REVIEW: Flash Fiction Online, September 2017, edited by Suzanne W. Vincent

Review of Flash Fiction Online, ed. Suzanne W. Vincent, September 2017 [Read Here / Purchase Here]. Reviewed by Meryl Stenhouse.

Stories in this issue:

“Listen and You Will Hear Us Speak” by A.T. Greenblatt

“The Last Man on Earth Crawls Back to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel” by John Guzlowski

“What Lasts” by Jared W. Cooper

“And All Our Bones Were Dust” by Steven Fischer

Editorial by Suzanne W. Vincent

Vincent quotes Ray Bradbury in her editorial, to point out that a science fiction story is any story about an idea that changes the world. It is the art of the possible, not the impossible, says Bradbury. Three of the four stories in this issue touch on the impossible, one of them blatantly, so my acceptance of them as science fiction is incomplete.

That said, if the stories were presented without genre boundaries, I would have enjoyed them unreservedly. A well-curated collection.

Listen and You Will Hear Us Speak by A.T. Greenblatt

Being the science fiction pedant that I am, I will say straight out that this is science fantasy; there’s no scientific method to remove voices the way they are removed in the story. It’s a magical box. Let’s move on.

There are layers to this story, which is an achievement in so few words. The unnamed narrator is one of the voiceless – people stolen from their home, their voices taken away from them, sold into indentured servitude from which they cannot escape – because how can the voiceless have a say in their fate?

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I do like the way that Greenblatt’s victims win by embracing their difference and finding the power to control their fates, and their oppressors. The parallels to the voiceless in our current society can’t be ignored. Uplifting, tightly written, delicious rebellion story.

The Last Man on Earth Crawls Back to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel by John Guzlowski

The concept of this piece appealed to me. The last man on Earth chooses suicide, but then finds himself unable to follow through. The rest of the story answers the question of why.

I winced at the recitation of his bird list. I doubt very much that, at any stage in history, this observation: “they were everywhere: In the trees and on the sidewalks, between houses and abandoned cars, on the empty roads…” would include birds such as “emus and antbirds, cassowaries and penguins”, especially not in the middle of the USA. Besides, a cassowary on the footpath is a suggestion that you should find another road to walk down, mate. The comment that the narrator had seen Mousebirds (denizens of sub-Saharan Africa) hints that he had travelled widely before deciding to kill himself, and this raises other questions that, on close examination (food, fuel, ocean crossings), start to unravel the worldbuilding.

Best to stick with your local birds.

The rest of the story is beautiful. It’s about loneliness, and a personal concept of God, and the recognition that humans, social animals, start to unravel when left alone. It’s a sadness reminiscent of the death of the last of any species; the endling (a name coined by Robert Webster in 2004 to denote the last member of a species). The thylacine, the passenger pigeon, soon the white rhino. To consider a human to be one of these lonely beings is humbling. The fact that the author doesn’t give this endling a name says everything. It could be any one of us.

What Lasts by Jared W. Cooper

This is a love story.

It’s also a story about pain that won’t go away, that you wish you could excise from your body and throw away.

It’s a story about loss, and a story about gain. Losing your old self, finding someone knew in the ashes, someone stronger.

It’s beautiful.

Well played, Mr. Cooper.

And All Our Bones Were Dust by Steven Fischer

This story is the opposite in so many ways to What Lasts, and reading them one after the other felt like two halves of the same symphony. It’s a love that crumbles, rather than a love that builds.

I’m going to comment on the visions, because I have opinions on what makes a story science fiction, and this one edges into science fantasy again. Not only for the visions, which have no explanation, but for the use the narrator makes of those visions.

In her editorial Vincent considers this story heartwarming, but I would call it frustrating. It’s a classic case of seeing the disaster coming but being unable to change it. The frustration comes with the narrator not even trying to save both of them; he follows the path set out for him, right to the final moment, with no attempt to reclaim or understand.

The story is beautifully executed, but not for me. I don’t like watching the axe fall. The joy in a story comes from the struggle, not the chop.

REVIEW: “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney

Review of C. S. E. Cooney, “Though She Be But Little”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

C. S. E. Cooney has produced a distinctive world full of pirates, animated stuffed animals, and world changing magic. Readers who enjoy stories from the New Weird genre will find plenty of surreal, unexplained fantasy in this tale. Readers who like their weird mixed evenly with charm will enjoy “Though She Be But Little” even more as Cooney mixes in wry pirate jokes, and off-beat details, with her more bizarre, haunting creations.

The sky in Emma Anne’s world went silver one day, and suddenly everything changed. Overnight, Emma Anne went from being ‘Mrs. Emma A. Santiago,Navy widow, age sixty-five’ to ‘eight years old in her jimjams and Velcro sneakers. One belt, one tin can on string, two stuffed toys the richer. Sans house, sans car, sans monthly Bunco night with her girlfriends of forty years, sans everything.’ “Though She Be But Little” has a keen eye for subtler horrors as well as presenting a truly terrifying monster in ‘the Loping Man’ who is coming for Emma Anne.

