REVIEW: “The Spider and the Stars” by D. K. Mok

Review of D. K. Mok, “The Spider and the Stars”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 8-28 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is a story about telling stories, the stories our parents tell us, the stories we tell others — not the “stories” that are lies, but the stories that provide us with a glimpse of truth that can only be reached through fiction.

Mok’s tale traces Del’s life through snapshots, every few decades or so, from when Del is five and her mother tells her a bedtime story that causes her to decide the course of her destiny, to when she is fifteen and experimenting with a local boy — experimenting with modifying the genes of insects, arachnids, and plants, that is — through her adulthood and all the steps along the way to achieving that destiny.

In concept, the story reminds me of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, a book which impressed me quite a bit. In its essence, though, it stands apart from ordinary tales of space-faring through the inclusion of something that is lacking in so many speculative-fic hero-quest stories: Loving and supportive parents. The story is dotted through with moments where a character was uncertain or apprehensive, and a parent stood by their side and gave them the strength to do what they needed to do. What small moments they were, but what important consequences they had. It made me thoroughly love reading this story.

REVIEW: “A Field of Sapphires and Sunshine” by Jaymee Goh

Review of Jaymee Goh, “A Field of Sapphires and sunshine”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 105-116 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and I suppose the relevant adage for a short story is that you shouldn’t judge it by its title. But I’m too avid a follower of Your YA Fantasy Series on twitter for the title of this one not to make me smirk (in fact, the day I wrote this review, the most recent tweet suggested the title A Bungalow of Sapphires and Earthquakes).

Snark and smirks aside, parts of the story I really enjoyed, with its eclectic mix of steampunk elements, with their slight sense of antiquation, and rather more traditional futuristic sci fi. On the one hand, there’s almost-entirely-electronically-conducted business, while on the other hand there are airships that take a week to cross the Pacific and are kitted out with suraus for Muslim passengers, and which farm their own fuel so that they never need touch the ground. Parts of the story, I found a bit didactic — there was a lot of “history” being rehearsed in a way that felt rather dry and detached, backstory being added for the sake of backstory rather than for the sake of the actual story, and we are informed rather bluntly that Alina’s mother “knew she was bisexual, of course”. In the end, I felt the story was a little let down by the delivery — and the title ended up not having that much to do with the story itself.

REVIEW: “Amber Waves” by Sam S. Kepfield

Review of Sam S. Kepfield, “Amber Waves”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 184-198 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The stories in this anthology are all set in the future — maybe not in our future, per se, but definitely not in our now. The future of this story feels like it isn’t all that far away from our now; Kansas still grows wheat, global warming is still a problem, there’s still the FAA and Gatorade. In this future, Ryan and Sadie are attempting to grow their wheat green — and keep out the invading corporations who want to take them over.

Unfortunately, there were parts about this story that kept tripping me up — well, nothing about the story per se, but the way in which the characters were presented. The male gaze lies heavily upon Sadie, who ends up being both Mary-Sue and stereotypical. She had “no makeup today, but she didn’t need it” (p. 186), and Ryan has to “swallow some pride” to admit that “she was far better at [finances] than he was” (p. 187). But despite her skills in running the farm, what is it that she’s always ragging Ryan about? Having children — Ryan “knew she was feeling a deadline looming” (p. 188). There isn’t anything about what Ryan does that is problematic, but simply the way that he views Sadie — his “build-in conservatism” (p. 188), perhaps — or rather the way we are encouraged to view her as readers, I found increasingly problematic the longer I read. When we are giving contrasting views of Sadie on the same page — on the one hand, “they’d both grown up on farms in this area” (p. 189), while on the other hand, “Sadie had adjusted to rural life, especially making love under the stars” — it begins to feel like she is not a fully developed characters, but simply a ploy for Ryan, and unfortunately the end does nothing to counteract this.

REVIEW: “Women of White Water” by Helen Kenwright

Review of Helen Kenwright, “Women of White Water”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 235-249 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story ticks one of my buttons right from the start: Berta, the heroine, is in her fifties and “she knew a great many things. It was her job, after all” (p. 235). I am constantly looking for stories that give me models for how to be the heroine in my own future life, and Berta from the start shapes up to be a good one. But this is speculative fiction, not autobiography, and what Berta knows is something more than books and facts; her knowledge comes from her gifts, gifts that other people fear.

