REVIEW: “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” by LaShawn M. Wanak

Review of LaShawn M. Wanak, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Originally published July 2018, FIYAH Magazine. Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In this alternate history, taking place shortly after WWII, strange “stumps” in the shape of the recently deceased have begun to appear, formed from spores that have deadly effects on anybody around them when they mature. Curiously, certain people have the power to effect the stumps and facilitate their safe removal, through song. These people are employed by a government agency, the SPC (Stump Prevention Control), paired with handlers who deal with the actual stump removal, and worked for long hours to keep their communities safe. The catch is, these individuals are forbidden from singing in any other context, as they might bring a stump to maturity and thus endanger the people around them. This story follows the only two black women employed as exterminators in Chicago – a brash blues singer by the name of Memphis Minnie, and a meek church girl called Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

This story has so many of the themes that I love: strong relationships between women, the triumph of individuals over a controlling organization, and the healing power of self-expression. It even includes a bit of LGBTQ representation, which is always nice to see in a period piece. The friendship between these two black woman is richly developed, the way they look out for each other, manage their differences, and ultimately discover something the SPC does not want known, was a joy to witness. This is a longer story, coming in at almost 15,000 words, but it is well worth finding the time to sit down and savor it.

REVIEW: “When We Dream We Are Our God” by Wole Talabi

Review of Wole Talabi, “When We Dream We Are Our God”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A man explains his decision to join his mind with others in a network seeking to connect and learn, inspired by the birth of the first true artificial intelligence. It’s a fairly intellectual story, driven by science and philosophy, but uses that as a vehicle to explore matters of the heart.

In my experience, stories about the singularity tend to posit that AI will either seek to destroy us, or else want to become our friends. This story find a nice middle path between those reactions, though the AI is actually only a small part of this tale. Still, I felt like it did something different with a the concept, which is noteworthy.

I believe that this is, above all, a story about potential, and about hope. Humanity’s potential to overcome our problems. Hope that the universe will be friendly, or can be made so, and hope that sentience can win out over hatred and fear and divisions.

REVIEW: “N-Coin” by Tobias Buckell

Review of Tobias Buckell, “N-Coin”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A stockbroker is about to end his life, after losing one billion dollars of his firm’s money money (not to mention his own) on a new crypocurrency: Negrocoin, or N-coin, as he prefers to call it.

This is a unique take on both the volatility of the stock market, and on the complete lack of reparations ever made to African American after slavery was abolished. I did not really understand the details of how this crypocurrency worked, but I had no trouble at all following the historical anecdotes about how former slave owners were compensated for their “lost property,” but the 40 acres and a mule promised by General Sherman never materialized for those freed slaves to make a start at live, how how that has never been rectified, leading to huge differences in generational wealth over time.

This story is short and sweet, getting straight to the point without any meandering. The first person narration works perfectly, capturing the stockbroker’s desperation and lending a personal voice to all of the lessons on history and economics.

This is a good, quick read for anyone interested in a bit of a revenge fantasy for structural inequality, based very closely in reality.

REVIEW: “Fugue State” by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due

Review of Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due, “Fugue State”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Charlotte is struggling with some dementia-like changes in her husband, Arthur. Since taking a new job advising a popular fundamentalist preacher, Arthur has transformed from a brilliant political correspondent at the paper where they both work, to somehow who struggles to sound out the word “acetaminophen” or understand that it is Tylenol. When a stranger tells Charlotte that the preacher is up to something terrible, and that she has to go to his event that night and stop him, Charlotte thinks that maybe she has found a way to understand what is happening to her husband.

Despite what you might think from the summary, this is a slowly building horror story. Yes, it centers a relationship, but that is not what the story is ultimately about. What is it about? That’s harder to say, because it is so subtle, and so rich. It’s about relationships, yes. It’s about wanting to understand a loved one, and thus acting against what might be your better judgment. It’s also about mind control, and about the comfort that can be found after giving up your free will to someone or something more confident than yourself. It’s absolutely terrifying. This is psychological horror at some of its best, holding up a dark mirror to real life that made my stomach curdle.

