. Three times he has tried, and three times he has failed, when no one else has ever required more than two times. Once more he will be given the opportunity to try — but “anything was better” (p. 224) than trying and failing again, so the story opens with Valentin scaling the wall that separates the Town from outside, where the wilders are.

Once Valentin gets over the wall, the story goes pretty much as one would expect: He meets someone, and runs into difficulties, he must do what that someone requires of him before he can claim his freedom, and eventually, out in the wilds beyond the Town he learns how to finally speak so that the gods will listen. But by this time, he no longer has any desire to return to the Town to be their prophet; instead, he and Pepe are striking out on their own.

Nothing was especially surprising about the story, but there were little bits that I really appreciated. The tech was novel, and exceedingly believable (can I have my own nanoshadow, plz kthanx?); and there was a poignancy to the story that left it ending on a hopeful, rather than sour, note.

(Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2017).

REVIEW: “Love Pressed in Vinyl” by Devon Wong

Review of Devon Wong, “Love Pressed in Vinyl”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 209-224 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This was quite a creepy little story, of Malik and his childhood friend Josh, and of Josh and his boyfriend’s death, and of a vinyl record that was left behind. The title of the story says that it is love that was pressed into vinyl, but what sort of love would be so heartless and destructive?

This sort of story isn’t particularly my kind, but even so I enjoyed the artistry with which it was written.

(Originally published in Strange Horizons, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Review of Greg Egan, “Uncanny Valley”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 173-208 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: minor spoilers.

The original Uncanny Valley is the “the proposed relation between the human likeness of an entity and the perceiver’s affinity for it” [1], the gap between things which appear to be human but not quite human enough. All the baggage that Mori’s original definition and paper have given rise to feeds into Egan’s story, a lot of baggage for it to carry, even before one begins to read. What would be populating this uncanny valley, and why? This will depend on the reader. What falls into that valley, and why, depends on the individual, precisely because it is about the discrepancy between perception and representation, both of which are individual.

For me, it actually took awhile before I realised who I was supposed to be putting into the valley; but even after it was explicit that Adam was not a man but a robot, he stubbornly refused to go into the valley, for me. It’s not so much that highly-enough developed robots are indistinguishable from humans to me; but that I find it a lot easier to interact with humans if I think of them as a bunch of highly-enough developed automata. So, robot or human, for the most part, it doesn’t make any difference.

But only for the most part: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story was the moment Adam did something that did dump me into the uncanny valley — and that was the moment Egan made it clear that a robot could experience sexual arousal and desire.

I have no idea how many other people will share that experience with me, or if they’ll find their own methods of populating the uncanny valley. I certainly recommend that everyone read the story and try it for themselves.

[1] Masahiro Mori, Karl F. MacDorman (trans.), and Norri Kageki (trans.), “The Uncanny Valley”, IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine 2012: 98-100.

(Originally published at Tor.com, 2017.)

REVIEW: “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2018): 155-171 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: drug addiction and abuse.

Reading this story put me through the ringer. It is raw, and hard, and harsh, and dark. It is so masterfully put together that as a writer myself, I read it and despaired of ever writing anything ever again, because it was so good, and I could never do anything that good. At the same time, reading it made me want to write, because it was so good, and that means people can write things so good, and maybe I could too, someday.

But what amazed me most about it was not its depths, not the quality of the writing, but the way in which Miller took such a sad story that could have been sordid and turned it into something beautifully redemptive. The moment of hope at the end left me in tears.

(Originally published on Tor.com, 2017.)