“Though She Be But Little” is ultimately a story about transformations, good and bad, and quietly about female friendship. The ending, which presents a fantastic scene of monstrous women coming together, was my favourite part.  

REVIEW: “Down and Out in R’lyeh” by Catherynne M. Valente

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s, “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Down and Out in R’lyeh” is like A Clockwork Orange with demonic gods in waiting. Catherynne M. Valente has built a story with its own street language of drugs, fashion, and class politics that works just as well as the patter of Anthony Burgess’ novel:

Be me: Moloch! Dank as starlit squidshit, antique in the membrane, maximum yellow fellow! Only five thousand years old, still soggy behind the orifices, belly full of piss and pus and home-brewed, small-batch disdain for all he beholds. Keeps his tentacles proper pompy-doured and his fur 100% goat at all times. Keeps his talons on the sluggish pulse of the nightmare corpse-city that never sleeps…

The language that Moloch (‘not THE Moloch’) uses to narrate this story asks the reader to do a lot of work in order to parse his meaning. He obscures his tale with slang and eldritch references, and so it takes a while to adjust to his way of speaking. However, the meat of his story quickly becomes clear. Moloch is part of a disaffected generation, trapped in a small town, waiting for his elders to yield the field so they can have their go at destroying the human world. In the meantime he, his girlfriend, and his best friend spend their days getting high or ‘mundane’ in a variety of elaborate ways. When that’s not enough they go out looking for trouble with the ‘gloons’ or the poseurs of their world. While they may be supernatural creatures who look and behave so differently to humans there’s a very basic relatability at the heart of this story. It’s a smart and inventive science fiction parody of stories like A Clockwork Orange but it also works as its own entertaining tale of one long hazy night.

“Down and Out in R’leyh” is a story I think I would have got a lot more from if I had read Lovecraft’s original Cthulu stories. However, I did know enough to see that two female characters burning down Cthulu’s house, while he’s inside, could be interpreted as a feminist strike in the heart of Lovecraftian territory. Even without knowing much about Lovecraft’s original stories, I had a lot of fun threading my way through Moloch’s story (even if the imagery is quite deliberately gross which is not usually my thing).

REVIEW: Stories from Daily Science Fiction, September 18-22, 2017

Reviews of stories published in Daily Science Fiction from September 18 through 22, 2017. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

“The City’s Gratitude” by Meg Candelaria, Sept 18, 2017: Read Online.

The narrator of this story is a great cop, but she’s been stuck behind a desk dealing with crazies. The latest one thinks he’s a time traveler. Candelaria keeps us focused on the world of the cop, telling us the story of the time traveler between the lines. What comes out is a sideways look at sexism in the police force interwoven with the uncertainties of time travel.

This story comes with a trigger warning, which Daily SF is understandably coy about since it concerns major spoilers. For those who prefer to know the sensitive material before reading, I have included a more detailed trigger warning below. If you don’t want any spoilers, skip over the paragraph between the bold tags, and check out the next review.

Ready? Here it is:

***SPOILERS AHEAD!*** Trigger Warning:The time traveler fails to stop nine-eleven, and the cop makes disparaging and cruelly ironic remarks about taking down the twin towers.***END OF SPOILERS***

“MAD Men” by Corey Ethan Sutch, Sept 19, 2017: Read Online.

A humorous, satirical look at the concepts of nuclear mutually assured destruction and personal self-defense armaments. Sutch asks us to consider not current situations but an extreme world populated by two companionable and argumentative neighbors. This story is worth a laugh on the first read and some deep thought on the second.

“Farewell, Amanda” by Buzz Dixon, Sept 20, 2017: Read Online.

My favorite story from this week! Check out the full review here.

“Maybe Next Time” by E.O. Hargreaves, Sept 21, 2017: Read Online.

This week’s super-short story about aliens and the nature of civilization, featuring a beautiful mountain backdrop.

“Head Full of Posies” by Melanie Rees, Sept 22, 2017: Read Online.

Steer clear of this one if discussion of Alzheimer’s or Dementia bothers you. This sad slipstream story follows an aging woman and the talking flowers who steal her memories. It is a coldly realistic look at the progression of these diseases, with just a hint at the possibility of dark magic. Rees’s writing is powerful and devastating.

REVIEW: “Bullets” by Joanne Anderton

Review of Joanne Anderton, “Bullets”, Podcastle: 491 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Content warning for animal death. Podcastle managed to schedule “Bullets” for a week when my environment echoed the opening of the story, what with widespread fires in the North Bay and the pall of smoke hanging in the air. “Bullets” opens in the aftermath of a horrific Australian brushfire when the protagonist, Judy, is engaged in the deeply unsettling but morally necessary task of searching out and dispatching livestock and wildlife fatally wounded by the fire. When she comes across the still-living remains of a wild horse she has run out of the titular bullets. Her heartbreaking frustration is interrupted by a wonder. At this point, it’s impossible to talk about any of the significant themes of the story without one small spoiler, though one that happens very early in the story. But if that matters to you, be advised.