REVIEW: “Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbawa

Review of Suyi Davies Okungbawa, “Dune Song”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Nata intends to leave the safe community of Isiuwa, to go out into the dunes. She has tried once before, been captured and narrowly avoided death at the hands of the chief in punishment, but she is determined to make her escape from this village that she hates. The chief insists that for anyone to go would anger the gods and doom Isiuwa, but Nata does not believe this. Like her mother before her, she is determined to see what lies beyond the walls, and to find freedom.

There is a lot going on in this story. On a political level, this story takes a long, hard look at the type of governance that seeks to protect people by limiting their freedom. Because, of course, the people in charge of Isiuwa are permitted outside the bamboo fence. They say they do it to the protect the people, that it is a burden and not a privilege, but that does not change the fact that they are the only ones who could possibly know what is out there. Everyone else must take their word for it. Most of the citizens seem unbothered by this fact, even if they do not all believe in the religious explanation provided by their chief.

But of course, it is the personal level of the story that most interests me. Nata’s challenging relationship with a mother who left years ago, before Nata was ready to question the truths passed down to her, informs much of the story. Her absence is almost a presence for Nata. I also appreciated her friendship with a younger boy, one whose mother also left for the dunes. So often, when we read about someone defying authority, they have to do it completely alone. I liked seeing Nata with an ally.

This is an engaging first story in Apex’s Afrofurism special issue, which is also the last issue of the magazine.

REVIEW: “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry” by Derek Lubangakene

Review of Paul Lubangakene, “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Three travelers journey across an inhospitable desert, hoping to escape the Guild which pursues them. Their quest is feeling increasingly futile to at least one of their members, a wyrmrider named Adzala, whose wyrn they abandoned eight days ago. The situation grows increasingly dire, until Adzala finds out the truth of why the spellcaster is being hunted by this Guild.

This is probably the most high fantasy story I’ve read in Apex, with a world rife with magical creatures, spellcasting, and political intrigue. Also, a lot of fighting: this is a pretty harsh world, where nobody trusts each other, apparently with good reason. There’s a depth to the world, a sense that there is more happening here than we see in the story. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author has a novel set in the same world – it’s certainly rich enough for one. It’s also nice to see a fantasy set in an alternate Saharan Africa, instead of the more typical pseudo-European settings.

I had trouble getting emotionally invested in this story. While there is certainly a strong setting, I had some trouble orienting myself in regards to the characters. Jasiri, their fighter, stands out as the only character to push back against the harsh, distrustful norms of the setting to truly care about people and reach out, but he is the only character whose personality felt strongly developed to me. Still, if you’re looking for a fantastic setting and a tense plot, this story delivers.

REVIEW: “All Votes Will Be Counted (We Promise)” by Paul Crenshaw

Review of Paul Crenshaw, “All Votes Will Be Counted (We Promise)”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Take one part 1950’s aesthetic and one part friendly totalitarian government, mix them well, and you’ll get something similar to this wholesome American dystopia, reminiscent of “The Lottery.” Mr. Clausen is sick of being called to vote almost every evening after work, but this is the price of living in a direct democracy – the people must vote on every issue, from whether to launch more laser satellites, to issuing more war bonds. Mr. Clausen suspects that these votes do not really matter – after all, who could tally them so quickly? – and he’s about to learn the truth.

What struck me was how nobody takes the voting seriously. It’s mostly a social occasion, with the teens flirting and giggling, the women gossiping in the corner, and the men ribbing each other about their work days. Something that is ostensibly supposed to make people more engaged in the political process actually makes them less engaged. One person actually says that he just votes for everything. When Mr. Clausen starts to question what is going on, everyone keeps asking him why he can’t just go along with it like everybody else, as if voting doesn’t really matter.

The world and the government grow steadily more and more creepy as the story progresses, and as we and Mr. Clausen both learn more about what is happening. Eventually, he is forced to confront the worst of what can happen when “the will of people” is honored in word, but not deed, and conformity is all that matters. The conclusion is open-ended, but it is hard to imagine any resolution to the situation that could be described as happy. It’s a haunting picture, and one that I’m sure will stick with me.