REVIEW: A Brilliant Void edited by Jack Fennell

Review of Jack Fennell, ed., A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction (Tramp Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

A while back I had time to kill in Belfast airport so I ended up in WH Smith’s hoping to find the newest Rivers of London book. I failed at that, but what I did find was a book that touted itself as being “a selection of classic Irish science fiction”. Classic science fiction, you say? Some people might think that’s an oxymoron, that SF is an inherently modern genre. In his introduction to the collection, “The Green Lacuna”, the editor Jack Fennell addresses precisely the issue of genre, as well as whether it makes sense to speak of a specifically Irish tradition in SF.

Fennell kicks off his introduction with a brief rehearsal of the fantastical elements that can be found in the history of Irish storytelling, arguing that many of the recurring tropes in medieval Irish mythology and literature are the same tropes that one finds in contemporary science fiction — from Balor of the Evil Eye, villain of the 11th C Book of Invasions who “was basically a mutant with laser-vision” (p. vii) to stories in the “Christian fantasy-voyage” genre with encounters with creatures that should “be read as forerunners of modern sci-fi aliens and mutants” (p. viii). Now, these examples might seem a bit far stretched — more fantasy than sci fi as there isn’t any “science” that is being invoked to underpin or explain the fantastical elements of these medieval myths. But they are part of a continuous tradition that directly fed into modern sci fi, mediated by, among other things, the classic Gothic literature of the 19th century, of which “Ireland was home to one of the most celebrated varieties” (p. viii), Ascendancy Gothic, feature “paradigm-shifting encounters with the other” (p. viii). This strand of gothic literature, Fennell argues, combined with the scientific romances of Verne, Wells, and others to become the direct parents of pulp SF in the early 20th century. A second specifically Irish influence on the development of modern SF, Fennell argues, is the Irish “desire to see the future” (p. xi), which is manifest in the central role that prophecy has always played in Irish literary tradition, and in particular in the aisling or ‘dream vision’ poetry.

Despite this, Irish science fiction has often been relegated to the “marginalia” (p. x) of Irish literature, Fennell argues. This anthology is an attempt to right this, and to bring to light stories and authors that have been sidelined. Reading classic science fiction not only allows us to “look at the commonplace from a hypothetical remove” (p. ix), it allows us a glimpse into what people of the past thought their future would, or could, be like.

This focus on the future is the red thread that ties all the stories together, even more than the cultural background of the authors. The stories in the anthology cover the period 1837-1960, and are both standalone stories and excerpts from larger works. I was super pleased to see that more than half of the authors included were women (8 women, 6 men). (Wait, you didn’t know there were female SF writers before the 1960s? Now you know!) As is usual, we will review each story individually and link the reviews back to this post when they are posted:

There are so many things to love about this collection — Fennell’s lucid and informative introduction, the variety of the stories, the coherence of the whole. I highly recommend it for classic SF lovers, people with an interest in Irish literature, people who want to read more early SF by women, or those who just want to curl up with a good story. This collection has it all.

REVIEW: “Captain Midrise” by Jim Marino

Review of Jim Marino, “Captain Midrise”, Apex Magazine 115 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The Golden Crusader is not what he used to be. His flying is slower, and more unsteady. He never gets more than six stories above the ground, and he seems to float more than glide, a strange balloon bobbing far above the sidewalk. He still foils crimes, still saves people, but tourists and locals alike miss the excitement of the old days, when he was a blur of motion speeding through the city.

This is the story of a journalist trying to understand what has happened to the city’s hero, to his hero. The idea that people would turn against a superhero for a lessening in their impossible powers should be ridiculous, but it’s painfully plausible. People do not like seeing that their heroes can be flawed, can be imperfect, can suffer, and there’s no reason to expect that wouldn’t extend to the kind with superpowers and capes.

I appreciate the restrained tone that Marino used. It sets us up for the ending, where journalist and hero finally talk, and we get a final, uncomfortable glimpse into the truth: that for all his powers, the Golden Crusader is only human. Recommended for anyone who likes superheroes and is in the mood to reflect a bit on what the presence of one might actually be like.

REVIEW: “Girls Who Do Not Drown” by A.C. Buchanan

Review of A.C. Buchanan, “Girls Who Do Not Drown”, Apex Magazine 115 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

On an unnamed island in the cold ocean, girls grow up knowing that the sea may kill them as they grow up, when glashtyns will come to lure them beneath the waves. That is the way it has always been and the way it will always be. For Alice, this destiny is complicated by the fact that everyone else thinks she is a boy. But when a glashtyn comes for her anyway, she realizes that if the water horse can see what she really is, then someone else may figure it out too. She walks into the ocean.