Kenwright’s story explores head-on a dimension of mind-reading which is often addressed only sideways and slantways: The notion of consent. When you Know everyone’s inner secrets, how do you navigate your life so as to intrude as little as possible? Berta has created a set of rules that she follows, that dictate when she allows herself to act upon the information she has gleaned without permission, and this is part of the craft that she tries to teach her apprentice, Andrea: The difference between knowledge and wisdom.

With that as the focus of the story, everything else fades into the background. It is not clear how Berta and Andrea are able to know things the way they do, whether this is innate or learned; the specifics of place and time are left vague; we are introduced to a whole panoply of people with no more than a name and a detail or two; even the story itself is told in a series of short scenes, which the reader must stitch together herself. In some stories, this might feel irritatingly lacking; in this story, however, I thought it provided an excellent framework for exploring these questions.

REVIEW: “Watch Out, Red Crusher!” by Shel Graves

Review of Shel Graves, “Watch Out, Red Crusher!”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 51-66 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In the world of Aberdonia, citizens have nanites injected beneath their skin. These nanites help power the community, but they also glow in colors reflecting the owner’s moods. I’m not sure if Graves intended this to be a terrifying set-up, but I certainly found it to be so; one of the benefits of being an ordinary human (in my point of view) is that one can use one’s physical body to mask one’s inner turmoil. Certainly Andee, whose nanites glow a “despondent blue” (p. 52), would prefer that her fears and worries not be betrayed so clearly to all who see; in fact, it is precisely so that she can learn to hide her feelings that she is visiting the mind-matriarch, Madame Morell.

Andee isn’t the only one visiting Madame Morell; one of her childhood classmates, Irwin, is there too, seeking to change the shade he glows. But while Andee wallows in blue despondency, Irwin’s shade is the red of anger. As we learn more about Andee and Irwin’s history, the more sinister the notion of our feelings and dispositions being on display for everyone becomes; for it was quite literally an accident that made Irwin red in the first place, and once he gained that shade he has not been able to escape it. Andee’s generation is the first to have had the nanites injected at birth, before consent could be offered, and thus it is the first generation to see the consequences. Andee’s mother only sees the benefits: “Now we can see them coming” (p. 65), the dangerous people. But Andee wonders if maybe there isn’t another way…

REVIEW: “New Siberia” by Blake Jessop

Review of Blake Jessop, “New Siberia”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 149-158 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The story opens with the narrator, Nadezhda, falling off a solar collector and needing to be rescued from quicksand. Reading this I was immediately reminded of a recent meme I’ve seen, which is basically that childhood movies and books lead one to believe that quicksand is a far greater danger than it actually is. But it is a real and present danger for Nadezhda, and she is lucky that Amphisbaina is there to rescue her.

What I loved most about this story was Jessop’s use of language, which is truthful, staccato, and beautiful:

There are only so many ways to become sapient. Evolution converges. We killed the Earth, destroyed the Garden of Eden, and have taken up residence with the snakes (p. 150).

Nadezhda is haunted by what her kind has done to their planet, the slow way in which we killed our Earth even knowing that we were doing it. But this story, like the rest in this anthology, is hopeful; in it, humanity has learned that it is not their right to take but their requirement to ask: They share the planet with Amphisbaina and the other Nagans because they asked to share it, not because they conquered it. And Nadezhda and Amphisbaina together share something even more important: Hope, heat, life.

This was a beautiful, touching story.

REVIEW: “Caught Root” by Julia K. Patt

Review of Julia K. Patt, “Caught Root”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 1-7 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What took my breath away from the very first paragraphs was the depth of hope in this story. The future that both Hillside and New-Ur occupy is quite a bit different from the present we are currently in, but true to the anthology’s self-description of “optimistic science fiction”, Dr. Orkney of Hillside and Dr. Khadir of New-Ur meet not as antagonists but “for an exchange of ideas”, in hopes that each settlement can benefit the other. Every single thing about how Orkney and Khadir meet, grow to trust each other, and forge a future together is hopeful, and reading this story made me happy.

There was one strange aspect about reading it, though. The story is narrated in the first-person, and I, somewhat surprisingly for my usual reading habits, defaulted to reading the narrator as being a woman. It wasn’t until the second page when Dr. Orkney’s given name is mentioned that I was jarred from this default; and even then, only when his name or some other explicit reference was made was I reminded that he was a man. On the one hand, it sort of felt like a trick might have been missed, that the story could only have been made stronger by the presence of a female scientist as the lead. On the other hand, without Ewan being who he was, the sweet romance that developed would not have been the same. I would like to complain about the fact that I couldn’t have both, but it’s churlish to expect authors to perform contradictions, so I will be satisfied with being contented with how the story was written.