The natural world reacts to impossible tragedy with supernatural transformation: the dying wild horse splits open to produce a naked young man whose body retains enough of the fire’s nature that, if not constantly cooled, he will burn whatever he touches or wherever he walks. And, as we learn, he’s not the only one. Throughout the bush, creatures trapped by the fire have transformed into non-verbal humans that hold within them the destructive heat of the fire. But like fire itself, they are neither evil nor malevolent, they simply are. And perhaps in response to Judy’s attempts at mercy, they gather at her farm in a complicated partnership, to rebuild. The fire-children come with technical skills and understanding, despite the lack of direct communication. They fix and build and tinker, moving Judy’s place beyond simple repair to improvement.

This puts Judy in an awkward position relative to her neighbors, who see her luck as a zero-sum game. And someone or something is setting fires everywhere except on her property. Judy has a modus vivendi with the fire-children, but they can’t help burn what they touch. And she wonders.

The story sets up some deep moral problems, not so much for the protagonist who makes the decisions she considers necessary, but for the listener/reader in working out how to frame the nature of the fire-children and so the context of Judy’s actions to determine the genre of the story. Is there a framing by which Judy’s eventual solution is moral? Or has she jumped to a horrific solution to a problem that might have been solved differently? Are the fire-children sentient beings with agency, or are they a type of revenant–a mere emotional echo of the fire’s horror. I’m not exactly sure that I like that the story left these questions unanswered, but it’s a powerful narrative device that I appreciate. I would say that “Bullets” will provoke at least two very different reactions in its audience, depending on how one fills in the story’s unresolved ambiguities.

ETA: (Originally published 2015 in In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep: An Anthology of Australian Horror)

REVIEW: “Ghost Town” by Malinda Lo

Review of Malinda Lo, “Ghost Town”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

As in her superb vampire story “The Cure”, Malinda Lo mixes romance, history, and the supernatural in “Ghost Town”. There’s less subtext to dive into in “Ghost Town” than in “The Cure”. Instead, it’s a solid contemporary story of new towns, hopes, prejudice, and ghosts which is relayed by a smart, observant teenager called Ty.

Ty’s family recently moved from San Francisco to Pinnacle ‘a dinky little town on the flat part of Colorado’, where coal was once a big industry. She can’t wait until she can move back to San Francisco where her hair, and her sexuality, don’t make her stand out so much. When the story starts she’s following her crush Mackenzie, one of the popular girls at her school, into The Spruce Street Guest House for a ghost hunt during the town’s big Halloween holiday season. When they arrive at the room Mackenzie wants to investigate, the girls find a homophobic slur written in fake blood. Instead of breaking down, as Mackenzie clearly hoped she would, Ty leads Mackenzie to the basement and a real scare.

In the second section of the story, it becomes clear why Ty is able move past the word on the wall, and how she is able to set up a prank of her own. The story has a backwards structure, so in the second part the reader sees Ty following Mackenzie to see if she’s going to be pranked. And in the third section we see Ty visiting the Guest House on a tour once Mackenzie has invited her to go ghost hunting.

In these sections, “Ghost Town” reveals itself as being truly Ty’s story; the story of her life in San Francisco, and how she experiences life in a small, middle of America town. I really enjoyed Ty’s voice, which is simple and down to earth, and would happily have read a longer work with her as the narrator. “Ghost Town” also a story about Ty taking steps to make sure she’s in control. The fact that she has to work so hard to stay safe is undeniably depressing. The fact that the story gives her the power to gain control is wonderful.

The ghosts are largely a device which allow Ty to gain control of a messed up situation with flair, but they also have their own fleeting story to tell. The ending makes it clear that the women found dead in the guest house were lovers, and that they’re together (possessively so) even in death. It’s a creepy cute way to end a story where one girl gets let down by her crush, and I enjoyed the fact that Lo brought an element of happy ever after even to a story containing a lot of sadness.

REVIEW: “Seven Kinds of Baked Goods” by Maria Haskins

Review of Maria Haskins, “Seven Kinds of Baked Goods”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is the second story is as many issues of Luna Station Quarterly that should not be read without some sort of homemade baked good on hand. Sadly, I had none, and spent the entire story feeling hungry.

First-person present-tense narration is a difficult combination to pull off well, even though it seems like such an easy voice when you’re writing, so when the story opened up with that, I was immediately leery. The story isn’t entirely told in the present-tense, though; the narrator quickly shifts into a retelling of her past, a past so delightful that I was immediately drawn in. But when it shifted back, I was (and now I am incredibly conscious of the fact that I myself am narrating in the first person shifting between past and present tense. Do you like my glass house?) left with the feeling I often get with FPPT — just who is the narrator speaking to, and why is she wasting her time telling her story instead of figuring out how to get out of the pickle she’s in?

And yet, my qualms about the narrative choices end up not seriously detracting from the story. Haskins manages to work in an impressive amount of world-building in a short amount of space, and her story does what I want any story to do: It left me wanting to read more.