The writing and the storytelling here floored me. It’s a simple story on the surface, but Buchanan brings forward every ounce of pathos, delivering it to the reader like an offering. There is violence here, and a deep isolation, but it never feels overwrought. If anything, the descriptions are surprisingly restrained, and the mirroring of supernatural and real-world themes is allowed to speak for itself.

I am not ashamed to admit that the ending of the story made me cry. It is a good ending, and more hopeful than I would have believed. I won’t spoil it beyond what you can infer from the title, but this is a beautiful, resonant story.

REVIEW: “Transcripts of Tapes Found Near The Depot, 06-45” by Laura Duerr

Review of Laura Duerr, “Transcripts of Tapes Found Near The Depot, 06-45”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One often thinks of “post-apocalyptic fiction” as involving some sort of discrete apocalypse, a single event that separates history into “before” and “after”. Nuclear war, or an asteroid hitting the earth, or something like that. It’s easy to read stories like that as fiction, because people are bad at calculating the realistic odds of events like that actually happening.

But apocalypses can also be gradual things, things where there is no clear starting point, no clear moment where we can say “this is where things went wrong”. Global warming is one of those insidious apocalypses, and the likelihood is high that we’ve probably already past the moment where things first went wrong.

Which makes stories like Duerr’s — clearly in the post-apocalyptic genre, but where the apocalypse is a gradual, continuous event rather than a discrete one — hard to read, because they are a bit too much like truth and a bit too little like fiction. These tape transcripts are from our near future, and describe a world where the rivers have dried up, so there is no water left to power the generators, which means no power, which means no internet, but no one wants to go onto the internet anyway, because all the woe and horror drown out any useful information. They’re a mirror of a potential future, at least, and a scary future it is.

REVIEW: “The Curse of Apollo” by Diana Hurlburt

Review of Diana Hurlburt, “The Curse of Apollo”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a story of a story, set in ancient Greece where a story teller recites the tales for each season — counting tales “a more pleasant way of counting the seasons than taxes”. This particular story that the story teller tells us of is of two horses born to the same mare six weeks apart. Is this a miracle of nature? Is it divine intervention? Are the horses gods? Or silly young foals to be sacrificed to the gods? No one knew what to do, except one person, and he was not consulted: And so that is how the titular curse came about. No one thought to ask one of the most important twin gods what he thought, and Apollo felt slighted…

The best myths are ones where you aren’t entirely sure what is real and what is not. This story feels like it could’ve come straight out of the Homeric tradition of classical Greek mythology, though it’s not a myth that I recognise — whether this is because of a fault in myself or because the story is truly new, I do not know. Either way, I enjoyed it.

REVIEW: “Butterflies” by Elizabeth Hinckley

Review of Elizabeth Hinckley, “Butterflies”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Reading this story was like sitting down to tea with someone you’ve never met but with whom you have mutual friends, friends who at one point told the two of you “you would like each other. you should meet up sometime.” So you do, and then you hear the other person’s story and can’t help but be fascinated (and to appreciate having friends who know you so well that they can recommend knew friends to you).

Let’s pretend, dear reader, that I am the mutual friend between you and this wonderful little post-apocalyptic story, and this is me telling you “why don’t you brew a cup of tea and settle down with this story? I think you’d like each other.”

REVIEW: “Wise Woman” by Regina Higgins

Review of Regina Higgins, “Wise Woman”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This wasn’t meant to be a horror story (I don’t think), but there are few things that I can imagine that are scarier than false accusations. When Charlotte finds out from her aunt Sylvia that Mildred, whom Charlotte has been going to all her life, has been accused, Charlotte’s first response is to ask what proof there is being the accusations. Sylvia’s response is chilling:

“Oh, there’s no proof. Not yet. She’s just been accused.”

Behind those words is the chilling truth, that proof doesn’t matter. When a woman is accused, proof isn’t needed. When a woman accuses, proof is required.

It is fear that drives Charlotte to ask Mildred to read the cards: The Empress, the Emperor, the broken tower, symbol of destruction. But while Charlotte fears destruction as a dangerous, harmful thing, Mildred embraces hope: Hope that what is to come is the shattering of oppressive power structures. Mildred’s hope is so calm and steadfast, it is difficult not to believe in it. Hope in the face of oppression is always something worth reading about.