REVIEW: “State of Trance” by Chen Qiufan

Review of Chen Qiufan, Josh Stenberg (trans.), “State of Trance”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 147-160 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The anthology closed with a bang, with this creepy futuristic science fiction story. Told in second-person (not normally my favorite), it quickly drew me in and forced me to wander through Shanghai “on the last day of the Anthropocene” (p. 151), to partake in a “world on the cups of disintegration” (p. 157). What I really enjoyed about this story was that not only was it science fiction in content, it was also science fiction in construction: Parts of the story were automatically generated by AI programmes “trained on deep learning of the author’s style, and […] not thereafter been subject to human editing” (p. 160). Wonderfully bizarre, and an excellent concluding piece.

(Originally published in Fiction World, 2018.)

REVIEW: “Ah Fang’s Lamp” by Wang Anyi

Review of Wang Anyi, Helen Wang (trans.), “Ah Fang’s Lamp”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 1-8 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Ah Fang hangs her lamp outside her door, to sell fruits and vegetables to passers-by, changing the entire life of the street, in the eyes of the unnamed narrator who walks the street daily and weaves their “own beautiful fairy tale, which, on grey or rainy days, inspires [them] not to be disheartened” (p. 8).

The story itself doesn’t have any speculative elements to it, but it was full of finely crafted details that made me get a real sense of the space and the place, something I struggle with sometimes, due to mild aphantasia. Normally I gloss over a lot of written description, but here, I really felt like a few well-placed words conjured up vivid pictures.

(First published in People’s Daily Overseas Edition, 2018.)

REVIEW: “Six Years Stolen” by Damon L. Wakes

Review of Damon L. Wakes, “Six Years Stolen” in Ten Little Astronauts, (Unbound Digital, 2018): 73-104 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Six Years Stolen” is another murder mystery — a sniper is picking off policemen, one by one, and Malcolm is co-opted by his superiors to track down the murderer. But this version is a bit more noir than the previous one — set against a grimly dark backdrop that is presumably in the future but at the beginning feels (despite what would be obvious anachronisms) rather like the 1930s. It doesn’t take long for it to take a sharp turn into dystopia, though, when we find out that everyone has been drugged without their knowledge, for more than a century — a drug that prevents people from blacking out each day. I would say more about the drug and the side effects it is intended to prevent, but that would give away too much of the horror… This was a superlative premise, excellently executed.

REVIEW: “Ghosts of Bari” by Wren Wallis

Review of Wren Wallis, “Ghosts of Bari”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 114-124 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Empires rise and empires falls, but against this grand backdrop, “salvage is the only long-term game in the universe” (p. 114). Eli, Mati, and Kin are a team of salvagers who work in the Bari region of the universe — a place that few other salvagers go — harvesting whatever they can from the ghost ships that float through there. They’re well-trained, they’re well-informed, they are good at what they do. But no amount of knowledge or experience can prepare the crew for a ship so old it doesn’t turn up in any of the Oracle’s databases. Not only that — this ship isn’t dead.

The story ultimately circles back to where it starts: The rise and fall of empires, how empires can be remembered and memorialised. There is a sharp pathos to this story that nearly brought tears to my eyes.

REVIEW: “Murder By Magnetism” by Damon L. Wakes

Review of Damon L. Wakes, “Murder By Magnetism” in Ten Little Astronauts, (Unbound Digital, 2018): 69-71 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This brief non-fiction interlude follows “Ten Little Astronauts” and describes some of the motivation behind the story, as well as the author’s choices concerning how to incorporate the science into the fiction. I found it interesting to read Wakes’ explanation for why he chose a relatively hard SF framework for the story, ensuring that “easy” answers to the whodunit question could be excluded (this despite the fact that briefly the characters entertain the possibility that the killer is an alien).

I myself didn’t know enough of the science to know, while reading the story, how well Wakes accomplished what he set out to do, so I appreciated the chance to read a bit more about the fact behind the fiction. In reading this I also found out that a promotional video for the novella was filmed onboard HMS Alliance. For those of you who are interested, you can view it on youtube here; however, I would recommend reading the story first.

REVIEW: “The Time Traveler’s Husband” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “The Time Traveler’s Husband”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 61-68 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Regarding the title, it’s nice to see the man identified purely by his relationship to someone else, for once! (And while it isn’t immediate from the title, that “someone else” is herself a woman.)

But if you came to this story from its title hoping for time-travel, you might end up being disappointed — it really truly is the story of her husband, the story of the one who is left behind and who has to make a life living each moment in time successively. We never know his name, but we learn intimate details of his life, his relationship with his wife, and also his relationship with his father. The time traveling isn’t incidental, but it is definitely the backdrop for the telling of the relationships, not the story itself.

It was a beautifully sad story, and also a beautiful story. Midway through, it felt like it could continue in the vein it opened in without any resolution, but then it looped back on itself coming around full circle. I found the ending satisfying.

REVIEW: “Ten Little Astronauts” by Damon L. Wakes

Review of Damon L. Wakes, “Ten Little Astronauts” in Ten Little Astronauts, (Unbound Digital, 2018): 1-67 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story is billed as “Agatha Christie in Space”. I’m not actually a Christie reader myself — somehow, mystery has never made it high enough up my priority queue to read, though I’ve enjoyed TV adaptations of Christie’s stories — so I can’t speak to how well the Christie-style was rendered, but as a mystery it held up well. We got our first body on the first page, and very quickly after that we were given a panoply of possible suspects, each with their own very different and very strong preferences and motivations. The opening pages fairly teemed with conflict. After that, the story was stuffed full of uncertainty, second-guessing, mistakenly drawn conclusions, and even a possibility that would not have been available to Christie — that the murderer might be an alien. All in all, I found it exquisitely composed.

REVIEW: Ten Little Astronauts by Damon L. Wakes

Review of Damon L. Wakes, Ten Little Astronauts, (Unbound Digital, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This collection contains the titular story, “Ten Little Astronauts”, an Agatha Christie-style hard SF/mystery novella; a brief nonfiction interlude, “Murder by Magnetism”; followed another novella, which provides an alternative approach to setting a mystery story in space, “Six Years Stolen”. It’s an unusual combination, but the three pieces ended up making a coherent whole in my opinion.

As usual, we’ll review each individually, and link the reviews back here when they are published:

REVIEW: “Tyrannocora Regina” by Leonie Skye

Review of Leonie Skye, “Tyrannocora Regina”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 71-83 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

If you’re looking for time-traveling lesbian dinosaurs who do roller derby, have I got a story for you…

That collection of words almost feels like the result of a challenge, like the author pulled them out of a hat and then had to write a story about them. Whether or not that’s the case, the resulting story was moderately successful. Time travel narratives are always difficult, and I had to reread the beginning parts a few times before I figured out how to make sense of them, but the threads came together in the end.

REVIEW: “Rust and Bone” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review of Mary Robinette Kowal, “Rust and Bone”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 86-92 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a harsh story of a child caught between two adults — one grandmother, one mother — each of whom thinks (or at least claims) they have the child’s best interests at heart.

For anyone who has been caught in a family feud, or who has watched friends be caught in such a feud, this is not a pleasant story. Even if you have not witnessed first hand this sort of situation, the story leaves you with a deep uncertainty and ambivalence about the outcome: Is this the outcome we should’ve been rooting for? More importantly, is it the one that is best for the child? It just isn’t clear, and for some (I’m one of them) that makes it an unsatisfying story. Others may thrive on the ambivalence, and enjoy it more.